Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, December 11, 2020


Overlook Press: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

From My Shelf

Other Press: Zabor, or the Psalms by Kamel Daoud, translated by Emma Ramadan

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

Grand Central Publishing: What's Mine and Yours by Naima Coster

'Hell of a Year, Isn't It?'

"Hell of a year, isn't it--Mr. Frost, Ted [Roethke], & now Louis [MacNiece], whom I loved. Keep well, be good, the devil roams." This sentence, also appropriate for 2020, opens a letter in 1963 to Robert Lowell that is included in The Selected Letters of John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman & Calista McRae (Belknap Press). Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams also died in '63. Hell of a year indeed.

I first read Berryman in college for a Contemporary American Poetry class. He had just won the National Book Award for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, which was one of the course's textbooks; a Roethke collection was another. Talk about contemporary. I was 20 reading what I thought of as old men. Now I'm 70 and, well, I'm reading younger poets. That seems as it should be.

"What if this year the scrawny splinters of winter refuse/ spring's reckless flesh...," Allison Adair writes in "Fable," from her Max Ritvo Poetry Prize-winning collection The Clearing (Milkweed Editions), adding later: "Reader, every year we get this moment wrong. Do we/ know each other, our own bodies, our annual flex and bloom?"

Blending the story of a seventh-century monk with contemporary themes, Karen Solie's The Caiplie Caves (FSG) is perfectly strange and beautiful: "We could as soon move/ south as rise above it. Are sympathies/ inseparable from what one does/ to stay alive? What is a self/ but that which fights the cold?"

Be Holding: A Poem by Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press), is a timely meditation on the world as encompassed in a single and singular move under the basket by NBA legend Julius (Dr. J) Erving, who "simply decided in the air/ to knock on other doors/ by soaring more/ --have you ever decided anything in the air?"

Although it seems like everything is up in the air right now, poetry still offers wings, even in a hell of a year. --Robert Gray, editor


Oxford University Press: Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment by Robert Darnton


Book Candy

Holy Moly!: Nicolas Cage on Swear Words

"Curses! Nicolas Cage to examine history of swearwords for Netflix," the Guardian noted.

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Louise Glück, "forgoing fanfare, accepts Nobel Prize in Literature at home," VTDigger reported.

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Bill Gates recommended "5 good books for a lousy year."

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Open Culture explained "why butt trumpets & other bizarre images appeared in illuminated medieval manuscripts."

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"Is classic Russian literature really so depressing?" asked Russia Beyond.


Simply Read Books: The Simply Small Series by Paola Opal


Great Reads

Rediscover: Ben Bova

Ben Bova, scientist, multiple Hugo Award winner, and prolific science fiction author and editor, died on November 29 at age 88. Bova wrote more than a hundred books, edited some of science fiction's best-known publications, was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) for two terms and was president of the National Space Society. He was a technical editor for Project Vanguard, the U.S.'s first effort to launch a satellite into space in 1958, then worked as a science writer for Avco Everett Research Laboratory, which built the heat shields for the Apollo 11 module. Bova published his first novel, The Star Conquerors, in 1959, and followed up with dozens of others, as well as numerous short stories that appeared in, among other publications, Amazing Stories, Analog Science Fact and Fiction and Galaxy Magazine.

Bova's best-known works, publisher Tor.com observed, involved "plausible sciences about humanity's expansion into the universe, looking at how we might adapt to live in space with novels such as 1992's Mars, about the first human expedition to the red planet. He followed that novel up with additional installments, forming the Grand Tour series, which explored all of the solar system's major bodies." The latest installment, Uranus, was published in July, and was planned to be the first of a trilogy. The second installment, Neptune, is scheduled for release next year. Uranus is available from Tor ($27.99).


Harper: The Lowering Days by Gregory Brown


The Writer's Life

Reading with... Merrill Markoe

image: Merrill Markoe

Merrill Markoe is a humorist who has worked in a variety of forms involving film, television and radio in addition to writing a bunch of books of humorous essays and a few novels. She received four Emmys for her work as writer/co-creator of Late Night with David Letterman in the '80s, and in 2020 she received The Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award from the Writers Guild of America. We Saw Scenery (Algonquin, Oct 13, 2020) is her first graphic novel.

On your nightstand now: 

Because I just wrote and illustrated a graphic novel for the first time, I have been studying the work of various people who are good with the form. My favorites are Lynda Barry, Roz Chast, Mimi Pond and Daniel Clowes. But at the moment I am reading Wendy, Master of Art by Walter Scott, which is making me laugh out loud because it so perfectly captures the signature details of going to art school: e.g., the incomprehensible pretentious language and all the non-committal shrugging.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I was a big devotee of the whole Nancy Drew series. I would consume them back to back, so I can't really differentiate between the different titles. When I wasn't reading Nancy Drew, I was reading Mad magazine. In a way, it was Mad magazine that raised me and turned me into me.

Your top five authors:

Since I discovered his work in high school, I have been devoted to Kurt Vonnegut. I love his combination of direct simplicity and wild imagination. Robert Benchley's hilarious essays continue to be my favorite humor writing because of his cerebral approach to the mundane combined with complete off-the-charts silliness. He taught me my favorite way to construct comedy. I also find myself re-reading Dorothy Parker for similar reasons. When I want to relax and be comforted, I read Anne Tyler. When I want to be reminded how cool it is to be creative, I read Lynda Barry.

Book you've faked reading:

Infinite Jest. I read the opening few chapters a number of times and then just couldn't bring myself to go forward. Lately, after reading a couple of stories about the author's bad behavior with women, I gave myself permission to give up caring about reading any more.

Also, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I worked on the first few chapters of that for YEARS because my heart loves the idea of learning about physics. I'd diligently sit down to tackle the material, pumped on what a better version of me this knowledge would create. And then I'd wake up the next day.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Why Is It Always About YOU: the Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss. As a child of narcissists who went on to replicate that situation repeatedly by also dating narcissists, I was ahead of the curve in my expertise on this topic.

Book you've bought for the cover:

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. It's another spooky wonder from the man who wrote The Polar Express. Boy, can that guy draw.

Book you hid from your parents:

In the fourth grade, someone passed me a copy of My Wicked Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn. I had no idea who Errol Flynn even was, but I didn't care. He had wicked ways and I wanted in.

Book that changed your life:

Robert Benchley's collected works taught me how to write funny essays. They were written in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. But they still sound contemporary because they trade in human silliness.

Favorite line from a book:

" 'Everything must have a purpose?' said God. 'Certainly,' said man. 'Then I leave it to you to think of one for all of this,' said God."

Cat's Cradle taught me how to de-construct religious thought. And every time I re-read the book, I am so taken by it that I write various lines down so I will remember them. There are so many lines in this book that I love. For example: "Science is magic that works." 

Five books you'll never part with:

Lately I buy as many e-books as I can, so I never do have to imagine parting with them. But I can tell you what books I actually did take with me when I had to evacuate my house because of a raging wildfire:

My crumbling and very old copy of The Benchley Roundup
The Life of Birds by David Attenborough
What It Is by Lynda Barry

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens because I really enjoyed it when I read it in high school. But I have had a hard time re-engaging with Mr. Dickens after learning that he had his wife of 20 years, Catherine, committed to a mental institution so he could go off with his much younger mistress. Which reminds me of one of the bigger lessons I have learned in life: strive not to learn too much personal information about the artist. It can really ruin the art.

Three nonfiction books you learned a lot from:

I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution: Emily Nussbaum analyzes aspects of shows I've watched in ways that never occurred to me.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: Kurt Andersen presents longstanding truths about the American psyche in a way that add up to a vision of the United States as a place that has always thrived on and enjoyed being delusional.

The Gift of Fear: Gavin de Becker (a top security expert) teaches readers how to tune into the fear they may feel but have been taught to disregard in the name of self-protection and defense.

Five recent memoirs you enjoyed:

Born a Crime: Trevor Noah grew up in South Africa during apartheid. His story is stunning, he manages to make it funny and he is a very good writer. 

Just the Funny Parts: Comedy writer, journalist and all-around MVP Nell Scovell has had every damn writing job under the sun. She remembers EVERYTHING that ever happened to her during her career and knows how to tell it funny.

The Customer Is Always Wrong: Mimi Pond's graphic novel memoir of her days as a waitress attending art school. Astute, beautifully drawn, carefully detailed and funny. 

Room to Dream: Written by Kristine McKenna with David Lynch, it's a combination biography and autobiography of David Lynch with the two authors alternating chapters. If you, like me, have a special place in your heart for the metaphysical artsy craziness that is David Lynch, McKenna tells all and leaves no stone unturned.

Me: Elton John: I had no real interest in this story until I started to read it and found it fascinating, very nicely written and funny. I wasn't even a particularly big fan of Elton John until I read this. Now I am.


Book Review

Fiction

The Animals in that Country

by Laura Jean McKay


What if people could talk to the animals--and it turned out to be a nightmare? In The Animals in that Country, Jean, a hard-drinking Australian granny who gives tours at a zoo and dreams of opening an animal sanctuary, is caught up in an epidemic that causes people to understand animal communication. They don't suddenly speak English as in a children's book; instead, humans can now perceive the messages sent via smell, body language and sound. Mild cases can understand only mammals; serious ones advance to understanding species less similar to us, and some victims are essentially driven mad.

Jean's estranged son is one, unable to resist the siren song of the whales calling "come home"--an invitation that of course would end in death for land-dwellers. He kidnaps his daughter Kimberley, Jean's granddaughter, and Jean sets off after them, in the company of a beloved dingo who never shuts up. They travel through a society quickly falling to pieces, and in some cases unnervingly reminiscent of Covid's realities. There are conspiracy theories. People not only wear masks, but sunglasses and earplugs, in a desperate attempt not to be overwhelmed by the signals washing over them.

Laura Jean McKay (Holiday in Cambodia) has clearly done a lot of thinking about humanity's multifaceted and fraught relationship with other species, as well as what it might feel like to be everything from a horse to a grub being swallowed alive. But there is no preaching--it's all used in service of a gripping, unforgettable story. --Linda Lombardi, writer and editor

Discover: An epidemic tears society apart, sending a hard-drinking granny and a dingo from the zoo where she works on an unforgettable quest to save her granddaughter.

Scribe US, $16.95, paperback, 288p., 9781950354375

Nights When Nothing Happened

by Simon Han


Nights When Nothing Happened, Simon Han's literary debut, tracks the complex inner workings of a Chinese American family in the lead up to and aftermath of one explosive misunderstanding. While the Chengs seem to have found solid ground in Plano, Tex., during the early 2000s--mother Patty working as a microchip designer, father Liang beginning a photography business, son Jack adjusting to America after growing up in China with his grandparents, and daughter Annabel making a friend at her new school--things are not as copacetic as they appear. Amid a perfect storm of missed connections, self-projections and gaps in communication, the family splinters under the gaze of their neighbors and supposed friends at a fraught Thanksgiving party.

Expertly navigating the multiple perspectives of all four of his primary characters, Han traces the familiar inevitability and heartbreaking disappointment of missed opportunities within personal and private relationships. Han illustrates how such minor miscommunications, especially between those who supposedly know one another best, can, over time, move from a mere hairline fracture to a shattering chasm. While still acknowledging the large-scale and systemic issues of race, class and gender that affect the Chengs' more public experiences as immigrants, the novel's gaze moves inward to the subtle and intimate results of an individual intersecting with such forces. Through poignant character insights and a brilliant sensitivity to how no one person exists independently of another, Han displays a masterful appreciation for questions of relations even, or perhaps especially, when those relations are operating within silence. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This finely crafted, insightful exploration of family examines the power of what could have been.

Riverhead Books, $26, hardcover, 272p., 9780593086056

The Bright and Breaking Sea

by Chloe Neill


With The Bright and Breaking SeaChloe Neill (Chicagoland Vampires series) launches a high-stakes-on-the-high-seas historical fantasy series full of political intrigue, naval battles and well-drawn characters.

Neill drops readers directly into the action with a daring escape aided by heroine Captain Kit Brightling's water magic. The world is roughly mapped onto historical Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, complete with a fictional exiled dictator named Gerard. Brightling and her allies hail from the Isles, a fictional Great Britain that appears to have eschewed colonization in favor of international trade and diplomacy. The queen, a Black woman named Charlotte, sends Brightling on a series of missions--to save a spy captured by pirates, to hunt down an enemy ship, and more--in order to thwart Gerard's attempt at a comeback. The action is continuous, with brief stops along the way to repair the ship, re-provision and receive new orders.

As an Aligned person, Kit can tap into the natural magic of the sea. So, when an air-Aligned colleague confirms her sense that something is off, Kit is ordered to solve a mystery only she can: What's happening to the magic? And what does it have to do with Gerard?

While the large cast is a little unwieldy at first, Neill develops her characters well enough that readers will easily be able to tell them apart and appreciate their idiosyncrasies. The Bright and Breaking Sea pits Kit Brightling and her crew against misused magic, cannons and traitors in an adventure that doesn't let up. Readers will be eager for the next installment. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels

Discover: Chloe Neill's seafaring historical fantasy sweeps readers away with adventure, intrigue and a touch of magic.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 384p., 9781984806680

Eartheater

by Dolores Reyes, trans. by Julia Sanches


In debut novelist Dolores Reyes's Eartheater, translated from the Spanish by Julia Sanches, an unnamed, teenaged narrator is compelled to eat dirt after her mother's death. The habit inspires vivid and often violent visions of those whose blood has tainted the soil. After predicting where the decomposing corpse of her missing schoolteacher would be found, the protagonist begins to receive visits from grief-stricken relatives of missing peoples, desperate for a lead. The money she gets from providing these services helps support her and her older brother, alone in an Argentinian slum, but these episodes leave her traumatized and alienated. When a police officer takes an interest in both her and her abilities, the narrator takes an even deeper plunge into the adult world of desire, despair, sex and violence.

Crisp and haunted, Reyes's prose captures the interior life of a girl as she faces the immense passion and devastation of womanhood. Flippant yet evasive, the narrator's voice opposes any romantic or wistful notions of coming-of-age. Instead, she copes with the entangled traumas of gender and class, sex and death, power and submission through the deeply affective compulsion to consume the very earth that compresses and combines it all. Despite the metaphorical element of Eartheater's premise, the violence and emotional heft of the text is anything but figurative. The novel's physicality--its attention to taste, smell and texture--inspires in its readers the same frightening grip of desire and disgust that so entraps its protagonist. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A raw and vital literary debut, Eartheater takes an unwavering and visceral look at systems of power through the perspective of a young woman caught in the crosshairs.

HarperVia, $24.99, hardcover, 224p., 9780062987730

Mystery & Thriller

Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers

by Tessa Arlen


As World War II grinds on, air warden Poppy Redfern, now a screenwriter with the Crown Films Unit, is dispatched to Didcote airfield to interview several top-notch female pilots for a film project. The "Attagirls" are an impressive group: skilled, glamorous and intelligent. But when two of them meet their ends in fatal crashes attributed to pilot error, Poppy and her American boyfriend, Griff O'Neal, suspect foul play. Tessa Arlen (Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders) draws readers into a web of deception on the ground and in the skies in Poppy's second adventure, Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers.

Narrated in Poppy's engaging first-person voice, the case begins with Poppy trying to suss out the Attagirls: friendly Letty, plainspoken Australian June, young mother Annie, enigmatic Zofia (a Polish countess in exile). When Edwina--an accomplished flyer but something of a self-styled femme fatale--dies in a crash, Poppy suspects several of the pilots may have a motive for murder. But why kill Letty, too? Accompanied by Griff and her faithful corgi, Bess, Poppy pokes around the airfield asking questions while trying to keep her script on track. Meanwhile, her attraction to Griff is often at odds with her natural British reserve, and readers get a glimpse of Poppy trying to balance their relationship with her professional responsibilities (and romantic advice from Zofia).

Full of historical detail and red herrings, with a plucky heroine and plenty of witty asides, Arlen's latest is catnip for Anglophile mystery lovers. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Scriptwriter and amateur sleuth Poppy Redfern interviews female pilots--and investigates their untimely deaths--in her second wartime adventure.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 320p., 9781984805829

Biography & Memoir

The Search for John Lennon: The Life, Loves, and Death of a Rock Star

by Lesley-Ann Jones


Can there be anything more to say about the endlessly analyzed John Lennon 40 years after his death? In The Search for John Lennon: The Life, Loves, and Death of a Rock Star, Lesley-Ann Jones insists that her book isn't "yet another biography for the sake of it in a major commemorative year." Her hope in writing it was that "a new interpretation based on my own research and interviews would be worthwhile." For the most part, it is.

The Search for John Lennon, which proceeds chronologically through the musician's life, is a grab bag of insights, many culled from interviews Jones conducted over the years. Weighing in are those who knew Lennon well (including his first wife, Cynthia) and those who didn't know him at all (psychologists, both professional and the armchair sort). Of particular interest to Jones are the women who cycled through Lennon's life, especially the less familiar ones, like the British singer Alma Cogan, whose death in 1966 apparently devastated the young Beatle.

Jones, the author of biographies of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, doesn't pretend to have the answers to the questions she poses, but she hazards personal opinions ("My gut tells me..."; "My guess is...") that are, if not always persuasive, never ill-considered. Her book's seriousness isn't particularly well served by the winking mid-paragraph insertions of stray Beatles lyrics. Nevertheless, The Search for John Lennon is a mustn't-miss for those at the advanced beginner stage in their John Lennon studies. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: This probing, psychologically attuned reappraisal of the rock legend pays particular attention to the women in his life--both iconic and under-sung.

Pegasus, $28.95, hardcover, 352p., 9781643136721

Social Science

Do Right by Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces

by Valerie I. Harrison, Kathryn Peach D'Angelo


Do Right by Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces by Valerie I. Harrison and Kathryn Peach D'Angelo offers essential, authentic guidance to non-Black parents and caregivers raising Black children through transracial adoption or in multi-racial homes. Crucially, it emphasizes the importance of promoting a strong, positive identity based on a healthy understanding of African history, culture, art, body image and spirituality.

The ethnically diverse authors were friends and colleagues at Temple University long before D'Angelo and her husband, a white couple, adopted Gabriel, a biracial baby. The profound joys of parenthood didn't prevent D'Angelo from grasping a devastating truth: "Our world does not give our son the privilege of acting like us, and moreover, it places on him the burden of managing how others feel about him."

Presented as an informative dialogue between friends, Do Right by Me confronts unreformed education, healthcare and judicial systems that prevent Black children from being judged solely on their merits, and offers bold strategies for overcoming the inherent disadvantages these systems perpetuate. In the context of education, "doing right" means that parents and caregivers must actively work to ensure each Black child receives the benefits expected by their white peers, and that schools affirmatively commit to fostering well-being for Black students. As Harrison says, "passive education environments equalize nothing for Black children."

While tailored to parents and caregivers, Do Right by Me is an authentic, valuable resource for any reader prepared to serve as a critical ally to Black children and their families. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer

Discover: This crucial guide educates non-Black adoptive parents on how to raise and nurture healthy, happy Black and biracial children despite the ways racism will affect their lives.

Temple University Press, $20, paperback, 194p., 9781439919958

Essays & Criticism

The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Reread

by Harold Bloom


A well-written character in a book can feel like an old friend, and literary critic Harold Bloom delves into a few of his favorites in The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Reread. Bloom died in October 2019, at the age of 89, and this ambitious final book of his career is elegant and insightful; reading it feels like sitting down with a grandfatherly English professor whose knowledge and wit is simultaneously enviable and inspiring, if not occasionally off-putting. (Bloom taught at Yale and Harvard, and it's easy to suspect he writes the way he spoke in the classroom--with a rambling sense of natural authority.)

In a career spanning more than 60 years, Bloom offered his take on some of modern literature's most oft-cited influences--most notably, Don Quixote, Shakespeare and even Sigmund Freud, whose theories on sexuality and human relationships influenced much of Bloom's most controversial criticism. The Bright Book of Life builds on these characters, authors and ideas, alongside deep dives into a total of 52 works by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, Ursula K. Le Guin and other literary giants. With loquacious reflection made palatable by thoughtful, meaty prose--underscored by lengthy excerpts from each title--Bloom makes the case for why these timeless works of fiction remain important and powerful. The Bright Book of Life will likely serve as a reminder to add a few of the classics to that ever-growing 2021 reading list. --Angela Lutz, freelance reviewer

Discover: Distinguished literary critic and professor Harold Bloom takes a deep dive into 52 masterworks of literary fiction in the ambitious final book of his 60-year career.

Knopf, $35, hardcover, 544p., 9780525657262

Philosophy

On Risk

by Mark Kingwell


On Risk by philosopher Mark Kingwell is "a book about risk written at an especially risky time." While life is full of risk assessments--from a child's decision whether it's worth sneaking a cookie, to an adult's deliberations on buying vs. renting--most people, unless employed in dangerous jobs or living in dangerous areas, don't think about their risk of death. Yet the worldwide arrival of Covid-19 this year crystallized the realization that "few of us... had considered death to be a daily prospect in need of consideration. And yet of course it was, because it always is."
 
Kingwell's writing is at once cerebral and accessible. At the beginning of the pandemic, "We're all in this together" was heard everywhere but, as Kingwell points out, "Social and economic fault lines render the virus very uneven in distribution," and so, in actuality, some people are in "it" much more than others. He pays particular attention to the intersection of risk and politics. "Risk is always political," he maintains, since risk is often distributed without consent. When a Michigan family has brown water flowing from their faucets, for example, "even the most grim observer will have a hard time maintaining that the risk incurred is a matter of personal responsibility." As an anxious world, slow to return to optimism, moves toward the second year of the pandemic, this compact, timely book is essential reading for understanding that because risk can never entirely be eliminated, hope is not only necessary, indeed, it is "radical." --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: On Risk looks at the nature of risk through the prism of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Biblioasis, $12.95, paperback, 128p., 9781771963923

Humor

A Wealth of Pigeons: A Cartoon Collection

by Steve Martin, illus. by Harry Bliss


Comedian Steve Martin seems to have no impulse to rest on his laurels: not just a household name in movies, he's written fiction, essays, plays and music. In A Wealth of Pigeons, collaborating with artist and writer Harry Bliss, now he's a cartoonist as well. Bliss draws for the New Yorker, so it's no surprise that this book feels much like a collection from that magazine. However, it's distinguished by regular breaks from the one-panel gag format in favor of strips of various lengths, starring the authors themselves, starting with their first meeting (where they're a bit wary of one another, but quickly come to terms).

Martin relates in the introduction that his first cartoon idea arose from a comment his wife made about their dog's lack of opposable thumbs (now come to fruition in this book). It's a good start, as dog gags are a venerable tradition in this format, and the cartoons also make use of other old-school one-panel tropes like the guy stuck on a desert island.

As Martin also reports, he learned from tweeting out some of the cartoons that there will always be someone who doesn't get it, so readers should probably expect that not every comic will hit their personal funny bone. This collection also might be best suited for a cartoon fan of a certain age--there is more than one Woodstock joke. But for fans of this kind of humor, these two eminences in their professions have done a bang-up job. --Linda Lombardi, writer and editor

Discover: Comedian Steve Martin and New Yorker cartoonist Harry Bliss collaborate to produce this collection of one-panel cartoons punctuated by amusing strips starring the two authors.

Celadon Books, $28, hardcover, 272p., 9781250262899

Children's & Young Adult

Odessa

by Jonathan Hill


Jonathan Hill (Americus) sets the sweet and heartbreaking Odessa in a dystopian future where a group of siblings seek their estranged mother. Both hilarious and devastating, Hill's YA graphic novel is about reckoning with the wounds of the past and moving forward with courage and strength despite the future being fundamentally unknowable. 

Following a series of catastrophic earthquakes, the landscape and infrastructure of the western United States has been permanently devastated. Though some communities persist in isolation, the path ahead is dubious. For Vietnamese American Virginia Crane, the loss of "the world we had built" is worsened by an even deeper personal tragedy: eight years ago, Ginny's mother, Odessa, left the family. Thrown off balance by the sudden arrival of a letter and gift from her mother and irked by her father's continued silence on the subject, Ginny resolves to strike out on her own to find Odessa--and is chagrined when her younger brothers, Harry and Wes, insist on tagging along. 

Odessa maintains a brisk pace and is enriched by an eccentric and charismatic supporting cast (including Wes and Harry, who provide frequent comic relief). Hill's art features a thick black line and a palette of black, white and washed muted pink. The structured squares and rectangles of the panels accentuate the broken, rounded lines of the illustrations within, perfectly capturing the grandeur of the ruined landscape and the uncertainty of those who live in it. Hill reflects on family obligations but Odessa touches on a more urgent theme as well: the impossible challenge of releasing the past and embracing an uncertain future. "The world ended, right? But it didn't. We're still here. Things never end. They just change." --Devon Ashby, sales assistant, Shelf Awareness

Discover: An adolescent girl and her brothers travel across a post-catastrophic future United States in search of their estranged mother.

Oni Press, $19.99, paperback, 328p., ages 12-up, 9781620107898

Rent a Boyfriend

by Gloria Chao


In Gloria Chao's third YA romance, she skillfully uses dual perspectives to show the very different ways families can bond and break, help and harm.

Jing-Jing (known to all outside her tight-knit California Taiwanese community as Chloe) is desperate to convince her parents that they cannot promise her hand in marriage to the "disgusting, chauvinistic Hongbo." She's tried talking to them, but they are dead-set on their daughter marrying him for his parents' fortune. Chloe chooses to go nuclear: she hires Andrew through Rent for Your 'Rents, a company that specializes in fake boyfriends for young women trying to appease their traditional Asian American parents. Drew, who is estranged from his own family because of his desire to pursue art, excels in his role as Andrew, a University of Chicago student with surgeon parents. But, of course, things become romantically complicated when Jing-Jing and Andrew allow themselves to be Chloe and Drew with each other.

Chao (American Panda) begins with an author's note informing readers the book is "inspired by a real-life practice in some Asian countries where women hire fake boyfriends... to alleviate the pressure from family to find a husband." For readers unfamiliar with this practice, it's important to know that Chao is not messing around--and neither are Chloe's parents. While telling the story of a fake-relationship romance, Chao investigates the emotional ramifications of toxic family relationships. She lays bare the internal experience of both first- and second-generation immigrants to the U.S., making it clear that there are genuine reasons behind painful choices. Ultimately uplifting, Rent a Boyfriend is an entertaining romance that doesn't moralize for its teen audience. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: This entertaining fake-relationship romance focuses on the experience of two young second-generation Chinese Americans.

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $18.99, hardcover, 400p., ages 12-up, 9781534462458

The Library Bus

by Bahram Rahman, illus. by Gabrielle Grimard


Inspired by the first library bus in Kabul, Afghanistan, this encouraging picture book celebrates the strength, pride and enthusiasm of female Afghan students and the women who teach them.

It's Pari's first day helping her mother on Kabul's only library bus. Together, they visit a village and a refugee camp, where girls without access to schools wait to borrow books, receive supplies and be taught English. A nervous Pari, who "can't even read or write in Farsi yet," asks, "When did you learn A, C, D, Mama?" Her response--"I had to hide in the basement to study"--makes Pari grateful she will be allowed to attend school. Eager to start, Pari practices her alphabet by reading acronyms on tents: WFP and UNHCR. Asked how learning feels, an elated Pari cries, "Free!" In the final pages, mother and daughter curl together, their chadors off, letting their long hair loose, while Pari thinks of the girls she will help tomorrow.

Bahram Rahman, who worked as a gender equality activist in Afghanistan, delicately portrays in his first picture book the continued effects of the Taliban's prohibition on female education. Yet it is with profound hope and drive that Rahman depicts his characters: Pari, motivated to read; her mother, patiently repeating the same lesson; girls spilling over with excitement over a notebook and pencil. With her watercolor illustrations, Gabrielle Grimard (Stolen Words illustrator) evokes natural movement, suggests soft textures and depicts the beauty of dusty landscapes dotted with brightly painted buildings. Closed with an author's note sharing his connection to the story, The Library Bus extols the soaring spirit of those who value learning. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

Discover: An Afghan girl joins her mother as she drives her library bus to villages and refugee camps to teach girls who can't attend school.

Pajama Press, $18.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 5-8, 9781772781014

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