Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, February 12, 2021


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

Cat Books & 'Cupboard Love' for Valentine's Day

My wife and I love our little clowder of cats, Molly and Maisie. And they love us, even though there's a chance that what they feel is "cupboard love," as John Gray describes the emotion in Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (FSG).

He does, however, concede: "Even as they rely on us, they remain independent of us. If they show affection for us, it is not just cupboard love. If they do not enjoy our company, they leave. If they stay, it is because they want to be with us. This too is a reason why so many of us cherish them."

Maybe that's enough of a gift for a bookish cat Valentine's Day. Or you could wrap up a copy of the delightful Working from Home with a Cat by Heidi Moreno (Chronicle), which illustrates the challenges and rewards of feline companionship during pandemic-induced isolation.

Two novels that are personal favorites explore the complexities of human/cat relationship transactions. Chibi, star of The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Selland (New Directions), is well worth meeting, though getting to know her will be, as it must, just a little more complicated ("Chibi remained unfettered, coming and going as she pleased.").

Another feline on the move is the mysterious stray cat who weaves through the interconnected stories in Nick Bradley's wonderful novel The Cat and The City (Atlantic Books), which begins with a translation of Hagiwara Sakutaro's poem "A Blue Cat" ("Ah! The only thing that can sleep in this vast city night/ Is the shadow of a single blue cat").

Coincidentally, the first book I ever owned was a signed copy of Cate Coblentz's Newbery Honor Book The Blue Cat of Castle Town, illustrated by Janice Holland (Dover Publications). Given to me as a Christmas present in 1950, the story features a cat searching for "a hearth where a mortal understood and sang that song" of beauty, peace and contentment. Seems like more than cupboard love to me. --Robert Gray, editor


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


Book Candy

Amanda Gorman Reads

Watch Amanda Gorman read "The Hill We Climb," "Making Mountains As We Run," "Fury and Faith" and More. (via Open Culture)

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A new film adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is in development, Variety reported.

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A Dante descendant is seeking to overturn poet's 1302 corruption conviction, the Guardian reported.

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"The delicate art of the English tea set: a historical mystery writer's appreciation" was featured by CrimeReads.

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"These impossibly detailed origami figures are made of a single piece of paper," Fast Company noted.


Simply Read Books: The Simply Small Series by Paola Opal


Great Reads

Rediscover: Happy All the Time

When American writer Laurie Colwin (1944-1992) died suddenly of a heart attack at age 48, she left behind five novels, three story collections and two books of recipes and essays. Her writing first appeared in the New Yorker and her first story collection was published in 1974. Colwin contributed regularly to Gourmet magazine and wrote for Mademoiselle, Allure and Playboy. Her first novel, Happy All the Time, came out in 1978. Colwin's nonfiction books, Home Cooking (1988) and More Home Cooking (1993), combined memoir and essay with recipes. Her other books include Passion and Affect (1974), Shine on, Bright and Dangerous Object (1975), The Lone Pilgrim (1981), Family Happiness (1982), Another Marvelous Thing (1988), Goodbye Without Leaving (1990) and A Big Storm Knocked It Over (1993). More Home Cooking and A Big Storm Knocked It Over were published posthumously.

Happy All the Time is a romantic comedy about Guido and Vincent, cousins and best friends, who each fall in love and engage in the perilous world of courtship. On February 9, Vintage released a new edition of Happy All the Time ($16) with a foreword by Katherine Heiny and fresh cover art. This is the first of five planned Colwin re-releases from Vintage: Another Marvelous Thing, The Lone Pilgrim and Family Happiness on June 8 and Home Cooking on October 12. By year's end, the cream of Colwin's truncated career will be available to a new generation of readers and old fans alike. --Tobias Mutter


Harper: The Lowering Days by Gregory Brown


The Writer's Life

Jewell Parker Rhodes and Alan Gratz: 9/11 for Middle-Graders

We invited authors Allan Gratz and Jewell Parker Rhodes to discuss their middle-grade novels about the September 11, 2001, attacks: Rhodes's Towers Falling (Little, Brown), published in 2016, and Gratz's Ground Zero (Scholastic), published earlier this month.

Alan Gratz is the author of several books for young readers, including Allies, Grenade, Refugee, Projekt 1065, Prisoner B-3087 and Code of Honor. He lives in North Carolina.

Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Ghost Boys, Black Brother, Black Brother, Ninth Ward (a Coretta Scott King Honor book), Sugar (winner of the Jane Addams Peace Association book award) and Bayou Magic. She has also written many books for adults. She lives in Seattle, Wash.

Alan Gratz: Towers Falling is a powerful tool, which educators can use to introduce the idea of 9/11 to students born after the fact. Was that part of the decision to set your story in a classroom, 15 years after 9/11? 

Jewell Parker Rhodes: Throughout my youth-writing career, I've purposefully written for kids and their teachers. Teachers, in my view, amplify a good book. My approach was sealed when the principal, librarian and teachers of the Brooklyn New School, P.S. 146, opened their community to me and shared with me their trauma from watching the attack on the Towers unfold across the river. My novel primarily takes place during a school semester, focusing on one major protagonist--Deja, who's Black and homeless because of her father's PTSD as a 9/11 survivor--and her friends: Sabeen, a Turkish-American Muslim girl, and Ben, a Jewish boy whose dad has had multiple deployments and whose parents are divorcing.  

Jewell Parker Rhodes
(photo: Jay Watson)

With my characters I was really trying to capture the sense of community and friendship, trying to show how diversity is America's strength. The novel very much encourages respect for our founding documents (which, though imperfect, promote social justice) and our historic pro-immigration and anti-discrimination stance. Deja's character allowed me to show the lingering effects of 9/11 and how her father's PTSD as a Twin Towers employee led to the family's economic downfall. Sabeen allows me to explore how the majority of Muslims are not terrorists. Yet, faith and colorism mark them for continuing prejudice. Ben represents all the military children who've also had to sacrifice and be resilient post 9/11. 

Your wonderful novel, Ground Zero, alternates between two major characters and two locations, separated by 20 years. It's a complex survival story with graphic descriptions from inside a tower and in an Afghan village. Without giving away too much, can you say more about your artistic approach?

Gratz: The story of 9/11 is very important, and one that young readers want to read. But the message at the end of that day was, "Muslim terrorists are coming to kill us!" And while that was true that day, it hasn't been true for most of the intervening 20 years. We've had 20 years to put that day into perspective, and I wanted to find a way to show that perspective in the novel.

Alan Gratz
(photo: Wes Stitt)

So Ground Zero became the story of two different kids. The first is a boy named Brandon, who is in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and has to find a way to survive when an airplane slams into the building just a few floors above him. The other character is Reshmina, a girl who experiences her own version of 9/11 when her village in Afghanistan becomes a battleground between the United States and the Taliban on September 11, 2019. As I did in Refugee, I find a way to show not just the parallels in those different times, places and stories, but also how the characters are directly connected across time and space. That global, timeless connection is becoming a recurring theme in my work--the idea that we're all of us in this together, and always have been.

Rhodes: When Towers Falling was published, a few people took me to task for "showing" 9/11 trauma on a computer screen while Deja imagines the suffering. Your novel was published five years after mine. Do you think the passage of time and/or your own artistic sensibility allows you to be more vivid?

Gratz: I get pushback, too. The pushback is always from adults, though, not kids. Young readers are desperate to know the truth about difficult, dangerous situations--refugee crises, the Holocaust, 9/11. As adults, we often want to shelter kids and maintain their innocence for as long as possible. I get that. I don't want to drop the weight of the world on young readers' shoulders. But I think a lot of adults forget--or just don't understand--that young readers want to read books that deal with difficult subjects because those difficult subjects have come to them first. They are shaping their views of the larger world right now because the world is forcing them to. And books are a terrific place to do that.

Rhodes: Yes. Like you, I conceive of my novels as "safe places" for kids to discuss ideas and current events with teachers, librarians and parents. Patronizing kids leaves them underprepared to become good citizens.

Gratz: I agree. So, yes, my intention right from the very start was to put my two protagonists right in the middle of the trouble. Has the passage of time given me more license? Perhaps. The past five years since your Towers Falling came out have certainly seen issues of racism, social justice, climate change, pandemics, domestic terrorism and more come to the fore, and though middle schoolers may not be reading the newspaper or watching the news, they see it all. They hear it all. We all do. Perhaps as our country has become more politically charged, our overall tolerance for more direct, more vivid accounts of events has risen too. Because we realize we can't bury our heads in the sand about any of this any longer. 


Book Review

Fiction

Sorrow and Bliss

by Meg Mason


Martha would be the first to admit that she's a handful. She throws things at her husband, Patrick, and makes literal messes for him to clean up. That readers of Sorrow and Bliss will, like Patrick, put up with Martha is a testament to Meg Mason's comedic chops, which find improbably agreeable accommodation in a novel about dealing with mental illness.

Martha narrates Sorrow and Bliss, which begins during a crisis in her marriage. From there the narrative rewinds to her London childhood and proceeds through years marked by her episodic despair. As she makes her way to the present, Martha considers her checkered employment history (she's briefly what she calls a "chair describer" for World of Interiors magazine), her disastrous 43-day marriage to an art broker "with a focus on pastoral art and sourcing it for oligarchs," and her relationships with family members, including her aggressively reproductive sister. Waiting in the wings for much of Martha's life is Patrick, her cousin's childhood schoolmate. By the time Martha and Patrick finally get together, he's willing to tolerate her cruelty. Until the day he isn't.

Running alongside Sorrow and Bliss's dry comedy is a sobering inquiry: How accountable for her actions is someone suffering from mental illness? While the novel is awash in compassion for those who, as Martha puts it, "find it more difficult to be alive than other people," Mason (You Be Mother) doesn't give her harum-scarum protagonist a pass. As for Patrick, he's not off the hook either. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Meg Mason's unflagging comic impulses drive this novel about the havoc a woman's mental illness wreaks on her marriage.

Harper, $26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9780063049581

The Sanatorium

by Sarah Pearse


Sarah Pearse's scenic thriller The Sanatorium is set in a tuberculosis sanatorium turned five-star hotel in the Swiss Alps resort of Crans-Montana. Thanks to Pearse's descriptive powers and taste for the macabre, her debut will give readers the impression of looking through a design magazine guest edited by Vincent Price.

Elin Warner and her boyfriend, Will, are at Le Sommet for an engagement party for Elin's brother, Isaac, and Elin's childhood friend Laure, who works at the newly opened hotel. Will, an architect, is smitten with the place, whose decor includes glass cases displaying medical artifacts from the former sanatorium. Elin isn't sold: "This juxtaposition... it's chilling. Institution butting up against beauty." Her uneasiness grows when Isaac tells her that the hotel's principal architect went missing several years earlier, and her misgivings are flat-out validated the next morning, when Isaac announces that Laure has vanished. Elin, a British police detective on leave following a traumatic case, gets sleuthing--something made all the more difficult when a snowstorm traps everyone at the hotel.

When it's not calling to mind Architectural Digest, The Sanatorium can read like an issue of Psychology Today. Pearse's characters doggedly explore the interpersonal dynamics that she has constructed for them, especially a long-unresolved issue between Elin and Isaac. There's also the anguishing matter of whether the panic-attack-prone Elin should return to her job. The novel's psychologically focused passages can be dense, but readers coming out the other side will savor the intricate plotting, idiosyncratic set dressing and snow-covered suspense. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Villainy and psychology are equally key to this elaborately plotted thriller set in a tuberculosis sanatorium turned luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps.

Pamela Dorman Books, $27, hardcover, 400p., 9780593296677

A Bright Ray of Darkness

by Ethan Hawke


In actor and writer Ethan Hawke's thoughtful and atmospheric A Bright Ray of Darkness, a man struggles to come to terms with his crumbling marriage, fatherhood and his own desires. William Harding, Hawke's 21-year-old protagonist from his debut novel, The Hottest State (1996), returns as a 32-year-old actor about to make his Broadway debut as Hotspur in Henry IV. Meanwhile, his marriage is undergoing a public implosion as his wife leaves him in the wake of his infidelity. While William grapples with his persistent (and fruitless) hope that his wife will return to him, he satisfies his impulses for sex and female comfort with one-night stands and half-realized affairs. Meanwhile, Henry IV and William's eccentric fellow actors become his center of gravity as he seeks solace through the transportive power of acting.

From the start, Hawke's narrative voice creates a compelling atmosphere of disaffected self-assuredness that barely conceals his protagonist's actual but submerged despair. William's first-person voice keeps the story of his life seeming simple and obvious, even when he tumbles into self-loathing and hopeless fantasies. The book becomes a reflection of William's "blissful state of melancholy" while allowing the reader to see beyond William's self-delusions. Nevertheless, it is Hawke's descriptions of being an embodied actor transcending himself that truly shine. In William's scenes onstage, readers can forget the plot's tribulations and glimpse how acting, like reading, can allow one to slip into the bodies, voices and feelings of others. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Ethan Hawke's intimate novel explores the complexities of marriage, art and being able to--in the most literal sense--live with yourself.

Knopf, $27.95, hardcover, 256p., 9780385352383

The Bad Muslim Discount

by Syed M. Masood


Syed M. Masood's boldly entertaining second novel, The Bad Muslim Discount, is a fresh, animated addition to post-9/11 literature exploring Islam and Muslims in the U.S. Set in San Francisco in 2016, the story centers on the intriguing dynamic between dual narrators as it explores the ways individuals and communities use religion to exert control over one another.

Anvar is a free-spirited Pakistani-American lawyer with an irreverence toward religion and other serious topics that drives his mother to distraction. For Azza, an illegal alien from Baghdad, her father's Islam is a straitjacket. She is forced to wear a burka covering all but her stunning green eyes and is pursued by a violent suitor named Qaiz, whose exaggerated piety impresses her father. Neighbors in the same apartment complex, Azza initiates a sexually charged relationship with Anvar. When the pressure to marry Qaiz becomes unbearable, she unleashes a poorly thought-out plan of revenge against him that inadvertently leads to officers from Homeland Security knocking on Anvar's door.

Masood (More than Just a Pretty Face) cleverly deploys comic relief to offset some of the darker themes uncovered by his absorbing, fast-paced plot. The diverse supporting cast includes a jolly landlord who offers legally dubious rent rebates to those deemed to be "good Muslims"; a grandmother who dispenses life advice during marathon games of checkers; and the beautiful Zuha, Anvar's true love.

Exploring Islamic norms across the geographical spectrum, The Bad Muslim Discount offers readers multidimensional insight into the plurality of Muslims who contribute a textural richness to the American tapestry. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

Discover: An American Muslim adventure drama explores provocative themes of religious freedom and cultural pressures with an irresistible blend of humor, tenderness and courage.

Doubleday, $26.95, hardcover, 368p., 9780385545259

Mystery & Thriller

The Mercenary

by Paul Vidich


The fourth world-weary Cold War spy novel from Paul Vidich, set in the unstable Soviet Union of the mid-1980s, isn't the macho, techno-thriller adventure one might expect of a book called The Mercenary. Instead, it's a tense and pained study of the loneliness of spycraft, the toll of maintaining dual identities and the terror of living a life where everyone around you might secretly be playing the same game. Vidich's Cold War echoes that of Alan Furst or even John le Carré, a shifting labyrinth of dangers both violent and existential.

Vidich's mercenary is a Russian-born and KGB-trained American dispatched by the CIA to Moscow to exfiltrate a Soviet military officer. Readers expecting the usual drop points, double crosses and veiled chatter with enemies at embassy soirees will be satisfied. The story sprawls out to include an uncertain romance, transfers of power in the Kremlin, secret court proceedings, rumors of moles on both sides and--inevitably--a border crossing that's almost unbearably suspenseful.

But Vidich's tight plotting and focused, polished prose keeps The Mercenary, like its predecessors The Coldest Warrior and The Good Assassin, concise and quick moving, despite the complexity of the story. His attentiveness to the disorienting misery of undercover work, the divided loyalties and threats to identity, power the narrative rather than slow it down. His hero's every interaction is fraught with danger that movie-style violent heroics would only make worse. Vidich dramatizes that dread and that humanity with elegance. --Alan Scherstuhl, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This tense and humane Cold War spy thriller will keep readers in suspense right up to the climactic border crossing.

Pegasus, $25.95, hardcover, 288p., 9781643136202

Graphic Books

Thirsty Mermaids

by Kat Leyh


Lumberjanes co-author Kat Leyh maroons three mermaids on land with messy, hilarious results in her graphic novel Thirsty Mermaids.

Eez, Tooth and Pearl just want to drink some human liquor they found in a sunken ship, but that proves difficult under the sea, so they decide on a whim to let Eez turn them all into humans temporarily. After stumbling around like a day-drunk Little Mermaid, they steal some clothes and a credit card and achieve their goal at an aptly named bar--the Thirsty Mermaid.

The next morning brings new meaning to dehydration as the friends discover the horrors of hangovers and realize that Eez doesn't know how to turn them back into mermaids. Luckily, they're rescued by their bartender from the previous night, Vivi. Though baffled by their inability to act like normal humans, she takes them in. It's not until her sister reminds Vivi of her tendency to let people walk all over her that Vivi tells the three mermaids they need to earn their keep, a mandate that sets off a new series of misadventures.

The graphic novel is broken roughly into five parts, with headings like "The Hangover" and "Y'all Need Jobs," but it's one smooth narrative, even if the characters wreak near-constant havoc. Thirsty Mermaids is full of profanity, bawdy jokes and commentary on capitalism, but it's also a very queer story about the power of acceptance and finding family, however that may happen. A diverse LGBTQ+ cast, a distinctive art style and a bighearted message make this book a standout. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels

Discover: Kat Leyh's hilarious graphic novel Thirsty Mermaids follows three mermaids stuck on land after their quest for booze goes awry.

Gallery 13, $29.99, hardcover, 256p., 9781982133573

Biography & Memoir

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out

by Jeremy Atherton Lin


Jeremy Atherton Lin brings a wise, wry voice to his masterful Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. This thoughtful study is part memoir, part research project, part travelogue and a large part classic essay-as-assay, seeking answers on the page. His subtitle indicates a wondering: Why did we go out? The answers are various; they change over time and of course are personal for Lin, but he progresses toward an understanding of what the gay bar really was, is and might be. "The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary." If gay no longer needs a bar, is this a victory, or a loss?

Gay Bar is a personal history and a history in the traditional, researched sense: it relates Lin's coming-of-age as well as a world of gay bars, from the scintillating to the sordid, dating back hundreds of years. Seven sections are devoted to locations--bars or neighborhoods--and represent epochs, both in Lin's life and in the lifetime of the gay bar. Lin's writing is consistently intriguing, descriptive and lovely: "the cranes and glassy high rises hover like chaperones." As narrator he is by turns pensive, funny, self-deprecating, exasperated and reverent; he can be delightfully suggestive. "A pipe spilled chlorinated water. The brickwork had grown mossy down the length of its trajectory, like a viridescent trail-to-adventure on the building's belly." Gay Bar is enriched by the voices of others--thinkers in history, philosophy, literature and queer theory--but Lin never loses his own. This exploration is personal, deeply researched, smart and essential. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: This superb, multifaceted book takes a close look at gay bars individually and as concept, in history and in the author's life, tackling big questions with wisdom and grace.

Little, Brown, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9780316458733

Social Science

We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival

by Natalie West, editor, Tina Horn


In this heroic collection of 32 essays bursting with heart and fury, a racially, sexually and gender diverse group of sex industry professionals divulges their experiences of sexual violence and affirms the value of a community that is criminalized, stigmatized and brutalized.

"How can you sexually assault a whore?" This question undergirds editor Natalie West's humanizing anthology, We Too. The contributors explain the faulty assumptions behind this endangering perception--sex work isn't work; those in the industry are "asking for it"--and describe surviving sinister attacks by management, coworkers, friends and clients. Victims fear reporting such violence because doing so could mean getting fired or arrested. Already their workplace is fraught with worries: weighing contracting an STI versus losing a condom-hating client; tolerating wage theft in exchange for somewhere to work; and, in 2020, considering potential exposure to Covid-19 for financial stability. The police further complicate the work environment by purporting to fight human trafficking while targeting sex workers; they consider prostitutes "victims" yet threaten them with jail unless they testify against their pimps or madams.

Though decriminalization is presented as a clear solution, We Too serves not to argue but to foster kinship. These communal tales tell of lows (lost custody battles, abortions), highs (unionizing strippers, a "Hookers Army" promoting peer support and self-defense) and hilarities (mistaking a wig being ripped off for real hair, a poop tsunami). By showcasing their humanity, not statistics, these inspiring individuals assert their personhood, reject the reduction of their bodies to objects for study and ask the public to listen to their words. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

Discover: An unapologetic army of voices shares the beauty and danger of sex work.

Feminist Press, $24.95, paperback, 336p., 9781558612853

Body, Mind & Spirit

Wait: A Love Letter to Those in Despair

by Cuong Lu


Buddhist teacher Cuong Lu opens Wait: A Love Letter to Those in Despair with his memory of witnessing a man being shot as he and his family left Vietnam. The experience opened him up to the violence in the world, and to the suffering at the heart of the violence and the individuals who perpetrate it. Lu emphasizes that hatred and anger do not just lead to actions that harm others; they harm people who cause violence as well. Wait is short, but powerful and provocative throughout. Lu suggests that the way to end violence is to first end violence within the self, and to live with more understanding for others--and for oneself, as "the moment the violence stops, peace is possible."

Wait is composed of short meditations for chapters with poetry interspersed, and it invites readers to try to experience a new way of living by understanding themselves as not alone, but part of a much greater world and society. Lu does not ask his readers to ignore pain and suffering but instead to see how suffering can open the individual to a more connected existence, in celebration of the connection life has to offer. This book is a gift for a new year, an inspiration to take the hardships of 2020 and not recast them, but use those moments of pain, and others, to find renewal through individual experiences of despair. Most importantly, Lu offers, to those who need it, the knowledge that pain and despair are not the end, but there can be something waiting on the other side. --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer

Discover: Buddhist teacher Cuong Lu draws upon his own life experience carefully and gently to help readers interrupt and disrupt their own cycles of pain and violence.

Shambhala, $16.95, hardcover, 160p., 9781611808803

Science

An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering

by Dr. Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen


Trained as an anesthesiologist, Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen, now a member of the Faculty of Main Medicine at the Royal College of Anesthetists in London, is an expert in pain. With An Anatomy of Pain, he thoughtfully illuminates how little is known about how it is experienced, understood and treated in modern medicine. Lalkhen focuses on how the misunderstandings of pain's inner workings, by both medical professionals and people experiencing it, have shaped various treatments of it, including patterns in prescriptions and accidental solutions that might cause relief, but are not always a cure.

Lalkhen overall seeks to reform readers' understanding of pain. It is not always due to singular or acute experiences, but rather "a warning system" for the body that people can learn and relearn to respond to. It is, moreover, "a complex experience and not one over which we have mastery, neither when it has been triggered due to injury nor when it has become chronic pain." His text takes readers through histories of the conceptualization of pain in different cultures, various categorizations of pain and approaches to their treatments, and treatments including opiates, injected treatments and spinal cord stimulators. Overall, Lalkhen advocates for a multipronged approach that relies less on direct, singular interventions, and more on approaches that combine physiotherapeutical, medical and psychological treatments. As he writes, pain is, after all, "both a sensory and an emotional experience.... It is only by addressing the complete experience of pain that we can hope to manage pain and alleviate suffering." --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer

Discover: Physician Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen, a leading specialist in pain management, offers an insightful look at the complexities of experiencing and treating pain.

Scribner, $28, hardcover, 256p., 9781982160982

Children's & Young Adult

In the Shadow of the Moon: America, Russia, and the Hidden History of the Space Race

by Amy Cherrix


Author and bookseller Amy Cherrix's In the Shadow of the Moon is an arresting exploration of the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. She focuses on two brilliant, driven engineers with unbridled ambitions to send humans into space and willing to do anything to achieve the goal.

Wernher von Braun, "the Nazis' genius rocket designer," developed the rocket that would launch the U.S. space program. The knowledge that built the V-2 was also von Braun's escape from prosecution for war crimes and his ticket into the United States. When Stalin learned von Braun was in the United States, he worried the U.S. would have the expertise and resources to attack the U.S.S.R. Stalin contacted Sergei Korolev, a gifted engineer whom Stalin had (wrongly) accused of treason, and offered him a job working on a rocket that could reach North America. Both von Braun and Korolev had dreams of creating something greater than military weaponry, and the paranoia and competition of the Cold War provided the perfect atmosphere to take both men's aspirations to the moon.

Cherrix (Backyard Bears) presents the race with suspense and intrigue, exposing both sides' skeletons, carefully handling some of the more gruesome secrets that made the accomplishments possible. Her author's note is an exquisite ending to an exceptional account: "Can good works and world-changing achievements that advance science absolve a person from complicity in horrific crimes?" Cherrix offers the facts; readers are left to render a verdict. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: A gripping account of the rocket engineers who were the driving forces behind the Cold War space race.

Balzer + Bray, $17.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 13-up, 9780062888754

The Secret Fawn

by Kallie George, illus. by Elly MacKay


The younger-sibling lament "I miss all the fun" gets a fresh, visually flourishing workup in Kallie George and Elly MacKay's The Secret Fawn, in which a girl finds a way to redress the perceived injustice of having been born second.

"This morning, Mama saw a deer. Dad and Sara saw it too./ But I didn't.... I always miss everything." It's a bitter pill for a kid who wasn't tall enough to pick the first apple from a tree--her older sister had that honor. And guess which sister was robbed of the chance to see some shooting stars because of her early bedtime?

Determined to spot that deer, the narrator heads outside and starts looking. After several false alarms--she sees a flash of brown, but it's only a dog, and so on--she plunks down on the grass and waits. Her patience is rewarded with a sight more meaningful than a deer: "A fawn.... Quiet as a whisper. Little like me."

George (Wings of Olympus) imbues The Secret Fawn with an air of enchantment, and yet to create her dazzling art, MacKay (Red Sky at Night) turns to media no more mystical than ink on paper. The book's sun-kissed earth tones seem to sit on the page in three dimensions, practically inviting the reader to touch, say, a whorl of dog fur. The pixie-dusted mood lingers when the girl returns home, where her mother asks if she has seen the deer. The girl shakes her head--"Because I didn't," she thinks. "I saw its fawn." Forsaking bragging rights: Isn't that a mark of maturity? --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: In this quietly resplendent picture book, a younger sibling who has missed out on seeing a deer sets off alone in search of one.

Tundra, $18.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 3-7, 9780735265165

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega

by Crystal Maldonado


Relationships are the cornerstone of Crystal Maldonado's uplifting YA debut, but it's the bond with self that makes 16-year-old Charlie Vega an authentically drawn, charismatic protagonist.

"As a family," Charlie recalls, "we were fat, and maybe we didn't love that... but we accepted it." Then, when Charlie was 13, her proudly Puerto Rican father died. By 14, her white mother, who had previously delighted in cooking Puerto Rican-fare better than Charlie's father, "shrank"--and Charlie didn't. The rift that had always been present between the two widened as her mother dove into meal-replacement shakes and Charlie immersed herself in online writing communities, feminism and the fat acceptance movement. Charlie desperately wants to accept herself as is but finds it difficult to move past the perfect ideal of thinness. Her best friend, Amelia, "is the walking embodiment of Black excellence" and Charlie feels "anxious and insecure" next to her. It doesn't help that boys keep trying to use Charlie to get to Amelia. On top of her feelings of loss and low self-esteem, Charlie has also never been kissed. And so, when a young man who likes her enters the scene, she throws herself wholly into the relationship, to the detriment of others.

Maldonado created such a realistic teenager by, in her words, "highlighting examples of how the world treats Charlie so that readers aren't just hearing the internal pressure that Charlie is applying to herself, but also seeing the external pressure." Charlie's doubts, frustrations, fears, joys, excitements... all are graphically detailed to allow readers a painfully clear view of her experience. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an utterly heartwarming story of love--of friends, of family, of romance and, most importantly, of oneself. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: In this YA debut, a never-been-kissed 16-year-old teen struggles to accept her femininity and fatness.

Holiday House, $18.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 12-up, 9780823447176

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