Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Roaring Brook Press: Juniper's Christmas by Eoin Colfer

From My Shelf

The Year of the Houseplant

I declare 2021 the year of the houseplant. There is a longing for the calming influence of greenery in my indoor spaces. A charming fiddle leaf fig tree for the living room, the whispery abundance of ferns overflowing in the study and a miniature lemon tree to cheer up the kitchen. Maybe even a tropical-leaved money tree, officially known as pachira aquatica, for the entrance hall, why not!

Past houseplant fiascos still haunt me, though, so I plan to conduct thorough research before taking a trip to my favorite garden shop. The perfect starting point is the reassuringly titled How Not to Kill a Houseplant: Survival Tips for the Horticulturally Challenged (DK, $14.99) by Veronica Peerless. Offering guidance on which plants suit different spaces, Peerless encourages readers to spend time nurturing and grooming their green companions and provides easy-to-follow advice on how to rescue sick plants.

Concerned about how to care for plants while away on vacation, I was thrilled to discover the homemade automatic watering devices created by Morgan Doane and Erin Harding, long-distance friends who share a passion for houseplants. In How to Raise a Plant: And Make it Love You Back (Laurence King, $16.99), Doane and Harding cheerfully explore all aspects of plant care and share fun DIY project ideas to inspire creative types. How to Raise a Plant is a labor of love, combining their formidable knowledge into one colorful guide.

Plantopedia: The Definitive Guide to Houseplants (Smith Street, $40) by interior design nursery experts Lauren Camilleri and Sophia Kaplan is a detailed how-to guide dressed up as gorgeous coffee-table decor for houseplant aficionados. Its irresistibly lush photos offer some of the serene magic of indoor greenery while I mentally prepare for my new role as a plant parent. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

BINC: Read Love Support Campaign

Book Candy

Shakespeare on Pandemics

"From plague puns to isolation creation: what Shakespeare teaches us about pandemic life." (via the Guardian)


Mental Floss cooked up "10 delicious recipes from books, movies, and TV shows."


Merriam-Webster looked up "why we keep things 'platonic.' "


Open Culture explored "how the Internet Archive digitizes 3,500 books a day--the hard way."


For Lit Hub, Lauren Du Graf examined "how a year without my library has changed me."

Amber & Clay

by Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. by Julia Iredale

Newbery Medal-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz (Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!) has created a literary feast in this intoxicatingly original tale that takes place in ancient Greece. Amber & Clay is part sweeping saga and part epic narrative, with liberal doses of ancient history, drama, mythology and philosophy included. Painstakingly researched, the 500-plus-page volume follows the odyssey of two 5th-century BCE children destined never to meet--in the living world.

In parallel narratives, Rhaskos, an enslaved Thracian boy living in Greece, and Melisto, a highborn Athenian girl, follow their respective--and severely circumscribed--paths. Rhaskos's mother, also enslaved, is sold when the boy is five, leaving him to the whims of the masters of their home. "I was too small to be much use,/ but I was big enough to pick up turds." Horses--and their manure--become Rhaskos's life. One day, after sneaking inside the house of his master, Rhaskos sees his first-ever painting: "A wonder before my eyes." It is a horse "large enough to ride": "You could see the wind ruffle its mane,/ the sinewy legs pranced, the nostrils flared;/ and it had wings,/ luminous/ spread like the wings of a swan." Rhaskos becomes obsessed with trying to re-create an image as lifelike as this and begins scratching out drawings in the dirt. Later, when he is sold off to a potter, his growing artistic ability becomes useful. At the same time, he develops a second and unusual (for a "thickheaded" "barbarian," that is) passion for philosophy when he befriends a funny "old man/ who had no beauty to display" named Sokrates.

Melisto is the spitfire daughter of an important man; she is spoiled by her father and near despised by her mother. The person Melisto loves most, besides her father, is Thratta, the enslaved woman who takes cares of her. (Thratta also happens to be Rhaskos's mother, purchased at a slave auction in Athens.) As the daughter of a distinguished man, Melisto is chosen along with other pre-pubescent girls to leave her home to be a "bear-servant" to the goddess Artemis. In this brief, final season of freedom before returning home to marriage and the duties of the ruling class, the girls live as Bears: they dance, run and sacrifice goats to honor Artemis, who will later help them with childbirth. Unfortunately, Melisto is destined never to emerge from this hiatus; she dies during the preparation for a ritual sacrifice.

Although readers don't get to spend much time with Thratta before she disappears into her own fate, this grieving mother becomes the link between the two children. Mourning the loss of Melisto and desperate to end her son's enslavement, she casts a binding spell between them. This "blessed curse" demands Melisto free Rhaskos or risk never resting in death, setting her on a long and twisted path.

Depending on the point of view--there are many in Amber & Clay--and what the scene calls for, Schlitz uses a variety of literary forms. Rhaskos usually narrates in first-person verse, except in a few pivotal moments. Melisto's form is third-person prose until the children find each other, at which point she enters his verse world and he, briefly, turns to prose. When the two come together and work to fulfill Thratta's spell, the interlude is choreographic in nature. Melisto's ghost feels vibrantly alive in these scenes, bantering with Rhaskos in a pas de deux that reveals just how seldom the two have ever been able to have genuine, childlike friendships: "She'd ask a question, and I'd answer it--/ and when I ran out of breath--/ because the path was steep--/ she'd talk, telling me about her life." In verse, Melisto, who was once called "heavy" and "dark" by Thratta, is light and quick ("She ran with her fingers outstretched,/ growling like a wild beast, giggling") and Rhaskos is thrilled to be allowed to speak at all: "I don't talk either./ If you're a slave, no one listens."

Known for her spectacular world-building skills in books like The Night Fairy, The Hired Girl and her Newbery Honor book Splendors and Glooms, Schlitz delves deep into the world of Ancient Greece. She doesn't neglect Mount Olympus, either, because the gods' lives are thoroughly entwined with those of mortals. Periodically, Hermes, Artemis or Hephaistos chimes in, commenting in verse on the action of the humans with varying degrees of pity, snark and empathy. Hermes, especially, can be a card: "Allow me to kick off the winged sandals,/ wiggle my toes,/ and put my feet up. It's Dullsville in Athens."

Archeological "exhibits" and museum-style descriptions, realistically illustrated in mixed media by Julia Iredale (Myths and Legends of the World), are interspersed throughout the book. These pottery fragments and figurines inform the course of each chapter. For example, a shard from a small pot depicts girls dancing around an altar decorated with scrolls, presumably while serving Artemis as "Little Bears," a mysterious practice that Schmidt elucidates and elaborates on in the chapters that follow. (In the author's notes Schmidt describes the lengths she went to in order to learn as much as she could about cult practices like these.)

Melisto, "electric as amber," and Rhaskos, "indestructible as clay," are as surprising a pairing as any in literature, ancient or modern, and their story is both epic in nature and scrupulous in detail. Amber & Clay is a true marvel. --Emilie Coulter

Candlewick Press, $22.99, hardcover, 544p., 9781536201222

Laura Amy Schlitz: The Elephant and the Flying Squirrel

Laura Amy Schlitz: The Elephant and the Flying Squirrel

Whether dwelling in fairy lands (The Night Fairy) or medieval England, 1911 Baltimore (The Hired Girl) or 1860 London (Splendors and Glooms), former librarian and Newbery Medal winner (Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village) Laura Amy Schlitz is herself a "good master" of world building. Here, Schlitz shares with Shelf Awareness the surprisingly thrilling process she went through to write Amber & Clay (Candlewick Press, March 9, 2021). 

I've been trying to imagine all the ways Amber & Clay came to be. Inspiration?

More than 20 years ago, I wrote a play about Sokrates for my fourth graders. I put the scene from the Meno in my play: the scene where Sokrates asks an enslaved boy to solve a problem in geometry. That's when I began to wonder about that boy. What was it like for him to be put on the spot by "the wisest man in Athens"?

I spent years trying to think of a way to write about that boy--and Sokrates--for Candlewick. I began work about five years ago. When I read Bettany Hughes's fascinating book, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life, I came across the "Little Bears," those girl-children who served Artemis at her sanctuary in Brauron. I'm drawn to bears and I loved the idea of these young girls serving the goddess as bears. I thought, "I've got to write about those girls!" But I already had my hero, the enslaved boy from Thessaly, and I couldn't think of any way he could meet up with one of the Bears. The Little Bears were almost certainly the daughters of aristocrats and a wellborn Athenian girl would have had no contact with boys. How could they meet?

Here comes the fun part: in 2015, there was a conference in New York City and my generous publisher put me up at the Library Hotel. The Library Hotel is a delight to me because each room has a Dewey call number which dictates the decor. On this occasion, I was placed in Room 110.005--the Paranormal Room.

It was a turning point for Amber & Clay. I looked at the spooky photographs on the walls and thought, "My characters could meet if one of them were a ghost." And at that moment, the big structure of the novel came into my mind--the idea that the children were psychic counterparts as well as opposites. I ordered a copy of Sarah Iles Johnston's Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece and discovered that girls who died young were particularly apt to become ghosts. I learned that I could bind my two characters together with a curse tablet.

Can you tell us about the archeological "artifacts" you based many scenes on?

I went to a lot of museums when I worked on this book. I tend to think in terms of metaphors, so artifacts and objects inspire me. Museums not only give me ideas, but they trigger an acquisitive urge. I want to possess those artifacts, but they're locked behind glass. The God of Thieves told me I could steal them by putting them in my stories.

Were you an ancient Greece and Greek mythology scholar before writing the book or did you become an expert while writing it?

The original bibliography was actually 10 and a half pages long. My editor asked me to shorten it to three. I didn't know much when I began, so I read a lot of stuff--articles on Thracian tattoos and clay pits and looms and thrush in donkeys. Every time I turned around, there was something I didn't know: Did the Ancient Greeks have scissors? Buckets? Socks? (Yes, to all three.) When Melisto saw a butterfly on her way to Brauron, I spent over an hour researching Greek butterflies. I even tried to teach myself Greek. There's something spellbinding about the language.

You write in your author's note that writing in verse broke you out of a bleak stiffness you had been struggling with. Can you say a little more about what verse can do that prose can't?

I think of prose as a kind of elephant. It can be powerful, and it can be graceful, but it can't jump: one foot has to stay on the ground at all times. Prose has to make sense, to move logically and, because of that, the writer needs to make transitions. You can't leap from one thing to another without the reader experiencing it as abrupt. And sadly, transitions are the very devil to write. They're not the part of a book anybody notices, but they require meticulous craftsmanship.

Verse is like a flying squirrel. It leaps and soars and can easily telescope time and space. Verse is cinematic, flashing between close-ups and panoramas. The reader reads not only the words, but the white space around the lines. Line-lengths and spaces between stanzas send signals to the reader so the transitions can be visual, not crafted from words.

In verse, you can create momentum with rhythm, assonance; you can use vowels like violins and consonants as percussion. The white space around your words is always there to help you.

Of course, there's plenty of prose that's close to verse and verse can be prosaic. But though verse can also be the very devil to write, verse is... well, versatile. When I wrote about Rhaskos's lonely childhood in verse rather than prose, it moved more quickly and was imbued with energy. The intensity of his suffering increased, but some of the heaviness was mitigated.

Your details paint a vivid portrait of ancient Greece. Has world-building always been important to you in your writing?

Yes. It's part of the fun: living somewhere else at another time. It's part of what I love about historical fiction--seeing the world from an entirely different angle. I feel cheated when I read a book set in the past and it's really about 21st-century Americans dressed in farthingales.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a dollhouse book for younger children. After all that Greek research, I wanted to write something miniature and less exacting in terms of research. Though I have had to try to learn a little bit about electrical wiring, so I could wire a tiny chandelier.... --Emilie Coulter

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: The Flight Attendant

The Flight Attendant, a series based on the novel by Chris Bohjalian, premiered on HBO Max November 26, 2020, and was renewed the next month following widespread acclaim. Kaley Cuoco stars alongside Michiel Huisman, Zosia Mamet and Rosie Perez as the titular freewheeling alcoholic whose layover in Bangkok ends in a dead body and questions from the FBI. The series was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, among other accolades. In Bohjalian's original book, first published by Doubleday in 2018, the flight attendant's lethal layover is in Dubai instead of Bangkok. A paperback tie-in edition is available from Vintage ($16).

Chris Bohjalian is the Armenian American author of 20 novels, including Midwives (1997), The Sandcastle Girls (2012) and The Guest Room (2016). He often uses fictionalized autobiographical elements of life in Vermont while also referencing real New Hampshire locations. Midwives, about a Vermont midwife in trouble after a deadly C-section, and The Sandcastle Girls, about the Armenian Genocide and a century of its denial, were both Oprah Book Club picks. Bohjalian's latest novel, The Red Lotus, about an American couple on a romantic Vietnam getaway gone awry, was published March 2020 by Doubleday ($27.95). --Tobias Mutter

Book Review


Serena Singh Flips the Script

by Sonya Lalli

Serena Singh is, in her own words, "Creative Director. Badass Brown Girl. Advertising Ass-Kicker." In a new role at boutique ad agency in Washington, D.C., Serena has everything she's ever wanted: a busy and important career, a younger sister who doubles as a best friend and not much time for anything else. When the career proves a little bumpy, and the sister gets married--and then pregnant--Serena is left longing for something she can't quite identify. "What did people see when they looked at Serena Singh? A busy, career-driven woman, sure, but what else?" This is the question that teases Serena's mind throughout Sonya Lalli's Serena Singh Flips the Script.

In many novels, that "something more" would be romance, marriage, then children. But Serena is deeply mistrustful of marriage and does not want children of her own. As Serena flips the script on what happily ever after means for her, Lalli (The Matchmaker's List) turns the tables on the contemporary romance genre. The book is rife with relationship drama, but these relationships are not solely romantic ones. Instead, the novel probes the seemingly impossible challenge of adult women making--and retaining--friends. Serena also muddles through romantic ups and downs, but the central question at the book's heart is: "What did I want for myself?" It is in answering that question that the rest of the pieces start to fall into place for her: career, friendships, family, romance. But the happily ever after that Lalli has imagined in this smart, well-paced novel is not dependent on any one of those things. It is dependent on Serena herself--becoming herself. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: Sonya Lalli's savvy novel puts relationships in all of their forms--family, friends, and romance--on even footing as a young woman works to find happiness.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 352p., 9780593100936

The Little French Bridal Shop

by Jennifer Dupee

Tender moments add levity to Jennifer Dupee's appealing first novel, The Little French Bridal Shop. Larisa Pearl is pushing 40 years old when she loses her job in Boston, breaks up with her boyfriend and learns that her 96-year-old aunt--her father's unmarried sister--has died and left her house, "Elmhurst," to Larisa and her father. Larisa's parents live in a New Hampshire retirement community, where her mother is battling dementia and her devoted father is lovingly committed to her daily care. This leaves Larisa to set off on her own to Elmhurst, located in the small seaside town of Kent Crossing, Mass. Elmhurst is in need of repair. Thus, she enlists the help of Jack Merrill--a disillusioned, married father of triplets, in his late 30s--the part-time caretaker of the estate. Larisa and Jack were friends who grew up together, spending memorable summers at Elmhurst.

While grappling with her mother's deteriorating health and re-acquainting herself with the allure of small-town life, Larisa decides--on a lark--to try on a beautiful wedding gown displayed in the window of the local bridal shop. To Larisa's surprise, the shop owner is one of her former teachers, now retired, who happily presumes Larisa is finally getting married. Not wanting to disappoint, Larisa gets roped into the assumption. This choice escalates in ways that challenge Larisa's perceptions of happiness and love.

Dupee successfully combines the pull-and-tug of romance with family drama to deliver a more serious message about facing up to the often harsh realities of life. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A heartfelt story about a down-on-her-luck single woman who has an awakening after committing a sin of omission.

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781250271525

Band of Sisters

by Lauren Willig

Prolific author and historian Lauren Willig (The English Wife; the Pink Carnation series) "smelled drama" when she read about Smith College alumnae who volunteered to aid civilian victims in World War I France. Band of Sisters, based on letters from these 18 women, pays faithful homage to their bravery as well as their friendship.  

"It was like college again--college with the threat of impending destruction, that was," Kate Moran thought as the Smith College Relief Unit left a war-weary Paris for the rubble of the French countryside and their assigned village, Grécourt. Memories of July's festive dockside sendoff in New York had faded as fast as their smart gray uniforms soiled in the mud. With Kate and her former roommate Emmie Van Alden as the novel's lead protagonists, the women's talents and personalities emerge. They contend with shortages, illness, weather and German shells, but as their planned six-month stay continues, their stamina grows. Reminders of kinder times lighten the circumstances--they banter, quote poetry, savor letters from home--as they come to understand and rely on each other. Brief respites come from British and Canadian soldiers who offer camaraderie and become dancing partners for makeshift social events.

By March, and the German advance, they're shepherding refugees while defying orders to evacuate, because "they were the Smith Unit and they were here, and that was what they did." A harrowing denouement leads to a postwar epilogue, a well-deserved farewell to the brave "Smithies." --Cheryl McKeon, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.

Discover: Based on the inspiring true story of Smith College alumnae who volunteered in World I France, a unit of young women endures hardships to aid civilian victims.

Morrow, $27.99, hardcover, 528p., 9780062986153

Come on Up

by Jordi Nopca, trans. by Mara Faye Lethem

Come on Up by Catalan writer Jordi Nopca, translated by Mara Faye Lethem, collects 11 stories that feature people wounded by Barcelona's economic downturn of the 2010s. These stories movingly illustrate the human shame of financial insecurity, with multidimensional characters that give life to sterile government jobless reports. Nopca excels at inserting tragicomic elements to keep his stories from becoming depressingly grim. In "Àngels Quintana and Fèlix Palme Have Problems," Felix, frustrated and hopeless, secretly shoves bananas into tailpipes throughout the city, causing chaos. "Is this banana battalion another silent way of saying 'We've had enough,' from a highly qualified generation of those who still haven't found their place in a job market that's turned its back on them?" a TV journalist asks, completely oblivious to Felix's category of unemployed: those who have no particular skills and "felt more lost and more useless with each passing day."

Even characters with jobs fear that any day could be their last. In "Swiss Army Knife," Octavi sells coffee pots door to door, and is constantly worried about keeping his job. Speaking about his boss, he says, "I couldn't believe that after twenty years at the company he still couldn't pronounce my last name correctly." Nopca's under- or unemployed characters have no time for introspection: "Having lost the possibility of imagining grand plans, they all pretty much lived from day to day."

This collection convincingly illustrates the stressors of life in modern cities and the weight that hopelessness carries. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: This collection of 11 short stories is a moving and sometimes farcical illustration of the price of unemployment in modern Barcelona.

Bellevue Literary Press, $16.99, paperback, 224p., 9781942658801

Acts of Desperation

by Megan Nolan

Acts of Desperation, Megan Nolan's raw and riveting debut novel, explores the dark and often taboo depths of abusive relationships. The novel's unnamed narrator, a bright but self-destructive young woman, falls in love with an enigmatic older writer, Ciaran. As their relationship escalates through the years, she descends into addiction, isolation and self-loathing, while nevertheless being drawn back to Ciaran as her center of gravity and her source of self-identity. By the time the tensions in their relationship reach a breaking point, the narrator no longer knows what he made her do and what she might have done by choice.

Blistering and visceral, Acts of Desperation pulls no punches when it comes to exploring the interior life of a young woman coming of age under the gaze of men. With a riveting, undeniable first-person voice, the narrator hypnotically leads readers into a world that is eerily easy to identify with and submit to. The story of her relationship with Ciaran may seem a familiar one, but the narrator's willingness to push past familiar tropes and explore the ugly underpinnings of such relationships and their effects on one's emerging sense of self make this story stand out not as a straightforward cautionary tale but as a revelation of the darkness that lingers in many contemporary romantic relationships. Rather than regurgitating overly simplified mantras about consent and abuse, Nolan crafts a story that puts the complexities of its characters first and forces readers to consider the unclear boundaries of choice, one's own desires and the desires of another. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A chilling and compulsively readable story of sex and power in intimate relationships, Acts of Desperation is a startling and unsettling literary debut.

Little, Brown, $27, hardcover, 288p., 9780316429856

Forget Me Not

by Alexandra Oliva

In Forget Me Not, Alexandra Oliva (The Last One) introduces a strong, damaged protagonist in a near-future world. It's been six years since the pandemic. Everyone wears a Sheath around their forearm that links them into social networks, maps, business reviews and details about the people they pass on the street. But Linda didn't grow up in this world: she was 12 years old when she climbed over the walls that circumscribed the only world she'd ever known. Twelve years old when she was thrust into a never-ending spotlight, because of where she's come from and who she is.

Now, as an adult, she lives alone in an apartment in Seattle, terrified to step outside, to make eye contact, to interact. "People bemoan the inhumanity of her childhood, but the outside world is so much worse." That childhood remains an enigma for much of the book, but Linda remembers running barefoot and relying on herself, a life that seems more natural and straightforward than the one she knows now.

Then an unusual woman moves in down the hall. Anvi seems open, forthright; Linda knows better than to trust anyone, but Anvi captivates her. And when Linda's past resurfaces, Anvi accompanies her back to the place where she grew up, to search for answers she may regret finding.

Forget Me Not explores humans' relationships with the natural world, with technology and with each other. It is far from polemic, however, with affecting characters, a real sense of urgency for their various plights and a thriller's racing plot. This is a poignant novel of isolation, terror, misperceptions and, ultimately, empathy. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A woman with a strange past struggles with a near-future reality in this riveting, moving masterpiece of both character and plot.

Ballantine Books, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9781101966846

Mystery & Thriller

A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better

by Benjamin Wood

A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better is a harrowing, psychologically deft thriller about a series of terrible crimes and the protagonist's struggle to live with their aftermath. When Daniel Hardesty was 12 years old, a road trip with his father descended gradually into horror. The story of the road trip takes up most of the novel, and it unfolds slowly, patiently, gradually filling in details about Daniel's strained relationship with his father and building an impressively detailed psychological portrait of the characters. When the inevitable happens--the road trip is related by a much older Daniel who makes it clear that the trip will have a shocking end--the ground has been laid so thoroughly, motivations and personal dysfunctions so intricately established, that the shocking acts of violence seem perversely comprehensible.

The novel builds incredible tension in its gradual progression from discomfort to horror, only made more excruciating by the protagonist's age and his innocent belief that his estranged father might not let him down this time. A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better is spectacularly successful as a work of suspense, but it might be even better as an examination of trauma. By allowing the reader to hear the adult Daniel's thoughts on the events as they progress, Wood cleverly reveals a parallel story about surviving the unthinkable. Decades later, Daniel still endlessly revisits the road trip, seeking answers that can't be found, yet Wood dares to leave readers with glimpses of a path forward. --Hank Stephenson, the Sun magazine, manuscript reader

Discover: A slow-burn thriller about a road trip that takes a shocking turn, and the lasting impact of trauma.

Europa Editions, $27, hardcover, 368p., 9781609456825


Accidentally Engaged

by Farah Heron

Farah Heron's second novel, Accidentally Engaged, is a fun and warm contemporary romance full of heart and humor. When she meets her new neighbor, Nadim, Reena Manji is adrift. She's just been laid off from a numbers-crunching job she hated. Her parents are pushing her to marry the son of a business partner, but Reena's already had 12 failed relationships and doesn't want another foisted upon her. And her once-popular food blog was tanked by her health-obsessed sister, leaving avid baker Reena to pursue her passion only as a hobby.

It turns out that Nadim is actually the man her parents had intended to set her up with, but--after promising never to marry each other--the two soon bond over beer and bread. One night, after a little too much alcohol, they video themselves making late-night comfort food and enter a contest to be on a Toronto cooking show. Despite their chemistry and easy camaraderie, nothing is simple: Nadim and Reena pretend to be engaged for the competition while keeping their relationship secret from their families and developing real feelings for each other in private.

Full of food so lovingly described that the scents nearly waft up from the page, Accidentally Engaged is not to be consumed on an empty stomach. Like Reena, Heron (The Chai Factor) is an East African Indian Muslim Canadian woman, and she uses food and the act of cooking together to illustrate the deep sense of home and belonging that Nadim and Reena find with each other. It's a steady theme throughout the book: home is where you make it--with the people you love. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels

Discover: Farah Heron balances the ingredients for a charming romance: a heroine finding her way, a swoonworthy love, a complicated but loving family and a happily ever after.

Forever, $15.99, paperback, 368p., 9781538734988

Biography & Memoir

Speak, Okinawa: A Memoir

by Elizabeth Miki Brina

Elizabeth Miki Brina claims her voice with resounding clarity in her memoir, Speak, Okinawa. As the daughter of a U.S. soldier with Jamestown ancestry and an Okinawan immigrant mother, Brina's identity was always a negotiation of race, class, privilege. By opening her stupendous book with her maternal grandmother and leading into the 1945 Battle of Okinawa ("Okinawa had never known such carnage"), Brina adroitly announces her literary intentions: "I had not learned this history, my mother's history, my history, until I was thirty-four years old. Which is to say I grew up not knowing my mother or myself." The knowledge she reveals here--about herself, her complex heritage, her history--proves breathtaking.

Brina grew up in a "ninety-nine percent white" Rochester, N.Y., suburb and recognized racial disparity early: "White was always what I strived to be." That longing estranged Brina from her not-white, not-American, not-English-fluent, not-assimilated mother, Kyoko. As a teenage nightclub waitress supporting her destitute family in U.S.-occupied Okinawa, Kyoko dreamed of escape by marrying an American; her wish fulfilled left her a lonely, isolated alcoholic shamefully dismissed by her only child. Brina's father was the heroic protector, until Brina came to realize, decades later, that Kyoko "is the one who is stronger now."

"By being aware, being honest.... By apologizing. By forgiving," Brina begins her own restorative transformation. Interwoven with her nuanced metamorphosis is the inseparable history of Okinawa, colonized by China and Japan and, since World War II, with an unpopular, large U.S. military presence, despite its status as a Japanese prefecture. Moving fluidly between intimate memories and documented history, Brina creates a multi-layered literary gift. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Elizabeth Miki Brina embraces her complex dual heritage in a gorgeous memoir that also illuminates the devastating colonial history of Okinawa.

Knopf, $26.95, hardcover, 304p., 9780525657347

Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water

by Kazim Ali

In Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water, Kazim Ali explores how a sense of place shapes one's identity. "I've always had a hard time answering the question, 'Where are you from?' " he writes. Born in the U.K. to political refugees from India, Ali eventually migrated to Canada with his family. There, his father worked as an electrical engineer for Manitoba Hydro, the province's electrical authority. Decades later, Ali finds himself recalling his childhood years in the remote town of Jenpeg with fondness, "drawn back to a place that for years I had not thought of."

Jenpeg, however, is gone, having been constructed to last only as long as Hydro needed employees in the area to build a dam across the nearby Nelson River. The town site, on unceded Pimicikamak Cree land, is hours from the nearest provincial town, but the town of Cross Lake, on the Cross Lake Indian Reserve, is much closer, and so Ali ends up visiting there to learn more about his childhood home. He is welcomed and embraced by the people of Cross Lake, who open his eyes to a place steeped in centuries of systemic racism and discriminatory policy.

In Cross Lake, Ali finds himself "awash in remembrance"--of his childhood memories, but also in the collective memories of the Pimicikamak Cree people who still live there and hold the memory of the land in their stories. This remembrance forms the backbone of Northern Light, as Ali moves from writing a memoir to something else, something larger than the story of one person, one family, or even one place. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: Kazim Ali's account of a small town in Northern Canada is part memoir, part ethnography, part history and part exploration of self.

Milkweed, $24, hardcover, 200p., 9781571313829

Children's & Young Adult

Too Small Tola

by Atinuke, illus. by Onyinye Iwu

Tola, a young girl who lives in Lagos, Nigeria, with her Grandmommy, brother and sister, shares what her life is like in this #OwnVoices early chapter book. Atinuke (Anna Hibiscus series; Catch that Chicken!) uses wit and exactly the right amount of light-heartedness to bring each character in Too Small Tola to exuberant life.

In the titular first chapter, Atinuke introduces Tola as the smallest member of her family (thus the nickname "Too Small Tola"). When Tola goes shopping with Grandmommy, who "is not much taller than her," she watches the woman carry heavy items despite her small stature and remembers that "Grandmommy can pound enough yams to feed a gathering of the Neighborhood Association." This inspires Tola and, even when she feels the weight of their purchases, she is determined to help Grandmommy carry home the groceries. In this way, Tola learns that although she is small, she is also very strong.

Atinuke's use of Nigerian words throughout, accompanied by Onyinye Iwu's illustrations, immerse readers in Nigerian culture. The grayscale illustrations are stylized with realistic elements: characters wear traditional African garments such as wrap-around skirts, head scarves and dashikis, and have natural hairstyles--braids, puffs and afros. Iwu's focus on expressive faces and body language adds realism to the work, as does her attention to setting. Atinuke uses child-friendly, entertaining dialogue and incorporates accessible themes such as bullying and helping others in need. Her inclusion of rounded and well-developed secondary characters also helps Tola recognize that strength might come not necessarily from the muscles, but the heart. --Kharissa Kenner, children's librarian, Bank Street School for Children

Discover: A thoughtful trio of stories about a Nigerian girl named Tola who discovers that even though she is small, she is mighty. 

Candlewick Press, $15.99, hardcover, 96p., ages 7-9, 9781536211276

Laxmi's Mooch

by Shelly Anand, illus. by Nabi H. Ali

Human and civil rights attorney Shelley Anand joins the children's literary world with Laxmi's Mooch, a funny, body-positive book about loving all of you.

Four-year-old Indian American Laxmi has tiny hairs above her lip: a "mooch," or mustache in Hindi. Laxmi isn't initially aware of her mooch. But when playing farm animals with her friends, they suggest that she be a cat instead of a chicken because she has "little hairs on [her] lip, like cat whiskers." Laxmi, mortified, suddenly notices that she has hair all over her body: on her arms, legs, knuckles and "even in the space between my eyebrows!" Devastated by her newly revealed hairiness, she complains to her mother.. Mummy reminds Laxmi that she, too, has a mustache and that they "come from a long line of women with moochay." Mummy's pep talk works, and the next day Laxmi returns to school proudly flaunting her mooch. Soon enough, all the other kids want a mooch, too.

Anand fills Laxmi's Mooch with encouraging and affirming words. Illustrator Nabi H. Ali (All the Way to the Top) perfectly matches and reflects Anand's text with his vibrant digital illustrations. Ali's art both spans double-page spreads, depicting details of Laxmi's busy school and comfortable Indian American home, and pulls in close to show emotion through knitted brows, red cheeks or tear-filled eyes. Readers invited to watch Laxmi grow may also gain some confidence to celebrate their own bodies no matter what they look like--or where their hair may grow. --Natasha Harris, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this joyful picture book, a young Indian American girl learns how to be proud of her body and her heritage.

Kokila/Penguin Books, $17.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9781984815651

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