This week, we highlight new books from Bart D. Ehrman, Michelle Major, and Joseph O’Connor.

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife

Bart D. Ehrman. Simon & Schuster, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-50-113673-3

In this enlightening survey of human understanding of the afterlife, Ehrman (How Jesus Became God), professor of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill, offers a persuasive analysis of how the current evangelical Christian understanding of eternal life and eternal damnation developed as well as a well-reasoned critique of that perspective. Ehrman begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh (written around 2100 BCE), continues through the ancient Greeks, and covers canonical and extracanonical Hebrew and Christian texts as he details humanity’s long-standing preoccupation with death and the fear of what follows. He documents wide-ranging theories: Homer’s vision of a bleak, dreary existence in Hades; Virgil’s belief in hellish torments and heavenly glories; Plato’s position on the soul’s immortality; the ancient Israelites’ view that death is the end, but not to be feared; and later Jewish belief in resurrection and a Day of Judgment. Calling into question many evangelical notions of damnation, Ehrman posits that neither Jesus, the apostle Paul, nor the author of Revelation believed in hell. Rather, the punishment for sin was annihilation, while the righteous received everlasting life . Ehrman’s eloquent understanding of how death is viewed through many spiritual traditions is scintillating, fresh, and will appeal to scholars and lay readers alike. (Mar.)

Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person

Anna Mehler Paperny. The Experiment, $16.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-61519-492-6

Journalist Mehler Paperny offers a startling and intimate portrait of her multiple attempts at suicide and digs into the disturbingly inadequate “toolbox” available to individuals suffering from acute depression. This memoir cum cultural study segues between the author’s inexplicable obsession with killing herself (raised in a supportive family, she writes, her depression isn’t connected to an experiential trigger) and a review of medications and other approaches available to those struggling with depression. Mehler Paperny’s intense story begins in 2011 when, at 24, she ends up in the psych ward, having been discovered in her apartment after she drank antifreeze; her subsequent suicide attempts included asphyxiation and overdosing on pills. Due to depression’s human, societal, and economic costs, she writes, it “affects everyone,” and yet there is no overarching magic answer to this remarkably complex “shit sandwich of an illness,” and she lists options for those suffering, such as pharmaceuticals, psychotherapy, and electroconvulsive therapy. Talking openly about suicide, she asserts, is crucial; and in doing so here, she herself inspires in her determination to “punch” back at her illness. This earnest and informative volume serves as a frank guide to those dealing with depression. (Apr.)

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic

Eric Eyre. Scribner, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-98210-531-0

Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eyre expands his Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation into the role of pharmaceutical distribution companies in West Virginia’s opioid epidemic in this riveting and essential debut. Eyre begins by relating the 2005 overdose death of former coal miner William “Bull” Preece, who became hooked on Oxycontin and Lortab after suffering a back injury on the job. His sister, Debbie, became an anti-opioid crusader and her lawyers eventually contacted Eyre, who in 2013 was covering West Virginia’s lawsuit against wholesale drug distributors, including Fortune 500 companies Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, for flooding the market with pain pills. Eyre eloquently interweaves the story of Debbie’s pursuit of justice on behalf of her brother with his own battles against West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrisey, whose ties to the pharmaceutical industry called into question his commitment to pursuing the state’s lawsuit. As Eyre labored—ultimately successfully—to pry information from obfuscating drug firms and government agencies, he was also contending with Parkinson’s disease and his small-town newspaper’s financial woes. Packed with colorful details and startling statistics, this page-turning journalistic thriller shines a brilliant spotlight on a national tragedy. Agent: Frances Coady, Aragi Inc. (Mar.)

The Magnolia Sisters

Michelle Major. HQN, $7.99 mass market (336p) ISBN 978-1-335-01328-6

City girl Avery Keller finds a sense of belonging where she least expected it in this uplifting small-town romance from Major (the Fortunes of Texas series). Leaving behind a disastrous relationship in San Francisco, Avery travels to Magnolia, N.C., to settle the estate of a father she never knew and meet her two half-sisters. Avery hoped to collect her inheritance and be on her way, but her biological father’s complicated estate thwarts this plan. Delayed in the quaint small town, Avery bonds with her sisters and warms to the close-knit community. Though memories of her painful breakup are still fresh, Avery falls for her handsome temporary landlord, divorced firefighter Grayson Atwell, and his precocious five-year-old daughter, Violet. But Gray’s glamorous, spiteful ex-wife, who brings up many of Avery’s insecurities, objects to Avery’s presence in her daughter’s life. Major’s well-developed characters are credible and winsome; Avery’s growth from a steely stranger into a caring community member is especially heartwarming and well-done. Striking the perfect balance of romance, heat, and drama, this optimistic love story is a sweet start to a promising series, perfect for fans of Debbie Macomber. (Mar.)

The Woman of a Thousand Names

Alexandra Lapierre. Atria, $30 (640p) ISBN 978-1-5011-9791-8

Lapierre (Between Love and Honor) serves up a stirring portrait of a sensual Russian aristocrat famous for her charm and “thousand faces.” Three years into Maria “Moura” Ignatyevna Zakrevskaya’s first marriage, at age 18, to Djon von Benckendorff, and facing the turmoil of WWI and the Bolshevik revolution, Moura continues to make new friends and lovers while raising two children. After she meets British diplomat Robert Bruce Lockhart, she discovers true love’s “sensation of lightness” and dives into a tumultuous affair. Their romance subjects Moura to manipulation and extortion by Bolshevik police and the British military, both of which want information from her. Moura is repeatedly arrested, her house is ransacked by rioters, and Djon is executed by militants. With Robert shipped back to Britain, Moura’s passion is reignited by the celebrated author Maxim Gorky, a personal confidant of Lenin. Djon’s family, aware of Moura’s series of lovers, insist that Moura remarry to reclaim her children, leading to a mutually beneficial deal with an alcoholic Baron named Nikolai Budberg. Lapierre evokes Moura’s appeal by moving between the impressions she makes on others, including Gorky and H.G. Wells, and her own deep feelings, meshing history with a captivating tale of a passionate heart. This will move readers. (Mar.)

The Familiar Dark

Amy Engel. Dutton, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-524-74595-0

The stark prologue of this harrowing thriller from Engel (The Roanoke Girls) recounts the final moments of 12-year-old best friends Izzy Logan and Junie Taggert, slaughtered on an abandoned playground in their impoverished hometown in the Missouri Ozarks. Junie’s single mom, Eve, a feisty, funny, sometimes foulmouthed diner waitress, is shattered by the news, but she swiftly becomes enraged by what she sees as a less than vigorous probe by the local police, including her idolized older brother, Cal, who she suspects may be writing off the murders as collateral damage from the meth ring run by their own abusive, long-estranged pit bull of a mother. Feeling she has nothing left to lose, a vengeance-bent Eve ignores Cal’s warnings to leave investigating to the professionals and begins asking questions of dangerous people with plenty to hide. Without sacrificing any of the narrative’s ferocious urgency, Engel gradually discloses a few of Eve’s own guilty secrets—on the way to some gut-wrenching final revelations. This rural noir stakes Engel’s claim to that dystopian terrain somewhere between Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Agent: Jodi Reamer, Writers House. (Apr.)

Seven Endless Forests

April Genevieve Tucholke. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-374-30709-7

In this elegant YA fantasy inspired by Arthurian legend and ancient Norse culture, a young woman embarks upon a dangerous quest to rescue her sister, who’s been taken by a ruthless band of roving wolf-priests led by a power-hungry she-wolf. After softhearted Torvi, 18, loses both her mother and lover to a seasonal plague, all she has left is her restless younger sister, Morgunn. When Morgunn vanishes, Torvi and her new friend, the druid Gyda, join traveling entertainers the Butcher Bards, setting forth across a hazardous world populated by unpredictable characters and punctuated by weird magic, such as such as spells conveyed by fire, bones, or whistling. As they pursue the wolf-priests, who leave a trail of slaughter in their wake, Torvi and Gyda are drawn to a new quest: they search for a long-lost sword that could grant them great power and privilege. In this loose standalone follow-up to The Boneless Mercies, Tucholke conjures a mythic, richly described landscape that serves well as the backdrop for familiar names and concepts. The strong focus on found family and feminine strength further enhances this tale’s emotional impact. Ages 14–up. Agent: Tracey Adams, Adams Literary. (Apr.)

Little Siberia

Antti Tuomainen, trans. from the Finnish by David Hackston. Orenda (IPG, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (300p) ISBN 978-1-912374-51-9

Pastor Joel Huhta, the narrator of this stunning comic noir from Tuomainen (Palm Beach Finland), who ministers to the mostly neurotic villagers of Hurmevaara in the far north of Finland, has a secret. Due to wounds from his deployment to Afghanistan, Joel can’t father children, but six days after a meteorite strikes a former rally driver’s car, Joel discovers that his beloved wife, Krista, is pregnant. Joel, consumed by jealousy, searches for the father of Krista’s child as several boozy and violent villagers and Russian thugs plot to steal the valuable meteor from the local museum where it’s temporarily housed. With scalpel-keen portraits of villagers and their cruel wintry environment, the author humorously probes the eternal ironies, temptations, and uncertainties facing people caught up in unexpected circumstances. Tuomainen also persuades readers how hard life makes it to do the right thing in a universe that too often feels like a profound personal insult. Fans of Scandinavian noir will relish this one. Agent: Federico Ambrosini, Salomonsson Agency (U.K.). (Apr.)


Joseph O’Connor. Europa, $26 (400p) ISBN 978-1-60945-593-4

O’Connor’s high-spirited latest (after The Star of the Sea) puts ample flesh on the bones of the little-known story of the theatrical ménage involving celebrity actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and Irving’s business manager, Bram Stoker. Composed (like Dracula) in epistolary style from diary entries, letters, recording transcripts, and the like, the narrative follows Stoker as he moves with his family from Dublin to London in 1879 to help Irving establish his Lyceum Theatre. Over the next quarter century the two indulge in a frequently bitter love/hate relationship—Irving drives Stoker mercilessly and cruelly taunts him for his literary ambitions. Via commentary from Terry on Dracula, O’Connor’s narrative suggests that Stoker likely channeled the personality of Irving and the drama of their contretemps into his tale of the imperious vampire scourge. O’Connor’s characters are magnificently realized and colorfully depicted by the virtues that define them: Irving’s egotism, Terry’s feminism, Stoker’s stoicism, and—for the brief time he appears—Oscar Wilde’s witticisms. The repartee O’Connor imagines between them is priceless, in particular when they refer to each other by their nicknames (“Chief” for Irving, “Auntie” for Stoker), and he fills the tale with numerous rib nudges that readers of Dracula will recognize. This novel blows the dust off its Victorian trappings and brings them to scintillating life. (May)

Efrén Divided

Ernesto Cisneros. HarperCollins, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-288168-7

As affecting as it is timely, Cisneros’s debut depicts how draconian U.S. immigration policies rip through one Southern California family. At the novel’s start, the Nava family lives a hardworking, loving existence—American-born Efrén, the seventh-grade narrator, is mostly concerned with the upcoming school election. But when his undocumented mother is deported after an ICE raid one afternoon, Efrén must care for his five-year-old siblings, one of whom has a learning disability, while his father works extra hours for funds to bring his mother back from Mexico. Cisneros tells this urgent story with focus and heart-wrenching realism, especially concerning the ripple effects of family separation, not just at the border but also among those in the U.S. Cisneros layers in stories of other deportees, underlining the importance of taking part in change as he portrays a community rallying around its most vulnerable members. (Efrén’s burnt-out history teacher shares cautionary tales of past exclusionary practices via Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the socialists” poem.) If Efrén seems to shoulder burdens beyond his years with alarming maturity, he mirrors many children in this country who are forced to grow up fast. Ages 8–12. Agent: Deborah Warren, East West Literary. (Mar.)