At the start of The Prince and the Dressmaker, which is a charming middle-grade/YA graphic novel, everyone’s preparing for the Paris event of the summer: there’s a ball being thrown in honor of Prince Sebastian, who is sixteen, and whose parents want to match him up with a princess from some other royal family so they can live happily ever after and ensure the continuation of the royal line. Nearly everyone is swooning over the idea of the ball, but at least one young lady, Sophia, has no interest: we see her and her irate mother trying to get a new gown made in a hurry, because Sophia ruined the gown she was meant to wear to the ball by going riding in it. Frances, a young seamstress, is in charge of the new dress. “Make me look like the devil’s wench,” Sophia tells her, and Frances decides to give Sophia what she wants (6). Everyone’s scandalized by Sophia’s outfit, and Frances is on the verge of being fired, but then a new opportunity arrives: at least one person liked the outfit that Frances made for Sophia, and that person now wants to hire Frances as a personal seamstress.

Frances’s new boss, it turns out, is Prince Sebastian, who is maybe genderfluid, or just likes dresses: he explains that sometimes he sees his reflection in boys’ clothes and is fine with it, but sometimes it feels all wrong. He’s been wearing his mother’s dresses in secret for ages, but has decided he wants to sometimes wear dresses in public, as well: he asks Frances to make him a dress inspired by “marmalade and preserves” without telling her that it’s for a beauty pageant being put on by a jam company. He wins, and his alter-ego, Lady Crystallia, becomes the talk of Paris, with her daring and gorgeous dresses. But he’s anxious about his secret life being inappropriate for a future ruler: he worries about what the public would think, and what his parents would think, and assumes he’d never find a female romantic interest who would be OK with it. This causes tensions with Frances, though: everyone in the royal household knows that she’s his seamstress, so Sebastian tells her she can’t publicly declare that she makes Lady Crystallia’s dresses, too: he’s sure that if people knew, they’d put two and two together and he’d be outed.

Things get stressful for everyone, and then things get better, and oh, there’s also a sub-plot about a fictional version of the first department store in Paris, which is having a fashion show to announce its line of women’s clothing, and Sebastian and Frances both learn about being true to themselves, and everything works out in the end. This was a fast and fun read, and I appreciated the art—especially the citrus-marmalade-inspired dress Frances makes, and also some other really gorgeous bits, like the misty and moody grey/green/blue early-morning-street-scene panels when Frances goes to work for the prince. I didn’t love this book as much as some people on Goodreads seem to have, but I think that’s partly because I generally like graphic memoirs more than graphic novels, and also because I’ve never been super into fashion/fancy dresses myself. (If there’d been a whole book about Sophia, the “Make me look like the devil’s wench” girl, who goes to the ball in her scandalous outfit and happily eats dessert by herself while everyone stares, I might have been more into that.)

At the start of Kat and Meg Conquer the World, it’s near the start of the school year and Kat, who’s in tenth grade, has recently moved from Ottawa, where she grew up, to Edmonton, where she and her parents are now living with her grandfather, who’s frailer than he used to be after a fall and subsequent hip surgery. Kat doesn’t really know anyone at her new school yet, and she’s an introvert who has anxiety/panic attacks: she’s happier spending her lunch break in the library playing Legends of the Stone, the MMORPG she loves, than eating in the cafeteria with her classmates. Meg, meanwhile, has always lived in Edmonton, and is an extrovert who’s happy giving high-fives in the hallway to kids she doesn’t even know. Meg has ADHD, and worries that it’s making her lose friendships and relationships: I love this, from early in the book, in a passage where Meg is thinking about a newish friend who’s maybe already getting tired of her (or, ahem, is maybe just not the best fit): “She’s always asking me if I’ve remembered to take my meds, like she thinks they’re some magic pill that’ll cure me of me. Ugh, blah, and sigh” (7). Meg doesn’t play Legends of the Stone (LotS for short), but is a big fan of a YouTuber called LumberLegs who posts videos of himself playing it. Kat is a LumberLegs fan too, so when she and Meg end up as partners for a multi-month science project, it doesn’t take long for the two of them to discover their shared fandom, which is a jumping-off point for a close friendship.

I really like how this book centers on characters who are dealing with a lot of issues (mental health stuff, family stuff, school stuff, friendship stuff, relationship stuff) without it being an “issues book” or heavy-handed. I like that Kat and Meg’s friendship is at the center of the story, and I love so many things about that friendship. I like how their very different personalities sometimes cause tension, but how they both keep trying to work things out, and I like how each of them tries to keep the other’s experiences and preferences in mind, even when those preferences feel completely foreign. I like how Kat (who’s white) pays attention when Meg (who’s black, in a school with few other black kids) shows or tells her things about race/racial privilege that Kat has maybe never really considered before, and also how Kat tries to be a good ally and think about issues of race/doesn’t expect Meg to teach her everything. I like how Kat and Meg are always trying to be there for each other, even when they’re not sure how best to do that.

And while Kat and Meg’s friendship is the central great thing about the book, I like so many other relationships in it, too: the way Meg interacts with her half-siblings, the way Kat worries about not knowing how to be close to her grandfather, Meg’s feelings about her estranged ex-stepfather, an online friendship Kat has through LotS, the sweet moments and hard moments Meg has with a boy she dates—all of them felt fully realized and full of heart, like this book itself.

In an author’s note at the start of the book, The Iliac Crest is described as “a novel delving into the fluid nature of gender dis/identifications,” “set in a time in which disappearance has become a plague,” and a book in which “borders are a subtle but pervasive force” (vii). That all sounded pretty exciting to me but, alas, I didn’t end up loving this book. I think the problem is just as likely to be with me as with it: maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for this kind of vague and allusive story; maybe I would have appreciated it more if I knew more about Mexican history and literature; maybe I like weird books more when I feel like I have more to somehow hold onto. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like this book, just that I didn’t quite connect with it as much as I’d hoped to.

The start of the book felt promising: an unnamed narrator thinks back to a stormy night, a knock at his door. He’d been waiting for an ex-lover to arrive, but the woman outside is a stranger. It’s raining; she’s soaked; he lets her in. He recounts their meeting as a moment in which he saw her and wanted her, but then backtracks: “that’s not how it went,” he says: “I did not feel desire but fear” (6). The woman, who has introduced herself as Amparo Dávila, tells the narrator she knows him, but not in any way we can make sense of: “I know you from when you were a tree,” she says (8). And then the narrator’s ex arrives, and promptly faints. The stranger who introduced herself as Amparo Dávila stays with the narrator and his ex (he calls her the Betrayed), nursing her back to health, though it’s the narrator who’s a doctor: he’s busy at work, though, at a nearby hospital for the terminally ill. The narrator worries about the weird situation at home: he wonders if the stranger and his ex know each other; if they’re plotting against him somehow. He worries more when he realizes the two of them are speaking what seems to be a private language: it’s nothing he’s ever heard or can make sense of. The plot gets more complicated, with a missing manuscript and questions of identity and disappearance; in addition to saying she knows him from when he was a tree, the stranger also tells the narrator she knows his secret. “I know you are a woman,” she says, though the narrator is pretty sure he isn’t (40). Things get weird in various ways, with the narrator hunting through the hospital archives, looking up Amparo Dávila in the phone book, and getting into trouble with his boss. Maybe things have always been weird: the narrator’s story of how the Betrayed came to be called that has something of the feeling of a fable. The narrator reads about Amparo Dávila’s writing and notes that it’s full of “wickedness, the fantastical, the inescapable”—and at least some of those elements are present in this book, too, go figure (53). There are dreams and images that are like dreams, and adding to the dreamy atmosphere is the ocean by which the narrator lives and works: the ocean and its shifting light, the ocean and its shifting weather.

I think my favorite part of this book, though, is a multipage list near the end of things that can be done from a hospital bed, maybe because it’s funny and concrete and fairly straightforward, a little bit of relative clarity in the midst of a story that felt intriguing but also bewildering, though I realize that the feeling of being adrift may be part of the point.

I find Charles Finch’s mysteries to be a reliable pleasure, and Home by Nightfall lived up to my expectations. It’s set in the fall/winter of 1876, in London and in Sussex. Detective Charles Lenox finds himself investigating a pair of (unrelated) crimes: one in the city, and the other in the country village where he and his brother Edmund grew up. In London, a famous German pianist has gone missing: he played a show, then went to his dressing room, and then, apparently, vanished into thin air. In the village of Markethouse, where Lenox goes to keep his brother company, the crime is equally mysterious: an insurance salesman comes home to see a creepy drawing chalked on his stoop and swears he also sees a figure in the window, but when he goes inside, no one’s there and nothing seems to have been taken. The next day, though, he gets an urgent telegram summoning him to a nearby town; when he gets home, he finds that a bottle of sherry has been stolen, though everything else (including his collection of gemstones) is exactly where it should be.

I like the way the book’s action switches between the city and the country: it has a momentum that worked for me. I also, as I always do with this series, appreciate the many bits of historical detail that are included, and I really like Finch’s style overall. I like the way we get to see Lenox interacting with his wife and daughter and brother and friends, not just solving crimes, and I like the descriptive passages about going horseback riding early on a misty morning in the country, or about the pleasures of coffee or tea or cake or ale, or about “the secret regularity that exists within [the] commotion” of London’s busy streets (8), or about the canary circus that Lenox takes his daughter to see.

Formally/stylistically, Talking It Over is a whole lot of fun. In each chapter, we get alternating first-person narratives—mostly from the three main characters (Gillian, Oliver, and Stuart), but from others as well (Gillian’s mother, Oliver’s landlady, et cetera). Each character has a distinct voice, and we often hear about the same events from different characters’ perspectives, with the result that everyone’s unreliability/subjectivity is emphasized: both Gillian and Oliver remember him flipping through a phone book on the day that Gillian and Stuart got married, but she describes it as him looking for “people with silly names” while he talks about trying to make everyone laugh “by looking up relevant professionals like Divorce Lawyers and Rubber Goods Purveyors” (10, 13). The text often addresses the reader directly, and is playful in other ways as well: in the first chapter, we read about a disagreement that Gillian, Oliver, and Stuart had about pronouns, and in their sections of narration in that chapter, each one uses pronouns in the way that he or she had argued for. All this is excellent, and makes me want to read more by Julian Barnes.

In terms of plot, though, this was not quite the book for me. It’s a love triangle: Stuart and Oliver have known each other since they were teenagers, and are basically best friends (they’re now in their early 30s). Stuart works in a bank and is practical, somewhat staid, and financially comfortable; Oliver teaches English as a Foreign Language, fills his conversations with references to opera and literature, and never has enough money. Despite his bravado, Oliver isn’t actually all that self-confident, and despite his occasional awkwardness, Stuart isn’t necessarily as dull as he seems, but Stuart and Oliver play off one another, each emphasizing certain things about himself in opposition to the other, because that’s the kind of friendship they have. Stuart meets Gillian and the two of them start dating, and they have a summer where they spend a whole lot of time with Oliver, too. After which Stuart and Gillian get married, after which Oliver realizes he’s in love with Gillian, after which Gillian realizes that maybe marriage to Stuart is not what she wants after all. I think my patience for monogamous-relationship-problems in contemporary-ish fiction is pretty limited, and as the book went on I found the characters’ dilemmas more tedious than moving.

Still, there were lots of pleasing things in this book, like a great conversation between Oliver and Gillian’s mother about tomatoes on Gillian and Stuart’s wedding day, or Gillian’s description of when she realized she was falling in love with Stuart (not, she says, that you can really point to a single moment), or Oliver’s description of the summer in which he and Stuart and Gillian spent a lot of time together as being “like one perfectly held note, one exact and translucent colour” (42).

This Kindle-edition short story fits, chronologically, between A Stranger in Mayfair and A Burial at Sea in the Charles Lenox mystery series by Charles Finch, and is probably really only worth reading if you’re already into the series and a completist. It’s not that this is bad, it’s just that the full-length novels in this series are so much better.

An East End Murder begins, not surprisingly, with a body: it’s 1865 and Charles Lenox, detective, is at a crime scene in the Seven Dials neighborhood of London, looking at the corpse of a man named Phil Jiggs, who seems to have been strangled. Lenox knows a woman in the area from a previous case, so he goes to talk to her the next day; she points him to the Plug brothers, proprietors of a clothing shop: she says they were friends with Jiggs and would know more about him. Lenox learns from the Plugs that Jiggs didn’t have any enemies, but was recently robbed twice: it’s a rough neighborhood, though, with lots of crime. Because he was broke after the robberies, Jiggs had been staying at a nearby church, so Lenox heads there next and talks to the Reverend Tilton, who echoes what the Plug brothers said: Jiggs kept out of trouble. Everyone Lenox talks to agrees, except for one man, James Mason, who says Jiggs was a troublemaker who didn’t mind his own business. Lenox carries on investigating, and figures things out pretty quickly: this is quite a short story. Because of the story’s brevity, there’s not much room for character development, though there is some good historical detail/scene-setting, like when the Plug brothers explain the sign in their shop for “ratty pockets” (they’re large-pocketed pants for rat catchers, it turns out, and Jiggs was a rat catcher).

The short story is bundled with the first four chapters of A Burial at Sea, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed, even having already read that book: when he’s writing at greater length, Finch’s style is satisfyingly descriptive. Re-reading those four chapters prompted me to go place a hold on Home by Nightfall (number nine in the series) at the library: I’d read the eighth book in 2014 but didn’t pick up the ninth when it came out the following year, and now I’m in the mood for more of this series and its world.

The Westing Game (which I read and loved as a kid) opens with an intriguing set-up: there’s a new five-story apartment building on Lake Michigan, and its 6 apartments (and 3 business/retail spots) are rented to a list of pre-selected tenants. The building has a view of a mansion, the Westing house, which is said to have been empty for the past fifteen years: its owner, Sam Westing, is rumored to be dead. But the tenants all (well, almost all) have some connection to Westing, and the house apparently isn’t totally empty: on Halloween, about two months after the tenants move in, they see smoke rising from one of the mansion’s chimneys. The next day there’s a newspaper headline saying Westing has been found dead, and a number of the apartment building’s inhabitants, plus a few more people connected to the building, are summoned to the Westing house. where they’re paired off, and each pair is given a $10,000 check and a set of clues. They’re told they are all potential heirs to the Westing fortune: they just need to solve the puzzle to win the game.

It’s fun to read about the various characters’ attempts to figure things out, their false starts and wild guesses and missteps, but what’s more fun is to watch them work together, or not. And the mystery of Westing’s death isn’t the only weird thing happening: there’s been a string of thefts in the building, and then bombs start going off, so there’s a lot to be figured out. The narrative switches its focus from character to character, but Turtle Wexler, a smart junior-high-school kid who’s (understandably) grumpy that her mother has always treated her differently from her (beautiful and obedient) older sister, Angela, is at the center of a lot of things, in a really satisfying way. It’s hard to say more about this book without giving away too much (it is a mystery, after all), but I like its quirkiness and strangeness, how it brings together a cast of disparate characters in a way that somehow totally works.

I like the worlds and characters of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series a whole lot, and I like McGuire’s writing style: I mean, at one point in this book she describes how a skeleton “floated like a bath toy for the world’s most morbid child” (78). That said, this book was my least favorite of the series so far, I think because it’s a quest narrative, which made it feel both unputdownable and a bit less interesting to me. I mean, the mechanics of a quest narrative are pretty standard: a character or group sets out in search of something/trying to accomplish some goal, there are twists and setbacks along the way, there is a climax in which they fail (or probably more usually) succeed, and then things get wrapped up at the end. The nature of a quest narrative means that it’s pretty plot-driven, which is part of what made me read this book so quickly, but plot-driven isn’t my favorite kind of fiction. Still, this book was a fun read.

So, the plot: early in the book, a girl falls from the sky into the pond at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children (which is a school for kids who have traveled to other worlds and then ended up back in this one). The girl, Rini, is looking for her mother, who was a student there. But there’s a problem: her mother is dead. The fact of her mother’s death is making Rini herself disappear, and is also causing major problems in Rini’s home world, which her mother saved from an authoritarian ruler. So several students (Christopher and Kade, both of whom are great/both of whom we know from previous books in the series, and Nadya, who spends a lot of time at the turtle pond wishing she were back in the river-world she went to, and Cora, a new student who was a mermaid in an ocean-world) set out with Rini to try to set things right. This involves a trip to a cemetery and the Halls of the Dead (where they hope an ex-student of the school will be able to help them out) and then to Rini’s home world, Confection, where farmers grow candy corn and the ocean is made of strawberry-rhubarb soda. The details of the settings are pleasing, and the advances and setbacks are exciting, and I like Cora, who proves herself smart, perceptive, and capable, even as she finds herself on a quest she never really signed up for, helping people she doesn’t really know. I also like the narrative’s body-positivity, even if it can feel a little heavy-handed, and the way it emphasizes strength through difference/diversity: “Everyone’s lives prepared them for something different,” Cora thinks, at one point (76). And of course, in this kind of narrative, that means everyone has a part to play in the quest.

The eight essays in Draft No. 4 were all originally published in The New Yorker (albeit in slightly different form), so I think I’ve read them all before. I remembered some of them more vividly than others, though, and they were all satisfying to read in book form. They’re all, as the book’s subtitle puts it, essays “on the writing process,” and many refer heavily to McPhee’s other work, which I found pretty fun: I liked being reminded of stuff of his that I’ve read and liked (like Oranges) and I also enjoyed being reminded of stuff of his I haven’t read yet but would like to (like Uncommon Carriers).

McPhee writes narrative nonfiction/creative nonfiction, and has taught a course on it at Princeton for decades, and these essays are full of his thoughts and advice on various aspects of doing that kind of writing. In “Progression” he writes about how one piece can lead, unexpectedly, to another, using the example of how a double profile of two tennis players ended up leading to his book Encounters with the Archdruid, which in turn led to other pieces. He writes about chronological vs. thematic organization, and the uses of outlining, in “Structure,” which also includes a great digression on his compositional methods over the years, from a typewriter and scissors to custom-built macros for a text-editing program. (There’s also a great bit where he talks about visiting the creator of that text-editing program.) He writes about the various interactions he’s had as part of the magazine work he’s done, from New Yorker editors and fact-checkers he’s worked with to interview subjects he’s had. There’s a great piece about frames of reference, a piece about writers’ block and the revision process and finding one’s style, and a really pleasing final piece about selection and omission in writing, which ends with a perfect story of an encounter McPhee had with Eisenhower in 1950.

McPhee is really good at a lot of things, including beginnings and endings, and I loved the way so many of these pieces started or finished, from that Eisenhower story to the image of a backyard in summertime with a picnic table and an ash tree to a story about McPhee watching a movie about quarter horses (which was based on a piece he’d written) that concludes with the image of him “on the floor groping under the seat for nickels, dimes, and pennies” that had fallen from his pocket (16). I also was totally charmed by two moments of McPhee in the classroom: in one piece, he visits his granddaughter’s English class (she’s a senior in high school at the time) to check the frames of reference in a piece he’s written: he reproduces the list of things he asked about, with the number of students who knew what each was. And in another piece, he talks about his experience of cutting lines from his work when he was a writer for Time magazine, and then about assigning this same task to his students, telling them to use both their own work and specific famous texts.

Though Secret Brooklyn is a guidebook (separated into sections by neighborhood, with color photos and page-long listings about various places/attractions), I think it’d be useful only to very intrepid tourists. I think it’s a better book for NYC/Brooklyn residents who are interested in the weird/quirky/overlooked: there are some things in this book I would go out of my way to go to, but there are more spots that are just cool to read about, especially if they’re things I’ve passed by without even knowing about them. There are places in this book that are familiar to me, and others that are totally new to me. I had no idea, for example, that there are two fragments of Plymouth Rock in Brooklyn Heights, or that the doors of a Lebanese church in that neighborhood are from the SS Normandie. I didn’t know that the blue-and-yellow “L” tiling in the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station advertises a long-gone department store (Loeser’s), or that the silver-gated area you can see next to the F-train track at Jay Street was where money was unloaded from a special train that ran until 2006, or that there’s a cheese-aging business in an old brewery building’s lagering tunnel, right next to a beer-hall that I’ve been to more than once. I love that this book includes a listing for the Pratt Institute Steam Plant, which used to power my favorite New Year’s Eve event, though when I tried to take my boyfriend to look at the steam plant last year, it was locked and we were only able to peer in through the interior windows. I like that it mentions the abandoned lower-level Bergen Street subway station, which you can see from the train when the F runs on the express track. I like that it mentions the Masstransiscope, and the eruvin that serve as loopholes to the “no carrying things on the Sabbath” rule for Orthodox Jews, and how it calls out interesting parts of well-known attractions, like the Fragrance Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (which I love), or the Statue of Liberty replica in the parking lot at the Brooklyn Museum (whose story I hadn’t previously known). And I love this, from the listing for the City Reliquary (which is definitely worth a visit): “You may not know yet that you’re interested in scale models of the Statue of Liberty, or the skeletons of urban rats, or rock samples from the different New York boroughs. But you probably are. Helping you realize this is what The City Reliquary in Williamsburg is about” (65). If those few sentences appeal to you, the rest of this book probably will, too.