The best Coney Island books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about Coney Island and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of Sodom By the Sea an Affectionate History of Coney Island

Known as “the people’s playground,” Coney Island was also affectionately dubbed “sodom by the sea.” This thick volume, published in 1941, offers a history going all the way back to 1830, affording a sweeping view of Coney Island’s risque, criminal, glamorous, delightful, glittering, and sometimes seedy past. It includes a splendid few pages about my subject, Dr. Couney, which were no doubt approved by the self-inventing showman himself—co-author Ranson was among his favorite newspaper reporters. 

Sodom By the Sea an Affectionate History of Coney Island

By Oliver Pilat, Jo Ranson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sodom By the Sea an Affectionate History of Coney Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sodom by the sea;: An affectionate history of Coney Island [Jan 01, 1943] Pilat, Oliver


Who am I?

I’m the author of five books, the most recent of which is The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies. The “doctor” ran infant incubator sideshows for forty years at Coney Island (among other places) where the public would pay to view tiny preemies. Bizarre as it seems, and despite Martin Couney’s many fabrications, he was the rightful father of American neonatology, not only getting rich but also saving thousands of children when the medical establishment couldn’t or wouldn’t do it: Some of his patients are still alive. During my years of research, I needed to immerse myself in the history and culture of America’s trippiest, naughtiest seaside playground, with its amusement parks, freak shows, sideshows, hijinks, and hanky panky. (Sigmund Freud reportedly said that Coney Island was the only thing of interest to him in America). Along with many trips to Coney Island as it is today, including the Coney Island Museum, these were the books that really helped me feel it. 


I wrote...

The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

By Dawn Raffel,

Book cover of The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

What is my book about?

What kind of doctor puts his patients on display? This is the spellbinding tale of a mysterious Coney Island doctor who revolutionized neonatal care more than one hundred years ago and saved some seven thousand babies. Dr. Martin Couney's story is a kaleidoscopic ride through the intersection of ebullient entrepreneurship, enlightened pediatric care, and the wild culture of world's fairs at the beginning of the American Century.

Beneath a Blazing Sky

By Amanda Hughes,

Book cover of Beneath a Blazing Sky

McKinley, the tiny monkey, helps Piper sell peanuts at Coney Island and is the only constant in her young life. Her mother rides bareback for the circus and takes in beastly men. Her father, a determined bachelor, refuses to give her a stable home but eventually saves her from reform school, a probability due to her penchant for fighting and shooting guns.  

The tale takes her from Coney to Manhattan to live with her wealthy aunt, on to college, and then to war-torn Belgium. Treachery and brutality follow Piper’s footsteps, and she faces obstacles with the same kind of headlong determination she used as a child; her fists and pluck.  

I loved the fast pace and detailed descriptions, expressive language, and surprising but believable events.

Beneath a Blazing Sky

By Amanda Hughes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beneath a Blazing Sky as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The dawning of the Twentieth Century, and it is a world in chaos. Raised on Coney Island among scoundrels, cheats, and dreamers, Piper Albrecht is apprenticed to violence at an early age. Not until she is rescued by her aunt and moves to the elegant Upper East Side of Manhattan does she experience a different life, the life of a well-educated, forward-thinking young woman. But the roller coaster ride is far from over. After building the most fashionable millinery house in America, Piper spearheads relief efforts in Belgium during The Great War, bringing food to civilians trapped behind enemy lines.…


Who am I?

When I was a child, my mother and I shared and discussed Zane Grey books. I loved his portrayal of the past and read every one. My obsession with historical fiction grew, and I wrote my first draft of Elephant in the Room at age sixteen. I’m stuck in the period between 1875 and 1940 because of the simplicity driving life as well as the complexity of larger events changing the world. Wilder, Steinbeck, Twain, all picked me off my feet and set me down in their shoes. I’m not able to remove them. I write about courageous women because we are, whether it’s expressed or is in waiting.  


I wrote...

Curse of the Damselfly

By JuliAnne Sisung,

Book cover of Curse of the Damselfly

What is my book about?

It’s 1893, and unconventional Jesse heals the sick as she was taught by her mother. The town’s physician knew only bloodletting, which hurt the sick more than helped, and that he would someday bed Jesse, but she knew better on both counts. When her fiancé left town and her belly grew, Pere Cheney shunned her as a sinner and believed she cursed the town with witchcraft. Diphtheria ravaged the community and a few brave souls quickly buried the dead and burned houses to prevent contagion. With her crippled father, Jesse battled death and an angry, unenlightened populace. Curse of the Damselfly is a tale of jealousy and ignorance, courage, and hope.  

Amusing the Million

By John F. Kasson,

Book cover of Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

This short book, filled with delightful illustrations, is so much fun that you don’t immediately notice that it’s a powerful history of how urbanization and industrialization led to a new mass culture. The particular focus is on the rise of the amusement park, and the controversies that arose over how people “should” spend their leisure time and discretionary income. When the Russian revolutionary Maxim Gory toured Coney Island in 1907, he concluded that in America, amusement (rather than religion) had become the opiate of the masses. This book, a classic, remains relevant, inspiring thoughtful analysis concerning the ongoing power of the leisure industry and its impact on how people think, live, and spend their money. 

Amusing the Million

By John F. Kasson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Amusing the Million as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Coney Island: the name still resonates with a sense of racy Brooklyn excitement, the echo of beach-front popular entertainment before World War I. Amusing the Million examines the historical context in which Coney Island made its reputation as an amusement park and shows how America's changing social and economic conditions formed the basis of a new mass culture. Exploring it afresh in this way, John Kasson shows Coney Island no longer as the object of nostalgia but as a harbinger of modernity--and the many photographs, lithographs, engravings, and other reproductions with which he amplifies his text support this lively thesis.


Who am I?

I study the Gilded Age and Progressive Era because it has so many practical applications for the present.  As we face our own Gilded Age of enormous technological achievements paired with ongoing problems stemming from what Bob La Follette called “the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many,” why reinvent the wheel?  What worked for progressive reformers in their struggles to create a more equitable and just society?  What didn’t work, and why? To help answer those questions I wrote Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer and Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer, and co-edited A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.


I wrote...

Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

By Nancy C. Unger,

Book cover of Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

What is my book about?

The endlessly fascinating Robert La Follette (1855-1925) represented Wisconsin in the House of Representatives, as governor, and, for twenty-one years, in the U.S. Senate.  As the nation rapidly transformed into an urban-industrial giant, he tackled some of its biggest problems, including political corruption, environmental devastation, and worker exploitation.  “The supreme issue, involving all the others,” he declared, “is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many.” La Follette was a leader in the fight to more equitably redistribute the nation’s wealth and power.

La Follette’s wife, Belle Case La Follette, was a leader in the fight for women’s suffrage and racial equality as well as world peace. Together they created a remarkably close family, generating a political dynasty.

Requiem for a Dream

By Hubert Selby Jr.,

Book cover of Requiem for a Dream

I highly recommend Requiem for a Dream, published in 1978, which pre-dates the timeline of my own book by a couple of years. Requiem shows the complete degradation of drug addiction to two different generations of people who live in New York City during the drug craze of heroin and other prescription drugs. The characters in Requiem don’t seem to care or even be aware of how devastating being addicted to their drugs really is. They live for the high the drugs bring to them and each suffers tremendously for the total annihilation. A tough book to read but worth it! PS: Also a terrific movie as well.

Requiem for a Dream

By Hubert Selby Jr.,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Requiem for a Dream as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Harry Goldfarb, heroin addict and son of lonely widow Sara, cares only about enjoying the good life with girlfriend Marion and best friend Tyrone C Love, and making the most of all the hash, poppers and dope they can get. Sara Goldfarb sits at home with the TV, dreaming of the life she could have and struggling with her own addictions - food and diet pills. But these four will pay a terrible price for the pleasures they believe they are entitled to. A passionate, heart-breaking tale of the crushing weight of hope and expectation, Requiem for a Dream is…


Who am I?

Richard Vetere’s screenplay Caravaggio won The Golden Palm for the Best Screenplay at the 2021 Beverly Hills Film Festival. He co-wrote The Third Miracle screenplay adaptation of his own novel. The movie was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Ed Harris and Anne Heche and directed by Agnieszka Holland released by Sony Pictures Classics. His teleplay adaptation of his stage play The Marriage Fool starring Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett is the most viewed CBS movie ever and is currently running on Amazon. He also wrote the cult classic film Vigilante called by BAM as one of the “best indies of the 1980s.”


I wrote...

Champagne and Cocaine: A Novel

By Richard Vetere,

Book cover of Champagne and Cocaine: A Novel

What is my book about?

New York. Winter. 1980. Behind the glitter of the disco era, the city streets run wild. In countless secret spaces, high stakes poker games fuel an underground economy flush with cocaine, champagne, and call girls. Winners are on top of the world. But no one wins forever, and when aspiring novelist and inveterate card player Danny Ferraro goes "all in"—and then some—he winds up owing the mob big money. And when you owe the mob, you pay—or else. With nowhere to run, Danny is forced to commit unspeakable acts just to stay even. Richard Vetere's gritty novel strips the gloss of the "Godfather" era and lays bare the gritty reality of the subversive blackmarket as Ferraro struggles to free himself of its grip. 

Hex

By Maggie Estep,

Book cover of Hex: A Ruby Murphy Mystery

Few people in the world could render with so much humanity the backstreet stories of Coney Island and Belmont Race Track as Estep has in “Hex.” As main character/narrator Ruby navigates the down and out animals and humans of her neighborhood, we are made privy to the power of kindness and friendship in a carnivalesque world that continually threatens to fall into shambles. As a lifelong rider and trainer myself, I have often been struck by the proximity of extremes in the horse world. Estep’s revelations of a dark and pithy world, shot through with the dreams and aspirations of regular people, is a fascinating ride through streets at once familiar and strange. A treat for adventurous readers.

Hex

By Maggie Estep,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hex as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Having drifted through thirty-three years of life, Ruby Murphy has put down roots in a rootless place: Coney Island. A recovering alcoholic who is fanatical in her love for animals and her misanthropic friends, Ruby lives above a furniture store and works at the musty Coney Island Museum. One day, Ruby is on the subway heading into Manhattan when the train stalls between stations. An elegant blond woman with a scarred face strikes up a conversation, and a misunderstanding between the two women leads to an offer Ruby decides she can’t refuse. The woman needs her boyfriend followed, and she…


Who am I?

I am a lifelong horsewoman, environmental researcher, and writer. After a career with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, working to protect wild rivers and streams, I “retired” to become a dressage teacher, trainer, and judge, and I regularly travel the Gulf Coast, teaching dressage clinics. I have taught literature and writing at the college level. I have bred and trained champion horses and helped horses rescued from dire situations. Together with my husband, I also organized a rescue operation for horses on the Gulf Coast affected by Hurricane Katrina. I have a PhD in History, Theory, and Culture from Emory University. All in all, I’ve had an adventurous and wonderful life which I try to share in my writing.


I wrote...

Still Waters

By Sara Warner,

Book cover of Still Waters

What is my book about?

When environmental researcher and would-be writer Teena Shostekovich returns home to find her computer files stolen, she suspects it has to do with the “hot potato” case she’s been working. But a call from the thief complicates things. Nothing gets any clearer when Detective Logan Deo comes to her door and news from her ex-husband Mack alerts her to peril that seems a world away. Meanwhile, the story of Jessie Weston, a cowgirl turned biologist, unfolds on the shores of Lake Ponder, where a dike her father built is bringing nothing but trouble from state officials. As Teena’s and Jessie’s paths veer ever closer, the dangers in their lives threaten to explode.

Winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards’ Grand Prize for Fiction.

Good Old Coney Island

By Edo McCullough,

Book cover of Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past

First published in 1957 (and re-issued with a welcome epilogue by historian Michael P. Onorato), the book vividly portrays the storied seaside’s heyday. McCullough was Coney Island royalty: His grandfather was one of its earliest settlers, his uncle was among its greatest showmen, and his dad owned a dozen amusement-park shooting galleries. The family’s love of the place seeps through these pages (a sub-sub title reads “the most rambunctious, scandalous, rapscallion, splendiferous, pugnacious, spectacular, illustrious, prodigious, frolicsome island on earth”—which about sums it up).  Particularly moving is the heartbreaking fate of the show animals on the night of a tragic fire in 1911.

Good Old Coney Island

By Edo McCullough,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Good Old Coney Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Coney Island is more than a national institution: it was probably the most celebrated amusement resort in the world. This book, by a man whose family helped to build the Island's fantastic reputation, presents its lively and nostalgic history. Touched with sentiment, occasionally with acid, it is frank, outspoken, sometimes biting, but always imbued with humor.
This new edition of McCullough's book includes an introduction by Brian J. Cudahy, who has written extensively about New York's waterways and subways, and an epilogue by Michael P. Onorato, a retired history professor whose father managed Coney Island's famed Steeplechase Park from 1928…


Who am I?

I’m the author of five books, the most recent of which is The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies. The “doctor” ran infant incubator sideshows for forty years at Coney Island (among other places) where the public would pay to view tiny preemies. Bizarre as it seems, and despite Martin Couney’s many fabrications, he was the rightful father of American neonatology, not only getting rich but also saving thousands of children when the medical establishment couldn’t or wouldn’t do it: Some of his patients are still alive. During my years of research, I needed to immerse myself in the history and culture of America’s trippiest, naughtiest seaside playground, with its amusement parks, freak shows, sideshows, hijinks, and hanky panky. (Sigmund Freud reportedly said that Coney Island was the only thing of interest to him in America). Along with many trips to Coney Island as it is today, including the Coney Island Museum, these were the books that really helped me feel it. 


I wrote...

The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

By Dawn Raffel,

Book cover of The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

What is my book about?

What kind of doctor puts his patients on display? This is the spellbinding tale of a mysterious Coney Island doctor who revolutionized neonatal care more than one hundred years ago and saved some seven thousand babies. Dr. Martin Couney's story is a kaleidoscopic ride through the intersection of ebullient entrepreneurship, enlightened pediatric care, and the wild culture of world's fairs at the beginning of the American Century.

A Touch of Romance

By Merry Farmer,

Book cover of A Touch of Romance

Love is love, so I always adore recommending historical romances that are queer positive. This series by Merry Farmer of four books (to date) are set in 1920s New York and have the most glorious M/M romances that you have ever read. If you’ve never read a gay romance before, trust me: you’re going to fall in love. 

A Touch of Romance

By Merry Farmer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Touch of Romance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

He crossed the ocean to escape from love…

Journalist Marcus Albright did not run away from his London home when he accepted an assignment in New York City. His interest in writing a series of articles about the popular club scene of The Bowery has nothing to do with the disastrous end of a long-term relationship, or his desire to stay as far away from love and commitment that he possibly can. His only concern is enjoying the vibrancy and color that The Slippery Slope is famous for.

…but love has other plans…

Jasper Werther loves his wild, flamboyant life,…


Who am I?

I’ve been falling in love with love since before I can remember, and it’s been a wild adventure that’s taken me across thousands of miles, one rather splendid husband, and over forty books published. After hitting the USA Today Bestsellers list, I’ve become a full time author and spend at least 12 hours a day falling in love as a job. Each time I read a book, I discover a new way to fall in love—and I adore being able to recommend my favourite authors to new readers, so that they can discover them with me. 


I wrote...

A Governess of Great Talents

By Emily E.K. Murdoch,

Book cover of A Governess of Great Talents

What is my book about?

Welcome to a brand new and exciting series titled The Governess Bureau from USA Today Bestselling Author Emily E K Murdoch!

When the nobility and gentility of England are at their wits end, they send a discrete note to Miss Vivienne Clarke’s Governess Bureau. Only accepting the very best clients, their governesses are coveted, with every governess following three rules: You must have an impeccable record. You must bring a special skill to the table. You must never fall in love…

Coney Island

By Robin Jaffee Frank,

Book cover of Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008

Created in conjunction with a 2015 exhibition, this volume is a visual feast -- a tribute to the way Coney Island inspired artists and endures as part of the public imagination. Paintings, drawings, posters, artifacts, and photographs spanning 1861-2008 fill its pages; artists include Diane Arbus, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Red Grooms, and many others. Accompanying essays explore the seaside resort’s cultural significance.

Coney Island

By Robin Jaffee Frank,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Coney Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A captivating look at Coney Island and its iconic place in the history of American art

Called "America's playground," Coney Island is a world-famous resort and national cultural symbol that has inspired music, literature, and films. This groundbreaking book is the first to look at the site's enduring status as inspiration for artists throughout the ages, from its inception as an elite seaside resort in the mid-19th century, to its evolution into an entertainment mecca for the masses, with the eventual closing of its iconic amusement park, Astroland, in 2008 after decades of urban decline. How artists chose to portray…


Who am I?

I’m the author of five books, the most recent of which is The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies. The “doctor” ran infant incubator sideshows for forty years at Coney Island (among other places) where the public would pay to view tiny preemies. Bizarre as it seems, and despite Martin Couney’s many fabrications, he was the rightful father of American neonatology, not only getting rich but also saving thousands of children when the medical establishment couldn’t or wouldn’t do it: Some of his patients are still alive. During my years of research, I needed to immerse myself in the history and culture of America’s trippiest, naughtiest seaside playground, with its amusement parks, freak shows, sideshows, hijinks, and hanky panky. (Sigmund Freud reportedly said that Coney Island was the only thing of interest to him in America). Along with many trips to Coney Island as it is today, including the Coney Island Museum, these were the books that really helped me feel it. 


I wrote...

The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

By Dawn Raffel,

Book cover of The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

What is my book about?

What kind of doctor puts his patients on display? This is the spellbinding tale of a mysterious Coney Island doctor who revolutionized neonatal care more than one hundred years ago and saved some seven thousand babies. Dr. Martin Couney's story is a kaleidoscopic ride through the intersection of ebullient entrepreneurship, enlightened pediatric care, and the wild culture of world's fairs at the beginning of the American Century.

The Light of Luna Park

By Addison Armstrong,

Book cover of The Light of Luna Park

A dual-time story written by a Vanderbilt undergraduate (!), this is the story of a nurse at the Coney Island incubator “exhibit” where premature babies were brought because hospitals did not want to invest in this new technology (yes, this really happened). In 1926, Nurse Anderson takes a failing baby there with intentions of returning it to the parents, and a special education teacher in the 1950s has a connection to that fateful decision. Another fascinating piece of history that is not well known.

The Light of Luna Park

By Addison Armstrong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Light of Luna Park as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the spirit of The Orphan Train and Before We Were Yours, a historical debut about a nurse who chooses to save a baby's life, and risks her own in the process, exploring the ties of motherhood and the little-known history of Coney Island and America's first incubators.

A nurse's choice. A daughter's search for answers.

New York City, 1926. Nurse Althea Anderson's heart is near breaking when she witnesses another premature baby die at Bellevue Hospital. So when she reads an article detailing the amazing survival rates of babies treated in incubators in an exhibit at Luna Park, Coney…


Who am I?

My mother went back to school for her PhD in Anatomy when I was a pre-teen. During the summers of my high school years I worked with her in her lab, and let me tell you, you see your mother in a new light when you see her dissect a rat. Though I didn’t go into medicine, anyone raised in our household learned an impressive amount of biology just sitting around the dinner table. Consequently, I’ve always loved fiction with a medical bent. My mother was also the one to introduce me to historical fiction, so perhaps I was fated to write a historical novel with a nurse protagonist.


I wrote...

The Sharp Edge of Mercy

By Connie Hertzberg Mayo,

Book cover of The Sharp Edge of Mercy

What is my book about?

Lillian Dolan is optimistic about her new job at the New York Cancer Hospital after dreaming for years of becoming a nurse. But she struggles to fit in, so when the confident surgeon Dr. Bauer takes a shine to Lillian, she is thrilled to be noticed.

Lillian has been warned not to get too close to the patients, but Mrs. Sokolova draws her in. When Mrs. Sokolova’s situation becomes dire, however, she puts Lillian in an impossible situation – all while the young nurse slowly loses control of her relationship with Dr. Bauer. Her decision to help her patient throws her life into chaos, and she must make a terrible choice: capitulate to Dr. Bauer’s demands or face possible arrest.

Book cover of The Electric Michelangelo

Sarah Hall is a phenomenal writer and this is the novel that got me hooked. The Electric Michaelangelo of the title is tattoo artist Cy Parks, a man whose heart, art, and the love of his life are all inextricably entangled. The narrative charts his journey from a Morecambe childhood to a tattoo booth on Coney Island and back again, and it’s another take on the kind of Sideshow Gothic that I love. Hall writes accessible award-worthy novels in prose that’s stripped of any pretentiousness. After reading this and then her debut novel Haweswater I just order whatever she publishes, sight unseen.

The Electric Michelangelo

By Sarah Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Electric Michelangelo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the windswept front of Morecambe Bay, Cy Parks spends his childhood years first in a guest house for consumptives run by his mother and then as apprentice to alcoholic tattoo-artist Eliot Riley. Thirsty for new experiences, he departs for America and finds himself in the riotous world of the Coney Island boardwalk, where he sets up his own business as 'The Electric Michelangelo'. In this carnival environment of roller-coasters and freak-shows, Cy becomes enamoured with Grace, a mysterious immigrant and circus performer who commissions him to cover her entire body in tattooed eyes.

Hugely atmospheric, exotic and familiar, The…


Who am I?

They say that we begin by imitating what we love and find our personal themes in the process, and that’s certainly been true for me. I grew up reading horror and fantasy and now I write realistic fiction with something deeper and darker always throbbing under the surface. My subjects can be contemporary, like Nightmare, with Angel or The Spirit Box, but I’ve had some of my biggest critical successes with historical fiction. I’ve had parallel career paths in books and TV, each often crossing with the other, but it’s in the novels and short stories that you’ll find me uniquely invested.


I wrote...

The Bedlam Detective

By Stephen Gallagher,

Book cover of The Bedlam Detective

What is my book about?

It's 1912 and Sebastian Becker, Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, arrives in the West Country to interview Sir Owain Lancaster on his run-down country estate. Descending from his train in the coastal town of Arnmouth, Becker finds the entire community mobilised in a search for a pair of missing girls.

Sir Owain is one of only two survivors of a self-funded Amazonian expedition which saw his entire party wiped out, wife and child included. His explanation for that tragedy was a nightmarish fantasy of lost-world monsters and mythical beasts. The questions that face Sebastian: what really happened then, and how dangerous is this man now? A Kirkus 100 Best Books of the Year pick.

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