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Best fiction, nonfiction reads for your winter pleasure

11 picks sure to keep you riveted

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‘Manhunt’ was one of the most memorable reads of 2022.

It happens every year.

The decorations come down. The last of the Christmas leftovers have been eaten. Errant bits of ripped wrapping are found and discarded. You have no more holiday candy or cookies, you look around at your empty hands, and you wonder now what?

Now it’s time to settle in and read for the rest of the winter season. For your pleasure, here are the Top Five Bookworm Picks for the Best of 2022.

Fiction

Lovers of fairy tales are in for a big surprise with The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean (Tor, $26.99). It’s a dark, dark legend filled with evil dragons that look like men, princesses that are worse than second-class citizens within their realms, and a chase that will chill you. Book lovers will adore this tale, especially if you don’t necessarily need a happily-ever-after.

Pick up a copy of Dot and Ralphie by Amy Hoffman (University of Wisconsin Press, $16.95) and it doesn’t look like much. But aren’t you glad you don’t judge a book by its cover?  This is a sweet tale of two elderly women, partners in life and love, and aging. It’s sweet and grumpy and charming, somewhat like a lesbian Honeymooners episode, only better.

Readers who are familiar with the thrillers that James Lee Burke writes will absolutely be stunned by Every Cloak Rolled in Blood (Simon & Schuster, $27) because in this book, the thrill is secondary to the main plot. Here, retired detective Aaron Broussard has lost his beloved daughter and it’s cut him to the core. Fiery, glass-sharp grief doesn’t stop crime, though, and so he still has crime to solve – whether real, or imagined. Read this book with an open heart and tissues at hand. It may be Burke’s best.

Lovers of clever, clever stories will love Sign Here by Claudia Lux (Berkeley, $27). It’s the tale of Peyote Trip, whose job on the Fifth Floor of Hell is to recruit new souls for eternity. But Pey has a plan to get out of his purgatory, which turns this funny, sharp-witted story into a shady mystery that will make you laugh a lot and squirm even more. 

Here’s a book that’s absolutely not for everyone: Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin (Macmillan Nightfire, $17.99) is a lesbian feminist dystopian thriller, which sounds like a lot and it is. A virus has hit every corner of the world, making men into wolf-like killing machines and sending the women into hiding. When two young women – one of them, trans – learns that a “healer” might be able to save her from the inevitable, they head out to find the woman but a makeshift band of warrior women get in their way. Again, this isn’t a book for everyone but if you’re looking for something very, very different, this is it.

BONUS: “Things Past Telling by Sheila Williams (Amistad, $25.99) is a novel of the memories of a 112-year-old former slave, who was also a pirate’s woman, a healer, and someone reaching for things her soul needed. It’s an adventurous book with the tiniest touch of fantasy and you shouldn’t miss it. 

Non-Fiction

You have questions. And All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99) has answers. When someone dies, what happens next? A wide variety of things, that’s what, and it’s someone else’s job to see that it’s done right. This book is careful not to be (too) gruesome but it is compellingly fascinating.

Charlie’s Good Tonightby Paul Sexton (Harper, $27.99) is on this list because it could be the biggest surprise of the year for readers. It’s the story of the late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, a man who really never wanted fame and often actively shunned the limelight. If you think you know all about the debauchery of your favorite rock ‘n roll band, think again and be totally charmed by one man’s life.

There are two business books on this list because they don’t at all read like business books; in fact, Think Like a Horse by Grant Golliher (Putnam, $28) and Meet Me by the Fountain by Alexandra Lange (Bloomsbury, $28) both seem more like snuggle-up-in-front-of-the-fire kinds of books. Golliher’s book is pure cowboy – he was a rancher and worked extensively with horses – and there are western-novel tones in his book on getting the most out of people. Lange’s book is a trip to the mall throughout history, including a good look at stores you may have visited through the years. These books are both great for the business-minded reader, but could be enjoyed by anyone.

And finally, an obsession: To Walk About in Freedom by Carole Emberton (W.W. Norton, $28.95) is a jaw-dropping memoir that hides in a history book. In the earlier part of the last century, the government paid writers to interview people for a WPA project. One of the interviewees was a former slave woman who offers up not only her life, but a real-life account of the end of slavery and how it impacted everyday, average people. This is a book you’ll be talking about well into the new year.

If these 11 books don’t fit your mood, then be sure to check with your favorite bookseller or librarian. When it comes to books, (s)he is a superhero.

Happy reading!

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Books

A balanced look at whether to have children

New book, ‘So When are You Having Kids?’ makes no judgments

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(Book cover image courtesy of Macmillan)

So When are You Having Kids?
By Jordan Davidson
c.2022, Sounds True, Macmillan
$28.99/356 pages

Your mother lingers way too long in the children’s department.

She sighs over tiny suits and little sneakers, running her fingers along soft blankets, hugging plush animals. You know what she wants but you’re not ready; she might be sure but you’re not. Maybe baby for you or, with the new book “So When are You Having Kids?” by Jordan Davidson, maybe not.

It’s the thorniest of decisions, “one of the biggest you’ll ever make.” It’s personal, but even strangers want to know; the questions start in your 20s and end when you’ve acquiesced or aged, although having kids is not a given or a thing-by-committee. So how do you quiet the busybodies and make the right decision for yourself?

First, says Davidson, ask yourself if you even want children, and after you’ve looked inward, “it’s worth looking outward” at expectations, culture, and things that “shape our understanding of parenthood.” Ask around, to see why others had children but don’t be surprised if you get cliches. Throw out the idea that children fulfill you or that they’ll take care of you when you’re old. Know that genetics, religion, and your parents’ parenting styles will affect you; and that if you’re queer or Black, there’ll be other factors involved in having and raising a child.

Should you decide to the positive, you may still have reservations.

Don’t give in to the romance of having kids; it’s hard work, and expensive in both money and time. Remember that perceptions of good parenting have “shifted over time” and that having a childhood exactly like yours probably won’t be an option for your kids. If you have a partner, communicate your thoughts, hopes, and divisions of household labor and childcare.

Finally, decide how you’re going to become a parent. Will you give birth, choose IVF, adopt, foster, or kick the decision down the road?

Says Davidson, the mere ability to ask these questions and decide “is in many ways a privilege.”

Chances are that if you hear a screaming baby, you have one of two reactions: you cringe and look for an exit, or you notice and shrug. Either way, “So When are You Having Kids?” is a book for you.

There are many, many parenting books on miles of shelves, and a number of books on being childless, but author Jordan Davidson pulls the two subjects together here with thoughtfulness, candor, inclusiveness, and a refreshing lack of judgment. This is a book that doesn’t promise answers, though: it’s meant to give readers – whether they want kids, don’t, or are ambivalent – an in-one-place, balanced look at myths, truths, pros, cons, and rarely-considered points for an informed decision. It also, perhaps most importantly, offers comforting reminders that there is no right or wrong, no matter what Mom says.

“So When are You Having Kids?” is like having a big sister to bounce ideas with, or a break-out session in your living room. It’s like asking Baby Maybe questions you didn’t know you had. It’s help when you need it in that department.

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Books

Hoover is a conflicted, flawed human in new biography

‘G-Man’ explores how he created an unrivaled personal fiefdom

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century’
By Beverly Gage
c.2022, Viking
$45/837 pages

“We’re sorry we can’t be in the front row to hiss — no kiss you,” two fans wrote in a telegram to Ethel Merman in the 1930s when they couldn’t make the opening of one of her shows.

The Merman friends were J. Edgar Hoover and his “right-hand man” Clyde Tolson.

“G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century” by Yale historian Beverly Gage is the first biography of Hoover to appear in 30 years. Gage has done the unimaginable. She makes you want to read about J. Edgar Hoover. “G-Man” won’t make you wish you were one of Hoover’s BFFs. It’ll compel you to see Hoover, not as a villainous caricature, but as a conflicted, flawed human being.

“G-Man” is not only a fascinating bio of Hoover, who directed the FBI from 1924 until the day he died on May 2, 1972 at age 77. It’s a page-turning history of the United States in the 20th century.

Hoover, who played a key role in the “lavender scare” of the 1950s, hated and harassed Martin Luther King, Jr. and engaged in an anti-Communist crusade, has “emerged,” Gage writes, “as one of history’s great villains, perhaps the most universally reviled American political figure of the twentieth century.”

In “G-Man,” Gates, drawing on recently released files, tells the story of how Hoover came to power and used the tools of the “administrative state,” to, as Gage writes, “create a personal fiefdom unrivaled in U.S. history.”

But, Gage makes clear, it’s a misreading of American history to think that Hoover was a lone, evil rouge.

During his time as FBI director, Hoover had the support of eight presidents (four Democrats and four Republicans) and of Congress. Gage documents how much of the American public, for most of Hoover’s 48 years as FBI director, shared his racist, homophobic and rabidly anti-Communist views. 

Hoover, a life-long D.C. resident, “embodied conservative values ranging from anti-Communism to white supremacy to a crusading and politicized interpretation of Christianity,” Gage writes.

“Far from making him a public scourge,” she adds, “these two aspects of his life garnered him the admiration of millions of Americans, including many of the country’s leading politicians, for most of his career.”

Hoover never openly identified as gay. He sent FBI agents out to warn anyone gossiping that he was gay to stop spreading rumors. Once, Hoover learned a D.C. bakery employee  had said he’d “heard the director is a queer,’” Gage reports. Hoover dispatched FBI agents, Gage writes, “to threaten and intimidate him into silence.”

There’s no evidence of Hoover having sex with another man. A story (told in an earlier bio) of Hoover wearing a dress at a gathering lacks credibility, Gage says. Because the woman who told the anecdote had been arrested for perjury.

But, using sources that weren’t available to previous biographers, Gage argues persuasively that Hoover and Tolson were for decades what we would call, today, a same-sex couple.

Beginning in 1935, Hoover and Tolson plunged into a whirl of nightlife – going to nightclubs and hanging with celebrities, Gage reports. 

Hoover kept some things about his relationship with Tolson private, Gage writes, “yet what is most striking about their budding relationship is not its furtive quality but its openness, vitality, and broad social acceptance.”

Hoover and Tolson vacationed together yearly in Florida and California.

Officially, their friends and colleagues, said the couple was “too masculine” to be queer, Gage writes, “reflecting a mid-century view of male homosexuality as something for ‘sissies’ and outliers.”

But, “Everybody knew about J. Edgar Hoover,” Gage reports Ethel Merman recalled decades later of Hoover in the 1930s. “A lot of people have always been homosexual. To each his own.” 

Neither Tolson or Hoover married or thought about marrying a woman. When Hoover died, he left most of his estate to Tolson. We don’t know what they did in the bedroom, Gage says, but Hoover and Tolson behaved like spouses.

Unfortunately, Hoover’s feelings for Tolson didn’t stop him from playing a crucial part in the “lavender scare” or from having the FBI monitor the D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society.

“G-Man” documents Hoover’s racism in sobering detail. Gates doesn’t downplay Hoover’s racism, role in the 1919 or 1950s red scare; lavender scare; or  harassment of Vietnam war protesters.

In “G-Man,” Gage helps us understand how Hoover’s views were formed: from his shame at having a mentally ill father to the “muscular, masculine” Christianity of his childhood to his life-long connection to Kappa Alpha, a racist George Washington University fraternity that believed in the “Lost Cause” of the South.

“G-Man”is an illuminating and engrossing read – with movie stars, history, gangsters and a humanized villain. 

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Books

New book ‘Mad Honey’ packed full of surprises

Teen relationships, family secrets explode in story you will savor

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(Book cover image courtesy of Ballantine Books)

‘Mad Honey’
By Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
c.2022, Ballantine Books 
$29.99/464 pages

You’ve never been one to follow all the buzz.

Gossip is not very reliable anyhow, and you have better things to do than celebrity watch. This star does that, and that star’s embroiled in scandal, nobody has any privacy anymore. Nah, that ho-hum has never been your thing. As in the new novel “Mad Honey” by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, the hive is rarely right.

If you move slow enough and don’t make any sudden moves, honeybees are generally peaceful creatures. Olivia McAfee knows this, and that’s why she often visits her hives without a protective suit: she’s relatively sure she won’t get stung.

That’s not the case when it comes to her son, Asher. A senior in high school, her 18 year old can be prickly sometimes, and sometimes, stings are part of parenting a teenager. This, Liv knows, is one of those times: Asher’s in love, and it’s not going well.

Nineteen-year-old Lily Campanello arrived in town with her mother at the end of the summer and she and Asher have had a stormy relationship since they started going out. Liv hates to see Asher so upset, but she knows that love is complicated. She loved Asher’s father, despite that she spent too much time hiding the bruises she got from him.

Asher knew he’d messed up.

When he found Lily’s father, a man she hadn’t seen in years, he’d meant to surprise her but the surprise was on Asher: Lily was angry and she wouldn’t exactly say why. She just walked, almost ran, away and she wouldn’t talk about it. She wouldn’t even answer Asher’s texts and now he was getting angry. Should he worry about her, or just go to her house?

He chose the latter.

It was the middle of the night when the police came for him. They handcuffed Asher before they gave him his shoes, and hauled him away without a coat on a freezing night.

Olivia McAfee knows that mad honey is the result of bad foraging. It should be sweet, but it’s deadly. By the time you realize that, there’s no going back.

You know how your mind tries to figure out the ending of a book long before you’re even a third of the way there? Curiously, that doesn’t happen with “Mad Honey.” The story is too enjoyable not to savor and besides, you know what’s going to happen anyway, right?

Or not.

Nope, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan sneak a two-fer surprise inside this book: the first one explodes with the force of a beehive full of nitroglycerin. The second is that you’ll still be left feeling smug enough to think you know how this culminates. Or not, but still: more distractions, more mini-explosions unspool with the right frequency to keep you happily eager to see how wrong you were.

This is one of those novels that’s done before you’re ready for it, leaving you slack-jawed when you close the back cover. “Mad Honey” is pretty sweet. Read it, and you’ll bee very happy.

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