As the cold weather settles in, for good this time, here’s what RiverTown staff are reading.

Reporter Rebecca Mariscal

‘The Year of the Witching’ by Alexis Henderson

This book has popped up on a few “to read” lists I’ve seen this year, so I was excited that I was finally able to get my hands on it. It’s an immersive story of a young woman living in a strict, puritanical society. Due to the tangled history of her long-gone mother and father, Immanuelle has always felt like an outsider in the community that condemns people for the smallest sins.

As a series of plagues begin to befall the isolated village, she learns she has an unexpected connection to them and may be the only hope to stop them. She finds an unlikely ally in the son of the village leader. Immanuelle is an enthralling protagonist to follow, and easy to root for.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Henderson’s writing quickly draws you into the story, and into a new world that has echoes of our own history. Her debut novel is an interesting mix of fantasy and social commentary. I’ve found it to be a great read for these dreary winter days.

Reporter Rachel Fergus

'The Drama of Celebrity' by Sharon Marcus

Scholar Sharon Marcus published a book in 2019 to give a better understanding of the modern celebrity. Her work revolves around questions like, “why do we care about celebrities?” and, “who or what makes someone a celebrity?”

Marcus follows our modern concept of celebrity from the early 19th century to Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations, Lady Gaga’s meat dress and Donald Trump’s rise to fame and presidency. Throughout the book, Marcus uses primary texts to investigate how people for the past 200 years have thought about celebrity. Scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, cartoons and portraits are some of the texts that Marcus uses to dive into the history of celebrity.

Famous names and faces appear throughout the book, but Marcus uses French actress Sarah Bernhardt and her career as a throughline. The author writes in the introduction, “no one shaped modern celebrity culture more than this book’s central figure.” Bernhardt was a huge star throughout Europe and the United States from the 1870s until her death in 1923. While her name may be unfamiliar in the 21st century, Bernhardt’s career resembled many A-List women celebrities today: fans saved everything they could find related to Bernhardt, she received fan mail and admirers would flock to see her perform. Also like today’s women celebrities, Bernhardt was criticized and scrutinized by media outlets and individuals. One of the most common critiques that she received was that she was too thin (a reversal of today’s mainstream beauty standards).

Reporter Steve Gardiner

'Caste: The Origins of our Discontent' by Isabel Wilkerson

When we think of caste systems, of locating people within a society on the basis of racial characteristics, we most often think of India or perhaps the Nazi Regime in Germany. We don’t think of America.

In “Caste,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, Wilkerson narrates a well-researched examination of how caste systems are developed and sustained, as well as the economic, emotional, and physical cost of living in a caste system. She shows, through stories of many individual lives, how America has developed one of the most ingrained caste systems in the world, particularly in relation to Blacks and Native Americans.

This is not a quick read. Wilkerson gives the reader much to think about the role caste has played in American history and in our lives today. Don’t read this book unless you are willing to challenge your thinking regarding some long-held assumptions about equality and justice in the United States.

News Director Anne Jacobson

'The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe' by Ally Condie

There were three stages in life when I read many children's books. -- as a child, a babysitter, and a parent. In many respects, the third stage was the richest because I rediscovered old favorites and found reasons to read new children's literature.

I've entered the parenting phase for teen literature and again am discovering plenty of new reading material -- this time not reading aloud but simply educating myself enough to understand what teens are reading so I can relate (well, try to relate anyway). Dutton Books published Ally Condie's "The Law Voyage of Poe Blythe" in 2019. Poe -- short for Posy and a better fit for a 17-year-old barge captain seeking revenue -- struggles with anger, hope, grief, love and identity.

Who do you become when you feel you have nothing left to lose? The author helps Poe and the reader start to figure it out -- whatever the readers' age happens to be.

Recommendation from Fair Trade books

'Anxious People' by Fredrik Backman

This book, impossible to put down, is full of characters with deep sorrow and contradictions, and is a caper-gone hilariously wrong examination of the social and economic status aspirational couples and single adults place on themselves. A failed bank-robber decides to take hostages at an apartment open house, and nothing goes well. A mixture of witty dialogue, disastrous police interview transcripts, and fuzzy recollection, these larger than life characters challenge themselves and each other to recover from the meaningless, anxiety-producing mediocrity of urban existence that gets interrupted when they unexpectedly encounter an incident.

Backman is a rare gem of a best-selling, still humble author whose wealthy imagination is a boon to our psyche. An excerpt:

“I don’t follow,” Jim said.

“I want fireworks, the sort I can see from the balcony. Then I’ll let the hostages go.”

“Seriously?”

“And no cheap rubbish, either, don’t try to trick me! Proper fireworks! All different colors, the sort that look like rain, the whole lot.”

“And then you’ll release the hostages.”

“Then I’ll release the hostages.”

“That’s your only demand?|

“Yep.”

So Jim went back down the stairs, out to Jack in the street, and told him all this.

But it’s worth pointing out again that Jim isn’t really good at telling stories. He’s completely hopeless, in fact. So he may not have remembered everything entirely accurately.