Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, March 8, 2022


Forge: Project Namahana by John Teschner

From My Shelf

Perfectly Choreographed Ballet Novels

Ballet has always been an artform that demands perfection--every step on the stage of a ballet carefully choreographed and rehearsed, again and again, until impossible movements can be delivered with a kind of grace that make them feel not only fluid, but natural. This grueling repetition--and the demands on those who yearn for a professional career as a dancer--is the central turning point of Rachel Kapelke-Dale's debut novel, The Ballerinas (St. Martin's, $27.99). Here, Kapelke-Dale draws on her own intense experience for a fictional story of three young dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the most prestigious dance schools and companies in the world.

Much of The Ballerinas centers on the sacrifice the art of ballet requires of its dancers, and how it spills out of the studio and into the lives of these women; "taking our strength and making it pliable, supple, compliant." Megan Abbott explores similar questions of grace, power and womanhood on a much more local stage in The Turnout (Putnam, $27), moving from Kapelke-Dale's Parisian setting to a much smaller--yet just as rigid--American family-run ballet school in the kind of suspense novel we've come to expect from Abbott (You Will Know Me; Give Me Your Hand).

Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me (Vintage, $16) bridges these two locales in her story of a woman in California drawn slowly back into her past as a once-aspiring ballerina in Paris. What unfolds as the novel moves back and forth in time is a tale of coupling and uncoupling, one rife with themes similar to both The Ballerinas and The Turnout: What does it take to pursue a passion, and what happens when no sacrifice proves enough for an artform that requires nothing short of impossible perfection? --Kerry McHugh, freelance writer


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The Writer's Life

Oliver Milman: Creating a Buzz About Insects

photo: Lyndal Stewart

Oliver Milman is a British journalist and environment reporter at the Guardian who lives in New York City. His debut book, The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World (W.W. Norton, reviewed below), is an account of the environmental threat created by the plummeting insect population. He recently spoke with Shelf Awareness about his experiences writing his first book, why he felt called to write about this topic now, and his own literary inspirations.

Congratulations on your first book! Coming from a background of journalism, did you learn anything new about yourself as a writer while working in this longer format?

Thank you! Yes, I think I did, not least that I have a profound respect for authors, both fiction and nonfiction alike. Reporting out a punchy news piece, or even a longer narrative feature, is a very different beast to writing a complete book and the sheer endurance required was something I realized is rarely, if ever, demanded of me.

Maintaining the reader's interest while building out a set of facts and cogent arguments is important to both formats, I just had to work a lot harder to keep the whole thing coherent when writing the book. I've never written so many words for one piece of work. The fact checking alone was gargantuan.

What were some of the rewarding, and some of the challenging, parts about working on a full-length book?

As mentioned, taking on the scale of writing a book was an adjustment I had to make, but in many ways, it was a fun process. Journalism usually requires you to omit interesting elements because of the pressures of time, space  and focus, but with this book I was able to fully explore the topic and allow the component stories the proper room to breathe.

The research was laborious, but it was also fascinating--insects are incredible creatures, and I don't think you could ever run out of engrossing or bizarre things to find out about them. The people who study insects, too, are a great bunch to be around, often erudite, eccentric and fiercely opinionated. I wandered around in their world for a couple of years and had my eyes opened to a lot of things we take for granted.

A challenging aspect of the writing was simply the era we currently find ourselves in. If you could construct the polar opposite to a Zen writing retreat, my circumstances would be close to that--working on a book along with a full-time job in a small apartment containing two raucous young children and a neurotic dog, amid a pandemic. Somehow it all got done.

In your work as environment reporter for the Guardian, you've covered many ecological issues. What inspired you to devote a full-length book to the plight of insects? And why now?

If I were to guess what my first book would be about prior to this experience, I don't think I would've thought of insects. I've reported from places ranging from the Great Barrier Reef to the Alaskan Arctic; I've even clambered into a tiny submarine to get up close to an underwater volcano in Bermuda. Climate change is the dominant focus of my reporting, so perhaps something on that would've been the most logical extension.

But it became clear to me, through a few scientists getting increasingly agitated about the issue, that the decline of insects was becoming the silent yet existential crisis of our times. There was a huge flurry of research that came out around 2017 and 2018 that showed these jaw-dropping losses in insect numbers, with more recent studies only showing more horrors. I could see that no one had really tackled this topic before--there are plenty of books on how great insects are, but none on how they are in trouble. I felt this was the right time to raise the alarm.

In your book, you mention that "three out of every four known animal species on Earth are insects and yet, within their massed ranks, only butterflies are considered with anything close to affection." Have you always had an appreciation for insects?

Insects essentially hold aloft life on Earth and yet we tend to view them as either irritating or largely irrelevant. I have always had an interest in nature, I used to turn over logs to look at earwigs and ants as a child and kept a few beetles for a while. I have admired them even when they've been an annoyance--a few summers ago an army of ants marched through my apartment and nothing I did could stem their numbers.

Their organization, resilience and adaptability are incredible. It's just a catastrophic shame that we are pushing them beyond their bounds of tolerance.

What is one of the most surprising facts you discovered while researching this book?

So many facts it's hard to pick just one! I learned that bees could count and understand the concept of zero. They can also be taught to play football. A type of butterfly has an eye on its genitals. Another type of butterfly can somehow navigate and fly from Canada to central Mexico and survive. Cockroaches can survive for two weeks after being beheaded. Insects have been around since before the dinosaurs and will almost certainly be around, in some form, after humanity has departed this planet.

You feature many scientists and studies in this book. How long did it take to compile all of this information?

Research, interviews and travel spanned around a year. I had hundreds of pages of interviews with dozens of scientists, it was a big job to condense the best bits down into the chapters. I was fortunate, however, that I was able to do much of the travel prior to the pandemic hitting.

The Insect Crisis will be a great resource and call-to-action for our generation and for those to come. It is certain to inspire more work on the topic. What are some of the books about nature and conservation that have inspired you and will always have a treasured spot on your bookshelf?

I will always treasure classic environmental texts such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson and Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez but the breadth and ambition of nature writing has undoubtedly exploded in recent years.

I've always enjoyed Robert Macfarlane's writing, but Underland was just masterful; Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert is excellent; and the growing range of "cli-fi" books are rich with great writing--I'd say A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet is a highlight of the genre. --Grace Rajendran, freelance reviewer and literary events producer


Tundra Books (NY): Professor Goose Debunks Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Paulette Bourgeois, illustrated by Alex G. Griffiths


Book Candy

Diacritics Deciphered

Merriam-Webster featured "a guide to deciphering diacritics. You know, the markings above and below letters."

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"The books will keep you warm." CrimeReads offered a "celebration of small-town libraries and retro mysteries."

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"Take a sneak peek inside 'Harry Potter: The Exhibition' at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute," Mental Floss invited.

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Author C.A. Davids chose her "top 10 world-spanning novels" for the Guardian.

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"The code of Charles Dickens' shorthand has been cracked by computer programmers, solving a 160-year-old mystery." (via Open Culture)


Tyndale House Publishers: Long Way Home by Lynn Austin


Great Reads

Rediscover: Deep Water

On Friday, March 18, Hulu will release a film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1957 novel Deep Water, starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas as married couple Vic and Melinda Van Allen. The Van Allen marriage is loveless, and Melinda is allowed to pursue outside relationships in lieu of divorce. One of those past lovers was the victim of an unsolved murder. Vic jokingly takes credit for the crime, but his mounting jealousy soon leads to real killings. Melinda starts to suspect the worst and investigates Vic with the help of a local writer. The film also stars Tracy Letts, Rachel Blanchard, Lil Rel Howery, Kristen Connolly, Dash Mihok and Finn Wittrock. Deep Water is directed by Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Jacob's Ladder and Indecent Proposal), his first film since Unfaithful in 2002.

Deep Water was Highsmith's fifth novel, less well known than her other psychological thrillers Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). She also wrote The Price of Salt, a lesbian novel, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, which became the film Carol in 2015. Deep Water is available in paperback from W.W. Norton ($15.95). --Tobias Mutter


Book Review

Fiction

The Last Suspicious Holdout

by Ladee Hubbard


Ladee Hubbard (The Rib King) showcases the same brilliant, biting insight of her novels in an expert debut short story collection, The Last Suspicious Holdout. She builds an indelible Black community through 13 interlinked stories, mostly set in an unnamed "suburbia of the south." She assigns each story a year--from 1992 to 2007--marking 15 years during which certain characters evolve and too many others devolve.

It's 1992 in "Flip Lady," when a grieving mother considers "when exactly the good little boys standing on your back porch became the big bad men walking out your front door." One son is dead. Her surviving son reappears in "Trash," set in 2005 New Orleans, attempting to entertain new pale neighbors. In "Bitch: An Etymology of Family Values," 24-year-old Millicent Jones alerts her lover's wife that the law is finally about to arrest her "hooch and cooch"-addicted councilman husband. Five years later, Millie is servicing a backseat hook-up in "Five People Who Crave Sauce" to pay the bills that keep her grandmother safe. Two years later, in the titular story, Millicent has notably assumed the assistant directorship of the Leon Moore Center for Creative Unity, a community haven named after a wrongfully imprisoned dentist-turned-activist. Leon's brother Henry recurs in several stories as the proprietor of Henry's Bar (another local hangout of quite a different sort), introduced in "Henry" and dead in "Paulie Sparks."

Hubbard's characters are rash and wise, angry and empathic, ready to rage against the powerful, desperate for rest, fighting and losing and fighting again. A brilliant storyteller, Hubbard writes impeccably with candid observations and enthralling revelations. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Award-winning novelist Ladee Hubbard transfers her brilliant storytelling skills to produce a collection of 13 exceptional, intricately interlinked short stories.

Amistad, $24.99, hardcover, 224p., 9780062979094

Eleutheria

by Allegra Hyde


Eleutheria, Allegra Hyde's debut, is a classic story of utopian yearning and collapse, updated to incorporate present-day concerns about climate change and the erosion of democracy. The novel begins when Willa Marks sets foot on the island of Eleutheria, determined to join a kind of eco-centric utopian commune called Camp Hope. Led by Roy Adams--whose book Living the Solution had a powerful influence on Willa--Camp Hope is meant to provide a blueprint for confronting climate change and environmental degradation. The camp also satisfies Willa's desperate need for optimism, to combat deep emotional wounds that the novel spends much of its length sensitively exploring.

Eleutheria frequently delves into Willa's past, starting with her traumatic upbringing by a pair of conspiracy-theory addicts and half-hearted survivalists who raise her on visions of soon-to-arrive apocalypses. After their deaths, Willa tries to escape her grief, as well as her parents' doom-and-gloom predictions, by joining up with Boston's utopian-minded Freegans and beginning an odd but increasingly intense relationship with a Harvard professor. As Willa struggles through young adulthood, grim visions of the future begin to develop in the background. 

Hyde (Of This New World: A Story Collection) has many concerns--recurring chapters piece together the island's bloody colonial history, for example--but they are all anchored by the character of Willa Marks. Willa is a live wire, hurting and causing pain as young people often do. More alarming than Eleutheria's dark future might be how accurately it captures the sense of teetering between apocalypticism and hope, which seems as descriptive of the present as it is of an imagined future. --Hank Stephenson, the Sun magazine, manuscript reader

Discover: Eleutheria is a moving meditation on the promise and dangers of utopianism in a potential future plagued by climate change and authoritarianism.

Vintage, $17, paperback, 336p., 9780593315248

Mystery & Thriller

The Golden Couple

by Greer Hendricks, Sarah Pekkanen


Authors Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen paint an ominous portrait of a marriage on the rocks in The Golden Couple, their fourth in a collection of suspenseful thrillers featuring strong female protagonists and wickedly clever subplots. Set in Washington, D.C., the story centers on a psychoanalyst known for her unconventional methods and the enigmatic couple who are counting on her to repair their relationship.

Therapist Avery Chambers, recently widowed, lives near the National Zoo with her rescue dog, Romeo, in a house protected by multiple layers of security. A client's wife has reported her for violating the ethics rules that govern her profession; as a result, Avery has lost her license and isn't technically a therapist anymore, so she is no longer constrained by traditional psychotherapy methods.

Even without a license, Avery's reputation for successful results means her services are very much in demand. When clients Marissa and Matthew Bishop arrive for their first session, Avery makes note of their enviable glamour, affluence and good looks, dubbing them in her mind the "golden couple." But darkness brews behind their perfect façade, beginning with Marissa's confession of infidelity. It turns out that Marissa's affair is just the tip of the iceberg in a marriage in which nothing is as it seems.

Hendricks and Pekkanen (The Wife Between Us) expertly build narrative tension as layers of Marissa's and Matthew's true selves emerge and Avery's own story comes into clearer focus, including the reasons for her elaborate home security system. Whether or not Avery can help the Bishops hinges on the success of her highly controversial therapy style, which borders on illegal. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

Discover: The revelation of an affair sets a perfect couple's marriage off course in this propulsive thriller, featuring an unlicensed therapist and the secrets behind her unorthodox methods.

St. Martin's Press, $28.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781250273208

Romance

If You Ask Me

by Libby Hubscher


Violet Covington spends her life answering readers' queries with wise, witty advice in her popular newspaper column, Dear Sweetie. But right after she finds out her column is up for syndication, she arrives home to find her husband in bed with a neighbor. In If You Ask Me, the smart, warmhearted second novel from Libby Hubscher (Meet Me in Paradise), Violet (and Dear Sweetie) goes rogue while trying to handle situations that prove much more difficult off the page.

Raised to be a proper, polite Southern lady, with lipstick and perfectly sprayed hair as her armor, Violet nevertheless finds herself struggling to deal with her husband's betrayal and its implications for her life. An ill-advised bonfire brings her into contact with Dez, a firefighter who is new in town and seems almost too kind (and handsome) to be true. While Hubscher cooks up an engaging slow-burn romance, Violet's other relationships--with her mother, her colleagues and the friends who actually stick around--are equally realistic and sweet. Violet's boss and former college roommate, Kyra, strikes a healthy balance of compassion and tough love for her friend, while several other characters, including Violet's polished wedding-planner mother, are allowed to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Even Violet's husband, Sam, comes off as a human being rather than a cardboard cutout of a cheating partner.

If You Ask Me is a breezy, insightful and often laugh-out-loud funny story of a woman learning to confront life's messes, both the ones she inherits and the ones she chooses to make. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: In this endearing romantic comedy, advice columnist Violet Covington goes a bit rogue--and explores new love--after her marriage abruptly ends.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 368p., 9780593199442

Biography & Memoir

What's So Funny?: A Cartoonist's Memoir

by David Sipress


New Yorker contributor David Sipress's What's So Funny?: A Cartoonist's Memoir affords many pleasures, but chief among them may be this one: his fans will at long last understand his proclivity for drawing fretful and harried couples, disappointed and controlling parents and analysands on therapists' couches.

At several points in his memoir, Sipress recalls his mother asking, "You had a happy childhood, didn't you, David?" What's So Funny? is essentially her son's long-form answer, his cartoons positioned throughout to reinforce observations he makes in the text. Sipress, born in 1947, grew up in a Reform Jewish household on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the son of an immigrant father, Nat, who owned a jewelry shop patronized by celebrities. What appears to be the American dream realized is offset by Sipress's home life, which featured an unstable older sister who quarreled regularly with her mother and was boundlessly indulged by her father. As for his mother's parenting style, Estelle seems to have played some of the same notes that sound in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.

What's So Funny? is primarily about Nat and Estelle and the unusual place that Jews occupied in mid-century America, but it also offers a look at the artist's life. "I draw and write about what makes me mad, what I think is stupid, what confuses me, frustrates me, worries me, and above all, what makes me anxious," explains Sipress regarding his approach to cartooning. This matches his approach to writing this witty and alternatively dolorous and winsome memoir. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: This droll, emotionally bare memoir by the longtime New Yorker cartoonist is a master class in how artists can use their personal lives to fortify their work.

Mariner, $27.99, hardcover, 336p., 9780358659099

To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard

by Tamar Haspel


Brimming with hilarious gardening anecdotes, To Boldly Grow by Tamar Haspel is an inspirational account of the author's improbable transformation from a city-dweller leading a life of the mind into an avid country gardener who built her own chicken coop, happy to roll up her sleeves and get dirty in pursuit of food-growing exploits. It is a metamorphosis filled with adventure, comedy and not a little drama that all began when Haspel challenged herself to consume at least one food item every day that she and her husband, Kevin, hunted or fished, gathered or grew themselves.

Haspel writes the James Beard Award-winning Washington Post column UnearthedHaving spent her career writing about what other people did with food, she decided 12 years ago to unleash her own "inner doer" after she and Kevin, a commodities trader with gardening experience, left Manhattan for a "shack on a lake" on Cape Cod. She planted kale, eggplants, cucumbers and tomatoes that tasted more delicious by virtue of being homegrown, and foraged for food, which led to raising chickens, ice fishing and hunting for venison.

As much as Haspel makes a compelling case for embracing one's inner hunter-gatherer, To Boldly Grow is also an intriguing glimpse into a successful marriage between two individuals with vastly different skills and the creative ways in which they tap into each other's strengths. Serving as a detailed six-part guide for readers who are considering food-gathering pursuits of their own and are curious about what it entails, Haspel's debut features all of the brilliant wit and lively storytelling that have made her a popular food and science writer. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

Discover: In this entertaining and practical guide to homegrown food, a journalist discovers the joys of gardening, keeping chickens and ice fishing after moving to Cape Cod from Manhattan.

Putnam, $26, hardcover, 272p., 9780593419533

Special Characters: My Adventures with Tech's Titans and Misfits

by Laurie Segall


Anyone eager for a glimpse inside the worlds of technology and network television journalism will enjoy Laurie Segall's candid and engaging memoir, Special Characters: My Adventures with Tech's Titans and Misfits. Segall's energetic chronicle of her rise from an entry-level position at CNN to the network's senior tech correspondent is both an engrossing coming-of-age story and a revealing cautionary tale of the power Silicon Valley wields over modern life.

When Segall arrived at CNN in 2008, fresh out of college, she embarked on a job whose duties included routine tasks like rolling the teleprompter for anchors. But by 2010, she was interviewing Silicon Valley heavyweights like Twitter/Square's Jack Dorsey and soon understood that social media sites like his "weren't just changing our social culture; they were transforming how the media did their job." But the luster of encounters with technology's celebrities soon wore off and, in some of the book's more interesting chapters, Segall describes how her perspective evolved on the relationship between technology and the lives of ordinary people. That process culminated in the creation of CNN's first-ever streaming show, Mostly Human.

After a decade at CNN, Segall made the difficult--but necessary for her--decision to leave. In December 2019, she started Dot Dot Dot Media, a company self-described on its website as "focused on creating content that explores the complicated intersection of technology and humanity." Whatever she decides to do, with the talent she's displayed thus far in her career, it would be a serious mistake to bet against her. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: Former CNN correspondent Laurie Segall describes the exciting first decade of her career in the world of technology journalism.

Dey Street, $27.99, hardcover, 368p., 9780063016446

History

The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, & Mutiny in the South Pacific

by Brandon Presser


The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, & Mutiny in the South Pacific uncovers the almost unbelievable true story of Pitcairn Island, while taking readers on an exciting journey to one of the most remote communities in the world. The 18th-century mutiny on the HMS Bounty has been endlessly mythologized, but Brandon Presser brings to light what happened after the mutiny, when the mutineers and their Polynesian companions founded a colony on tiny Pitcairn Island. The Far Land is also a travel narrative, following Presser's time on modern-day Pitcairn, a community with 48 residents that can be reached only by a cargo ship that visits four times a year. Presser excels at depicting the strangeness of life on the edge of the world, but his novelistic account of what happened to the original colonists is stranger and bloodier--and unforgettable in its shocking details.

The Far Land is interested in the darkness underlying a seeming paradise, the all-too-human motives and petty grievances that undermined the mutineers' attempt at utopia. Lord of the Flies pales in comparison to the violence that followed, a horrifying sequence of events that whittled the island's adult male population down to one. The descendants of the mutineers living on Pitcairn have their own dark secrets, including a legacy of sexual assault that implicates a large percentage of the island's tiny population. The Far Land poses fascinating questions about the legacy of grim deeds and what it means to leave in the shadow of terrible violence. --Hank Stephenson, the Sun magazine, manuscript reader

Discover: The Far Land is part history and part travelogue, bringing to light the bizarre history of a tiny island community on the edge of the known world.

PublicAffairs, $30, hardcover, 352p., 9781541758575

Social Science

The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and Our Place in the Middle

by Sarah Krasnostein


Sarah Krasnostein, author of the acclaimed biography The Trauma Cleaner, opens her second book, The Believer, with a curious thesis on distance, specifically on how "the stories we tell ourselves to deal with the distance between the world as it is and as we'd like it to be can stunt us or save us." Through that needle's eye she threads an unprecedented array of eclectic interviews with ghost hunters, creation scientists, death doulas, Mennonites, UFOlogists and a woman convicted of murder, as deep curiosity drives Krasnostein to embroider an elaborate study of that great unknown.

The Believer is a contemplative labyrinth that circles a core of unexplainable dark matter--most often death but also profound instances of alienation. In one particularly moving passage, a Mennonite man bristles against the borders of his upbringing, one that has cast him short of the connections he wants to make with people unlike himself--not explicitly to convert or be converted, but rather as a more engaged form of coexisting on this terrestrial plane. All the while, Krasnostein holds her subjects with tenderness. They entrust to her their questions that have never received satisfying answers, the emotional and psychological voids they have worked to fill themselves, left with their beliefs as their only mode of belonging. And although many of the world views presented don't align with her own, Krasnostein models consummate empathy with a humility to suggest that she knows that she doesn't know everything.

Brimming with poetic hope and rooted in negative capability, The Believer is an outstanding treatise on human relationships, with one another and the unexplained. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: One writer's persistent curiosity about the unknown leads her through an uncanny cross-section of subcultures on a journey toward profound understanding.

Tin House, $27.95, hardcover, 360p., 9781953534002

Nature & Environment

The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World

by Oliver Milman


"For the majority of humanity, the loss of insects would be an agonizing ordeal eclipsing any war and even rivaling the looming ravages of climate breakdown." If these words from British journalist Oliver Milman's timely debut book, The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World, make the situation sound dire, that's because he wants readers to know that it is.

As an environment reporter at the Guardian, Milman has covered many distressing conservation issues. He felt compelled to write The Insect Crisis as he saw, more and more, the alarms that were being raised in the scientific community about this particular environmental catastrophe.

Through Millman's thorough research--compiling data and interviewing scientists--a frightening scenario comes to life, showcasing "evidence of the most significant disappearance of creatures since woolly mammoths were cleared from the continent 10,000 years ago." In nine easy-to-read and accessible chapters, Milman discusses several topics, including the role of pesticides in creating this crisis, the importance of honeybees in agriculture and the extreme stress that humans place on insects' delicate ecosystem.

The Insect Crisis is both a celebration of the rich diversity of insect life as well as an urgent call to action, designed to rouse the world from its denial and apathy. The abundance of research will bring to readers' attention not only the plight of insects, but also how intertwined humanity's survival is with theirs. Milman wants readers to know that, when it comes to insects, "we need them far more than they need us." --Grace Rajendran, freelance reviewer and literary events producer

Discover: The environment correspondent for the Guardian delivers a gripping and fact-filled examination of an impending insect mass extinction.

W.W. Norton, $27.95, hardcover, 272p., 9781324006596

Children's & Young Adult

Those Kids from Fawn Creek

by Erin Entrada Kelly


An outsider inspires 12 kids from a sleepy Louisiana town to see their inner strengths and share their best with each other in Erin Entrada Kelly's heartfelt and inspirational Those Kids from Fawn Creek.

Orchid Mason floats into humid and changeless Fawn Creek like a mysterious breeze, immediately changing the dynamic in the 12-person class led by Mr. Agosto ("who was born in Venezuela and was the only non-white face in almost every room"). Her worldliness is intriguing to the titular classmates whose families have lived in "Yawn Creek" for generations. Orchid quickly befriends longtime pals Greyson and Dorothy but drifts easily among the small town's 10 other seventh-graders without concern for existing hierarchies or social dynamics. "Those kids from Fawn Creek" may share the collective identity of a community, but Orchid's influence highlights their distinctive and evolving personalities in a way that surprises both the children and their lifelong companions. Snippy and self-assured Janie cannot cotton to the newcomer, though, and plots with an even crueler friend from the next town to expose Orchid's secrets.

Newbery Award-winner Kelly delivers another poignant and pitch-perfect middle-grade novel and lays bare quiet truths and universal childhood experiences with tremendous emotional resonance. Kelly (Hello, Universe; Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey) reprises some familiar roles but her fully realized characters read as fresh and consummately sympathetic. A third-person narration with a familiar tone uses shifts in voice to convey subtleties of the children's personalities, while the book's demarcations of time--week by week until a climactic incident, then day by day--maintain the energetic pace. This powerful and thought-provoking story champions acceptance and serves as a bittersweet reminder to see the beauty in oneself as well as others. --Kit Ballenger, youth librarian, Help Your Shelf

Discover: A newcomer shifts dynamics for a dozen seventh graders from a sleepy Louisiana town in this stirring and hopeful middle-grade tale of loneliness and reinvention from a Newbery-winning author.

Greenwillow Books, $17.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 8-12, 9780062970350

Big Dreams, Small Fish

by Paula Cohen


A plucky girl puts grand plans into play when left to manage her family's store in the late Paula Cohen's spirited and venerating picture book Big Dreams, Small Fish.

Young Shirley has all sorts of ideas for how to improve her family's new store. Mama and Papa think she's underfoot, though, and dismiss her as "too little to help." Shirley's lucky break comes when the adults rush off and leave the store and Shirley under the inattentive care of sleepy Mrs. Gottlieb. As she runs the shop, inventive Shirley tucks a sample of her mother's delicious (but slow selling) gefilte fish into customers' shopping bags: "Later that evening, each neighbor found a surprise." Her furious family is placated when the customers return, clamoring "for the new neighborhood delicacy: gefilte fish," and earning Shirley her spot in the family business.

Cohen delivers a humorous picture book debut that celebrates an optimistic and determined immigrant family. Gefilte fish, a staple of Jewish cuisine made from ground fish and matzoh meal, is fully explained in backmatter that includes a recipe from New York City's Russ & Daughters deli. Conversational text, peppered with Yiddish, is succinct, and occasionally travels along with Shirley and her energetic movements. Cohen's spunky, rosy-cheeked protagonist and the shop are digitally rendered in a blue-toned palette with lively black lines reminiscent of the work of David Small.

This playful story delivers an important underlying message likely to resonate with spirited and resourceful young readers. Pass the horseradish! --Kit Ballenger, youth librarian, Help Your Shelf

Discover: An ingenious girl introduces shoppers to a surprising delicacy and earns herself a spot at her family's store in an optimistic and playful picture book celebrating a Jewish immigration experience.

Levine Querido, $17.99, hardcover, ages 4-7, 9781646141265

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