The best new books this month chosen by us and other
independent booksellers across the country.

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This Month's #1 Indie Next List Pick...

We Begin at the End

By Chris Whitaker

(Henry Holt and Co., 9781250759665, $27.99)

"We Begin at the End is dramatic storytelling at its best, full of layers of intrigue and complex personalities set around the murder of the book's most vulnerable character. The stoical, 13-year-old Duchess Day Radley takes center stage, and her heartbreaking life unleashes a hero within: self-proclaimed outlaw, bold and courageous, though to her peril not always wise beyond her years. Chris Whitaker has created a character for the ages and an extraordinary reading experience. By turns amusing, frightening, and exhilarating."
--Robin Sung, Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA

This Month's #1 Indie Next List Pick Author Interview

photo: David Calvert

Independent booksellers across the country have chosen We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker (Henry Holt and Co.) as their top pick for the March 2021 Indie Next List.

We Begin at the End picks up 30 years after Walk turned Vincent, his best friend, in for a crime that left their coastal California town reeling. Despite Walk's best efforts, Star, Vincent's former love, has spent the last three decades spiraling into self-destruction, leaving 13-year-old Duchess, her daughter, to care for not only her mother, but her five-year-old brother, Robin, too.

When Vincent is released from prison, tragedy strikes again, and both Duchess and Walk must learn how to cope with trauma, prevail over their circumstances, and create families stronger than the ones they were born into.

Chris Whitaker is the award-winning author of Tall Oaks and All the Wicked Girls. He lives in the United Kingdom with his wife and three children.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

There's a strange story behind it. I was mugged when I was a teenager, and then stabbed. It was a really traumatic incident and I didn't tell anyone afterwards--I was having such a difficult time. I read about this therapy technique, where you take what happened, the traumatic incident, and you write it down and change the characters involved. And I wrote Duchess all those years ago. I wrote about this girl that was 15 miles away from my life, and she was very fragile, but tough deep down. So, it began then, and I revisited the character for the next decade. I kept picking it up and writing bits and pieces and deleting bits, and then it was only when I met Amy, my editor, that I really got into the book and decided to finish it.

How did you find developing Duchess' character for this book?

It was hell! It was really difficult, actually. It took a long, long time. When I start writing, I start with a strong visual image, and when I started this, I had this image of a little girl wearing a Stetson and holding a gun and looking for revenge without knowing what revenge even means, or how to get it. And then after that, she evolved. It was really after the first draft that I got to know her character, and then I went back and restarted it because how she was at the end wasn't how she was at the beginning. I don't just mean that she'd grown as a character--I got to know her better, how she would react in any given situation. So, it was working and reworking. I spent probably a year just on Duchess' dialogue and making sure it felt right. I'm a strong believer in that gut feeling, and that you should enjoy it for the most part. I think that gets lost sometimes, that you do it because you love it. Sometimes it does feel stressful, but I think it should be difficult. It's not easy to write a book.

And what about Walk?

So, there's a traumatic event that starts the book off--the death of a child when Walk is 15. At the time, he's blissfully happy in his bubble, he's got his best friend and he's got a girlfriend, and he doesn't really move on. The story picks up 30 years later and he's still stuck. He's never really matured or grown up. He's still wide-eyed and innocent and everything good in the story. I needed this anchor for Duchess because she has no roots, no strong male role model. And she finds that in Walk. She's reluctant and doesn't want to see it, but I think as you read the story you realize how much she does need him. As for Walk himself, he evolved into the person that I aspire to be. He sees the good in everyone and he's not cynical, although that does change over the course of the story. 

Why put their viewpoints side by side?

I think they need each other. I wanted to write two characters that seem to be polar opposites, but are bonded by this traumatic event. For Duchess, obviously, it happened a long time before she was born, but still casts a shadow over everything she does and the town that she lives in as well as her mom, who can't move on from it. And then I needed this connection between the two of them. Duchess spends part of the book researching her family tree, and she needs to know where she came from, but she can't find that out. She doesn't know who her father is. And Walk is as close as she gets to a father figure as she gets in this story. He'll tell her if she did something wrong. He's not hard enough on her because Duchess' mother is one of his closest friends... and I think he struggles with the discipline side of it, when that's probably what she needs.

At the core of this story is Walk's friendship with Vincent King, who is just released from prison after 30 years. What was it like writing the shared history between two deeply estranged friends?

That plays into Walk pressing freeze on his life when he was 15. He assumes because he's mostly stayed the same, that everyone around him will. And it kind of reflects in the town--the town is changing, and he hates it. Businesses are going under and they desperately need the money but he fights against it. He'll let it go to ruin just so he can preserve this idyllic memory that might not be that accurate. There's a point where Martha, Walk's love interest, is talking about back when they were teenagers and mentions how Vincent used to cheat on girls and they got into a lot of trouble. But, when it's Walk's narrative, you see it as kids just messing around and having fun. From someone else's narrative, Vincent can appear completely different. I think Walk is just so desperate to fix everyone that he'll ignore the signs that Vincent maybe isn't who he thought he was. It's completely naive and ridiculous to think that three decades in prison won't change a person, but Walk just expects to pick up right when Vincent gets out. And Vincent is clearly damaged, and it's taken a toll, and he's not the person that Walk remembers.

What was your research process like?

I kind of drowned myself in research. I looked into foster care and I looked into criminal proceedings and court cases and prison life and I ended up with so much information I had to pare it back a bit and remember that I'm telling a story and it's not an information dump. It's unique to me, Duchess' story, and it doesn't apply to everyone else. I didn't want to get too bogged down in the legal side of it, I didn't want it to be a legal thriller. I wanted it to be about a girl, and a story with heart, and the court case part was really difficult to write. I started reading some trial manuscripts. I just wanted it to be accurate. That's where copyeditors saved me.

What role do indie bookstores play in your life?

A huge one--we have a number of amazing independent bookstores near us, and there's a level of passion for the booksellers that work there. I've found so many books that I wouldn't have read just through bookseller recommendations. You feel a connection, a kindred spirit. I love everything about bookshops. It's like the library, you feel like you've come home the second you walk through the door. There's something immensely comforting about them.

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More Indie Next List Great Reads

Klara and the Sun

By Kazuo Ishiguro

(Knopf, 9780593318171, $28)

"Klara and the Sun from Nobel-winner Kazuo Ishiguro is a radiant new novel about the bond between Klara, an Artificial Friend, and Josie, her human companion. The setting, a dystopian realm of genetic editing and stark class divisions, is not surprising given the author's previous work, yet Ishiguro's immense, unwavering portrayal of kindness is astonishing and revitalizing. Classic Ishiguro themes of loyalty, friendship, and sacrifice weave through the novel, but the thread of love runs deep, giving the book warmth and hope so that the earned twist feels more like a dawn than a sunset. Whether you're returning to Ishiguro or discovering his voice for the first time, I'm excited for you. This is a chance to bask in the brilliance of one the greatest writers of our time."
--Caroline McGregor, Books & Books, Coral Gables, FL

The Lost Apothecary

By Sarah Penner

(Park Row, 9780778311010, $27.99)

"A wonderful melding of two timelines told by a trio of female voices. Each woman is standing at a crossroads; one is just becoming a woman, one is anticipating the end of her life, and one the end of her marriage. A small, blue apothecary bottle links the women and the timelines together. Penner skillfully guides us along the path each woman chooses. I could hardly bear to put the book down, such was the need to know the choice each woman makes and the consequences of that choice."
--Sandi Madore, Magnolia's Bookstore, Seattle, WA

Brood

By Jackie Polzin

(Doubleday, 9780385546751, $24)

"Over the course of a year, told in a collection of snapshots, Brood shows the life of a woman grieving by doing anything but. She gives herself purpose by taking care of a small flock of chickens, as well as finding small but kind, funny, or wry ways of interacting with her neighbors, eccentric mother-in-law, and caring husband, Percy. There are plenty of clever and funny moments from scene to scene (not to mention the odd and interesting analyses of a chicken's life and point of view), but the beauty in this book lies in the narrator's acceptance of the everyday, and of all the things--bad, good, but mostly in-between--that come therein."

--Cat Chapman, The Oxford Exchange, Tampa, FL

The Rose Code

By Kate Quinn

(William Morrow Paperbacks, 9780062943477, $17.99, trade paper)

"While many WWII stories have been told in triplicate, Kate Quinn presents a new angle on the Bletchley Park/code breaker part of the war. She gives us three magnificent main characters who must navigate the turbulent waters not only of the war, but of a new puzzle to solve shortly before the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II) and Prince Philip."
--Sarah Danforth, Towne Book Center and Wine Bar, Collegeville, PA

The Windsor Knot

By SJ Bennett

(William Morrow, 9780063050006, $27.99)

"I love the idea of Queen Elizabeth sleuthing behind the scenes! As charmingly and convincingly portrayed by SJ Bennett, the Queen is an astute observer whose decades of experience serve her well in this role. When a Russian pianist is found dead at Windsor Castle, the new head of MI5 muddles the case and makes the mistake of treating the Queen like his doddering granny. It's up to the Queen to secretly and skillfully line up the pieces of the puzzle for MI5 to solve."

--Margo Grimm Eule, East City Bookshop, Washington, DC

Infinite Country

By Patricia Engel

(Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 9781982159467, $25)

"Patricia Engel's new book is a true gem, a family story in which each voice is equally interesting and dynamic as well as a great examination on the brutish nature of the U.S. government and citizens toward people traveling stateside to start a new life. Your heart breaks and mends and breaks all over again for this family. In less than 200 pages, Engel works magic."
--James Harrod, Malaprop's Bookstore/Café, Asheville, NC

The Echo Wife

By Sarah Gailey

(Tor Books, 9781250174666, $24.99)

"Just wow! I am so delighted that there are writers like Sarah Gailey producing science fiction of this caliber. Their latest novel, The Echo Wife, kept me riveted from beginning to end with elegant prose and a compelling, vulnerable protagonist who narrates the story in a wonderfully intimate first-person point of view. This is a refreshing, fast-paced thriller that gives center stage to questions of our humanity without asking them from a male-only perspective."
--Christine Havens, BookPeople, Austin, TX

Act Your Age, Eve Brown (The Brown Sisters #3)

By Talia Hibbert

(Avon, 9780062941275, $15.99)

"A satisfying conclusion to an absolutely delightful series! In the final installment of the trilogy, we follow the youngest Brown sister, Eve, a lovable hot mess who is looking to prove to her parents that she can get her life together. Her attempts to turn things around lead her to accidentally interview for as job as a chef at a bed and breakfast. The owner of the B&B, Jacob, is Eve's polar opposite on paper, so they naturally get off to a bad start. It doesn't help that Eve also hits him with her car! As the pair begin to learn more about each other, the sweetest romance blooms. Talia Hibbert proves once again that she knows how to write a romantic comedy!"
--Tyrinne Lewis, Cafe Con Libros, Brooklyn, NY

The Smash-Up

By Ali Benjamin

(Random House, 9780593229651, $27)

"Ali Benjamin's debut adult novel is an interesting portrayal of a contemporary marriage and the many pressures it faces. Through the lives of her main characters, Benjamin explores many present-day issues--the #MeToo movement, the place of social protests, the difficulties of childrearing, and the temptation of infidelity. As Zo and Ethan each face a moral dilemma, Benjamin shows us their individual struggles. While there is sadness and conflict in this book, there is also hope."
--Jane Stiles, Wellesley Books, Wellesley, MA

Vera

By Carol Edgarian

(Scribner, 9781501157523, $27)

"Experience the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 like never before--from inside the family of one of the most famous brothel madams. In this story, Edgarian combines lyrical writing and a cast of unforgettable characters, both real and imagined, with themes of love, rejection, graft, and economic disparity, all sprinkled with racism and misogyny. You won't be able to visit the City by the Bay ever again without looking for Rose and her descendants. I couldn't put this down."

--Gayle Shanks, Changing Hands, Tempe, AZ

Float Plan

By Trish Doller

(St. Martin's Griffin, 9781250767943, $16.99, trade paper)

"Whenever I pick up a romance novel, it's generally because I want a happy ending--I want rainbows and heartthrobs, and for everything to turn out perfectly. Float Plan gives us way more than that. We are introduced to a character at her lowest point and through a self-imposed challenge, she ventures through comedy, heartbreak, defeat, and more. A completely lovely story! Also, now I need a sailboat..."
--Miranda Atkins, A Little Bookish, Ooltewah, TN

Cosmogony: Stories

By Lucy Ives

(Soft Skull, 9781593765996, $16.95, trade paper)

"Ives writes boldly; her stories are strong and wild, as if she left the door open to the dream world and let all that magic saturate. Her writings are grounded in the real world, but there's a shimmering rind to them, magical realism at its toughest. She's also mastered that tricky art of creating beautiful content while offering an intimate and substantial reflection on very human happenings and feelings. Perfect for those who love the minds of women who are unafraid to blast boundaries apart."
--Aimee Keeble, Main Street Books, Davidson, NC

Every Last Fear

By Alex Finlay

(Minotaur Books, 9781250268822, $26.99)

"This is a riveting debut crime novel featuring a nonstop propulsive plot with twists and turns that will keep you up at night racing through the pages to figure out what will happen. Finlay has crafted an unforgettable story that glides between past and present while moving from locales in the U.S. to Tulum, Mexico. This will surely earn a legion of fans."
--Cody Morrison, Square Books, Oxford, MS

Good Eggs

By Rebecca Hardiman

(Atria Books, 9781982164294, $27)

"Filled with warmth and hilarity, this book reads like a mix of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye and a Maeve Binchy novel. The Irish setting is especially welcome on this side of the pond, and of the three plotlines following different generations, the absolute best paints 83-year-old pistol of a grandma Millie as a delightfully quirky and determined soul. A charming, offbeat novel--perfect to savor as we emerge from this particular winter."

--Deb Wayman, Fair Isle Books, Washington Island, WI

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer

By Jamie Figueroa

(Catapult, 9781948226882, $25)

"One of a number of excellent debut novels already out in the still-new year, this is a singular work. Taking on the coming-of-age from young adulthood into something deeper and more mature, the story follows a sister and brother as they reckon with their mother's passing and begin to understand what life should and should not be as it gets lived. Their tourist town of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas gives us not only a vivid picture of the present but casts a knowing eye on the layers of the past. Beautifully done."
--Rick Simonson, The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

The Girls Are All So Nice Here

By Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

(Simon & Schuster, 9781982144623, $27)

"The Girls Are All So Nice Here is the first, but not the last, lie you will read when you devour this dark and disturbing novel about college girls and how they treat each other in order to be popular or important. The writing is chilling and so authentic, I felt like I was back in high school or college with a group of toxic girls who would stop at nothing to get what they wanted. The more I read, the more I wondered how Flynn could possibly come up with an ending that would be both satisfying and as deliciously evil as the rest of the book. She managed to deliver, and then some."
--Nancy McFarlane, Fiction Addiction, Greenville, SC

Band of Sisters

By Lauren Willig

(William Morrow, 9780062986153, $27.99)

"Willig's Band of Sisters pulled me in and took me on a journey of complicated friendships that grew and matured in the midst of hardship and trial. Between mishaps with roosters, snowstorms, and reminders of the kindness and resilience of people, this historical fiction is a delight to read."
--Laura DeLaney, Rediscovered Books, Boise, ID

First Comes Like

By Alisha Rai

(Avon, 9780062878151, $15.99, trade paper)

"Alisha Rai has continued to deliver another relevant, swoon-worthy romance with First Comes Like. This book is perfect for readers who love a slow burn or fans of You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria. I enjoyed seeing the perspective of a contemporary Muslim woman in a way that wasn't sensationalized or exoticized. Rai has written a book that is still sexy, even when the characters aren't having sex. Jia, the heroine, is a ball of sunshine toward whom I instantly gravitated for her open, generous heart, big dreams, and strong work ethic. Reading about her journey to conquer self-doubt taught me a little bit about reframing my own flaws and accepting myself, too."
--Stephanie Otani-Sunamoto, The Novel Neighbor, Webster Groves, MO

The Committed

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

(Grove Press, 9780802157065, $27)

"In this sequel to The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (and his semi-nameless narrator) once again skewer multiple ideologies with caustic wit, philosophical gravitas, and broad historical understanding. A mix of organized crime and psychological and political thriller, this book offers action (and there is lots of action!) unfolding amidst piercing meditations on colonialism, national identity, and ethics. In other words, The Committed uses much the same recipe as its Pulitzer-winning predecessor and delivers a similarly gripping, enraging, smart, and bleakly funny tale."
--Annie Metcalf, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, Minneapolis, MN

Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote

By Craig Fehrman

(Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 9781476786582, $18)

"Fascinating and engaging, Chris Fehrman's Author in Chief delivers unique insights into U.S. politics, history, and publishing. Fehrman shows that analyzing our presidents as authors first provides understanding and appreciation into their personal lives and motivations, but also into how those motivations greatly influenced our country as a whole. Proving that books can indeed change the world, Author in Chief is a perfect combination of history, politics, and bibliophilia."
--Katerina Argyres, Bookshop West Portal, San Francisco, CA

A Children's Bible

By Lydia Millet

(W. W. Norton & Company, 9780393867381, $15.95)

"In A Children's Bible, the age-old war between kids and their parents, children and adults, is reimagined through the lens of Biblical devastation. The result is harrowing and, in unexpected moments, hilarious. Millet has created a story that feels both folkloric and brand new, a tale as much about environmental cataclysm as it is about fighting for the people, things, and ideas that remain right and true, no matter how high the water gets. I love Millet's perfectly tuned sentences as much as the ambition of this novel, which I'll continue thinking about for a long time."

--Kristen Iskandrian, Thank You Books, Birmingham, AL

The Girl with the Louding Voice

By Abi Daré

(Dutton, 9781524746094, $17)

"This year is overflowing with phenomenal debuts--including this one from Abi Daré. It tells the story of Adunni, a young girl in Nigeria whose dreams and ambition focus in on one thing: education. In a city where girls like her are looked down upon and considered unworthy, she comes to find that change can begin with even the smallest of voices. This story is the kind that makes you itch: you'll ache for Adunni, bristle at the people who treat her so unjustly, and yearn for her to succeed. This is a stunning, important, and fascinating first novel."
--Lindsay Howard, Lark and Owl Booksellers, Georgetown, TX

A Good Neighborhood

By Therese Anne Fowler

(St. Martin's Griffin, 9781250237293, $16.99)

"Therese Anne Fowler's new novel will have you examining the actions and motivations of everyone you know. Her exquisite storytelling and character development deliver an unforgettable and unpredictable story that touches on many contemporary issues, including race, wealth, control, and status. Be sure to leave yourself some time for this one--once you hit the tipping point, you won't put it down until you finish."
--Kari Erpenbach, University of Minnesota Bookstores, Minneapolis, MN

In Five Years

By Rebecca Serle

(Atria Books, 9781982137458, $17)

"Rebecca Serle's In Five Years has so many of the things I want in a terrific novel: a twisty plot that leaves me guessing; radically unexpected developments; settings that I can see, smell, and taste; and probably the thing that Serle does best--an introduction to characters I'll grow to care about and shed tears with. That last one? The tear thing? In Five Years had me weeping for the last part of a coast-to-coast flight, prompting the flight attendant to hand me a drink because, she said, it looked like I needed one. I loved this book and can't wait to offer it to readers."
--Nick Petrulakis, Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA

The Knockout Queen

By Rufi Thorpe

(Vintage, 9780525567295, $16)

"To say I admire The Knockout Queen feels inadequate, though I do admire a great deal of it: its voice, depth, structure--you name it. But it's more honest just to say I love The Knockout Queen; I loved reading it, I felt involved in it, and, finally, I was so moved by its ending. This is an epic tale of friendship, one where the magnitude sneaks up on you quietly--but when it strikes home, it rings so brilliantly true."

--Will Walton, Books Are Magic, Brooklyn, NY

Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir

By Rebecca Solnit

(Penguin Books, 9780593083345, $16)

"Over Rebecca Solnit's 30 years of writing, readers like me have fallen in love with her seismic, world-shifting essays, and I was not disappointed by this memoir, her first longform writing in seven years. True to her form, this is a memoir not necessarily of the events of Solnit's coming of age, but rather the greater influences in her development as a feminist, an activist, and a writer in 1980's San Francisco. In these pages, Solnit describes the formation of her own powerful voice while interrogating the culture that routinely silences women through violence and disregard. By sharing these formative years, Solnit is sure to inspire and vindicate generations of women of all ages and offer much-needed encouragement to people of all genders to invest in voices long suppressed."

--Megan Bell, Underground Books, Carrollton, GA

Sea Wife

By Amity Gaige

(Vintage, 9780525566922, $16)

"Wherever you go, your anxieties go with you--even (or especially) if you go live on a boat to sail the world with your spouse and small children. Nothing will ever be the same for Juliet, Michael, and their family after their harrowing year at sea, and no reader will be the same after reading this taut, brilliant novel. I can't stop thinking about it."

--Mary Laura Philpott, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN

Sharks in the Time of Saviors

By Kawai Strong Washburn

(Picador, 9781250787316, $17)

"Sharks in the Time of Saviors is one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction I've had the pleasure to read. The fact that the book takes place in Hawaii makes it even more special. The author provides the reader with a unique 'chicken skin' experience. The book captures contemporary Hawaii's history over the past 20+ years, including the socioeconomics of race and being Hawaiian, income disparity, housing issues, family issues, and the diaspora that affects so many families in Hawaii who are unable or unwilling to deal with the cost of living. Truly a master work of art."

--Benjamin "Buddy" Bess, Da Shop: Books & Curiosities, Honolulu, HI

This Town Sleeps

By Dennis E. Staples

(Counterpoint, 9781640094642, $16.95)

"This Town Sleeps, set on an Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota, is not an elegiac or idyllic work but rather a direct, unblinking, poetic novel that draws the reader inexorably into the gray areas of the hearts of those in this story. A queer coming-of-age story bound up in a town mystery, this tale of Marion Lafournier, a young gay Ojibwe man, is a compelling debut. Dennis E. Staples is an author whose voice and storytelling will be appreciated in so many ways for years to come."

--Christine Havens, BookPeople, Austin, TX

Valentine

By Elizabeth Wetmore

(Harper Perennial, 9780062913272, $17)

"Before starting this book, you should block out the next 24 hours on your calendar because you will not be able to do anything else. Valentine is reminiscent of Disappearing Earth in its multi-voice portrayal of the vulnerability, resilience, solidarity, fury, and tenacity of girls and women in the man's world of oil-booming West Texas in the 1970s. These unforgettable characters are the spiritual sisters of Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. I was haunted by them, I rooted for them, I've been them, and I won't forget them."

--Rebekah Shoaf, Boogie Down Books, Bronx, NY

We Ride Upon Sticks

By Quan Barry

(Vintage, 9780525565437, $16.95)

"This is such a fun romp! It has everything you could possibly want in a book: field hockey, witches, and '80s bangs that have literally taken on a life of their own. Set in Salem in the 1980s, we follow a group of high school field hockey players as they struggle with their new dark powers and attempt to end their losing streak. One of the strangest, most satisfying books I have read in a long time!"

--Hillary Smith, Copperfield's Books, Calistoga, CA