Lisa See: A Deep Dive into Forgiveness
|photo: Patricia Williams
Lisa See is the author of six historical novels (including The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane), a mystery series set in modern-day China and On Gold Mountain, a memoir of her Chinese-American family's history. Her newest novel, The Island of Sea Women (Scribner, $27; reviewed below), explores the long tradition of haenyeo, female deep-sea divers, on the Korean island of Jeju.
Tell us about the inspiration for The Island of Sea Women.
About 10 years ago, I was waiting at the doctor's office, leafing through some magazines. There was a tiny article, maybe a paragraph or two and a photo, about the haenyeo culture. I ripped it out and took it home. I was finishing up a book at the time, and I had another two books to write, but any time I saw something about the haenyeo, I would cut it out and save it.
I was captivated by this culture of women divers for several reasons: it was a matrifocal society. They had the greatest ability of all human beings on earth to withstand cold water. The community of the divers and the way they worked together was so strong. Then I started to learn more about Jeju itself and its history, and I was fascinated. I didn't know, for example, that Korea was a Japanese colony. I learned about the Japanese presence on Jeju during World War II: many people believed that when the tide of the war changed, the Allies would go through Jeju to get to Japan. All of that was just fascinating.
For your research into the haenyeo culture, did you travel to Jeju?
Yes. I got to stay in three different areas of the island, and near one of them, there was a beach where several retired haenyeo would spend time. The woman who was my translator is the daughter of a haenyeo. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and I interviewed her mother, whose name is Young-sook (like my protagonist). Some of what happens in my book, with Young-sook's daughter winning an academic contest and going off to school in the city, actually happened to this family.
When I was interviewing the haenyeo, especially the older ones, it struck me that they all wanted to talk about their kids. They had large families (there was no birth control), and they'd have six to eight children. These days, they were all out in the world doing different jobs: a makeup artist, a sound engineer, a lawyer, a doctor. All of them were looking outward, and had moved away from the farm life and agricultural traditions of Jeju. But their mothers were so proud.
The haenyeo have a long history on Jeju. Why did you choose this particular period (the 1930s to the present day) to explore?
This period is a time of such political transition for the country, but also in terms of technology--electricity and indoor plumbing--and of access to the outside world. That changed everyone's lives: not only the lives of the haenyeo, but their families and their communities. I wanted to explore the effects of all those changes.
Many World War II stories published in the West focus on France, Britain, the U.S. "home front" or even Japan. Why do you think that is, and why did you choose to explore the war's impact on a lesser-known location and its people?
I think there are a couple of reasons for that. Our country has always looked back toward Europe: the U.S. is still pretty Eurocentric. And I don't want to diminish the severity of what happened in Europe during the war. But I also think the Pacific in general was so foreign to most Americans at that time. All those countries were still unfamiliar. Think about Chinese immigration: people came over during the Gold Rush, and then to help build the transcontinental railroad. Then we had the Chinese Exclusion Act, which lasted until 1943. These countries had tiny populations in the U.S., compared to immigrant populations from Europe. What happened in the Pacific theater, and later in Korea, continues to play a role in our international relations today. It's not history that we know very well, and yet it has had an effect. North and South Korea are so much in our news, and it's interesting to think about how the division came to be.
The culture of Jeju and the haenyeo is shaped and dominated in some ways (though not all) by women. Can you talk a bit about this matrifocal culture?
Korea is the most Confucian of all the Asian countries, and so for this island to be in such opposition to that is really interesting. Confucius had a lot of thoughts about women, and none of them were good. That has a huge effect on the culture of Korea across the board. The haenyeo stood in contrast to that, but even while they were flourishing, they never had entire control. There were questions and contradictions: yes, women are in charge, but are they? Only sons can perform ancestor worship, for example, and men still exclusively make some of the decisions. So it was always a somewhat conflicted situation.
Forgiveness is a huge theme in the novel: Young-sook, the narrator, struggles to forgive her friend Mi-ja. The people of Jeju and Korea must also come to terms with great loss and pain.
I knew that I wanted to have this break between friends. This is fascinating to me personally: how we tell friends things we wouldn't tell our parents or partners or children. It's a very particular kind of intimacy, and it can also leave you open to betrayal. I wanted to write about that, but also to have this larger historical event on Jeju where people either rise to the occasion or they fail. Since then, Jeju has actually claimed its identity and even marketed itself as an island of forgiveness. So I wanted to use the incidents that sparked the idea of Jeju as a place of forgiveness.
I also wanted to explore the ideas of blame and guilt: you can blame somebody for their actions, but you can also feel guilty for what you've done. Early on in my research, I read an article about a village on Jeju that split after the anti-communist massacre in 1949. It became two villages, and they took two different names. And all these years later, they decided to forgive each other, and go back to being one village. We have so many conflicts around the world that last a long time. I thought there was a lot here to explore and learn about forgiveness. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Reading with... Holly Ringland
|photo: Giulia Zonza
Holly Ringland grew up barefoot and wild in her mother's tropical garden on the east coast of Australia. Her interest in cultures and stories was sparked by a two-year journey her family took in North America when she was nine years old, living in a camper van and traveling from one national park to another. In her 20s, she worked for four years in a remote Indigenous community in the central Australian desert. She obtained her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester. Her essays and short fiction have been published in various anthologies and literary journals. She now lives in the U.K. and Australia. The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart (House of Anansi, $17.95) is Ringland's first novel.
On your nightstand now:
At the end of the day I'm often anxious, and too often an insomniac; I've learned to keep books near to me to soothe those sharp edges late at night, or, to set my mind right first thing in the morning for the new day ahead. On my nightstand now are Alice Hoffman's Survival Lessons, River Woman by Katherena Vermette, Nikita Gill's Fierce Fairytales, Salt by Nayyirah Waheed, The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver and The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer.
Favorite book when you were a child:
My mother taught me to read I was three; I was instantly obsessed with The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs and Marmaduke the Possum by Pixie O'Harris. I lost my love of reading for a few years in my childhood because of trauma, but after Mum bought me the first novel in Lois Gladys Leppard's Mandie series when I was nine, I was consumed by a deep love of books once again. Mandie kept company on my shelves with Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry and, later in childhood, Came Back to Show You I Could Fly by Ruth Park and Just As Long As We're Together by Judy Blume.
Your top five authors:
This is an unbearable question! Does anyone ever really only answer five? What happens if I answer six? I'll try. Alice Hoffman. Favel Parrett. Zora Neale Hurston. Brooke Davis. Myfanwy Jones. Ali Cobby Eckermann. Kate Leaver. Kate Gray. (Eight!)
Book you've faked reading:
I'm terrified of fake reading anything; the likelihood of being caught out is a no-brainer. But I firsthand relate to how gripping the temptation to fake read is: I so desperately want to have read everything just to share the thrilling language of a shared story with people. I guess my go-to answer is, "I know of it but I haven't read it." And, in that way, I suppose my big fake read is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I know the story and have seen the screen adaptations, but--cringing--I've never read the book.
Book you're an evangelist for:
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver. A timely, moving and desperately needed manifesto on the power of friendship in our modern world. It's a nightstand staple.
Book you've bought for the cover:
The Muse by Jessie Burton, which is also a wonderful book.
Book you hid from your parents:
Their own copy of The Joy of Sex.
Book that changed your life:
Everything I've ever read. I know this could sound like a fluffy, evasive answer: truly, I think we're made by the people, places and books we spend our lives with. If I were held at ransom to answer this in a specific way, there are two novels that come to mind as being pivotal in my early adult life. One was Open House by Elizabeth Berg, which I read when I was 22, and the other was At Risk by Alice Hoffman, which I read when I was 24. I borrowed both from libraries when I was too poor to buy books, and they each had their own profound effect on me. They showed me how to write beautifully and bravely about brutal things.
Favorite line from a book:
"Every fairy tale had a bloody lining. Every one had teeth and claws." --from The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman.
Five books you'll never part with:
This is torturous. Impossible. The only truthful way I can answer this is to say that having lived in many places throughout my life, in moving and culling belongings to do so, I've never parted with any of the 36 books by Alice Hoffman that I own.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Storm Boy by Colin Thiele.
Will you ever read everything in your TBR pile:
I hope not. As Anakana Schofield wrote recently in the Guardian, "Unread books are imagined reading futures, not an indication of failure."
Frans de Waal: Uncovering Secrets in the Animal World
|photo: Catherine Marin
Frans de Waal has been named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People. The author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, among many other works, he is the C.H. Candler Professor in Emory University's Psychology Department and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. His new book, Mama's Last Hug (W.W. Norton, $27.95; reviewed below), explores the emotional life of animals. Originally from the Netherlands, de Waal now lives in Atlanta, Ga.
Despite the title character (chimpanzee matriarch Mama), Mama's Last Hug doesn't deal strictly with primates. What expanded your interest to include all mammals?
I have a long-time (childhood) interest in animals, all animals, and started my studies with birds and rats, and only later moved to monkeys and apes. I was trained as an ethologist in the Netherlands, and there studied the world's largest zoo colony of chimpanzees, which gave me many ideas for later work. It started with work on aggressive behavior and politics (I wrote Chimpanzee Politics at the time), but soon thereafter moved to peacemaking, cooperation, empathy and the like.
Speaking of empathy, in the "Body to Body" chapter you note how females--across species--are more nurturing and empathetic than males.
In general, females in all mammals have stronger caring tendencies, and that includes stronger empathy for others. This is true in humans, but also in all of the primates I know. The origin of these caring tendencies is no doubt maternal care, which is obligatorily female and only optional for males. This doesn't mean that males lack empathy. There are species, ours included, in which males care for offspring, care for each other, care for their family. In these species the capacity for empathy expanded and reached other areas of society, including males. I always think in potentials rather than the dominant behavior. The potential for empathy is well-developed in males, and since we are a powerfully cultural species, we can build on this.
One of the recurring themes in your writing seems to be that humans have historically discounted so much when it comes to animals, but you explain how that is changing. What area (or areas) could still use a lot of work on our part?
Within the university we still have entire fields (anthropology, philosophy, humanities, economics) that tend to ignore the biological nature of our species. They will admit that we evolved from other primates but are not ready to say that we think and feel like other animals. Humans are considered extremely special. For example, consciousness was and often is thought of as a uniquely human characteristic. This is where change has to start. It's a different way of positioning the human species--not as separate from nature but as part of it; not as a half-god, but as an animal.
Part of the problem in the world today with the ecosystem (global warming, loss of species diversity) stems from this illusion of our species that we are separate from nature and can do whatever we like with the Earth. It is intellectually a false proposition that is now backfiring. The planet is "protesting."
Does anything still surprise you about the animals in your work?
We still keep being surprised. For example, you may have heard about the recent study in which fish recognize themselves in a mirror. Who would have thought? I have questions about the study, and am not totally convinced, but still we keep expanding our horizon, and keep discovering that all animals, not just the primates, have a complex cognition. My book is more about the emotions, of course, but also here, many new discoveries have been made or are about to be made, offering us a much more complex picture of animal life than we used to have. We are in the middle of a revolution of our understanding.
I think neuroscience will offer new discoveries soon, as scientists who work in this area, mostly on rodents, move away from simplistic animal behavior and learn more about social behavior and mental capacities. Once they start testing those out, we can expect many new discoveries.
What's next for you in your scientific work and/or writing?
I am looking forward to doing less research and more writing and traveling. I am thinking about my next writing project, but it is still top secret. I usually try to stay close to the subject matter I know best, which is the behavior of primates and other animals, hence no doubt that will be central to whatever I do next. --Jen Forbus
Andrea Bartz: Ripped from Real Life
|photo: Kate Lord
Andrea Bartz is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Self. The Lost Night (Crown, $27) is her first novel.
As a freelance writer, you've written about a range of topics, e.g. relationships, travel, health. When considering your first novel, what made you decide to write a mystery?
I've always loved reading them, so I thought I'd try my hand at writing one. While I was flailing around for a premise, I happened upon some old e-mails and texts from my early 20s, and they reminded me how goddamn social we all were back then--how we felt the need to do something Big and Memorable every single night.
I never lived in Brooklyn's McKibbin Lofts, but it felt like the nerve center of that scene back in the late-naughts, a spot where you could reliably find parties and concerts and interesting characters. It was this close-knit, closed-door world, and I wondered: What if, after one of those wild, sprawling Friday nights, everyone woke up hungover and bleary-eyed... and there was a dead body? The Lost Night grew out of that premise.
The setting and characters are vivid. Are they based on real people or experiences?
Thanks for saying that! And thank you for not asking if Lindsay, the protagonist, is me, which is a question I keep getting. As a fiction writer, I did this crazy thing where I made someone up. That said, did I go to some wild parties and concerts and meet a myriad of colorful characters and drink a lot of picklebacks and play a lot of Jenga in beer-smelling bars in 2009? You bet I did.
I loved writing the nightlife scenes because so many of the details, including the outlandish ones, were ripped from real life. I wanted to capture that sense of invincibility and wild, boundless fun you can have in your early 20s, when you think the world is yours--there was no question in our minds that we would talk our way backstage or get free shots or befriend the celebrity sulking in the corner. We absolutely expected the extraordinary. I don't have the energy to pursue that kind of thing any more, but it sure was fun while it lasted.
This is your debut novel. Walk us through your path to publication.
I started writing The Lost Night for NaNoWriMo in 2014, when 2009 nostalgia was decidedly not a thing. I produced a spectacularly horrible first draft in about six months, then spent 18 months turning it into something coherent. I queried agents in late 2016, just by sending my stuff into the slush pile. I simply researched and queried agents whose work I loved and admired. I was lucky to get three offers of representation within a few weeks, and I signed with the wonderful Alexandra Machinist (who reps Tomi Adeyemi, Kevin Kwan and many other stunners) at the end of that year.
She took the manuscript out on submission in February , and we got a lot of nos. The market for psychological suspense with unreliable female narrators is a crowded one, and many editors were nervous the book, as it was, might not stand out. But two editors had revise-and-resubmit requests, and I went to town tearing my novel apart yet again and taking it to the next level. It was terrifying--I was fully aware that, after all that work, they could still pass. But the new version was smarter and snappier, and thankfully my editor at Crown, the inimitable Hilary Teeman, made an offer shortly after we resubmitted the revise.
I got the call from my agent just as I was leaving for the gym, and when we hung up, I screamed into my empty apartment. Then, because I wasn't sure what else to do, I... went to the gym. I blasted Hermitude in my headphones and let me tell you, I was a freaking BEAST on the stationary bike that day.
How has your experience as a magazine/freelance writer helped you as a novelist?
I'm a very fast writer and reviser, because I'm used to working against a deadline. I know what questions to ask my editor to pin down what I need to change, and I'm super no-nonsense about it. It's funny--I don't think of myself as particularly thick-skinned, but after working at and writing for women's magazines for over a decade, I don't see a single word of mine as precious. My editor's note will be like, "I think maybe we should move this line up one paragraph for X reason, but it's up to you and you can veto any of my suggestions," and I'm like sure, cool, line moved, done. I'll push back on plot points or bigger things I really care about, but for the most part, I think of writing books as a job--an exceptionally fun and creative and rewarding job, absolutely--but my job is to write and my editor's job is to edit and that's very, very clear to me.
You co-created a blog and co-wrote a book, both called Stuff Hipsters Hate, with Brenna Ehrlich. If a hipster were reviewing Lost Night, what would the review say?
This question makes me laugh because I can't help but picture a stereotypical circa-2009 bike messenger/dog walker/playwright/DJ-type reading it in McCarren Park while sipping a massive takeout margarita from Turkey's Nest Tavern. They would probably hate it because that demographic defaulted to hatred as a way to signal smug superiority, right?
That's an over-the-top stereotype, of course. With The Lost Night, I really wanted to make the gang of artsy 20-somethings realistic and layered, because no human is pure stereotype. Lindsay and her gang of merry hepcats had hopes and dreams and aspirations and futures, and they made mistakes and kept secrets while also showing deep love and loyalty. If you find the characters insufferable simply because they go to warehouse parties and drink a lot of PBR, maybe... you're the hates-on-everything hipster.
Ultimately, I didn't set out to write a "hipster mystery" (and I definitely didn't set out to restart the debate over the use of the term, yikes). I tried to write a fast-paced, entertaining thriller that accurately captured what it was like to be a young, creative 20-something living in North Brooklyn in 2009, and if that sounds interesting to you, I hope you'll give it a look. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis
Jen Beagin: What Houses Reveal About Their Owners (and Vice Versa)
|photo: Beowulf Sheehan
Jen Beagin is the author of Pretend I'm Dead and the forthcoming Vacuum in the Dark (Scribner, $25; reviewed below). Both novels center on Mona, a cleaning lady in the process of finding herself. Beagin received an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, and received the 2017 Whiting Award in Fiction. She lives in Hudson, N.Y.
You previously worked as a cleaner. What was it like to see the insides of so many other people's homes, offices, spaces?
I cleaned houses off and on for about seven years, first in Santa Cruz, then San Francisco and finally in Taos. It can be a strange business. There's nothing else quite like it in the service industry. You're alone in someone's house for hours at a time on a regular basis and you're cleaning deeply, moving things around. You're cleaning under the bed. You're going over every surface. You've seen their pubes, their pictures, their medicine, their receipts. You know what they eat, read, drink, look at. You know how much money they spend on things they don't need. You eventually find that thing they're hiding. You don't have to open drawers, believe me. If you clean someone's house long enough, these things reveal themselves. You can tell how happy or miserable someone is. You can see it in the quality of the dirt. A deeply despairing person's dirt has a particular stickiness and an odor I've never been able to accurately describe. But people have lots of layers.
I think I would have had a different experience had I not been a white, native English speaker who wore cool sneakers, drove a cool car and had read the same books. My clients invited me to their parties, weddings, seminars. They took me out for sushi. They urged me to join their cults. They fought in front of me. Cried. Told me their stories. Walked around in their pajamas.
You said in a previous interview that you see yourself in your character, Mona. Do you think you and Mona have grown differently between your two novels? Do you still see yourself in her?
The thing is, I'm pushing 50. That makes Mona half my age. So we've absolutely grown differently between the two novels. She has only aged two years, whereas I've aged 10, and, boy, has it been a long decade. I left my boyfriend of 11 years for a woman I met at a dog park, for instance. I moved seven times, lived in four different states, plus Europe briefly, almost killed myself in Florida, etc. I would say I've grown more than Mona because I take more personal risks than she does. The main difference between us is that she's a lot lonelier. I haven't given her many friends, and the poor girl's been through the ringer. But so have I. She is definitely a version of me--we share many, many of the same qualities and have similar histories.
We come to know Mona quite well in the novel, but not her house so much. What is her house like?
You know, I wish I'd spent more time in Mona's house in this novel. I think that would've been wise. It wasn't a conscious decision, but I think it says a lot about Mona, right? Her over-involvement in the lives of others, the fact that she doesn't know where she belongs, etc.
But I would say Mona's house is carefully decorated. She suffers from rearrange-itis. She will hang a painting, for example, and then rehang it over and over until it feels right. She moves her rugs three inches to the left, five inches to the right, etc. Her place is clean and free of clutter. Most of her stuff is used and had a whole other life before it came into hers. She's often very attached to objects that have belonged to others, objects that have had some prior history, and she collects things like airline barf bags, bird figurines, books.
You mentioned that you'll likely write a third Mona book. When you are working on a new piece, what is your writing process like?
In terms of my writing process, the hours between 4 and 7 a.m. are my best, before I've had coffee, which actually puts me to sleep, weirdly, and during these hours I write in bed, on my phone. I usually encounter some problem in the writing by seven, and will take a short nap. Naps seem to be part of my process. Then I continue writing and/or editing until noon, still in bed, but with my laptop, after which I usually call it quits. Afternoons and evenings have never been good for me, because my inner critic is wide awake and berating me.
I'll make a very rough outline after I've written 40 or so pages, an outline I usually abandon. I'm not big on plot, as you may have noticed. I've always envied writers who outline. It's probably a very useful tool. But it's something I've never learned how to do properly. I often write sentence to sentence, and I tend to live that way, too.
I don't want to say much about the third Mona book because I haven't started it yet. Right now, I'm working on something set in this house I'm living in. It's an ancient Dutch farmhouse built in 1737. I'm living in what's supposed to be the living room, which I keep heated with a wood stove. I have the setting and a few of the characters, and I've written some scenes. Nothing is mapped out, but I'm comfortable being lost for now. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
The Island of Sea Women
by Lisa See
For centuries, the women of Jeju, an island off the south coast of Korea, made their living as haenyeo, deep-sea divers. Working in small groups, they trained from their youth to harvest the "sea-fields" and provide food and income for their families, while their husbands remained at home. Lisa See (China Dolls, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane) explores the effects of political upheaval and massive technological changes in the 20th century on the haenyeo in her seventh historical novel, The Island of Sea Women.
See begins her narrative in the 1930s, as two young girls, Kim Young-sook and Han Mi-ja, begin their training as haenyeo. Young-sook is the daughter of the local diving chief, Mi-ja the neglected child of a Japanese collaborator. But the girls become friends and learn the skills of diving together, navigating the physical strain and emotional losses of their work. Their story continues through their years of diving, marriage and motherhood, as World War II and other conflicts bring new politics, new technologies and new ideas to their island.
See uses brief flash-forward scenes set in 2008, when Young-sook is an old woman, to hint at a longstanding break between the two friends. Gradually, the two narratives bend toward one another, revealing the layers of Young-sook's grief and the incident that ended her friendship with Mi-ja. Along the way, See paints a vivid portrait of family life on Jeju, charts the atrocities the islanders experienced under Japanese occupation and asks whether forgiveness is possible, for people and for communities.
Meticulously researched and rendered in Young-sook's compelling voice, See's novel is a fascinating glimpse into a little-known culture and a powerful exploration of loss and healing. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Lisa See's seventh novel explores the haenyeo culture of deep-sea diving and strong female friendship on a Korean island.
hardcover, 384p., 9781501154850
Me for You
by Lolly Winston
Rudy and Bethany have an enviable life. Married since college, they're still best friends, savoring their near-retirement years even after Rudy was laid off. Bethany still has her job; Rudy enjoys his part-time gig at Nordstrom's playing baby grand piano; and their daughter, CeCe, is successful and happily married. But one morning, Rudy awakens and romantically whispers a suggestion that they go to the beach, only to realize that Bethany isn't breathing. And just like that, Rudy is a widower.
Lolly Winston (Good Grief; Happiness Sold Separately) has a knack for finding the joy after heartbreak, and in Me for You she writes a hopeful but realistic plot. Rudy is lonely (an "embarrassing thing to speak of," which "implied that you personally were deficient") but not keen on following CeCe's encouragement to enroll in the community college online dating class. He instead imagines cooking dinner for Sasha, the Hungarian salesclerk working near his piano, and they do form a friendship. Rudy is happy to advise Sasha on her troubles--an alcoholic husband who's abandoned her and their debts, plus her own recent tragedy--but his grief over losing Bethany only worsens. When CeCe finds he's unkempt, skipping work and despondent, she arranges for a hospitalized rest, and his Stanford doctors diagnose major depressive disorder.
Through Rudy's hospitalization and recovery, Winston writes knowingly of mental health and its treatment. Me for You is a romance with a core of compassion for the struggles following the loss of a loved one, and Rudy's happy ending is well-earned. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco
Discover: A widower is overcome with grief, and even befriending a charming co-worker doesn't forestall his eventual diagnosis of depression and his struggle for happiness.
hardcover, 320p., 9781501179129
Fierce Pretty Things
by Tom Howard
In Fierce Pretty Things, Tom Howard presents a collection of short stories that delves into a fascinatingly optimistic world of apocalyptic settings. In "Hildy," a pair of siblings traverse a no-man's land in the wake of a devastating virus. In "Scarecrows," a man is stuck in the wasteland of his own dementia-ridden mind. The characters throughout this collection encapsulate the human endeavor of finding something to hold onto in the face of great tribulation. Some of the tales inhabit a world that straddles the border between reality and mysticism, while others, such as the title story, seek the complex truth of a person's soul even within the mundane surroundings of a schoolyard.
The winner of the Indiana Review's Blue Light Books Prize, this collection is composed of seemingly quiet stories that pack an emotional punch. Howard's prose is tight, finely crafted and yet lyrical in its delivery. With this even-handed, beautiful prose as a guide, Howard never underestimates his readers. Each story begins from an unfamiliar place, whether that's within the mind of a dying man or on a carnival pier in a post-apocalyptic world. Howard's fiction revels in alienating surroundings, slowly making these spaces more and more familiar and poignant. It is this assimilation into the unexpected that gives these stories and their characters their emotional salience and ultimately opens readers to a new understanding of what it means to suffer loss and yet never give up hope. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor
Discover: With poetic prose and hauntingly insightful settings, Tom Howard's short stories pack an emotional punch.
Indiana University Press,
paperback, 144p., 9780253041494
by Soniah Kamal
Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal is a distinctly entertaining update of Pride and Prejudice. It features all of the memorable plot details of Jane Austen's masterpiece but is cleverly reworked to reflect the state of modern society in the Muslim country of Pakistan.
Kamal introduces the downwardly mobile sisters of the renowned Binat clan, their fortunes having fallen after their father's estrangement from the wealthy side of his family. They move from the high-society city of Lahore to the small backwater town of Dilipabad, much to the dismay of status-obsessed Mrs. Binat and her younger daughters. Jena and Alys, the sensible older sisters, work as teachers at the prestigious British School of Dilipabad to support their family. Alys, our protagonist, is a liberated woman on the cusp of turning 30. Proudly single, she cannot abide her mother's undignified efforts to ensnare rich, unsuspecting husbands for her daughters.
An over-the-top society wedding gives the sisters a perfect opportunity to meet eligible young men. Alys, with her boyish haircut and unfashionably tanned skin, ignores the admiring glances of potential suitors. She cannot imagine giving up her independence but is perfectly happy to help Jena find Mr. Right. It's only when she gets to know the enigmatic Mr. Darsee that Alys, through a series of comedic misunderstandings, begins to understand the true desires of her heart.
Marriage is the ultimate goal for many Pakistani girls, primarily because they have no other realistic choice. Kamal (An Isolated Incident) uses her comedy of manners, infused with tender humor, to comment on the sorry state of affairs for too many young women from this part of the Indian subcontinent. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
Discover: If Jane Austen lived in modern-day Pakistan, this is the version of Pride and Prejudice she might have written.
hardcover, 352p., 9781524799717
The White Card: A Play
by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine is, among other things, a poet best known for the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric. The White Card is her first published play, a one-act drama composed of two scenes. The first is set at a dinner party hosted by Virginia and Charles, a philanthropist and art collector. The guest of honor is Charlotte, an up-and-coming black artist whom Charles wants to feature.
The play approaches the difficult reality of people who "read all the relevant books on racism, see all the documentaries and films... but in the moment of dialogue or confrontation retreat into a space of defensiveness, anger, silence, which is to say he might retreat into the comfort of control...." As the evening progresses, Charlotte and the couple's young, activist son, Alex, critique Charles's white-savior position in the art world, pushing him out of his comfort zone until he retreats to a reflexive, defensive posture.
The second scene continues Charles and Charlotte's conversation one year later, in her studio. Tensions heighten as Charlotte attempts to make him see himself as part of the ongoing tragedy of race in the United States rather than a separate, impartial observer.
The White Card stands out due to the realism of its discourse. It manages to be a provocative work without straw-manning other perspectives. When Charles says, "I truly am trying to find a way through," it's easy to believe him. The play also documents Charlotte's changing answer to the question: "What does it mean to portray black suffering as art?" The White Card stages difficult conversations around race, art and guilt that are too frequently avoided. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Discover: The White Card is a one-act play where a dinner party held in honor of a black artist turns to difficult questions about art and race.
paperback, 80p., 9781555978396
Tomorrow There Will Be Sun
by Dana Reinhardt
Dana Reinhardt's entertaining debut, Tomorrow There Will Be Sun, features a high-strung, highly organized narrator. Jenna Carlson is a YA novelist struggling with writer's block; she's also a cancer survivor and mother to 16-year-old Clem. Deploying her meticulous planning skills, which border on the pathological, Jenna arranges a luxury vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to celebrate her husband Peter's 50th birthday.
The action begins as the Carlsons and their friends arrive at a stunning beach villa, their home for the next seven days. Next to a gorgeous, secluded beach and waited on by attentive staff, Jenna tries to let go and relax. While exploring the beach, she befriends Maria Josephina, a woman from a neighboring villa who quickly becomes a confidant. Jenna knows there is something suspicious about Maria Josephina's enchanted life but can't quite put her finger on it.
Despite her best efforts at planning a foolproof trip, things begin to go off-script for Reinhardt's anxious heroine, and bad weather is the least of it. Tomorrow There Will Be Sun reads like the satirical confessions of a control freak while simultaneously being utterly sympathetic. Although plush trappings provide their own sort of comfort, the true luxury of contentment and peace of mind are ultimately what our narrator finds so elusive. Fortunately, there is hope for Jenna, especially when matters beyond her control threaten to upend her carefully constructed life and Maria Josephina offers her a way out. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
Discover: A fabulous sun-drenched villa in Mexico is the setting for a once-in-a-lifetime family vacation that does not go as planned.
Pamela Dorman Books,
hardcover, 288p., 9780525557968
The Silk Road
by Kathryn Davis
Once one of the most important trade routes in the world, the Silk Road is now an emblem of how cultures interact and intersect. A locus of peoples, places and things, the routes between Asia and Europe served as a guide between worlds. It's no surprise, then, the concept appears as a central conceit in Kathryn Davis's transcendental novel where history and identity bend and stretch.
Told from the perspective of a group of siblings, The Silk Road follows them through environmental and personal disaster, tracking the collective as it narrates its own conflicts and dissolutions. There isn't much of a plot to the book, more a series of memories, each one related to the whole in ways that always feel slightly obscured. This doesn't stop the story from being compelling, though. The siblings, named only by their profession (one is the Botanist, another the Cook), each have moments to stand out from the whole, where Davis renders them with heartbreaking perfection. While her characters' names and biographies are obscured, she digs into particular moments with such profound specificity that they are brilliantly alive to the reader.
Perhaps intentionally, The Silk Road is reminiscent of another metaphysical narrative about the connection between East and West: Hermann Hesse's Journey to the East. Indeed, lovers of writers like Hesse will instantly fall under Davis's spell, plunging into a world where identity shifts and forms new connections, where archetypes reveal profundities, and mysteries, while never solved, still provide meaning. --Noah Cruickshank, director of communications, Forefront, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: Kathryn Davis's The Silk Road is a stirring metaphysical journey across time and place.
hardcover, 144p., 9781555978297
Vacuum in the Dark
by Jen Beagin
In Vacuum in the Dark, Jen Beagin explores questions of home and belonging through the story of Mona, a 26-year-old house cleaner in Taos, N.Mex. Mona is trying to restart her life after a doomed relationship with a not-so-good-for-her boyfriend she calls Mr. Disgusting. She cleans houses and makes art and sometimes combines the two activities by taking self-portraits in her clients' homes while wearing her clients' things.
"I like how cut-and-dry it is," Mona says of cleaning houses. "How black and white." But in reality, Mona's experiences as a house cleaner are anything but. They exist solidly in the murky grey area of smudged boundaries and complicated relationships: she has an affair with the husband of one of her clients, whom she calls Dark; talks to Fresh Air's Terry Gross in her head; and finds herself posing for the work of a Hungarian artist couple who grieve the loss of their daughter.
Mona made her first appearance in Beagin's 2015 novel, Pretend I'm Dead. Readers unfamiliar with Beagin's debut, however, will have no trouble diving straight in to Vacuum in the Dark, which stands on its own as a book about boundaries and self-discovery. Mona's story is not always easy to read, but her sometimes cringe-worthy decisions feel real to their very core, depicting a young woman stumbling through life as best she can, trying to find where she ultimately belongs. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: Twenty-six-year-old Mona works as a house cleaner and tries to figure out what comes next for her in Jen Beagin's second novel.
hardcover, 240p., 9781501182143
by Yewande Omotoso
Through three decades, two countries and multiple points of view, a complete picture of Leke's life in the present slowly surfaces in Yewande Omotoso's debut novel. Shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize, Bom Boy is published in North America for the first time following the critical acclaim for her second novel, The Woman Next Door, a 2018 finalist for the International Dublin Literary Award and a nominee for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction.
Leke lives between worlds: Nigerian and South African, white and black, birth family and adoptive family, dreaming and awake. He struggles to make connections with people and between what's real and what's imagined. Pieces of his story fall into place when his adoptive father hands him letters written by his birth father. At first, Leke ignores them entirely. His day-to-day behavior becomes increasingly erratic. He pickpockets and shoplifts small objects and begins innocently stalking people out of curiosity. Over time he becomes a hypochondriac in an attempt to discover the cure for his heartbreaking loneliness and isolation.
It is only by taking the risk genuinely to connect with someone in his present that Leke is able to face the past contained in the letters, and he learns his only hope is to break the curse placed upon his family generations before. Despite his quirks, Leke's plight is curiously engaging as it speaks to the universal yearning to belong somewhere with someone. --BrocheAroe Fabian, owner, River Dog Book Co., Beaver Dam, Wis.
Discover: A young man attempts to cure his loneliness in socially unacceptable ways, until he discovers the answer may lie in a curse placed upon his family years ago.
paperback, 182p., 9781946395108
The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man
by Franz Kafka, trans. by Alexander Starritt
Alexander Starritt's translation of selected Kafka stories, The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man, seeks to undo some of the assumptions surrounding the author. His work is so striking and ubiquitous in the Western canon that the term "Kafkaesque" describes a situation both absurd and hopeless; even as required reading for many high school students, his stories are often written off as dour work, fodder for pretension.
While including famous pieces like "The Hunger Artist," Starritt nicely contextualizes those works by placing them side by side with comic parables and lesser-known work. Altogether, the collection serves as a reminder that Kafka, among other things, was excessively funny. "In the Penal Colony" is a perfect example, both deeply disturbing and also clearly a farce. There's a madcap energy to the whole tale that Starritt captures perfectly, even as it reaches its gruesome end.
Likewise, "A Report for an Academy," where a talking ape explains the story behind his ability to converse with humans, elegantly threads the needle between the horrifying and comedic. Kafka's best works reflect the extremes of life, the absurdity and confusion abutting moments of elation and decisive action. The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man nicely makes a case that readers should not forget Kafka's sly sense of humor and, of course, his humanity, when considering his impact on culture. --Noah Cruickshank, director of communications, Forefront, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: Alexander Starritt's translation of Kafka's classic stories brings out the dark humor of the master's work.
paperback, 192p., 9781782274391
King of Joy
by Richard Chiem
Kittens in vending machines, hippos rising out of dark water, broom handles made of gold: in his first novel, King of Joy, Seattle writer Richard Chiem blends comforting absurdity with the most profound reaches of grief. The result is a strange, unsettling harmony that is typical of his writing.
Drawing from themes also present in his 2012 short story collection, You Private Person, Chiem continues to explore the power of daydreams, drugs and pop music through Corvus, who is utterly adrift after a series of tragic losses. Intending only "to get a little bit more destroyed," Corvus enters into a shady agreement with a volatile porn director named Tim. This work brings her some healing, but when an already precarious situation turns dangerous, she realizes she must leave. À la Thelma and Louise, Corvus takes off with Amber, another actress, and a pit bull called Marco. The novel becomes a different kind of love story, one of deep friendship forged in the strangest of circumstances.
Interweaving flashbacks with present events, Chiem carefully folds illuminating details into his narrative, gradually giving readers a richer and more complex view of his characters. However, the intelligence of the writing really lies in Chiem's use of language: eschewing traditional rules of prose, he crafts a disarming and wholly original vernacular. It creates a cinematic and ultra-evocative story space, one that realizes youth as the alternative universe it can often feel like to those who inhabit it. Although Chiem is undeniably attracted to darker impulses, he doesn't shy away from critiquing the culture that romanticizes trauma. Overall, this is an exceptionally lucid work for Chiem, and it is sure to leave an impression on readers. --Emma Levy, bookseller at Third Place Books Seward Park, Seattle, Wash.
Discover: Written in a singular style, Richard Chiem's first novel, King of Joy, follows the strange and dark adventures of a porn star weighed down by her grief.
Soft Skull Press,
paperback, 192p., 9781593763091
Daisy Jones & The Six
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones & The Six opens by noting this is the only official account of the titular band's history and dramatic breakup mid-tour in 1979, an event that has remained a mystery for 40 years. What follows is so realistic and rich in details, readers might forget the band is fictional.
At the start of her career in the early 1970s, Daisy, a wild child and naturally gifted singer, wants to record her own songs, not the pop ditties her reps push on her. Another artist on her label, Billy Dunne, frontman of a rock band called The Six, has written a song his producer says should be a duet with a female vocalist. Like Daisy Jones. She and Billy begrudgingly agree to work together, resulting in combustible chemistry and a hit that begs for more collaboration between the two. When Daisy is invited to join the band, she's a grenade thrown into the mix, and sparks fly, both good and bad.
Reid tells the story through excerpts from interviews with band members and the people caught up in their vortex--she's trimmed all the fat and included only the juiciest morsels. Daisy Jones & The Six is more than sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, though there's plenty of that. It cracks open the creative process and shows how much it costs sometimes to make art that resonates. The songs are described with such ache and raw emotion that readers will wish the band's music were real. Each character springs to life; they're inspiring and tough and messy and heartbreaking. Rock stars--they're just like us. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd
Discover: A documentarian investigates why a rock band suddenly broke up at the height of its popularity in 1979.
hardcover, 368p., 9781524798628
by Rachel Ingalls
Binstead's Safari by Rachel Ingalls (Mrs. Caliban) introduces Millie, the neglected wife of an academic who blames her for being uninteresting. She insists on joining him on a research trip to Africa, and unexpectedly blossoms during the journey to safari camp. People are drawn to her, and her sexuality is evident to one particular man. Her husband is shocked to see her become the center of attention, and as her confidence grows, her willingness to live in the shadows disappears. Millie realizes "life was too short to waste time trying to find excuses for not doing the things you really wanted to do."
In the mid to late 20th century, when the story takes place, it was typical for a woman's worth to be measured as wife and mother. Millie's sister says, "All the things I have... how good they'd be if only I'd had any choice in the matter." The attitude toward Africa and its citizens was similarly paternalistic. Animals were killed during safaris to display man's natural superiority, and native Africans were considered a backdrop to white privilege. Binstead's Safari displays all of these assumptions, yet readers shouldn't dismiss it as outdated. Not only does the novel tackle gender issues that were emerging then and are still relevant decades later, but surprises the reader with a dark turn of events that brings the novel to an unsettling conclusion. This new edition encourages contemporary readers to consider how gender roles have changed--or not--since its initial 1983 publication. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.
Discover: In this classic novel of feminine frustration and empowerment, a neglected wife discovers confidence in herself on an ill-fated trip to Africa.
paperback, 224p., 9780811228466
A People's History of Heaven
by Mathangi Subramanian
In her poetic first novel for adults, A People's History of Heaven, Indian American author Mathangi Subramanian (Dear Mrs. Naidu) imagines the lives of five teen girls in a Bangalore slum on the brink of destruction.
"Heaven" takes its name from the Sanskrit words on a nearby sign, though the "ragged jigsaw of tilted tents, angry quilt of rusted roofs, maze of sagging sofas" make the ramshackle neighborhood look anything but celestial. In fact, the government has sent a demolition crew to tear down Heaven so they can replace it with a new shopping center. The residents, mostly abandoned wives raising a vibrant assortment of daughters with few prospects, band together to stop the bulldozers.
The first-person-plural narrative voice, speaking from the girls' point of view, opens the story with a scene of the women forming a human chain, predicting, "Our houses may break, but our mothers won't." Leaving the reader with that potent image, the voice relates a chronologically fluid history of the hilarity and heartache the girls have faced together over the years.
In this Heaven, love comes first. Subramanian, who lives in New Delhi, never shrinks from the dangers and discrimination facing impoverished women, but she also gives her characters resiliency and hope in the form of each other. Rich imagery conjures up the bustle of a diverse city where children live in poverty mere blocks from three-story homes where their mothers work as maids. With its heroic young cast, A People's History of Heaven has huge YA crossover potential, and its social commentary makes it a wonderful book club selection. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: Five teenaged girls in an impoverished Bangalore neighborhood share their lives as their mothers fight against the demolition of their homes.
hardcover, 304p., 9781616207588
by Andrew Ridker
Arthur Alter, a 65-year-old professor of engineering at a St. Louis university, has spent much of his life motivated by self-interest. He moved his family from Boston to take the teaching job, which meant that his wife, Francine, had to restart her career as a couples and family therapist. While she was dying of cancer, Arthur cheated on her with a colleague, the much younger Ulrike, whom he is now trying to dissuade from taking a teaching post out of town. To entice Ulrike to stay, Arthur is offering cohabitation in his suburban home, but he's having a hard time covering the mortgage with the paltry income from his "tenure-allergic professorship." Arthur has a plan: he will get his two adult children, whom he hasn't seen since Francine's funeral nearly two years earlier, to visit him in St. Louis over spring break and convince them to give him some of the cash they inherited from their mom.
Andrew Ridker's ingenious plot sounds ripe for giddy-making farce, and The Altruists is indeed funny as hell (e.g., "Fatherhood was a creepy, ill-fitting look on Arthur, like a cape or a Speedo"). But the book belongs to the tradition of trenchant atomizations of the modern American family--the territory of Jonathan Franzen and Stuart Nadler, and Ridker is just as good. As points of view shift in time among Arthur, Francine and their kids, they take turns circling one another like vultures hungry for, in equal measure, answers and affirmation. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Discover: Andrew Ridker's debut novel is a brilliant, pitiless and hilarious dissection of an American family in crisis.
hardcover, 320p., 9780525522713
A Woman Is No Man
by Etaf Rum
In this heartrending debut novel that will likely be a book club favorite, Palestinian American writer Etaf Rum explores the cloistered yet perilous lives of the women in a Palestinian immigrant family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In 1990, 17-year-old Isra leaves Palestine for Brooklyn with Adam, the husband her parents chose for her. After spending most of her life in her family's kitchen, the sight of New York astonishes Isra. Adam and his overbearing mother, Fareeda, expect her to exemplify the dutiful Arab wife, keeping to the house to cook, clean and raise sons. Meek Isra silently chafes against their expectations while her teenage sister-in-law, Sarah, rebels against Fareeda's attempts to marry her off. Isra bears only daughters, further ratcheting up the household tension.
Eighteen years later, Isra and Adam are dead. Their eldest daughter, Deya, longs to go to college, but Fareeda insists she marry. In the older woman's mind, Deya must keep to the culture and accept that men, not women, have choices. Deya longs to please her family, until she reads an unfinished letter from Isra that makes her question everything she believed about her mother.
In an open letter to readers, Rum has said that while writing this story, she fought her own apprehension about breaking the code of silence that surrounds the Palestinian immigrant community, as well as her fear of adding to stereotypes against it. Luckily for readers, she chose authenticity over caution. Crafted with thoughtfulness and empathy, A Woman Is No Man celebrates resilience and the courage required to speak out against an unjust way of life. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: Etaf Rum's debut novel shows the impact of female subservience on three generations of Palestinian American women.
hardcover, 352p., 9780062699763
A Murder Unmentioned
by Sulari Gentill
Fans of Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher will love this sixth entry in the Rowland Sinclair series by Sulari Gentill (Gentleman Formerly Dressed). Rowland, one of the heirs to the large Sinclair fortune, has returned home to Australia with his group of artistic, communist friends after an eventful trip to Europe. Appalled at the rise of Hitler, he is busy seeking audience with various Australian officials, in hopes of preventing the spread of fascism to their country. Suddenly events much closer to home become dangerous in other ways.
Police arrive at Rowly's home, where he resides with his friends Milton, Clyde and Edna, to announce that the gun that killed his father has been found on his family's ancestral estate. The friends are shocked to learn that Rowly's father was murdered 13 years earlier, presumably by a burglar.
The group then proceeds to investigate, to the dismay of Rowland's proper older brother, Wilfred. Tensions mount, and when a body is found and potential danger to Wil's children is discovered, the brothers have to work together to solve their father's death as the police breathe down their necks.
With funny repartee among Clyde, Milton, Edna and Rowland, yet still with a clear eye on the important political developments of the era, Gentill engages the reader. Rowland's struggle to please both his conservative brother and his liberal friends is all too real, and the solution to the mystery will keep readers guessing till the end. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.
Discover: In this engaging historical mystery, aristocratic Rowland Sinclair must solve his father's murder or risk being tried for the crime himself.
Poisoned Pen Press,
hardcover, 376p., 9781464206979
That Tiny Life
by Erin Frances Fisher
There's nothing tiny about the lives depicted in Canadian author Erin Frances Fisher's extraordinary debut story collection, That Tiny Life. The characters are richly drawn, with thoughts, emotions and beliefs that feel simultaneously recognizable and distinctive. The first half of the book is filled with stories that cover a range of subjects, places and time periods. It opens with a stunner called "Valley Floor." Set in the old American West, a man is forced to make two tough decisions: what to do with his work partner, whose leg infection is probably fatal, and how to care for the dying man's toddler daughter. The story's heartbreaking conclusion sets the tone for the elegiac tales to follow.
The title story is another knock-out, set in the future on a space ship aimed for one of Saturn's moons. Starring two pilots, a man and a woman, the story moves through time between the present and the protagonists' early days on Earth. Their memories of those they left behind drive home the idea that even in the vast reaches of space, every human life matters.
The second half of the book contains a novella entitled "The White." It introduces a young teenage girl who tries to escape her unreliable alcoholic father. Meanwhile, an aging falcon trainer attempts to breed the perfect white bird. Their lives become intertwined in deeply affecting ways. Gorgeous from beginning to end, That Tiny Life highlights the universal human needs for connection, love and forgiveness. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor
Discover: This moving collection of short stories moves from the Old West to deep space to show that there's nothing tiny about any human life.
Astoria/House of Anansi,
paperback, 288p., 9781487003661
Instructions for a Funeral: Stories
by David Means
It's impossible to isolate a single dominant theme in Instructions for a Funeral, the fifth story collection by David Means (Assorted Fire Events). The title selection, however, is as good as any for revealing the distinctive pleasures of his short fiction. In it, the narrator, William Kenner, a real estate developer, in the guise of a meticulously detailed and wickedly funny letter to his lawyer, reveals how his friend Philpot and Sullivan, a New York mobster, swindled him in a real estate deal. Featuring the harrowing description of a mass shooting, two dramatic scenes of rescue and a chilling encounter between Kenner and Sullivan, and the final sentence, "Everything, right now, is safe and cozy," it's a masterly literary juggling act.
Not all of Means's stories are so dramatic. "The Chair" is a stream-of-consciousness account of a stay-at-home father's musings as his son cavorts on a stone wall above the Hudson River, a setting for several other stories. Anyone who's ever wrestled with the balance between love and discipline will appreciate the narrator's ambivalence as he futilely warns a five-year-old boy of the consequences of his daredevil antics. Transgression of a different type is the subject of "The Mighty Shannon," where the protagonist of "The Chair" and his wife, Sharon, a Manhattan lawyer, find themselves in a couples therapist's office confronting the aftermath of their mutual affairs.
Instructions for a Funeral is like the proverbial box of chocolates. Not every story will suit every reader's taste, but there are ample treats here guaranteed to surprise and delight anyone. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer
Discover: David Means's fifth collection of short stories offers glimpses of some of the trials of human life.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
hardcover, 208p., 9780374279813
Death Is Hard Work
by Khaled Khalifa, trans. by Leri Price
There are two main preoccupations in Death Is Hard Work, Khaled Khalifa's novel about life during the Syrian civil war: the fear of the checkpoint and the question of one's obligations to the dead and the living. When Abdel Latif dies--surprisingly, of old age rather than from a barrel bomb or a sniper's bullet--his children Bolbol, Hussein and Fatima must transport his rapidly rotting body to his home town for burial. Prior to the civil war, the trip would have been easily accomplished in a morning. Now, it will take days--days fraught with stops, interrogations, insurgencies and brutal, sudden death.
Along the journey, the siblings, whose "grudges... had heaped up like worn-out cloths in a locked wardrobe," bicker and fight and resume their childhood roles. They resist reconciliation, much like their fellow citizens who continue to kill and maim each other over the course of the book, to the point where the "inhabitants of the city regarded everyone they saw as not so much 'alive' as 'pre-dead.' It gave them a little relief from their frustration and anger."
This isn't an overly miserable or joyless tale--the pre-war flashbacks are vivid, especially the floral life tended to by the now-deceased Latif, creating a poignant contrast to the war itself. There are also slivers of humanity even during encounters with the most hardened combatants. Remembrance and hope allow both the reader and the characters to endure. --Evan M. Anderson, collection development librarian, Kirkendall Public Library, Ankeny, Iowa
Discover: Death Is Hard Work explores the obligations humans have toward the living as family and society both decay.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
hardcover, 192p., 9780374135737
Mystery & Thriller
Unto Us a Son Is Given
by Donna Leon
In Unto Us a Son Is Given, her 28th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, Donna Leon begins with her trademark gentle style. Brunetti's father-in-law, Count Orazio Falier, approaches the commissario about meeting with an elderly friend. Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejada, the godfather of Brunetti's wife, Paola, wishes to adopt a young man because, according to Italian inheritance laws, the childless, single Gonzalo's estate will be divided among his siblings, whom he despises. Gonzalo is gay, enamored with a suave man much younger than he is, and this man is his proposed candidate for adoption. Count Falier and all of Gonzalo's other friends are appalled; Gonzalo resents their interference.
Brunetti tiptoes around the situation, hesitant to deny his father-in-law, but also abhorring the thought of interfering in the life of his wife's godfather. When Gonzalo unexpectedly drops dead, Brunetti thinks the quasi-case is closed, until a close friend of Gonzalo is murdered.
There is a gentle pace to how Brunetti and the indomitable Signorina Elettra, the Venice Questore's resident computer wizard, discreetly delve into the history of the Falier and Rodriguez de Tejada families. Unto Us a Son Is Given takes a familiar detective and his wife and adds intriguing layers to their backstory. Fans of other quiet mystery authors, like Louise Penny or Jacqueline Winspear, are sure to enjoy Brunetti's soul-searching. And, as always, Brunetti's introspection is framed by the sights and tastes of Venice, which Leon brings to life. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.
Discover: Venetian Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates a case that strikes close to home after the death of his wife's godfather.
Atlantic Monthly Press,
hardcover, 320p., 9780802129116
Call Me Evie
by J.P. Pomare
From the title of J.P. Pomare's first novel, Call Me Evie, readers can guess Evie isn't the real name of the 17-year-old protagonist. But Pomare makes it hard to ascertain exactly what's going on with her, with her loss of memory and limited view of the world.
She's involved in something traumatic that happened recently in her hometown of Melbourne, but she can't remember it. A man she calls her uncle Jim has taken her to New Zealand and mostly locked her up in a house, away from the Internet and neighbors' prying eyes, in a supposed attempt to help her recall details of the night in question. He forces her to take pills and says she can't go back to Australia until she remembers; she needs control of the facts when police question her. The situation gains urgency when the incident back home is labeled a murder, and Evie's fragmented memories make her question everything Jim says and where the threat is actually coming from.
Pomare grabs readers by the throat the way Jim grabs Evie by the hair in the opening scene, when she tries to escape the house. Everything Jim does he claims is to protect her, and sometimes he seems genuine about that. The author maintains this sense of uncertainty and dread throughout, as Evie--along with the reader--puts together the pieces of her memory. Because she trusts no one, everyone is suspect, including herself, up until the satisfying conclusion. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd
Discover: A teenage girl suffering from memory loss struggles to remember the tragic event that led to her being taken out of the country and locked in a house.
hardcover, 368p., 9780525538141
The Reign of the Kingfisher
by T.J. Martinson
"What's the difference between a vigilante and a superhero?" Questions of superhero lore have historically been the subject of comics, graphic novels and movies--full of color, spandex suits and a deluge of action through imagery. In The Reign of the Kingfisher, T.J. Martinson novelizes the superhero comics form with such a meticulous yet fluid style, readers may forget there is no artwork.
Following the death of the Kingfisher, an enigmatic, larger-than-life sentinel who dealt with bad guys outside the confines of the law, Chicago's violent crime rate steadily increased. Thirty years later, the mystery of the Kingfisher is given new life via a ransom video. Disguised as a member of the hacker protest group Liber-teens, a man threatens to kill hostages until the cops release the Kingfisher's unpublished autopsy report and admit they helped fake his death.
Retired journalist Marcus Waters is brought in to view the video since he spent his career writing about the Kingfisher. When he provides a big clue the police seem less than anxious to pursue, Marcus's reporter gut and desire to save lives spur him to investigate, aided by a brilliant Liber-teen hacker and a disgraced cop.
In portraying a gripping race against time and into history, Martinson packs the narrative with details that set the stage minutely yet organically. On its face a breakneck thriller, Kingfisher also delves into themes of morality and vigilantism, corruption and justice. Martinson's debut is compelling, artistic and, quite simply, a blast. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: The death of a Chicago superhero is investigated decades later when a madman threatens to kill innocent people.
hardcover, 352p., 9781250170217
A Deadly Divide
by Ausma Zehanat Khan
In the midst of investigating a mass shooting at a Québécois mosque, Detective Rachel Getty finds herself reflecting on something her partner, Detective Esa Khattak, once said of a previous case: "How quickly the violent ideals of ultra-nationalism led to hate, how quickly hate to blood." Though he's referring to the case central to The Unquiet Dead (the first Ausma Zehanat Khan novel to feature the detective pair), the theme is one that threads through each of the Khattak and Getty mysteries. In earlier books in the series, Khan has explored war crimes, genocide and refugees; in A Deadly Divide, the fifth in the series, she turns her attention to domestic terrorism and anti-Muslim sentiments.
The novel centers on the heartbreaking and devastating story of the mosque shooting, the latest in a string of anti-Islam actions in a small town in Quebec. The subject itself is ripped from the headlines--Khan writes in an author's note about the actual January 2017 shooting--but the similarities to typical news media stop there. A Deadly Divide does not offer a glancing look at hate, used solely as a vehicle by which to move the plot of a novel forward; instead, like Khan's past books, the subject is the starting point for a deeper dive into animosity in its many forms. In a fast-paced and expertly plotted mystery, Khan explores the depths of human complexity and the very human costs of hate. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: The fifth book in the series starring Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty thoughtfully explores the enmity and fear-mongering that led to a shooting at a mosque in Quebec.
hardcover, 384p., 9781250298287
A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself
by William Boyle
Rena Ruggiero was a good Brooklyn mob wife. A regular churchgoer, she stayed out of Gentle Vic's business and has lived a quiet life since he was gunned down. Then Enzio, with "earlobes that dangle like melted coins," makes a pass at her. After fighting back, she steals his impeccable Impala and flees. Rena runs to the Bronx, to the home of her estranged daughter, Adrienne, and 15-year-old granddaughter, Lucia. Rejected, Rena is invited in by fireball neighbor Lacey Wolfstein, a former x-rated actress who moved in across the street after a stint hustling cash from rich men in Florida.
Things go spectacularly sideways when one of Wolfie's old marks shows up, as does Richie Schiavano, Vic's former right-hand man, who has knocked off a mob sit-down and stolen a briefcase full of cash to fund a future with Adrienne and Lucia. The confrontation at Wolfie's gets deadly when a sledgehammer-wielding gangster comes after Richie. Believing in the titular Robert Louis Stevenson quote, "A friend is a gift you give yourself," Wolfie takes Rena and Lucia under her street-smart wing and on the run.
William Boyle's work (Gravesend, The Lonely Witness) is some of the finest in crime fiction and while he ticks every box each time out, the emphasis changes. Character and nonstop action are gloriously on the rampage here, as three very different women join forces to survive high-speed car chases, crashes, shootings, violent men and general bedlam. Boyle's dialogue snaps and his sense of place is top-notch. This roller-coaster madcap tragicomedy is a great gift to give yourself. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: An unusual trio of women tries to outsmart and outrun various dangerous men on their trail after an evening in the Bronx goes horribly awry.
hardcover, 320p., 9781643130583
by Kimi Cunningham Grant
Sheriff John "Red" Redifer is itching to retire from the Fallen Mountains Police Department. But before he can submit his letter of resignation, a woman shows up at the station to report that her boyfriend, Transom Shultz, has been missing for five days.
Chapters offering Red's perspective as he tries to account for Transom's disappearance alternate with chapters from the perspectives of locals who, like Red, know Transom all too well. There's Chase Hardy, who was initially grateful to his longtime friend for buying the Hardy farm after his grandparents died--Chase continues to work and live on the land--but he resents that Transom sold off the property's mineral rights. There's Laney, whose sexual history with Transom has spilled into the too-recent past; she fears that he won't keep the secret from Chase, with whom she has fallen in love. And there's Laney's cousin Possum, who as a teenager tried to kill his stepfather. He also has reason to want to kill Transom, as only Red, still burdened by a hard decision he made years earlier, is aware.
The fracking angle makes Fallen Mountains a topical novel, but its primary concern--whether it's ever conscionable to put family before civic duty--belongs to any era. Kimi Cunningham Grant, a prize-winning poet and the author of the memoir Silver Like Dust, uses marvelous economy to play out this small-town thriller, which is ingeniously plotted to the end; mystery lovers accustomed to a few final pages of languid wrap-up can forget it. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Discover: In this sure-handed debut suspense novel, several people in a small Pennsylvania town--including the sheriff--have a beef with a man who has gone missing.
paperback, 256p., 9781948705189
Science Fiction & Fantasy
by Asja Bakić, trans. by Jennifer Zoble
Bosnian writer Asja Bakić revels in the surreal. The plots and settings of the stories collected in Mars might get labeled as science fiction or dystopian, but the works themselves feel weightless, unmoored to any real convention as they probe dark corners of the human psyche. There are clones, trips to distant planets, even zombies, but far more memorable are the moments charged with meaning that so often end Bakić's stories, where a look, a touch or a word can upend the world.
The best of the stories in this debut have endings that lie somewhere between twists and epiphanies. In "Buried Treasure," an imaginary monster discussed by a group of children turns out to be real, though neither they nor their parents realize that it is living peacefully among them. In "Carnivore," a man attempts to cheat on his wife with a stranger, only to find that the woman is in fact his wife's mistress; furthermore, his spouse is tied up in the closet of the woman's apartment. But Bakić doesn't play these revelations for thrills, instead using them to break the reality of the little worlds she's constructed, pulling the rug out from under her readers to induce a kind of literary vertigo.
Tricky and hard to pin down, these stories tease and perplex. Readers who might not be interested by zombies and interplanetary space flight shouldn't discount this book. Likewise, lovers of science fiction and horror will find a wonderfully surreal take on tried-and-true stories, where the strictures of plot break open to release something stranger and darker. --Noah Cruickshank, director of communications, Forefront, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: The stories in Mars are brilliant, unsettling explorations of gender, sexuality and genre.
paperback, 144p., 9781936932481
The Bird King
by G. Willow Wilson
Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award-winning novelist and comics writer G. Willow Wilson (Alif the Unseen) again rises to impressive new heights with The Bird King.
Set amid shifting political landscapes of the late 15th century, this gripping fantasy captures a desperate act of resistance in the face of an imposing new empire. Fatima is the favored concubine of an Iberian sultan; nevertheless, she is lonely but for the platonic affection of the royal cartographer, Hassan. The friends while away hours together in the palace, conjuring new installments for the long, unfinished story of the Bird King, the avian ruler who set out for paradise and never returned.
Their languid days reach an abrupt end, however, when emissaries from Christian Spain arrive to demand the Muslim ruler's surrender. And when Hassan's mystical gift for making maps that bend reality, and his taste for other men, come to their attention, the friends flee for the paradise they have long imagined.
To say Wilson is a talented storyteller does not adequately capture the magnificent dimensions of her work. The adventure at hand is a riveting escape through worlds seen and unseen, with high stakes and near-misses, toward a freedom neither Fatima nor Hassan are sure they entirely believe in. Faith is all they have--besides one another. But there is a hefty dose of humor, too. Vikram the Vampire, sharp-tongued anti-hero from Alif the Unseen, emerges as Fatima and Hassan's reluctant guide through the wilderness. While it's not necessary to read one book before the other, only a fool would miss them both. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Two servants of the sultan flee rather than surrender to the Inquisition in a breathtaking historical fantasy from G. Willow Wilson.
hardcover, 440p., 9780802129031
by Andrew Bannister
In an isolated mini-galaxy called the Spin, everything is artificial. As natural as its suns and planets seem, each atom was placed with purpose by ancient unknown builders. The Spin is a rough neighborhood, from the expanding high-tech Hegemony dominating the Outer Spin to the horrific little lower-tech empires that periodically plague the Inner Spin. Every once in a while, someone discovers an artifact belonging to the architects, and causes chaos.
Fleare Haas is the only daughter of Viklun Haas, ultra-rich industrialist and a major player in the Hegemony. After a childhood spent watching her father scheme and exploit his way to the top, she harbors a bit of a rebellious streak. Fleare's flirtation with a recently destroyed rebel group finds her imprisoned in an odd monastery. When she is rescued by an old lover/comrade, now transformed into a cloud of nanomachines, she gets caught up in dangerous tides of shifting and shifty interests. Meanwhile, an aristocrat in an empire of pillaged worlds called the Fortunate Protectorate plots how best to use a potentially powerful artifact, pitting the barbaric Inner Spin against everyone else.
Creation Machine is Andrew Bannister's debut novel and the first entry in the Spin trilogy. Bannister combines succinct world-building with impulsive readability and likable characters. Creation Machine finds frequent parallels with the best of Iain M. Banks's Culture series. Perhaps the novel's greatest flaw is that it isn't longer. Thankfully, the second book in the Spin trilogy, Iron Gods, is projected for July 2019. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer
Discover: This space opera reminiscent of Iain M. Banks takes place in an artificial mini-galaxy called the Spin.
paperback, 368p., 9781250179135
The Priory of the Orange Tree
by Samantha Shannon
Samantha Shannon's (The Bone Season) standalone epic fantasy artfully blends Eastern and Western draconic mythologies and shines a heroic spotlight on women and same-sex couples.
A thousand years earlier, the world nearly ended in dragonfire. Now, in the Western queendom of Virtudom, the national religion holds that as long as a queen descended from dragon-slaying Saint Galian Berethnet holds the throne, the monstrous dragon known as the Nameless One cannot return to lead his plague-sowing minions. Far in the East, however, humans worship benevolent water-dwelling dragons as gods.
As lieutenants of the Nameless One begin to show themselves, the legend that Berethen queens can keep him at bay falls apart. The nations must stand together, but when the East believes the West is filled with dragon-hating plague vectors, and the Westerners call Easterners heretics, only a few brave souls have any chance of brokering peace.
The Priory of the Orange Tree isn't our grandfathers' epic fantasy novel. It is a clever combination of Elizabethan England, the legend of St. George and Eastern dragon lore, with a dash of Tolkien. Shannon's feminist saga has enough detailed world-building, breath-taking action and sweeping romance to remind epic fantasy readers of why they love the genre. Occasionally political exposition bogs down the pacing, but the inclusion of giant talking mongooses and brilliant female warriors more than makes up for that. The major story draws to a definite close, but much work remains for the characters at the conclusion. Readers will beg for a sequel that explores more of this mythos-rich setting from dragon-back. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: This epic fantasy--Samantha Shannon's first standalone novel--takes place in a women-led world of dragons and mage-craft.
hardcover, 848p., 9781635570298
Famous Men Who Never Lived
by K Chess
In this accomplished first novel, K Chess imagines an unusual and disquieting refugee experience with a sci-fi twist.
When the Hundred Fifty-Six Thousand crossed through the Gate between timelines, they escaped nuclear war but lost an entire world. Now living in New York City in our timeline, Universally Displaced Persons (UDPs) like Hel and her lover Vikram find themselves "shipwrecked in a world populated by seven billion strangers," where they face suspicion and discrimination. While former professor Vikram tries to move forward, attending government-mandated indoctrination meetings and working as a night watchman, former doctor Hel becomes obsessed with The Pyronauts, a famous science fiction novel from their world. Convinced the early death of its author in the new timeline marks its first point of divergence from hers, Hel campaigns for the founding of a museum to preserve the book and UDP culture. When the only existing copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, her quest to find it dovetails with her struggle to shake the past loose even as Vikram begins to reach for it again.
Though Chess primarily tells the present-day story from Hel and Vikram's alternating points of view, her multiverse gains further depth from transcripts of interviews with UDPs about events around the migration and life in the new New York City. Light, accessible science fiction elements enable the plot rather than take center stage. An allegory for refugeeism, othering and coping with staggering loss, Famous Men Who Never Lived will leave readers haunted by the UDPs' broken past but hopeful for their future. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: A refugee from another timeline in the multiverse fights to save the remaining scraps of her lost culture.
Tin House Books,
hardcover, 324p., 9781947793248
Biography & Memoir
by Albert Woodfox
Activist Albert Woodfox does not profess to be a saint in his memoir Solitary. He's painfully honest with his audience, detailing the path that led him to a 50-year prison sentence in Angola in the 1970s. Woodfox also unlocks the bars and ushers his readers into conditions most would consider beyond their darkest nightmares: "Coming out of slavery and convict leasing, it was as if the cruelty of Angola's history leaked into our present world. Angola was run like an antebellum slave plantation."
Despite the barbaric environment, Woodfox finds hope and purpose in the principles of the Black Panther Party. He explains, "I didn't just get it with my mind, I felt it with my heart, my soul, my body. It was as if a light went on in a room inside me that I hadn't know existed." His involvement with the group turns into a mixed blessing, though. He and another member are framed for a guard's murder and receive life sentences in solitary. Kept in a 6'x9' cell for 23 hours a day, it's the Panther code of living that helps Woodfox ultimately maintain his humanity until he's exonerated nearly 45 years later.
In beautifully poetic language that starkly contrasts the world he's describing, Woodfox awes and inspires. He illustrates the power of the human spirit, while illuminating the dire need for prison reform in the United States. Solitary is a brilliant blend of passion, terror and hope that everyone needs to experience. --Jen Forbus
Discover: A young black inmate weathers more than four decades in solitary confinement and still finds the hope and will to effect change on a broken justice system.
hardcover, 320p., 9780802129086
The Trial of Lizzie Borden
by Cara Robertson
Cara Robertson's nonfiction debut, The Trial of Lizzie Borden, examines the sensational 19th-century murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, which have continued to captivate the public's imagination for more than a century. Robertson tracks the crime from the family's tumultuous personal history through the murder, preliminary hearings, trial and verdict. Along the way, she manages to reveal fresh insights and details about the crime and the trial, illuminating alternative theories and documenting incriminating evidence, such as Lizzie's previous attempts to purchase poison. Nevertheless, the book returns again and again to the conflicting images of Lizzie that both the jury and the present-day reader are unable to bring together as one: that of a church-going, accommodating daughter, and an ax-wielding manipulator.
Robertson, a lawyer and former legal adviser to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, has accomplished a herculean task in compiling the minutiae of such a trial and presenting it all clearly and concisely. But she doesn't stop here. Robertson also manages to craft these facts into a compelling, tightly paced courtroom drama that not only asks who may have committed this crime but how someone could have done so--psychologically, emotionally and mentally. By the end, as in the beginning, the reader suspects that Lizzie did, indeed, murder her parents. But the story's real tension resides in examining her words and behavior during the trial. Like most true-crime tales, it is the hypnotic magnetism of the criminal's ability to commit such an act that brings us back to the same evidence, the same statements, the same witnesses, even hundreds of years later, in hopes of understanding something new and disturbingly human. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor
Discover: In The Trial of Lizzie Borden, Cara Robertson provides the definitive, in-depth account of one of America's most enduring criminal cases.
Simon & Schuster,
hardcover, 400p., 9781501168376
On Being 40(ish)
by Lindsey Mead, editor
In On Being 40(ish), 15 women muse on what being 40 years old--give or take--means in their lives. This anthology, edited by freelance writer Lindsey Mead, offers diverse viewpoints and concerns but as a whole aims to inspire. As Mead writes in her introduction, "These are not reflections on the dying of the light, but rather a full-throated celebration of what it means to be an adult woman at this moment in history."
The contents are varied, including celebrations, uncertainties and elegies. Some writers mourn losses, some rejoice at new beginnings; some are concerned with the existential, some more lightheartedly concerned with changing appearances. Lee Woodruff writes about her mother's 40th birthday, her own and what she hopes to pass down to her own daughters. Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes about time, which "happens no matter what you're doing with it." The quickness with which years pass is a theme across these essays, as is the victory involved in aging: "by forty, we know who we are," Jill Kargman writes. "When we are young, we are diluted versions of ourselves. We become balsamic reductions as we age--our very best parts distilled and clarified."
Allison Winn Scotch writes about accepting the unexpected when a devastating injury interrupts plans for a trip to Mexico. She closes: "I worried that my injury would upend everything. It turns out that it did." And that's a happy ending.
On Being 40(ish) is mostly about happy endings; or the ongoingness of life--its not ending at all, not yet. This is an anthology for women of all ages and all perspectives. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Discover: These collected essays about the milestone 4-0 remind readers to laugh, cry and hope.
Simon & Schuster,
hardcover, 256p., 9781501172120
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
by Victoria Riskin
Being the child of a famous actress has its perks. Among its downsides are fielding questions like, "Hey, is your dad an ape or something?"
Victoria Riskin is the daughter of Fay Wray (1907-2004), who famously dangled from the hand of King Kong in the 1933 classic film, and the screenwriter Robert Riskin (1897-1955), whose scripts included the 1934 screwball comedy standard-bearer It Happened One Night. That Wray and Riskin don't become a couple until 100-odd pages from the end of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir reflects two things: how relatively short their relationship was--they hadn't been together a decade when he suffered a permanently debilitating stroke--and how interesting their lives were before they married.
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin belongs on a shelf beside Margaret Talbot's The Entertainer: both odes to famous parents double as histories of the American film industry. Riskin's scrupulously researched book--which leans on family artifacts, her mother's autobiography and a galaxy of archival photographs--covers subjects including how writers' unions evolved to the tyranny of gossip columnists and Hollywood's (and especially Robert Riskin's) contribution to the war effort.
Because the author was nine when her father died, only a small chunk of the book fulfills the promise of its subtitle. Before their father's illness, Riskin and her siblings lived in a Bel Air home where Harpo Marx was a regular guest and Cary Grant lived within walking distance. When Riskin writes, "Our childhoods were idyllic," she doesn't mean dull. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Discover: Victoria Riskin's powerhouse double bio of her parents, two Hollywood legends, is also a portrait of the American film industry.
hardcover, 416p., 9781524747282
Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury
by Carolyn Burke
The love affair between the photographer-impresario Alfred Stieglitz and the painter Georgia O'Keeffe has already been well documented. But by introducing two other artistic personalities--their friends Paul Strand and Rebecca Salsbury--to the pair's narrative, Carolyn Burke (No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf) assembles a group biography that tells an exponentially more interesting story about the trade-offs of living the creative life.
In Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury, Manhattan and the Stieglitz family home at Lake George, N.Y., are the primary early-20th-century backdrops. In these settings Burke plays out the quartet's cross-couple flirtations, rivalries and philosophical disagreements (Stieglitz wanted to keep art separate from politics; fellow photographer Strand didn't). The author of several esteemed biographies of artists, Burke does a bang-up job laying out her subjects' interpersonal dynamics, notably Strand and Salsbury's thrall to the other couple, and interpreting her subjects' work (Foursome includes several dozen black-and-white photos and reproductions). Burke leans heavily but rewardingly on correspondence written by her subjects, some of it newly available, some of it amusingly risqué. Where a source is lacking, Burke weaves conjecture into her narrative, all of it reasonable--e.g., "One can imagine [Rebecca] skimming the reviews for mentions of Paul."
Salsbury, a painter who didn't reach her artistic potential until the friends were geographically scattered, is Foursome's most disarming voice. She might have been speaking for all four artists when she told some friends about her time in New York, "Painful as much of it was, I am glad it all existed." --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Discover: This illuminating group biography enhances the oft-told story of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe by examining their friendship with another artistic couple.
hardcover, 432p., 9780307957290
Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story
by Jacob Tobia
Activist and writer Jacob Tobia is 27, genderqueer and here to blow up the gender binary with Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story. It's a funny, heartbreaking and earnest account of Tobia's early and young adult life, as well as a smart and accessible entry point for readers interested in learning more about transgender experiences.
Tobia, who uses they/their/them pronouns, grew up in a relatively conservative and conventional family in Raleigh, N.C. Assigned male at birth, Tobia was a sensitive, creative and "glitter-obsessed" child who found a kind of freedom with their friend Katie, whose mother let them play dress-up and raid her makeup collection with impunity. Relentlessly bullied for their femininity, Tobia learned to suppress it--and, as a result, became profoundly depressed and even suicidal, which they note is not unusual for a trans child.
While Tobia is candid about difficult experiences like these, Sissy's tone is more entertaining and playful than it is bleak. Aided by plentiful, chatty footnotes, Tobia charts the ongoing evolution of their genderqueer identity with open-hearted vulnerability and a razor-sharp wit. If Sissy has a guiding ethos, it is truth-telling. Tobia's story is not representative of some universal transgender experience, but a testament to, and an affirmation of, the diversity of truths that queer stories contain.
While everyone has something to learn from Sissy, readers new to stories and identities like Tobia's will find this memoir an especially welcoming introduction to the quite simple but still revolutionary notion that there are more than two genders. --Hannah Calkins, writer and editor in Washington, D.C.
Discover: The often painful, frequently funny and always deeply introspective story of how a young writer and activist came to embrace their genderqueer identity.
hardcover, 336p., 9780735218826
The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation
by Jodie Patterson
Taking readers through the journey that led to become an LGBTQI activist, Jodie Patterson bravely shares her experiences in The Bold World, a heartfelt memoir that illustrates the power of love, family and self.
A child of the '70s, Patterson grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. And while her family's money made some things easier, she still knew "that for Black people, grabbing what you want in this world is not easy. And more often than not, the effort it takes will break your spirit in two." Patterson chronicles her struggles as a young black woman, one trying to live up to the standards of a demanding father while simultaneously surrounded by the quiet strength of females and "sheroes." She also illuminates her growth and discoveries, wonderful realizations such as "sometimes the king is a woman." She details all the successes and failures that ultimately enable her to embrace Penelope, the transgender son who forces this wife, mother and entrepreneur to rethink her views of the world in order to make room for her child.
Patterson's stark honesty in this powerful debut instills her story with authenticity. Her triumphs as well as her mistakes will endear her to readers, allowing them to connect with her and identify with her plight. Her compassion, determination and strength is inspiring, and The Bold World will surely open hearts and minds to beautiful new ideas and possibilities. --Jen Forbus
Discover: An African American mother turns to the strength of her family to embrace her transgender son and ultimately fight for the rights of the entire LGBTQI community.
hardcover, 352p., 9780399179013
Our Man Down in Havana: The Story Behind Graham Greene's Cold War Spy Novel
by Christopher Hull
A successful literary biography compels the reader to revisit the subject's work. Christopher Hull's Our Man Down in Havana ably succeeds in sparking this compulsion. But his book is more than a biography that emphasizes the English author Graham Greene's satire of British spying in the Caribbean. It also explores the political and cultural developments in Cuba during the 1950s and '60s and analyzes the often pathetic and unintentionally hilarious intelligence work of Great Britain in the same period.
It is not news that Greene worked as a spy for the British government while maintaining cover as an author. What may be news is how politically astute and prescient he was. Greene published Our Man in Havana in 1958, at the same time Castro was ousting Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and setting up a Communist government.
A researcher focused on British interactions with Latin America, Hull presents evidence for multiple trips by Greene to the region, including a few Greene avoided mentioning in his memoirs. He uncovers rivalries with other intelligence operatives in the region: "maybe it was a case of two part-time spooks, suspicious of each other's activities in Cuba and wary of having their cover blown." He also details how the author forecasted many events in his novel, such as the unmasking of the British double-agent-cum-defector Kim Philby (a friend of Greene) and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
One moment might give readers pause: Hull uncritically cites Michael Sheldon's highly contested biography Graham Greene: The Man Within. However, this does not ultimately detract, and Our Man Down in Havana intrigues and satisfies in every other way imaginable. --Evan M. Anderson, collection development librarian, Kirkendall Public Library, Ankeny, Iowa
Discover: Our Man Down in Havana deftly combines a life of Graham Greene with the real-world politics and espionage of revolutionary Cuba that suffused one of his best novels.
hardcover, 352p., 9781643130187
Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution
by Amber Tamblyn
Actor, director and poet Amber Tamblyn's (Any Man, Dark Sparkler) first nonfiction book is part memoir, part feminist credo.
Around her 30th birthday, Tamblyn found herself in a crisis of identity, followed by a personal and professional rebirth. Pointing out that the U.S., too, has been going through a time of upheaval as it confronts a history of inequality and questions about its future, Tamblyn dubs these concurrent changes an Era of Ignition. Her book seamlessly moves between scenes from her own life to cultural criticism, and she brings a personal narrative to national issues like the #MeToo movement, Time's Up (of which she is a founding member), the 2016 election, women's healthcare, workplace discrimination and the daily injustices of the female experience. "We are made to see ourselves and our lived experiences as almost cartoonish stereotypes of our truths, which is a way of othering us from our own existence," she writes.
Era of Ignition is gripping, astute and even funny; it's hard to put down but deserves a slow and thoughtful reading. Tamblyn is self-aware, particularly when it comes to her own advantages--as a white woman and as a public figure. She recognizes those, especially black and brown women, who don't have the same opportunities she does, and at times brings their voices to the fore: one chapter includes an essay by poet Airea D. Matthews about black feminism and solidarity, another section includes an interview with Filipino American trans writer Meredith Talusan. Here's hoping Tamblyn's name and access get these messages into the hands of more readers. --Katy Hershberger, freelance writer and bookseller
Discover: Amber Tamblyn offers an insightful, impassioned and personal examination of a new wave of feminism.
hardcover, 272p., 9781984822987
When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History
by Hugh Ryan
The idea of Brooklyn, N.Y., having a significant queer history surprises many present residents. But Hugh Ryan, founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, cracks open what looks like a blank slate and finds richness there, beginning with the 1855 publication of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Whitman represents an early association with Brooklyn and with white men who have sex with men (people of color and queer women did not appear in the historical record yet). From here, Ryan covers periods of growing visibility through turn-of-the-century newspapers and the theater; the rise in criminalization and persecution of queers in the 1910s; and the quick expansion of both the queer scene and Brooklyn at large in the 1920s.
The Depression, the end of Prohibition and the Hays movie code brought new strictures on a vibrant world of bars and cruising venues. Mobilization for World War II offered great opportunities for queer people, as men joined the armed forces and women went to work in factories and shipyards like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Following the war, a societal move toward conservatism, the suburbanization of New York City and the shutdown of Brooklyn's waterfront lead to what Ryan calls "the great erasure" of queer community and history.
Painstaking research and attention to detail highlight the richness and mystery of stories that have been largely hidden until now. Moreover, When Brooklyn Was Queer achieves everything one could want in a history, with its easy-reading narrative, fascinating small events within significant larger ones and personal interest. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Discover: Thorough research, engaging storytelling, fascinating stories and a history of obscurity make this investigation of queer Brooklyn a compelling, essential read.
St. Martin's Press,
hardcover, 320p., 9781250169914
Business & Economics
Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of Josh Harris and the Great Dotcom Swindle
by Andrew Smith
Every century is shaped by a key event, writes Andrew Smith (Moondust) in the exhilarating Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of Josh Harris and the Great Dotcom Swindle. For Smith, the 21st century was wrought by the "Dotcom Crash of March-April 2000." Not only did it signal the economic crash of 2008, it predicted the trouble with truth that seemed to characterize the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.
A key figure of the dotcom era, says Smith, was the enigmatic Josh Harris, one of the "first internet moguls" of the digital age and founder of the website Pseudo. When readers first meet Harris, he has inexplicably moved to Ethiopia. Smith catches a flight to interview him, and what follows is one of the most fascinating portraits of a startup founder in recent memory.
Harris spent his early years as an entrepreneur in New York City's high tech hub, Silicon Alley. He was the mastermind behind baffling experiments in crowd tolerance and voyeurism. One of them, called "Quiet," involved Harris convincing 100 people to stay under surveillance in a deserted warehouse in the city with all the food and drugs they could tolerate. The event was shut down by FEMA. Harris rode the tech wave to unimagined wealth before losing it all in 2000.
The present-day Harris is no less perplexing. Often Smith is left wondering whether the strange incidents that happen when he's in proximity of the man (gunshots, dogs howling) were in fact staged by Harris for reasons unknown. Totally Wired examines just how thin the line is between brilliance and madness. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor
Discover: This thrilling work of nonfiction delves into the unsettling mind of Josh Harris, one of the first startup founders of the dotcom era.
Black Cat/Grove Press,
paperback, 412p., 9780802129345
She He They Me: For the Sisters, Misters, and Binary Resisters
by Robyn Ryle
You've been born an alyha among the Mohave at the turn of the 20th century, and are neither man nor woman. Or: you're born a cisgender male in a patriarchal society. Or maybe you were born with an intersex condition. But you could also be a transgender Asian American woman who gets married, a working-class gender-expansive pansexual person or a white gay man with a disability.
How can these realities possibly be contained in a single experience? When organized into a fun, thoughtful and instructive "choose your own adventure"-style book!
In She He They Me, sociologist Robyn Ryle guides readers through more than a hundred different scenarios that show how gender and sex intersect with culture, race, class and disability. Readers can work their way through nearly endless permutations, "trying on" various identities and exploring how cultural contexts might interact with those identities.
The book's playful, non-linear, experimental form deliberately echoes the idea that gender can also be playful, non-linear and experimental. In the introduction, Ryle writes that one reason she wrote this book is because "seeing the world in new and different ways can be a little scary. But eventually, it's liberating and exciting... I wanted to share that scary and exciting adventure with people everywhere."
Those who view gender as binary, fixed and inherently tied to certain biological and cultural behaviors may find She He They Me surprising or uncomfortable, but that's why they should read it. If nothing else, it's an exercise in empathy--and only good can come from that. --Hannah Calkins, writer and editor in Washington, D.C.
Discover: Explore life beyond the gender binary in this fun, creative, intersectional approach to learning about how gender, sex and culture interact.
hardcover, 400p., 9781492666943
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago
by Alex Kotlowitz
Chicago has had a reputation for violence and crime since the rise of the mob in the early 20th century. But stories of gangs and menaces to society are rarely illuminating, drawing the people of Chicago in caricature instead of revealing their humanity.
Thankfully, there are writers like Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), who take up the mantle of telling real stories of the city. An American Summer is a collection of vignettes all taking place during the summer of 2013. Its chapters drop in on people living and working in Chicago, including high school students, former gang leaders and U.S. congressmen. As Kotlowitz puts it, the book is a collection of "dispatches, sketches of those left standing, of those emerging from the rubble, of those trying to make sense of what they've left behind." Nearly every one of his subjects is either the victim or perpetrator of violence. Even some of the book's most high-profile figures, such as Congressman Bobby Rush, have been personally affected by the city's violence. (Rush's son was shot and killed in 1999.)
Kotlowitz has an uncanny rapport with all his subjects, sitting down with them for months or years, learning about their struggles from friends and family and creating a compelling, incredibly readable depiction of their lives. There is pain, death and deep sadness throughout these pages, but also love, forgiveness and new beginnings. Kotlowitz presents life as it is for those living in Chicago: the chaos, tragedy and connections that give life meaning and hope. --Noah Cruickshank, director of communications, Forefront, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: Alex Kotlowitz's An American Summer is a tragic, affirming look at the lives of Chicagoans during the summer of 2013.
Nan A. Talese,
hardcover, 304p., 9780385538800
Essays & Criticism
The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power
by David Shields
"This book aims to be a short, intensive immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy," writes David Shields at the start of The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power. He achieves his ambition in five chapters using a grab bag of personal observations ("Desire is indistinguishable for me from distance"), quotations (some confusingly attributed) and jokes. Many elements are graphically sexual and all are in service to what seems to be Shields's thesis: that the modern heterosexual relationship is irredeemably flummoxing.
As in How Literature Saved My Life, Shields writes incisively and entertainingly, which he likely realizes goes a long way toward deflecting any charge of self-absorption. However, as readers turn pages--and they will--they may question his suggestion that The Trouble with Men is a noble undertaking: "With all the 'memoirs' being written that are naive victim narratives, I thought it might be useful to write a book that tries to ask interesting questions about pain rather than simply invoking it as a badge." Shields's conceit is that The Trouble with Men is a letter to his wife, and throughout the book she comes across as unremittingly cruel--e.g., "What could possibly have been your motivation to call my uncle (to whom I bear a strong resemblance) 'homely'...?" Is The Trouble with Men an act of spite? Will Shields have hell to pay when his wife reads it? If so, fret not: his oft-mentioned masochism will surely serve him well. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Discover: David Shields's salmagundi of observations about modern heterosexual relationships is engaging, infuriating, obscene and hilarious.
Mad Creek Books,
paperback, 160p., 9780814255193
A Desert Harvest
by Bruce Berger
Bruce Berger (Facing the Music) grew up in suburban Chicago, but the desert of the American Southwest is the place he calls home. In his gorgeous essay collection, A Desert Harvest, Berger paints a portrait of a place that's much stranger and more beautiful than most popular presentations would suggest. "Despite cartoons," he writes in "The Mysterious Brotherhood," the desert isn't riddled with "melodramatic bones." Instead it offers "quieter revelations of the vegetable world." He goes on to describe the elusive loveliness of different varieties of cacti at various stages of decay. The intricate patterning of the prickly pear's internal leaves, readers learn, discloses itself only in death.
The subject of death appears again in the collection, most notably in "Comfort That Does Not Comprehend," in which he describes the aftermath of his mother's passing. She had been living in a home in the Arizona desert, having made the move from Chicago when her husband was still alive. Berger draws heartbreaking parallels between the loss of his mother and the loss of several desert acres that succumbed to fire.
The collection isn't all macabre, however. "Cactus Pete" introduces the eccentric titular character, an elderly man who claims to have learned how to map the surfaces of other planets with a handmade "gizmo." The essay is part character study, part celebration of the founding of the small desert town Pete lives in. Moving and enthralling, A Desert Harvest proves that wonder and beauty can be found in even the most desolate places. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor
Discover: This collection of lyrical essays by a seasoned writer celebrates both the beauty and strangeness of the American Southwest.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
hardcover, 272p., 9780374220570
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
by Pam Houston
"How do we become who we are in the world?" Pam Houston (Contents May Have Shifted) asks in Deep Creek, her contemplative memoir that explores nature's power to shape our sense of self. "We ask the world to teach us."
After the 1992 publication of her first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, Houston drove throughout the American West, giving readings while searching for a place to call home. She found it in the remote town of Creede, Colo., on a $400,000 ranch that she purchased with $21,000 ("more money than I had ever imagined having") and a payment agreement with the previous owner.
Life on a 120-acre ranch, Houston learned, meant developing endurance to cope with a grueling travel schedule for work, losses of beloved animals and extreme weather conditions--in Creede, winter temperatures often plummet to 35 degrees below zero and summer brings raging wildfires that ravage the landscape.
"The language of the wilderness is the most beautiful language we have and it is our job to sing it, until and even after it is gone, no matter how much it hurts. If we don't, we are left with only a hollow chuckle, and our big brains who made this mess, our big brains that stopped believing a long time ago in beauty, in everything, in anything."
With reverent and moving prose, Deep Creek's observations of nature's resiliency in the aftermath of dramatic and destructive events are rooted in a personal strength gained from adversity. A survivor of childhood abuse, Houston shows the depth of her perspective while optimistically championing an environment that is continually threatened. --Melissa Firman, writer and blogger at melissafirman.com
Discover: In this compassionate and thoughtful memoir, Pam Houston shows how the natural world has served as a source of strength and healing for her.
hardcover, 288p., 9780393241020
Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others
by Barbara Brown Taylor
As an Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor (Leaving Church) spent years delving into the nuances of Western Protestantism. But after parting from parish ministry, she found herself ever more curious about--even envious of--certain elements of other faiths. She began teaching Religion 101 to undergraduates at Piedmont College in rural Georgia, which gave her the chance to explore along with her students. It was permission to learn the basic tenets of five major world religions, as well as to walk forward into the wonder and joy that might await them in a temple, a synagogue or a mosque. In Holy Envy, her 14th nonfiction book, Taylor chronicles two decades of exploration and struggle, as she took her students on field trips to new places and unfamiliar spiritual terrain.
In a time when religious differences are often the subject of polarizing arguments, Taylor offers another way: a gentle, holy curiosity laced with compassion and wonder. She urges her readers to ask questions, to stay open to encountering the divine in whatever form it may appear. Most of all, she encourages keeping a loose grip on certainty: "Once you have given up knowing who is right, it is easy to see neighbors everywhere you look." If this is heresy, it is the most joyful and thoughtful kind: a call to see all people, of all faiths or none, as fully human, and to accept that the divine may show up in ways we least expect. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Barbara Brown Taylor shares thoughtful, joyful reflections on teaching world religions to undergraduates and learning from religious differences.
hardcover, 256p., 9780062406569
Psychology & Self-Help
What Matters Most: The Get Your Sh*t Together Guide to Wills, Money, Insurance, and Life's "What-Ifs"
by Chanel Reynolds
The unthinkable happened to Chanel Reynolds in July 2009: her husband, José, 44, was struck by a van while riding his bicycle in their hometown of Seattle, Wash. It took a week for him to die--hooked up to life support. Reynolds states, "I did not choose for him to die but I had to choose to let him go."
In What Matters Most, Reynolds's first book, she shares the intimate story of her husband's accident, her struggle to make critical life-and-death decisions and how those decisions affected her along with their young son, Gabi, and José's daughter, Lyric, from a prior marriage.
Reynolds faced an onslaught of red tape--everything from dealing with mortgage and car payments, deciphering bank accounts, and understanding life insurance and wills to figuring out next steps for her and the kids. Reynolds was forced to learn things the hard way. This led her, three years later, to launch a website called Get Your Sh*t Together, aimed at helping others avoid unpreparedness.
Her book compiles work from her website and shares her extensive research through surveys, conversations with experts and hearing the stories of thousands of people across the country who have taken her workshops. Reynolds is not a financial or legal adviser. However, her story, told from the trenches of life, is powerful and wise. Her message--sort out your finances and get your end-of-life wishes in order before it's too late--offers readers a generous opportunity to learn from her experiences and be more fully prepared. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: A widow and mother shares her story of loss--and its aftermath--in order to help others prepare for the practical considerations when losing a loved one.
hardcover, 352p., 9780062689436
An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System
by Matt Richtel
In An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel takes the reader on a remarkable journey of exploration inside the human body. His focus is that most crucial connection to every aspect of a person's health and wellness, the immune system.
Richtel's (A Deadly Wandering) approach is richly informative and engaging, a distinctive analysis of life's essential attributes. Just as the immune system works as a peacekeeping force through cooperation with bacteria inside and outside the body, he explains, so should mankind seek cooperation with nature and global neighbors to topple cancer, Alzheimer's and autoimmune diseases. Working to promote balance and harmony inside the body, the immune system functions best without too much tinkering or unnatural interventions. And so, Richtel suggests, gentle, natural remedies are more desirable than aggressive medical interference.
Of course, it's not always possible to avoid toxic drugs and their side effects, especially when fighting cancer, AIDS or other autoimmune diseases. Through the remarkable case histories of four individuals, Richtel explains the ways in which the immune system plays an intricate game of defense and how easily things go wrong when it gets out of control. Richtel's best piece of advice is to stop trying to live forever because this "festival of life" wasn't designed to last indefinitely. Instead we should focus our energies on things we can control, like sleep, exercise, meditation and nutrition. Eminently readable and with so many important takeaways, An Elegant Defense is well worth one's investment of time. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
Discover: Fascinating insight into our defense system's evolutionary role and how its smooth function is imperiled by our modern, overly sanitized lives.
hardcover, 448p., 9780062698537
Nature & Environment
Mama's Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions
by Frans de Waal
The title of primatologist Frans de Waal's (Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?) captivating exploration into animal emotion comes from a touching event involving his former dissertation supervisor, Jan van Hooff, and a dying chimpanzee matriarch named Mama. In the video of their encounter, viewers see behaviors they can recognize as their own as Mama consoles and reassures the scientist. Using this story and others involving various mammals in the animal kingdom, de Waal makes his case that humans are not the only species that experiences emotions.
In addition to telling Mama's life story, de Waal discusses the differences between emotions and feelings--"We show our emotions, but we talk about our feelings"--and debunks the idea that most animals act strictly out of instinct: "Nothing could be less adaptive for an organism than to blindly follow its emotions." He examines laughter, empathy and guilt across mammal species, covers topics such as murder and free will, and shows parallels between human politics and animal power structures, ensuring readers are clear on the meanings of alpha male and alpha female. All the while he weaves in wonderfully humorous comments and observations, fascinating facts, study data and pertinent anecdotes. De Waal's vast experience with both captive and wild animals is readily apparent, as is his willingness to let the evidence drive his conclusions, rather than preconceived biases or beliefs. Regardless of whether one is an animal lover or not, Mama's Last Hug offers amazing insights you only need to be human to benefit from. Truly eye-opening. --Jen Forbus
Discover: Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal blows holes in antiquated beliefs that hold humans separate from the rest of the animal kingdom.
hardcover, 336p., 9780393635065
Humanimal: How Homo Sapiens Became Nature's Most Paradoxical Creature
by Adam Rutherford
All living creatures--bedbugs and bonobos, yeast and yellowjackets, hedgehogs and humans--have much in common. We all descend from a single point of origin, share DNA and evolve through natural selection. But about 40,000 years ago, humans took a "Great Leap Forward" and achieved a level of sophistication not found in other animals. Humans are special, but are we unique?
In Humanimal, science writer Adam Rutherford (A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived) considers the behaviors that Homo sapiens share with animals, and those that are different, to help us understand our own evolution. For example, many animals use tools, such as the firehawk, which picks smoldering sticks from brush fires to create new fires and feast on escaping creatures. Yet no other animal has the brain capacity or dexterity to create tools like humans. While it's a given that humans have sex for pleasure and procreation, Rutherford is reluctant to affix human sexual emotions onto animals. But many species also engage in sexual activity without the intent to procreate. Homosexuality is also prevalent in the animal kingdom, as are sexual behaviors like masturbation and fellatio, behaviors we often ascribe only to humans.
So, what makes humans distinct? Many animals communicate and share the ancient gene FOXP2, but only in humans did the right combination of FOXP2 and other genes yield speech. Rutherford theorizes that the human population explosion during the Great Leap Forward allowed for the transmission of skills. While many animals are capable of learning, it's only humans who teach, leading to the development of culture that sets us apart. --Frank Brasile, librarian
Discover: An energetic exploration of the animal kingdom reveals what humans share with other creatures, and what makes us different.
hardcover, 256p., 9781615195312
The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape
by Suzannah Lessard
Suzannah Lessard (The Architect of Desire) offers a broad cultural examination of place in The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape. The result is a work of great scope that's grounded by an interest in landscapes, the forces that shape them and how they in turn reshape us. Lessard chases big mysteries: "Always behind my readings of landscapes are the questions, Where are we...? and What is our relationship to our surroundings now?"
Lessard begins with a close description of "the village" where she lives near Albany, N.Y. She then travels outward, to visit a nearby friend and consider suburbophobia, and therefore the history of the suburbs--as foil to the city, as military defense concept, as commercial center, as "edge city." Having discussed terms like sprawl, metropolitan area, edgeless or stealth city and more, Lessard uses "atopia" to refer to landscapes "where contemporary development, directly expressing contemporary times, was unrestrained." She is also quite interested in "online" as a place, from its origins in Cold War strategy through the option it provides as escape from real places.
Lessard can speak from a place of economic comfort that may grate some readers, but the value of her decades of research is undeniable. The Absent Hand is often dense, as Lessard draws upon centuries of human history to make her arguments. In this ambitious work, place is examined, deconstructed and incrementally illuminated, even as our landscape changes anew. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Discover: This broad social-historical consideration of American landscapes will satisfy and challenge the most serious reader.
hardcover, 320p., 9781640092211
Health & Medicine
Living Light: The Art of Using Light for Health and Happiness
by Karl Ryberg
In Living Light, psychologist Karl Ryberg summarizes a lifetime of research into the role of light in the health and well-being of the human species: "It is my belief that good-quality light in our daily lives is far more important than we might think," he argues in the introduction. He goes on to state that light (and light therapy) can be used to treat a host of health issues, "including sleeplessness, insomnia, depression, and even infertility."
Some of these claims seem radical at first, but Ryberg backs them up with his own research and experience as a light psychologist. This research is further supplemented by other studies, all of which are referenced in a comprehensive list of further reading recommendations and end-note citations. Despite its reliance on science, however, Living Light does not veer into technical jargon. On the contrary, Ryberg offers a comprehensive background on what light is, how the eye and brain receive it and its importance. Further chapters break down the differences between natural, electric and super lights, all of which is accessible and understandable for the average reader. After building this scientific foundation around the principles of light science, Ryberg then offers concrete, actionable steps readers can take to improve their own light health, including "eye yoga," sunbathing and healthy diet tips for optimal light absorption.
Ultimately, Living Light is a concise book packed with insights into human biology and psychology, the science of light and how the two intersect in our day-to-day lives--whether we recognize it or not. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: A psychologist explores the science of light and the role it plays in human health and well-being.
paperback, 192p., 9781501169960
by Katie Arnold
Running, for Katie Arnold, has long been a means of solace: a way to escape anxiety and heartbreak, or at least to muffle the chorus of fear. Since moving to Santa Fe, N.Mex., in her 20s, Arnold (a long-time editor and writer for Outside magazine) has run and hiked through the nearby mountains. When her father was diagnosed with cancer, Arnold navigated her wrenching grief the only way she knew how: by running miles and miles and miles.
Arnold's memoir, Running Home, chronicles both her journey as a runner and the narrative of her close but complicated relationship with her dad, David. A National Geographic photographer with a restless soul, he left when Arnold was three, but remained a loving presence in her life, mostly through phone calls and summer visits. Arnold ran her first 10K at age seven, not on her own whim but his, and jumped into a frigid creek when he bet her she wouldn't. She explores her boundless craving for adventure, her need to push herself, as both something she inherited from him and as a way to make him proud. She becomes a marathoner, then an ultramarathoner, facing down her fears along with the blisters, injuries, sunburn and, ultimately, experiencing the pure joy of hours on the trail.
Blazingly candid and vulnerable, shot through with vivid imagery and interspersed with David Arnold's photographs, Running Home is a daughter's tribute to her father, a love letter to running and a powerful meditation on the stories we tell ourselves. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Katie Arnold's incandescent memoir is a tribute to the father she adored and a love letter to running.
hardcover, 384p., 9780425284650
See You in the Piazza: New Places to Discover in Italy
by Frances Mayes
The name Frances Mayes has become synonymous with Italy. For the past 30 years, she's split her time between a home in the United States and one in Tuscany. Mayes captivated readers with her blockbusters Under the Tuscan Sun and Women in Sunlight, stories of how Italy--the culture, the landscape and the Italian way of life--has the power to change and transform people. In See You in the Piazza--part guidebook, part travelogue--Mayes's passion for Italy is further enlarged when she and her husband, Ed, hit the road in their Alfa Romeo. The pair--along with cameos by their grandson and friends-- explore the many charms of Italy, uncovering secret places only the locals know, from the northern Piemonte region south to Sicilia.
Rich, sensory descriptions are hallmarks of Mayes's work. Whether on or off the beaten path, Mayes's writing--about hiking or marketing, sightseeing or lounging with books by a pool--offers an intimate, stream-of-conscious perspective on discovering unexpected treasures. Traveling to 13 regions over a year and a half, Mayes offers a trove of little-known information about wine, food and cooking, out-of-the-way restaurants, history, quirky museums and architecture, religious and literary influences. Mouth-watering regional recipes cap off each chapter.
Italophiles, fans of Mayes and armchair travelers will be more than eager to set off on an adventurous journey that provides a rare glimpse into "unique places hidden in plain sight"--the very best of what Italy has to offer. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: Frances Mayes shares her adventures and the out-of-the-way discoveries she made while traveling throughout Italy.
hardcover, 448p., 9780451497697
Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home
by Heather Anderson
Heather Anderson, who is known on the trail as "Anish," is one of the fastest long-distance hikers in the United States, setting women's speed records and occasionally smashing men's on some of the country's longest, most grueling trails. She's also completed other famed hiking challenges, and she is an accomplished mountaineer and ultramarathon runner as well.
Despite her achievements and obvious ability, Anderson is a somewhat unlikely elite athlete. She began hiking as an out-of-shape college student with no real outdoors experience but a deep spiritual pull to the wilderness. Today, even as her profile rises, she refuses sponsorships and other forms of support, and has eschewed convention to live most of her life among mountains and on trails.
Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home is Anderson's account of the 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes she spent hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, breaking the previous speed record set by hiking legend Scott Williamson. It is a slim, fast read, and yet the experience of reading it feels a bit like a low-stakes simulation of Anderson's hike: grueling, meditative, exhilarating and exhausting by turns.
"Each day on the trail I felt myself slipping a little farther into a primal state, where all that mattered... was surviving the day," she writes. "And yet, I still had no idea what drove me, or where that drive came from."
Filled with ruminative self-reflection, soaring natural descriptions and delightful accounts of the gracious, life-sustaining "trail magic" of hiking culture, Thirst is a testament to human endurance, inspiring to hikers and non-hikers alike. --Hannah Calkins, writer and editor in Washington, D.C.
Discover: Walk alongside one of the fastest long-distance hikers in the country as she completes the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail in record time--and discovers her own truth along the way.
paperback, 208p., 9781680512366
by Edgar Kunz
In a poem about waiting on line for food stamps, the narrator feels acute embarrassment, but then confides, "No one was looking. Nobody looks." Much of Tap Out by Edgar Kunz conveys this sentiment. Here is misery and desperation and no one is paying meaningful attention. And yet, Kunz later admits a cruel duality: "...drawing crowds of tourists/ who posed alone or with/ their blonde polo'd families a safe/ distance from their wilderness." The narrator feels both willfully ignored and scrutinized by rubberneckers. Readers are permitted to keep a safe distance from Kunz's "wilderness," a world of working-class poor, marred by suicide, death, drugs and violence. It is a world steeped in machismo or toxic masculinity. These poems have a pervasive physicality that is both rewarding and horrifying.
Kunz plays on these contrasts most effectively with the narrator's ambivalent relationship with his father, a dominating presence in the collection. In "Close": "He's still beautiful, my father. Fluid./ Powerful. His bare forearms corded/ with muscle, bristling in the cold. Yes,/ he's drunk." Yet, in "Natick," the speaker is scarred when his father "said I had piano hands,/ and I was ashamed, and hid them in the pockets of my coat."
Arresting imagery, unexpected detail, brilliant use of tensions, a flowing rhythm and overall accessibility make this a collection to be read and re-read. --Evan M. Anderson, collection development librarian, Kirkendall Public Library, Ankeny, Iowa
Discover: Tap Out superbly mines the beauty, brutality, tensions and contradictions of working-class U.S. communities.
paperback, 112p., 9781328518125
The Careless Seamstress
by Tjawangwa Dema
With a natural approach to the physicality of her characters' lives and struggles, Botswanan poet Tjawangwa Dema uses her work to explore large questions of gender, identity and labor. The pieces in The Careless Seamstress live at the intersection of these themes, showing how one moment or action brilliantly encapsulates the whole.
In the finest example of this, "Lares," a group of women are confronted with deciding the fate of a baby orphaned in childbirth. "Let me tell you what it's like/ to carry a child that's not yours/ while you fetch water with a steel bucket pissing on your head," the narrator laments. She speaks on behalf of her group who, at first, agree the child should be killed and buried with his mother. Here work, survival and maternity are intertwined and treated with open eyes and frank prose.
Questions of care also arise in "The Three-Body Problem," as a woman considers how her mother has given her life over to taking care of her brother. Seeing that "He is her life's work," the narrator wonders "When she is gone,/ who will inherit her language/ of worry...," well aware that the expectation is for her to take up her mother's labor. Like the group in "Lares," the women of "The Three-Body Problem" must give themselves over to saving the men in their lives. With an unflinching eye, Dema forces her reader to witness that giving, and question whether it is worth it. --Noah Cruickshank, director of communications, Forefront, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: The poems in Tjawangwa Dema's The Careless Seamstress viscerally explore the intersection of labor, gender and identity.
University of Nebraska Press,
paperback, 96p., 9781496214126
Children's & Young Adult
Opposite of Always
by Justin A. Reynolds
Jack Ellison King is, in his words, "an authority on Almost." "You name it," his first-person narration states, "I've found a way to miss my chance." It's ironic, then, that the self-proclaimed "Jack of all. King of none" is named after trailblazers Jackie Robinson and Ralph Ellison.
It's senior year and Jack is in love with his best friend, Jillian. Unfortunately, her boyfriend, Franny, is Jack's "other best friend." Jack loves them both and "would never consider doing anything to jeopardize their relationship." But he never really stops thinking about Jillian and his habit of "missing out." Thus, when he meets a girl at a Whittier College party, he decides to go for it--he will actively pursue the funny, interesting, mysterious, college-freshman Kate. Though they quickly fall for each other, Kate keeps Jack at arms-length. She finally explains this distance to him while literally on her deathbed: she is "genetically unwell" and is consequently fearful of romantic entanglements. Immediately after this conversation, she dies. Soon after, surprisingly, Jack dies, too: "a shrill of feedback blasts between my ears and I know this is the end.... Good night." --And then, Jack is at the Whittier College party again, meeting Kate for the first time....
Groundhog Day-style, Jack begins to live his senior year over and over, always resetting when Kate dies. Reynolds builds a world that changes realistically with each iteration, always showing how Jack's actions affect others. Relationships take a central role in this passionate novel, as Reynolds delves into the emotional experience of Jack's inner circle, giving them and their interpersonal connections depth. It's an intense ride and readers are likely going to want to stick with Jack to the (real) end. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: In this young adult novel, an 18-year-old repeats the same stretch of time over and over again, each time trying to save his girlfriend from untimely demise.
Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins,
hardcover, 464p., ages 14-up, 9780062748379
Dreaming in Code: Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer
by Emily Arnold McCully
Two centuries before computers became ubiquitous, a brilliant young British woman named Ada Lovelace imagined an "engine" that could process information much like today's computers do. The life of this forward-thinking scientist is brought to light for young readers in Emily Arnold McCully's fascinating biography Dreaming in Code.
Dreaming in Code progresses chronologically from Lovelace's birth in late 1815 (to a domineering mother and poet Lord Byron, the "titled, handsome, reckless, and irresistible" father whom she never knew) to her painful death from cancer in 1852. Although her controlling mother stinted on emotional nurturing, she did give Lovelace a far more rigorous education than most girls of her time were allowed. As a young adult, Lovelace cultivated mentors, one of whom was Charles Babbage, a quirky inventor, scientist and mathematician whom she met when she was 17 and he was 41. During their two-decades-long collaborative friendship, Babbage was developing and modifying engines designed to replace mental labor. Lovelace understood the workings of these machines in a way no one else did, even Babbage himself.
McCully is the Caldecott Medal-winning author/illustrator of Mirette on the High Wire as well as dozens of other children's books, such as Clara. Dreaming in Code is written with grace and intelligence, researched with care and peppered with historic photos and remarkable illustrations of 19th-century technology. It's sure to inspire a new generation of pioneers unwilling to let obstacles distract them from leading the way into the future. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: This hugely enjoyable YA biography of Ada Byron Lovelace shows how she overcame 19th-century societal norms and a dysfunctional family to set the information age in motion.
hardcover, 176p., ages 12-up, 9780763693565
When Spring Comes to the DMZ
by Uk-Bae Lee, trans. by Chungyon Won , Aileen Won
When the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South in 1953, the consequences were especially tragic for separated families. In the six-plus decades since the ceasefire, reunion--politically and personally--has proven virtually impossible. On either side of the Military Demarcation Line, both North and South Korea built fences approximately 1.25 miles from the actual line, stretching 154 miles across the peninsula. Ironically, this Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has flourished as an untouched haven for flora and fauna.
People, too, arrive at the DMZ, albeit under highly different circumstances. "When spring comes to the DMZ," while nature rejuvenates, "soldiers check the fence/ and fix the broken places." With the milder weather, "Grandfather climbs up/ to the DMZ observatory/ and looks at the northern sky." As seasons change, soldiers "undergo exhausting training" in summer, practice tank and plane maneuvers in autumn and "think of their homes" in winter. Without fail, "Grandfather climbs up to the DMZ lookout again," to gaze longingly at the "northern land." As another year passes and spring returns, Grandfather's only wish is to bypass the lookout, "fling the tightly locked gates wide open"... and share the same freedom as the nearby animals.
Award-winning author/artist Uk-Bae Lee has never known a united country. He channels a hope for reunion into When Spring Comes to the DMZ, originally published in his native South Korea in 2010 as part of the Peace Picture Book Project. His text, smoothly translated by Chungyon Won and Aileen Won, is understated and simple, with further resonance presented through his multi-layered illustrations. With gentle words and glorious art, Lee inspires the newest generation of readers to lead the way... and make miracles happen. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: Throughout the seasons, Grandfather journeys to Korea's DMZ to gaze upon the northern lands he cannot visit in Uk-Bae Lee's hopeful picture book.
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780874869729
We Set the Dark on Fire
by Tehlor Kay Mejia
At the Medio School for Girls, young women are trained to fit into traditional wife roles: either Primera (First), with a "wise and discerning nature" and "quick wit and loyalty"; or a Segunda (Second), displaying "beauty and bravery... nurturing warmth, and... passion that lurk[s] beneath." Medio's religion states it is the right of prominent, wealthy men to marry both a Primera and a Segunda. This religion of binaries is also to blame for the literal wall that divides the upper class from the lower classes. Resentment over the injustice has festered, and now social and economic upheaval threatens the divided state.
Seventeen-year-old Daniela "Dani" Vargas is a "star Primera student." She is also a fraud--from an impoverished town outside of the wall, she used forged identification papers to get into school and has worked hard to propel herself into a higher class. Awaiting a proposal from "the capital's most promising young politico," all Dani has to do is lie low until she graduates. But then, a rebel sneaks into the school and destroys Dani's forged papers, offering her new, unimpeachable papers in exchange for help--Dani agrees to spy for the insurgency on her soon-to-be husband, Mateo, and his family. At graduation, Mateo takes Dani as his Primera, as expected, but stuns her with his choice of Segunda: her passionate and beautiful rival, Carmen.
As Dani grows to understand Mateo's manipulative nature and finds allies in unlikely places--including love with someone she once thought an enemy--her desire to help the revolution grows. Tehlor Kay Mejia's debut creates a lush and beautiful Latinx-inspired world featuring complex female characters. With thrilling adventure, unexpected twists and a cliffhanger ending, readers will clamor for the next installment of Dani's story. --Clarissa Hadge, bookstore manager, Trident Booksellers & Cafe, Boston, Mass.
Discover: In Tehlor Kay Mejia's debut young adult novel, Dani Vargas becomes enmeshed in a social revolution when she is forced to spy on her husband for his political enemies.
hardcover, 384p., ages 14-up, 9780062691316
The Boy Who Grew a Forest: The True Story of Jadav Payeng
by Sophia Gholz, illus. by Kayla Harren
Debut author Sophia Gholz tells the inspiring story of Jadav "Molai" Payeng, a boy from a "large river island" in India, whose passion for nature inspired him to rebuild his home's ecosystem.
Distraught by damage caused by floodwaters, Jadav consulted with village elders. They "explained [to him] that the only way to help animals was to create new homes for them," so they gave him 20 bamboo saplings, unknowingly setting him off on a lifelong conservation effort. He planted the seedlings, engineered an irrigation system and enriched the soil by carrying "cow dung, earthworms, termites, and angry red ants that bit him" to his thicket. As Jadav and his trees grew and prospered, he planted more. Over time, the wildlife returned: "buffalo, one-horned rhinos, and snakes, gibbons, migratory birds, and elephants." Jadav used his ingenuity to overcome each new challenge and nurture his growing forest.
Gholz's respect for Jadav's accomplishments shines through in her endearing presentation of his life. The book's back matter adds biographical details, word definitions and directions on how to "Plant a Forest of Your Own." And while readers learn Jadav was actually a teenager when he started his forest, the younger depiction of him at the start of the book allows the intended four- to eight-year-old audience better to relate to him. Accompanying Gholz's uplifting tale are stunning illustrations by Kayla Harren (Hannah's Tall Order). The bold colors and distinct textures of Jadav's island home are so realistic, one almost expects to hear an elephant trumpet or a gibbon sing. The Boy Who Grew a Forest celebrates an incredible man and arouses in its audience a respect for nature that may motivate them to follow in Jadav's footsteps. Superb. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: In Sophia Gholz's inspiring picture book, one boy's epic journey to save his island's ecosystem starts with 20 bamboo saplings.
Sleeping Bear Press,
hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9781534110243
Two Men and a Car: Franklin Roosevelt, Al Capone, and a Cadillac V-8
by Michael Garland
Legend claims that in 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt rode to the Capitol Building to deliver his "Day of Infamy" speech in Al Capone's bulletproof Cadillac--"ten years after the gangster climbed out of this automobile for the last time, one of America's greatest presidents climbed in." Using this yarn as the basis of his beguiling picture book, Michael Garland (Birds Make Nests; Fish Had a Wish) tells parallel stories, comparing the life of beloved U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt to that of notorious mobster Al Capone.
Both Roosevelt and Capone regularly appeared in headlines during the early 20th century; as Roosevelt ascended in politics, Capone rose in the ranks of the nation's crime syndicate. Garland further connects them by explaining that "both were smart and ambitious" and "young when their fathers died." Through such comparisons, he reels in readers and feeds them wonderful tidbits of biographical information about each man: Roosevelt's mother "kept his hair long and dressed him in frilly gowns"; Capone earned his Scarface nickname when he "received a knife wound to his cheek during a fight." The two may have even "passed each other in the streets of New York. But... headed in opposite directions."
As the audience peeks into the lives of both men, they're treated to Garland's bold and richly textured digi-woodcut illustrations--digital art that mimics woodcut--which give the book an antique feel and lend a sense of gravity to the overall design. Following Garland's comparison of Roosevelt and Capone, he offers resources for further reading as well as a more detailed timeline of their lives, which many are sure to pursue after the enticement of this striking picture book. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: Through an old legend about a tricked-out Cadillac V-8, Michael Garland's picture book compares two newspaper headliners of the early 20th century.
hardcover, 64p., ages 10-12, 9780884486206
by Laurie Halse Anderson
"Too many grown-ups tell kids to follow their/ dreams/ like that's going to get them somewhere/ Auntie Laurie says follow your nightmares instead/ cuz when you figure out what's eating you alive/ you can slay it."
For two decades, Laurie Halse Anderson has been visiting schools and talking to teens about "rape mythology, sexual violence and consent." For two decades, "girls and boys" have sought her out to "tell [her], shame-smoked raw/ voices, tears waterfalling,/ about the time" they were assaulted. Even on a movie set, she was approached by a "big square guy, head like a paint can," who said, "I am Melinda... A lot of us working on this film/ are like her,/ cuz, you know... it happened to us, too." Anderson has spent 20 years as a repository for these stories of pain. And "those kids" who have shared, she writes, "taught me everything, those girls/ showed me a path through the woods/ those boys led me."
A poetic memoir, Shout is a biography, a call to action, a lesson, a fable, a warm embrace for those who hurt, a guttural scream demanding the pain stop. It's factual as it flows in lyrical verse through Anderson's life; speculative as she works to create a collective noun for teens ("a wince of teens/ mutter of teens/ an attitude, a grumble, a grunt"); direct as she speaks to scared librarians "on the cusp of courage." Shout is for survivors, for abusers and assaulters, for consenting young men and women, for gatekeepers unwilling to let sex through. Immensely powerful, Shout is for everyone. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Laurie Halse Anderson's young adult memoir in verse, Shout, is as bold (and beautiful) as the title suggests.
hardcover, 304p., ages 14-up, 9780670012107
When I Found Grandma
by Saumiya Balasubramaniam, illus. by Qin Leng
When Maya says that she wants to see her grandma, Mother explains "Grandma lives many thousands of miles away." But, a few weeks later, while walking home from school, Mother says she has a surprise for Maya, and it's even "more special" than cupcakes. Inside, Maya finds her "special surprise": Grandma!
Maya learns right away that Grandma does things differently. She wears a "crimson sari" and offers "homemade sweets"--which Maya quickly decides she doesn't like as much as cupcakes. The next day at dismissal time, instead of waiting outside Maya's classroom with the rest of the parents and grandparents, Maya's grandma strides right in, wearing her "fancy clothes" and jingling her bangles. The next morning, instead of taking the exciting trip Father had promised to an island with a carousel, Mother says the family will pray at a temple for Holi. Maya "wish[es] Grandma had never come."
Saumiya Balasubramaniam takes a tender yet piercing look at the complexity of family bonds, especially when they span oceans and generations. Maya's initial unhappiness gives way to acceptance and love in a way young readers are sure to understand. Her struggles with cultural differences are convincingly stated, and reinforced perfectly by Leng's lively ink-and-watercolor illustrations: on page after page, Maya's body language makes her thoughts crystal clear. Leng's broken lines and dynamic use of color and texture help promote the feeling of a strong little girl in motion. Maya's and Grandma's compromises are satisfying and, by the end, as Father points out, Maya didn't just find Grandma, they "found each other." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
Discover: Maya is eager to see her grandmother who lives far away, but the visit gets off to a difficult start when Grandma dresses, cooks and acts differently from what Maya expects.
hardcover, 32p., ages 4-7, 9781773060187
by Julie Berry
Words like "epic," "sweeping" and "romantic" might have been designed with Julie Berry's Lovely War in mind. In this love story "for the ages," parallel story lines depict both a mock trial between Greek gods and the love stories of two intertwined pairs of mortals.
In the middle of World War II, Hephaestus, Greek god of fires, lays a trap for his wife, Aphrodite, goddess of love, and her not-so-secret lover, Ares, god of war. Rather than submitting to the "spectacle of the entire pantheon of immortals howling and cackling at her mortification" on Olympus, Aphrodite negotiates a private trial. Aphrodite--who believes that, though she is the "source of love," no one can "ever truly" love her--tells "judge, jury, and executioner" Hephaestus what "real love looks like," as illustrated by imperfect mortals. Aphrodite's narrative then shifts back and forth between the world wars.
In November of 1917, soldier James meets pianist Hazel as she plays music for a church dance in her London neighborhood. Their sweet budding romance is cut short when James is summoned early to the Western Front. Meanwhile, another love story is percolating. Colette, a white Belgian singer who lost her entire family to a brutal German slaughter meets (and falls for) Aubrey, a black musician and New Yorker whose all-black regiment performs for other soldiers. As Aphrodite and her fellow immortals debate the role of love in war, and war in love, the four young people enact the real-life courtroom drama--too often, literally.
In Lovely War, Printz-honoree Berry (The Passion of Dolssa; All the Truth That's in Me) weaves factual historical events and backdrops into an exquisitely crafted, funny and, yes, epic, novel. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: Greek gods and tragic, beautifully imperfect mortals populate this masterful young adult novel about love, war, racism, music, fate, miracles and quiet heroism.
hardcover, 480p., ages 12-up, 9780451469939
The Storm Keeper's Island
by Catherine Doyle
For centuries, Arranmore Island has bestowed the power to wield the elements on a chosen Storm Keeper, who uses those abilities to protect the island and its magic. Eleven-year-old Fionn Boyle travels to Arranmore to spend the summer with his grandfather Malachy, who, unbeknownst to him, is the current Storm Keeper. Upon Fionn's arrival at his ancestral home, Arranmore awakens: flowers disappear then resprout, and tides keep their own rhythm. The time has come for the island to choose a new keeper. But an ancient darkness lurks beneath the island's surface--will Fionn work up the nerve to face his destiny and prevent evil from rising again?
In her middle-grade debut, Catherine Doyle (Blood for Blood YA series) brings to magical life an actual island off the northwest coast of Ireland. Arranmore is a land "full of secrets" and "impossibility," capable of "shifting and stretching and blinking"; when Fionn steps on Arranmore for the first time, he has "the most absurd sensation that the island [is] opening its arms and enveloping him." Doyle's vivid imagery and colorful language ("the sun was sitting in the sky like a plump orange") engages the senses as she weaves together an atmospheric setting.
To ground the fantasy in this "perfect summer adventure," Doyle also focuses on real-world concerns like Alzheimer's and depression. Both are well represented, integral parts of the narrative that add realism to the myth-based story. The Storm Keeper's Island is a beautiful blend of Irish legend and self-discovery. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader
Discover: The Storm Keeper's Island is an atmospheric middle-grade novel that follows a young boy to an island off the coast of Ireland where he will discover his destiny.
hardcover, 320p., ages 8-12, 9781681199597
A Good Kind of Trouble
by Lisa Moore Ramée
Lisa Moore Ramée's debut middle-grade novel, A Good Kind of Trouble, features junior high school student Shayla Willows, a black girl figuring out shifting friendships, social justice issues and a newly found love for running track.
Shayla and her two best friends, Isabella, a Puerto Rican artist, and Julia, a Japanese-American basketball player, call themselves the United Nations--they've been friends "since forever" and inseparable "super best friends since third grade." But junior high threatens to split up their alliance: now that she is without braces or unibrow, Isabella's outer beauty has caught up with her inner, and, according to her Instagram account, Julia is "squad goals" with the other girls on her all Asian-American basketball team. Even as she creates new friendships, Shayla will have to confront her envy if she wants to keep the United Nations together. At the same time, a police officer is on very public trial for shooting an unarmed black man, forcing Shayla to understand how prejudice affirms ignorance and hate. Perhaps it's time for Shayla to get into a bit of trouble of her own.
Ramée's narrative is straightforward and relevant for a contemporary middle-grade readership, showcasing friendship, community and the diversity of experiences that exist within different marginalized groups. The story moves swiftly and skillfully through a year of Shayla's maturation as an athlete, a sister and a friend. Putting an extra fine point on the depth of Shayla's growth, each chapter ends with direct entries from her observation journal, often poignant musings such as, "I... don't get why some people would think black people are against them when we're the ones getting shot." These and other emotional insights mark the questions of Shayla's (and our) present and future. --Breanna J. McDaniel, freelance reviewer
Discover: With an accessible, likable lead, A Good Kind of Trouble confronts complex social issues like crushes and bullying.
Balzer + Bray,
hardcover, 368p., ages 8-12, 9780062836687
Noah Builds an Ark
by Kate Banks, illus. by John Rocco
"Noah spied it coming from afar. It started with a cloud peeping over the hill like a curious ghost." There's a storm brewing, and city child Noah responds like an old farmhand. While his father boards up the windows on their home, Noah bangs together an "ark" scaled for mice, salamanders and other outdoor critters. While his mother and sister stockpile provisions, Noah gathers berries and seeds for the creatures. And while his mom rounds up candles, Noah mounts a flashlight inside the ark. Following these parallel preparations, Kate Banks (How to Find an Elephant; The Magician's Apprentice) supplies the signature choreography from the Bible story that underpins Noah Builds an Ark: when the boy, who has just been summoned by his mom, calls the backyard denizens to the ark, they arrive in pairs. When the storm is over four days later, the animals exit the ark "two by two."
When the storm is in full swing, the paralleling continues, abetted by side-by-side illustrations from John Rocco, who does for rain in Noah Builds an Ark what he did for snow in the shiver-inducing Blizzard. While Noah and his family eat and play games by candlelight, the animals nosh and romp inside the ark. While Noah's dad tells stories to his kids, "each little creature [makes] a noise of its own."
Readers needn't be familiar with the Bible story to appreciate Noah Builds an Ark. They needn't even be animal lovers: they require only an appreciation for inspired tales of empathy and ingenuity. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author
Discover: The resourceful Kate Banks borrows from a Bible story to show how a city child prepares some backyard critters for a coming rainstorm.
hardcover, 40p., ages 3-7, 9780763674847
by Christian Robinson
One night, as a girl sleeps in her bed, the red-collared cat on her blanket spies a toy mouse on the floor. Through a portal in the wall arrives a blue-collared cat, which makes off with the mouse back through the hatch. The red-collared cat follows the other cat through the portal. The girl, who has awoken and taken all this in, can't be expected to stay put, can she?
That's when things get weird--for the reader. (The girl and cat remain unruffled throughout their adventure.) After the girl follows her cat through the portal, she appears with her head sticking out of a hole in what looks like the floor, yet her braids point skyward. Turning the page and rotating the book 180 degrees solves the gravity-defying hair problem: now her head is poking out from a hole in the ceiling. From this vantage point, she observes her cat entering a portal in the wall. After she shinnies down some red fabric (it looks an awful lot like the blanket on her bed), she trails her cat through the portal. Girl and cat then proceed through a surreal obstacle course, which includes a ball pit slide, a rainbow-colored conveyor belt and a free-floating play space.
With its loop-the-loop perspective and call for interactivity, Another will remind readers of Press Here, and the girl's unblinking entrée into another dimension calls to mind Harold and the Purple Crayon. But this isn't to attribute anything other than full creative authorship to Christian Robinson (Last Stop on Market Street). Robinson makes this wholly original wordless fantasy utterly coherent thanks to clutter-free, digitally tweaked paint-and-collage art that pointedly doesn't hide its real-world seams (brushstrokes, crumpled paper). Most readers will gladly surrender to this mind-bending romp. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author
Discover: In Christian Robinson's exhilarating wordless picture book, a girl and her cat enter a portal to a physically skewed, other world.
hardcover, 56p., 9781534421677
The Moon Within
by Aida Salazar
Essayist, short-story writer and first-time children's novelist Aida Salazar's The Moon Within is a contemporary tale told in first-person verse about a girl reaching deep within herself for understanding.
Eleven-year-old Celi is a good student, a dancer and a drummer. Her Xicana (a girl or woman "in the US with Mexican indigenous origins") mother, Mima, is an herbalist; her black Puerto Rican father a drummer and music teacher. She and her fellow Oakland, Calif., tweens are beginning to learn about their new feelings, changing bodies and expressions of sexuality and gender. Her best friend, Magda, for example, now requests that others use the pronouns he/him and call him Marco or Mar. His eloquent father explains this new identity by calling Mar xochihuah, a person "who danced between or to other energies than what they were assigned at birth." Celi struggles with her identity as a young woman, scared of the moon ceremony her mother, searching for tradition, wants to hold to celebrate her first period. She also yearns to enjoy her first girl-boy relationship with Iván, who, like her, is "Black-xican--Black and Mexican mixed"--but he and other kids make fun of her genderfluid friend. Celi "like" likes Iván, but wants to be loyal to Mar.
Salazar's language is frank and rich, using occasional Spanish or Mexica/Nahuatl words, to express each tween's individual thoughts and emotions during the wholly common experience of puberty. As Salazar explains in her author's note, The Moon Within is also working to resurrect from the Mexica past the traditional connection between women and the natural world. Readers are sure to respond to Celi (and Salazar), as they think about their own bodies, feelings and relationships. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer
Discover: Realistic and rich in poetic imagery, this middle-grade novel focuses on a multicultural community in which supportive adults help young people figure out their identities.
Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic,
hardcover, 240p., ages 10-12, 9781338283372
The Very Impatient Caterpillar
by Ross Burach
Truck Full of Ducks author Ross Burach playfully educates readers about metamorphosis in his rib-tickling picture book The Very Impatient Caterpillar. "Meta-WHAT-now?" asks the eager insect. Using dialogue reminiscent of that during a long car ride with a toddler, Burach's book takes its audience through the caterpillar's transformation into beautiful butterfly: "Am I a butterfly yet?"/ "No."/ "How about now?"/ "No."/ "Now?"/ "No. Be patient!" It learns to build a chrysalis and begins not-so-patiently waiting... "TWO WEEKS?!" How can this itchy little insect "just be patient and let nature take its course" for two whole weeks? What can one do in a chrysalis for that long? More importantly, the caterpillar wonders, "What if I need the bathroom?" The payoff for the arduous task is--of course--a stunning new body, complete with wings. But can the caterpillar wait that long?
Burach illustrates this delightful picture book using bold colors that reinforce the caterpillar's hyper excitement in a cartoonish style that plays up the slapstick humor. The abundance of rich greens helps young readers identify the story's natural setting while also building momentum for the final reveal: the vivid, bright "BUTTERFLY!"
The subtle lesson about patience blends quietly into the noise of this loveably loud insect. Story time toddler audiences will likely be on the edge of their seats waiting to see if this hyper-active caterpillar will succeed. Unlike the bug's reaction to its wait, the human response to The Very Impatient Caterpillar is almost sure to be, "Again!" --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: An anxious little insect is put to the hilariously arduous test of waiting in order to reap its reward in Ross Burach's picture book The Very Impatient Caterpillar.
hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9781338289411