Fredrik Backman’s new novel Britt-Marie Was Here is a heartwarming story about second chances and unexpected friendships. Backman is revisiting a character we briefly encountered in his previous book, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. Readers may remember Britt-Marie as the annoying “Nag Bag,” but his new novel gives us the chance to get to know her a little better.
On the surface, Britt-Marie seems impossible to like. What she calls helpful and constructive criticism, the rest of the world considers passive aggressive snarking. It seems like Britt-Marie has an obsessive compulsive need to clean everything around her. This, along with her rigid adherence to schedule and her preferred way of doing things, drives everyone around her insane.
Then, at the age of 63, she does something uncharacteristic. Realizing that more of her life is behind her than ahead of her, she leaves her loveless marriage and life as homemaker. Due to the economic crisis in Sweden, the only job available to someone with virtually no work experience is in the wilting town of Borg as the community center’s caretaker.
Borg has lost most of its jobs and all of its hope. It “is a community built along a road. That's really the kindest possible thing one can say about it.” The citizens only seem to come alive when watching, playing or talking about football (or soccer, as it is known here in America). Like most people, they are not enamored with Britt-Marie upon meeting her.
But, because there simply isn’t anyone else, Britt-Marie finds herself coaching the town’s rag-tag youth team. The kids are loud, muddy and frequently irrational, but a bond is soon formed between Britt-Marie and the team. Though she knows absolutely nothing about soccer, she is superb at removing stains from uniforms. Through the team, others in town begin to take a second look at this nag bag and find that, perhaps, they were wrong about her after all.
Backman has a unique style and an unrivaled talent for creating characters we cannot imagine ever sympathizing with, then slowly revealing the wonderful people hidden beneath prickly exteriors. Readers who enjoy quirky characters and stories with all the feels will fall in love with this writer.
I’ll be honest, I had never read Mimi Jean Pamfiloff’s books before, but the cover of Tailored for Trouble sold me at first glance! And the book, the first in the Happy Pants series, exceeded expectations. Sassy, sexy and funny, this romantic comedy serves up two strong-willed and dynamic characters, quirky and memorable secondary characters, a magical sugar cookie and a mother’s dying wish.
Taylor Reed was fed up with dealing with selfish, boorish CEOs in her role at a corporate recruiting company. She reached her limit with pompous, arrogant Bennett Wade and walked out on her job — after giving him a strongly worded piece of her mind. Two months later, she is struggling to get her own company, an executive training course focusing on compassion, off the ground. When Bennett Wade forces his way back into her life, she agrees to coach him, even though his handsome face and brusque demeanor are a constant annoyance.
As Bennett and Taylor travel the world on business, she begins to see a side of Bennett she never imagined, and slowly realizes that he is damaged and is trying to make amends for something in his past. As his soft side is slowly revealed, the intensity between the two grows. Pamfiloff combines skilled writing and brisk pacing to escalate the tension between Bennett and Taylor, and the reader will be rewarded with an enchanting happily-ever-after. While waiting for further installments in this charming series, readers should check out Christina Lauren, J. Kenner or Alice Clayton — all guaranteed to provide the same spicy fun!
Lisa Hanawalt’s new graphic novel Hot Dog Taste Test is a collection of pieces mostly written for the culinary magazine Lucky Peach, but as you probably guessed by the title, Hanawalt’s idea of foodie culture is more casually absurd than you’d expect.
Primarily known for co-creating and designing the characters on Bojack Horseman, Hanawalt has proven herself to be a singular cartoonist as well as a humorist. Simultaneously low-brow and fantastically clever, she comes across like a more wizened version of the kid at the back of the classroom. The one you shouldn’t call on if you don’t want her to derail the entire lecture.
Through her eyes (and her Dumb Dirty Eyes), the world is a vulgar, illogical place — and just a shade surreal. In lush watercolors, she illustrates a hot dog eating contest that also includes a “best in show” section where hot dogs are led around on leashes by their owners. She also explores millennial insecurities like aging and irresponsibility (“Wow, I’m four times as old as you!” she says to an 8-year-old.), while also totally owning the fact that if she had a time machine all of her historical research would be toilet related.
Fans of Bojack Horseman will enjoy her anthropomorphized animal characters like Tuca, Lisa’s socially anxious toucan persona who struggles to prepare dinners that are basically “bananas and ranch,” and others will enjoy her keen eye and wicked sense of humor. Just don’t take her cooking advice. You’ve been warned.
For suburbanite Ben, what starts out as a dull business trip to the Poconos rapidly becomes a horrifying ordeal of epic proportions when he decides to go for The Hike through the local woods. Pursued by a menagerie of monsters through locations found nowhere on Earth, Ben struggles to survive. As he stumbles from one nightmare into the next, he longs for a way to escape the path and return to his family. But to leave the path is to die, and Ben will have to find his way if he ever wants to make it home again.
The Hike is a bloody mash-up of genres, as if author Drew Magary threw The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland and the top 10 B horror movies of all time into a blender to see what would happen. The book is a wild ride from start to finish; once the action starts, it never really lets up. Some of the images are gory, yes, and some of the monsters are really grotesque, but Magary never lets Ben’s experiences on the path descend into the literary equivalent of torture porn. There is a purpose to what Ben is enduring and a destination he has to reach, and the quest-like feel of the narration keeps the plot from being bogged down by too much horror. The violence and heartbreak Ben endures is balanced by Ben’s deadpan humor and determination to see this journey through to the end. The inclusion of some seriously fun characters, including a talking crab, is an added bonus, and there are plenty of surprise twists awaiting Ben and the reader.
These twists make The Hike the engaging and fun read that it is, culminating in a shocking revelation right up to the last page. The Hike is a quick read, with enough bizarre world-building and action to make it perfect for any fan of shows like The Twilight Zone, video games like Limbo or podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale.
Music and history entwine in Bernice McFadden’s newest novel, The Book of Harlan, a story of one African American family spanning generations. McFadden found her inspiration for the title character of Harlan from her paternal grandfather, about whom the author says:
I never personally knew the man and neither did my father. All I had to recreate his life were a birth certificate, census schedules, a few newspaper articles and my imagination.
Emma is the cherished and respectable daughter of a Baptist minister in Macon, Georgia, until carpenter Sam Elliot sweeps her off her feet and, in the oldest story ever, Emma is pregnant. Newly married, Sam and Emma join the Great Migration of African Americans escaping the south and Jim Crow to find a better life, but leave baby Harlan behind with Emma’s parents. Landing in New York City in 1922, America’s prosperity trickles down to the Elliotts, who can finally bring their young son north with them. Harlan develops into a gifted guitarist who thrives in the Harlem Renaissance music scene and his job in a jazz band finds him touring in Paris on the eve of World War II. Hitler’s visions of extermination aren’t limited to Jews, and Harlan and his bandmate Lizard are caught up in an unimaginable nightmare.
McFadden does not sugarcoat the lives of the Elliott family, and by extension, the broader African American experience. Poverty, single motherhood, addiction, injustice and race-based prejudice cycle around again and again, making the upward mobility to which the Elliotts aspire a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey. From the turn-of-the-century segregated south to the Newark riots of 1967, The Book of Harlan offers a sweeping view of 20th century African American life in which the constant is the unbreakable bonds of family and friends. Readers who enjoy Bernice McFadden’s perspective should also try The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
The year is 2089 and humanity’s vices have only grown more severe with time; the only escape from the bleak reality of a world wrecked by pollution is to sugarcoat the dreary with flashy new virtual distractions. The neon-splashed cyberpunk future of Rick Remender and Sean Murphy’s Tokyo Ghost: Vol. 1 is equal parts entertaining and unsettling.
Constable Led Dent is a ruthless servant of the criminal overlords running Los Angeles, numbed to the horrendous acts of violence he commits by his seemingly unbreakable addiction to constant artificial audiovisual stimulation. Led’s only remaining link to the real world is his partner and lover, Debbie, whose unwavering dedication to finding a way to get Led clean lands them with a dangerous job in Tokyo, the last bastion of technology-free living in a world obsessed with staying connected.
Artist Sean Murphy and colorist Matt Hollingsworth are a flawless art team. Murphy’s dynamic lines and Hollingsworth’s masterful use of texture and color make for page after page of truly jaw-dropping artwork. Frenetic action sequences are rendered in hyper-detailed gory glory, the futuristic media projections are colorful and full of playful nods to current pop culture trends, and the tranquil landscapes of Tokyo stand in stark contrast to the gaudy streets of Los Angeles.
Remender often uses his stories to explore topical ideas pushed to their extremes, and Tokyo Ghost is no exception; while the exaggerated technology and over-the-top characters exist firmly in the realm of science fiction, you’re sure to latch onto at least one idea in this book that will make you examine the way that you interact with the world.
If you’re as blown away by the art in this book as I was, try The Wake, an Eisner Award-winning series that pairs the same art team with writer Scott Snyder and somehow manages to make fish people scary. Seriously.