Week of Friday, May 19, 2023
We review two terrific books in translation this week: The Postcard, Anne Berest's "brilliant work of autofiction," prompted by the mysterious receipt of a postcard containing the names of four ancestors killed at Auschwitz, translated from the French by Tina Kover; and Fabio Morábito's "intricately clever, superbly executed 15-story collection" Mothers and Dogs, translated from the Spanish by Curtis Bauer. Plus Warrior Girl Unearthed, Angeline Boulley's Ojibwe-centered YA thriller, a "propulsive and empowered" companion to her Firekeeper's Daughter, and so many more!
Elsewhere in the book world, in response to a wave of book bannings, PEN America, Penguin Random House, authors, and parents have filed a suit against a Florida school district. Read about it here.
The Best Books This Week
by Anne Berest, transl. by Tina Kover
"They don't like Jews very much at school," a six-year-old French girl tells her grandmother, Anne Berest's mother, halfway through The Postcard, Berest's brilliant work of autofiction, translated from the French by Tina Kover. Her daughter's experience is only the latest indignity endured by Berest's Jewish family. On a snowy day in 2003, Anne's mother, Lélia, receives a mysterious postcard in the mail. Written on the card in an unfamiliar script are the names of four of Lélia's relatives: maternal grandparents Ephraïm and Emma, and two of their children, Noémie and Jacques. All four were killed at Auschwitz in 1942. Among the mysteries pertaining to this card: Who sent it? For what purpose? Why is the postage stamp upside down? And why does the card appear to have been purchased 10 years before it was mailed?
Berest (Sagan, Paris 1954) paid no heed to the card when her mother received it. Sixteen years later, after her daughter's encounter at school, Berest becomes obsessed with finding out who sent the card and learning about her family history. The bulk of The Postcard involves Berest's inquiries and the painful family stories she uncovers. The book derives enormous power from seemingly small details, including the number on the door behind which concentration-camp prisoners are held, and Ephraïm continuing to set the dinner table for four after, "with plates and silverware for Noémie and Jacques, as he had done every day since their arrest." This is a gut-wrenching, exceptional work. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer
Mothers and Dogs
by Fabio Morábito, transl. by Curtis Bauer
The 15 stories of Fabio Morábito's remarkable Mothers and Dogs reflect his own peregrinations through Europe and Mexico. Morábito--born in Egypt, raised in Italy, and identifying as Mexican since age 15--presents global citizens seeking (and missing) connections. After translating Morábito's 2021 novel, Home Reading Service, poet and professor Curtis Bauer translates Morabito's first collection of stories into English.
In the titular "Mothers and Dogs," Luis tends to his hospitalized, dying mother while his younger brother is tasked with feeding Luis's intimidating mastiff. Luis reappears in "Oncologist," venturing into a neighbor's party to retrieve his keys and finding a stranger's cancer diagnosis left on the sofa. Morábito intriguingly uses the same false name in two stories: in "The Sailboat," an expat calling himself Santibáñez poses as a potential buyer to enter his childhood apartment; in "On the Other Side of the Fence," a teen hoping to retrieve his tennis ball from the home next to the club declares his mother's name is Santibáñez. Assumptions and knowing are brilliantly juxtaposed in "The Dutch," about a man who contacts a family he met decades ago as a vacationing 10-year-old; in "At the Regional Bus Stop," featuring two passengers waiting for their rides; and in "Night Bakery" about an unrelated pair of predawn regulars at a Berlin bakery.
Small details comprise whole worlds in Morábito's absorbing narratives, sometimes realistic (a house-sitting friend), other times fantastical yet still believable (geriatric joggers turning aggressive under cover of darkness). Stories within stories also prove especially rewarding. Morábito even manages to turn death into a community-building opportunity, at least temporarily. --Terry Hong, BookDragon
The Three of Us
by Ore Agbaje-Williams
The Three of Us, Ore Agbaje-Williams's knockout debut novel about the hazards and self-destructive nature of spousal compromise, presents a three-part narrative featuring a wife, a husband, and a best friend--all of whom make confessions with combustive results. Marriage liberated the unnamed wife of this story from her controlling Nigerian parents, but she and her best friend, Temi, had once vowed to stay single. "Until Temi," she says, "I didn't know it was even possible to decide things for myself." Now, she and her husband, also an unnamed Nigerian, are trying to conceive a child, although she doesn't want children. He seeks not happiness, which he believes unattainable, but contentment--"we are in it for the long haul"--and describes over multiple pages how he pictured their life. He comes home, however, to find Temi visiting, a woman who causes him to "look twice" at his wife. Temi stays for dinner, a bulwark against her friend's deterioration into someone unrecognizable. "What had happened to our belief that marriage was a system designed to give women yet another role under the guise of love, free will, and other temporary emotions?" Temi wonders.
The three drink and talk, each propulsive moment compounding the next, until the punctures in the façade of marital amicability meet in one gaping chasm between the spouses. Fine details--the wife using her foot to hold the handheld vacuum to avoid stooping over--suffuse love and life into a hilarious, clever and incisive narrative of admirable and ugly truths. The Three of Us is a simmering tempest of clashing expectations, values and desires. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
A History of the Island
by Eugene Vodolazkin, transl. by Lisa C. Hayden
Telling a society's complete history is an ambitious undertaking for a novel, a form often obsessed with the individual and particular. But Eugene Vodolazkin (Solovyov and Larionov; Laurus), celebrated Russian novelist and medieval historian, does just that in A History of the Island. With the artful translation of Lisa C. Hayden, Vodolazkin tells an epic story with sweeping scope that never bypasses the granularity of human existence.
The history of the island--found on no map--is told from the perspective of monks whose divisions and characters from time to time take center stage. Additionally, the composition is overseen by a multicentenarian couple who are the island's former rulers and last surviving members of its aristocracy. The shifting points of view and the chroniclers' all-too-human sensibilities make them almost the main characters--and unreliable narrators--but the telling remains quiet and removed enough for the island's story to take center stage, and for it to seem like the truth.
It is a history from the beginning to the present. It is full of upheaval: laws, rulers, religions, ideologies, intellectual fashions, economic systems, and more are venerated, only to be cast aside. The outside world exists, but as another place, for the island is unavoidably apart. This is history as parable, told with an Old Testament sensibility that is punctuated with darts of irony, modern and postmodern. Its humor and light touch mask a withering critique of Western rationalism--which extends to idolization of any philosophy, theology, or social order claiming omniscience--while consistently decrying the catastrophe of all war. --Walker Minot, writer and editor
by R.F. Kuang
Fantasy writer R.F. Kuang (Poppy War trilogy) pivots toward deliciously shocking realism in Yellowface, committing to the page the whispered wink-wink-nod-nod truths within the publishing world. With utter aplomb, she presents a delightful takedown of quotidian microaggressions and blatant racism, of social media and cancel culture, of literary covens and easy betrayal, packaged in a subversive narrative about achieving authorial fame.
"Athena Liu is, simply put, so fucking cool," Junie Hayward admits. They're "friends by circumstance," having attended Yale together. They're both writers, but "Athena gets every good thing, because that's how this industry works. Publishing picks a winner--someone attractive enough, someone cool and young and, oh, we're all thinking it, let's just say it, 'diverse' enough." Athena's got multiple bestsellers, prizes, even a Netflix deal. In the meantime, Junie--yes, she's white--has an obscure first novel. "I'd expected [Athena] to skyrocket out of my orbit by now," Junie confesses, but they still meet regularly--until that fateful evening when pandan pancakes at Athena's posh apartment prove fatal for Athena. It's career-boosting for Junie, who soon thereafter has a brilliant new manuscript to deliver to the world.
Prodigious Kuang is not unlike Athena, having written The Poppy War as a Georgetown undergraduate. She's currently in a PhD program at Yale after earning degrees at Cambridge and Oxford. Yellowface might not be a perfect novel--it meanders, and the ending feels predictable--but it is an unquestionably entertaining exposé of a mysterious enterprise seemingly controlled by "the Powers That Be" and their "chosen." Junie's not wrong: "Academics and scholars will have a field day with this text." So, too, will readers. --Terry Hong, BookDragon
by Emma Cline
Grifters come in many guises, such as that of 22-year-old Alex, the New York sex worker who is the protagonist of The Guest, a novel by Emma Cline (The Girls). "Guest" is one way to describe someone who cozies up to prominent people and helps herself to their money, painkillers, and more. In just two years in New York, Alex has stolen from roommates and is banned from certain restaurants, including one in which "she'd tried to charge dinner to an old client's account." An ex-con named Dom, to whom Alex owes a lot of money, would like to talk to her. Yet Alex spots a lifeline: 50-ish divorcé Simon invites her to spend August at his posh Long Island home--until, that is, she damages his car and engages in shenanigans so upsetting that, right before Labor Day weekend, he suggests she return to the city.
Like all good grifters, Alex doesn't give up easily. She decides to hang around the East End for the next six days, wait Simon out, then return to his house for his weekend shindig. The bulk of this entertainingly disturbing novel dramatizes her beach-town adventures over those intervening days: ingratiating herself with drunk, young, privileged types she doesn't know, finagling her way into another wealthy man's home, and other duplicitous acts, some of which have heartrending consequences. Cline could have delved more deeply into Alex's character, but The Guest is still an unnerving portrait of desperation, born of lousy judgment and class-based prejudices. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer
Fixit: An IQ Novel
by Joe Ide
Brilliant young street detective Isaiah (IQ) Quintabe faces payback from two arch nemeses in Fixit, the sixth book of the always superlative IQ series by Joe Ide (Smoke; Hi Five; Wrecked). Years of stopping bad guys from preying on his East Long Beach, Calif., community have taken a toll on Isaiah in the form of PTSD. A hustler named Manzo placed a bounty on IQ's head, and every cred-seeking thug in town tries to collect on the money offered. Leaving to nurse his wounds, both physical and mental, and keep his loved ones safe, seemed like the smart thing to do at the time. But when you're as good a detective as IQ, there is never just one person after you.
Skip Hanson just got out of prison, and blames IQ for his incarceration. Skip immediately, violently, abducts IQ's girlfriend, Grace. Rescuing Grace is more important to IQ than self-preservation, so he comes roaring back to town. His friends welcome him with open arms and are ready to help but soon recognize something is off with their favorite sleuth, especially when an increasingly frustrated IQ tries solving his Skip problem with bullets instead of his brains. He needs therapy, but time is running out for Grace.
In Fixit, Ide replaces IQ's usual bravado with a deep, humanizing insight into the effects of facing down evil for so long. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer
Mystery & Thriller
Independence Square: Arkady Renko in Ukraine
by Martin Cruz Smith
Inspector Arkady Renko returns for a bullet-train ride of assassinations, propaganda, and Putin in Independence Square, the 10th installment of Martin Cruz Smith's iconic series. It is June 2021, and Renko has a boring desk assignment; is nursing a painful breakup with his journalist girlfriend, Tatiana; and finds his only respite at the chess tables in Gorky Park where his adopted son, Zhenya, plays for pocket money. When an acquaintance asks for help in locating his daughter, Karina, an anti-Putin activist who recently disappeared, Renko jumps at the chance to immerse himself in his work.
With trenchant observations of modern Russia veiled in Renko's trademark cynicism, Smith (The Girl from Venice; Tatiana) adds a real-life challenge for his character, one based on the author's own experience: an unexpected diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. Renko has no time for self-pity, however, as he and Karina's beautiful roommate, Elena, a Crimean Tatar and fellow activist, are caught up in the chaos of violent clashes between their anti-Putin group, called Forum for Democracy, and the Werewolves, an ultranationalist, pro-Putin motorcycle club. When a series of political assassinations follow, Renko realizes that he and Elena are about to line up in the Kremlin's crosshairs. Zig-zagging from Moscow to Kyiv and Sevastopol (and back again), Renko gets closer to the truth of Karina's disappearance and the identity of the assassin--just as Russia gears up for its invasion of Ukraine, "Stalin's Great Terror updated for modern times." Independence Square is a smart political thriller with zippy dialogue and a timely plot that checks all the boxes for Smith fans. --Peggy Kurkowski, book reviewer and copywriter in Denver
The Late Mrs. Willoughby
by Claudia Gray
Claudia Gray (Defy the Stars) returns to Regency England in her delightful second Austen-centric mystery, The Late Mrs. Willoughby. Juliet Tilney (whom readers met in The Murder of Mr. Wickham) is thrilled to be visiting Colonel and Marianne Brandon (née Dashwood) in Devonshire. Jonathan Darcy is less thrilled to be visiting Mr. Willoughby, who bullied him constantly when they were schoolmates. When someone poisons (quite dramatically) Willoughby's wife, Sophia, at a dinner party, Jonathan and Juliet join forces to find the killer. What follows is a highly entertaining account of their attempts to investigate discreetly, plus a dawning realization on both sides of their feelings for one another.
Gray tells her story in alternating perspectives, letting readers see the story through both Juliet's and Jonathan's eyes. Though she's the daughter of the imaginative Catherine Morland, Juliet is sensible and sharp-witted. Jonathan, though he struggles with social niceties, is also a shrewd observer of those around him. Gray's mystery plot is enjoyably studded with references to familiar Austen characters, and others, including the Dashwood women and the Ferrars family, feature more prominently. Colonel Brandon's ward, Miss Williams, also receives her turn in the spotlight. A cast of engaging characters, a series of incidents seemingly targeting Willoughby himself, and several red herrings contribute to a satisfying solution. Gray leaves plenty of possibilities open for her characters' budding romance--and leaves readers hoping for more in the series. Fans of Austen will thoroughly enjoy the ways in which Gray expands on the original novels in this second adventure. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Don't You Dare
by Jessica Hamilton
Not all games are fun. Some, especially those played by adults, can cut deep, cause physical and psychological damage, and even end in tragedy, as Jessica Hamilton (What You Never Knew) persuasively depicts in her exciting second novel, Don't You Dare. Hannah and Scarlett became best friends in fifth grade. Like "conjoined twins," they were always together, until their duo became a trio in college with the arrival of Thomas. United by obsession, sexual tension, and their outsider status, they challenged each other to increasingly risky dares until one ultimatum ended badly. Now, 16 years later, Hannah is grieving a miscarriage and an emergency hysterectomy. Hamilton expertly shows Hannah at her lowest: she seldom leaves her house, her days filled with alcohol, reading, and the neglect of her daughters, ages 11 and 14. Her marriage to the controlling Evan disintegrates. She and Scarlett communicate only through social media. Then Thomas moves to Hannah's town in upstate New York, wanting to resume their game of dares, and an affair. As before, challenges become perilous, and the threat of danger grows, upending Hannah's life even more.
Hamilton's look at friendship's dark side fuels the novel's intense plot, enhanced by a character study of the easily manipulated Hannah. Hannah's grief and self-imposed isolation make her more vulnerable to others, including Evan, who once had her committed and threatened she'd lose her children; a nosy neighbor who keeps tabs on her activities; and Thomas, who pressures her into reckless trysts, regardless of her mental health. The tension doesn't stop in Don't You Dare. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer
by Jenn McKinlay
Two young, single professionals spend the summer on Martha's Vineyard, intending to figure out the what's-next in their lives in the immensely enjoyable rom-com Summer Reading by Jenn McKinlay (Wait for It; Paris Is Always a Good Idea). Samantha "Sam" Gale, a chef, leaves her restaurant job when she is passed over for a promotion. She agrees to stay with her teenage half-brother, Tyler, at the family home on Martha's Vineyard, where he is entered in a summer robotics competition at the local library.
On the ferry en route to the island, Sam inadvertently knocks into Bennett "Ben" Reynolds, sending the book he's reading overboard. This meet-cute proves an auspicious beginning. Sam has cleverly hidden her dyslexia, a neurodivergent condition which has long impacted her life. Ben, a lover of words and books, has taken a librarian temp job for the summer on the island in the hope that, while he's there, he can locate the father he's never known. After Sam and Ben cross paths again via Tyler's library program, the two strike up a friendship that turns to romance. The two champion each other: Ben helps Sam write a cookbook that compiles the recipes of her beloved Portuguese grandmother--recipes she's committed to memory--and Sam encourages Ben in the search for his father.
Is it possible to identify, retrieve, and restore missing pieces in life? And if so, how do such discoveries change relationships? McKinlay's breezy, pleasure-filled escape probes these questions and more, while happily entertaining romance readers along the way. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
by Neely Tubati Alexander
Serena Khan is, by all accounts, successful: her long-term boyfriend is about to propose, she's got a great job at an accounting firm, and she has an apartment in Seattle she loves. Still, a question has nagged her since her mother's death years earlier: "What if I don't want this life I've built?" It's a question likely to be familiar to anyone who's ever defined success based on someone else's expectations--and forms the heart of Neely Tubati Alexander's heartwarming debut novel, Love Buzz.
Serena is at an over-the-top bachelorette party in New Orleans when she meets Julian. The "like, serious, instantaneous chemistry" she feels with him is the polar opposite of the "calm at first sight" feeling she has with her boyfriend, and that spark of passion sets off a chain of events that includes quitting her job, breaking up with her boyfriend, and, for the first time ever, living without a plan. "There are no set paths, Serena. Only choices," advises Odette, the "potty-mouthed, Southern white lady fairy godmother" she meets on her flight back from New Orleans. There's a "Cinderella"-esque quality to Love Buzz (a chance meeting upends a woman's life, a fairy godmother offers guidance, etc.), but unlike the fairy tale, Alexander's debut is more than the romance at its center, and offers no neat and tidy happily-ever-after. Love Buzz offers readers a delightful story sure to spark moments of thoughtfulness and joy as Serena seeks a life crafted for--and by--herself, which just might include the very charming man she must find again. --Kerry McHugh, freelance writer
Food & Wine
100 Morning Treats: With Muffins, Rolls, Biscuits, Sweet and Savory Breakfast Breads, and More
by Sarah Kieffer
Those looking to host a memorable brunch (or to simply bring a smile to family members' faces) need look no further than 100 Morning Treats: With Muffins, Rolls, Biscuits, Sweet and Savory Breakfast Breads, and More by Sarah Kieffer (100 Cookies; The Vanilla Bean Baking Book). This wonderfully delectable cookbook is chock-full of amazing baked goods--perfect for breakfast, brunch, even afternoon tea--with recipes adaptable for a wide range of skill levels.
Kieffer's writing style is concise but friendly, as she documents her history in the restaurant and coffee shop industries, and showcases the skills she learned there. Full of practical baking advice and luscious pictures that will leave readers drooling, 100 Morning Treats is downright lovely. There are tried-and-true items, such as Blueberry Muffins, "Good Morning Berry Crisp," and Cinnamon Swirl Bread. But there is also more exotic fare: Lemon Curd Bostok, Mini Dutch Babies, and Ham and Cheese Breakfast Sliders, to name a few. Kieffer even includes ideas for drinks to mix and music to play, making the morning experience truly unforgettable.
Additionally, Kieffer includes helpful guides for basic doughs that can be used in numerous baked goods: Buttermilk Dough, Pull-Apart Bread Dough, Cheater Croissant Dough, and more. Combine these with her instructions for making Pastry Cream, Caramel, Pecan Streusel, or Crème Fraiche, and readers will be able to turn 100 treats into countless more. Perfect for new and experienced bakers alike, 100 Morning Treats is a welcome addition to any kitchen. --Jessica Howard, freelance book reviewer
Biography & Memoir
What You Don't Know Will Make a Whole New World
by Dorothy Lazard
Longtime Oakland public librarian and historian Dorothy Lazard explores her childhood, her intellectual journey, and her relationship with her chaotic, loving family in her impressive memoir, What You Don't Know Will Make a Whole New World. The title comes from something Lazard's grandmother, Mam'Ella, told her after Lazard, her mother, and her brother Albert moved from St. Louis to San Francisco to be near their extended family. Rather than being discouraged, Lazard took the statement as a challenge: through the public library, newspapers, and conversations with her elders, she became determined to learn everything she possibly could.
Lazard is unstinting in her portrayal of challenges and joys: the glory of being young and Black just as the Black Power movement and Black artists were at the forefront of culture, and the constant racism she faced at school and elsewhere. She details her mother's struggles with epilepsy and her brother's troubled teenage years, as well as the places where she found refuge: the local newsstand, the library, and eventually the apartment she and her sister, Sarah, called home. Lazard also captures a particular moment in the evolution of cities like Oakland: gentrification, and new corporate buildings replacing older, smaller businesses. Longing to become a writer, she became a keen noticer and note taker--skills that serve her well as a librarian and an author.
Written in a clear, matter-of-fact voice, Lazard's memoir is a vivid slice of American life and an account of one young Black woman's journey of becoming. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Now in Paperback
This Time Tomorrow
by Emma Straub
Add Emma Straub (All Adults Here; The Vacationers) to the list of authors who have taken on the mind-bending topic of time travel, which she does with great aplomb in This Time Tomorrow. Her protagonist, Alice Stern, is the daughter of Leonard Stern, author of Time Brothers, a sci-fi work "about brothers who time-travel and solve low-level crimes." Straub, with her expert light touch, writes that Alice has lived in the same Brooklyn apartment since age 25 after having "limped through art school as slowly as she could." Fifteen years later, she works in admissions at her old private school, and divorced Leonard is dying. But then a twist: on the night before her 40th birthday, she wakes up in 1996, about to turn 16, with healthy Leonard, nearly 50 years old, offering her Oreos for breakfast.
What follows is a poignant take on a familiar question: What if one could go back and change the course of history? It's not an original concept, but Straub puts her spin on it with the same endearing charm evident in her previous novels, such as Modern Lovers. Readers will root for Alice as she tries to change her father's fate and win the love of a high school classmate. And Straub has fun recalling the pre-Google '90s, when one got movie times by calling Moviefone and office workers had computers "the size of a Fiat." This Time Tomorrow is a warmhearted tribute to the value of simple pleasures and the fragile beauty inherent in every moment. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer
When Women Were Dragons
by Kelly Barnhill
Any new book by Newbery Medalist Kelly Barnhill (The Ogress and the Orphans) is cause for excitement for fans of children's literature. Though her books appeal to adults and children alike, When Women Were Dragons is her first written for adults. It takes readers to Wisconsin during the 1950s. In addition to the McCarthy hearings and the burgeoning civil rights movement, history must grapple with another significant event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955.
Barnhill grounds her work in a realism colored by elements of the fantastic, specifically the idea that women can and will transform into dragons. That many of these women have been marginalized, underappreciated or forced into societal norms that shrink and contain them is a clue to why they may have dragoned and to what Barnhill is doing in this evocative story. Writing from the end of her life, the narrator, Alex, reconsiders the silences she was forced into as a child and reflects on her fractured relationship with her Auntie Marla (who dragoned) and her mother (who did not). Her story slowly unfolds as she reckons with her own power, asking, "Was I the immovable object, or was I the unstoppable force? Perhaps I was both. Perhaps this is what we learn from our mothers." Balancing the story between Alex's recollections and historical documents, Barnhill explores the taboos around women and anger, resizing paradigms of choice, freedom and the complicated roles of gender in society. --Sara Beth West, freelance reviewer and librarian
by Meg Mitchell Moore
Meg Mitchell Moore (The Islanders; The Admissions) returns with another juicy, thoughtful, enthralling family drama in her seventh novel, Vacationland. Louisa Fitzgerald McLean has been going to her parents' summer home, Ships View, on the coast of Maine every summer for her entire life. But this summer, things are different: Louisa, now a tenured professor, arrives in Maine with her three kids in tow. Her husband, Steven, has stayed behind in Brooklyn to focus on his podcast start-up. As Louisa struggles to make some progress on a scholarly book she's writing, she is also forced to face an uncomfortable truth: her father, a retired judge, is struggling with Alzheimer's, and her patrician mother is alternating between trying to cope and pretending everything is fine. The family's tenuous peace is further upset by Kristie, a new arrival to town, who's juggling $27,000 in medical debt, her grief at losing her mother and a secret that connects her to the Fitzgeralds. Louisa and Kristie are forced to examine their assumptions about privilege and family--as well as each other--over the course of the summer.
Moore tells her story mostly by alternating Kristie's and Louisa's points of view. She paints midcoastal Maine, the "vacationland" of the title, in its spruced-up summer glory, but pulls back the curtain to show the lives of those who work hard to serve the wealthy residents and summer people.
Full of breathtaking Maine sunsets and family drama writ large and small, Vacationland is both an escapist summer read and a thoughtful examination of motherhood, privilege and what makes a family. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Four Treasures of the Sky
by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Jenny Tinghui Zhang's breathtaking debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky--a Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice--opens like a traditional hero's journey. But the story is pared down to its essence and thus reads more like poetry, subtle but effective, taut without sacrificing immersion. This continent-hopping coming-of-age story set in the late 1800s follows young Daiyu, named after the fictional poet Lin Daiyu of Chinese literature. She vows she will shed the melancholy of Lin Daiyu's legacy.
When her parents disappear, Daiyu is shipped away to Zhifu by her grandmother for her own safety. Far from her village, Daiyu assumes the name and appearance of a boy named Feng, who sweeps the stones outside a school and learns traditional Chinese calligraphy under the dreamlike tutelage of Master Wang. But the dream cannot last, as readers know from the first paragraph: "When I am kidnapped, it does not happen in an alleyway. It does not happen in the middle of the night. It does not happen when I am alone."
Daiyu winds up in a San Francisco brothel run under the guise of a laundromat; her name transforms again, as does her identity. As the Chinese Exclusion Act warps America--during the era of this book and deep into our present reality--Daiyu is forced to protect herself. Yet she holds onto the hope she first manifested in Zhifu. Somehow, there will be escape. There will be beauty. It is this hope in the face of crushing tragedy that makes Four Treasures of the Sky such a triumph. Zhang has accomplished a remarkable work of fiction that feels so real it stings. --Lauren Puckett
by Alice Elliott Dark
A grand literary novel destined to dazzle readers with an intriguing combination of social drama, satiric wit, and moral gravity, Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark focuses on two dowagers navigating the contours of their eight-decades-long friendship and their roles as stewards of a beloved wildlife sanctuary on the coast of Maine. The 145-acre property serves as the majestic backdrop of Dark's (Think of England) second novel; its history and its future control the overarching theme of this intricately crafted story.
Fellowship Point--a Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year--opens in the winter of 2000 at Agnes Lee's Philadelphia apartment. She is the celebrated author of a children's adventure book series and a series of adult novels written under a pseudonym. Reeling from her latest cancer diagnosis, Agnes is determined to resolve the future of "the Point" before her death.
Acquired generations ago by a Philadelphia Quaker merchant, the Point is an "Edenically wild" summer retreat. It is presently under the control of Agnes and her best friend Polly Wister, as well as Agnes's cousin Archie Lee. Agnes and Polly want to donate the Point to a land trust. Archie prefers to sell it to developers to build a resort. Polly's eldest son, James, a banker who stands to inherit his mother's share, agrees with Archie. As the plot plays out, the question of what to do becomes miraculously clear, leading to a resolution as unexpected as it is simple.
Fellowship Point revels in overlapping subplots and a cast of superbly drawn, memorable characters wrestling with delicate questions of the heart as well as social issues of property rights and class divisions. As the Point's future is settled, it is clear that Dark's octogenarian heroines will have a significant and lasting impact on the lives of all who come after them. --Shahina Piyarali
Children's & Young Adult
Warrior Girl Unearthed
by Angeline Boulley
The Ojibwe-centered young adult thriller Warrior Girl Unearthed--a propulsive companion to Angeline Boulley's blockbuster debut, Firekeeper's Daughter--entwines the scourge of murdered and missing Indigenous women with bonds of community and the reclamation of artifacts.
Headstrong Perry Firekeeper-Birch begrudgingly participates in the local Kinomaage summer internship program to repay a loan from her Auntie Daunis Fontaine. Sixteen-year-old Perry bounces between assignments, receiving a crash course in anthropology and bureaucracy, which encourages her to increasingly extreme and remorseless liberations of cultural artifacts with direct tribal community connections. The planned reclamation of one white man's "treasures" leads to murder and a gruesome discovery. Meanwhile, Perry commits to "whatever it takes to reclaim every" artifact, and the epidemic of missing Indigenous women sweeps Sugar Island, Mich.
Fans of Boulley's Printz Award-winning bestseller should welcome the familiar setting and 2014 versions of characters from the original novel, while newcomers are invited in through helpful recaps. This deeply Anishinaabe story is well-paced, with chapters divided by weeks of the internship program. It features often untranslated Ojibwemowin and nicely blends action-packed exploits with thoughtful social insights. Boulley again delivers a genre-defying tale featuring a strong female lead (who happens to fall for an outsider).
With its dramatic plot, respect for heritage, and celebration of community, Boulley's companion novel proves to be another blazing tour-de-force. --Kit Ballenger, youth librarian, Help Your Shelf
by Emily Gravett
British author/illustrator Emily Gravett's 10 Cats is a nearly wordless picture book full of bright hues and silly antics. Gravett expertly lets the counting, colors, and cats tell the whole sweetly entertaining story.
In the first spread, we meet the eponymous 10 cats: one snowy-white beaming mother, and nine relatively courteous kittens all sitting in a row against a white background. From "1 white cat" to "10 multicolored cats," though, the scene grows progressively more chaotic--and polychromatic. When Mama dozes off, her offspring begin to get into mischief. A series of red, yellow, and blue paint cans makes a terrific obstacle course and jungle gym. As the kitties clamber around and onto the cans, readers look for "2 black cats"; playtime escalates as first the yellow paint can, then the blue, and finally the red somehow get opened. Now five cats--including Mom--have "red spots," there are "6 cats with yellow dots," and seven of them have "blue blotches."
Gravett (Bear and Hare Share; Cyril and Pat) is brilliant at using white space to paint a witty visual story. Her pencil and watercolor ("with a smidgen of digital fiddle-faddling") artwork is lovely and should appeal to all ages. 10 Cats is more than fun and games, too. In the process of wreaking havoc, the playful kittens help readers learn about colors, patterns, and numbers. Gravett's cheery primary shades (which turn into secondaries as the bedlam advances) bring to mind the zany 1960 classic Put Me in the Zoo by Robert Lopshire. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
A Work in Progress
by Jarrett Lerner
A Work in Progress by Jarrett Lerner (EngiNerds series) is an earnest and inspiring illustrated middle-grade novel in verse that grapples with bullying, the feeling of estrangement, and the social stigma attached to being in a larger body.
In fourth grade, Will was verbally attacked by bully Nick. "You're fat," Nick spat at Will, "You're fat. And everyone thinks it." Although Will was comforted and reassured by friends in the moment, "three years and two or three months" later, he is still traumatized by the event. Will recalls Nick's words in a never-ending repetitive loop, internalizing them; he feels different from his classmates--"ugly," "less than," a "monster." Will's self-hatred leads to social isolation and an unhealthy relationship with food that includes both binge eating and self-starvation. Then Will is approached by Markus, a kind and confident skateboarder. Will is encouraged through his developing friendship with Markus to view himself not as a failure or an outcast, but as a work in progress.
Lerner's novel is striking, sincere, and sensitive to the very real problems of bullying and ostracization. Visually, the book recalls a middle-schooler's notebook, with a font reminiscent of penciled handwriting and striking cartoonish doodles that illustrate the novel's events and Will's emotional reactions to them. Throughout the novel Lerner uses repetition, emphases (such as bolding and capitalization), and free-verse forms to illustrate feelings of chaos and disorientation, anxiety, and oppressive self-loathing, and--eventually--determination and self-acceptance. A Work in Progress conveys a resounding and empowering message of self-love. --Cade Williams, freelance reviewer
We Don't Swim Here
by Vincent Tirado
When Bronwyn is possessed by a spirit, she and her cousin, Anais, must discover why the spirit exists before they can put it to rest in this hair-raising, supernatural sophomore title from Vincent Tirado (Burn Down Rise Up).
When Bronwyn's (Wynnie) grandmother is placed in hospice, Wynnie and her parents move to rural Hillwoods, Ark., for the year. At high school, Wynnie is surprised to be met with distaste and fear when the other students learn she is a competitive swimmer; stranger yet are the rituals the other students participate in. Anais, Wynnie's cousin and a native to Hillwoods, tries to shelter Wynnie from the "unknown factors" in the town--Hillwoods has secrets, such as tourists who disappear without explanation, a "Ghost Bus" that stops at a "nonexistent stop," and mysterious "deadspots... where ghosts looked and felt real." But Anais is no match for an actual supernatural legend, and Wynnie becomes possessed by the very spirit for whom the town's citizens hold rituals. Once Wynnie is endangered, Anais realizes the only way to be safe from secrets is to bring them into the light. The teens must work together to unearth all that Hillwoods is hiding.
Tirado narrates from both Wynnie's and Anais's points of view, and the alternating chapters and different levels of knowledge about the events at hand build suspense and tension. The town of Hillwoods itself is creepy and mysterious, making the events that take place within it even more frightening. A must read for fans of Tiffany D. Jackson and Lamar Giles. --Kharissa Kenner, children's librarian, Bank Street School for Children
Real to Me
by Minh Lê, illus. by Raissa Figueroa
Minh Lê (The Blur; Lift) and Raissa Figueroa (We Wait for the Sun; Oona) explore friendship, particularly the dynamic of imaginary friends, in the tender and emotionally resonant Real to Me. "When you have a great friend," the book opens, "the rest of the world can seem to disappear." A girl with brown skin and a halo of natural hair plays with her friend, a fluffy, lime-green creature with a long, tufted tail. They run and play in a vivid, fantastical landscape, complete with three moons, which Figueroa brings to the page with expansive digital compositions and a highly saturated palette of shimmering lavender, fuchsia, electric blue, and marigold.
The narrator of the book makes it clear that others see the pair's friendship as imaginary, but adds that "my friend was always there for me, and I can't imagine anything more real than that." Readers assume Lê, who structures the text with a pleasing use of repetition, presents the child's point of view, but the twist is that the narrator is the non-human, who wakes one morning to find their friend gone. Perhaps they have grown too old for "imaginary" friends; readers may put their inferencing skills to work to answer this question for themselves. The creature eventually makes new friends--other similarly fluffy creatures--and is left to wonder what their friend could be doing now.
This bittersweet, openhearted conversation-starter of a book illuminates the meaning of true friendship, captures the grief over one that ends, and may prompt children to ponder the "imaginary" things in life--and how they can feel the most "real" of all. --Julie Danielson, reviewer
New in Paperback
Hot Cookbooks for a Cold Spring
Ah, spring. In my spring, here in the wet Northwest, peony stalks are rocketing out of the ground on schedule, and buds abound in my neighborhood. But persistent cold nights killed the produce I preemptively planted in the optimism of a one-off sunny afternoon. Cue the supermarket, where rhubarb now rules, the asparagus is on point, and the bounty of fresh spring produce colors my tastebuds, and my newly restocked collection of cookbooks.
For warm flavors from south of the United States border, I turn to Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico: A Cookbook by Rick Martínez (Clarkson Potter, $35). A beloved chef on YouTube (the Food52 channel and Pruébalo in the Babish Culinary Universe), Martínez has helped scores of us cook our way through the pandemic and beyond. Get a vibrant, verdant greens fix with tender herb-laden Arroz Verde, and please pescatarians with buttery shrimp-filled Tacos Gobernador or Tacos Capeados: corn-fried fish tacos with papaya, tomatillo, and a spicy cream sauce worth making a double batch of for dipping, spreading, and surreptitiously sneaking straight spoonfuls of.
Another new favorite: Grandbaby Cakes blogger Jocelyn Delk Adams's Everyday Grand: Soulful Recipes for Celebrating Life's Big and Small Moments: A Cookbook (written with Olga Massov; Clarkson Potter, $32.50). Adams's philosophy for life radiates positivity: "Acing a test, getting that job offer, finally finishing a book you've been reading for a while should be just as much cause for joy as a wedding anniversary or holiday. We should celebrate our real lives." Especially delicious recipes relayed in Adams's buoyant voice include Crabby Hush Puppies, Mango Jerk Jackfruit Tacos, Peri-Peri Ginger Beer Chicken, and Purple Rain Sweet Potato Swirl Cheesecake.
Also worth celebrating: the powerful Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook by Illyanna Maisonet (Ten Speed, $32.50). The first Puerto Rican newspaper food columnist in the United States, Maisonet delivers a thoughtfully wrought book honoring the myriad and complex flavors of the Puerto Rican stateside diaspora. Her fantastic Papas Rellenas rely on a convenient surprise: instant potato flakes, pairing beautifully with Mami's Mushroom Chicken or Nana's Oven-Barbecued Ribs. To sip, try the silky classic Coquito or Roasted Piña Colada.
For sweet-tooth indulgence, Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed by The Dusky Kitchen baking blogger Abi Balingit (Harvest, $40). Balingit's parents were born in the Philippines, but she grew up in California and now hails from New York City. Her approach to sweets blends traditional Filipino flavors with elements of cuisines from the variety of cultures represented everywhere she's lived. Standouts include the Matcha Pastillas, Yema Buckeyes, and Lemon Sunshine Uraro Cookies. And for an unforgettable twist on a classic, try the Adobo Chocolate Chip Cookies--complex and caramelly from brown butter, bay leaves, soy sauce, and vinegar, dusted with pink peppercorns.
As for my own garden? My lettuce and peas are toast. But I'll try again soon, maybe as soon as I finish prepping another round of Balingit's Adobo Chocolate Chip Cookies. This time I'll freeze them in pre-rolled balls to cook on demand--as a reward for, say, digging a few new holes in the garden once the sun returns. --Katie Weed
Open Culture invited ink enthusiasts to "behold the international ink library created by the U.S. Secret Service: features a collection of 12,000 ink samples."
Mental Floss featured "6 little-known writers of color who transformed their countries."
Podcast: Voynich Manuscript. "A strange medieval document, housed in a stunning modern library." (via Atlas Obscura)
CrimeReads investigated "realism and license in legal thrillers."
Discover Great Publishers
Welcome from Gibbs Smith CEO Brad Farmer
What is Gibbs Smith? People often think of us as publishers of Western fashion and humor, luxury interior design and architecture, throwback cookbooks, southern comfort food, award-winning state history curriculum, and BabyLit® children's books. These all have a place in our catalogs, but in 2023 we are much, much more.
Gibbs Smith started the publishing journey with his wife, Catherine, in 1969 after authoring the seminal biography of union songwriter Joe Hill. Gibbs's interests peregrinated with his contacts among artists, poets, designers, architects, and writers, so much so that the iconic peregrine colophon continues to identify the company today.
Although varied, Gibbs's interests never wandered far from history, nature, culture, and design. Our mission statement, "To enrich and inspire humankind," is a broad invitation for our books to promote cultural literacy, civic responsibility, and appreciation for the beauty and fragility of our planet.
Gibbs and Catherine also never abandoned their pro-worker views. In 2015, they sold half of the company to its employees. Our ESOP structure ensures that every employee receives ownership shares regardless of their role and ability to afford it. We took our largest step towards ongoing independence and employee ownership in August 2022 when the company became completely ESOP owned.
By the time Gibbs passed in 2017, these diverse interests and devotion to the betterment of society had been built into the DNA of the company. We began our own journey to write these values into our governing documents and practices, culminating in our recent certification as a B Corp. Our expanded and more focused effort as an employee-owned, certified B Corp is to create books, online programs, and gift products to educate, enrich, and inspire people about the world around us in accessible, inclusive, equitable, and sustainable ways.
Who is Gibbs Smith today? We are 100+ employee-owners working to provide a positive impact on society. Through our 7 Cats imprint, we produce children's books at lower price points and companywide we participate in donation programs to promote literacy in our communities and schools. Our Education segment produces fact-based and 100% standards-aligned state, national, and world civilization history courses, exciting and beautiful supplemental social studies materials, education thought leadership publications, and educator training. We work to reduce our impact on the environment, offsetting 100% of our Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions and those Scope 3 emissions we can measure.
You'll still see Western humor, Southern cooking, social studies, and culturally aware children's books on our lists. But you'll also see reading-themed gift products, national online social studies software, modern designers giving insights into their beautifully decorated spaces, and photographic collections of Western icons. No matter where our new peregrinations take us, our commitment to do the right business the right way will follow. --Brad Farmer, CEO, Gibbs Smith
Spring Titles from Gibbs Smith
Edible Wild Plants, Volume 2: Wild Foods from Foraging to Feasting by John Kallas, Ph.D. ($27.99, 9781423641346, May 16)
This is a user-friendly, pictorially based guide providing all readers need to know to start fully enjoying wild foods. It helps them successfully identify plants, develop gathering strategies, and learn preparation and cooking techniques. It lays a foundation and covers plants one is likely to come across on a daily basis in North America or Europe. The book has 460 photographs and illustrations, fun and authoritative text, focused attention on plant details, nutrient tables, range maps, recipes, and a plethora of additional preparation and cooking tips.
This book features plants in five flavor categories: foundation, tart, pungent or peppery, bitter, and distinctive & sweet, an approach that helps readers use the plants in pleasing and predictable ways. Imagine frequently including cattail, nettles, pokeweed, marshmallow, daylily, wild radish, and everlasting pea in your meal planning knowing that you acquired these plants from your own foraging adventures. There is also a section devoted to identifying and knowing poison hemlock, often confused with wild carrot in certain stages of development.
John Kallas is an authority on North American edible wild plants and other foragables, and has learned about wild foods through formal academic training and more than 35 years of hands-on field research. He has a doctorate in nutrition, a master's in education, and degrees in biology and zoology. In 1993, he founded the Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables along with its educational branch, Wild Food Adventures. Located in Portland, Oregon, his company offers regional workshops and multi-day intensives on wild foods.
Puppy Love: An Illustrated Guide to Picking Your Perfect Canine Companion by Melissa Maxwell, illustrated by Sara Mulvanny ($17.99, 9781423663546, May 16)
Taking its cues from online dating, Puppy Love hilariously explores the pros and cons of puppy-parenting different types of canine companions. The perfect gift for any dog lover, these illustrated doggie dating profiles will have you howling with laughter.
Puppy Love delves into the doggie dating scene by first setting the foundation for a successful relationship, including the keys to successful cohabitation and how to know when you've found The One. More than 40 pooch profiles cover everything from grooming, personality, and deal breakers. Love long walks? The short-legged Corgi might struggle to keep up. Have a penchant for expensive, fragile home décor? The gentle giant Great Dane might break your stuff--and your heart. Not sure where to start? Take the Cosmo-inspired quiz to narrow down your matches.
Melissa Maxwell is an editor and author of many books. Sara Mulvanny has worked on a range of projects from books and magazines to large-scale illustrations for museums and restaurants. When not in her studio, she loves to go for walks in the surrounding countryside with Mabel, her Airedale puppy.
Egg Rolls & Sweet Tea: Asian Inspired, Southern Style by Natalie Keng ($32, 9781423661498, June 6)
Ni hao, y'all! Egg Rolls & Sweet Tea: Asian Inspired, Southern Style is in part a memoir of Natalie Keng's personal food journey growing up in the deep South, but it's also a cookbook full of tasty Asian-American and Southern fusion dishes, sauces, and drinks that home cooks will enjoy preparing and sharing. Its 100 recipes celebrate inclusivity and diversity at the dinner table with the best from various cultures, cooking styles, and comforting foods. Among the recipes: Fried Chicken Spring Rolls with Honey; Rainbow Black-Rice Salad; Okra and Tomato Stir-Fry; Black-Eyed Pea Hummus; Georgia Bourbon Coca-Cola Meatloaf; Golden Milk and Sorghum Hot Toddy; and, of course, several recipes for egg rolls and sweet teas.
A pioneer in innovative leadership development, Natalie Keng is the founder and CEO ("Chief Eating Officer") of Global Hearth, a business that leverages the power of food and culture to promote team-building and employee engagement in support of corporate initiatives through its Cooking Up a Better World platform. Locally known as the Chinese Southern Belle, Keng is the creator of an award-winning line of Georgia-grown, Asian-inspired sauces (launched at Whole Foods Market) that feature natural ingredients and old family recipes, earning her the title The Sauce Maven. Before starting her own business, Keng was a strategic marketing executive in a Fortune 100 corporation. Keng is a recipient of the Greater Women's Business Council's Trailblazer Award and was appointed to serve on the Governor's Health Task Force. A graduate of Vassar College, Keng holds a Master of Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Southern Lights: Easier, Lighter, and Better-for-You Recipes from the South by Lauren McDuffie ($30, 9781423661474, June 6)
Southern Lights offers a fresh take on Southern-style cooking rooted in the notion that great Southern food doesn't have to be heavy or unhealthy. This is for the modern home cook and has more than 100 recipes for simple Southern food, reimagined and made with less.
Besides remaking traditionally heavy recipes in a more healthful way, Southern Lights shows that some Southern fare is light to begin with (after all, the heart of Southern cooking features fresh, seasonal produce). This will also give readers ways to enjoy favorite Southern dishes more often and includes some seriously delicious Southern powerhouses for breakfasts, lunches, appetizers, snacks, dinners, holiday dishes, desserts, and more. Among the recipes: Sheet Pan Catfish with Okra, Corn, and Tomatoes; Chile-Soaked Watermelon with Smoked Almonds; Creamy Roasted-Garlic Mashed Potatoes; Pimiento Cheese Hummus; Hushpuppy Popovers; and Snow Cream for Southerners.
Lauren McDuffie is a cookbook author (Smoke, Roots, Mountain, Harvest), food blogger, photographer/stylist, and creator of the cooking blog My Kitchen Little and the food blog Harvest and Honey.
Rediscover: Straight Man
Lucky Hank, a dark comedy television series based on the novel Straight Man by Richard Russo, released the final episode of its eight-episode first season earlier this month on AMC. Bob Odenkirk stars as Hank Devereaux, chair of the English department at an underfunded Pennsylvania college. Hank, a bored creative writing professor and frustrated writer, contends with a myriad of personal problems amid a tumultuous academic environment--by the end of the first episode, Hank loses an English department no-confidence vote before accidentally being reelected as chair. The main cast includes Mireille Enos, Cedric Yarbrough, Diedrich Bader, Olivia Scott Welch, Sara Amini, and Suzanne Cryer, with guest appearances by Oscar Nuñez, Kyle MacLachlan, Chris Gethard, Chris Diamantopoulos, and Brian Huskey playing author George Saunders. Aaron Zelman, writer/producer of The Killing, and The Office alum Paul Lieberstein adapted Russo's novel and serve as showrunners.
Straight Man, first published by Random House in 1997, was inspired by Russo's experiences teaching at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Southern Connecticut State University, and Penn State Altoona. His 2001 novel Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Russo has also written seven other novels, a memoir and short story collection. His latest book, Somebody's Fool, will be published by Knopf on July 25. Straight Man is available in paperback from Vintage ($18). --Tobias Mutter