Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, September 8, 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

Satisfaction

Since March, I've been reading nonfiction about politics and social justice. Every so often I need a break, and re-read favorite novels with happy endings--satisfying happy endings, hard-won, the kind you read again and again for solace and warmth.

Jonathan Evison's Lawn Boy (Algonquin, $15.95) is just the ticket. Mike Muñoz, raised on the rez by a single mother, has dreams of starting his own lawn service, but is constantly thwarted in business and life. He perseveres--"I had poetry in my heart, goddammit"--and even finds unexpected true love. In Shelf's review, I wrote, "As he learns that no man is an island, he's able to see increasing moments of grace with his 'ragged tribe.' " And when that tribe ends up at Disneyland, the reader is in the happiest place on earth with them.

Andrew Sean Greer's Less (Back Bay Books, $15.99), which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, tells the story of Arthur Less, a so-so novelist about to turn 50. His ex-boyfriend is getting married. Arthur needs to escape the city, so he accepts a bunch of invitations to speak at marginal literary events, and weaves through lectures and misunderstandings from France to India, while reminiscing and mourning his lost love. At the end of this endearing and wise book, when Arthur comes home, he wonders why his porch light is on. Cue the happy tears.

The Best Man (Puffin Books, $8.99) by the late Newbery Medalist Richard Peck may be a middle-grade novel, but the adults I've given it to have loved it, and rightly so. Told in the voice of immensely likable Archer Magill, it begins when he is 6, and ends with him at 12, bookended by two weddings. In between, Archer navigates family and school with a dry narrative. He has four role models--his grandfather, his dad, his uncle and his first male teacher. The ending is sweet, but the payoff is a few pages earlier. More happy tears. --Marilyn Dahl


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


Book Candy

Secrets of Book First Drafts

The "surprising secrets of writers' first book drafts" were explored by the BBC.

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"When children read on the roof": The New York Public Library took "a look back at NYPL's rooftop reading rooms."

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Merriam-Webster looked up the word "pod: a collective noun for students."

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"Can you pick the correct prepositions to complete these video game titles?" Mental Floss challenged.

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"Explore an interactive, online version of the beautifully illustrated, 200-year-old British & exotic mineralogy," Open Culture invited.


The Barren Grounds: The Misewa Saga, Book 1

by David A. Robertson

David A. Robertson, a citizen of the Norway House Cree Nation, has written picture books, adult graphic novels and a YA trilogy. He wanted to write a "Narnia-inspired middle-grade fantasy series that would draw on traditional stories of the sky and the constellations." The Barren Grounds is that clever, affecting fantasy adventure. The first in a planned trilogy, The Barren Grounds offers young readers a heroic quest styled like those found in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series, Brian Jacques's Redwall series and, of course, the Chronicles of Narnia.

Morgan is having difficulty bonding with her Cree foster sibling. Twelve-year-old Eli is quiet and small for his age and spends most of his time sketching in an oversized drawing pad. It's not his sober personality that Morgan finds distancing, though. Indigenous herself, Morgan was put into foster care at such a young age she has almost no memories of her family. Eli is new to the foster care system and has a strong connection with his heritage--he even still speaks the Swampy Cree dialect of his community. Additionally, Morgan's many years in foster care have left her untrusting and angry. Her new foster parents, Katie and James, are white and seemingly well-meaning, but their every misstep leaves Morgan furious. So Morgan acts out and, at 13, she knows what happens to problem foster kids--they get sent to new homes. She's angry, she's terrified and she feels obligated to watch out for Eli, who reminds her of herself when she was younger: "At a new house, before new houses became a part of her life."

After a particularly intense day in which Morgan blows up at Katie and James for buying her a pair of "Manitobah Mukluks" as a celebratory gift for her two-month anniversary in their home, Morgan invites Eli to join her in her secret hiding place (a corner of the unfinished attic). As Eli settles in, Morgan discovers that she likes this spot being "no longer a place just for her"--she hopes she's making Eli feel a little bit less alone and scared. While Eli sketches, Morgan feels a cool wind and sees in his drawing a strangely familiar winterscape with an "animal being" walking away from a village. Eli explains to her that the animal is a fisher, something he used to see when hunting back home. Morgan thinks there's something creepy about the animal: it feels as if "the creature's black eyes [are] watching" her. And when they hang the completed picture on the wall, "the blizzard in the drawing, once just pencil lines, storm[s] into the attic room." The illustration now serves as a portal to another world.

Through the portal is the Barren Grounds, where Ochek, the fisher, finds the children and brings them back to "the only surviving village in the North Country," Misewa (Cree for "all that is"). Ochek tells the children that his world is dying. A human man was taken in by the sentient, upright-walking animals of the world but he grew greedy. He convinced Tahtakiw (Crane) to run away with him and take all the "summer birds" along. Without the summer birds, there is no Green Time. So now, in this endless White Time, the animal beings of Misewa are slowly starving. Eli persuades Morgan to join him, Ochek and new friend Arikwachas (Arik for short) the squirrel on a journey to find the man and bring the summer birds back to the North Country.

Robertson populates his world with creatures and ideas from Indigenous stories of the stars. The fisher--Ochek himself, the children's first connection to Misewa and their guide--is the same constellation that many know as the Big Dipper. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Big Dipper can be seen at any time of year and, throughout the book, a Fisher constellation marks the end of each section. The Chief of Ochek's tribe, Muskwa (Bear), is akin to the constellation Mista Muskwa, who sits atop the Big Dipper. And Tahtakiw is a summer constellation--the Crane can be seen only from June to December. Quite simply: no Crane, no summer.

Robertson's significant talent is on display in The Barren Grounds as he weaves together European fantasy tropes, Indigenous stories of the constellations and issues both contemporary and deeply personal. Morgan's connection to her past is tenuous; she longs for a home but rejects James and Katie's attempts to give her one. Eli, meanwhile, mourns the loss of his family, community and culture and finds in Misewa and Ochek his first language and old way of life. Morgan, to her surprise, finds pieces of herself in Misewa, too.

Like C.S. Lewis with his Chronicles of Narnia, Robertson lives in the world of allegory in The Barren Grounds. While Robertson's work features no Christ figure, it does clearly have a white man who takes too much from the land and its Indigenous people, and then betrays them, erasing their myths and leaving them to die. It's the kind of excellently portrayed good and evil fight one sees in "classic" fantasy: good must win, of course, but at what cost? And there is something deliciously canny about Robertson's use of European fantasy tropes to give voice to an Indigenous story, especially since so many Indigenous stories have been silenced by European influence.

The Barren Grounds is a middle-grade fantasy with real stakes and true emotions. It's a journey that allows for both readers and characters to grow from start to finish. And, while this particular adventure wraps up cleanly, readers will be happy to know there are more stories set in the world of Misewa to come. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Puffin Books, $17.99, hardcover, 256p., ages 10-up, 9780735266100

David A. Robertson: Translating Knowledge from One Worldview to Another

(photo: Amber Green)

David A. Robertson is the author of many books for young readers including When We Were Alone, which won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award and was nominated for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. Strangers, the first book in his young adult Reckoner trilogy, won the 2018 Michael Van Rooy Award for Genre Fiction (Manitoba Book Awards). A speaker and educator, Robertson is a member of the Norway House Cree Nation and lives in Winnipeg. He spoke with Shelf Awareness about The Barren Grounds (Puffin Canada, September 8, 2020), the first of a middle-grade fantasy series.

The very first thing that jumped out to me about The Barren Grounds is that Morgan likes "how books used to be written." I took note of the stories that were mentioned: The Wizard of Oz, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.... How did books used to be written? Did you aim to write a book like them?

Some of the writing I've done has been influenced by more classic literature. Even my first adult novel, The Evolution of Alice, was written while I was reading the J.D. Salinger collection Nine Stories and In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. I feel like stories took more time to be told; there wasn't the rush there can be today. And I loved the language, the approach to character, the description and the imagination. I definitely aimed to write a book like those works you mentioned. Trying to honor those books while, at the same time, writing something that felt completely unique. So, I think there's old-school elements to my book, but there's a sense, too, that you haven't read something like it before. 

Your biggest influence for this title was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. What made you want to write something akin to an Indigenous Narnia?

Narnia was a huge influence on me. I re-read most of the series before starting in on The Barren Grounds. I wanted to remember how Lewis wrote his books, the world he imagined, the elements I loved and the way in which he approached a subject that was near to his heart while not letting that subject take away from the story itself. I think you could say that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was overtly Christian, but you could also say that it was a unique and wonderful story that imagined a world readers had never visited before. I wanted that to be true of my book. And while we have this amazing history of oral storytelling, we have our own classic stories. I wanted to write some of our stories in a classic form--to reach new readers with the subjects that I wanted to approach and hopefully have them influence readers in a positive way. So this book adapts Cree legends, and addresses the foster-care system and land protection, while also telling an engaging and unique fantasy story.  

Tell me about building your two young protagonists. What made you choose to place your characters in the foster-care system? Did you always want one to be far removed from her heritage and the other tied more closely to his roots?

So, the first part of that. I've always wanted to tell a story that encourages discussions around the foster-care system. Hopefully, in this story, kids and adults can talk about the foster-care system and how it may impact an Indigenous child who has been removed from their family, their community. There are comparisons to the residential school system, but you also have these foster parents who are well-intentioned. Still, they struggle. So, why do they struggle? How do the kids struggle? What are some of the things they both do to help overcome those struggles? How can that conflict and resolution help us understand reality? The second part is looking at how that removal, acutely, may impact a young Indigenous kid. They've lived their life one way, and now they have to learn to live in another way. You have Morgan, who's been removed for so long that she's forgotten herself: her mother, her community, her way of living, her identity. Because of that, she's angry, confused, lost. Now look at the transformation she undergoes when finding a place that reconnects her with so much of what has been lost. While she still has a long way to go in her journey, the change in her is powerful. It's also this interesting reversal of roles, where Eli is the child, Morgan is like a mentor. Then, on the land, Eli seems wiser, older. Morgan has to learn from him. I liked that. 

A part I loved was when Morgan and Eli were invited to sit down with the Council members, all of whom are large, talking animals who speak Cree. Morgan speaks only English and so it is said simply that, "This human... doesn't speak." Would you please expand on this?

Well, there is a world of difference between the English language and Cree (or another Indigenous language, take your pick). To say that Morgan doesn't speak is saying that she can't understand the world as they understand it. She can't translate what she knows into their way of knowing. At least not yet. My dad told me once that, when he had to learn English after only speaking Cree, he had to almost abandon one for the other because they were so different, and he was given no guidance of how to translate knowledge from one worldview to the other. So, she sees the world different from them, and they recognize that. But they also respect each other and make allowances for that disconnect. There's a nice little moment late in the book where she makes her own translation from Cree into English, and it's a small way to show how she is growing as a character.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers? Anything you specifically hope children will take from The Barren Grounds?

I hope that they, first and foremost, become engrossed with the world that lives within The Barren Grounds. The world and the characters. And if that happens, a lot of what I've talked about here will just happen organically. They'll learn about Cree legends, they'll learn about the foster-care system, they'll learn about respect for the land. So, that's my main hope. My second is that they question. Always question, because it helps us understand ourselves, each other and the world we've been gifted with. I hope, as well, that they know there is more coming for Morgan, Eli and the creatures in Misewa. I'm very excited to bring all the readers along on this journey. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


Great Reads

Rediscover: David Graeber

David Graeber, "the radical anthropologist, provocative critic of economic and social inequality and self-proclaimed anarchist who was a coiner of 'We Are the 99 Percent,' the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement," died on September 2 at age 59, the New York Times reported. He was a prolific author and "captivated a cult following that grew globally over the past decade with each book he published," the Times wrote. Those books included Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013) and The Utopia of Rules (2015). He was also a professor at the London School of Economics.

In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon & Schuster, 2018), Graeber criticized how advances in technology had not led to shorter work weeks and more meaningful work. "In technological terms, we are quite capable of this," he wrote. "And yet it didn't happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. Huge swaths of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul." In fall 2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, written with David Wengrow.


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


Book Review

Fiction

Transcendent Kingdom

by Yaa Gyasi


With Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing) crafts a superbly nuanced portrait of a Ghanaian American woman trying to make sense of her present through her past--a past tragically rocked by her brother's fatal opioid addiction.

A Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Stanford, Gifty spends her waking hours using mice to study the neural factors in reward-seeking behavior and addiction, and returns home only to sleep, eat and, newly, care for her bedridden and depressed mother. Gifty is undoubtedly brilliant and driven, but she is also detached--save for two friendships with gently determined colleagues. Unbeknown to most, Gifty's research and fervor are born of devastating events during her childhood in conservative and often racist Huntsville, Ala., where she grew up in a religious Ghanaian immigrant family. And, thus, Gifty strives to know, "could this science work on the people who need it the most? Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?" With her mother a corporeal reminder of shared losses, Gifty scrutinizes her own grief, shame and trauma, turning to memory and revisiting childhood journal entries addressed to God ("Dear God, Please hurry up and make Buzz better. I want the whole church to see").

In this remarkable narrative that is at once beautifully lucid and brimming with emotional complexity, Gyasi examines and challenges the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding addiction and mental health while asking philosophical questions about the power and limits of faith, science and redemption. --Sylvia Al-Mateen, freelance reviewer and editor

Discover: In this superbly nuanced novel, a young neuroscientist reflects on her upbringing--her parents' immigration, her brother's addiction and her early religiosity.

Knopf, $27.95, hardcover, 288p., 9780525658184

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


The Invention of Sound

by Chuck Palahniuk


Fight Club and Adjustment Day author Chuck Palahniuk's The Invention of Sound is a surreal horror novel that will fascinate and repulse its readers by equal shares. Mitzi Ives is a Foley artist who records the best scream sound effects for the Hollywood machine, by the most violent means possible. She's also a woman on the brink: masochistic, drug-addled and psychotic. Meanwhile, Gates Foster, an investigator who tracks pedophiles, wants nothing more than to avenge the disappearance, and presumed death, of his daughter. As the two race toward one another on a reckless collision course, a nefarious cast, including an actor, a producer and a doctor with their own agendas, influences the two. 

Like Palahniuk's best works, The Invention of Sound is a cacophony of visceral horror. Skipping through scenes that are progressively cringe-worthy and gag-inducing, the narrative keeps a relentless pace as characters become villainous and pathetic, detestable and yet uncomfortably recognizable. In what may be Palahniuk's best fusion of style and concept, the novel's surreal metaphors-made-real, both on a sentence-level and throughout the plot, create a sense that even the mundane cannot avoid being corrupted. From the moment Mitzi mistakes a pill sweat-stamped to skin for a pus-filled boil to the novel's explosive ending, Palahniuk is not so much full of surprises as he is full of fearless revelations. The story's brilliance in concept and prose comes, then, not from producing cheap twists, but from its ability to demonstrate how everything is, as we all fear, exactly what it seems. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: With its ability to convert underlying exploitative systems into all-too-visible fears, The Invention of Sound is ideal for the unflinching but thoughtful horror fan.

Grand Central, $27, hardcover, 240p., 9781538718001

Viking: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd


If I Had Two Wings

by Randall Kenan


In If I Had Two Wings, Randall Kenan (who died last month) revisits Tims Creek, N.C.--the setting for A Visitation of Spirits and Let the Dead Bury Their Dead--with bighearted stories about people of different races, sexualities and beliefs coexisting in this rural area. In "Ain't No Sunshine," Pastor Barden confesses to beating his wife's lover. Barden realizes just before the beating that "something vital left him as he exhaled and something terrible entered him as he inhaled. It was a transmogrification, a possession, a quicksilver change." The sheriff says, on hearing the story, "I reckon I won't get voted out of office for letting the matter lay where Jesus flung it."

The time frame shifts in the haunting, mystical "Mamiwata." Mandy, an enslaved girl escaping plantation owners, meets a mysterious, even darker, man standing in the river and "not exactly singing, more like humming, but in tune and to a rhythm foreign to her ears, yet familiar." "I am one of you," he tells her, and Mandy ultimately abandons her group and follows him, baptism-like, into the river and away. 

Religion is part of life in Tims Creek, although many residents adhere to church teachings only when it's convenient to do so. Whether it's Presbyterian deacon Terrell wrestling with a phantom hog, or Ed Phelps taking a trip to New York City with the Baptists, where he ends up in Billy Idol's stage entourage, people in these stories are always surprising, forcing those around them to "recalibrate, rejigger, rethink the blueprints of the universe we each haul around in our heads." --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: Randall Kenan's literary proficiencies are on full display with 10 stories of small-town characters whose imperfections serve to highlight their resolute natures.

W.W. Norton, $25.95, hardcover, 224p., 9781324005469

Dial Books: Kitties on Dinosaurs by Michael Slack


Anxious People

by Fredrik Backman


Swedish author Fredrik Backman has entertained readers worldwide, drawing them into fictional realms with ordinary people facing the absurdities of life and death. In Anxious People, he mines similar terrain, cleverly assembling an ensemble cast of characters, some of them utterly exasperating. He sets them in a darkly comic predicament that will challenge them as a group and personally, opening the story to larger themes about the foibles, pitfalls and traps of living.

Backman's construct is straightforward: an open-house apartment viewing. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, especially when a gun-wielding bank robber targets a cashless bank and winds up, through a series of mishaps, at the open house. In bumbling, snowballing desperation, the robber takes eight people, high-maintenance strangers at the viewing, hostage. When the robber ultimately escapes, two police officers--a father and son facing personal struggles of their own--investigate the crime and try to make sense of the who, how and why of this topsy-turvy, totally-gone-awry robbery scenario and all involved.

Backman (Us Against You) skillfully employs an omniscient narrative voice and short, focused chapters that unwind an intricate plot through interspersed--extremely telling and very funny--police interrogation scenes. Readers are kept off-balance by details of the hostage siege as characters reveal their personal dilemmas. This intensifies the narrative tension and drama, upping the literal and figurative anxiousness of the book's title. Backman's signature storytelling wit and wisdom--the way he unravels his puzzle while peeling back layers of complex relationships, personal burdens and secrets carried by all--enables this fresh, quirky, over-the-top comedy to coalesce into poignant profundity. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: This clever, dark comedy about human nature and relationships starts with a real estate open house that goes dreadfully awry when a bumbling bank robber shows up.

Atria, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9781501160837

Main Street Publishing: Temple of Eternity by R Scott Boyer


The Bass Rock

by Evie Wyld


Threats of violence and societal constraints loom over women of three different eras in a remote Scotland locale in this haunting, powerful novel.

Viv takes up residence in a house where she was cataloging the belongings in preparation for its sale. Still drifting after the death of her father, she makes two new acquaintances while grocery shopping to whom she becomes strangely attached. Two generations earlier, in the aftermath of World War II and still mourning the loss of her brother, Ruth moves into the house with her new husband and stepsons. Away from her family and with her husband often gone for work, she struggles to find her way in her new community and forms a bond with her maid. Centuries earlier, Sarah, an accused witch, is on the run with a small group.

In The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld (All the Birds, Singing), women through the ages survive the impressive entitlement of the men in their lives and struggle with both mental health problems and societies that pathologize (or, in the case of Sarah, demonize) their choices and needs that do not fit into the accepted models of femininity. Sarah's sections feel more remote than the others, but readers spend the least time with her. In the Viv and Ruth sections, which make up the majority of the book, their anger, their fear and their stifling frustrations are palpable, but the bonds that sustain them affirm that carrying on is, after all, worth it. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: Three women in different eras struggle with ordinary dangers in a remote part of Scotland in this lyrical, Gothic novel.

Pantheon Books, $27.95, hardcover, 368p., 9781101871881

That Time of Year

by Marie NDiaye, trans. by Jordan Stump


Scarcely more than 100 pages, That Time of Year by Marie NDiaye (Ladivine) might initially seem spare. The intriguing complexity, however, contained in her superb novel underscores again why she is one of France's most lauded contemporary writers, having received her country's highest literary honors, including the Prix Femina and the Prix Goncourt. NDiaye's taut, noirish horror, complicated by Kafka-esque obstacles, is seamlessly translated into English by professor Jordan Stump.

For 10 summers, Herman has traveled with his wife, Rose, and their son to a remote village where the family has a summer home. As Parisians, Herman and his family are still considered tourists by the locals and, as such, are expected to leave by August 31. This year, however, they've veered from predictable habits and stayed an extra couple of days.

That September 1 afternoon, mother and son venture out to buy eggs. Hours later, they have not returned. The sunny warmth that's always lasted, as least through August 31, has suddenly turned to cold rain. Worried, Herman visits the neighboring farm, but the surprisingly inhospitable woman there insists she hasn't seen his family, nor does she even offer him dry shelter. He searches to no avail. Only the Chamber of Commerce president seems to be willing to help. His bizarre edict that Herman must "become a villager [him]self--invisible, insignificant," is Herman's only hope of family reunion. And so, he stays.

Reminiscent of a Beckett play--NDiaye is also a notable playwright--this surreal narrative quickly devolves into a nightmarish fever dream. With adroit precision, NDiaye transforms Herman's situation into a biting, brilliant exposé on class and privilege. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: At the end of their summer holiday, a Parisian schoolteacher's wife and son never return from a simple errand, setting off a surreal search in a remote French village.

Two Lines Press, $19.95, hardcover, 9781931883917

Mystery & Thriller

When I Was You

by Amber Garza


"Why would I need to call my therapist just because I made a new friend?" Kelly Medina is affronted when her best friend shows concern over her interest in a new young woman in town with a baby. But "it was simple curiosity," Kelly tells herself, "that's all. Nothing sinister or odd. This was normal. Completely normal." Amber Garza's thrilling and clever When I Was You quickly delves into why Kelly's curiosity may not be "normal" and then doles out twists and turns at the perfect pace, leading up to a fantastic conclusion.

Kelly feels like a ghost. Her beloved son, Aaron, went off to college. Her husband, Rafael, returns to Folsom less and less from his job in the Bay Area. Then an errant phone call from her former pediatrician's office alerts Kelly there is another Kelly Medina in town. Instantly intrigued, feeling she's found a younger version of herself, Kelly can't help but investigate and ultimately finagle a way to meet new Kelly.

Writing from original Kelly's perspective, Garza throws tidbit after tidbit that raises questions about original Kelly's state of mind, past behavior and required therapy, Rafael's distance and attitude, and the million-dollar inquiry--who is new Kelly? Garza deftly uses original Kelly's narration to follow an erratic path, forcing the reader to switch assumptions numerous times. Is original Kelly an obsessive stalker with psychiatric issues? Or is new Kelly playing some game with unknown rules and consequences? When I Was You is a gripping psychological barnburner. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: This thrilling novel follows a troubled woman as she inserts herself into the life of a young mother who shares her name.

Mira, $17.99, paperback, 368p., 9780778361046

History

MS-13: The Making of America's Most Notorious Gang

by Steven Dudley


Steven Dudley's MS-13 comes when an educated voice is needed on the subject of the gang's impact on world violence and, equally importantly, political maneuvering. Dudley is abundantly qualified to write on the subject as the co-director of InSight Crime, a foundation dedicated to studying organized crime. Dudley works with numerous investigators and contributors to offer a more complete and accurate view of how organized crime works and its impact on public policy.

MS-13 is specifically about the Mara Salvatrucha, the ruthless street gang that has spread across countries and continents. Dudley details the origins of MS-13 and its operations, both generally and through specific experiences of a few individuals. "These stories allow us to trace the history of the gang from its beginnings in Los Angeles to its export to El Salvador and other Central American nations, and back again." The sections of the book (origins, maturation, efforts to extricate) mirror life faced by members who are enveloped, become serious, then try to leave.

Dudley addresses the Trump administration's comparison of the gang to Al-Qaeda as a means to rid the U.S. of "criminal aliens." While MS-13 is a threat that trades on its reputation for brutal murders, it is also greatly misunderstood, its power erroneously likened to much more sophisticated groups. Dudley's reporting is unsurprisingly complex, with extraordinary sections on methodology and notes, bibiography and index following the main text. A deep dive written in plain prose backed by years of research, MS-13 is a remarkable resource for thorough understanding. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: A longtime reporter, investigator and security consultant provides an in-depth look at the truth and falsehoods surrounding a notorious street gang.

Hanover Square Press, $28.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781335005540

Nature & Environment

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illus. by Fumi Nakamura


Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Oceanic) stuns with her nonfiction debut, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, delightfully illustrated by Fumi Nakamura. These essays explore the natural world and the human experience, finding parallels, meaning and beauty in the intersections.

"A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun," Nezhukumatathil begins. This is an apt and representative line: place-specific, beautifully phrased, with reference to some of the identities these essays will explore. They are mostly titled for the plants and creatures they focus on, with a few exceptions. The red-spotted newt and dragon fruit that title their respective essays receive Nezhukumatathil's attentive study and, yes, wonder, but the author's own experience is always a second thread. She brings a poet's ear for language and an eye for commonality and metaphor, both reverent of the natural world and specific in her own story.

World of Wonders offers a series of brief naturalist lessons, but is perhaps at its best in drawing connections, as between the axolotl's smile and what to do "if a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup." "And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth--perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet. Who knows what feathered gifts await?" Wisdom, wonder and beauty make this slim collection one to treasure. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: World of Wonders is a thoughtful series of meditations, charmingly illustrated, with love and awe on every page but never shying away from the prickliness of life.

Milkweed, $25, hardcover, 184p., 9781571313652

Education

How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation

by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.


How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., confronts the precipitous decline in academic performance of U.S. students compared to their international peers. Hirsch illustrates how America's child-centered elementary schooling model is failing its children, especially the most disadvantaged ones.

A lifelong educator, Hirsch (Why Knowledge Matters; The Making of Americans) established the Core Knowledge Foundation to promote educational equity in schools. While other developed countries teach standardized curricula rich in civics, history and tradition, most U.S. schools emphasize general skills such as critical thinking without imparting the essential shared knowledge, including civics and history, that is the mark of an educated citizen. Students grow up untethered to their American identity, resulting in what Hirsch refers to as "a knowledge gap, a communications gap and an allegiance gap."

Addressing parents, Hirsch points to the latest scientific research to demonstrate how young brains are primed for absorbing content and capable of inhabiting more than one identity. He shares examples of successful core knowledge-focused schools around the country, recommending that all elementary schools adopt content-specific curricula to unite the multiethnic nation's children under a shared U.S. nationality and improve their academic performance.

Readers cautious about a nationalistic, uniform approach to educating youth will discover in Hirsch's manifesto several compelling reasons for doing so, including the indisputable fact that a unified nation is better equipped to cooperate on international matters than one as polarized as the U.S. in the 21st century. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer

Discover: A career educator concerned about the United States' survival as a high-achieving, fair and literate society makes a persuasive, scientifically sound case for an education revolution.

Harper, $24.99, hardcover, 224p., 9780063001923

Children's & Young Adult

Before the Ever After

by Jacqueline Woodson


The best middle-grade novels centered on sports are often not really about sports. In Before the Ever After, 12-year-old narrator ZJ doesn't even especially like sports. But he's crazy about his dad, the NFL dynamo Zachariah Johnson.

It's 1999 and Zachariah starts behaving like someone other than himself: his hands shake and he sometimes doesn't recognize people's faces. He gets monstrous headaches. For the first time in ZJ's life, he has a dad who's a yeller. ZJ lays all this out in free verse, a form that Jacqueline Woodson employed just as fruitfully in Brown Girl Dreaming: "Used to be I said my dad was home and people would/ come running to my house./ Now it feels like they're trying to run away." ZJ's mom takes Zachariah to various doctors for tests. (Woodson's author's note explains that in 1999 and 2000, when Before the Ever After is set, the medical community was still fuzzy on the link between brain injuries and tackle football.) Finally a doctor has an explanation; as ZJ interprets it, "All those times he got knocked down/ and knocked out, my daddy kept getting up/ but maybe some part of him/ stayed on the ground."

Before the Ever After may spur readers to mull over the risks of playing tackle football, but at heart the book is a love story. Part of the heartbreak of Before the Ever After is the reader's gradual understanding of how far Zachariah came--to achieve professional greatness, to attain material wealth--only to find himself losing his ability to enjoy his success, not to mention parent his child. Woodson's text may be spare, but it has the emotional wallop of an offensive tackle. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: In this heartbreaking free-verse novel for middle schoolers, a 12-year-old describes his NFLer dad's decline due to head injuries sustained on the football field.

Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, $17.99, hardcover, 176p., ages 10-up, 9780399545436

Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth

by Duncan Tonatiuh


Duncan Tonatiuh's Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns is a captivating introduction to an epic Mesoamerican myth of creation.

"It is said by the elders that before our time there were four other tonatiuhs or suns." So begins the story of the world. During each tonatiuh, the gods attempted to create human beings and, though they failed, each try gave way to a part of the earth. The first time the gods covered sacred bones with mud, they were too big and clumsy and "these humans turned into mountains." During the second tonatiuh, the gods accidentally created fish. The third attempt was successful--however, those humans angered the gods and were turned into monkeys. The fourth endeavor led to birds. At this point, the gods became tired and sent the sacred bones to Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the underworld, for safekeeping. But one among them would not give up: Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent, the god of knowledge. A pillar of courage and cleverness, Quetzalcóatl would stop at nothing to make humans.

Tonatiuh's (The Princess and the Warrior) hand-drawn and digital collage illustrations evoke pre-Columbian art, and his modern touches and warm color palette make for vibrant, expressive spreads. Wondrous landscapes magnify Quetzalcóatl's formidable and heroic quest. An author's note and a glossary with pronunciations help deepen readers' historical understanding of the myth. With prose that is accessible and has the abiding quality of myth, Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns feels both classic and refreshing. --Zoraida Córdova, author and freelance book reviewer

Discover: This engrossing retelling of a Mesoamerican creation myth depicts a tenacious god's quest to create humans.

Abrams, $16.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 5-9, 9781419746772

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