Sarah Recommends!

What book from your childhood had the biggest impact on you as a reader?

   The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling was the first book I remember reading all on my own, and being proud because it was a big book with big words and small print. What resonated most with me though was a story called “The Undertakers” in The Second Jungle Book, the lesser known but equally wonderful sequel. Having gone back to it several times over the years, I know it rewards frequent returns to the sinister domesticity of the characters, the grinning malice folded in with the humor.


What was your favorite 'adult' book that you read as a teenager?

   Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was long preceded by its reputation, for obvious reasons, and I’ve oscillated wildly in my feelings about it over the years. Until Lolita, I had only thought of the unreliable narrator as a literary device, known enough to identify it in a paper, but Humbert Humbert was the first fictional character to disorient me so thoroughly as to change how I read forever. 


After years spent as a bookseller, what is a hidden gem that you wish more people knew about?

    Not enough people, in my experience, have read T. H. White’s transportive fantasy, The Once & Future King, and this is one of the small tragedies of our time. Written for children, but demanding in a way that nothing else I can think of is, the three-part novel’s themes are beautifully constructed engagements with metaphysical, moral, and political questions, all buoyed by White’s wry, almost melancholy, sense of humor.


Who is an author that you have just recently discovered?

   I’m the type of annoying bookish person who is suspicious of recommendations (please don’t judge my own recommendations on this, the books are really good, I swear), and Jeanette Winterson is one of the writers I resisted for years even as everyone I knew kept pushing her on me, in the utter certainty that I would love her. When I did finally give in, I gave in with The Passion and couldn’t get enough. Fortunately for me (and maybe for you!) Winterson is extremely prolific and will sustain you for many a housebound evening.


What is a book that you enjoyed unexpectedly -- whether because of subject matter, genre, style, etc?

    I barely read kids’ books as a kid, and, to be fair, I don’t remember them being written with the same care and intelligence as today’s kids’ books are. I don’t remember what drew me to Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon, but once I started, I couldn’t tear myself away from it. Though written for middle readers, the story is challenging in its themes and concerns and, not gonna lie, pretty terrifying in places. Barnhill’s world-building is intricate and surprising and her characters hit all the right notes—never saccharine, tediously righteous, or simple, this is a book for thoughtful children and grownups who think kids’ books are just for kids.


What was the best book you've read during quarantine, or during the pandemic in general?

    This is a hard one! I was not one of the people that devoured every plague book ever written when the pandemic started—early on, I learned I couldn’t confront any material that was too real, too long, or too sad. Fortunately, once you realize that about yourself, know that there is a wealth of books that will engage you at your least focused, least patient, and most viciously ill-disposed toward the human race. I’m going to cheat here because the books are so tiny! Raven Leilani’s Luster, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, Leigh Stein’s Self Care, and Lucie Britsch’s Sad Janet are four novels about weird women doing weird things and they do not want your thoughts!


Read below for book recommendations from Sarah...

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The Crane Wife: A Memoir in Essays By CJ Hauser Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780593312889
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Anchor - June 27th, 2023

    I dipped in and out of this collection whenever I needed an emotional ping—each of these essays is like one of those amazing text exchanges with one of your more thoughtful friends, who will always distract you with some heavily researched, fascinating piece of trivia that somehow arcs into a parallel with whatever’s been bothering you—and is now bothering you less.
    Legend has it that this book grew out of a viral essay from 2019, from which it gets its title: the original Crane Wife is from Japanese folklore, but Hauser’s essay recounts the time she broke off an engagement and, perhaps in a subconscious bid to escape the psychic fallout, goes on a research trip to study the whooping crane.
    In these essays, Hauser appears as an incurable romantic, feeling things with all the intensity of an exposed nerve, and exploring these feelings (even the bad ones) with delicate but firm determination. One high point among several (they’re all a blast, really) is “The Second Mrs. de Winter”—to dispel the anxiety she’s feeling about her boyfriend’s ex-wife, Hauser arranges to read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca with a group of her friends. If you’re familiar with Rebecca, you’ll know this is an outrageous plan and it’s absolutely hilarious; if you’re not familiar, you’ll immediately want to read Rebecca with all your friends. I love that Hauser’s impulse when confronted with a personal problem is to turn to a gothic thriller for guidance.
    In Hauser’s uniquely humorous style, questions of romance, marriage, motherhood, family, and friendship feel like new discoveries in well-trodden ground. 

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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All's Well: A Novel By Mona Awad Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9781982169671
Availability: On Our Shelves Now: Please call ahead to be sure inventory is not being held for other customers.
Published: S&S/ Marysue Rucci Books - August 2nd, 2022

        Late in the novel, a character’s mind starts going “Dread, dread, dread,” and I realized that’s what thrums through my mind every time I read Mona Awad, and, as is her wont, the author deposits readers in the perspective of a totally unhinged main character. 
        This is a book for English department people and Shakespeare freaks and for those who love an intertextual reference. But there’s a lot here too for readers who appreciate light body horror, a delightfully cinematic use of dramatic irony, and an amoral heroine wreaking indiscriminate havoc as a comeuppance for the institutional patriarchy that has held her down her whole life. 
        Miranda is a gifted former actor whose chronic pain condition ended her career before its prime and now she runs the undergraduate theatre program at a mid-tier liberal arts college. Against the wishes of her assistant director and her class, Miranda is staging All’s Well that Ends Well, an underrated and relatively disregarded problem play, instead of everyone else’s first choice, Macbeth. Though she’s beset on all sides by students of indifferent ability, a queen bee type whose youth, beauty, and vigor Miranda takes personally, a college dean with all the artistic feeling of a chair leg, a hot set builder who’s kind but doesn’t see her as a sexual prospect, an infuriatingly able-bodied best friend, and dwarfing it all, an endless pain that evades all the scans, drugs, and a range of alternative therapies, Miranda is determined to stage a successful production of All’s Well, which had been her last star turn before the end of her truncated acting career.
        As though in defiance of Miranda, the novel mimics the structure of Macbeth, even as Awad takes us through the plot of All’s Well, and as the story goes on, Miranda’s internal monologue takes on a choral, chanting quality reminiscent of a Greek tragedy. Madness looms over the events of the novel, and Awad is a uniquely talented writer of paranoid terror—the whole time I was braced for the shock of Miranda having a lucid moment and happening to glance in a mirror.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Bunny: A Novel By Mona Awad Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780525559757
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Published: Penguin Books - June 9th, 2020

        Awad’s brain is terrifying, but this appealed to me immediately—reviewers compared it to The Secret History, Heathers, The Craft, all some of the truest paths to my heart. A hilariously savage send-up of MFA writing programs (and supposedly one in particular), the plot of Bunny does wildly unexpected things and by the time I finished I didn’t really know which end was up but I was exhilarated. In good conscience, I’ll note that I had to take a break from this novel because it got too scary, but also you should note that it doesn’t take much to scare me.
        Samantha Mackey is a student in the graduate writing program at Warren University (get it???) and, never the smoothest social operator, she’s finding her current milieu to be especially resistant to her charms. There are the women in her class—all giving off a palpable air of wealth and privilege—with their edged smiles and more or less impenetrable secret language; the professor, a loathsome amalgam of every self-important teacher you’ve ever had, that Samantha privately refers to as Fosco (see Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White); and the one she calls the Lion—beautifully maned and suddenly remote for reasons Samantha can’t fathom.
        Samantha’s only solace is witchy Ava, who has more vision and intelligence in a toenail than any of these scholars Samantha must plod along with, and when she feels especially dispirited, Ava and her “Drink Me” flask steadfastly offer support. I’m going to stop here because revealing any more will be a disservice to you and to Bunny but if mad bacchic violence is your thing—and trust me, it is—read this immediately.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Trespasses: A Novel By Louise Kennedy Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9780593540893
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Published: Riverhead Books - November 1st, 2022

Look, I didn’t mean to recommend another novel about a doomed affair between a middle-aged man and a 20-something woman but here we are. So while I have you, Trespasses is a novel set in Ireland during the Troubles so we can all go in with the knowledge that we are about to be destroyed emotionally. Cushla Lavery (I love saying her name) is a 24-year-old elementary school teacher in Belfast and spends the rest of her time helping out behind the bar of her brother’s pub and managing the alcoholism and otherwise unruly behavior of her widowed mother.

All the kids in Cushla’s class are, like her, Catholic, with the exception of young Davy McGeowan, whose mother is a Protestant. Seven years old and possessed of a nearly unreasonable amount of sweetness and charm, Davy is victimized by the other children and, grossly, also by the resident Catholic priest whose whole vibe is incredibly sinister. The Laverys, who have always considered themselves above sectarian strife, become entwined with the McGeowans, becoming targets themselves in the process.

Meanwhile, Michael Agnew is a prominent Protestant barrister who’s made a name for himself defending angry Catholic teenagers whose helpless rage and lack of recourse led them to the IRA and are targeted by the government whether it’s called for or not. Cushla and Michael begin an affair—his wife is decidedly peripheral—and seem, on the whole, deliriously happy. But of course we know how this will go.

I read this in two days and was absolutely burned down by the time I got to the end. With a marvelously delicate touch, Kennedy infuses the world of the novel with the learned despair of people who live always with the threat of violence, that is perhaps especially senseless in these circumstances, and have become numb. Without ever belaboring the point, Kennedy demonstrates the pointless devastation of internecine conflict: how the immediacy and frequency of the danger in Ireland at this time made it extremely difficult, often impossible, to respond thoughtfully, to empathize with your neighbors, to act out of anything but instinct.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books

 


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Hamnet By Maggie O'Farrell Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9781984898876
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Published: Vintage - May 18th, 2021

          I came so late to this one, because I instinctively avoid anything with sick or hurt kids, grieving parents—just no. If you have at all similar criteria when choosing what to read, might I gently suggest that you consider relaxing them on this one occasion?
          Paradoxically, this winter I was feeling especially and noticeably robust emotionally, and had been feeling a little left out and a little thinly-read from my refusal to read Hamnet, a fictionalized account of William Shakespeare’s romance with his wife, Agnes, a woman we don’t know much about at all, except that she lost a child. Historical evidence stops here, and I admit to having assumed that Agnes, who remained in Stratford when her husband moved to London, was too provincial to be worth remembering. I’m grateful now to O’Farrell for fashioning a narrative so glorious from scraps of history. 
          Truthfully, the fact that these characters “really” existed, that they are based on actual historical figures, doesn’t really matter, but the advantage of Shakespeare’s unique renown is that the story exists in an ecosystem, suspended in the scaffolding of his work, like a small planet lit by a sun.
          Agnes is one of the coolest fictional characters I’ve ever read, and maybe it helps to know beforehand that she’ll suffer a tragedy that might well be insurmountable, that leaves her life and mind a ruin, because I became so protective of her so quickly that if I hadn’t seen it coming I don’t know that I would have recovered enough to finish the book. And finish you must! Because O’Farrell’s depiction of grief, the ebbing and flowing nature of it, the loneliness of it even when it’s a shared loss, is so profoundly moving that it’s making my heart feel too big even to recall it now.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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They're Going to Love You: A Novel By Meg Howrey Cover Image
$28.00
ISBN: 9780385548779
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Published: Doubleday - November 15th, 2022

 

Gauzy and diaphanous, extremely eighties and New Yorky, They’re Going to Love You combines so many of the things I love: despite knowing only enough about ballet that I’ve osmotically received from books and movies, I immediately caught Howrey’s fascination with the form. I get really excited about performers and artists writing fiction about their work. Add to this a complicated father-daughter relationship cast in the same soft focus that’s found on the cover, and I’m enchanted.

Carlisle Martin, a 40-something choreographer with critical if not always commercial success, receives a call telling her that her father, from whom she’s been estranged for decades, is on his deathbed. Perhaps she’d be willing to come see him? The news sends her mind back to her childhood, when the urge to chase ballet stardom collapsed into her desire to be loved and admired by her father, Robert, a theatre director, and his lover, James, a choreographer and teacher, and she could no longer tell which was the real impetus behind her striving.

Told in the very close first person, the novel takes readers through Carlisle’s back-and-forthing over her guilt and outrage (“what I did was forgivable,” she says, but reminding who?) as she forms new attachments and revisits old ones. James, in particular, is a luminous, mesmerizing character, but Carlisle’s mother Isabel is the best kind of understated, simmering with thwarted ambition.

—Sarah, Longfellow books

  


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Venomous Lumpsucker By Ned Beauman Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9781641294126
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Published: Soho Press - July 12th, 2022

     When Beauman’s newest novel came out, I started doing that thing where you save it and save it for the right time, for when you need a foolproof pick-me-up or some other uniquely suited circumstance, and my patience is *really* being rewarded, so much so that I’m not even waiting to finish before I tell you how great it is.
     Capitalism sucks, obviously, and familiar readers will know that Beauman agrees. In the—importantly!—near future (of which the author reminds you in a variety of sinuous and chilly ways) an extinction credit economy has sprung up, very like the carbon offset economy we have today. For a laughably small financial penalty, large companies can drive any species to extinction. Of course, this turns into a lot of legal contorting—what even is extinction, really??—which in turn leads to basically unchecked corporate rapacity thinly veiled by performative gestures toward conservation. Even that proves too much restraint for the mining companies of the world, and steadily, the final fig leaves of corporate responsibility fall away.
     Depressing, yeah? NO! Somehow, no! Venomous Lumpsucker doesn’t just manage to be hilarious but somehow is a comic novel, gloriously satirical, and absolutely doesn’t excuse the plague of humanity but doesn’t write us off entirely either. As is his wont, the author populates this (only gently, I must remind you) fictionalized world with weirdly plausible technology (huge and unmanned “spindrifters” that roam the oceans, releasing a fine spray that reflects the sun’s radiation back into space; laser-focused drugs that allow you not to care that your genetically-engineered food tastes like nothing), economic and political upheavals (an isolationist UK barely disguised as “the Hermit Kingdom”), global shifts in power (the United States doesn’t even rate a mention in this world), and strange, monster-y species (are they real?? I’m scared to google) with utterly horrifying mechanisms of survival. Are you sold yet? Okay, now buy it and read it.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Acts of Service: A Novel By Lillian Fishman Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780593243787
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Published: Hogarth - May 30th, 2023

Does it surprise you that in 2022 it’s sort of revolutionary to write a novel that explores sex as an end in itself? I hadn’t realized how accustomed I’d become to thinking about it as a social or philosophical *problem* with antecedents and implications beyond itself that were so so important. I’m not sure that Fishman has convinced me of anything, or even that she set out to, but reading the novel, I was plunged into the mind of Eve, a young queer woman living in New York, and it felt like having fallen through the surface of an eerily still lake to find it was a-boil underneath with all manner of complicated, contradictory, impolitic, and often “unfeminist” impulses. The “acts of service” of the title refer to a number of exchanges, some of which we might typically think of as exploitative, even damaging, but Fishman conducts a thorough exploration of what it means to choose something for yourself—is the choice real if you were herded into your preferences by cultural forces beyond your control? Is it real if the alternative might be a lot worse? Is the distinction something we can only examine in fiction?

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel By Helene Wecker Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780062110848
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Published: Harper Perennial - December 31st, 2013

In an essay I recently read, someone suggested “curio fiction” as a subgenre, defining it loosely as a narrative that’s like, 90% naturalist with maybe one or two fantastical elements. I feel like The Golem & the Jinni, despite the directness of the title, might fit this category. Taking place around the turn of the 20th century, the novel has scenes in Eastern Europe, the Syrian desert, and other parts of West Asia, but is set for the most part in Manhattan.

I wouldn’t recommend this book if the (mostly linear) narrative wasn’t compelling, or if the characters were poorly realized—it’s excellent in both these respects and if you’re looking for a story that combines adventure, a struggle between good and evil, some restrained but still swoony romance, and an exploration of the American refugee experience in the early 1900s, you’ll be so glad to read this. Plus, there’s a truly terrifying villain.

But even beyond this, The Golem & the Jinni operates a bit like a thought experiment: more or less immortal and positioned both inside and outside of human society, the golem and the jinni often take opposing positions on what it is to be human, moral, masculine or feminine, self-indulgent or ascetic, the responsibilities of citizens and artists, and the burdens of knowledge. This same kind of curiosity continues into the second book of this (so far) duology, The Hidden Palace, which is equally worth savoring.

Pick this up if you want to get into a rich, enveloping world that asks for the kind of rigorous engagement with moral questions that you won’t often find in contemporary fiction.


—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Exhibition of Persephone Q: A Novel By Jessi Jezewska Stevens Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9781250785930
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Published: Picador - March 2nd, 2021

In a just-post-9/11 New York, Percy discovers she’s pregnant. She hasn’t told Misha, her husband, because there’s a new tenseness in their relationship: while he sleeps, she pinches his nostrils closed—not out of a sense of aggression or anger, just a removed curiosity aroused by the fact that he seems never to resist. To be safe, she starts wandering their apartment at night so she’s not tempted to accidentally kill him.
            Puzzled by this new element in their marriage, Percy interrogates her feelings of frightened loneliness when Misha doesn’t respond to her small act of violence. She’s frequently left to her own devices, because when Misha isn’t operating his tech-adjacent start-up, he’s strolling up and down Rockaway Beach with a metal detector, and her own job is casual in the extreme. Self-contained, so solidly-himself Misha doesn’t need anyone to tell him who he is, but maybe Percy does. Matters are compounded when she receives, in the mail, a catalog to a photography show: “The Exhibition of Persephone Q”. In the photos, a nude woman lies asleep on a bed in a very red room. This woman is her, the photographer is her ex-fiancé. But when Percy visits the gallery, and points out to the receptionist that she is the woman in the photos, she’s received with a sort of bewildered pity. It’s not possible that the woman is her, for so many reasons, but also because the artist rarely photographs Americans.

           Percy’s convinced the woman is her, but no one else sees the resemblance. Instead of anxiety, Percy becomes enveloped in an almost pathological serenity. She perceives her own affairs with a detached if determined curiosity, and it gave me the weirdest feeling that she knew just how this would end, and it was only a matter of getting there.
           As things unfold, debut novelist Jessi Jezewska Stevens writes in conspicuously spatial terms: an argument takes place as if choreographed, and Percy thinks of a relationship as shaped and bounded by the apartment in which it occurs. Vanishings and the threats of vanishing hover on the periphery; context is stripped, moved, and reapplied. There’s an arc to this novel (never contrived or unsurprising, by the way) but it feels tertiary to the atmosphere and Percy’s inner life—I would’ve happily accompanied her on her wanderings for a lot longer.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Carter Beats the Devil By Glen Gold Cover Image
$21.99
ISBN: 9780786886326
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Published: Hachette Books - September 18th, 2002

I’m sad I’ve never met anyone who’s read this book—I know they’re out there but we’ve never crossed paths and have never had occasion to discuss it because Carter Beats the Devil, through criminal negligence, was hard to come by for a few years.

It’s the best kind of historical fiction, mining a rich seam in American history and culture, set on either side of World War I. Charles Carter, a stage magician, and our hero, grows up wealthy but his life has been punctuated by tragedy. He’s a performer in the mold of Harry Houdini (who may or may not make an appearance) and had the kind of lonely childhood you’d expect of a man who builds a career out of painstaking research, creative engineering, and a penchant for hoarding secrets.

When we first meet Carter, he’s at the peak of his fame: he’s performing for President Warren G. Harding, but everything goes off the rails when, during the final act of Carter’s show, the one that all attendees are enjoined not to talk about, the titular illusion in which Carter beats the Devil, the President mysteriously dies. Then, after Carter, with embarrassing ease, gives the Secret Service the slip, rolls his eyes at this irritating inconvenience and vanishes into the wind, the narrator takes us back to where it all began.

I’m not going to give away more of the plot, but it’s deliciously full of impossible odds, a nefarious nemesis, daring rescues, animal sidekicks, and a little romance—it’s great for an evening when you want something self-contained and so far removed from the world today that it may as well be fantasy. Plus, for those of us who get a thrill out of stuff like this, we’re with Carter as he works through his illusions so we get all the details.


Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Acts of Desperation By Megan Nolan Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780316429832
Availability: On Our Shelves Now: Please call ahead to be sure inventory is not being held for other customers.
Published: Back Bay Books - September 27th, 2022

CW: eating disorder, self-harm, sexual violence

Consider this: someone asks if you want to taste something disgusting. Do you recoil? Or are you overcome by curiosity, a morbid fascination with this repulsive thing? If you’ll accept such an offer, you’ll appreciate what Nolan does here. She’s built a character from all the pathologies of heterosexual horror, and in the creation has performed a sort of exorcism.

The unnamed narrator of Acts of Desperation is beset with intense but commonplace anxieties: she’s obsessed with her weight, she drinks to excess to quell emotional turmoil, and she starves and cuts herself in an attempt to control her circumstances. These circumstances, meanwhile, are benign for the most part—or again, maybe just commonplace—and she’s been formed by familiar cultural forces to measure herself against impossible ideals of beauty, derive self-worth from the male gaze, treat other women as rivals, carefully maneuver around wanted and unwanted sexual attention, all low-key traumas that have seeped into the substrate of her personality.

This more or less normal woman falls in love with this deeply terrible man—beautiful and remote and angular, you know what I mean—and you, like a close friend, are chilled by the knowledge that this can only end terribly, but, like a close friend, you’re doomed to watch her go through it. I marveled at Nolan’s success in making me feel intensely affectionate and protective toward this character, even as I was literally screaming with frustration as I watched her subject herself to the casual cruelty of just some guy. Even as the narrator rhapsodizes about his qualities, it’s clear that he’s consumed with self-consciousness, lives in abject fear of being ridiculed, and is the type of person who massages his insecurities by testing the limits of his relationship with a woman.

Anyway, it’s agonizing. I’ve now read it twice. I hate it when reviews describe something as “unflinching” but to be honest, I think this novel may be the only one that deserves it—reading it is like picking a scab. You watch this woman make herself vanishingly tiny to appease a man-child, and the reason it’s so compelling is that you’re haunted by the fear that you might find yourself in a similar situation, or, worse, ever behaved this way yourself. And, 200 pages in, you know there’s nothing that will make her leave. Ugh.

Reading Acts of Desperation is an eye-opening and strangely cleansing experience. Nolan’s unwillingness to spare her protagonist or the reader is a gamble that pays off. It’s a rigorous study of a gross but key piece of the human condition, nestled in the set dressing of precise, excellent prose.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent By Katherine Angel Cover Image
$19.95
ISBN: 9781788739160
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Published: Verso - March 2nd, 2021

Over the last few years, there has been a not-insignificant number of books written on the subject of sex (see especially Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, another of my staff picks, no big deal) and as a society, we’ve become a lot more sophisticated in thinking about it. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again—a title borrowed from Foucault, that other pioneer of sexual philosophy—takes for granted the reader’s curiosity, their willingness to think critically and with rigor, and an abiding investment in understanding the social, political, and emotional underpinnings of sex.

Having assumed a certain level of understanding, Angel doesn’t mess around with a lot of set-up or any hand-holding, splitting the book into four sections—consent, desire, arousal, vulnerability. She addresses the problems with using the presence or absence of consent as the only measure of good or bad, wanted or unwanted sex; the impossibility of avoiding awkwardness and the potential for discomfort as people of any gender explore their sexuality and the dangers of establishing the expectation that they can be avoided at all times; the dangers of conflating the judicial aspect of sex with the personal. Sex can be a risky business for all parties involved, per Angel, and there’s nothing to be gained by insisting that there’s a one-size-fits-all way to make it safe and enjoyable for everyone all the time (the responsibility for which often falls on women—know what you want, express yourself clearly, establish your boundaries), but there is much to be discussed if we're interested in sexual freedom and possibility.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Cult Classic: A Novel By Sloane Crosley Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9780374603397
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Published: MCD - June 7th, 2022


Thirty-something Lola is engaged and working a vaguely publishing-adjacent job and living in New York and meeting for dinners with old work colleagues whose wild-eyed optimism and fervid moral drive has dimmed somewhat, just like hers, with age. Her life has finally steadied just enough that she can feel slightly superior to her best friend, Vadis, who still lives like it’s ten years ago. Her fiance, Boots, is that rare thing, a working artist, and their life has settled into a rhythm that, for Lola, is dangerously close to dull.

One night, as Lola leaves dinner with Clive, her old boss, a former magazine editor turned puckish guru whose vigor and charisma gave him a soft landing after the magazine folded and the staff scattered, Lola runs into an old boyfriend, a self-involved and sort of mean novelist whose star is on the rise, and her mind is thrown back to the painful but nevertheless exciting nature of their relationship. Before her wistfulness about the first ex can dissipate, another ex turns up, this time a former Olympic athlete she’d been cruel to because he was too nice. And then they keep popping up, with greater and lesser effect, all in more or less the same block in Chinatown.

What starts out as a series of weird coincidences leads Lola straight to a “don’t-say-it’s-a-cult” cult whose operating principle is the painstaking orchestration of circumstances that mimic coincidence—with liberal use of social media suggestion and targeted advertising—in order to help “clients” overcome their hangups, whatever those may be, and Lola is an unwitting beta tester.

A fantastical mystery-romance, Cult Classic explores issues of free will, morality, identity, and love, with a truly surprising and delightful lightness. Traveling around with Lola with her voice in my ear was wildly fun, even as she revisits past relationships and how they ended, brushing up against each smallish tragedy just enough to make you tense up for a sting that doesn’t land.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel By Bonnie Garmus Cover Image
$29.00
ISBN: 9780385547345
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Published: Doubleday - April 5th, 2022

First of all, the cover of this book is not really representative of the contents of this book, and if we’re generous (and we should always be generous when reading fiction), we might say that this is intended to be instructive. Much like our protagonist, the nearly-Dr. Elizabeth Zott, this book looks like a light, sexy beach read, but we underestimate it and her at our peril.

Lessons in Chemistry is a romantic comedy in the way Legally Blonde is a romantic comedy: the dude is basically beside the point, but in Zott’s case (as opposed to Elle Woods’) he also doesn’t suck. His whole job is to have the good sense to love and support this magnificent woman and then fade gracefully away, tears of pride shimmering in his eyes.

Set in the 1950s, the novel follows Elizabeth, who, despite a traumatic and difficult childhood, makes it into a chemistry master’s program, where she faces just the type of disrespect and misogyny you’d expect, but with a grace and style that takes some of the sting out (for the reader anyway). As it happens, despite her talent for it, chemistry simply isn’t ready for Elizabeth Zott. But, as it also happens, the women of America are.

I tore through this book and audibly wept several times and readers should be prepared to experience an incandescent rage as Elizabeth grits her teeth through the type of mistreatment that seems cartoonish and too much but only until you think about it for a second and realize yup, it was probably just like this. But, to Elizabeth’s great good fortune, she’s a magnet for gentle, loving souls, and the supporting cast in this is an unfettered delight.

CW: death, sexual violence

(For kicks, google the UK edition of Lessons in Chemistry for an entirely different take on the cover.)

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Glow By Ned Beauman Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780804172165
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Published: Vintage - January 26th, 2016

The foremost characteristic of Beauman’s work is its impossible fullness. Clearly a magpie for trivia and possessed of a mind like a sponge, Beauman writes adventure stories with dense cores of research, usually on some little-known but fascinating piece of scientific conjecture that he then takes to its (only seemingly, one imagines) logical conclusion. 

Part of the charm of Beauman’s work is the impression it gives of plausibility—Glow is titled after the highly prized party drug that sets the events of the novel in motion. In South London, Raf is a freelance computer engineer and part-time DJ at a mostly illegal radio station, both jobs that accommodate his rare sleep disorder, a condition that causes his circadian rhythm to operate on a 25-hour cycle.

Already a hopeless romantic (and therefore soft-hearted and brave in a slightly stupid way), Raf’s penchant for psychoactives makes him even more prone to flights of sentiment and forming fast and unshakeable attachments, which is just what happens when he meets Cherish at a rave. Though recovering from a recent breakup, Raf falls immediately and powerfully in love with the strange, fey girl of ambiguous ethnicity that seems to appear and disappear suddenly and without trace.

What starts out as a missed hookup at a clandestine party at a laundrette turns into Raf and his friends joining a resistance against an evil corporation of the kind that has tendrils all over the world, leeching all the vigor and prosperity from developing nations, sacrificing the populations of these countries on the altar of profit.

Beauman’s language is an unremitting delight and he has such a gift for conjuring both image and sensation. Glow’s cast of loveable weirdos (including some scene-stealing fauna) makes this an especially enjoyable, memorable book.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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A Very Nice Girl: A Novel By Imogen Crimp Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9781250871077
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Published: Holt Paperbacks - February 7th, 2023

Crimp’s debut novel takes its place among the other stories of financially precarious young women who become romantically involved with an older man with money—Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Raven Leilani’s Luster, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times. Often comparisons like these are facile and basically just marketing, but I’d argue that A Very Nice Girl is best considered as part of an ecosystem of fiction written by millennial (and younger) women, which resonates so profoundly because it represents an experience many of us have shared.

Anna is 24 and training to become an opera singer. She shows a great deal of promise but has to make ends meet by singing jazz in a bar in the financial district, a necessity that many of her teachers and fellow students can’t understand because they either come from money or are long past their own financial struggles. The shape of the novel is so familiar as to be nearly beside the point: Anna meets Max, a 38-year-old finance bro, who’s handsome and a little mean, who, even as he sees her several times a week, cooks for her, and takes her work seriously, keeps her compartmentalized in London away from his Oxford home and doesn’t introduce her to his friends or family. There’s also the small matter of his being married still, although he says they’re in the middle of getting a divorce.

Max is withholding and sometimes cruel and Anna is desperately in love with him. The power differential felt so stark sometimes it made me feel physically ill and this, I think, is what makes the novel special even though there are so many novels just like it. Crimp also trained as a singer and the sections in which Anna is performing or thinking about performing are the most perfectly formed; she also pokes fun at the decidedly undergraduate feminist sensibility shared by Anna and all her women friends, but it’s a tender mockery and she probably came by the right to it honestly.

A Very Nice Girl filled a weekend very nicely and left a pleasant afterglow comprised of relief that I’m never going to be 24 again, wry bemusement over the fact that I’m into Max even though I should definitely know better, and the satisfaction you get from examining a small but well-constructed object built by a skilled maker.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Priestdaddy: A Memoir By Patricia Lockwood Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780399573262
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Published: Riverhead Books - May 1st, 2018

This is Lockwood’s first memoir (and I have all fingers & toes crossed for another), an account of her unusual upbringing in a spectacularly Christian household. Her daddy is, in fact, a priest, remarkable in that he is both married and a parent several times over (his indirect journey to the church is a strange delight). He’s also one of those characters that fills the sky, an elemental force that must be taken just as it is or not at all. I braced myself for some upsetting material—as I nearly always do when reading about a religious upbringing—and sure enough, the Lockwood family was not unscathed by the abuse, lies, and terrible politics of the Catholic church. So much is awful, but there’s also the wonderfully charming “seminarian”; Lockwood’s impossibly vivid mother and sisters; and her almost preternaturally good-natured husband—they take up the foreground so fully, the rest will be sapped of its force. You won’t be mad you read it, I promise, and then you’ll probably proselytize it to all your friends.

I can think of no better way of enticing you into this book than to quote directly from it—please appreciate that it’s just pages and pages of this and will make you cackle in a way that makes gloominess impossible:

“Deer were the pacifists of the animal kingdom…The males of the species pranced and ate salad and had a hundred kids they didn’t know about. In November, a long line of them marched to the polls, leaves held delicately in their mouths, each marked with the name of the Green Party candidate. A deer…was a peace sign made of meat, and the only way to fight it was with bullets.”

“My father despises cats. He believes them to be Democrats. He considers them to be little mean hillary clintons covered all over with feminist legfur. Cats would have abortions, if given half the chance…Consequently our own soft sinner…will stay shut in the bedroom upstairs, padding back and forth on cashmere paws, campaigning for equal pay, educating me about my reproductive options, and generally plotting the downfall of all men.”

I mean, what else could you want?

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service By Tajja Isen Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9781982178420
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Published: Atria/One Signal Publishers - April 19th, 2022

Isen, who went to law school, worked as a voice actor, and is the editor-in-chief of Catapult, brings a highly distinct sensibility and buoyant humor to these essays, which are interested in the racial inequity that pervades just about every industry and the often hilariously inadequate steps they take to try and correct this.

Isen describes the experience of navigating law school as a Black woman—unmoored by her inability to grasp the case method, it’s not until she discovers the work of another Black woman lawyer that she understands why; the recent efforts by the producers of animated shows to match the race of the character and the voice actor as though this isn’t intensely limiting to actors of color; the unpaid labor you have to do  when you are a “diverse” i.e. racialized person at work; the ways in which affirmative action is flipped on its head by white plaintiffs; how writers of color are expected to bare their traumas and emotional wounds in order to get published.

Throughout these essays, Isen’s tone is wry, very funny, and knowing, and takes a certain level of understanding for granted, which is to say that she hasn’t written it to make a case for herself primarily to white readers. Even as Isen describes her own negative experiences of existing in the world as a visible minority, this is not a book about the ways in which she has been put upon, but about what the world can do to correct this and the ways in which it has failed, that when white-dominated industries make progressive noises and perform progressive actions, we can all see what’s really happening: empty gestures and lip service.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century By Amia Srinivasan Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9781250858795
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Published: Picador - September 20th, 2022

Srinivasan, a philosopher and teacher at Oxford University, takes a lot of difficult positions in The Right to Sex—her first book—not least among which is that she is a young Indian woman who confidently refers to herself as a philosopher. Depending on how much time you’ve spent browsing the philosophy section, you may be well aware that women, especially women of color, are not over-represented here. Writers we might reasonably think of as philosophers often find themselves automatically organized with “Gender” and other, doubtless important, but somehow less rarefied categories.

The Right to Sex felt especially apt and timely because it feels like, as a culture, we’ve reached a certain level of sophistication in terms of thinking and talking about sexual behavior, violence and abuse, institutionalized racism and misogyny. Srinivasan writes like she expects us to have done the reading—many of the questions posed in these essays can be described as incendiary and doubtlessly elicit emotional responses, but it’s our job as good readers to get past that initial response and do the work of examining it.

 

Srinivasan asks us to think about what it means to insist on “sexual preference,” and how bigotry and prejudice easily sneak under this umbrella; about whether our systems of consent are really doing enough to protect people of all genders and whether punishment is really effective in preventing gender-based violence; whether we can uphold freedom of expression without victimizing marginalized groups. A lot of what I read made me uncomfortable and reconsider things I took for granted, and I relished every minute because boy, do I love an assignment.

If you are interested in thinking critically and responsibly about social inequality and the practice of correcting it, The Right to Sex will be an invaluable guide, and Srinivasan an adept and demanding teacher.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books

 

 


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Vladimir: A Novel By Julia May Jonas Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9781982187637
Availability: Not in stock, usually ships TO STORE in 3-5 business days
Published: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster - February 1st, 2022

If, like me, you’re a sucker for a beautifully imagined campus novel, Vladimir is the novel for you. If, also like me, you have a tendency for becoming so immersed in compelling fiction that you can no longer maintain critical distance (this is a you problem, not the book’s problem, alas), Vladimir will give you lots of opportunity for wailing and gnashing of teeth, pearl-clutching, and the nearly overwhelming desire to write the author a mean letter, including a photograph of the book, on fire. But, let me assure you, Jonas knows what she’s doing to you and she means to do it.
    Jonas brings us into a quintessentially Northeastern private liberal arts college, with all the associated charms and limitations of such things: the seclusion, the resources, the concerted commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, which make such environments desirable, all contribute to insularity, distressing homogeneity, and hierarchical systems that all too easily foster the conditions for abuse of power.
    Our heroine is a professor at this college, respected and liked by her colleagues and students, a writer of fiction with two not insignificant novels to her name, a grown daughter with whom she’s always had a close and loving relationship, and, of course, a husband awaiting a disciplinary hearing for sleeping with his students.
    Jonas delights in the messiness of the circumstances that we often flatten until we’re left with something that doesn’t allow for any nuance. Are sexual relationships between teachers and their students always problematic or is it infantilizing to treat adults as though they lack agency? Is a woman with institutional power automatically abusing her power if she sleeps with a subordinate who’s a man? What is the deal with the rise of the memoir? Who gets to be the next great novelist?
    All of which is to say that this novel is going to make you feel a lot of things, in an exuberant, instructive, punishing way. Jonas’s language is pyrotechnic and she attacks the knotty problems of the narrative with eager dexterity. In a time of so much trepidatious art, Vladimir reminded me that fiction is a vehicle for exploring the worst in ourselves, that this is what it’s for.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Verifiers By Jane Pek Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780593313794
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Published: Vintage - February 22nd, 2022

I picked this up when I needed a distraction from everything else I was reading, and if you want to read a main character who’s funny, but with a sweet sincerity, not that sardonic despairing edge that appears in so much contemporary (and excellent!) fiction, The Verifiers is just the thing. Claudia (who goes by Claw, which I love) is the youngest of three children raised by a single mom, an immigrant from Taiwan.

Claudia differs from her high-achieving siblings in that she doesn’t want to devote her prodigious intelligence to a job that takes over her life as she makes money hand over fist but never has the time to enjoy it. Which is why she secretly abandons her low-level job in finance to work for Veracity, in essence a detective agency specializing in online dating. Her job scratches the itch Claudia has always felt—obsessed with detective stories since she was a kid (in her case, it’s a Sherlockian character called Inspector Yuan), she’s thrilled by tracking “matches” online, even tailing them in the world, in order to discover whether they’re lying on their dating profiles (shocker: they are).

Pek, whose first novel this is, builds an excellently-paced, complexly-structured mystery, but the heart and soul of the novel is the Lin family dynamic. The Three C’s—Charles, Coraline, and Claudia—are each at the mercy of the withholding, critical parenting style of their mother. The siblings’ extremely obvious love for each other is shot through with old resentments, simmering competitiveness, and characterized by the overzealous micromanaging older siblings often inflict on younger ones.

Meanwhile, big tech and its tendrils permeate the environment, suffusing everything with low-key anxiety about unscrupulous capitalists and the robber barons of the data economy, a field in which Pek is obviously well-versed. 

The Verifiers feels zippy and fresh, and hints at a sequel (yay). Just the thing if you have the taste for something plotty and immersive.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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We Ride Upon Sticks: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries) By Quan Barry Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9780525565437
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Published: Vintage - February 16th, 2021

This book is so much more than the sum of its parts. I could tell you that it’s a literary version of a John Hughes movie (with the welcome addition of race and gender diversity), an immorality tale, if there’s such a thing, and a brilliantly constructed experiment in narrative voice. All of these are accurate if inadequate descriptions, and they won’t prepare you for the hilarity you’re in for.
The year is 1989 and the Danvers Falcons, a girls’ field hockey team, are sick of losing. Spurred by some ineffable force, the team commits their collective soul to an “alternative god,” here represented as a spiral-bound notebook with Emilio Estevez’s face on the cover. Nothing so basic as a generic devil or demon for our girls—this malign influence has so much more personality. And it’s an irrepressible supply of personality that’s bursting from this novel, even as the narrative voice inhabits the team as though it’s a hive mind.

In giving themselves to Emilio, the Falcons trade an uninterrupted winning streak for a pledge to follow their desires with no care for repercussions, social or divine. As they near the final game they did all this for, Emilio’s demands—or the Falcons’ impulses—become more intense, requiring ever-greater, more spectacular displays of devotion.

I’m never going to turn down a book about witches, let’s be honest, but Barry (who’s a lauded poet as well) takes a rich, well-loved and -trodden concept and spins it anew. It’s so, so much fun.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Matrix: A Novel By Lauren Groff Cover Image
$28.00
ISBN: 9781594634499
Availability: Not in stock, usually ships TO STORE in 3-5 business days
Published: Riverhead Books - September 7th, 2021

Even now she's on her fourth novel, and sixth published book, the depth and breadth of Lauren Groff’s interests is delightfully surprising. I picked up Matrix on the strength of Groff’s name alone, not knowing anything about the plot. I didn’t expect to be reading about a convent in the High Middle Ages run by a warrior nun who might be a descendant of Melusine, a fairy or spirit often represented with the torso of a woman and the tail of a fish. I didn’t know when I first read the title that it’s matrix as in mater, the Latin for “mother.”

Too tall, too intelligent, too obviously queer to remain at court, Marie is banished by Eleanor of Aquitaine to a crumbling convent in an English backwater. When she arrives, she finds a huddle of starving, ailing nuns. After a period of self-pity during which Marie refuses to engage with her new environment and writes poems for Eleanor in the vain hope that she’ll win her love, she decides the best revenge is living well, and what a life it is.

It doesn’t take long to recognize that Marie’s star will continue to rise and there’s endless entertainment to be had in the realization of her ambitions but this arc is just the shape of Matrix: the really good stuff is in the details. Groff takes so much care with the politics within the convent, the budding romances, the illnesses and deaths, even the minutiae of land management and animal husbandry, and the doctrinal deviations that steadily but surely make Marie the most powerful heretic in the Christian world. If Marie’s life were a stained glass window or an arras, reading Matrix would be like watching each brush stroke, each thread, skillfully placed.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology By Jess Zimmerman Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9780807055540
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Published: Beacon Press - March 8th, 2022

Feminist retellings of myths are hot right now, and Jess Zimmerman’s first book was released right on time to explain to us why. The success of novels like Madeline Miller’s Circe, and so many others, is evidence of the appetite readers have for examinations of women’s power and their rage. Zimmerman explores fertile ground in Women and Other Monsters, and though she is certainly not the first to draw attention to the link between femaleness and monstrousness (see Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers by Jude Doyle) that appears in the art and culture of virtually every civilization, there’s something about the profusion of instances that Zimmerman provides that make her argument fascinating and compelling. Through a mix of memoir and creative exegesis, Zimmerman makes the case that, since the weight of history has impressed the monstrousness of women on the world as we know it, perhaps it’s time we embrace our inner gorgons, dragons, and witches.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Hot Stew By Fiona Mozley Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9781643752600
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Published: Algonquin Books - April 12th, 2022

In the London of Hot Stew, Soho appears like a single-celled organism and Mozley draws us, at a leisurely pace, through a microscope and into a narrow but deep view of London.

Mozley splits the narrative into several first-person accounts, each character representing a particular stratum of the city’s densely packed social structure, but even as they are far removed from each other in socioeconomic terms, there is the constant sense that while you view the world through one character, another is likely to be perched a few bar stools down, or on the other side of a window, or has just run by.

The majority of the action in the novel takes place on one block in Soho, precipitated when a giant corporation resorts to intimidation tactics to evict a group of sex workers operating legally out of a building the corporation owns. As the effects ripple out to touch the lives of a homeless magician who drifts on and off frame, his  nemesis, a man whose delusions of grandeur include the belief that he’s an Archbishop, the woman representing the largest interest in the corporation, her driver and bodyguard, a young lawyer from the firm that represents her company, a gay actor torn over the toxic masculinity of the role that could change his career, and so on, including the tiny snail that escapes the restaurant on the first floor of the building that began it all, Mozley creates an image that is like nothing so much as the enlarged inset of a map.

Dense and richly detailed, Hot Stew is one of the most rewarding novels I’ve read this year.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Happy Hour: A Novel By Marlowe Granados Cover Image
$19.95
ISBN: 9781839764011
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Published: Verso Fiction - September 7th, 2021

This effervescent debut novel, even when I was several chapters in, had the most persistent quality of timelessness I can remember, to the point where it took a fair amount of close reading and deductive reasoning to ascertain that it is, in fact, set during more or less the present day. Perhaps because Isa, our narrator and heroine, is a drifting citizen of the world (in that she doesn’t really belong anywhere) and has a distinctly old world manner, or because the precariously unmoored woman, surviving on the strength of her youth and wits, is such an ancient and familiar type, it’s hard to think of her as a millennial.

In any case, Isa Shepley and her accomplice, Gala Novak, are part party-girl, part bit character in a Hemingway novel, making pronouncements with the profound ring of truth in short-lived but memorable appearances. In New York for the summer, with dodgy immigration status, and surviving by devising schemes for quick cash and leaning on well-resourced friends and strangers, Isa and Gala make fleeting romantic connections, fight with each other and make up, narrowly escape fraught situations, and meditate seriously on what constitutes a “full” life, usually while reapplying makeup in bathrooms or smoking anxious cigarettes on sidewalks.

There’s a lot happening in Happy Hour, and Granados does something special in folding it all into a short, zippy narrative. The women’s unsettled and often dangerous circumstances will keep you on the edge of your seat, but even at Isa’s most frantic, her poise and intelligence will assure you she’ll be just fine.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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A Deadly Education: A Novel (The Scholomance #1) By Naomi Novik Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780593128503
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Published: Del Rey - May 4th, 2021

Two books in, Naomi Novik’s trilogy has me fully committed. The Scholomance is a magical boarding school designed to house and protect young wizards while they’re especially vulnerable to malificaria, creatures that come in infinite permutations (the variety of which I think would be wonderfully expressed in an anime) and desire only the tender flesh and souls of 14- to 18-year-olds.

Galadriel Higgins, who goes by El, for obvious reasons, is our heroine, and like many others, labors under the dubious distinction of a prophecy. Unlike others, however, El’s prophecy marks her out as a future maleficer (a very bad wizard) fated to bring death and destruction to the wizarding world. Like any protagonist worth their salt, however, El is having none of this predetermination nonsense, and though she lets her anxiety over “going dark” guide her actions from time to time, she knows she has a choice in the matter.

Both books, A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate, are crammed to the gills with plot, and neither disappoints, but I was especially taken with Novik’s world-building. The self-contained environment of the Scholomance (literally, it’s floating in a blank void, tethered to the mundane world by a thread) allows Novik to really go into the details of the school, which, though not technically alive, certainly has impulses and an agenda of a kind. Series like this one often trip themselves up by violating their own rules, which can be distracting and annoying, but Novik clearly describes the physics of her world and then sticks to it, which is impressive given the intricacies of the plot.

El is one of my favorite main characters—curmudgeonly and charming even when she’s moping, has a heart so big she doesn’t know what to do with it, even while she’s doing her best to quell its impulses, and lucky us, is our narrator, and has a vividly memorable voice.

Though marketed for adults, this would be a great series for older YA readers, too, given the setting. In the interest of care, I’ll offer a content warning as well—the first book does include an instance of sexual violence.

The third book is scheduled for a 2022 release, and because we’ve all been burned before, I’ll mention that she’s quite a prolific author and, so far, she’s delivered books right on schedule.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Once and Future King By T. H. White Cover Image
$9.99
ISBN: 9780441627400
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Published: Ace - July 15th, 1987

This is White’s most famous work, although he’s a prolific and wonderful writer of non-fiction as well. This is the text on which Disney’s The Sword in the Stone is based and the makers of the film did well in not trying to embellish White’s original. Though ostensibly written for children, this book wants readers to return frequently—I’ve read and reread several times and it’s one of the most consistently rewarding stories I know. I encourage you to read The Once and Future King together with White’s The Goshawk (an account of the misery experienced by all when White tried and failed spectacularly to train a goshawk as a hunting companion) and Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk, a clear-eyed but profoundly sympathetic portrait of White concealed in a memoir of grief.

The plot of The Once and Future King is the coming of age of Wart, the future King Arthur of Camelot, raised to be a just and wise ruler by Merlin, a magician who doesn’t quite have the hang of time travel but has seen the whole arc of history. Merlin is trying to teach Wart what it is to be a man—what leadership really looks like and that mercy is a harder virtue than ruthlessness is a strength. The movie stops at the end of Book 1 but White carries on into three more parts and we learn about Arthur’s actual reign, his extremely complex relationship with Lancelot and Guinevere, the war with the Orkneys, and the eventual fall of Camelot. Every time I read it, I look forward to the details fuzzing over with time so I can read it again.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books

 


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Beautiful World, Where Are You: A Novel By Sally Rooney Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9781250859044
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Published: Picador - June 7th, 2022

Rooney gets more controversial with every new book, but let me just start by saying whether or not you find her Marxism sincere, or if you believe she’s really some kind of avatar of the millennial voice, or whether she lets herself off the hook too soon or too often, you will still enjoy this book.

Beautiful World Where Are You is the most overtly political of Rooney’s novels and personally, I appreciated the lack of artifice in the way she incorporated it. Alice and Eileen, both of whom we can consider stand-ins for Rooney, write long emails to each other that, even as they meander, are dense with substance. Their ruminations on the collapse of the Bronze age have charmed just about every reviewer, it seems, but they write cogently about other things we all think about too: the morality of bearing children on a planet that is chugging along right on schedule to become uninhabitable; whether there’s any utility in art and literature and if there even should be; whether it’s possible to justify writing about sex and relationships when there’s so much worse in the world to care about; whether wealth can ever be okay.

Alice and Eileen are clipped and funny in the way they talk about these things, with the rapid fluency of a particular type of college education, but also a particular type of lonely childhood, which adds an element of neediness to their relationship, on both sides. Both are dating men: Eileen is seeing an on-again, off-again childhood friend; and Alice is dating a man she met on Tinder after moving to a dramatically large rectory in the Irish countryside. It becomes clear that the events of the novel will cause the four characters to converge in Alice’s new home, all leading to the question of what will happen to these relationships, beset as they are with financial inequality, and the innately problematic nature of heterosexuality.

Beautiful World, Where Are You very deliberately puts itself in the uncomfortable position of making a case for its own existence, and while she doesn’t offer any concrete solutions, it is, as always, a delight to read her as she works through her ideas.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Grammarians: A Novel By Cathleen Schine Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9781250758231
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Published: Picador - November 10th, 2020

In the spirit of eerie twins everywhere, Laurel and Daphne (named for Daphne, the dryad, who was transformed into a laurel tree to save her from the unwanted advances of Apollo), have a private language and a nearly telepathic connection, which freaks out the adults in their lives. The girls grow up with a shared passion for language (their favorite item is a dictionary so massive, it sits on a lectern), one feeding off the other’s ideas, entwined together well into adulthood. But as adults, there is the equal and opposite impulse to distinguish themselves from one another. Where once Daphne (the younger by some minutes) was a willing and devoted acolyte of Laurel, she now deliberately resists the idea that she might still be following her sister. Language, however, remains a constant in both women’s lives, even as they differ sharply on what language is and what it’s for: Daphne achieves fame as “the People’s Pedant,” a grammar scold with a column in a widely-read magazine; Laurel, at first sidetracked by motherhood, finds her stride as a writer and poet, exploring language as an organic, mutable thing, the rules of which can and should change with usage instead of the other way around. In a public feud that only pretends to be academic, the sisters kick against their sameness but also, every now and then, panic at their own individuality, clawing back the sister against whom they define themselves.
    Daphne and Laurel are fun and funny in that careless but practiced way. Even as they’re being childish and petulant (as they often are, as anyone with a sibling can relate to), and Schine has breathed a very vivid kind of life into them. Time and again, we inhabit the perspective of their mother, who attends to their every whim and foible with such care, that we can’t help but absorb her feelings for them. When I finished this, I learned that this is Schine’s eleventh novel. You’ll be just as excited about that as I am when you read this book.

    —Sarah, Longfellow Books
 


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French Exit: A Novel By Patrick deWitt Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9780062846938
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Published: Ecco - June 11th, 2019

If you’ve ever found that you’re more interested in the life and mind of the dragon-ish woman in a Wes Anderson film than the abject man she wrecks (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?) read this book. Frances Price is a formerly wealthy, now financially ruined, widow with a son, Malcolm, who’s only *technically* an adult. When we meet Frances, who is sixty-ish and wildly beautiful, her accountant has just told her she has to sell all her belongings if she wants anything to live on. Joan, the type of friend we should all be so lucky to have, offers the now homeless Frances and Malcolm the use of her Paris apartment, which has been languishing empty for over a year. Malcolm and Frances, with their cat Small Frank in tow, board a cruise ship to France.

French Exit is formulaic in that it has all the pieces of a certain type of novel I’m always nostalgic for. The cast of characters (so vivid you can be sure they would collapse under the weight of their own magnificence in the real world) is brought together on board a ship, an enclosed environment that magnifies their strangeness. When they reach Paris, they recreate these enclosed environments, creating layered feedback loops of baroque, snippy repartee.

Frances’ journey is part pilgrimage, part salmon returning to the place of its birth. The novel is subtitled “A tragedy of manners,” and this is a good description. Frances experiences the world with an excruciating clarity that makes her circumstances literally too much to bear, and while this story certainly is tragic, it’s only in the theatrical sense. Frances is so fully herself and so fully in control, that you can be sure she doesn’t end up anywhere by accident, she only achieves her final form.

When you’re finished with the book, do yourself a favor and watch the movie, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and her glorious outfits, because seriously, who else.

— Sarah, Longfellow Books


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And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges By Amber Sparks Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9781631498688
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Published: Liveright - April 6th, 2021

This is Amber Sparks’ first book and it firmly establishes her as a font of weird ideas incandescently expressed: the stories in this collection are concerned with ghosts, and history, and women’s anger, thwarted ambition, and desperation. Written in a knowing, nearly jaded tone, the stories are too cool to take themselves seriously, so much so that when the impossible happens, when escape is in sight, and an ending could be happy, they seem themselves taken aback.

Sparks threads narratives seamlessly through the mundane and the magic, past, present, and future, making deft and economical use of the bottomless vat of shared references we all now have access to through the internet. However, there’s nothing predictable or stale about these stories: Sparks’ art is in these strange constructions, pieced together from bits that are familiar on their own but take on delightful new casts when fitted together.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books

 

 


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Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning By Cathy Park Hong Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9781984820389
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Published: One World - March 2nd, 2021

Readers familiar with Hong’s poetry will find its disorienting lyricism familiar in this, her first essay collection. The “minor feelings” of the title refer to the awareness that your experience sharply contradicts the given story of the immigrant in America. The child of parents who left Korea prepared for a life of quiet hardship and a better life for their children, Hong describes the guilt that has dogged many of her decisions—the decision to pursue the arts, despite the financial risk this involved; the decision to criticize parenting styles common in immigrant families; the decision to acknowledge and challenge the racism endemic in America that has, by changing its form, tricked many of us into believing it doesn’t exist.

Part memoir, part searing indictment of America’s treatment of immigrant populations, part cultural critique, Minor Feelings offers a new perspective on events that punctuate our national memory: the 1992 LA riots, the forceful eviction of David Dao from a United Airlines flight in 2017, the brutal death of artist, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in 1982.

As it happens, the paperback release of Minor Feelings coincided with a drastic uptick in violence against Asians in America, which made this book seem especially alive in my hands when I reread it this year. Hong’s handling of the material is even more rewarding on a second reading, and my hope is that this marks the beginning of a trend in publishing: providing a long-delayed and much-needed platform to the communities that have been systematically trained into believing that their greatest virtue is their silence.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books

 

 


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No One Is Talking About This: A Novel By Patricia Lockwood Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780593189597
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Published: Riverhead Books - February 15th, 2022

The last few years have seen a number of books “about the internet,” both fiction and nonfiction, and all have run the risk of becoming irrelevant as soon as smartphone technology changes even slightly, or a new social media platform comes into being. Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This is one of the ones that successfully circumvents this problem. The novel’s second-person narration follows the protagonist as she experiences social media and the internet as though by osmosis. Referred to only as “the Portal,” the internet and its inhabitants swirl around her, her attention snagging now and then on the odd piece of content, which must be processed and engaged with quickly, almost instinctively, before it stops mattering.

Strung together from flashes and impressions, the narrative follows the protagonist, who has achieved fame through the virality of her social media posts, as she travels the world for speaking engagements, addressing crowds of followers, even as she doubts whether she really is an expert—can she be an expert if her entire relationship with the phenomenon in question is purely reactive? Or is she uniquely possessed of a natural instinct for this kind of exploration?

All the while, the material world pushes on the edges of this intangible realm—a “dictator” scrambles to power in an extremely thinly veiled analog to our very own vile and smarmy tyrant, and his depredations filter down from the global to the painfully personal.

In her previous writing—her criticism and her wonderful memoir, Priestdaddy—Lockwood has established herself as one of the smartest, funniest writers writing today, and this, her first novel, only reinforces it. But in No One Is Talking About This, Lockwood applies her wonderful turn of phrase to tragedy and how it intrudes on our lives, expanding to fill our horizons; but this devastation—smallest of small consolations, perhaps—creates the conditions for compassion and the kind of grace that can transcend difference."

-- Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Luster: A Novel By Raven Leilani Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9781250798671
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Published: Picador - June 8th, 2021

The experience of reading Raven Leilani’s debut novel was like watching a train go careening off a cliff and somehow stay airborne. Though short (with enough commitment, you could read it in about a day) and deeply interior, it’s plot-driven, and I was genuinely surprised at every turn. Leilani has the enviable ability to condense the most devastatingly cutting sentiments into lines she throws away so casually, it’s infuriating. The first-person narrator combines the dead-eyed nihilism of a wide awake Black woman in America with the painful sincerity of an artist in her early twenties bursting with the continuously frustrated desire to make art with a sharp, soaring humor that had me cackling the entire time, but also confronting weird new facts about myself.

I hesitate to give you any more details about the actual events of the novel because I so want to preserve the element of surprise, without which, l suspect, my experience of reading it would have lost something. This book is so good and strange—do yourself a favor and stay up too late finishing it.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books

 

 


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Things in Jars: A Novel By Jess Kidd Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9781982121297
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Published: Washington Square Press - September 29th, 2020

For anyone who enjoyed Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, Imogene Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock, or other period mysteries starring anachronistic but vivid characters, this book will be a hit. Set in Victorian London, the narrative follows Bridie Devine, Britain’s first female detective. Bridie’s unique perspective, and what we might call heightened sensitivity to the odd and the strange, make her a gifted sleuth, and she has a knack for inspiring unshakable loyalty in unexpected hearts.

Kidd populates her London with characters that inhabit their environment with the same ease and seamlessness as Dickens’s denizens of London's underbelly; and, like Dickens, she makes free use of supernatural elements that she includes so casually you could miss them, and even though the novel is crammed to the gills with plot, it moves with such sinuous fluidity it never feels like too much.

Things in Jars was the first book I read from Jess Kidd, so I was very excited to discover that it’s her third novel and she has several more projects of various kinds in the works. Read this on a three-day weekend, maybe when the weather is bad—you will not be disappointed.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Lightness: A Novel By Emily Temple Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9780062905338
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Published: William Morrow Paperbacks - June 22nd, 2021

Sixteen-year-old Olivia arrives at the Levitation Center, an ashram perched at the tip of a mountain, more removed from civilization than physical distance would suggest. Olivia is looking for her father, a frequent visitor at Buddhist retreats across the country; he was last seen at the Levitation Center, months prior.

When she arrives at the Center, Olivia finds herself sharing a cabin with other girls her age, all with the distinct air of having “been bad.” Serena -- dark-haired, magnetic, and mysterious -- is the immediate focus in whichever room she wanders into, as are, to a lesser degree, her handmaidens, Janet and Laurel. When Serena begins to take an interest in Olivia, Olivia nearly forgets why she’s here: Serena, both otherworldly and more insistently real than anyone she’s ever met, is rooted in the present in a way that seems to dissolve her past, and she needs something from Olivia.

The Lightness has been compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Heathers, and The Craft: the Levitation Center has the same enclosed, echo-laden quality that makes commonplace events take on a monstrous significance, and as you read you have the queasy sense that these girls are running downhill and eventually, their momentum will take them straight over some terrible edge.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Frankissstein By Jeanette Winterson Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780802149398
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Published: Grove Press - September 22nd, 2020

When Frankissstein first came out, I was skeptical of the title -- surely Winterson was above this particular brand of wordplay? But I put myself in her hands. The book is split into the perspectives of Mary Shelley, beginning with her time at Lake Geneva with Percy Shelley and Byron and her writing of Frankenstein, and Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor in modern-day Britain with an interest in AI and genetic modification.

Frankissstein is not a delicate chandelier of a novel the way The Passion is, but there are these crystalline sections, usually the musings of Mary Shelley as she contemplates death, womanhood, and the inequity that seems inherent to the human condition. Beset by bad weather, creeping damp, and looming poverty, never fully recovering from the loss of one pregnancy before she’s pregnant yet again, Mary’s mind is roiled by her hatred of her own physical limitations and her passion for the bodies of those she loves: her husband and the babies she loses time and again.

Where Mary thinks of her condition in terms of earthbound matter, Ry is drawn into a world populated by a crackpot cast that would jettison the body entirely: AI and genetics specialist, Dr. Victor Stein, with whom Ry is professionally and romantically involved; Ron Lord, founder of a company that is making more and more advanced sexbots; the devoutly Christian but businesslike Claire, who believes that the quest for everlasting life is a godly pursuit; and, on the periphery of the novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the monster he created, stalking him over land and sea. Eventually, the Ry sections really do become incorporeal as the characters become disembodied voices in an underground bunker filled with the cryogenically frozen bodies of the hopeful who had themselves suspended indefinitely until a time they could be revived in a world without death.

Though Frankissstein sometimes seems like it hasn’t decided what it wants to be (perhaps mirroring its subjects), Winterson revisits the themes of self and gender with her wonted, quick grace, her characters batting around both mundane and abstract ideas that explore humans’ responsibility to each other and their creations, as well as humanness itself.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Self Care: A Novel By Leigh Stein Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780143135197
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Published: Penguin Books - June 30th, 2020

Are you reserving all your intellectual labor for real life? Can you only reread and rewatch things you can recite from memory because new material is too taxing? For a while this summer, I found I was incapable of sustained focus on any book that asked anything of me in terms of patience or trust or any very complex thought.

Self Care insinuated itself pinkly into my to-read pile: short, plot-driven, radiating millennial vibes that were yelling at me on an instinctive level. If you’re on the hunt for well-written, highly readable, literary trash with a satirical edge and find that your mood these days only really responds to material that mercilessly savages qualities you recognize in yourself, this is the book for you.

Maren and Devin are the two cofoundresses of Richual (ugh), a social media/wellness platform reserved for women, purporting to uplift them out of their various trying circumstances by creating the conditions in which they could nurture themselves -- there’s no problem so big that the right skincare regimen or colon cleanse can’t fix it. Like many such brands, they are providing a real comfort to many with few options for addressing their own needs. But urged at the point of the rapacious capitalism of their “angel” investors, functioning always at breakneck speed to keep pace with the wildly oscillating social media metrics that will make or break their company, Devin and Maren are always in danger -- even with the best intentions, with their own overwhelming problems to manage -- of becoming the bad guy.

In the guise of an unforgiving, often hilarious satire, Self Care explores issues of privilege (obvious and insidious) in all its forms (whiteness, prettiness, maleness, wealth), the societal demands on women that are both alleviated and exacerbated by social media “communities,” and what it means for women to get and, importantly, keep a seat at the table. For what it’s worth, I think this book got me over whatever block was keeping me from enjoying reading.

For those of us who prefer a heads up about this kind of thing, Self Care does include instances of sexual violence.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story By Bess Kalb Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780525563822
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Published: Vintage - April 20th, 2021

Told from the perspective of a dead woman whose force of character is in no way diminished by her death, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me is writer/comedian Bess Kalb’s debut, a memoir told through her relationship with Bobby Bell, her maternal grandmother and the “Me” of the title. The “story” is told more or less in chronological order but is liberally punctuated with text messages, emails, transcriptions of voicemails, and dreamt and imagined exchanges between the two women.

The book was a joy to read -- I got through it in a weekend and it was an emotional tornado. Composed of the momentous occasions you'd expect -- graduations, deaths, and weddings -- and the deceptively smaller, quieter ones that take on magnitude with time, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me is a portrait of how we unshakably take root in each other.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Essex Serpent: A Novel By Sarah Perry Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9780062666383
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Published: Custom House - April 24th, 2018

There’s a lot happening in The Essex Serpent, much of it sleight of hand: Perry has us consumed with the status of the serpent, the very idea of which is terrorizing the villages around the Essex marshes, and drawing studious naturalists from London. Is it there or isn’t it? Because until we know, we have no idea what kind of book this is--is the beast a judgment from the Almighty? Or an aquatic anomaly, some creature believed extinct but still living? Or is it something completely innocent, warped into a monster by a willing mind? Meanwhile, the characters, vibrant and compelling, sneak up on us and usurp our fascination with the serpent.

Perry’s hit on a fruitful seam in British history: Essex in the 17th century was the site of witch trials and a real panic about a mysterious creature in the water, and simultaneously, class resentment was simmering in London. The cast includes characters at every level of society: Cora Seaborne, a young widow who can’t help but be relieved at the death of her emotionally and physically abusive husband and the privilege she’s inherited; her bright but withdrawn 11-year old son, Francis; Martha, her passionately Marxist companion, dead set on housing reform; Charles and Katherine Ambrose, unapologetically wealthy but generous; Drs. Luke Garrett and George Spencer, one a brilliant but tortured surgeon, and his friend, endlessly supportive and a glutton for punishment; and the Ransomes: the Rev. Will, a foil to Cora’s rationalism and dedicated to his parish; his wife Stella--fey, beautiful, and tragic; and their brilliant, charming children. And that’s not even the entire cast: even characters with walk-on parts are memorable but Cora in particular, is incandescent.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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This Is How You Lose the Time War By Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9781534430990
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Published: Gallery / Saga Press - March 17th, 2020

It’s hard to talk about this book without giving too much away because the narrative arc isn’t all that complex. This lack of bells and whistles means all the heavy lifting falls to the central conceit of this strange, effervescent story.

Simply put, this is an epistolary novel where the epistles are so much more than ink on paper, literally. Red and Blue are adversaries and correspondents, shapeshifting, time traveling creatures only recognizable by their capacity for love, suspicion, and self-sacrifice.

Their worlds are at war with each other and each of them is their faction’s finest operative. That their vicious competition and professional admiration should morph into love is, obviously, the only course it can take. Any communication, let alone a romance, is expressly forbidden and punished in highly inventive ways that would make simple death look like a picnic. And yet they persist.

The letters are gorgeous: Blue and Red are the kind of lovers that rejoice in each other’s cleverness and need no one else because they’re so consumed with keeping each other fascinated; theirs is the kind of pyrotechnic connection that will make you jealous of them. The fluidity of their exchanges would be remarkable with just the one author, but I marveled at how the two authors collaborated on this. Did one pick a character and stick with her? Or did they trade characters? In any case, their exchanges are an absolute delight. It’s a little book, but you’ll find yourself reading some of these letters over and over again.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Fleishman Is in Trouble: A Novel By Taffy Brodesser-Akner Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780525510895
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Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks - July 7th, 2020

At first blush, Fleishman Is in Trouble, Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel, is about the dissolution of a marriage and its resulting (often hilarious) carnage, set amidst other marriages (past, present, and potential); about the humiliating vagaries of middle age, and the steady ebbing of hope for a diminishing future (funnier than it sounds). Unexpectedly, it becomes a meditation on identity, trauma, and empathy, whether you can ever truly know another person despite achieving all the closeness that’s humanly possible, whether one can grow to forgive or whether one simply succumbs once more to habit, whether one can ever grow up at all.

The result of Brodesser-Akner’s tricks is that I was often left feeling disoriented, but in a way that felt sharply instructive—to switch between perspectives, especially perspectives on the same event, should be disorienting. The lesson is not groundbreaking, but the way the author has folded it in will force you to confront it anew.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Organs of Sense: A Novel By Adam Ehrlich Sachs Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9781250619440
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Published: Picador - August 18th, 2020

I only had to read the barest synopsis of this book before knowing I would love it. This is Sachs’ debut novel but he had a “collection” of “short stories” out a few years ago. Let me explain the scare quotes: the book, Inherited Disorders, is really just the same premise recycled over a hundred times: what happens to the father-son relationship when the father dies? That book was composed of fragments I remembered as delightful, so when I learned that The Organs of Sense follows Leibniz as a young man, heading to the Bohemian mountains to ascertain whether the eyeless astronomer, who predicted a solar eclipse that no one else sees any signs of, is mad, a con man, or a genius poised to shatter the laws of optics, I knew it would be wonderful.

Structurally, the book is simple. Leibniz is a largely silent interlocutor—every now and then he commits a piece of marginalia to his account which, we are told, is being submitted to an academic publication, Philosophical Transactions. The blind astronomer, looking through the largest telescope ever made, is voluble and clever in a self-aware Panglossian way, and Leibniz, so committed to logic that even the astronomer’s patently ridiculous syllogisms make sense to him, is his wide-eyed Candide. It’s probably useful to know that Sachs wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and studied atmospheric science in college, which makes for dense, potentially impenetrable material, but it’s leavened by his affectionate familiarity with his subject.

The big reveal at the end is what happened to the astronomer’s eyes. It wasn’t until late in his career, after becoming the Imperial Astronomer and mathematics tutor for the Habsburg family, that he was, quite vividly, blinded by the plucking out of his eyes. Just as the astronomer was at the mercy of a mad king, Leibniz and, by extension, the reader, is at the mercy of the astronomer’s dubious and unending tale. And just as the astronomer dreads the end of his usefulness, we dread the end of his hysterically funny, but I should mention, sometimes absurdly violent, story.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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Florida By Lauren Groff Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9781594634529
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Published: Riverhead Books - May 21st, 2019

Though they bear no connection in terms of plot or premise, many of these stories are concerned with a young woman, usually a wife and mother, struggling with the roles she’s chosen, or that have chosen her. Hers is a subdued struggle, but in a powerful pathetic fallacy—hurricanes, floods, and storms tear through the book—it’s reflected in the natural environment with none of her ambivalence.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Familiars By Stacey Halls Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9780778309017
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Published: Mira Books - October 1st, 2019

The Familiars is a historical novel set in the early 17th century in Lancashire, the site of a spate of witch trials during which large numbers of women, mostly poor, were rounded up and hanged on suspicion of witchcraft. I picked it up this fall during a streak of reading exclusively witchy and witch-adjacent fiction and found it hit all the right notes.

Our heroine is Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the gloriousness of whose name isn’t reflected in her, at first, timid character. Seventeen and wholeheartedly in love with her handsome husband, Fleetwood is pregnant for the fourth time. What should have been a joyous occasion is tainted with fear—Fleetwood has never carried a child to term and has become convinced that another pregnancy will kill her; but if she doesn’t produce an heir, she’ll be cast aside by her husband, who yearns for children.

Fleetwood’s optimism returns when she meets Alice Gray, a strange, fey woman who just happens to be a midwife. Fleetwood immediately engages Alice’s services and finds that her firm but gentle ministrations and her herbal concoctions have her feeling better than ever—everyone notices her renewed appetite and vigor, and the vaunted maternal halo of serenity that had never appeared during her prior pregnancies. To the modern reader, however, it should be clear that Fleetwood’s friendship with Alice deserves at least some of the credit. The two women—girls, really, young as they both are—find much-needed companionship with each other.

Of course, Alice is one of the women accused of witchcraft—specifically, the murder of a child—and is jailed in a truly monstrous dungeon with a host of other women. As expected, Fleetwood’s health begins to fail rapidly, and the story becomes a race to free Alice before the baby comes. The obstacles (read: men) in Fleetwood’s path are numerous and, nearly cartoonishly, slavering for the destruction of the “witches.” Admittedly, Halls’ villains are somewhat one-note but the effect is compelling—the bad guys are truly loathsome, and you will genuinely fear for the safety of Fleetwood and Alice. And fear you should—Halls doesn’t soften the precarity of these women’s circumstances and there is no guarantee that Fleetwood and her child will make it or that Alice will slip the noose.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Winner of the 2017 Newbery Medal) By Kelly Barnhill Cover Image
$9.95
ISBN: 9781616207465
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Published: Algonquin Young Readers - April 30th, 2019

The Protectorate is a small, grim city, an island in a sea of noxious fog, which comes off the Bog that covers the world. The denizens of this city haven’t been swallowed up by this miasma because they are part of a precarious truce with the malign forces that inhabit the world outside the periphery of the Protectorate: every year, a procession winds its way from the city proper to the edges of the forest, as far as they’ve ever gone. With them, they carry a baby that will be the year’s sacrifice. The infant is left just outside the forest as an offering. When the procession leaves, the baby will be taken, and the Protectorate will be spared another year.

The story of how the Protectorate became the last bastion of humanity is sustained by a Guild of Elders who prescribe strict asceticism for the citizens and, of course, extremely suspiciously, lead much more lavish lives themselves. Their regime is propped up by a warrior/scholar class, composed entirely of women, trained and led by the Head Sister.

One year, the infant sacrifice is especially difficult: the mother is ferocious and fights off the Elders. The Sisters must get involved, and after the baby is taken away, her mother is locked away a madwoman. The scene is so powerfully disturbing that an Elder-in-training gives up his robes forever, but cannot save the child.

At the edge of the forest, the baby wails and cries. A woman hurries through the forest towards the sound. When she reaches the child, she gathers her up as though she’s had practice, straps her to her chest and sets off, away from the Protectorate. The woman is Xan. She’s five hundred years old and has been making yearly visits to the rim of the forest for centuries, taking abandoned babies and finding them loving homes in the Free Cities, on the other side of the forest. The babies are called the Star Children and everyone knows they’re special. But this baby, a little girl with a crescent scar on her forehead, tugs at Xan’s heart, and she can’t give her up. Luna is powerfully loved by a woman so consumed with sorrow that it’s turned into a source of tremendous magic, and by a witch with enough love in her to envelop whole cities and towns, and gives off a strong whiff of destiny, even as a baby.

I’ll stop here lest I spoil it, but know that Barnhill is doing some very complicated work here: the book will be emotionally challenging for young readers, but has some truly excellent and memorable emotional anchors in its characters that will make it enjoyable. Read it together.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books


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The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastards #1) By Scott Lynch Cover Image
$8.99
ISBN: 9780553588941
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Published: Del Rey - June 26th, 2007

Combine Fagin’s crew of child thieves with the Italian Job and Al Swearengen-level elaborate obscenity and you will get something approximating Scott Lynch’s wonderful Gentleman Bastard series. We start in an alternate world that’s similar to ours in all the important ways but Lynch parcels out small but significant differences: not one but two moons; slightly askew human physiology; 19th century technology achieved through alchemy; and perhaps most unnervingly, we learn that our characters are living in the ruins of a world once inhabited by mysterious beings called the Eldren. All we know of them is that they’ve left behind eerie, indestructible structures, which have been coopted by humans.

But the focus of the three (so far) books is the coterie of thieves who call themselves the Gentleman Bastards who are devoted to their craft: not for riches but for the thrill of the endeavor, the five thieves spin convoluted schemes involving intricate disguises, acrobatic cat burglary, financial fraud, and cheerful violence to take joyous advantage of the wealthy nobles that govern their city-state (think of their part of the world as a pre-unification Italy—political instability is integral to the Bastards’ plans). When we meet them, they’re at the height of their careers, reveling in their own success (“Richer and cleverer than everyone else!”), but their triumphs attract the wrong kind of notice.

This series is such a pleasure to read but I feel obligated to mention that a fourth book has been in the works for six years. Once you read the first three, you will be desperate for what’s next and it will be a hard wait. But take it from someone who’s read all three about seven times now: it’ll be worth it. And if it’s any comfort, as of this writing, the fourth book, The Thorn of Emberlain, is slated for an August 2019 release, which gives you plenty of time to get through the first three brick-heavy volumes.

—Sarah, Longfewllow Books


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Madness Is Better Than Defeat By Ned Beauman Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780804172189
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Published: Vintage - January 15th, 2019

I’ve been telling people this book (if, gun to my head, I must compare) reminds me of Catch-22 and season 9 of Archer, the one on the island. Complete with a rogue CIA agent, a fugitive Nazi soldier, a shady branch of the U.S. government, a psychotropic fungus, an ancient Mayan temple and (possibly!!) its resident deities, Beauman’s fourth novel is a time-jumping fever dream of a story. In the 1930s, two separate groups of Americans are impelled to converge on a spit of land in the Honduran jungle, the site of an ancient temple, newly discovered. One, a film crew from Hollywood is trying to shoot a movie called Hearts in Darkness; the other group has been contracted to disassemble the temple, cart it back to New York, and reassemble it there. If the movie’s title wasn’t enough suggestion for you, the Conrad connection is really driven home when these two groups become embroiled in a standoff that lasts twenty years. They form a society, make and break alliances, birth a new generation, but never try to leave. But why has no one come to rescue them? Why do they not try to leave the island on their own? What really guided them here and what is keeping them?

Understand that this is just the barest synopsis—even when you believe you’ve finished peeling narrative layers, you’ll be surprised to find another. The structure of the novel is not only non-linear, but has a cyclical quality and spirals in on itself, thematically and geographically. The characters have a larger-than-life, avatar-like property that nevertheless leaves them seeming possessed of depth and substance: the villains are supremely villainous and there are no heroes. When I finished the book I felt like I’d been holding my breath for ages and had just come up for air.

—Sarah, Longfellow Books