Book Bites: Dazzling Debuts and Remarkable Returns!

New books are here! This year in publishing is starting off with a bang — we can tell that a few of the titles we've already shared with you on the blog will find their way onto our year-end "best books" list. As a matter of fact, we may have a few new contenders in our latest grouping of staff picks below, from heartfelt middle grade to riveting nonfiction. And have you heard? Blue Willow Mystery Day is coming up on February 11, so you'd better believe we have some thrills and intrigue on offer, too. Dig in!

Ages 8-12

Rare Birds by Jeff Miller

Graham Dodds is an 11-year old whose mother has been awaiting a heart transplant as long as Graham can remember. They have moved back to Florida where she's at the top of the list at a local hospital, where Graham spends a lot of time in waiting rooms. He meets Lou, a girl his own age, who tells him her father is also waiting for a transplant. The two become friends and decide to enter a contest to find a Snail Kite, a rare bird of the area, that Graham's mother has been researching for some time. The search is not without adventure and possible danger for two 11-year olds in a canoe in the Florida swamps, which adds some excitement to the narrative. When Graham's mother gets the go-ahead for her operation, Graham discovers a secret that Lou has been hiding from him, one that leads to a sad ending to this story that otherwise is a warmhearted story of friendship and living-happily-ever-after.
— Alice

Read because this is a resonant book full of warm characters and heartbreak.
Pass if you're looking to read something instantly forgettable.
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Adult Fiction

My Father's House by Joseph O'Connor

Based on the true story of an Irish priest at the Vatican, this novel is a heart-racing World War II thriller. In Nazi-occupied Rome in 1943, Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty organized a choir in the Vatican — a group of diplomats, citizens of neutral countries and local Italians who met regularly to sing, but primarily to organize fund-raising activities for a POW Escape Line.  A series of taped interviews and prepared statements from these participants 20 years later, along with a third-person narrative of events, describe the Christmas Eve covert distribution of funds to various parties who helped escaped prisoners get out of the country. The author's ability to create a you-are-there feeling had me sitting on the edge of my chair, unable to put the book down. Recommended.
— Alice

Read because you want to read something that will whisk you through time and history.
Pass if you like to grip a book, not the other way around.
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Endpapers by Jennifer Savran Kelly

New York, 2003. Bookbinder Dawn, who works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gives new life to old books that she repairs. But she struggles to get her art out into the world. Dawn is genderqueer, and hasn’t quite figured out who she is. When she gets an opportunity to show her art, she discovers something unusual in the endpapers of an old book she’s repairing — the cover art from a 1950s lesbian novel. There’s a gender-bending illustration on the front, and on the back there’s a love letter. For the next few weeks all she can think about is finding the author and learning more about it. Meanwhile, her friend Jae is injured in a hate crime Dawn feels she is the cause of. This is an intriguing story of stretching societal boundaries and finding where you fit in a world you want to change for the better.
— Katherine

Read if you can't decide if you're in the mood for a mystery, love story, or a queer coming-of-age. It's all three and more.
Pass if you can't stand it when people are their authentic selves.
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Exiles by Jane Harper

What mother leaves her six month old in a stroller alone at a crowded festival? That is the question that has plagued family and friends of Kim Gillespie for a year. Kim disappeared that night, never to be seen again, and those who knew her just don't understand what happened. The investigators never recovered a body, but it is presumed she jumped off of a ledge into the water below. A year later at the same festival, the crowd is asked for help with the case. Aaron Faulk has returned to see his friends, the Racos, for the christening that didn't happen last year due to Kim's disappearance. When he starts to study the details of that night with fellow cop Greg Raco, something doesn't add up. Thrown in the middle of this mystery is an unsolved hit-and-run from five years ago and a few budding romances that may or may not go anywhere. So many moving parts that brilliantly come together in the end. Highest praise for another great book that only Jane Harper could write!
— Christina

Read because can you honestly think of something better than a mystery set in Australian wine country?
Pass if you are reading Detective Aaron Faulk's other adventures first.
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The Reunion by Kayla Olson

Liv and Ransom used to be great friends/co-stars to the point that many speculated they were dating. However, they hardly kept in touch after the end of filming. Twenty years later, their show, Girl on the Verge, announces a reunion episode. During the promotions, Liv realizes that her old feelings for Ransom are still there. Will she act on her feelings this time around or will she let Ransom get away again? 
— Ayah

Read if you're a lover of Emily Henry, Sally Thorne, or 90210.
Pass if you hate multi-dimensional characters with chemistry.
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The World and All That It Holds by Aleksandar Hemon

This is a fascinating novel that tells the improbable story of a young Bosnian pharmacist who, after watching Archduke Ferdinand and his wife get shot in Sarajevo in 1914, experienced the destruction of the world he knew and somehow managed to survive. Rafael Pinto was a soldier in the Great War, was captured and sent to a prison camp in Tashkent, and then became a stateless refugee for the rest of his life, his attempts to find his way back to Sarajevo taking him farther and farther east to China. His unlikely survival in spite of injuries, starvation, and other hardships is in part due to his love affair with fellow soldier, Osman, and later due to his responsibility for Osman's daughter Rahela. Hemon is a genius storyteller who incorporates the many horrors of war and suffering into a narrative that shines with empathy and compassion. Highly recommended.
— Alice

Read because this novel will take you on a spectacular journey.
Pass if "spectacular journey" by a "genius storyteller" just isn't doing it for you.
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Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall

A powerful debut novel creatively telling the story of three women decades apart connected by their right to choose — and a lost letter connecting them together. Regardless of your stance on abortion, this book chronicles women and their lives when a difficult choice is made: adoption or secret abortion due to an unwanted pregnancy. The stories are heartbreaking and the treatment of the women was appalling. An underground network called "Jane" gave these women an option. The joy and hope comes from reunited mothers and children and laws passed to give women rights over their bodies. I stayed up all night reading this book and highly recommend it! 
— Christina

Read because this novel is timely and powerful — and it reminds us of the consequences when women don't have the right to choose.
Pass if you always avoid excellent debut novels.
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Adult Nonfiction

Waco by Jeff Guinn

Compelling and enlightening, this is an insightful look at the original "raid" by the ATF on the Branch Davidian compound east of Waco. Interviews with ATF personnel on the grounds during the fateful February raid bring out how poorly planned and executed it was. The leaders of the raid wanted this to be something that the press would embrace and that they could take to Congress for more funding. How badly everything went! Guinn's research into Koresh's life story helps the reader understand his embrace of the endtimes in the Bible. How do people accept this story and embrace everything that he espoused? Fascinating and scary.
— Valerie

Read because Guinn is a member of the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. (Literally!)
Pass if you don't want to understand how this disastrous siege relates to the present day.
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