Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, June 4, 2021

Roaring Brook Press: Juniper's Christmas by Eoin Colfer

From My Shelf

Mary Richards: Outdoor Learning

Mary Richards

During this pandemic, we've all learned that fresh air is important for our mental health and well-being. A daily walk is a chance to allow the mind, as well as the legs, to wander. As a writer, I'm conscious that ideas often come to me while I'm walking around the block, not while sitting at the computer.

The same can be applied to the classroom. Move learning outdoors, and you'll give children time and space to look at the world in a different way. While writing Take Me Outdoors--a children's nature journal filled with facts, prompts and space to record adventures--I researched many artists, writers and explorers. I learned that, back in the 19th century, Charles Darwin would stroll daily along a "thinking path" near his home to sift through his ideas; young paleontologist Mary Anning discovered fossils and bones along her local beach; and Susan Fenimore Cooper's nature writing documented in precise detail the countryside she loved.

All this fed into Take Me Outdoors, which I hope will inspire parents, teachers and kids to go on some exciting expeditions. Some quick outdoor learning tips? Keep a log of activities. Observe closely and make detailed notes on where you've been and what you've spotted. Inspect plants, bugs, clouds, shells or trees, to learn about the natural world--why not create a collage with the objects you collect? Outdoors, you will explore with all your senses. While being careful, remember to touch, handle and feel; run, jump and play! --Mary Richards

Mary Richards is a writer, illustrator and publisher. Take Me Outdoors: A Nature Journal for Young Explorers is available from Agnes & Aubrey.

BINC: Read Love Support Campaign

Book Candy

Edgar Allan Poe's Surprise Bestseller

Edgar Allan Poe's bestselling book during his lifetime was a guide to seashells, Atlas Obscura reported.


Author Rachel Kushner (The Flamethrowers) chose her favorite 10 films for Criterion


Merriam-Webster's words used by Nabokov quiz."


Mental Floss shared "10 facts about V.C. Andrews's Flowers in the Attic."


"San Francisco man returns Bob Dylan album to Ohio library--48 years late." (via the Guardian)

Seven Days in June

by Tia Williams

Sparkling with delicious sensuality and an intriguing plot, Seven Days in June by Tia Williams transports readers to the literary heart of New York in pre-pandemic times, when it was possible for publicists, authors and their fans to mingle at elegant parties and splashy promotional events with abandon. At the novel's heart is a captivating contemporary story of romantic connection and love in an unforgiving world, overlaid with challenging themes of poverty, disability and childhood trauma that the author fearlessly addresses with grace and tenderness.

Eva Mercy is a successful "vampire erotica" author, a single mother and Princeton dropout living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her long-running Cursed book series is celebrated by fans who eagerly await the next installment. Eva is grateful for Cursed: it pays the bills, including her pre-teen daughter Audre's school fees at the audaciously expensive Cheshire Prep. The problem is that Eva, already struggling with disabling, chronic migraines, lacks motivation to plow through writing another Cursed book. She would rather explore and write about her French Louisiana Creole heritage and spiritual forebears--including a formidable grandmother who killed her husband while in the throes of a violent headache.

Eva's lonely, peripatetic childhood left much to be desired, lacking the stability she insists is Audre's birthright. Young Eva and her mother, Lizette, moved frequently, their livelihood dependent on Lizette's sleazy boyfriends. Relocating from Cincinnati to Washington, D.C., in Eva's senior year of high school was disruptive on many levels, but it's where she found friendship in the form of a brooding loner, a boy with a broken arm and stunning "gold-flecked chestnut eyes." Shane Hall is an orphan living in a group home, and he's as untethered as she is. When he gets into trouble defending Eva from a class bully, the two escape and spend a week together blissfully high on drugs, alcohol and each other. Then Shane disappears without a trace, leaving Eva bereft and heartbroken.

Williams (The Accidental Diva; The Perfect Find) artfully alternates between Eva's teenage years and her present-day role as a mother and author, the two vastly different stages in her life linked only by the monstrous migraines that have plagued her since childhood. She is a warrior who battles debilitating pain every day, but her vulnerability is actually her greatest strength--the sheer determination she brings to her days when others in her place might have given up.

Now, the last thing Eva needs in her life is a man. It's enough that she's managing her health, the Cursed franchise and the delightfully precocious Audre, who, behind her mother's back, charges her classmates $20 for Snapchat therapy sessions. So when Shane, now an award-winning writer, shows up unexpectedly 15 years later at a "State of the Black Author" event in Brooklyn where Eva is a panelist, she is determined not to engage with him.

Shane's reappearance brings back the anguish of his abandonment. Eva is still angry. Shane, for his part, wants to apologize and make things right as part of his AA recovery. A famous recluse, hailed as a living literary legend, Shane spends his spare time helping at-risk youth in underserved schools, offering them the support he wishes he had received as a child. As a measure of their preoccupation with each other despite the years apart, the protagonist in Shane's novels is modeled on Eva, while the divinely sexy vampire in Cursed bears a striking resemblance to him.

Williams's warm writing style bursts with compassion for Eva, Shane and the damaged children they once were. As Eva lets down her guard with Shane, Williams creates exquisite scenes of their slow, gorgeous reunion, including a magical summer afternoon they spend indulging their senses with decadent ice cream and rediscovering their passion for each other, an afternoon that "radiated an infectious, lazy-day calm." Readers will feel deep satisfaction observing the enigmatic Shane uncoil and release his past trauma as he and Eva hurtle into a romance powered by their imperfect history and a desire to reclaim their shared narrative.

Seven Days in June also shines in its celebration of strong female friendships and the unabashed pursuit of joy, reminiscent of Terry McMillan's beloved '90s classic How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Williams skillfully blends uplifting, hilarious moments into the story through a sensational supporting cast.

Once the mystery of teenage Shane's disappearance is resolved and he is drawn into Eva and Audre's irresistible orbit, the love story that is Eva and Shane's destiny takes on a glorious, yet uncertain, life of its own. The tantalizing question of whether or not they have the staying power necessary for a long-term commitment will be on readers' minds long after they have devoured Seven Days in June. --Shahina Piyarali

Grand Central Publishing, $27, hardcover, 336p., 9781538719107

Tia Williams: Fantasy, Romance and Sex in Literary New York

(photo: Pauline St. Denis)

Tia Williams is the author of The Accidental Diva, two young adult novels and The Perfect Find, which won the 2016 African American Literary Award for Best Fiction. The Brooklyn-based Williams served as beauty editor at Elle, Glamour and Essence magazines, and created the popular blog Shake Your Beauty. Set in contemporary New York, her vibrant new novel, Seven Days in June (Grand Central Publishing, June 2021), features two authors wary of falling in love after a false start in their teen years. Tender as well as laugh-out-loud funny, the story is steeped in the power of reinvention and explores why, when an old flame comes knocking, it's best not to ignore the call.

You've said the inspiration behind Seven Days in June was Romeo and Juliet. How did you develop your main characters, Eva and Shane?

Romeo and Juliet were huge inspirations for Eva and Shane! I really wanted to dive into the idea of dysfunctional teens as adults--what happens to them? Do you ever recover from childhood traumas? Does true love have an expiration date? How many totally functional-seeming, got-it-all-together adults are walking around with hidden pasts and tortured secrets? Eva and Shane were born out of these questions. Since all my protagonists are inspired by some dimension of my personality (lol)--and writing about what you know is, in fact, a great idea--Eva and I have a lot in common. (Full disclosure: I'm a writer and single mom of a 12-year-old living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with lifelong, debilitating migraines and a mother who is Black Creole. But she's nothing like Eva's mother, Lizette!)

Shane is off the charts sexy, as well as a phenomenally successful author. He's funny and romantic yet also divinely dark and broody. Do you know anyone like Shane?

Shane was pure fantasy! I loved dreaming up a man who carefully constructs his life so that he has no ties whatsoever--and watching it all unravel as love creeps in. He's a combination of every misanthropic guy I've ever known--a grumpy, restless loner too wrapped up in their own misery to understand their selfishness. But I wanted him to have a big heart, and a past to explain it all. And growth!

Eva's chronic migraines impact every single aspect of her life. What do you want readers to understand about this debilitating illness and the effort it takes to function despite severe pain?

Living with chronic pain is something you're aware of every minute of every day of your life. It's louder than anything else in your world. Plus, it's invisible, so you're fighting a battle that most people don't see (or even believe). Migraines aren't headaches, they're full-body pain assaults. The courage it takes to push through regular activities--like walking up the stairs or brunching with friends or playing with your kid--is monumental. Truly, it's a battle not to just give up and stay in bed forever.

Do you share Eva's French Louisiana Creole history and fear of water bugs?

I do. WATER BUGS HAUNT MY DREAMS. And my mom is a Chevalier from Cane River, Louisiana--an extremely old, culturally vivid, gorgeous Creole town where everyone is related, and the roots are deep, deep, deep. There are only about seven to 10 last names there. And everyone can trace their lineage back to the same antebellum duo, a French plantation owner and the enslaved African woman who bore his children. It's a fascinating pocket of American history.

A stunning love story, Seven Days in June also confronts the challenges of growing up in neglectful home environments without adults to turn to for guidance and support. To what extent is Shane's literary genius a byproduct of his unstable childhood?

Shane was always alone, lost in his thoughts as a kid. He had no parental figures, or siblings or friends, it was just him against the world. I think that because he peered into the world as an outsider, it made him notice details about humanity that usually go unnoticed. Which is where his literary genius lies. And he's a romantic. Not in the flowers-and-chocolate way--in the way that he romanticizes the world. He took Eva's tracing the infinity sign on his skin to help him sleep and dreamt up a character called Eight. He sees everything.

Eva's expertise at crafting steamy sex scenes in her books has nothing to do with her actual celibate life, a fact she has to hide from her adoring fans. That's a lot of pressure!

I always wondered if George R.R. Martin was sick to death of the Starks. Or if Stephenie Meyer secretly loathed Bella and Edward. I thought it would be an interesting twist, having Eva write these sexed-up books with these fantastical characters beloved by the fandom--when, in reality, she hasn't had sex in years and actually wants her characters to die.

The New York literary world as portrayed in Seven days in June is full of glamorous parties, social drama and fabulously dressed people. Is that what it was really like pre-pandemic?

Well, I embellished a bit--but yes! Everyone definitely knows each other, and there are some hilarious, clever personalities. And endless gossip.

Eva is surrounded by powerful, joyfully rendered female characters, her pre-teen daughter, Audre, among them. How do you see Eva and Audre's relationship changing as Shane enters their world and as Audre grows up?

I definitely see their relationship growing and changing--now that a third person has joined their family, Audre and Eva's relationship has to shift. Audre is going to have to be comfortable with Eva having close "forever" ties with someone besides her. But, at the same time, as Audre gets older, she'll come into her own and start becoming more independent--and forging a life outside of the little bubble that she's created with her mom.

You're in the exciting process of turning your novel The Perfect Find into a movie. Has the pandemic impacted the project?

Yes! It's being made into a film for Netflix, starring Gabrielle Union. Covid has definitely put a pause on things, but it's going into production this year. Can't wait to see how it's brought to life for the big screen! --Shahina Piyarali

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: Kevin Jackson

British writer Kevin Jackson, who "was the author or editor of some 30 books which, in their bewildering variety of subjects and genres, mirrored their creator's capacious mind," died May 10 at age 66, the Telegraph reported. Jackson also collaborated in the production of TV documentaries, short films, comic books, surreal plays for radio and a rock opera. A poet and reviewer, he was a founding member of the London Institute of 'Pataphysics, an organization "inspired by the French symbolist playwright Alfred Jarry's 'science of imaginary solutions,' a philosophy of the absurd which sets out to solve problems that nobody had thought could possibly exist."

Jackson's books include Constellation of Genius, which was described by novelist Will Self as "that most counterintuitive of things, an insanely readable book about modernism"; The Language of Cinema; A Ruskin Alphabet; Invisible Forms; Humphrey Jennings; Moose; Bite: A Vampire Handbook; and Pavane for a Vampire Queen. In collaboration with illustrator Hunt Emerson, Jackson also produced comic books based on the writings of John Ruskin. He also wrote a children's story in verse, Greta and the Labrador (2019), an English version of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz's Crimean Sonnets (2015) and a cartoon strip for the Fortean Times about the lives of famous occultists. Constellation of Genius is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Book Review


Golden Girl

by Elin Hilderbrand

Prolific novelist Elin Hilderbrand (28 Summers) ponders death, grief and the hereafter in the beautifully uplifting Golden Girl.

As the book commences, Vivi Howe--successful author of 13 novels and a 51-year-old divorced mother of three--dies in a hit-and-run accident near her home on Nantucket Island. Once Vivi's soul ascends from Earth, she is assigned a spirit guide, Martha, who allows her to view one last summer as life goes on without her for her three adult children, their father (her ex), her best friend and an old flame. As Vivi monitors from afar, she can give three "nudges" to alter the shape of events as they unfold in the lives of those she's left behind.

What ensues is an emotionally powerful story largely centered on Vivi's three children, all named for authors. Willa, the oldest, is married and pregnant again after suffering two miscarriages. When a long-lost beau of Vivi surfaces, Willa becomes intrigued to learn more about the life her mother led--and the secrets she kept--before marriage and family. Beautiful, rebellious middle child Carson gets swept up in substance abuse and makes histrionic bad choices. And Leo, an angsty high school senior about to start college, faces romantic turmoil. Threaded throughout the story is an ongoing investigation into who might've killed their mother.

Faithful readers have come to depend on Hilderbrand's top-notch escapist fiction that puts lively, dramatic new spins on families challenged by love and loss. Golden Girl will exceed their expectations. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: This beautifully drawn novel follows a middle-aged woman, killed in a hit-and-run accident, who monitors life as it goes on without her.

Little, Brown, $29, hardcover, 384p., 9780316420082

Winter in Sokcho

by Elisa Shua Dusapin, trans. by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

A quiet, severe winter in the Korean coastal town of Sokcho warms unexpectedly with the arrival of a foreigner in Elisa Shua Dusapin's prize-winning first novel, Winter in Sokcho, translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. The unnamed young woman narrator is working the desk at a guesthouse in the off-season when Yan Kerrand, a creatively blocked comics author from France, checks in to work on the final installment of his series about a peripatetic archeologist. Pressured to fit an unfulfilling ideal of femininity, the narrator's ambivalent season of life dovetails beautifully with Kerrand's restlessness.

But this short, exquisite novel is not easily defined by a simple artist-muse relationship. The pair forge a mutually searching dynamic through intimate walks in the cold and daytrips to nearby points of interest, like the DMZ. The daughter of a Korean mother and an estranged French father, the narrator takes interest in Kerrand's country of origin, a place she has never seen but is connected to by blood and dreams. Meanwhile, she challenges his simplified impressions of her country: "Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that's been going on for so long people have stopped believing it's real.... We're living in limbo. In a winter that never ends."

There is a terseness to Winter in Sokcho, precipitating from the narrator's irritations with her vapid boyfriend, who aspires to be a model, and her aging mother's continual criticisms. But the brevity and pacing of its vignettes are also reminiscent of comics, Kerrand's books having "no dialogue, very few words." Conversely, Dusapin's beguiling work resembles a vibrant graphic novel, sans pictures. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: This irresistible and spare novel sketches with exquisite depth a season of searching for both a French Korean woman and a French visitor.

Open Letter, $14.95, paperback, 160p., 9781948830416

Mystery & Thriller

A Study in Crimson: Sherlock Holmes 1942

by Robert J. Harris

Robert J. Harris's A Study in Crimson: Sherlock Holmes 1942 is an homage to both Arthur Conan Doyle's novels and Universal Pictures' war-years movie franchise, which transposed Holmes to the then-modern era. Like the BBC's Sherlock, A Study in Crimson does right by its venerated source material while putting a new spin on Conan Doyle's characters by rejiggering their historical context.

The novel opens in September 1942, when London is enforcing blackouts that make it that much easier for evildoers to carry out their crimes by night; sure enough, the body of a young woman is found garroted and mutilated in a courtyard. After Holmes learns that the body of another woman killed by a similar method was discovered some days earlier, he determines that the murders occurred on the same dates that Jack the Ripper's first two victims were found in 1888. Holmes's customary periods of reflection while working on a case may be a luxury that the women of London can't afford, given that Jack the Ripper ultimately claimed five lives.

Harris's mystery is up to snuff, and as impressions go, he does yeoman's work with Watson's narration, capturing the good doctor's starry-eyed bemusement with the fustily fastidious detective. Harris (The Thirty-One Kings) elaborates on Holmes's background in a way that jibes with Conan Doyle's careful characterization, and Watson's personal life gets some fresh ink as well. A Study in Crimson's suspenseful subplot: Will widower Watson make romantic headway with an American journalist wrapped up in the case? --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: In this well-executed mystery set in wartime London, Sherlock Holmes must stop a Jack the Ripper copycat before the madman strikes again.

Pegasus Crime, $25.95, hardcover, 256p., 9781643137582

Biography & Memoir

Sobremesa: A Memoir of Food and Love in Thirteen Courses

by Josephine Caminos Oria

Abundant in heart, intimacy and flavor, Josephine Caminos Oría's Sobremesa: A Memoir of Food and Love in Thirteen Courses invites readers to pull up a seat and settle in. Born in Argentina but raised mainly in Pittsburgh, Pa., Oría translates sobremesa as "time spent being present at the table, lingering over a meal in conversation well after the food is gone." The table Oría sets in her rich telling explores not just her own coming of age but also the legacies of the women, family and cultures that have helped shape her, and her decisions, along the way.

Even amid heartbreaks and tragedy, love in Oría's life is plentiful: in memories of ancestors watching over her; as she gazes upon the handsome ranch hand who eventually becomes her husband; and as she changes the course of her professional life, to dedicate herself to re-creating her grandmother's dulce de leche.

Oría lingers over memories, living her sobremesa philosophy in her telling itself: prolonging the stories, steeping them in indelible details. A poignant example: Oría urges survivors of anyone who had standing appointments--as in her late mother's case--with hairdressers who served as longtime confidantes: "Should you ever lose a loved one suddenly... call their hairdresser. Go sit in their chair and talk to them." In Sobremesa's many moments like this, Oría's story spreads love and nourishment where others might forget its power--even simply through a recipe for Empanadas al Cuchillo. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: Fans of memoirs with recipes, of stories of multicultural identities and of the celebration of shared meals that bind people together will find Sobremesa as nourishing as the recipes within.

Scribe, $24.95, hardcover, 400p., 9781735305189

Social Science

The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation's Neglect of a Deadly Disease

by Daisy Hernández

Daisy Hernández is adept at blending memoir and journalism, having mastered the confluence of personal experience and dogged reporting in her memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed, and through her writing, which has appeared in the New York Times and the Atlantic. While she's written about a variety of topics, her personal connection to Kissing Bug Disease--also known as Chagas disease--as well as years of research into the little-known condition, makes The Kissing Bug: A True Story of Family, an Insect, and a Nation's Deadly Disease an especially compelling and impressive read.

Like a skilled detective analyzing the most convoluted of mysteries, Hernández takes readers along as she attempts to make sense of the parasitic disease that killed her Tía Dora and currently afflicts some six to seven million people, mostly in Central and South America and Mexico; the CDC estimates 300,000 cases in the U.S. Despite its reach, the disease is not as well-known as other insect-borne conditions. This discrepancy drives Hernández's book. Through extended interviews with patients, doctors and epidemiologists, Hernández weaves a vital narrative of the racial politics that overshadow modern health care and reveals who "we choose to take care of and when and how and for what reasons."

There are many obstacles to eradicating Chagas. The parasite can be transmitted through blood transfusions and organ transplants, and benznidazole, a potential treatment, is expensive, in large part because of exploitative prices set by pharmaceutical companies. Yet Hernández's lucid writing provides a paradigm for how to begin addressing the inequities baked into medicine. --Gwen Aviles, freelance writer

Discover: This deftly reported memoir lends visibility to a deadly disease that afflicts more than six million people, and examines the racial politics behind modern health care.

Tin House Books, $27.95, hardcover, 336p., 9781951142520

Essays & Criticism

Hyphen (Object Lessons)

by Pardis Mahdavi

In Hyphen, the feminist activist and academic Pardis Mahdavi explores her hyphenated identity as an Iranian-American who is struggling to belong. With her Iranian heritage often at odds with her American self, Mahdavi examines the hyphen's rise and fall during its curiously turbulent history as a uniter and divider of words.

Hyphen is part of the Object Lessons book series (Sock; Veil), which illuminates stories behind everyday objects and inspires readers to contemplate the deeper significance behind items that generally aren't thought about beyond their immediate usefulness. Mahdavi (Crossing the Gulf; Gridlock) highlights the hyphen's glory days, including its enduring presence etched into the stone facade of the New-York Historical Society, and its politicization by President Theodore Roosevelt when he questioned the loyalty of hyphenated Americans.

As dean of Social Sciences at Arizona State University, Mahdavi connected with students whose struggles with their hyphenated identities mirrored her own. She shares their stories and speaks eloquently to the travails of those caught between worlds, trying to connect their past and present. After being stripped of her Iranian citizenship, Mahdavi realized she didn't have to fit on one side of the hyphen or the other. Instead, she embraced the space between her various identifies, her voice and authority residing in the mighty hyphen itself.

While the hyphen shines as a connector of compound words and allows them, over time, to take on new meanings, for the author its true magic lies in its ability to harmonize and honor a person's individuality. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and freelance reviewer

Discover: This illuminating volume considers the surprisingly controversial history of the hyphen and its present-day endlessly adaptable use as a connector of the multiple identities that reside within many of us.

Bloomsbury Academic, $14.95, paperback, 176p., 9781501373909

The End of the Golden Gate: Writers on Loving and (Sometimes) Leaving San Francisco

by Gary Kamiya, editor

Readers who know the fog's name is Karl as well as those who've never been smitten by the City by the Bay will find the 25 essays in The End of the Golden Gate: Writers on Loving and (Sometimes) Leaving San Francisco to be heartfelt, enlightening reflections on the authors' diverse feelings for the city.

Editor Gary Kamiya (Cool Gray City of Love), a San Franciscan since 1971, distills the collection's many perspectives. "For the last decade or so," since the "Tech Tsunami" came to town, "the chorus of San Francisco detractors has begun to outshout its defenders," he writes. Common themes--both homage and elegy--surface. Housing, always at a premium, is revered, and "to move neighborhoods in San Francisco is to change personalities," Elisa Bassist writes, from "the tie-dye of Haight-Ashbury" to the Castro's converted Victorians. First-generation San Franciscan Alia Volz mourns the gentrified neighborhoods that are "losing their grit and idiosyncrasies." References to loss recur: bookstores, landmarks, Black residents, soul. Peter Coyote sees the city as "colonized, homogenized, and marginalized," transformed by "money and an addiction to power," and fears it's a precursor to a nation that resembles San Francisco's "exclusive enclaves."

This collection illuminates the beauty, the climate and the history that drew (and sustained) residents to "the glittering, devil-may-care" city, with contributions from 25 writers who may have left her, but undeniably have loved her, too. (A portion of the book's proceeds will go to support families experiencing homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area.) --Cheryl McKeon, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.

Discover: Revealing both deep affection and disillusionment, 25 writers reflect on their conflicted feelings for San Francisco.

Chronicle Prism, $17.95, paperback, 240p., 9781797210285

Now in Paperback

The Death of Vivek Oji

by Akwaeke Emezi

Nigerian-born writer Akwaeke Emezi, whose YA novel Pet was a National Book Award finalist, brings readers a deep, tender look at a family unraveling around the tragic and early loss of someone they loved but never understood in The Death of Vivek Oji, shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.

"They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died," the first chapter says in its arresting entirety. Born to Chika and Kavita, with a starfish-shaped birthmark on his foot identical to a scar his grandmother had on hers, Vivek comes into the world "after death and into grief." As a tween, he suffers from inexplicable blackouts, and Chika considers him too sensitive. As an older teen, Vivek finds solace and love among friends who accept him and in his impossible yet undeniably passionate relationship with cousin Osita. When Vivek's fabric-wrapped corpse is left on his parents' doorstep without explanation, Kavita desperately searches for explanations about his life and death, while Osita grapples with how much of the truth he should tell.

By turns raw and gentle, this gorgeous #OwnVoices drama features a cast of diverse nationalities, sexual orientations and gender identities. The mix of third- and first-person narration reconstructs a life, largely from secondhand accounts. Emezi (Freshwater) beautifully captures an ordinary family in all its loving, hurtful, messy glory, then thoughtfully demonstrates that pressure placed on one member can backfire and undermine the entire unit. A spot-on pick for thoughtful book club discussion, The Death of Vivek Oji wraps up heartache with hope. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: In this gorgeous novel from National Book Award finalist Akwaeke Emezi, a grieving family searches for answers when its youngest member is found dead.

Riverhead, $17, paperback, 256p., 9780525541622

Homeland Elegies

by Ayad Akhtar

In Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar's impressive whirlwind of a second novel and a Shelf Awareness Best Book of 2020, the author turns his own phenomenally successful American story inside out, eloquently exposing fault lines that persist for those viewed as outsiders in their country of birth. Taking the literary form of a reality drama, Homeland Elegies explores the socio-economic upheavals that created Trump's America through the astonishing family saga of an American Muslim playwright of Pakistani ancestry.

A narrator named Ayad, born in New York and raised in Milwaukee with a firm belief in American exceptionalism, struggles to reconcile the complicated truths behind the United States' obsession with wealth as holy pursuit and its fanatic consumerism. His Islamic heritage bears the traumatic aftershocks of 9/11, when living in New York became an act of provocation for Americans like himself, the beginning of his "deepening travails as a Muslim in this country." Through profoundly intimate vignettes, Ayad shares the distorted American dreams of a father who served as Trump's physician in the '90s and an uncle whose conversion to Christianity is a misguided effort to feel safe in the U.S. Meanwhile, his dying mother pines for an idealized version of Pakistan, the same country that learned terror-as-tactic at the feet of the CIA.

True to the legacy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced, Akhtar (American Dervish) dissects themes of Muslim self-identity with incredible precision. Homeland Elegies will appeal intellectually to readers secure in their sense of belonging as well as those who, like Ayad, wrestle with feelings of otherness. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer

Discover: This astounding work of reality fiction explores the roots of a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and his Pakistani-Muslim family's pursuit of an American dream derailed by post-9/11 politics.

Back Bay Books, $16.99, paperback, 368p., 9780316496414

Children's & Young Adult

Da Vinci's Cat

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Da Vinci's Cat is a fanciful, middle-grade alternate history romp that narrates the adventures of 16th-century "gentleman" Federico and his encounters with New Jersey time-travelers Herbert Bother and Beatrice "Bee" Bliss.

The year is 1511, and 11-year-old Federico of Mantua is living in Rome as the hostage of Pope Julius II where he freely associates with Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Raphael. One night, Federico hears scratching coming from an ornate closet and discovers a tawny kitten. The next night, the kitten jumps into the closet and returns moments later, fully grown and held in the arms of Herbert Bother, time-traveler and art trader from 1928 New Jersey. Herbert tells Federico that the closet (and Juno the cat) belonged to Master Leonardo and offers Federico a trade: Herbert will bring the boy chocolate if Federico brings Herbert sketches. In modern-day New Jersey, Beatrice "Bee" Bliss discovers a tawny cat. When she takes the cat across the road to the home of Miss Bother, the old woman recognizes Bee from an unsigned Raphael drawing. To figure out this puzzle, Bee will need an ornate closet, a feisty cat and the prideful young hostage of Pope Julius II.

Da Vinci's Cat, told in third person, is a story about selflessness, friendship and the importance of seeking unity through difference. Gilbert (The Book of Boy) emphasizes a classic lesson: it is important to help others, no matter how they might dress, speak or act. Life's greatest trials, the children learn, may not be conquerable alone, but any difficulty can be overcome with a little bit of help from friends. This novel will be perfect for lovers of Madeleine L'Engle and When You Reach Me. --Cade Williams, freelance reviewer and staff writer at the Harvard Independent

Discover: A fanciful middle-grade alternate history romp depicting the adventures of a 16th-century "gentleman" and his encounters with 20th-century American time-travelers.

Greenwillow Books, $17.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 8-12, 9780063015258

Nia and the New Free Library

by Ian Lendler, illus. by Mark Pett

The Littletown Library had been around for so long that people almost forgot it was there. After a tornado blew through and "carried the whole thing away," residents weren't even sure they needed a new one. In the fanciful--yet eminently sensible--Nia and the New Free Library, one book-loving girl cooks up an imaginative plan, not only for rebuilding the missing institution, but for getting the entire town to value it as well.

Now that there's "an empty space where the library used to be," the builder thinks the town would be better off with another skyscraper, while the grocer is partial to a parking lot. Only Nia misses the old Littletown Library, which she visited every week. After giving the matter some thought, Nia gathers "a desk and a chair. And a pencil and some paper." She gets comfortable and begins to write. Days later, Nia has created enough books to fill a little wagon and she shares this New Free Library with people in town. The grocer thinks the words are wrong, so Nia gives out pencils. Pretty soon "the entire town was lending a hand." Before long there are "enormous piles of freshly written books."

Ian Lendler (The Fabled Life of Aesop) deftly concocts a tale of kid-friendly activism, demonstrating how one person might achieve outsize results by giving the whole diverse community a stake in the dream. The sketchy line work and pastel washes of Mark Pett (This Is My Book!) bring to mind the picture book art of David Small. His loosely defined panels give a graphic novel feel to some spreads, with the sequential art allowing the illustrations to propel the story forward. Nia and the New Free Library demonstrates how spreading the love of reading might well elevate an entire community. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI

Discover: After a tornado carries off Littletown's library, Nia's plan for building a new one hinges on getting the whole town involved in this charming, kid-friendly take on grassroots activism.

Chronicle Books, $18.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 5-8, 9781452166865

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