Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, March 20, 2020

Mariner Books: The Blue Hour by Paula Hawkins

From My Shelf

Female Excellence

As we near the end of Women's History Month, let's take (another) moment to appreciate some of the truly excellent work women do. Here, across genres and age-groups, we have examples of incredible women writing, illustrating, photographing and exploring the universe.

Solar physicist Shadia Habbal travels the world to study the sun's corona. In Eclipse Chaser: Science in the Moon's Shadow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99, ages 10-12) by Ilima Loomis, with photographs by Amanda Cowan, readers follow Habbal and her team of scientists in the United States as they prepare for the 2017 eclipse. Budding astronomers should find much to enjoy in these pages, and the Eclipse Chaser herself is likely to light a spark of interest in others as well.

Newbery Award-winner Mildred D. Taylor concludes the Logan family saga in All the Days Past, All the Days to Come (Viking, $19.99, ages 12-up), a decades-spanning epic of self-discovery set against the backdrop of the U.S. civil rights movement. Taylor portrays coming-of-age as a lifelong process as Cassie faces discrimination, sexual harassment, pressure from her family and threats to her loved ones' lives. Teen readers and adults who fondly recall the Logans will appreciate the mature themes, as well as Taylor's great gift for writing about ordinary people in extraordinary times.

In Tami Charles and Jacqueline Alcántara's Freedom Soup (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 5-9), a granddaughter and grandmother create a traditional Haitian meal together, combining history and delicious food. The two prepare Freedom Soup, a stew made to celebrate the new year in most Haitian households. As Ti Gran instructs Belle on what ingredients to slide into the pot, she explains the origins of the soup, which doubles as the history of Haitian independence from colonialism and slavery. Charles's text is just as celebratory as Alcántara's images.
--Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Book Candy

Literary March Madness: The Show Goes On

The New York Public Library is still hosting its annual Literary March Madness tournament, despite the cancellation of this year's NCAA basketball tourney due to coronavirus concerns.


Entertainment Weekly recommended "quaran-reads: 8 vital books about pandemics (that aren't coronavirus)."


Boccaccio's Decameron, "a book of medieval Italian sex stories can help us get through the pandemic," according to Electric Lit.


"Can you sort these fictional characters into their proper species?" Mental Floss challenged.


"A miniature Harry Potter manuscript, handwritten by J.K. Rowling, could sell for more than $180,000 at auction," Mental Floss noted.

The Mirror & the Light

by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror & the Light is the long-awaited conclusion to Hilary Mantel's magnum opus, a trilogy of historical novels begun with Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) The Mirror & the Light manages the daunting task of providing a satisfying, if deeply melancholy, account of real-life protagonist Thomas Cromwell's final years in the court of King Henry VIII. Over the course of three sizable books (this one weighs in at almost 800 pages), Mantel has established one of the largest and most memorable cast of characters outside of a fantasy epic like Game of Thrones. Even deceased characters like Cardinal Wolsey and the executed Anne Boleyn loom large in Cromwell's memory, as the many deaths Cromwell has seen or played a part in increasingly intrude on his thoughts. The Cromwell of The Mirror & the Light is older and more tired; of the trilogy, this book is consequently the most concerned with mortality. It's as stuffed with political machinations as the first two, but it seems ever more meditative and death-haunted as Cromwell approaches his inevitable end.

The Mirror & the Light includes many interesting characters, but, as ever, Mantel's protagonist is the most compelling; here, she solidifies her Cromwell's place as one of the most richly drawn characters in modern literature. Cromwell's sometimes ruthless pragmatism continues to be a fascinating lens through which to view the tumultuous events of King Henry VIII's reign. The novel begins immediately after the execution of Anne Boleyn (which concluded the previous book) with Cromwell's deadpan reaction: "Once the queen's head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning's circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us." In the aftermath of Boleyn's death and Jane Seymour's ascendance, Cromwell's power approaches its apex. Seymour says: "Lord Cromwell is the government, and the church as well." Despite Cromwell's title and increasing wealth, he is ever aware of how close to the precipice he remains in a court dominated by shifting alliances, foreign intrigues and the unpredictable whims of the king.

A conflict dominates the early part of the novel, reminiscent of that between Cromwell and Thomas More at the end of Wolf Hall. This time, it concerns Mary, the product of the king's marriage to Katherine of Aragon, now declared invalid. Cromwell must convince Mary to accept the king's judgment regarding her exclusion from the line of succession. Yet again, it is a battle between unbending principle and Cromwell's utilitarianism. Despite his ruthless reputation, Cromwell risks his own position in convincing Mary to accede, thereby saving her life and upholding a promise he made to Katherine. When he is questioned about his choice, he thinks: "That's the point of a promise.... It wouldn't have any value, if you could see what it would cost you when you made it." Cromwell is such a fascinating, complicated character because, for all his hard-nosed realism, he works hard to save those he can.

The controversies and emergencies that occupy Cromwell over the course of the book come one after another, and they are so engrossing that readers may forget that Cromwell must eventually arrive at his grim, historically determined fate. He buries himself in work and, like Cromwell, the book is perfectly happy to luxuriate in the details. We follow Cromwell as he dissolves monasteries; writes letter after letter; attempts to end the exploitation of holy relics; designs and builds; tries to pass legislation to help the poor; and much more. Mantel creates a phenomenal time machine that makes arguments about theology and government seem as radical and urgent as they must have felt at the time.

Even as Mantel's England charges into a new era, though, the past asserts itself: "A prince cannot be impeded by temporal distinctions: past, present, future. Nor can he excuse the past, for being over and done... the past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can't trace. Often, meaning is only revealed retrospectively." As the plot hurtles forward, Cromwell increasingly looks to the past, reflecting on his childhood and his long, bloody journey from a commoner living under the thumb of his violent father to the most powerful minister in England. Though Cromwell cannot predict that his downfall is coming, the final volume nevertheless communicates an elegiac mood. It is here that the ornate writing is at its most beautiful:

"Don't look back, he had told the king; yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades.... You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land?... Is this my life, or my neighbour's conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper's flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself--slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon?"

Mantel's avid fans will find the ambition and skill brought to bear in this final volume astounding. King Henry VIII and his court have been much written about, yet Mantel's interpretation is distinct in a thousand ways. Cromwell is an unforgettable character, and some readers might find it bittersweet to reach the final pages of his story. As with the best novels, The Mirror & the Light leaves behind the complicated, sad-happy feeling of coming to the end of a treasured experience. --Hank Stephenson

Holt, $30, hardcover, 784p., 9780805096606

Hilary Mantel: Cromwell's Final Years

(photo: Els Zweerink)

Hilary Mantel is the author of 10 previous novels, as well as her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. The Mirror & the Light is the long-awaited final book in her Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, a series of historical novels charting the rise and fall of Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII. In the Man Booker-winning first volumes, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), Cromwell gained Henry's favor by helping to arrange his marriage to Anne Boleyn, as well as her subsequent execution. The Mirror & the Light (Holt, March 10, 2020) covers the final years of Cromwell's life and the complicated machinations that eventually led to his downfall.

Readers with a sense of history will know how Cromwell's story ends. Did that potential foreknowledge affect any writing decisions you made?

They know how it ends, but they don't know why. Also, surprise isn't the only tool in the writer's kit. Foreknowledge can operate well for you. It builds a sense of dread.

Did the research for The Mirror & the Light pose any special challenges compared to the previous books?

As Cromwell becomes a greater man, the range of his work and the number of his contacts expands. So the documentation becomes more complex, and simply keeping track of the personnel poses a challenge. Only a fraction of what the writer knows is going to get on to the page, but the more you can know, the more you want to know.

It seemed to me that The Mirror & the Light offers more insight into Cromwell's past than either of the previous books. Was there any particular ground regarding his character that you wanted to make sure you delved into in the concluding volume?

We know very little of his early life, but the decision to fictionalise more of his past seemed appropriate--as if under the pressure of events, the mechanisms of repression fail, and he must recast his own story. It is also the story of an evolving relationship. The most important person in his life is the king--and both king and minister are changing, getting older, maybe less hopeful. They are hardened by the challenges of survival, and confronting questions of legacy.

Speaking for myself, at least, it's difficult not to come out of the trilogy feeling like a Cromwell partisan. Would you like it if people came away from this trilogy feeling that Cromwell ultimately made the best of many impossible situations?

That's my feeling exactly. His whole career ought to be impossible, but he made it work through force of intellect and character. I don't deny that he was hard and ruthless--if he hadn't been, we'd never have heard of him. But I think he's interesting and in many ways admirable, in his ingenuity, his spirit, his appetite for complexity. As I see it, his errors were forced errors, and he was destroyed by an international situation that moved against him, rather than by any individual misjudgement. Other than the king's, of course.

I think when Wolf Hall came out it was thought of by many as a rehabilitation of Cromwell as a historical figure. With the trilogy finished, are there other aspects of this historical period that you hope to have reframed in the popular imagination?

I don't think of it as rehabilitation so much as a re-examination and re-focusing, and an exercise in sifting out some of the debris that's fallen into the historical record and been carried down the years. I hope that I can encourage my readers to be more enquiring about the received version of any era--you don't have to believe the first thing you're told.

One thing that your books take into account is the degree of physical pain Henry and others experienced on a daily basis. Do you think the omnipresence of this kind of pain changes his perspective in a way healthy readers today might struggle to understand?

Historians debate whether and why Henry's character changed in later life, and what exactly ailed him; it matters, because the personality of the ruler is a vital factor when one man has so much power. His illnesses (certainly in later life, outside the scope of my story) probably had an endocrinological component. But after an accident in 1536, he had an injury which caused him chronic pain, and made him inactive, so he lost his fitness and his admired athlete's body. Medicine of the time couldn't help him much. Even today there's a limit to what we can do about chronic pain. My less fortunate readers will understand that it doesn't make you a better person; I ask the pain-free to try to imagine it.

So much is going on at any one moment in The Mirror & the Light, and yet the story remains accessible. How do you balance capturing the complexity of history as it actually unfolded with accommodating the difficulty readers might have in following the dozens of characters, their relationships, events unfolding on top of each other, etc.? Are there particular strategies that you've honed when it comes to making the narrative accessible to readers?

I think there's a technique every novelist learns over the years, of dipping out of the book to become the reader, and running a check on what must be grasped at every stage. You have to assume an attentive reader--otherwise you're failing comprehensively--and you have to imagine that person to be at least as intelligent as you are, but less knowledgeable on this one topic. You're aiming at a level of complexity that will keep the reader nimble and alert, and also to engage head and heart, simultaneously. Pacing matters; sometimes I want to give the reader a breathing space, a passage where they don't have to learn anything, just dwell with the images and sounds. So I think it's valid to bring the politics to a halt while we admire a bowl of plums together.

What does it feel like to have finished the Cromwell trilogy after years spent writing in that world?

The TV version is in development now, and I am working towards a theatre production--so it will be my world for a long time yet. --Hank Stephenson

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: Spillover

While the precise origin of the coronavirus currently sweeping the globe is unknown, it almost certainly originated somewhere in the animal world. The current primary suspects are horseshoe bats and pangolins, with the bats acting as a permanent reservoir for the virus and pangolins as the vector of transmission between bats and humans. Pangolins are endangered mammals (they look like crosses between anteaters and armadillos) that range across Africa, India and Southeast Asia. All eight pangolin species are under threat from habitat destruction and, more importantly, trafficking for their meat and scales. Though poaching is illegal in China, pangolins are frequently sold on the black market. This proximity to humans facilitates the spread of zoonotic diseases--pathogens that can jump from animals to humans.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen (2012) explores the harrowing world of zoonotic infections from Ebola and SARS to Lyme disease and AIDS. Quammen, a science writer and author of 15 books, tracks these diseases from their points of origin (including bats inhabiting caves in southern China) to the high-tech labs where spacesuited scientists study them. Spillover is available in paperback from Norton ($18.95, 9780393346619). --Tobias Mutter

Book Review


Eden Mine

by S.M. Hulse

"It's the kind of love for a place only an orphan might understand," Jo Faber thinks. Prospect, Mont., is a poisoned, rusting town that's been dying since the last mine closed in 1994, 20 years before Jo is packing to leave what has been her family's land for five generations. She focuses on chores, denying what she fears: her beloved older brother, Samuel, is on the news, suspected of bombing the courthouse and severely wounding a little girl in a nearby storefront church.

In Eden Mine, the stirring second novel by S.M. Hulse (Black River), a series of tragedies shaped Samuel's arc from high school baseball hero to suspected terrorist fleeing the FBI. Their father died in a mine, and when Jo was 10, a jilted boyfriend killed their mother, a stray bullet crippling Jo. Samuel, just 17, became her devoted caregiver and they've squeaked by, committed to keeping the land. Samuel embraced, then tempered, antigovernment extremism, but when the state claimed their land under eminent domain, his rage flared. A courthouse bombing was credible, Jo knew.

As Jo stonewalls the FBI, the press and the family's good friend Sheriff Hawkins, Hulse's three first-person narratives reveal Jo's turmoil, Samuel's voice through a journal he's keeping in his mountain hideout, and the reflections of Pastor Asa Truth, the injured girl's father. He and Jo form an unlikely but supportive friendship.

There's no hope for a happy ending, but Eden Mine is a thought-provoking look at despair and loyalty in struggling small-town America. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller, Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y.

Discover: Two siblings are scraping by when the state claims their Montana farm, driving a young man to a deadly act of terrorism.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9780374146474

Serenade for Nadia

by Zülfü Livaneli, trans. by Brendan Freely

In the enigmatic novel Serenade for Nadia, Maya Duran feels as miserable as Istanbul's February weather, with its "cruel cold winds... bringing rain that lasts for weeks." She's bored with her job, worries about her son who's addicted to computer games, and dates a man who talks only about the stock market. When she's sent to meet an elderly foreign professor at the airport, what begins as a routine task becomes an unsettling mystery. Why is Professor Wagner followed wherever he goes? Why does he insist on traveling to the coast, carrying a violin and a floral wreath with a card that says "To Nadia"? Why are Maya's job and reputation jeopardized after she saves the professor's life?

Within the absorbing narrative of Maya's life is a separate novel, one based upon historical fact. In 1942, a cattle boat, packed with almost 800 Jewish refugees who paid small fortunes to be taken from Europe to the safety of Palestine, mysteriously sank off the coast of Turkey, with only one survivor. As Maya discovers the secret that haunts Professor Wagner, his personal tragedy becomes intertwined with her own history and destiny.

Celebrated author Zülfü Livaneli brilliantly reveals the realities of modern Turkish life while unfolding the unforgettable story of two people who are separated by generations but become linked by Turkey's complex, blood-soaked past. --Janet Brown, author and former bookseller

Discover: In a novel that blends history and suspense with love and crippling guilt, an acclaimed Turkish author offers a literary page-turner that's filled with surprises.

Other Press, $17.99, paperback, 416p., 9781635420166

The Bear

by Andrew Krivak

"The last two were a girl and her father...." The simplicity of these opening words sets the tone for The Bear, a delicate and poetic novel of a post-apocalyptic world, a place of quiet peace where the remaining humans exist harmoniously with nature. Andrew Krivak, author of The Sojourn, which was a National Book Award finalist and the winner of the Chautauqua Prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, brings the power of a classic myth to his tale of two survivors living in the aftermath of an unnamed catastrophe that has turned them into hunter-gatherers.

Generations distant from a destroyed civilization, the father and daughter treasure fragments from it: a single glass window, "the skill for making it... lost and forgotten"; books written by "poets with strange names like Homer and Virgil"; a silver comb that once belonged to the girl's dead mother.

The father teaches his child how to hunt with a bow and arrows she has made herself, how to clothe herself with animal skins, how to use the stars as her guides. And through the story of a human who once assumed the shape of a bear, a puma and an eagle to save his people, the father teaches her that humans need the help of animals in order to survive. After her father's death, the girl learns, and lives, what he told in his story.

Krivak's lyrical tribute to the natural world and the necessity for humans to coexist with it is an essential message cloaked within an allegory of haunting beauty. --Janet Brown, author and former bookseller

Discover: This cautionary fable of the last surviving people in a world that retains all of its natural splendor without human domination makes a strong argument for living off the grid.

Bellevue Literary Press, $16.99, paperback, 224p., 9781942658702

Mystery & Thriller

The Sun Down Motel

by Simone St. James

Angry ghosts trapped at The Sun Down Motel hold the key to the deaths of three women in this leave-the-lights-on thriller by Simone St. James (The Broken Girls).

In 1982, 20-year-old hitchhiker Viv Delaney forces the suddenly handsy driver of her latest ride to let her out of his car. The driver drops her off in front of a sketchy looking place called the Sun Down Motel, in a small town, Fell, in upstate New York. It's the last place she's seen alive.

Thirty-five years later, Viv's niece, Carly Kirk, drops out of college after her mother (Viv's sister) dies, and decides to find out what happened to her aunt. Carly travels to Fell from Illinois and takes a job as the Sun Down's night clerk to retrace her aunt's final days.

Creepy guests check in at all hours of the night. Doors open and close by themselves. The motel lights flicker and go out at random times. The ghosts of a man and a boy try to communicate with Carly. Another ghost regularly appears and yells at Carly to "Run!" Retired police officer Alma Trent, who worked Viv's case, knows something, and Fell resident and freelance photographer Marnie Clark has information, too, but neither will help.

Alternating points of view between Viv's in 1982 and Carly's in 2017 keep readers engrossed, but the author's insight into how little has changed in how women are treated--despite the 35 years between the heroines' experiences--is what makes this paranormal mystery compelling. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this riveting murder mystery, the dead and the living long for justice at The Sun Down Motel.

Berkley Books, $26, hardcover, 336p., 9780440000174

The Holdout

by Graham Moore

Academy Award-winning screenwriter Graham Moore (The Last Days of Night) takes reasonable doubt to new heights in this fast-paced, labyrinthine mystery.

Ten years ago, 26-year-old Maya Seale served as a juror in a high-profile murder trial. Bobby Nock, a 24-year-old black high school English teacher, stood accused of murdering 15-year-old student Jessica Silver to cover up their affair. All 12 jurors voted to acquit Nock, spurred largely by Maya's insistence that a reasonable doubt remained. Only after the trial did she learn that 84% of the American public believed Nock killed Silver and that Maya and her fellow jurors let him walk away from his crime. Now, Maya has managed to parlay her infamy into a successful career as a defense attorney. While she wants to leave the trial in the past, her fellow former juror and lover, Rick, has spent the past decade obsessed with the trial. When he invites the 11 surviving jurors to reunite for a planned Netflix docuseries, a new murder casts suspicion on Maya, who must look to the past to clear her name.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of the 12 jurors, The Holdout touches on each phase of the U.S. criminal justice system, its racist leanings and the news media's power over public opinion. Moore's screenwriting background shows in the novel's snappy dialogue and quick clip. Twists abound for even seasoned mystery readers in this complex courtroom puzzle. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: An acclaimed screenwriter's intricate mystery centers around a media circus trial and the jurors who still feel its impact a decade later.

Random House, $28, hardcover, 336p., 9780399591778

Science Fiction & Fantasy


by K.M. Szpara

In K.M. Szpara's first novel, Docile, debt passes to the next-of-kin upon the bearer's death, which has far-reaching effects on family structure and personal freedom. The book is deeply disturbing, intentionally so. Elisha signs a contract to sell his family's debt, in exchange for which he will become a Docile, serving Alex, new Bishop Labs CEO and grandson of the woman who invented Dociline--a drug that renders a person pliant, unaware and incapable of making their own decisions. Invoking one of the Seven Rights given to Dociles, Elisha refuses the medication and without it, Alex trains Elisha in obedience with a variety of punishments and praise.

It's immediately clear why nearly all Dociles choose to take Dociline. To be a Docile is to cease to be a person, with or without the soothing effect of the drug. Patrons in Alex's circle share, humiliate and rape their Dociles at social functions and relegate them to the background at all other times. After all, Dociles consent when they sign their contracts. As the only Docile aware of what's going on around him, Elisha has a front-row seat to the dehumanization of a huge swath of the population. In his point-of-view chapters, Alex struggles to control Elisha through behavior modification in order to keep his position in his family and business. Elisha's thoughts change as he bends and breaks under Alex's power, turning from suppressed anger to something far more sinister--eager compliance.

As powerful as it is plausible, Docile is a parable about consent, twisted love and challenging systemic abuse. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels

Discover: In a future where the selling of debt has effectively eliminated consent, a twisted gay love story becomes a complicated battle for human dignity.

Tor, $27.99, hardcover, 496p., 9781250216151

Biography & Memoir

The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World's Most Notorious Terrorists

by Tracy Walder, Jessica Anya Blau

Tracy Walder, a blonde, Jewish sorority girl from southern California, may have seemed like an unusual recruit for the CIA's counterterrorism unit. In her enthralling and fast-paced memoir, Walder illustrates how a self-professed news junkie who had always been fascinated by world events worked to make a difference. She applied to the CIA in college, and was working at Langley as a fresh-faced 23-year-old when September 11th happened. Her firsthand account of the dramatic shift in America's counterintelligence strategies after September 11th showcases several adventurous years working in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Her fellow agents and the people she interrogated were often equally skeptical of her, openly doubting her abilities, and calling her "Malibu Barbie." But Walder persevered, and won people over with her diligence, until she began to struggle with feeling personally guilty for failing to stop terror attacks. She decided for her own mental health to leave the CIA and apply to the FBI instead, seeking more security and a posting stateside.

Walder's account of her years with the CIA in such a pivotal era offer a glimpse of what happened behind the scenes after September 11th. Her depiction of her time at the FBI, and of the intense training at Quantico, are also absorbing, if often frustrating, given the macho, male-dominant culture prevalent within the Bureau. Readers of memoirs, current events and U.S. history are all sure to enjoy The Unexpected Spy. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: The gripping memoir of a woman who went straight from her University of Southern California sorority to the CIA makes for an intriguing history of counterintelligence in the 9/11 era.

St. Martin's Press, $27.99, hardcover, 272p., 9781250230980

Later: My Life at the Edge of the World

by Paul Lisicky

In his searing, lovely memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, Paul Lisicky (The Narrow DoorLawnboy) looks back at Provincetown, Mass., 1991-1994. It's a place for a young gay man to find a community; a haven for artists; a belated coming of age; the height of the AIDS epidemic--a place known simply, in the author's mind, as Town. It is "the edge of the world" both geographically and metaphorically.

Paul is in his early 30s when he moves to Provincetown as a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, after years of graduate school. Early pages express his difficulty in leaving his mother, breaking up an interdependence. In Town, he finds a community where it feels safe to be openly gay, where sex is readily available. But young men are dropping all around him. "AIDS takes hold of a life, with all of its ideals and aspirations, and throws it to the pavement like a jar." Even as Paul's life blossoms, sex and death are interwoven. Later realizes that they will never be separated again.

This is not a memoir purely of loss and mourning, although those themes are always present. Lisicky's prose showcases his precise ear for language and eye for descriptive detail. Under such loving observation, Town is both microcosm and macrocosm. This is a book of yearning, of love and sorrow and wanting and, yes, hope: deeply vulnerable and attuned to the divine. Read Later for historical context or simply for its stunning truth and beauty. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A lyrical, thoughtful memoir of early '90s Provincetown, Mass., illuminates the author's coming of age and portrays gay romance under the shadow of AIDS.

Graywolf Press, $16, paperback, 240p., 9781644450161


The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

by Katherine Stewart

In December 2019, the venerable evangelical publication Christianity Today caused a furor with an editorial denouncing the "grossly immoral character" of President Donald Trump and calling for his removal from office. The break was noteworthy because of the critical, if not decisive, support evangelical Christians provided Trump in the 2016 election.

But as journalist Katherine Stewart (The Good News Club) makes clear in The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, that enthusiasm had little to do with personal affection for Donald Trump or a favorable judgment of his character. Instead, the project of what she calls "Christian nationalism" is to "replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity," one that "also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders."

The Power Worshippers is a comprehensive, if compact, journey through the labyrinth of interlocking organizations and personalities that form the ecosystem of a movement that embraces "identity-based authoritarian rule over pluralistic, democratic processes," and seeks to transform the U.S. to serve that vision. Striving to end the book on an upbeat note, Stewart argues that Americans opposed to the establishment of a Christian theocracy "just need to reclaim the genuine religious freedom that our founders established and that most of our citizens cherish." But as she leaves no doubt, it's a battle that will be fought against well-financed, determined and formidable opposition, and one whose outcome is far from certain. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: A seasoned journalist painstakingly exposes the Christian Right's effort to undermine the United States' pluralistic democracy.

Bloomsbury, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9781635573435


Lurking: How a Person Became a User

by Joanne McNeil

In Lurking: How a Person Became a User, technology writer and critic Joanne McNeil offers a thoughtful and thorough account of how users--also known as "people"--have made the extraordinary social space called the Internet. Most of these users participate online by not participating, or by "lurking"--reading, listening and learning. McNeil sees lurking as "listening and witnessing on the internet, rather than opining and capturing the attention of others"; it can also be "a waiting room for communication," a way to pause and prepare for exchange. By charting the evolution of many complex and divergent online communities, McNeil shows that lurking is not a passive activity but a productive one.

Lurking isn't organized by the linear, deterministic framework that characterizes many accounts of how the Internet came to be. Rather, the history McNeil presents is idiosyncratic and contradictory. She is knowledgeable about the technology that makes the Internet possible but not deferential to it, emphasizing that life online is characterized by "an operational clash of values between human ambiguity and machine explicitness. Humanity is the spice, the substrate, that machines cannot replicate."

McNeil takes an empathetic, incisive and refreshingly sincere tone. She resists cynicism, while remaining straightforwardly critical of the corrosive forces of capitalism, racism and misogyny. She is an idealist who is also careful to avoid the trap of pining for an Internet that never actually existed. In the end, she offers a blueprint for that better Internet, which she imagines as "a civic and independent body, where all people are welcome and respected." When described with McNeil's wisdom and sensitivity, it almost seems possible. --Hannah Calkins, writer and editor in Indianapolis, Ind.

Discover: Refreshingly humane and threaded with poetic insight, Lurking tells the people's history of the Internet.

MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, hardcover, 304p., 9780374194338

Children's & Young Adult

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope

by Patrice Caldwell, editor

Sixteen authors, including volume editor Patrice Caldwell, serve up absolutely stunning science fiction and fantasy in this collection of short stories, the title of which is borrowed from the evergreen work of Octavia Butler.

Young Black women and gender-nonconforming folks are the heroes of each tale in A Phoenix First Must Burn. They are witches, mutants, shapeshifters, vampires and goddesses, all learning, loving and growing. Every one of the authors has developed a protagonist who grows into their full self, all with a focus on liberation beholden to the book's claim of being "Beyoncé's Lemonade for a teen audience."

The talented authors paint a vibrant visual album with their words, intentionally setting their characters in locales that are alternately exotic or seemingly mundane but always exciting. Amerie blasts the book off into outer space with the careful construction of "When Life Hands You a Lemon Fruit Bomb"--the story ends with an extraordinary beginning for two young women on a post-apocalyptic planet. The charming, funny protagonist in Justina Ireland's "Melie" is an approachable sorcerer-in-training doing, as most women must, two times the amount of work to advance as her male colleagues do (this includes collecting mermaids' tears and enlisting the help of dragons). Danny Lore's Jayleen braids out memories, providing comfort and healing for their girlfriend, Akilah, in "Tender-Headed," while in Karen Strong's "The Witch's Skin," Boo Hags revel in their wretched rides on a paradisiac island where society is segregated by color and class.

Proud, resilient, loving and hopeful, this book gives nuance and voice to a spectrum of truly wondrous Black experiences. --Breanna J. McDaniel, author and reviewer

Discover: This collection of 16 stories is a well-crafted, fiery and timely contribution to young adult science fiction and fantasy.

Viking, $18.99, hardcover, 368p., 9781984835659

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

by Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi

As Ibram X. Kendi states in his introduction to Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, the "remix" of his National Book Award-winning adult nonfiction book, Stamped from the Beginning, Jason Reynolds is "one of the most gifted writers and thinkers of our time." With Stamped, Reynolds displays what is arguably his most important gift as a middle-grade and YA author: his ability to speak to and write for young people with respect and care.

"Before we begin, let's get something straight. This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least, not like the ones you're used to reading in school." And it's not. It's a "present book." It's an introduction to segregationists, assimilationists and antiracists; to the long history of racism in the U.S. and around the world; to the theories that prop up racist thought. It's a history specifically designed to explain today, as well as a call to action and a record of past and contemporary antiracists--it's an everything book.

Reynolds (Look Both Ways; Long Way Down) makes Stamped a conversation with the reader. This approach, in less capable hands, could go horribly wrong (think, "How do you do, fellow kids?"). But it is what makes Reynolds's interpretation so successful. Stamped is approachable: his tone is welcoming, helpful, easygoing and informal, even though--because--his topic is the shameful, disgusting and brutal history and present of racism. With further reading, source notes and an index, Stamped is a fantastic starting point for anyone interested in understanding our world a little bit better. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: This "remix" of Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning is an approachable and engrossing work designed for young readers.

Little, Brown, $18.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 12-up, 9780316453691

Flight for Freedom: The Wetzel Family's Daring Escape from East Germany

by Kristen Fulton, illus. by Torben Kuhlmann

Most elementary school students know about immigration. News to them may be that Germany was once split by a wall and that the people who lived in East Germany weren't allowed to leave. Kristen Fulton, whose specialty is adapting amazing true stories for the picture-book format (Long May She Wave: The True Story of Caroline Pickersgill and Her Star-Spangled Creation), uses Flight for Freedom: The Wetzel Family's Daring Escape from East Germany to explain to young readers why people might risk everything for a chance at a better life.

"In the days when Germany was divided by a wall, life was very different," Fulton begins. For East Germans, the lights went out every night at nine ("It was the law") and kids couldn't watch cartoons--"Children watched the news." (Fulton saves talk of the politics behind the wall for her book's back matter.) Six-year-old Peter Wetzel knows that his parents are hatching an escape plan: he finds an illegal picture of a hot-air balloon and overhears them discussing fabric and fuel. Late one night, more than a year later, in 1979, his parents wake him, and the Wetzels and their friends drive to a field where they inflate a hot-air balloon as the sound of a police siren approaches.

For a nail-biter, Flight for Freedom has an unexpectedly pacifying quality. Torben Kuhlmann, who is also an author (Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon, Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse), employs a gelid palette to show Peter passing armed soldiers on his walk to school, but imbues domestic scenes with a tranquility befitting any story about a loving family. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: This thrilling account, based on an event that took place in 1979, offers young readers a sense of why a family might risk everything to emigrate.

Chronicle, $17.99, hardcover, 56p., ages 5-8, 9781452149608

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