SALT LAKE CITY — If the film world saves their finest films for fall (to capitalize on awards season), spring is the high season for books, which is where we come in. To help you dig through the stacks of new titles on the bookstore shelves (both physical and digital), we've sorted out the ones that looked most interesting to us, read them and reviewed them.
For fans of good stories:
"THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN," by Lisa See, Scribner, 384 pages (f)
Lisa See’s latest novel is a powerful story that takes place before, during and after the Korean War. The story centers on the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja, two girls from different backgrounds who remain close friends until their relationship reaches the ultimate breaking point. See gives readers a masterful, nuanced look at female relationships, but the real star of the show is the unique historical setting. Young-sook and Mi-ja are haenyeo: female divers on the Korean island of Jeju, where the women's ability to free dive in frigid ocean waters created a semi-matriarchal society at a time when such a thing was unheard of. Some haenyeo still exist today, and See’s skill at making this culture an integral part of the story adds another layer of interest to a story that is captivating, heartbreaking and memorable.
Content advisory: "The Island of Sea Women" contains scenes of warfare and domestic abuse. Sex is discussed, but not graphically.
— Savannah Hopkinson
For the religious and social history minded:
"AMERICAN MESSIAHS: False Prophets of a Damned Nation," by Adam Morris, Liveright, 432 pages (nf)
It's easy to dismiss less popular religious movements: They don't last long. They adopt odd beliefs. Members don't act like typical Americans or even typical churchgoers. But Adam Morris' "American Messiahs" invites you to take a closer look. The book analyzes lesser-known religious movements on their own terms, exploring their origins, their teachings and what led people to join. These controversial groups played and continue to play an important role in American history, offering a new life for people facing poverty, racial or sexual discrimination and loneliness. "American Messiahs" was sometimes too academic for my taste, but it's well-paced and fascinating.
Content advisory: This book includes a few descriptions of sexual assault and other acts of physical violence in order to explore the abuses of power allowed within some religious communities.
— Kelsey Dallas
For the traveling wordsmith:
"GREEK TO ME: Adventures of the Comma Queen," by Mary Norris, W.W. Norton & Company, 240 pages (nf)
In 2016, the reading public formally met Mary Norris in her delightful memoir "Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen," but readers of The New Yorker unwittingly read her work for some 30 years while she worked as a copy editor at that vaunted magazine. In full disclosure, I met Norris on a press trip to Greece and provided her with some notes of our trip to help her with this new book, which is a fascinating travelogue of her long obsession with the Greek language. Norris is as charming on the page as she is in person. As a narrator, she's simply good company — witty, droll and up for anything. As a linguist, Norris's curiosity and passion for language is infectious and readers won't be able to stop themselves from joining in on her enthusiastic hunt for the connections between Greek and English. This is a laugh-out-loud travel memoir through Greece in all of its forms.
Content advisory: "Greek To Me" contains references to sex and a few swear words.
— Cristy Meiners
For biography lovers:
"THE DAMASCUS ROAD: A Novel of Saint Paul," by Jay Parini, Doubleday, 368 pages (f)
Jay Parini, a poet and teacher, is keeping alive the mid-20th-century tradition of great walloping fictional biographies that attempt to encapsulate entire ages, the human condition and the passion of great (usually) men in 400-500 pages. His latest, "The Damascus Road," is about St. Paul. The voices of Parini's two main characters, Paul and Luke, are distinct and appealing and capture two models of religiosity; Paul's metaphorical visionary nicely balances Luke's plodding logician. Parini's prose is often overly expository and a bit on the nose ("You want everything explained," his Paul says to Luke. "This annoys me."), and the book thus feels as much textbook as novel. But that means Parini has done his research. It seems likely that the figures he describes largely believed and said and did what he has them believing and saying and doing. And sometimes, Parini's scenes sing: the dusty roads, the squatting clay huts, the rough marble of the Roman baths. His prose may thud sometimes, but it can also soar, and it is rewarding to experience the vitality of early Christianity through his densely woven chapters.
Content advisory: "The Damascus Road" contains discussions of sex but nothing overt.
— Matt Bowman
For fans of thoughtful YA novels and 'The Hate You Give':
"ON THE COME UP," by Angie Thomas, Balzer + Bray, 464 pages (f)
Coming off the success of "The Hate You Give," Angie Thomas’ second novel, "On the Come Up,” hits similar notes as she continues to address serious topics. Bri is a 16-year-old girl who wants to be a rapper more than anything else — but she also wants to achieve success on her own merits and shake free of the shadow of her late father, an underground hip-hop legend. After school security officers manhandle her and she’s suspended from school, Bri retaliates with an anthem that goes viral. Her freedom of speech is called into question when critics call for censorship of her music even as she tries to leverage her fame to provide for her struggling family. The story takes place in the same neighborhood as "The Hate You Give" and references events that happen in the previous book, but readers should be able to follow along without reading both books. Bri’s freestyling is infectiously joyous, contrasting the hardships her family is enduring. Bri’s life is hard, and Thomas does a good job of painting that picture and the other facets of life that consumes a high schooler.
Content advisory: "On the Come Up" contains gang violence, drug references, explicit language and teenage hormones.
— Ginny Romney
For those who love high adventure and social justice:
"THE END OF THE WORLD AND BEYOND," by Avi, Algonquin Young Readers, 337 pages (f)
When we reviewed the first of this two-parter back in 2017, we wrote that it was a "rip-roaring adventure tale with thieves, kidnappings and some truly awful bad guys." Whereas that first book, "The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts," was a Dickensian sprint through London's sordid underbelly, this second installment of the life of young Oliver is, frankly, far more dreadful. Oliver finds himself as an indentured servant on a Maryland tobacco plantation following his escape from the English gallows in the first book. But after spending a few chapters with him under the rule of his master Fitzhugh, readers and Oliver alike might think the gallows would have been a better option. Fitzhugh is one evil character — cruel, murderous, miserly — this guy practically makes Voldemort look compassionate. Newbery Medal winner Avi ("The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle") is a skilled writer, and here he cleverly blends page-turning adventures with America's painful social history. Readers will be entertained — and stressed out — even while learning about the plight of the slaves and indentured servants who helped build our country.
Content advisory: Oliver prevails, but his journey is as dark and difficult as one could imagine. Things get gruesome, but the book is suitable for readers age 8 and up.
— Cristy Meiners
For royal watchers:
I couldn't help myself. When "Harry and Meghan" landed on my desk and four out of the five women who walked by said, "Oh, I want to read this!" I decided to include it in this article. Love them or hate them, the royals do spark curiosity, even if its only to mock their privileged ways. Royal expert Katie Nicholl has written a readable, largely entertaining biography of Britain's Prince Harry, with Meghan Markle added in over halfway through this zippy book. Imagine a less snarky, more informed US Weekly article, where the sources are actually named, and that fairly well sums up "Harry and Meghan." Harry comes across as a likeable, hardworking young man who mostly enjoys his rich-man life, with just enough angst and trouble-making thrown in to keep things interesting. If you're like me, you'll skim the "Harry in the military" chapters and gobble up the "Harry dates Chelsy, Cressida and finally, Meghan" chapters with unashamed glee. With a new royal baby on the way, why be a hater? "Harry and Meghan" dishes on the lives of these rich, pretty and seemingly good people in the most gentle, cheerful way, giving us the gossip with very little of the guilt.
Content advisory: "Harry and Meghan" alludes to Harry's indiscretions in the most genteel of terms.
— Cristy Meiners