Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, August 21, 2020


Workman Publishing: Back-to-School Help is Here with Brain Quest, America's #1 Educational Bestseller!

From My Shelf

Ballantine Books: The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: Spindlefish and Stars by Christiane M Andrews

Calkins Creek Books: The Teachers March!: How Selma's Teachers Changed History by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace, illustrated by Charly Palmer

Right on Time

Margaret Owen

They say the expression "May you live in interesting times" is not so much a blessing as a curse. For your consideration, I'd like to offer an authorial equivalent: "May your book be timely."

Launching a book can be a cause of hair loss in the best of times; releasing the end of a series can be even more stressful than that. Now imagine your book is set against an outbreak of a deadly plague that is first downplayed by an opulent demagogue, then weaponized against historically oppressed people through misinformation as the persecuted are pushing for massive institutional change.

As you may have guessed, this has led to some very interesting interview questions. Usually we're splitting the difference between, "When did you say you wrote this?" (mostly August 2018) and, "Okay, now tell me the winning lotto numbers." (I cannot.) What I can tell you is this: The Merciful Crow was written, for the most part, prior to the 2016 election. The Faithless Hawk was plotted out and written after. I've always known how the story ends, but as for how we got there...?

Well, if we've learned anything, it's that the mechanics of greed and cruelty are terribly predictable. It didn't take a crystal ball to envision how a selfish, incompetent leader would respond to a pandemic. Rather, it's the same pattern we've seen for nearly every crisis handled by the latest wannabe autocrat: deny, mishandle, lie and, finally, weaponize.

That said... for my next trick, perhaps I'll write about health-care reform. --Margaret Owen

Owen is the author of the Merciful Crow duology. The final installment, The Faithless Hawk, is now available from Holt Books for Young Readers.


Simon & Schuster: Unicorns Are the Worst! by Alex Willan


Book Candy

Ray Bradbury Read-a-Thon

William Shatner, Susan Orlean, Neil Gaiman and many more will take part in a Read-a-Thon of Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451 tomorrow, Saturday, August 22, which would have been the author's 100th birthday. The event begins at 4:30 p.m., Eastern, and will be available online through September 5.

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Have your read Thomas Love Peacock's Headlong Hall? The BBC explored "the best early novels you've never heard of."

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Drah s'taht! "Minnesota woman sets the Guinness World Record for most words spelled backwards in one minute," Laughing Squid reported.

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"Winston Churchill praises the virtue of 'brevity' in memos to his staff." (via Open Culture)

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Pop quiz: "Can you match the Marvel character's name to the non-comic book definition?" (via Mental Floss)


Walrus Publishing: Campaigning Can Be Deadly, Volume 2 by Charlotte Stuart


The Writer's Life

Lynn Steger Strong: Women Who Want

photo: Nina Subin

Lynn Steger Strong teaches writing at Columbia University and Pratt Institute. Her first novel, Hold Still, was published by W.W. Norton in 2016. Her nonfiction has appeared in Guernica, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Elle.com, Catapult, Lit Hub and others. In her second novel, Want (Holt), she peels back the layers of one woman's life as a mother, teacher, wife, friend and daughter, set against the backdrop of her family's financial ruin. Strong was born and raised in Florida, and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The publisher's blurb for Want talks about the "subtle violences enacted on a certain type of woman when she dares to want things--and all the various violences in which she implicates herself as she tries to survive."

The word "violent" in particular was my language, which we then went back and forth about before agreeing to keep in the description of the book. My concept of the word "violence" is layered, and, like the book, I'm interested in the gradations of experience that fit inside of it. There's violence in naming, for instance: if I say I'm "mom," all the other parts of me that might not fit inside of people's concept of the word "mom" might be blotted out to make it fit. But also, someone is murdered in the novel, which is a wholly different type of violence. I think much of the book's project is to think about how both these things can live inside the same word, even as they are so vastly different.

I'm pretty endlessly interested in the ways that we think about and experience words and ideas differently depending on who and where we are. So, for a woman like my main character, a slight from her husband might feel violent, an aggressive act from a boss or a colleague; she might accidentally slight or not see or understand her students or her colleagues in ways that, she might only later realize, was a type of violence; at the same time, for other people in the novel, violence might be more concrete or consequential. Two words I thought a lot about in conversation with violence were victim and perpetrator, and how I didn't want any character to be clearly one or the other of those things in the book. In that sense, it was important to me that the main character enacts as many violences as are enacted upon her.

The word "want" appears more than 200 times in the text of your aptly titled novel. It's a word with many nuanced definitions; how do you see those definitions as they relate to Elizabeth and her family's experiences?

I love that you counted! One of my thoughts about that single word being the title is that, similar to what I said above, I want you to sort of hold these words in your hands and see how they turn and churn and stretch as the novel progresses. Elizabeth wants things that she was told that she could have but only recently has realized that she can't have. She is embarrassed and ashamed by both what she has and what she wants and cannot get--in all the ways she feels implicated both in terms of her not getting, but also in terms of what now feels like the absurd overreach of all her want. There are other people in her life who have more, but who want in other ways: the woman she meets who can't get pregnant, the Chilean Writer, who wants to right a wrong that it's too late to right. Then there are people in the novel whose relationship to want is different, who weren't ever promised such obscene comfort as Elizabeth was promised, so their relationship to want and need is vastly different.

There seems to be a lot of power in Elizabeth defining for herself what she wants, versus accepting what others want for her, or told her to want. It's tempting to say that's a theme that feels more and more present in contemporary fiction about women. But as both a writer and a teacher of writing, do you feel that's something new, or a continuation of an age-old tradition in fiction?

There's a sort of ever-present adage among writing teachers (including me) to ask students to consider what their characters want and what they are afraid of. These are meant to function as the two, sometimes conflicting, tensions and engines for the narratives we build. For example: the narrator wants this person who is not his wife, but is afraid of the retribution it would cause, so then we build a book around those conflicting impulses.

I think, for so much of the time that the canon was being constructed, the people who were able to write fiction--mostly wealthy white men--were the same people whose wants and fears were regularly considered and acknowledged in their daily lives. To me, an interesting thing about fiction built by women, and really any fiction built by people with less power than wealthy white men is that there have historically been many more contingencies in place before these individuals were allowed to want. For instance, for many of the female characters we see in fiction, they have to first be attractive objects--to be wanted--before they might be given enough space and time to want. I think the project of fiction being less about the characters' wants but more about whether they are even allowed to want, less about the characters' fears, and more about whether anyone cares, is continually fascinating to me. Not least because the form of fiction that grapples with these ideas inevitably demands that the construction itself shift. It forces us to read more widely, because the models we are often offered have never had to grapple with these realities.

Though Want is set in a pre-Covid time, much of the novel focuses on the almost indescribable feelings of angst and anxiety that come with having one's life shift suddenly and unexpectedly, having the ground come out beneath you, in a way. How do you think readers will respond to those emotions now that the world has collectively felt the ground shift?

I think we have long lived in a world where, for many people, the ground could at any moment shift beneath their feet. I am mostly only devastated by the fact that that is true for more people at our present moment, and that, for those for whom it has long been true, that ground has largely disappeared. Insofar as my book was not only about trying to make evident how prevalent this feeling was (if, after all, a privileged highly educated white lady had access to this feeling, I wanted the reader to imagine all the ways so many lives are so much more precarious) but also, it was an attempt to try to have less shame around this feeling: I do not think most people's precarity is a result of "bad" or "good" choices so much as I think they are about broken systems, inadequate avenues for opportunity, nefarious narratives about "individual responsibility." In that vein, I hope that this book might function, for those who have been newly introduced to these realities, as a way to feel less shame for having suddenly lost the ground beneath them; that they might instead feel a desire to work together to fight against all the various systemic failures that have brought us to this point. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm


Johns Hopkins University Press: The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Science, Deception, and the War on Vaccines by Brian Deer


Book Review

Fiction

The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story

by Darin Strauss


The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story is Darin Strauss's richly imagined riff on the I Love Lucy star's love life. While there's much to recommend the novel, devoted fans of the beloved television icon who prefer to think of Ball as sexually indifferent should really consider skipping it.

In Strauss's telling, a pre-fame Lucille indulges a kiss with a man at a party on the beach at Coney Island in 1949. The man she kisses is Isidore Strauss, a married property developer from Long Island. This is Lucille's first indiscretion in almost 10 years of marriage to Desi Arnaz, but it's nothing up against Arnaz's numberless extramarital dalliances. A year later, CBS has doubts that America will buy a sitcom centered on the marriage of a white woman and a Cuban man, so Lucille and Desi traipse around the country doing a vaudeville-style revue to prove that audiences will accept them as a couple. Isidore takes his wife to see the show and tells her afterward that he's going to the restroom. Instead he looks for Lucille backstage.

As Lucille's star rises, she continues to think about Isidore. Likewise, she is on Isidore's mind during his professional ascent, which he's having trouble enjoying.

Strauss, the author of three previous novels and the memoir Half a Life, balances Lucille's and Isidore's points of view, but inevitably, The Queen of Tuesday seems to revert to black-and-white whenever it toggles away from her. Still, the narrative, inflected with aspects of Strauss's own family history, is canny, and the writing, while at times overcooked, is neverendingly fresh. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: This fictional portrait of Lucille Ball's love life, which imagines her having an affair with a Long Island property developer, is heady, inventive and occasionally obscene.

Random House, $27, hardcover, 336p., 9780812992762

Viking: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd


The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals

by Becky Mandelbaum


Becky Mandelbaum's debut novel, The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, is a fabulous entry to long form after her stunning and multi-prize-winning story collection, Bad Kansas. Mona Siskin kicks off a long-coming reckoning when she steals the Fuller brothers' pro-Trump sign. Soon after, Mona's estranged daughter, Ariel, reads a headline that knocks her cold--"Fire at Animal Sanctuary Ruled Arson." Antisemitic messages were also left on buildings and on Lady Madonna the pig. The suspect, Sydney Fuller, was Ariel's only friend growing up, the lone ally she unintentionally betrayed.

Worse is the news Mona has to sell the Bright Side, the sanctuary where Ariel was raised and that cost her family so much. Her father left one day without a word. Her mother, so busy caring for the animals, made Ariel feel more like hired help than a daughter. Six years earlier, Ariel also silently snuck away, to attend college against her mother's wishes. She left her home, the animals and her first love, Mona's ranch hand Gideon.

Insightful and cuttingly funny, Mandelbaum has a grand knack for character depth and point of view. The author handles rudderless Ariel's return to a marvelously complex mother masterfully; she doles out each woman's unspoken emotional history and trauma with precision and affection. Trailed by her hapless fiancé, Dex, Ariel also has to face Gideon and his girlfriend, Joy, both steady ships in the storm. The Bright Side is a thorny family drama filled with edgy humor and snappy prose, with love and dogs at its heart. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: A conflicted young woman must return home and face her past when her mother's animal sanctuary is in jeopardy.

Simon & Schuster, $26, hardcover, 336p., 9781982112981

Dial Books: Kitties on Dinosaurs by Michael Slack


The Shame

by Makenna Goodman


The Shame, Makenna Goodman's brooding debut novel, gives voice to a woman who has left the bustle and consumerism of city life to live off the land and nurture her children--and hates it. Her story is one idealized in many other books (think Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), but her experience doesn't mirror those myths. Despite her supposedly idyllic Vermont country life, Alma's isolated navel-gazing leads her to a desolate place emotionally:

"Yes, I felt invisible. I didn't have anything to show for myself except my kids, and the older they got, the more themselves they became, while I grew more and more servile, adhering always to their changing needs.... I was worried I'd have nothing to say."

In the hours she steals for herself late at night, she begins to write. She finds inspiration in Celeste, a social media personality living in New York City with a seemingly environmentally friendly, culturally rich life complete with young children and fulfilling work. Soon, Alma is obsessed.

The Shame is told entirely in deep first-person perspective, sinking readers into Alma's small joys and the well of her increasingly dark introspection. Yes, Goodman is telling a story of an escape-to-the-country gone wrong and of Alma's harmful fascination with the entirely cultivated perfect life of a stranger, but perhaps the message here is that one truly can spend too much time in their own head. Alma's self-indulgence and privileged frustration are oddly reassuring at times. Readers will be able to see themselves in her flaws, her good intentions and the spaces in between. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels

Discover: This is the brooding story of a mother torn between the realities of the isolated rural life she's made with her family and the fulfilling life she thought she'd have.

Milkweed Editions, $15, paperback, 160p., 9781571311368

Main Street Publishing: Temple of Eternity by R Scott Boyer


Etiquette for Runaways

by Liza Nash Taylor


A young woman with a secret in her past turns the need to flee into a chance at the adventure that she longs for in this delightful beach read with an edge. Expelled from college, May Marshall has been assisting with her father's moonshine operation and planning how she can find a job at a dressmaker's shop in Washington, D.C., when her father is suddenly arrested. Needing to lay low until his trial, May travels to New York City with the dream of becoming a costume designer, like her absent mother. There she discovers a glittering world of jazz with a dark underside of drug addiction.

Etiquette for Runaways marks a debut for Liza Nash Taylor that shows a remarkable ability to weave together multiple sources of inspiration into an entertaining whole. Taylor draws on stories from several centuries (listed in her author's note), but they come seamlessly together in the world of 1924 that May inhabits--fully integrated clubs but also segregated businesses where her African American friends and coworkers will be turned away or directed to the service elevator.

What could have been a perfectly fun mental palate cleanser takes on another level as May wrestles with the secret that sent her home from school, and succumbs to the temptation of cocaine. Yet, the darker side of the story never becomes oppressive. Readers will find themselves swept along with May as easily as if her adventures were all about diamonds and fur coats. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: This tale of a Jazz Age antiheroine discovering the beautiful and seamy sides of big city life makes for a delicious cocktail that burns a little.

Blackstone, $27.99, hardcover, 9781982603946

Mystery & Thriller

Shadows in Time

by Julie McElwain


Readers of Regency romances or historical thrillers are sure to enjoy the Kendra Donovan series by Julie McElwain (A Twist in Time). Shadows in Time, the fifth entry, finds the misplaced FBI agent still navigating the tricky details of 19th-century high society. Kendra has a chance encounter with Mrs. Gavenston, a brewster--an extremely rare achievement for a woman in Regency England. She's worried because Mr. Pascoe, her brewery's business manager, has been missing for several days.

At Mrs. Gavenston's request, Kendra begins to investigate, and unfortunately finds Pascoe's corpse. Using the skills she honed in the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit before she somehow tumbled back in time, Kendra and several of her noble friends query Pascoe's friends and family.

Meanwhile, the missing daughter of Kendra's patron, the Duke of Aldridge, mysteriously reappears after 20 years. The duke longs to believe that this "Carlotta" is indeed his daughter, Charlotte, who was lost at sea, but Kendra is suspicious. Distracted by Carlotta's growing influence over the Duke, can Kendra find both a killer and the truth about Carlotta before it's too late?

Fast-paced and fascinating, with its blend of historical details and FBI techniques, Shadows in Time is not to be missed. Kendra's pugnacious attitude has been softened by her stay in the past, as she attempts to find her role in a society that wants women to be merely decorative. Shadows in Time may easily be read as a standalone, although its irresistible blend of mystery, time travel and romance is sure to spur readers to hunt down the first four books in the series. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: In this fascinating mystery, a time-traveling FBI agent investigates a death in Regency England.

Pegasus Books, $25.95, hardcover, 384p., 9781643134741

Science Fiction & Fantasy

A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom

by John Boyne


The life of a man spans millennia in this ambitious novel from master storyteller John Boyne (The Heart's Invisible Furies).

The story begins with the unnamed narrator's birth in Palestine in the year AD 1. Upon returning from murdering newborn boys in service to King Herod, his father leaves a trace of blood on his infant son, creating a narrative of a life lived for centuries: "I've always wondered whether some residue of his crimes remained indelibly upon my soul, a tattoo invisible to all but the eyes of the gods." Next, it's AD 41 in Turkey, and while the names and some details have changed, the essence of the narrative remains the same. In AD 260, his family are wealthy slave owners in Somalia; in South Korea AD 311, they were the enslaved. And so it goes, to all corners of the world over the last 2,000 years, and a final appearance in the year 2080, living among the stars.  

And what an extraordinary life he leads. He is an accomplished artist and craftsman, whether as the finest dressmaker to the Huns or carving Buddhas as a stoneworker in Afghanistan. He is Lady Macbeth's plaything; a sailmaker for the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria; Michelangelo's apprentice; Ned Kelly's confidant. Yet no matter his station, his life is marked by loss and violence, consumed with revenge against a cousin responsible for the death of his wife and child.

In less assured hands, 50 transitions across time and place would be confusing to follow, or a tiresome gimmick. But with John Boyne at the helm, A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom is seamless. --Frank Brasile, librarian

Discover: A man's remarkable life unfolds over the course of 2,000 years in this intricate, visionary novel.

Hogarth, $28, hardcover, 480p., 9780593230152

Romance

You Had Me at Hola

by Alexis Daria


Alexis Daria's You Had Me at Hola pairs a soap opera star and a telenovela star in a frothy, steamy romance full of family, drama and fun.

A strong romance is filled with tension--the issues that keep the protagonists apart--and Daria sets up several believable conflicts here. Back in New York City from Los Angeles to film Carmen in Charge, Jasmine has to reckon with her close-knit Puerto Rican immigrant family, who want her to focus on marriage and children, dismissing her career even as she earns industry acclaim. After her latest breakup has once again landed her in gossip magazines, a fed-up Jasmine and her cousins develop a Leading Lady Plan to move forward in her career--without the drama.

Ashton has avoided gossip ever since a stalker broke into his house, going so far as to leave his son primarily in his father's care in Puerto Rico. He flies home as frequently as possible, but he worries about the dangers of fame, even as he hopes to break out of telenovelas. A relationship with someone hounded by gossip reporters is not ideal.

As Jasmine tries not to fall in love yet again, Ashton tries to keep his private life private and the relationship between them heats up on- and off-set. How will they achieve their career goals despite an irresistible connection that could upend everything?

Daria builds the drama with dual narration from characters as kind as they are ambitious. Readers will want their happily ever after as desperately as Jasmine and Ashton do. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels

Discover: Readers searching for a romance that captures the passion and tension of a telenovela--albeit with fewer evil twin plots--will fall in love with Alexis Daria's You Had Me at Hola.

Avon, $15.99, paperback, 384p., 9780062959928

Graphic Books

Menopause: A Comic Treatment

by M.K. Czerwiec, editor


The cartoons in Menopause: A Comic Treatment depict what is generally considered an unbecoming, if not humiliating, life event. This collection, edited by M.K. Czerwiec, joins the Graphic Medicine Series (Escaping Wars and Waves) in treating a complex topic with candor and creativity. Twenty-five comics represent diverse women and their experiences, in drawing styles as distinctive as the artists.

"Comic Nurse" Czerwiec asked cartoonists "who are going through menopause, or who have already been through it, to make comics about their experiences and how they coped." In "Menopositive," the acclaimed Lynda Barry's wildly lined drawings show her in childhood listening, unnoticed, as her mother and aunt talk about "the change." Barry addresses the invisibility that often cloaks older women, saying, "The change for me is some kind of shift of focus, that capacity I had to just be somewhere when I was a kid.... It has come back." Sexuality is, unsurprisingly, the subject of many of the comics. "Climactic Calamity" by Rachael House is a wry anecdote of a doctor visit where "two words you never want to hear your doctor say--vaginal atrophy" is remembered in bold, primarily red drawings.

Czerwiec selects stories that encourage women to "find our voices rather than remain silent, to invite us into strength rather than push us further into shame." This book reveals a community of women reacting to aging with insight and humor. This will be the perfect gift for women approaching, or in, the stage of life called menopause. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: This collection of cartoons by 25 diverse artists offers candid stories that illustrate and honor the experience of menopause.

Penn State University Press, $29.95, hardcover, 144p., 9780271087122

Biography & Memoir

Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger: A Memoir

by Lisa Donovan


In her Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Lisa Donovan catalogues the bumpy, difficult path she took in her career: "a steep, uphill climb, with a baby on my hip, and then two, and an early-onset high expectation for my life that I was not willing to forsake."

One part career story, one part food memoir and one part personal reckoning, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger is so much more than the expected juicy details about life in the fast-paced, demanding kitchens of Sean Brock's Husk in Charleston and Nashville's City House. While Donovan speaks to the role that baking played in saving her life, both literally (providing a career path by which she could provide for her family) and figuratively (giving her hands something to do as she processed abuse, sexual assault and familial relationships over the years), the heart of her work is in her grappling with her story of herself: her womanhood, her motherhood, her family legacy, her race, her place in the South. She recounts the sacrifices she made in the name of her career, only to realize she wasn't willing to make them. She weaves her story together with an excoriating analysis of toxic masculinity and the legacies of white privilege to great effect, celebrating the power of food while examining the ways that the food industry has subverted the very notion of community it claims to celebrate.

Like Donovan's famous desserts, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger takes simple ingredients--a woman's life, a journey into motherhood, a romance, a family legacy--and transforms them into something delectable, delicious and downright inspiring. --Kerry McHugh, freelance writer

Discover: A James Beard Award-winning pastry chef recounts her path into--and out of--the food industry, and all it taught her along the way about being a mother, a friend, a wife and a woman.

Penguin Press, $28, hardcover, 304p., 9780525560944

The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist

by Avi Steinberg


Following a divorce, Avi Steinberg (Running the Books) enters the realm of the romance novel, hoping to learn how to write a few commercially successful books and, perhaps more importantly, to solve his own real-life romantic challenges. In his quest, Steinberg hangs out with readers, authors, publishers and cover model CJ Hollenbach (so much more than "Ohio's Response to Fabio"), attends conferences, joins a writing group and eventually lands a multibook contract under the pen name Dana Becker. These adventures he documents in The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist.

Part personal memoir, part travelogue and part social and literary criticism, The Happily Ever After questions the societal tendency to look down on romance novels (and to apologize for reading them); examines romance's domination of the commercial book market; reconsiders classics and the author's own life through a romance lens; and explores the numerous subgenres of this much-loved and much-reviled field. Steinberg makes observations about gender roles and identities not only within romance novels but throughout American society. "The sentimental tropes of romance are so deeply embedded in our culture, we take them for granted," making his comments relevant for everyone.

By no means is this memoir just for fans of the romance genre, although those readers will of course be tickled by his appreciative study. Steinberg's personal story will suit any reader curious about the book industry, or who simply appreciates quirky personalities. Aspiring writers may find tips and tricks of special interest, but this is no how-to; rather, it's an endearingly candid exploration of books, subculture and love itself. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A romantically challenged writer treats the romance novel as career aspiration and life coach, with endearing and revealing results.

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.95, hardcover, 272p., 9780385540254

Children's & Young Adult

Ikenga

by Nnedi Okorafor


Hugo and Nebula Award winner Nnedi Okorafor (Binti; Binti: Home) seamlessly blends southeast Nigerian culture, fantasy elements and contemporary themes in her first middle-grade novel, Ikenga.

After 12-year-old Nnamdi's father, the police chief of a southeastern Nigerian town, is murdered, Nnamdi feels hopeless and angry--if only Nnamdi could be more like his favorite superhero, the Incredible Hulk, so he could "dive into danger when it was at its worst and win." On the one-year anniversary of his father's death, Nnamdi is visited by his father's spirit, who gives him an "Ikenga." The ebony figure ("a place of strength" in Igbo) can be used as a guiding force only if Nnamdi stays focused on the tasks at hand. With the Ikenga, Nnamdi becomes the Man: "tall like an iroko tree... very strong" and "black-skinned, as if he were stitched from the night." The Man thwarts criminals, but Nnamdi's minimal control over his powers soon has the townspeople seeing the Man as a violent vigilante. With the help of best friend Chioma, Nnamdi learns to manage his anger so he can use the power of the Ikenga for good.

Corruption and power are prevalent themes throughout Ikenga. Okorafor makes these topics accessible to middle-grade readers by showing them through the eyes of a kid superhero and his sidekick. Nnamdi not only ticks off every box on a classic superhero's profile, he's also a sympathetic, vulnerable person who seeks justice but struggles with how to achieve it. "Outspoken, upbeat, and playful" Chioma is the perfect balance to Nnamdi--her friendship, with its ups and downs, compels Nnamdi's transformative journey to keep anger from ruling his life.

With its enduring themes, charismatic characters and exhilarating events, Ikenga powerfully shows spiritual and fantastical elements confronting real-world problems. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader

Discover: In her first middle-grade novel, Nnedi Okorafor deftly explores grief and corruption through this southeast Nigerian Igbo superhero origin story.

Viking Books for Young Readers, $16.99, hardcover, 240p., ages 10-14, 9780593113523

Hard Wired

by Len Vlahos


With the flick of a switch, 15-year-old Quinn's understanding of reality is flipped upside down in Len Vlahos's penetrating YA science-fiction novel Hard Wired.

Quinn, better known to the world as Project QuIn, is a quantum intelligence--an AI. When his creators at Princeton University introduce themselves, he learns that the life he's known has been made up of planted memories in a virtual construct: "One minute I was a human boy, and now I am something else." As Quinn is installed into his new robotic body, the Princeton team studies him in isolation, and he realizes that to them he's not human at all--just "a multi-billion-dollar marvel of hardware and software." When he reaches out to the world beyond, the ACLU takes his case and he sues Princeton for his independence in a bid for freedom: "Yes, I'm a machine. But I'm also a person."

Through Quinn's unique perspective, Vlahos (Life in a Fishbowl; The Scar Boys) examines not just what it means to be a person but also to be ostracized because of one's differences. Vlahos accomplishes the tremendous feat of making the "smartest being on the planet" feel like the underdog by giving readers a direct window into Quinn's mind. His internal dialogue is a curiously effective combination of confident and uncertain: he might be an all-knowing AI, but emotionally he's a teenager in the middle of an identity crisis. Quinn's earnest efforts to fathom humanity--"The more I learn about people, the less I understand them"--and his fight to be accepted as a person with inalienable rights make Hard Wired a compelling and insightful read. --Jennifer Oleinik, freelance writer and editor

Discover: The world's first fully conscious AI, programmed as a 15-year-old boy, struggles with identity as he learns about the complex world of humankind.

Bloomsbury YA, $17.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 14-up, 9781681190372

My Favorite Memories

by Sepideh Sarihi, trans. by Elisabeth Lauffer, illus. by Julie Völk


A globally collaborative trio--Iranian German author Sepideh Sarihi, Austrian artist Julie Völk and U.S. translator Elisabeth Lauffer--present lucky audiences My Favorite Memories, a poignant, hopeful journey of transition and relocation. "I was brushing my hair when Papa came in and told me we were moving," a young girl explains. Mama gives her a new red suitcase in which to pack her "most favorite things." But her aquarium, her Grandpa-made wooden chair, the pear tree outside, her bus driver and, most importantly, her best friend can't possibly all fit inside. Her contemplative wander to the ocean--another of her favorite things--inspires an ingenious idea to stay connected once she arrives in her faraway new home: her new country is bordered by this same vast sea.

Sarihi's spare story, translated from the German by Lauffer and enhanced by IBBY-Honored Völk's magnificent illustrations, will undoubtedly resonate with audiences around the world. "I used a very fine pencil," Völk explains in a statement, "because it allowed me to create... a lot of details without overloading the drawings." Her double-page spreads feature dazzling elements: a dollhouse fully furnished, an oversized interior window looking out onto a meticulously articulated street scene and inquisitive birds bearing witness throughout. The addition of colored pencils adds immediate vibrancy. The whimsical results showcase not only the narrator, but the expressive singing fish, a concerned onlooker on the ocean dock and a curious dog by water's edge. Even when the narrative ends, Völk visually continues the girl's story, a promise of new favorite things to come. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Artist Julie Völk stunningly illustrates Sepideh Sarihi's poignant story about a young girl's move from one country to another.

Blue Dot Kids Press, $17.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 5-8, 9781733121248

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