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WHAT WE'RE READING

Julie’s Picks

Julie’s reading habits are erratic. If it has a dragon or a spaceship—she’ll probably read it. Also lots of nonfiction science, young adult fiction, short stories, and anything labeled ‘weird.’ The words ‘genre-bending’ are music to her ears. She loves audiobooks, essays, and comic books as well. Her favorite place to read is cuddled up with her dog.

Toad

Katherine Dunn
Hardcover/November 1, 2022
MCD

Julie’s Thoughts: The darkest, most acerbic wit collides with the sharpest human insights from one of the most incisive writers I’ve ever read. I was utterly delighted to learn there was an unpublished work from much-missed Katherine Dunn. This one is deeply depressing but the twisted characters and bitter hearts speak to something I think might be universal. Not an easy read, but a worthy one.

A previously unpublished novel of the reflections of a deeply scarred and reclusive woman, from the cult icon Katherine Dunn, the author of Geek Love.

Sally Gunnar has been in love, has been mad, has been an agent of destruction, has been spurned; and now she has retreated from the world. She lives in isolation in her small house, where her only companions are a vase of goldfish, a garden toad, and the door-to-door salesman who sells her cleaning supplies once a month. From her comfortable perch, she broods over her deepest regrets: her wayward, weed-hazy college days; her blighted romance with a scornful poet; a tragically comic accident involving a paper cutter; a suicide attempt; and her decision to ultimately relinquish a conventional life.

Colorful, crass, and profound, Toad is Katherine Dunn’s ode to her time as a student at Reed College, filled with the same keen observations, taboo-shirking verve, and singular characters that made Geek Love a cult classic. Through the perceptive Sally, a fish out of water among a cadre of eccentric, privileged young people, we meet Sam, an unwashed collector of other people’s stories; Carlotta, a free spirit who nevertheless fails to escape the deception of marriage; and Rennel, a shallow, self-obsessed philosophy student. With sly self-deprecation and mordant wit, Sally recounts their misadventures, up to the tragedy that tore them apart.

Through it all, Toad demonstrates Dunn’s genius for black humor and irony, her ecstatic celebration of the grotesque. Daring and bizarre, Toad is a brilliant precursor to the book that would make Dunn a misfit hero—even fifty-some years after it was written, it’s a refreshing take on the lives of young outsiders treading the delicate lines between isolation and freedom, love and insanity, hatred and friendship.

Ithaca

Claire North
Hardcover/September 6, 2022
Redhook

Julie’s Thoughts: Rich with details and compelling characters, this gorgeously written novel left me brimming with warmth and courage. The often-misunderstood Hera provides the perfect lens for a new take on this epic tale, while remaining faithful to the broader details. I’m loving the rash of feminist mythology these days- keep it coming.

This is the story of Penelope of Ithaca, famed wife of Odysseus, as it has never been told before. Beyond Ithaca’s shores, the whims of gods dictate the wars of men. But on the isle, it is the choices of the abandoned women—and their goddesses—that will change the course of the world.

Seventeen years ago, King Odysseus sailed to war with Troy, taking with him every man of fighting age from the island of Ithaca. None of them has returned, and the women of Ithaca have been left behind to run the kingdom.

Penelope was barely into womanhood when she wed Odysseus. While he lived, her position was secure. But now, years on, speculation is mounting that her husband is dead, and suitors are beginning to knock at her door.

No one man is strong enough to claim Odysseus’ empty throne—not yet. But everyone waits for the balance of power to tip, and Penelope knows that any choice she makes could plunge Ithaca into bloody civil war. Only through cunning, wit, and her trusted circle of maids, can she maintain the tenuous peace needed for the kingdom to survive.

On Ithaca, everyone watches, including the gods. And there is no corner of the land where intrigue does not reign.

From the multi-award winning author Claire North comes a daring, powerful, and moving tale that breathes new life into ancient myth, and tells of the women who stand defiant in a world ruled by ruthless men. It’s time for the women of Ithaca to tell their story…

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

Becky Chambers
Paperback/July 12, 2022
Tordotcom

Julie’s Thoughts: Short and sweet and weird and complicated, the second book in the Monk and Robot series aptly delivers on the utter joy of the first in the series. If anything, the bittersweet beauty is even stronger amongst these 149 pages. Don’t mistake it’s lack of length for lack of depth- this is a story that lingers, like the warmth from a cup of tea, or a much-needed hug. 

After touring the rural areas of Panga, Sibling Dex (a Tea Monk of some renown) and Mosscap (a robot sent on a quest to determine what humanity really needs) turn their attention to the villages and cities of the little moon they call home.

They hope to find the answers they seek, while making new friends, learning new concepts, and experiencing the entropic nature of the universe.

Becky Chambers’s new series continues to ask: in a world where people have what they want, does having more even matter?

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us

Steve Brusatte
Hardcover/June 7, 2022
Mariner Books

Julie’s Notes: Did you know that Thomas Jefferson sought the Louisiana Purchase in order to look for mastodons? It seems crazy to think about, with our limited time perception, but mammals are so young in the grand scheme of the history of the earth. Steve Brusatte does an excellent job of telling the tale of our nearest ancestors in the animal kingdom, while keeping the perspective wide enough to never lose context. It’s not an easy feat to write nonfiction science in such a readable way without losing the plot- but this book hits that perfect mix. Highly recommended!

Though humans claim to rule the Earth, we are the inheritors of a dynasty that has reigned over the planet for nearly 66 million years, through fiery cataclysm and ice ages: the mammals. Our lineage includes saber-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, armadillos the size of a car, cave bears three times the weight of a grizzly, clever scurriers that outlasted Tyrannosaurus rex, and even other types of humans, like Neanderthals. Indeed humankind and many of the beloved fellow mammals we share the planet with today–lions, whales, dogs–represent only the few survivors of a sprawling and astonishing family tree that has been pruned by time and mass extinctions. How did we get here?

In his acclaimed bestseller The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, American paleontologist Steve Brusatte enchanted readers with his definitive his – tory of the dinosaurs. Now, picking up the narrative in the ashes of the extinction event that doomed T-rex and its kind, Brusatte explores the remarkable story of the family of animals that inherited the Earth–mammals– and brilliantly reveals that their story is every bit as fascinating and complex as that of the dinosaurs.

Beginning with the earliest days of our lineage some 325 million years ago, Brusatte charts how mammals survived the asteroid that claimed the dinosaurs and made the world their own, becoming the astonishingly diverse range of animals that dominate today’s Earth. Brusatte also brings alive the lost worlds mammals inhabited through time, from ice ages to volcanic catastrophes. Entwined in this story is the detective work he and other scientists have done to piece together our understanding using fossil clues and cutting-edge technology.

A sterling example of scientific storytelling by one of our finest young researchers, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals illustrates how this incredible history laid the foundation for today’s world, for us, and our future.

 

Ordinary Monsters

J.M. Miro
Hardcover/June 7, 2022
Flatiron Books

Julie’s Notes: Atmospheric, seething with tension and grit but just enough heart to claw its way into your brain. I’ve been thinking about this book daily since I finished it months ago. I think it might’ve changed something inside me that needed changing. If you like gothic, labyrinthine, doorstopper-sized novels that will keep you up late, this is for you. 

England, 1882. In Victorian London, two children with mysterious powers are hunted by a figure of darkness —a man made of smoke.

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Ovid, despite a lifetime of brutality, doesn’t have a scar on him. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not. Marlowe, a foundling from a railway freight car, shines with a strange bluish light. He can melt or mend flesh. When two grizzled detectives are recruited to escort them north to safety, they are forced to confront the nature of difference, and belonging, and the shadowy edges of the monstrous.

What follows is a journey from the gas-lit streets of London, to an eerie estate outside Edinburgh, where other children with gifts—the Talents—have been gathered. Here, the world of the dead and the world of the living threaten to collide. And as secrets within the Institute unfurl, Marlowe, Charlie and the rest of the Talents will discover the truth about their abilities, and the nature of the force that is stalking them: that the worst monsters sometimes come bearing the sweetest gifts.

With lush prose, mesmerizing world-building, and a gripping plot, Ordinary Monsters presents a catastrophic vision of the Victorian world—and of the gifted, broken children who must save it.

When We Were Birds

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
Hardcover/March 15, 2022
Doubleday Books

You were never the smartest child, but even you should know that when a dead woman offers you a cigarette, the polite thing to do would be to take it. Especially when that dead woman is your mother.

The St. Bernard women have lived in Morne Marie, the house on top of a hill outside Port Angeles, for generations. Built from the ashes of a plantation that enslaved their ancestors, it has come to shelter a lineage that is bonded by much more than blood. One woman in each generation of St. Bernards is responsible for the passage of the city’s souls into the afterlife. But Yejide’s relationship with her mother, Petronella, has always been contorted by anger and neglect, which Petronella stubbornly carries to her death bed, leaving Yejide unprepared to fulfill her destiny.

Raised in the countryside by a devout Rastafarian mother, Darwin has always abided by the religious commandment not to interact with death. He has never been to a funeral, much less seen a dead body. But when his ailing mother can no longer work and the only job he can find is grave digging, he must betray the life she built for him in order to provide for them both. Newly shorn of his dreadlocks and his past and determined to prove himself, Darwin finds himself adrift in a city electric with possibility and danger.

Yejide and Darwin will meet inside the gates of Fidelis, Port Angeles’s largest and oldest cemetery, where the dead lie uneasy in their graves and a reckoning with fate beckons them both. A masterwork of lush imagination and immersive lyricism, When We Were Birds is a spellbinding novel about inheritance, loss, and love’s seismic power to heal.

Moon Witch, Spider King

Marlon James
Hardcover/February 15, 2022
Riverhead Books

Julie says: There is a reason the first book in this trilogy was both loudly praised and loudly misunderstood- writing this unique, genre-breaking, and powerful isn’t for the faint-hearted. Someone looking for an easy read will need to look elsewhere, because this isn’t your typical Western fantasy series. It’s so, so worth the effort though. I haven’t read something this groundbreaking in ages. If anything, the second book is even better- richer, deeper, more complicated and paradoxically- more real. Take on the challenge- it’ll change you for the better.

From Marlon James, author of the bestselling National Book Award finalist Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the second book in the Dark Star trilogy, his African Game of Thrones.

In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Sogolon the Moon Witch proved a worthy adversary to Tracker as they clashed across a mythical African landscape in search of a mysterious boy who disappeared. In Moon Witch, Spider King, Sogolon takes center stage and gives her own account of what happened to the boy, and how she plotted and fought, triumphed and failed as she looked for him. It’s also the story of a century-long feud—seen through the eyes of a 177-year-old witch—that Sogolon had with the Aesi, chancellor to the king. It is said that Aesi works so closely with the king that together they are like the eight limbs of one spider. Aesi’s power is considerable—and deadly. It takes brains and courage to challenge him, which Sogolon does for reasons of her own.

Both a brilliant narrative device—seeing the story told in Black Leopard, Red Wolf from the perspective of an adversary and a woman—as well as a fascinating battle between different versions of empire, Moon Witch, Spider King delves into Sogolon’s world as she fights to tell her own story. Part adventure tale, part chronicle of an indomitable woman who bows to no man, it is a fascinating novel that explores power, personality, and the places where they overlap.

Critical Role: The Mighty Nein Origins: Caleb Widogast

Matthew Mercer
Hardcover/February 1, 2022
Dark Horse

Julie Says: Sad, powerful, brilliant. If you’re a Critter of long-standing or just now getting into the world of Exandria, don’t miss this stunning backstory for the world’s most beloved emo wizard.

In Critical Role: The Mighty Nein Origins: Caleb Widogast, Bren Aldric Ermendrud is chosen to attend the exclusive Soltryce Academy, preparing for an important future in service to the Empire. But nobody — least of all Bren himself — can foresee the cruelty he will endure, and the ways in which it will break and remake him. Witness the events that transform Bren into the Mighty Nein’s Caleb Widogast, and how they inform the path he’ll take in the future.

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders

Neil Gaiman
Paperback/January 25, 2022
William Morrow Paperbacks

Julie Says: Yes, I am a Neil Gaiman fan-girl. No, I am not ashamed of this. If you’ve ever wanted to try out one of the greatest fiction writers of this generation, you can’t go wrong with his infinitely inventive, magnificently weird, and always satisfying short stories. Presented here with the newly updated cover that I think truly represents the contents within- take a chance and stretch your reading wings with this gorgeous and unsettlingly brilliant collection.

A mysterious circus terrifies an audience for one extraordinary performance before disappearing into the night, taking one of the spectators along with it.
In a novella set two years after the events of American Gods, Shadow pays a visit to an ancient Scottish mansion, and finds himself trapped in a game of murder and monsters.

Another short story is set in a strangely altered Victorian England, the great detective Sherlock Holmes must solve a most unsettling royal murder.

Two teenage boys crash a party and meet the girls of their dreams and nightmares.

The members of an excusive epicurean club lament that they’ve eaten everything that can be eaten, with the exception of a legendary, rare, and exceedingly dangerous Egyptian bird.

Such marvelous creations and more, including a short story set in the world of The Matrix and others set in the worlds of gothic fiction and children’s fiction, can be found in this collection, which showcases Gaiman’s storytelling brilliance as well as his entertaining (and dark) sense of humor. By turns delightful, disturbing, and diverting, Fragile Things is a gift of literary enchantment from one of the most unique writers of our time.

Akata Woman

Nnedi Okorafor
Hardcover/January 18, 2022
Viking Books for Young Readers

Julie Says: Oh how I love this series! Rich in magic, folklore, and the ache of growing up as a child of two worlds. Having spent most of my life traveling and always feeling just a little out of place, these books speak to me in a profound way. Add to that my all-consuming love of inventive, original fantasy and this becomes something that transcends even my usual enthusiasm for story. Go read this series (starting with Akata Witch) and don’t say I didn’t warn you- it’s life-changing.

From the moment Sunny Nwazue discovered she had magic flowing in her blood, she sought to understand and control her powers. Throughout her adventures in Akata Witch and Akata Warrior, she had to navigate the balance between nearly everything in her life–America and Nigeria, the “normal” world and the one infused with juju, human and spirit, good daughter and powerful Leopard Person.

Now, those hard lessons and abilities are put to the test in a quest so dangerous and fantastical, it would be madness to go…but deadly not to. With the help of her friends, Sunny embarks on a mission to find a precious object hidden deep in a magical realm. Defeating the guardians of the prize will take more from Sunny than she has to give, and triumph will mean she will be forever changed.

Impact: How Rocks from Space Led to Life, Culture, and Donkey Kong

Greg Brennecka
Hardcover/February 1, 2022
William Morrow

Julie Says: Bitingly fun, informative, and easy to read. Everything I love in my nonfiction. The far-reaching and surprising links between culture and science never fail to delight me. Highly recommend for the always curious!

The Solar System. Dinosaurs. Donkey Kong. What is the missing link? Surprisingly enough, it’s meteorites. They explain our past, constructed our present, and could define our future.

Impact argues that Earth would be a lifeless, inhospitable piece of rock without being fortuitously assaulted with meteorites throughout the history of the planet. These bombardments transformed Earth’s early atmosphere and delivered the complex organic molecules that allowed life to develop on our planet. While meteorites have provided the raw materials for life to thrive, they have radically devastated life as well, most famously killing off the dinosaurs and paving the way for humans to evolve to where we are today.

As noted meteoriticist Greg Brennecka explains, meteorites did not just set us on the path to becoming human, they helped direct the development of human culture. Meteorites have influenced humanity since the start of civilization. Over the centuries, meteorite falls and other cosmic cinema have started (and stopped) wars, terrified millions, and inspired religions throughout the world.

With humor and an infectious enthusiasm, Brennecka reveals previously untold but important stories sure to delight and inform readers about the most important rocks on Earth.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Malinda Lo
Paperback/December 28, 2021
Dutton Books

Julie says: Dark, dreamy, and full of bittersweet hope. A very relevant historical novel with a lot of heart.

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the feeling took root–that desire to look, to move closer, to touch. Whenever it started growing, it definitely bloomed the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club. Suddenly everything seemed possible.

But America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father–despite his hard-won citizenship–Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

Winter's Orbit

Everina Maxwell
Paperback/December 28, 2021
Tor Books

Julie says: This is SO MUCH fun! I missed this when it first came out, thinking it would be dull and too-much-romance. I’m so glad I got bored and tried it anyway! There is a beautiful romance, but also political intrigue and a fascinating take on sci-fi epics. Highly recommended!

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

The Cat Who Saved Books

Sōsuke Natsukawa, Louise Heal Kawai (Translator)
Hardcover/December 7, 2021
HarperVia

Julie says: This is such a beautiful, bittersweet story! Rich, fantastical, and healing- I can’t stop recommending this to everyone who needs an escape from (waves hand around) all of this. 

Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookstore he inherited from his beloved bookworm grandfather. Then, a talking cat named Tiger appears with an unusual request. The feline asks for—or rather, demands—the teenager’s help in saving books with him. The world is full of lonely books left unread and unloved, and Tiger and Rintaro must liberate them from their neglectful owners.

Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different mazes to set books free. Through their travels, Tiger and Rintaro meet a man who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publishing drone who only wants to create bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, unforgettable challenge—the last maze that awaits leads Rintaro down a realm only the bravest dare enter…

Call Us What We Carry

Amanda Gorman
Hardcover/December 7, 2021
Viking

Julie says: If I could bottle the feelings these poems give me, I think I’d be a superhero, or at least a better person. Powerful gut-punches that sing with hope and humanity. This is everything we need right now.

Formerly titled The Hill We Climb and Other Poems, Amanda Gorman’s remarkable new collection reveals an energizing and unforgettable voice in American poetry. Call Us What We Carry is Gorman at her finest. Including “The Hill We Climb,” the stirring poem read at the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden, and bursting with musical language and exploring themes of identity, grief, and memory, this lyric of hope and healing captures an important moment in our country’s consciousness while being utterly timeless.

White on White

Aysegül Savas
Hardcover/November 30, 2021
Riverhead Books

Julie says: Intense, riveting, and oh so vivid. This one  lulled me into complacency, and then blew me into bits. Powerful writing in such a slim volume. Psychological fiction at it’s most aching.

A “marvelous” (Lauren Groff) and riveting novel about a woman who has come undone.

A student moves to the city to research Gothic nudes. She rents an apartment from a painter, Agnes, who lives in another town with her husband. One day, Agnes arrives in the city and settles into the upstairs studio.

In their meetings on the stairs, in the studio, at the corner café, the kitchen at dawn, Agnes tells stories of her youth, her family, her marriage, and ideas for her art – which is always just about to be created. As the months pass, it becomes clear that Agnes might not have a place to return to. The student is increasingly aware of Agnes’s disintegration. Her stories are frenetic; her art scattered and unfinished, white paint on a white canvas.

What emerges is the menacing sense that every life is always at the edge of disaster, no matter its seeming stability. Alongside the research into human figures, the student is learning, from a cool distance, about the narrow divide between happiness and resentment, creativity and madness, contentment and chaos.

White on White is a sharp exploration of empathy and cruelty, and the stunning discovery of what it means to be truly vulnerable, and laid bare.