The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Rio Cortez, Charles S. Cockell, and Rachel Rabkin Peachman and Anna C. Wilson.

Golden Ax

Rio Cortez. Penguin, $18 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-0-14-313713-9

Cortez maps untrodden historical and speculative terrain in poems of stunning breadth and intimacy in this exquisite debut. Cortez, whose family moved from Louisiana to Utah following Reconstruction, coins the terms Afropioneerism and Afrofrontierism, apt expressions for the poetic ground she covers. Early poems in the collection establish the stakes: “I am a child feeling/ extraterrestrial; whose history, untold,/ is not enough.” In “The Idea of Ancestry,” her use of heavily enjambed, unpunctuated lines creates a sense of continuity between the speaker, her ancestors, and the West they share: “to know that my people/ heard the aspen too/ makes this my sweet place/ even if the world has come/ between us and the canyon/ I know the world/ has placed us here exactly.” Later poems move from the speaker’s childhood in Utah to her adulthood in New York, reflecting on class, race, and womanhood with wit and lyrical subtlety, as in these lines from “Black Frasier Crane”: “Isn’t this the hardest/ work? To be happy// when you already/ have everything.” Unflinching and generous, this bold collection opens new vistas in contemporary Black poetry.

Taxi from Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers About Life in the Universe

Charles S. Cockell. Harvard Univ, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-674-27183-8

Conversations with cab drivers lead to discussions about space exploration in this fun outing from astrobiologist Cockell (The Equations of Life). Inspired by a London cabbie who asked him if there are “alien taxi drivers,” Cockell uses the narrative device to answer big questions casually. (In this case answering with a look at how many things had to go just right on Earth for the two of them to have wound up in the cab). A driver in Waverly wonders whether space will be “full of tyrannies or free societies,” to which Cockell explains that since humans will need to implement institutions to foster survival, it’ll depend on what political systems people bring with them. A cabbie en route to Heathrow wonders, “Should we solve problems on Earth before exploring space?” which elicits the answer that it’s a good point, but “the science of climate change itself has been greatly enriched by the study of our planetary neighbors.” Indeed, Cockell fields questions regarding both space and life on Earth, wonderfully demonstrating how knowledge of the former can significantly enhance understanding of earthbound issues, and he does a great job blending cutting-edge science with philosophical considerations. This is a joy to read. 

When Children Feel Pain: From Everyday Aches to Chronic Conditions

Rachel Rabkin Peachman and Anna C. Wilson. Harvard Univ, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-674-18502-9

Children’s pain is too often “dismissed, minimized, and flat-out ignored,” according to this alarming and accessible look at pediatric pain management from journalist Peachman and pediatric psychologist Wilson. They debunk myths that have led to the neglect of infant pain, such as that very young children cannot feel pain, that anesthesia is too dangerous for infants, and that early pain has no lasting impact. Even today, they write, medical students receive “only a handful of education hours devoted to pain management” in their training. Peachman and Wilson address vaccinations and NICU practices—two common medical situations in which children suffer—and offer practical approaches for improving children’s experiences: distractions (such as a cloth or pacifier dipped in sugar water) and skin-to-skin contact can “influence how the brain interprets the pain signals it receives.” Peachman and Wilson make a solid case that the longer pain goes unnoticed, the more likely it is to become chronic, and their message that addressing pain beginning in childhood is not only an obligate kindness but essential for managing long-term health is a powerful one. This is worth a look for medical professionals and parents alike. 

What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us: Who We Become After Tragedy and Trauma

Mike Mariani. Ballantine, $28.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-593-23694-9

Journalist Mariani debuts with a heart-rending examination of surviving trauma. The author describes how chronic fatigue syndrome flipped his life upside down and led him to question the maxim “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” To investigate, he tells the stories of six individuals who “each endured a catastrophic experience” that fundamentally altered their lives, and details how they dealt with the consequences. Mariani describes how Sean Taylor became involved with the Bloods gang and fatally shot a teenager when Sean was himself only 17. He received a life sentence but found redemption after converting to Islam. Another subject, Gina, was raped while in her early 20s and years later suffered the unrelated trauma of going almost completely blind overnight due to a degenerative eye condition, but she maintained that the “adversities she’d been through had added depth to her relationship with her own life.” Mariani concludes with penetrating wisdom on the nature of suffering, positing that whether tragedies make someone stronger is less important than how they shape one’s identity, and that “positive and negative are all but impossible to disentangle in most people’s lives.” The author’s superior storytelling abilities shine throughout and portray his subjects with compassion and nuance. The result captivates, offering a poignant exploration of how humans make meaning out of tragedy.

A Taste of Gold and Iron

Alexandra Rowland. Tordotcom, $27.99 (480p) ISBN 978-1-250-80038-1

Rowland (Finding Faeries) delivers a breathtakingly intimate narrative in this gorgeous fantasy, in which the political intrigue of a kingdom serves as backdrop to a romance between the softest of hearts. It ought to be a happy occasion when Prince Kadou Mahisti’s older sister, the sultan, gives birth to a daughter, but a break-in at one of the kingdom’s guilds that same night calls Kadou away. Already prone to bouts of debilitating worry, Kadou spirals when a minor confrontation with his niece’s father tragically escalates into an incident that causes the death of several of his bodyguards. His replacement bodyguard, Evemer Hoşkadem, comes off as cold and rigid—and he’s terrible at concealing his sour feelings toward a prince he thinks cowardly. Desperate to regain the perceived lost love of his sister, Kadou throws himself into investigating the break-in, dragging Evemer along with him, and the two are irrevocably bonded as they uncover a plot that puts both the royal family and the stability of the kingdom itself in danger. Rowland brings wonderful depth to the interpersonal relationships; the romance that blossoms between Kadou and Evemer puts fun, familiar tropes alongside soul-wrenching acts of devotion, and the familial bonds are just as well crafted. In exploring what monarchs owe their people, and what individuals owe each other, this achingly tender fantasy wows.

Simple Pasta: Pasta Made Easy. Life Made Better.

Odette Williams. Ten Speed, $28.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-984859-92-1

“There’s nothing a home cook can’t successfully pull off, and, yes, I’m going to convince you to make your own pasta,” promises Australian cook Williams (Simple Cake) in this stellar outing. She starts with a primer on staple pasta dough recipes, modern and traditional ways to roll out pasta dough, and even tips for gluten-free pasta making. An in-depth section, with helpful photographs, teaches readers how to shape their pasta, whether smaller varieties, like farfalle and orecchiette, or larger ones such as strozzapreti. Once readers have mastered the basics, Williams offers up the recipes, serving a healthy balance of pasta classics like carbonara alongside inventive fare including sweet corn and jalapeño ravioli, or skirt steak with olive gremolata and fried gnocchi. Supplementing pasta dishes are “supporting acts” that range from appetizers and salads (among them a colorful mix of heirloom tomato, basil, and olive croutons) to mixed drinks and desserts (pro tip: pair the prosecco tower with the gianduja crème brûlée). Williams’s chatty anecdotes (“My daughter Opal once made a recipe for pasta vodka sauce... it was so strong that it ripped our heads off ”) are just as delightful as the recipes and handy tips (“Cook the potatoes whole, in their skins, so they don’t absorb too much water”). This is a must-have for pasta enthusiasts.

In the Event of Love

Courtney Kae. Kensington, $16.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-4967-3895-0

Kae’s delightful debut elevates the popular Christmastime trope of someone from the big city saving a small town from a heartless developer in a feel-good queer second-chance romance. Event planner Morgan Ann Ross needs to leave Santa Monica after tripping into a gossip-worthy scandal. She takes a gig organizing a fund-raising event in her hometown, Fern Falls, Calif., though she hasn’t been back since her father’s wealthy girlfriend, Christy Vaughn, cruelly rejected his marriage proposal, creating an emotional maelstrom that ruined Morgan’s relationship with her best friend and teen crush, Rachel Reed. Morgan initially balks when she learns that the client is Rachel and her family’s Christmas tree farm, but she softens when she realizes Rachel holds no hard feelings, and goes all in when she discovers that Christy, having taken over a nearby town and transformed it into a ski resort, now intends to raze beloved Fern Falls businesses for an outlet mall. Kae leans heavily into holiday magic without letting things get saccharine, balancing the sweetness of reconnection with steamy eroticism grounded in the feeling of coming home at last. The secondary characters also sparkle, providing cozy feelings of community and support. Readers of all orientations will devour this rainbow-tinted confection.