Cults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them by Max Cutler, Kevin Conley

This shocking study by the creator of the podcast Cults recounts and dissects the leaders, followers and histories of 10 extreme cults.

“Everyone wants to believe in something or someone: a higher ideal, a god on earth, a voice from heaven…. When this appetite for belief combines with the need to belong, great things can happen…. But what about those rare moments when the dark side of human nature takes hold?” The shocking Cults, based on the Parcast podcast of the same name, surveys some of the most famous and disturbing examples of small, extremist, ill-fated sects. Parcast founder Max Cutler is joined by Kevin Conley (Stud; The Full Burn) in writing this roundup of frighteningly charismatic leaders and their followers.

Ten chapters cover 10 cults chosen for their impacts on the world’s imagination, beginning (naturally) with Charles Manson and his “family.” Cutler’s focus is both narrative, detailing the story of the leader’s upbringing and the cult’s rise and fall, and also probing: Cults is interested in motivations and, to the extent possible, diagnoses. “With so many cult leaders who died suddenly or violently, any diagnosis of psychological disturbance is purely speculative,” but the temptation is strong. “Cult leaders make such good case studies: because the gruesome facts of their biographies are both widely known and easy to connect to a psychological disorder.” Cults are labeled in the table of contents by the root cause Cutler has identified for each leader’s actions. According to this system, Manson was motivated by shame, as was Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, whose Narcosatanists were responsible for at least 16 deaths in Mexico in the 1980s.

Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple was driven by exploitation, taking advantage of his followers financially and sexually until the deaths of 908 Americans (including Jones) in what was called “Jonestown” in Guyana. Likewise exploitative was the bizarre Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose ashrams in India and then Oregon supported his desire for both nitrous oxide and Rolls Royces (he owned 93 at one point), and who laced Oregonian salad bars with salmonella in a bid for local political control. Pathological lying, megalomania, sadism, escape and denial of reality cover the remaining cults: Claude Vorilhon’s Raëlism, Roch Thériault’s Ant Hill Kids, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, Keith Raniere’s NXIVM, Credonia Mwerinde’s Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate. Manipulative, self-aggrandizing, compelling and lacking in empathy, these characters (in every sense) are by turns laughable, inexplicably strange and chillingly, brutally cruel. Not for the faint of heart but absolutely for the true-crime junkie, Cults is packed with details and unafraid to posit theories to explain these superlatively weird and scary stories.


This review originally ran in the April 22, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 mixtures containing applesauce.

Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do by Tracy Dawson

Humorous profiles of more than 30 women in history who broke gender barriers offer righteous inspiration.

In 2013, television writer and actor Tracy Dawson was passed over for a job writing shows because they didn’t have any “female needs.” Naturally infuriated, she became interested in women over the centuries whose opportunities and options have been limited by their sex. From this curiosity is born Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do, in which Dawson profiles several dozen women from the 1400s BCE through the present. In a pithy, one-liner-laden style, she brings these remarkable and little-known histories to light with comedic flair.

Some of the women are classics: Joan of Arc, Kathrine Switzer and a chapter’s worth of once-anonymous literary figures who are now household names (Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontës, George Sand). But the majority are more obscure: Maria Toorpakai, professional squash player born in 1990 who defied the ultra-conservative norms of her region of Pakistan when she disguised herself as a boy to play sports; Hannah Snell, who served as a Royal Marine in the 1750s; Ellen Craft, who fled slavery in 1848 disguised as a white male slaveowner. A teenaged Dorothy Lawrence, rejected as war correspondent in World War I, took herself to the front by boat, bicycle and soldier’s garb. The 1890s entertainer and male impersonator Florence Hines, 1941 comic book creator Tarpé Mills and 1980s miner and entrepreneur Pili Hussein are among these diverse, colorful stories. Others are antiheroes, like witch-pricker Christian Caddell or all-around scoundrel Catalina de Erauso. Dawson is careful to point out that her focus is on “women who dressed as men to gain access and opportunity, not on gender identity,” since the latter is notoriously difficult to parse from a historical perspective, particularly since many of the women she profiles have left scant records. Their motivations vary as widely as other aspects of their identities and stories, but each of these women pushed boundaries in ways that remain inspirational for Dawson and her readers today.

Let Me Be Frank is peppered with punchy jokes in an informal, conversational tone that suits Dawson’s background in television. Joan of Arc is compared to Beyoncé; U.K.-born Annie Hindle’s stage name is received with “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Dawson delivers these historical profiles, born of research, in a lighthearted voice. Tina Berning’s portraits evoke the women’s personalities and literally color the narratives. The result is an easy-to-read, eye-opening look at female bravery amid the sexism and misogyny throughout history; it is funny and rousing and proud.


This review originally ran in the March 25, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 clusters of tanzanite.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Tom Perrotta

Following Monday’s review of Tracy Flick Can’t Win, here’s Tom Perrotta: ‘I Could Not Write It Any Other Way.’


Tom Perrotta is the bestselling author of 10 works of fiction, including Election and Little Children, both of which were made into critically acclaimed movies, and The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher, which were adapted into HBO series. His work has been translated into numerous languages. Perrotta grew up in New Jersey and lives outside Boston.

Do readers need to know Election to follow or to enjoy this novel?

photo: Beowulf Sheehan

I don’t think of it as a straightforward sequel. Tracy tells you all the facts that you absolutely need to know. The two books are in a dialog, and reading them together can tell you a lot about the intervening years, not just for Tracy but for the country as a whole. Election was a bit ahead of its time in its focus on the relationship that Tracy has with her teacher, disputed elections, the teacher who abuses his power–a lot of things that were undercurrents back then and now they’re mainstream discussions. The two books are bookends of all that social history.

How do you explain that prescience?

There are many reasons why Tracy has persisted as a character. Reese Witherspoon put her on the map with that amazing performance. But, weirdly, I think when I wrote that book–and maybe I’m wrong and somebody can give another example–but I think there weren’t novels about women politicians. (There were of course women politicians.) As a novelist I think I got in early on that. Then it became this memorable movie, and as a result, when journalists wanted to use an example in popular culture for a certain kind of woman politician, Tracy would come up. Over all those years she was compared to Hillary Clinton, to Sarah Palin, to Kirsten Gillibrand, Elise Stefanik; she just became a kind of catch-all for an ambitious woman. But the idea of an unapologetically ambitious woman–she’s young, but she has a goal, and she’s not afraid to express it. Her mother has raised her to pursue it. And that felt like something new in the world.

It felt like the culture wasn’t done with Tracy. I was really intrigued by a couple of high-profile essays kind of reckoning with her legacy–Rebecca Traister wrote one and A.O. Scott wrote another–seeing her in the light of #metoo, and realizing that the first wave of interpretations that saw Tracy as this kind of ego-monster came from a sexist lens. And suddenly this character was being interpreted from a whole new perspective. It was fascinating for me. When #metoo really came into being I was thinking about how I had portrayed Tracy in the first book, especially in relationship to her “affair” and her sense of her own sexual agency. I saw so many women in these stories who said “I had an affair with a teacher, and at the time I felt that it was my choice, it was all consensual… this was almost part of a feminist agenda, that I can pursue what I want. I see myself as an independent sexual agent in the world. Then 20-30 years later, wait a second, maybe the power imbalance was more complicated and nefarious than I believed.” And I wondered if Tracy would undergo a similar revision of her past. We all revise our pasts as we get older. We simplify, we turn it into a story that we can live with. And I think one of the things that #metoo did was it forced a lot of people to revisit their pasts and say, was that what I thought it was? Do I have a narrative that can accommodate it; was I deceiving myself? Tracy is reacting and I am reacting to an incident that happened, fictionally, 25 years ago or so, and looking at it in this new light, through this relatively fresh cultural lens.

Did you always know Tracy would be back?

No, and I’m glad that it took this long. Funny thing is, when I wrote Election, Tracy was not the central character. When I started, I knew that it was about Mr. M, and the way I conceived the book was a brother and sister running against each other for class president. Tracy was there as the favorite. That happens sometimes: you write a character that seems smallish, and they take on a kind of energy that you didn’t expect. And then Reese Witherspoon took that energy and ran with it. I felt like the culture took that character over, beyond the pages.

Writing this “sequel” was an accident, again. I started with the story of Vito Falcone. He also relates to #metoo: these formerly powerful male figures who had this sense of entitlement that was given to them in those past years, the football heroes. Now he’s coming back to his high school to be honored, but he himself is a wreck of a man. That was the idea, to examine the wreckage of toxic masculinity. But I kept wanting to write it in the style of Election, with multiple perspectives, short sections. And I really resisted. I thought, why am I quoting myself by stealing this form that I used back in the ’90s? It felt like I wasn’t letting the book have its own shape, but I could not write it any other way. I started to see Tracy Flick. Why does Tracy want to be part of this book? And once I understood–oh, she’s at this high school, she’s part of it, she’s horrified that they’re going to honor this guy, because he brings back all these triggering memories of her own high school, where guys like this outshone her when they had no right to. And that’s when I had the book. But I didn’t know it for some time, and I was very annoyed by my inability to understand why I wanted to write it this way. It was as if Tracy was raising her hand saying, put me in!

Is humor a gift you’re born with, or can the rest of us learn it?

This one puzzles me. When I write, I am funny, but when I’m being myself, I’m not so funny. I tend toward serious. It’s enabled by the freedom of writing. I feel like a lot of funny people are really quick, and I’m not so quick. I do have a highly developed sense of absurdity. The reason I resist the word satire is that it suggests that the writer and the audience are looking down on the characters, saying aren’t these people ridiculous? Aren’t they deeply flawed? We superior beings, we’re almost like gods looking down at the mortals. And I never feel that way. I always feel that my characters are as troubled as I am and trying as hard as I am. And I don’t want my audience to look down on the characters. I want them to feel, I have that burning ambition in me. Or I remember what it feels like, or what it’s like to make a bad mistake. That is really the level I want: to engage my characters as equals, as people who are struggling with some of the same things that I’m struggling with. And I hope my audience reads them in the same way, and that’s it. That can be very funny. People can be very funny in that they never live up to their ideals; they lie and they cheat but they want to be better. Our imperfections can be disappointing, can be troubling, but they can be very funny. I had a friend years ago who said he thought I was very Catholic, in the sense that I believed people are sinners, and I didn’t think it disqualified them from love. It’s an outlook.


This interview originally ran on March 22, 2022 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on March 22, 2022.


Tracy Flick, the ambitious but unlucky protagonist of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel Election (and the 1999 movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon), is back and still striving in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Familiarity with Election can’t hurt, but isn’t necessary to follow this next installment. Perrotta (The Leftovers; Little Children) serves up his signature black comedy and shrewd wit in an expertly paced novel of great cleverness and charm. The title character is now 40-ish and working as assistant principal at Green Meadow High School, in a shabby-idyllic New Jersey suburb. Life hasn’t turned out as Tracy had hoped. She left law school to care for her beloved mother, whose death 10 years ago still leaves a gaping hole. Instead of being a high-powered attorney on a rocket-like political trajectory, she serves as the hardworking second-in-command at an unremarkable public school whose football team disappoints everyone in town (except Tracy, who couldn’t care less). Then Principal Jack Weede announces his pending retirement, and it might finally be Tracy’s time to shine. But of course, nothing’s ever easy.

Kyle Dorfman, one of the town’s most successful alumni (he got rich off a virtual pet app) returns with the idea of putting together a Green Meadow High School Hall of Fame. He is also the new school board president, and therefore someone Tracy needs in her corner, but it’s not clear where his loyalties really lie (aside from with Kyle). The first meeting of the Hall of Fame selection committee immediately turns sour: the obvious candidate turns out to be a former star quarterback, and Tracy’s seen this routine before.

Tracy Flick Can’t Win is timely. It opens with a review of the #metoo era and headlines filled with “one powerful man after another toppled from his pedestal, exposed as a sexual predator,” which gives Tracy unpleasant memories of high school: “It was ancient history, a brief misguided affair–that’s the wrong word, I know, but it’s the one I’ve always used–with my sophomore English teacher, a few regrettable weeks of my teenage life.” Tracy sees the world changing around her but hasn’t entirely figured out her own version of it yet.

This adult Tracy Flick is vulnerable, socially awkward, frustrated and disillusioned. “My mother had been wrong: fame wasn’t a reward for your hard work. It was a lottery, pure dumb luck, and it didn’t matter anyway, not in the long run.” She’s still ambitious but worried it may be too late for her; she’s been passed over for promotions, and not completing law school still smarts. Her romantic life becomes needlessly complicated when her supposed catch of a surgeon boyfriend turns clingy. Baking a cake for her daughter’s 11th birthday gives her a chance to reflect on their mother-daughter relationship, which disappoints her, by contrast to her very close bond with her own late mother. The maturing Tracy has taken up a meditation practice for her blood pressure, and is working to navigate the nuances and challenges of a life less sparkly and more complicated than the one she’d intended to lead.

One of Perrotta’s talents is obviously forming character. Tracy is delightfully complex; Principal Weede has secrets of his own, and a touching vulnerability as well as some less admirable qualities. Kyle is not well liked, but his attempts to compensate offer comic opportunities. The aging star quarterback nominated for the Hall of Fame, Vito Falcone, is now a recovering alcoholic working on making amends, his process by turns pitiful and hilarious. And the high school’s much-loved, longtime front desk lady, Diane, is perhaps the novel’s most rewarding surprise.

Chapters shift in perspective, mainly between Tracy Flick, Jack Weede and Kyle Dorfman, whose first-person voices are joined by those of the two students who serve on the selection committee. (It’s déjà vu for Tracy when these are an overachieving but under-recognized girl and an affable but less impressive boy who’d beaten her out for Student Council president.) Third-person chapters feature a few other characters, like Vito Falcone and Front Desk Diane. In contrast to Tracy’s justified bitterness, we get other perspectives: “The truth is, we’re all prisoners of our historical context. Anybody who says morality is absolute, that right and wrong don’t change over time, you know what? They just haven’t lived long enough.” These points of view paint Green Meadow–and Tracy–in different lights, and allow Perrotta’s comedic zings to shine. Tracy Flick Can’t Win is many things: of-the-moment cultural criticism, a darkly comic drama of human relationships in suburbia, a moving sendup and a novel of racing momentum. By its end, Tracy is headed either for the triumph she’s been seeking since she was a high school student, or a meltdown the likes of which Green Meadow has never seen–or maybe both.

Perrotta’s classic combination of insight, humor and empathy is perhaps perfected in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. This novel has something for both the reader with a gimlet eye on the real world and the reader seeking an escape from it.


Rating: 7 bigger and better things.

Come back Friday for my interview with Perrotta.

Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

With lively and appealing historical detail, this mystery turns a poor factory worker into a sleuth when a murder disrupts the party at her favorite jazz speakeasy.

In Last Call at the Nightingale, Katharine Schellman (The Body in the Garden) serves up Prohibition-era murder and intrigue with style, atmosphere and a side of bootlegged bubbles and gin. The first in a Jazz Age mystery series, this novel will appeal to readers on several levels.

In 1920s New York City, Vivian Kelly is alone in the world but for her stick-in-the-mud older sister, Florence. Vivian works for a pittance and receives less respect in a dressmaker’s factory, but at night she has a space where she can forget her poor pricked fingers and dance ’til last call: the Nightingale, a speakeasy jazz club. “She needed to feel like she belonged somewhere, to feel there was something in her life that actually belonged to her,” and the Nightingale and its staff and patrons give her just that. Vivian is “poor orphan Irish trash”; her best friend Bea is Black; bartender Danny is Chinese; and the bar’s owner, Ms. Honor Huxley (don’t call her Miss), prefers other women as her dance partners. The Nightingale is a place where anything goes, more or less–until one night that includes murder.

When Vivian discovers a body just outside the club’s back door, she finds herself thrown into circumstances beyond her usual daytime drudgery and nighttime frolics. “I grew up in an orphanage. I live in a tenement. People die faster there than on Park Avenue,” she blusters, but she’s in over her head. Arrested in a raid, she owes her bail bond to the intimidating but sexy and intriguing Ms. Huxley. Then a mysterious stranger arrives from Chicago and begins pursuing Vivian. Threatening bruisers are hot on her tail, and Florence is increasingly displeased by the younger sister’s nightlife. Vivian at first feels pressure from others to solve the murder; eventually she may need to do so to save her own life. A poor dressmaker’s apprentice, she creeps into the parlors of the powerful to poke into their secrets, and finds herself pinned between the criminal underworld and the careless menace of the very rich. Time is running out, but this protagonist is as plucky as they come.

Readers will love Last Call at the Nightingale for its twisting plot, its flair for historical detail and its inclusive cast of appealing characters. Schellman’s author’s note on historical accuracy broadens the appeal of this engrossing jaunt into murder and dangerously good times. Don’t look away, as the surprises keep coming until the final page.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 stitches.

Boys Come First by Aaron Foley

Three gay, Black, millennial men in Detroit face romantic, professional and existential challenges together in this deeply engaging novel about the importance of friendship.

With Boys Come First, Aaron Foley (How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass) offers a delightful novel about romantic and career ambitions, friendship and the particular charms of and challenges faced by gay Black millennial men in Detroit. Chapters alternate perspectives among a lovable trio of friends.

Readers first meet Dominick as he departs New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in a fluster: the start-up advertising firm he’d taken a chance on has just failed, immediately before he walked in on his boyfriend of eight years with another man. Dom flees home to Detroit to lick his wounds and reconnect with his old friend Troy. Troy teaches sixth grade at a charter school, eschewing his father’s considerable wealth in favor of giving back to the community, but he’s frustrated in his relationship with a domineering boyfriend, and the school’s charter is now under threat. Feeling a little stagnant, Troy has just picked up a mild-to-moderate cocaine habit. Meanwhile, Troy’s college friend Remy has styled himself as “Mr. Detroit,” a real estate prodigy and local celebrity: outwardly successful, but struggling to find meaningful connection with a partner who wants more than sex. (Remy oozes style, so it suits his character that his chapters are the only ones written in first person.) Remy likes sex, no mistake–each of the friends does, but each is also in search of something more meaningful.

Dom and Remy hit it off, and the boys’ club is complete. With group texts and happy hours around town, they support each other through messy hookups via dating app, professional disappointments and workplace microaggressions, heartbreaks and more. That is, until Remy’s latest development opportunity conflicts with Troy’s local advocacy. In Dom’s mind, “when you’re Black, gay, and thirtysomething, time always feels like it’s running out,” and these men feel both in-common and individual pressures to which any reader can relate.

Boys Come First is rich in flavor and detail, benefiting from Remy’s comprehensive knowledge of Motor City neighborhoods, Troy’s hyperlocal concerns for his school and Dom’s perspective as he returns from afar. The changing demographics of contemporary Detroit, by class but most pointedly by race, are front and center. Foley’s novel shows range, with its fun, silly and pathos-filled handling of the love-and-sex storylines, serious commentary on social issues and an endearing representation of sincere (if troubled) friendships. Unforgettable characters, madcap fun and mishaps converge in this sweet and, finally, aspirational story.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 glasses of Lambrusco.

Friend of the Devil by Stephen Lloyd

This singular novel of teenaged hijinks, a mysterious missing book, potentially profound evil and PTSD is wry, shockingly violent, philosophical and laugh-out-loud funny.

Stephen Lloyd’s Friend of the Devil offers a captivating blend of madcap mischief, terrifying and gory malevolence and thoughtful ruminations on humanity. Gruesome, deadly serious and frequently hilarious, this novel is an unusual cocktail.

Sam Gregory works as an inspector for an insurance company, responsible for rooting out fraud or solving cases like this one: a valuable antique book gone missing from the library of Danforth Putnam, a snooty boarding school on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. A war veteran, Sam pops pills to clear his mind of the traumatic memories and bad dreams that haunt him. He feels only a jaded weariness at the privileged antics of the students (and for that matter, the staff), but dutifully searches for the missing volume, sure there’s nothing here but another case of a drug-addled teen or disgruntled employee.

Sam is so wrong. But on his way to shocking, elemental horrors, he (and readers) will meet magnetic characters like the indomitable Harriet (D&D dungeon master, student journalist, extreme nerd and loyal friend) and bitter, acerbic Dale (a charity case at Danforth, which no one will ever let him forget). Despite his initial impressions of the school, Sam will take away unexpected lessons from these and other inhabitants of the island. What haunts Danforth and its very special missing book will turn out to be seriously sinister, and by the time Sam approaches its true nature–supernatural, or simple human evil?–the stakes will be ultimate.

Sam’s sardonic wit and tough-guy demeanor impart a flavor of classic noir. Harriet, who moves swiftly and unstoppably from bullying victim to plucky heroine, is a pure pleasure. Lloyd, who is also a TV writer and producer (Modern Family; How I Met Your Mother), showcases a talent for description and rich sensory detail from the first pages, when readers meet the rarified denizens of Danforth, “a diverse group… in every way but one. They were all filthy rich.” His characters are colorful, lovable or repellant, and the almost casual facility with which he kills them off is impressive.

Lightning-paced and undeniably weird, this is not a tale for everyone, as it bounces around between witch hunting and mythical evils, teenaged betrayals, PTSD, petty crime, bloody violence and delightful dry humor. But for the right reader, Friend of the Devil‘s unusual brand of gore and laughs is wildly, wickedly entertaining and positively unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the March 4, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Junior Mints.

Sister Stardust by Jane Green

In this captivating coming-of-age novel, a teenager from the English countryside throws herself into life in 1960s Marrakech in a grand adventure that will color the rest of her life.

Sister Stardust is the captivating coming-of-age story of a shop girl from Dorset swept into 1960s Marrakech among the rich and famous. Jane Green (Summer Secrets; The Sunshine Sisters) dazzles readers with the brilliant adventures of Claire, who leaves behind a little Dorset village and a troubled relationship with her stepmother to journey to London. From there she is astonished to achieve a few girlhood dreams: losing baby fat, working in progressively hipper clothing stores and buying cooler clothes, finally meeting real, live rock stars and setting off on a spur-of-the-moment trip that will change her life forever. But even as she embarks on drugs, sex and cultural discoveries, Claire–by now calling herself Cece–finds that fabulous celebrities have their problems, too, and a tabloid-picture-perfect lifestyle is no guarantee of happiness.

This story takes the form of an extended flashback, as an elderly, widowed Claire goes through boxes in the attic and finally tells her daughter, Tally, what the colorful Moroccan artifacts were meant to remind her of. Still in her teens, Claire had jumped into a silver Bentley and been flown away to Marrakech, where she became the houseguest of 1960s icons Paul and Talitha Getty (true historical figures), running with a large group of famous musicians (of the fictional hit band the Wide-Eyed Boys) and an enigmatic chauffeur/bodyguard named Jimmy. The newly minted Cece experiments with hashish, opium, Quaaludes and orgies; she develops a passionate bond with Talitha, “this mysterious woman who lived in a palace and had managed to seduce the son of the richest man in the world,” and a close friendship with Paul, who introduces her to poetry, opera and more. However, a tragedy will change Cece’s course once again.

As a girl, Claire naively imagines that becoming skinny and flat-ironing her hair will be the answer to all her problems, as she dreams about pop stars and beautiful dresses. “Of course, I would have settled for Paul McCartney, but Dave Boland was my number one.” As a grandmother, telling these stories to her daughter, she draws different conclusions: the value of friendship, of self-actualization, of seizing the day. This dreamy narrative emphasizes life lessons and revels in the glitter and dazzle of 1960s free love and sex in more or less equal measure. Sister Stardust gathers momentum and achieves the kind of propulsive prose that brings immediacy to its joys and sorrows. Female friendships, the arts and the sensory joys of Morocco combine for a sparkling coming-of-age story of simple adventure and profound experiences.


This review originally ran in the February 8, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 babouches.

author interview: Juneau Black

Following my review of Shady Hollow, here’s Juneau Black: ‘It’ll Be Handled.’


Juneau Black is the pen name of authors Jocelyn Cole and Sharon Nagel. They share a love of excellent bookshops, fine cheeses and good murders (in fictional form only). Though they grew up separately, if you ask either of them a question about their childhood, you are likely to get the same answer. Shady Hollow (out now from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, originally published in 2015 by Hammer & Birch), is the first in their series by the same name; the next two installments will follow close on its heels: Cold Clay (March 2022) and Mirror Lake (April 2022).

Why the pen name?

Juneau Black, aka Jocelyn Cole (l.) and Sharon Nagel

Sharon Nagel: We were both booksellers for a long time, and the problem with two-author books is that they inevitably get shelved in the wrong place.

Jocelyn Cole: The pseudonym Juneau Black is a nod to Milwaukee and the bookstore where we both spent so much time. Juneau is Solomon Juneau, who is one of the founders of the city, and Black is Schwartz [in German, schwarz means black]–we both worked at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops for years.

What’s the origin story?

SN: After Schwartz Bookshops closed and [its flagship store] became Boswell Books, on a slow night, we were pricing finger puppets. They were all these adorable little woodland creatures, and so we decided to give them names and occupations, and we said what if they lived here and did this, and so we wrote a story about them.

JC: And because NaNoWriMo was coming up, we had this idea: What if we just trade off days and see if we could get a novel out of it?

How do two people together write a novel?

JC: I imagine it’s different for every team. We were physically at the same bookshop and talking together every day for the first book, so we just sent a Word file back and forth. I would write 1,667 words, because that’s what NaNoWriMo suggests you do, send the file to Sharon, and then she’d write the next day and e-mail it back, until we had what very roughly approximated a draft of a novel.

SN: We seem to have the same snarky sense of humor, so it didn’t seem like two separate people. It melded pretty well.

JC: There was definitely an editing process after, to glue things together. But I think it speaks to the fact that we are on the same wavelength that when I go back now and read passages from Shady Hollow, I have no idea who wrote what.

SN: No idea.

JC: I do freelance editing, so that was already a little bit in my wheelhouse. I edited the first pass, but we did then hire an editor, to be an objective voice and be sure it was really clean.

And now you’re moving from an independent publisher [Hammer & Birch] to a traditional one.

SN: It’s a simple thing. All you have to do is work in bookstores for 10 years and meet people. No, actually we were very fortunate to have a wonderful publishing rep for Penguin Random House who I’ve known for many years, and one day he said, “Hey, I’d like to show your work to my bosses,” and we were like, “Ha, go ahead!” And fortunately for us they were interested.

JC: It’s been a pretty smooth process, because the books were already written and published. We weren’t on the hook to complete a novel after making a deal. It was just getting more polished, copyediting again for house style and cleaning up any last remaining edits. And beautiful new covers! It’s been really nice to see the difference between doing everything ourselves and having a team, which is just amazing.

And they’re publishing all three books!

JC: I think they were excited that they could see what was there already. They weren’t just buying an idea; they had read all three books and liked them.

What are the challenges of animal characters versus human ones?

SN: Not so much in the writing, because we’re fully invested in the idea of our animals. But when you handsell it to a person and try to explain what it is, you either get immediate enchantment or you get the look that says… I don’t want any part of this. Not everybody is really into it, but those that are, are heavily into it.

JC: A lot of people do assume it’s for kids, because it’s animals, which I understand, but on the other hand it’s also murder. They’re very anthropomorphic animals, so we’re writing them just as we would any character. You occasionally stumble over a word like handkerchief in draft–oh, they don’t have hands, they wouldn’t have that word. You realize certain terms are so human-centric; you have to work around that.

How did your bookseller careers help you write a successful novel?

SN: I think we can appreciate how important indie bookstores are to a writer’s journey. When booksellers love a book, they will sell it to anyone who will stand still long enough. Our biggest cheerleader is Daniel Goldin, the owner of Boswell Books, and we always said, if we just had Daniels all over the country… and now we sort of do. Daniel tirelessly promotes us and other writers–it’s what he does all the time, and he does it so well.

JC: It comes from our history of being booksellers and loving books. We’ve both been through library school. When you’re among books for so long, you can see what appeals to people, what takes off, what resonates. When I talk about the books, I often use the high-concept explanations: it’s like Knives Out meets Animal Crossing. It’s like Redwall meets Agatha Christie. We have all these references that people understand because they’re all book people.

What do you love about the world of Shady Hollow?

SN: I like the level of comfort in the surroundings. You feel at home; you know you can go down to Joe’s Mug and have a cup of coffee. The murders are there, and they matter, but they’re secondary to the characters and the atmosphere.

JC: The fact that it is animals kind of allows people to let go and just relax and enjoy it. You’re already accepting this level of fantasy and you can just roll with it. That’s very appealing to people, particularly in pandemic times, that there is this little world where the weather is usually beautiful; there’s always coffee. There’s an occasional murder, but it’s fine.

SN: It’ll be handled.


This review originally ran in the January 28, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Shady Hollow by Juneau Black

This whimsical cozy mystery set in a town of animal characters will tickle and amuse alongside its whodunit plot.

Previously published in 2015 by Hammer & Birch, Shady Hollow is the first in a series of cozy mysteries starring sweet, lovable animal characters. Juneau Black (pen name of a two-author team) will please lovers of both woodland creatures and whodunits with this gentle, plot-twisting exploration of small-town life.

The community of Shady Hollow is home to a typical cast of amiable eccentrics, including a gossip-hungry hummingbird; a good-natured, coffee-slinging moose; a timid mouse accountant; and a family of upper-crusty beavers. When a cantankerous toad turns up dead in the mill pond, however, the town’s policebears turn out to be underprepared to investigate, and it falls to local reporter Vera Vixen to uncover the murderer. Vera the fox is “an old-school journalist, despite her youth,” and though new to town, her friendship with Lenore Lee (a wise raven well-read in murder and, naturally, owner of Nevermore Books) provides a solid base for her inquiries. The more she learns about the inhabitants of Shady Hollow, however, the more complicated the case becomes, and Vera herself may be in danger.

With its charming and affable characters, Shady Hollow nonetheless serves up plenty of intrigue and danger, ending with teasing hints of what’s to come in the next installment (Cold Clay is slated for March 2022). The nonhuman cast offers an extra note of humor: accused of cynicism, Lenore responds, “I’m a raven…. If you want sunshine and melodies, go find a swallow.” This captivating tale offers sunshine and murder in perfect proportion to keep readers entertained and engrossed in deceptively placid Shady Hollow.


This review originally ran in the January 28, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back Friday for my interview with Juneau Black!

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