This week, we highlight an insightful group memoir about the work of Toni Morrison; a wonderful debut novel from Amy Bonnaffons; a dazzling neo-western adventure from Sarah Gailey; and more.

The Toni Morrison Book Club

Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams. Univ. of Wisconsin, $17.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-299-32494-0

In this insightful group memoir, a reading group of four English professors from the College of New Jersey tackles four Toni Morrison novels: BelovedThe Bluest EyeA Mercy, and Song of Solomon. Each contributing a pair of essays, they consider African-American history, personal experiences, and Morrison’s lessons for the present moment. Jackson interprets The Bluest Eye as a critique of the “strong black woman” cultural trope, while Brown-Glaude finds in Song of Solomon “models of resistance from which we can learn... today.” Bennett muses on his outsider position as the volume’s one white contributor through Beloved’s “brief representation of a comic white girl,” and Williams reflects on A Mercy’s exploration of the costs of “being seen” through her own memory of “being the only black kid in a sea of” white high school students. She then fittingly concludes the collection with a piece that merges the personal, literary, historical, and contemporary, as she visits the National Museum of African American History and Culture and feels, while viewing Harriet Tubman’s shawl, the “epiphanal blackness” also present in Morrison’s work. For book lovers and history buffs, as well as the politically engaged, this collection, though small in size, will yield vast intellectual riches. (Feb.)

The Regrets

Amy Bonnaffons. Little, Brown, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-316-51616-7

Bonnaffons’s wonderful debut novel (after the collection The Wrong Heaven) is a tale of ghostly love and passion. Thomas Barrett has died, but there has been an “institutional error,” and he’s been returned to Earth for 90 days to live an odd pseudo-life until they—whoever “they” are—can receive him. He’s given guidelines that explain how he can reduce the possibility of regrets while he awaits death, such as avoiding connections with his previous life and resisting sexual contact. Thomas respects the advice until he meets Rachel Starr, a young librarian he first spots in a New York coffee shop. Rachel is drawn to Thomas, too, and they become intensely involved during Thomas’s final weeks. However, Thomas begins to have episodes of fading, first with large holes temporarily appearing in his body, and then an overall increasing insubstantiality. As Thomas’s days on Earth wind down, the two bittersweetly make the most of their time together. The tension of an ephemeral romance and impending loss will keep readers turning the pages, and the luminous prose is vibrant with penetrating observations, whether about moments that are a “crucial node in the universe’s vast plan” or about dying—with or without regrets. This sexy, witty novel about life, death, and love’s power will enchant readers. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Upright Women Wanted

Sarah Gailey., $20.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-250-21358-7

Gailey (Magic for Liars) pits librarian spies against the oppressive government of a future Southwestern America in this dazzling neo-western adventure. After Esther Augustus’s best friend and crush Beatriz is executed for possessing unapproved reading materials, Esther’s father, the superintendent of the Lower Southwest Territory, arranges for a political marriage between Esther and Beatriz’s fiancé. Esther flees by stowing away in the caravan of the Librarians, state employees who distribute approved literature to isolated towns. Once discovered, Esther is shocked to learn that the Librarians are actually a hotbed of queer subversion: stern Bet and motherly Leda are a long-term lesbian couple, and their cranky apprentice, Cye, is nonbinary. The Librarians agree to take Esther to Utah, an insurrectionist camp, after picking up a “package” of other refugees. Along the way, Esther grows disillusioned with the homophobic government propaganda she’s read all her life and develops feelings for Cye. During a brazen attempt to prove herself useful to the Librarians, Esther stumbles upon frightening information about one of the refugees they’re escorting, plunging them all into danger. Gailey’s gorgeous writing and authentic characters make this slim volume a pure delight. Readers will relish this showcase of Gailey’s striking talents. Agent: DongWon Song, Howard Morhaim Literary. (Feb.)


S.L. McInnis. Grand Central, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-538-73209-0

Timid Beth Montgomery and fearless Cassie Ogilvy, the protagonists of McInnis’s exceptional first suspense novel, were roommates one year at Boston’s New England Institute of Music. They became best friends, but something happened that resulted in Beth’s wanting never to see Cassie again after leaving college. Years later, in Los Angeles, Beth appears to have the perfect life—a handsome husband and a beautiful mansion. But she and her would-be film producer husband are drowning in debt, he cheats on her, and she has given up her dream of a music career. Cassie’s life doesn’t even have the veneer of success, and she has just fled the scene of a quadruple homicide, including the death of an undercover LAPD officer, the result of a botched drug deal. Disguised in a blonde wig and carrying a suitcase full of blood-splattered cash, the panicky Cassie invades Beth’s home, hoping to avoid the police and her violent boyfriend. Though each woman thinks she knows the other one, trust issues, deceit, and hidden agendas are at the heart of their reunion. Believable secrets, lies, and twists propel this edgy thriller, a fresh riff on the Gone Girl motif. Agent: Helen Heller, Helen Heller Agency (Canada). (Feb.)

The Freedom Artist

Ben Okri. Akashic, $16.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-61775-792-1

This haunting and inspiring novel from Booker winner Okri (The Famished Road) follows a man’s search for a woman who goes missing in a dystopian world. An oppressive and faceless “Hierarchy” dominates the world, in which people move through their days in a state of near-catatonia, sensing but helplessly fearing their subjugation. The citizens are largely numbed, but some, such as young woman Amalantis, dare to speak out. After Amalantis courageously asks, “Who is the prisoner?” she is abruptly arrested for posing a taboo, revolutionary question, and her lover, Karnak, embarks on a quest to find her. He roams the streets seeking answers from whoever dares to speak with him. Karnak watches the populace grow increasingly resistant to the Hierarchy’s oppression, first through ubiquitous screams in the night, and then through an epidemic of nervous breakdowns that occur randomly among the public, which can only be resolved by a transcendental awakening. Karnak’s search is juxtaposed against the spiritual trials of a man named Mirababa, who travels through mystical, otherworldly realms, where he meets beings who offer perplexing guidance on his quest to understand true freedom. In this story of political abuse and existential angst, Okri employs a powerful and rare style reminiscent of free verse and evoking a mythical timbre. This is a vibrantly immediate and penetrating novel of ideas. Agent: Georgina Capel, Georgina Capel Associates. (Feb.)

The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit, and Defrocking

Adam Sisman. Counterpoint, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-64009-328-7

This gripping account of a recalcitrant 20th-century con man from National Book Critics Circle Award winner–Sisman (Boswell’s Presumptuous Task) proves the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. The man born Robert Parkins in England in 1918, who mostly went by Robert Peters, first forged references to get a teaching post in Canada in 1948. In 1958, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who became notorious in the 1970s for being taken in by the fake Hitler diaries, met Peters in Oxford while the latter was a grad student at the university. After Peters asked for his help countering persecution by the bishop of Oxford, Trevor-Roper discovered that Peters’s claim was a fantasy and began digging deeper. The historian’s interest in the scam artist continued for the rest of his life, and Sisman details Peters’s persistent—and successful—attempts to pass himself off as variously an academic, cleric, and school principal. Sisman wisely relegates speculation about what motivated Peters to a brief concluding section, offering appropriate caveats about why Peters sought status via deceit “when it might have been easier to pursue an honest career.” Fans of the film Catch Me If You Can will be entertained. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Feb.)

An Everyday Hero

Laura Trentham. St. Martin’s Griffin, $16.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-14555-0

Trentham (The Military Wife) nails the pride and pain of military families with this expertly rendered, deeply felt contemporary romance. Greer Hadley gives up her Nashville music dreams and returns to her tiny hometown of Madison, Tenn., only to find her long-distance boyfriend in bed with someone else. She responds by getting drunk and trashing a local bar. After getting arrested, Greer must complete 50 hours of community service as a music teacher at a local charity dedicated to aiding veterans and their families. One of Greer’s first students happens to be her high school crush, Emmett Lawson, an Army captain who lost his leg to war. Undeterred by Emmett’s initial prickly manner, Greer pushes for him to open up, and soon animosity turns to attraction between them. Trentham’s agility with tough topics—including PTSD and substance abuse—and her effortlessly empathetic characters combine to create a compulsively readable tale. By turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, this story will grip readers from start to finish. Agent: Kevan Lyon, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Mazes of Power

Juliette Wade. DAW, $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1574-7

Wade’s excellent high fantasy debut, the first in the Broken Trust series, invites readers into an intricately constructed and morally ambiguous world full of complex political maneuvering and familial pressure. For centuries, the cavernous city of Pelismara has housed the 12 Great Families that comprise the noble class of the city’s strict caste system, who cling to the glory of a long-faded golden era. When a mysterious illness known as Kinders fever kills the city’s Eminence, the 12 families vie to fill the power vacuum. It’s up to 17-year-old Tagaret to represent his family in the competition to become heir to the throne, but his sociopathic brother Nekantor’s twisted attempts to help their family ascend to power threaten to tear down everything that Tagaret holds dear, including the reputation of the woman he loves. As the fever spreads among the lower classes, Pelismara’s society hangs on by a thread. The impressively winding plot, layered worldbuilding, and psychologically acute characterizations are sure to hold readers’ attention. Wade is an author to watch. (Feb.)


Lidia Yuknavitch. Riverhead, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-0-525-53487-7

In this brilliant collection, Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan) chronicles people outside society’s margins. In “Cusp,” a teenager in rural Texas comes of age while acting as a drug mule at a prison. “The Organ Runner” follows a young girl as she works to ferry kidneys for illegal backroom transplants, while “Second Language” deals with sex trafficking in Portland, Ore. In “A Woman Refusing,” a frustrated ex-husband refuses to aid his former spouse, who stands nude atop a high-rise, threatening to jump. The incest-tinged “Second Coming” describes an at-home artificial insemination involving a sexually naive woman and her married sister. In “Mechanics,” a woman flirts with a potential new lover while working under the hood of her car. The stories are consistently incisive, with sharp sentences and a barreling pace. The subject matter is pretty dark stuff, but Yuknavitch does offer an occasional ray of hope or rallying cry of resilience for her characters trapped by addiction, forced sex work, or bad marriages. This riveting collection invites readers to see women whose points of view are typically ignored. Agent: Rayhané Sanders. (Feb.)

High on God: How Megachurches Won the Heart of America

James Wellman Jr., Katie Corcoran, and Kate Stockly. Oxford Univ., $24.95 (344p) ISBN 978-0-19-982771-8

Religion professor Wellman Jr., sociologist Corcoran, and religion PhD candidate Stockly productively fuse several disciplines to deconstruct the success story of American megachurches in this crucial, wide-ranging work. The authors make clear from the outset that they will not be concentrating on religious belief, as many observers of religion do, but rather on human emotion and its dynamics, which megachurches successfully tap into with their song-filled worship. They then go step-by-step through features of megachurch culture, including the presence of a charismatic leader and outreach projects that “have the dual goal of serving a community need and evangelizing or saving souls.” A detailed appendix draws on brain research to look at the biochemistry behind religious ritual, which directly informs the title metaphor of being “high on God.” The authors’ analysis is complicated and won’t be easy going for general reader, but those who have familiarity with major sociological thinkers will find much to chew on. Extensive interviews with megachurch members and other detailed research strengthens the authors’ case. This pivotal book provides groundbreaking analysis of the motivating social behaviors within megachurches and will certainly ignite conversation among religion scholars. (Feb.)

Smacked: A Story of White Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy

Eilene Zimmerman. Random, $27 (246p) ISBN 978-0-525-51100-7

In this moving and intimate memoir, Zimmerman, a former New York Times business columnist, shares the story of the unexpected overdose death of her ex-husband, Peter, an affluent senior partner at a prestigious law firm. She writes of being confounded how a man she knew for nearly 30 years became a drug addict and hid it so well that no one in his life suspected it. Offering a look at the white-collar drug epidemic, Zimmerman chronicles her plight to understand Peter’s secret life: his addiction began with unprescribed pain pills and ended with opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Through extensive research, Zimmerman reveals that “the demands on a lawyer’s life places them at a greater risk for depression, heart disease, alcoholism and illegal drug use” and that Peter’s death was part of a much bigger social problem. In her most affecting chapter, “Better Living Through Chemistry,” Zimmerman discusses the challenges that millennials and Gen Zers face as they begin their own white-collar futures in a world where the pressure to succeed is enormous and drugs are readily available. Zimmerman’s wrenching story and her extensive research into the hidden crisis of white-collar drug addiction will resonate with many readers. (Feb.)