Rachel Genn’s novel What You Could Have Won explores love, fame, dependence, and emotional manipulation with compassion and sparkling wit.
Astrid is a rock star with a drug problem. She is also in love with Henry, a shady psychiatrist who tries to advance his career by using her as an experiment subject. As Astrid deals with her insecurities, drug dependence, and longing for Henry, he keeps notes on her behavior, feeds her drugs, and plans what he hopes will be his breakout book.
Henry and Astrid’s versions of their relationship appear in alternating chapters. Henry’s is told in the first person and Astrid’s in the second person, the latter resulting in a sense that the audience participates in her struggles. The text also shifts through time to cover Astrid’s tour of the US; the couple’s vacation in Greece; and Astrid’s time at a celebrity rehabilitation center in Paris. It devotes the most attention to Greece, where Astrid’s suspicions of Henry’s motivations grow, but where Henry expresses care only when he is left out from a party that he can hear in the distance. The sections set during Astrid’s tour and in Paris fill in details about the couple’s history and look toward their future.
The novel is brisk as it moves from thought to thought and incident to incident; it requires close attention. But its tone is breezy—a counterpoint to the seriousness of its subject matter. Such contrasts emphasize the weight of Henry’s betrayals and of Astrid’s struggles.
What You Could Have Won is a lively, bracing novel about the perils of attraction; it brims with insights into physical and emotional dependency.
REBECCA HUSSEY (October 27, 2020)
Cyrille Martinez’s clever and incisive novel The Dark Library creates a surreal microuniverse of books, manuscripts, readers, librarians, and historians.
In the Great Library, neglected works are becoming resentful and anguished. They demand to be noticed. Popular fiction enjoys its giddy rate of circulation, while scholarly tomes wait with smug assurance for their researchers. The stacks hum with the secret energy of millions of words and pages.
To outsiders, the Great Library may seem hushed and calm, but for the books, its “a jungle.” Centuries of literature and knowledge are housed here, circled by four imposing glass towers. Visitors and staff glide along on “thick, midnight-blue carpet,” all centered around an encased garden full of greenery and wildlife. Readers question the presence of birds in the library; the birds wonder why a library was built around their forest.
Following the library’s sleek redesign, books and longtime visitors sense menace in the modernization. An exhaustive scanning project shifts much of the collection from paper to the intangible dimension of digital media; quirky workers don robotic scanner eyeglasses; and devoted librarians express that they despise librarian stereotypes. The books protest as they struggle to survive, noting that they live with overpopulation, as well as fears of being warehoused or sent to the dreaded “pulper” for destruction.
But younger patrons have shorter attention spans; they prefer multitasking on laptops and smartphones to actual reading. Meanwhile, an elderly historian takes refuge among the books, but then begins showing up as a character within them. A veiled warning about the future role of libraries is issued, imparting a sense that the quest for modernization should never overwhelm the humanity of the present or the past.
With elegant undertones and wry humor, The Dark Library is a deft satirical novel that exemplifies deep compassion for books and readers.
MEG NOLA (October 27, 2020)
How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed Our View of the Universe
Linda Schweizer’s Cosmic Odyssey is a thrilling account of the cosmological discoveries of the past century that “pulls back the curtain” on the brilliant, eccentric scientists who achieved those breakthroughs.
This exceptional book begins with the history of the Palomar Observatory, from its opening in 1936 through to the evolution of its four large telescopes, including the “Big Eye” with its 200-inch diameter Pyrex mirror. These telescopes have been a constant presence at the forefront of astronomical research. With stunning images and lucid descriptions, Cosmic Odyssey evokes the “cramped, oil-drenched arms of the Big Eye’s massive horseshoe” and the “workhorse gears forged nearly 90 years ago,” where gifted astronomers from across the world have spent countless hours observing the cosmos, “hunched on the small, hard metal seat” in a cage 100 feet above the ground.
Describing monumental insights achieved over many decades, the book paints a masterful portrait of our dynamic, tempestuous universe, with its galaxies colliding, supernovae exploding, stars spewing winds of energy and matter, webs of dark matter linking objects across interstellar space, mysterious brown dwarfs hiding in the outer reaches of the universe, and black holes bending light and gravity.
Cosmic Odyssey also provides an extraordinary insiders’ glimpse into the “pioneers” and “mavericks” who “were enabled by technology, emboldened by curiosity, and open to serendipity” and who, through passion, rivalry, and cooperation, “drove innovation and experimentation.” More than 100 leading astronomers were interviewed for this book, and their individual insights include animated stories about the characters working at the “monastery” on the hill, including a colorful British team observing quasars, dubbed the “Flying Circus,” and two “Buccaneers” who explored the mysteries of Jupiter.
A comprehensive and gripping achievement, Cosmic Odyssey is destined to be a landmark work on the history of astronomy.
KRISTEN RABE (October 27, 2020)
On with the Show
When Ava sees an advertisement for the circus, her mother uses her excitement to get some help around the house. Then, Ava dons her headdress—and her invisible cat, Squishy, dons his top hat—and the family heads to the big top. A cheery palette of pink, red, and golden yellow brings the jugglers and fire breathers to life. But can Ava and Squishy compete when they are mistaken for the finale act?
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (October 27, 2020)
In Ellen Cooney’s thoughtful, beautiful novel One Night Two Souls Went Walking, the traumas of a hospital’s patients become a way to think about the concept of souls.
The book is narrated by an unnamed, third-shift chaplain who nightly visits patients who are struggling through traumas. Her patients include a fifteen-year-old surfer who fell with his friends from a cliff after the ground gave way beneath them; he was the only one who survived, and he is paralyzed in his bed. Also included are a demanding lawyer who feels certain that he had an out-of-body experience during his surgery; an aging librarian who is lonely, afraid, and in need of a friend; and a woman who’s brought to the emergency room after a stroke, but who is determined not to be admitted to the hospital.
The chaplain speaks with each patient, offering what comfort she can. Each shares their stories with her, prompting her to reflect on her own past, her place within her family, and her relationships, too. Meanwhile, the hospital’s new therapy dog is brought in to replace one that recently died; how the dogs assist the chaplain and her patients results in added perspective on comfort, support, and spirituality.
Though the chaplain is Episcopalian, the story is not limited by an emphasis on any particular faith. Each patient shares their own profound moments; their experiences, coupled with the chaplain’s memories, result in a cohesive, thought-provoking story that reveals rare moments of light and connection, making One Night Two Souls Went Walking a meaningful novel that centers hope and peace, even in the face of profound struggles.
CATHERINE THURESON (October 27, 2020)