Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, June 18, 2021

Dutton: Sunderworld, Vol. I: The Extraordinary Disappointments of Leopold Berry by Ransom Riggs

From My Shelf

Coming Home

Rather than recommend yet another World War II narrative about the Normandy landings or the Battle of Stalingrad, for this Father's Day, we'd like to highlight a few books about a much less mythologized subject: what happened after the war ended, when millions of displaced people looked to find their way home.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down by Henriette Roosenburg (Scribe US, $18) and The Nine by Gwen Strauss (St. Martin's Press, $28.99) both document the difficult journeys of mostly female bands of resistance fighters escaping from Nazi captivity. While The Nine takes place when the war was not yet over, both books capture the chaos of Germany in a rapid state of collapse. The women make their way home by any means necessary, including floating downriver in boats and crossing crumbling bridges. Though the dangers the women face are significant, their unorthodox means of travel help contribute to an unexpected feeling of picaresque adventure, as the women lie and scavenge their way toward freedom.

The women were lucky to have homes to return to. The Last Million by David Nasaw (Penguin Press, $35) recounts the fate of the approximately one million refugees left in Germany who refused to return to their home countries or had nowhere to go. Many of these refugees had legitimate political reasons to be fearful of returning to territory now controlled by the Soviet Union, while others were Nazi collaborators and war criminals seeking to evade punishment. The displaced million formed complex mini-societies in their temporary camps, seeking to re-create the homes that they might never return to as they waited to be resettled in reluctant Allied nations.

Together, these three books are testaments to the powerful draw of home as millions of people tried to put their lives back together in the wake of catastrophe. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine

The Writer's Life

John Green: Wonders Are Never Far Away

photo: Marina Waters

John Green is the author of the novels Looking for Alaska; An Abundance of Katherines; Paper Towns; The Fault in Our Stars; and Turtles All the Way Down. He is also coauthor, with David Levithan, of Will Grayson, Will Grayson. He received a 2006 Michael L. Printz Award, a 2009 Edgar Award, and has twice been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Green's books have been published in more than 55 languages, with more than 24 million copies in print. We discussed via Zoom The Anthropocene Reviewed (out now from Dutton, $28), his collection of 44 essays that began as a series of podcasts by the same name, in which Green "reviews different facets of the planet on a five-star scale." He lives in Indianapolis, Ind., with his wife, Sarah, and their son and daughter.

There is an art to shaping a 2- to 4-page piece that contains a truth about our current geologic age, the Anthropocene. Is it the kind of discipline that, once mastered, becomes a rhythm for you as a writer? Or does each piece take some sculpting or whittling every time?

My process has always been writing too much and then deleting as much as I can. So with these essays, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the topic, but then I wanted to focus on the places where I could respond personally to the resonances of the subject matter. That involved a lot of cutting away, trying to find the essential story, the essential connections. And now that's one of my favorite parts.

I think the cliché is true, that all writing is rewriting, but rewriting for me is where I find the most joy. Each thing was like taking a really big subject and kind of cutting away at it until it made a shape that made sense to me.

I'm thinking especially of a piece like "Auld Lang Syne" or "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance," where you're playing with time. Your endings often leave off with a sense of surprise that's so satisfying and often provide unexpected emotion.

I wanted to structure ["Auld Lang Syne"] and a few of the other essays in a way that acknowledged time, acknowledged that we usually tell stories chronologically, but I wanted to write about it in its emotional chronology. For me, it was important to say early on in that essay that Amy Krouse Rosenthal is dead because I didn't want Amy's presence in the essay to be used as a narrative device.

I wanted to end the piece by writing about her work and her life, and how she transformed the mundane, or even the despairing, into wonder and hope. That aspect of her work has influenced me so profoundly. She was a mentor to me. I have tried to take what I have learned from Amy about reckoning earnestly and unironically with hope into my work. It's a place where I feel like my work responds very directly to hers.

Her impact has resonance in other pieces of yours throughout the book.

Yeah, for sure. I started writing the essays that became the book when I was recovering from this very unpleasant--although beautifully named--disease called labyrinthitis. I couldn't open my eyes for almost two weeks, I couldn't play with my kids or read or watch TV or do anything, really. When I started to get better, one of the first things I did was reread a lot of Amy's work. I didn't know if I wanted to write at all anymore. I really felt like my attention had become so fractured and my life had become so loud with all these inputs from lots of different directions and from social media.

And I came across something Amy wrote: "If you want to know what you need to do in life, all you really need to do is pay attention to what you pay attention to." And that was critical for me in thinking about how to begin writing this book, that the book was going to be a way of me trying to pay attention to what I pay attention to.

Can you talk a bit about the subtle differences between writing a script for the ear versus a phrase for the eye? Were you tempted to play the song "New Partner" in the podcast, for instance?

You know, it's funny, I always feel like songs are better in podcasts when they're not in the podcast. There are a few examples of this, where I find myself listening to the song when the essay is about a song during the podcast, and I'm like, it would kind of be better for me if you hadn't put the whole song in, because I don't actually like the song that much, and I'm not sure I agree with your breathless adoration of it. I'd rather just hear about what you love and how you love it than be asked to also love it in the same way.

And that's why I wanted to include, at the end of that essay, Sarah and I playing "New Partner" for our son and him not really liking it. I wanted to make room for readers who might listen to it and be like, "Yeah, it's okay. I don't know that I would like, you know, write an essay about it or anything." Because of course, everybody has a different song that can perform that magic for them.

Well, the essay did send me to the song. On the other hand, for "You'll Never Walk Alone" you did include a musical phrase from it in the podcast.

We included the singing of the paramedics through the window, trying to sing their colleagues in the ICU into courage and comfort.

And that leads us to the sports pieces, and the way "You'll Never Walk Alone" figures in your piece about Liverpool goalie Jerzy Dudek. You give readers just enough scaffolding if they've never seen a Liverpool football game to understand the impact of the individual player's story. How do you do that, inform in a way that brings us inside of the experience rather than distancing us from it through instruction?

I try to build enough support for the reader that they don't have to like soccer, or even know soccer, to care about this moment when a goalkeeper made an extraordinarily strange and beautiful choice. And that's what I'm always trying to do when I write about sports--I want people who don't care about sports to be able to glimpse why people who love sports, love them.

I can be deeply moved about all kinds of things that may not be things that I have a natural affinity for because of the way the story is told. And that was kind of the challenge I set for myself with the sports chapters. My wife enjoys watching soccer, but it's certainly not a big part of her life, the way it is for me. The way I thought about the Jerzy Dudek essay was: How can I write this in a way that will bring a tear to Sarah's eye and help her to understand why this matters so much to me?

The same is true when you describe the Bonneville Salt Flats. You put me there, and I appreciated their vast whiteness. Was it more challenging to do that for a place than for a set of circumstances?

In some ways, yes. With the Salt Flats, I wanted to take this color that we have certain associations with, and associate it with the blankness, with the threat, like Melville did--the "colorless all-color." But I also wanted readers to be able to feel, almost sense, the lack of sensation there; other than being able to smell the salt, you do feel extremely lonely. Even though there are lots of people around trying to angle their selfies so that they can look extremely lonely. But you do feel it, you feel the geography, and that's something that has interested me for a long time.

It's hard to imagine being at the Bonneville Salt Flats and feeling anything other than lonely and feeling anything other than being pulled away from your life, away from your world, toward these traumatic memories, and toward the stuff that you thought you had survived but it turns out you still live with. And then to be pulled back by my spouse was a really powerful moment for me. So I wanted to try to capture that moment.

One of my favorite pieces was "Indianapolis." It's a demonstration of how listening to someone you care for, in this case your friend Chris, helps open our eyes to the beauties we might have overlooked. And that happens again with your son in "Sycamore Trees," and with your daughter in "Whispering."

I learn so much more from my kids than they've learned from me. And one of the main things I've learned from them is that wonders are never far away. It's my ability to notice them, to give them the attention that they demand, that's often far away. And Chris, my best friend, reframed Indianapolis for me in a way that changed my life, because that's the reason I'm still here. And my brother [Hank] reframing human life for me over and over and over again, over the last 40 years, has been critical to my ability to go on, and to enjoy life and to find and seek awe in the world. If Sarah hadn't reframed the whole concept of this book for me, after I wrote the first two essays, by telling me that I couldn't pretend to be some objective expert on the subject of Canada geese, and instead needed to acknowledge that I was not an observer of the Anthropocene, but instead a participant in it, the book would never have happened.

I wanted in the book, over and over again, to go back to the idea that we accomplish almost nothing in isolation. We have always been a deeply collaborative species. And while we celebrate the stories of individuals and their individual discoveries, that's almost always an oversimplification. The truth is almost always that discoveries and innovations are made by people working together. I wanted to find lots of different ways in this book to write about the power of human connection. Because I have experienced that, and also because, in the last year and a half, it's been something I've desperately missed. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness

Book Candy

A Never-Aired TV Profile of James Baldwin

"Watch a never-aired TV profile of James Baldwin (1979)," Open Culture suggested.


Author Ann Pettifor chose her top 10 books for a greener economy in the Guardian.


"How Jane Austen's writing reveals her spiritual side." (via the CBC)


Berkeley Tower "is about to become even more distinctive" with murals by Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland, the Vancouver Sun reported.


Artist Zai Divecha "turns plain white paper into geometric sculptures," Design Milk noted.

Great Reads

Rediscover: Robert Quackenbush

Robert Quackenbush, the American author, artist and educator who wrote and illustrated more than 200 books for young readers, died May 17 at age 91. Quackenbush began illustrating children's books in the 1960s, and in 1971 he was nominated for the Caldecott Medal for his illustrations for The Peasant's Pea Patch. During the 1970s he began writing and illustrating his own books. Among his most beloved and classic books are those featuring Detective Mole, the Miss Mallard Mysteries and Pete Pack Rat.

Quackenbush's work is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum, the Smithsonian, the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Air Force Museum and the Norton Simon Museum. His achievements earned him a Gradiva Award, a gold medal from the Holland Society, and the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his Detective Mole series.

Throughout his career, Quackenbush traveled to speak to and educate school children around the world about his books, art, illustrations and writing. For more than 40 years, he taught children and adults the art of writing and illustrating in his New York City studio. Following 9/11, he worked on forming the Liberty Avenue program, helping children who had lost loved ones in the attacks to express and work through their feelings through art. Quackenbush's most recent series stars giant waterfowl Henry Duck, whose next misadventure, Henry Gets in Shape, will be published in August by Aladdin ($17.99).

Book Review


The Brittanys

by Brittany Ackerman

Brittany Ackerman's debut novel, The Brittanys, is a deeply felt, often funny foray into both the ephemeral and lasting pangs of upper-middle class women's adolescence. Narrator Brittany is one of five Brittanys who have been friends since childhood. She and her closest friend, Brittany Jensen, begin to drift apart as the two start high school and Jensen accuses the narrator of being "boy crazy." Over the course of a year, the narrator explores life without her best friend, traversing bad dates, sexual politics, feel-good consumerism and self-centered friendships in search of what from childhood can last.

The precision and accuracy with which Ackerman captures this particular early-2000s period of American adolescence makes for a richly nostalgic portrait of lost time. The sometimes absurd but often recognizable details of this moment--the smell of Eggo waffles in the toaster, a Nokia flip phone as a status symbol, learning to play Nintendo 64 games to impress sophomore boys--contribute to the sense of humor and retrospective self-awareness, even while the novel always treats its narrator with a tender generosity. And while the narrator's adventures in the realm of romance and sex form the basis of the plot, it is the poignant female relationships--between best friends and mothers and daughters--that reveal the story's true soul. Amidst the satirical mentions of half-Coke, half-Sprite mixtures and prepubescent boys who look like the stars of Jackass, Ackerman locates an achingly realistic but unsentimentally clear-eyed portrait of the youthful relationships that end but are never truly over. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A raw, funny and bittersweet novel about the awkward tenderness of adolescence.

Vintage, $16, paperback, 272p., 9780593311738

Battles in the Desert

by José Emilio Pacheco, trans. by Katherine Silver

Mexican poet, writer and essayist José Emilio Pacheco's novella Battles in the Desert returns in a glorious 40th-anniversary edition, re-translated by Katherine Silver from her own decades-old original. Award-winning author Fernanda Melchor appends an illuminating afterword that contextualizes the coming-of-age classic in the Mexican canon.

Carlos, still in primary school, becomes enthralled with a friend's mother, Mariana, a married politician's mistress. His obsession engenders a clumsy confession--"I was going to die if I didn't tell you"--which provokes consequences both comical and traumatic: the local priest inadvertently provides "a practical guide to masturbation"; an ineffectual psychiatrist is consulted; Carlos's older brother warns of possible violence from the Lothario politician; and Carlos lands in a new school where he's "again... the foreign intruder." Years later, he'll find out what happened to Mariana. Pacheco's seemingly sparse narrative deftly exposes profound observations about race, privilege, power.

Nothing in Battles in the Desert exists anymore: Pacheco died in 2014, his Mexico City has long disappeared, none of the characters--historical figures included--survive. Clues in the opening chapter (despite a first-sentence denial of "I don't remember: what year was that?") date the narrative before 1950: postwar cars, the popular song "Amorcito Corazón," El Señor Presidente Miguel Alemán. Pacheco serialized the story in 1980; the book was published in 1981. This intriguing novella--which refers to the year 2000 as "unimaginable"--remains compulsory in Mexico's standard middle and high school curricula. It also ironically reveals how little generations change: "The adults complained about inflation... immorality... overpopulation... foreigners, corruption... the limitless wealth of the few and the abject misery of almost everyone else." Pacheco's piercing prescience continues to educate. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Battles in the Desert, a timeless Mexican classic about young, impossible first love, returns in a marvelous 40th-anniversary edition.

New Directions, $10.95, paperback, 48p., 9780811230957

Mystery & Thriller

Hairpin Bridge

by Taylor Adams

The locals call Hairpin Bridge haunted, an isolated span rarely traveled, as it serves "a dead highway" made obsolete by the interstate; it's a place where "space and time are malleable," where "past and present can intertwine a bit." Taylor Adams (No Exit) makes full use of this setting as he forcefully pumps believable suspense into the chilling Hairpin Bridge, his fourth novel.

The bridge's nickname, "suicide bridge," has brought Lena Nguyen here to investigate why her twin sister, Cambry, leapt to her death from this derelict overpass about 70 miles from Missoula, Mont. Lena doesn't believe her twin died by suicide, despite the official account of highway patrolman Raymond Raycevic, who meets her on the bridge. Raymond found Cambry's body about an hour after he stopped her for speeding. Much of Raymond's report doesn't add up. Although Cambry had been living in her car, she wasn't depressed, but rather on a "grand pilgrimage" across the country. As Lena's questions become more confrontational, she and Raymond face off, like gunslingers of the Old West.

Adams displays fierce skills at meting out tension that begins subtly but increases as the danger becomes real. That sense of menace is even more powerful as Hairpin Bridge essentially is just two people facing each other in the country. Raymond underestimates Lena, believing this petite, 24-year-old woman who earns a minimum wage in an electronics store poses no threat. The plot smoothly unfolds from the present to Lena's blog about the sisters and what might have led to Cambry's death. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer 

Discover: Palpable tension infuses this keen plot as a young woman investigates why her twin sister leapt to her death from an isolated bridge.

Morrow, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9780063065444

Dead Dead Girls

by Nekesa Afia

Nekesa Afia debuts with Dead Dead Girls, a twisted launch to a book series set in 1920s Harlem. Louise Lloyd has a simple life--and she likes it that way. She spends her days working at Maggie's Café and her nights dancing with her friends at the local speakeasy, the Zodiac. Only her best friend and girlfriend know about her past. When Louise was a child, her face appeared in every newspaper after she attacked her kidnapper and fled the scene with other girls. She's in no mood to step back into the spotlight. But when Black girls like her start disappearing in Harlem, she gets roped into helping solve the case. As the Girl Killer ramps up his spree, Louise feels the pressure to find the murderer before he potentially takes someone she loves.

Afia writes a powerful tale about the prejudices and victimization Black people faced in the 1920s, with some eerie parallels to today. Louise is a survivor, dealing with past trauma, grief and a world that doesn't understand her race and sexuality. Through it all, she perseveres for her community and to prevent the horror that happened to her from happening to others. Afia brings Harlem alive in Dead Dead Girls, and it's lovely to see Louise's social calendar full of joy and friendship. And some illegal trips to the speakeasy, of course. Though some of the darker moments can be quite hard to read, watching Louise solve the case with her tenacity and hot temper is a delight. --Amy Dittmeier, librarian, Blue Island Public Library

Discover: The Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age make for a rich backdrop in this debut mystery.

Berkley Books, $16, paperback, 336p., 9780593199107

Graphic Books

Factory Summers

by Guy Delisle, trans. by Helge Dascher, Rob Aspinall

Renowned for his international travelogues--Pyongyang; Shenzhen; Jerusalem--Guy Delisle now mines his adolescence for a magnetic Factory Summers. Before he became an award-winning graphic auteur, Delisle at 16 worked in a Quebec City pulp and paper mill where his father was an industrial designer. The labor was grueling: 12-hour graveyard shifts in sauna-like conditions amid loud, dangerous equipment, the tedium broken up by breaks in a cooled, soundproofed shack in between the machines. Delisle spent three summers there, although he's quick to realize, "one thing about working at the mill when you're under twenty is that you can see the benefit of staying in school." Until his first animation job liberates him from the factory grind, his three-time annual ordeal provides wry, illuminating fodder--about entitlement, societal barriers, casual homophobia and misogyny, as well as intimate glimpses of Delisle's awkward relationship with his father, his youthful musical preferences (Neil Young, Genesis) and even his self-directed graphic education (thank you, libraries!).

Delisle presents his memories predominantly in black-gray-white panels with splashes of orange--his shirt, the factory smoke, sound effects. His boldly outlined illustrations are immediately immersive, while unexpected details and diversions are an invitation for deeper engagement: he (voluntarily) reads Of Mice and Men and cries over Lenny's fate; the mill's architectural provenance merits attentive pages, as does Canadian log-driving history. His encounters in the break shack reveal lifers (ready with unwanted marriage advice and fascinated by topless aerobics) and newbies (sharing nude modeling secrets and homemade lunches with love notes). Delisle's endlessly droll observations result in a captivating, beguiling self-portrait of an artist-in-the-making as a hardworking teen. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Graphic auteur Guy Delisle takes a break from his award-winning international travelogues to drolly and beguilingly examine three teenage summers spent working in a Quebec pulp and paper mill.

Drawn & Quarterly, $22.95, hardcover, 156p., 9781770464599

Biography & Memoir

Seeing Serena

by Gerald Marzorati

Gerald Marzorati, retired editor of the New York Times Magazine, takes an intriguing approach in Seeing Serena. The project was not formally authorized by Serena Williams, nor did Marzorati have special access to the athlete or her camp. Rather, Marzorati wanted "simply and not so simply, to see her in all the ways [he] could: watch her, describe her, listen to her, follow her (in the new conditions of seeing created by Instagram, etc.), interpret her, situate her." The result is a captivating look at one of the world's most supreme competitors and cultural symbols.

Upping the thrill factor is the timing of Marzorati's focus on Williams--37 and just back on tour in 2019 following the birth of her first child, she is nagged by injuries and playing opponents sometimes decades her junior. If that pressure isn't enough, she is seeking her 24th Grand Slam singles title, a pinnacle reached only by Australian Margaret Court during a vastly different era.

Far from the young novice who was booed and ostracized along with her older sister, Venus, when they joined the tour, Serena Williams is one of the highest paid and most recognizable athletes in the world, a crowd favorite. She's no less of a force off the court: she has forged her personal brand on social media while creating a fashion line and investing in other ventures as an entrepreneur. Interspersed with looks back, Marzorati provides an enthralling view of the forces that he believes made Serena "the most consequential athlete of her time." --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: Tennis writer Gerald Marzorati presents an intricate look at the complex and enigmatic Serena Williams during her quest to tie the all-time record for Grand Slam singles titles.

Scribner, $26, hardcover, 272p., 9781982127886

A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars

by Hakeem Oluseyi, Joshua Horwitz

Growing up poor and Black in Mississippi, James Plummer Jr. knew he loved science, but he never thought he'd become a renowned astrophysicist. His memoir, A Quantum Life (published under the name Plummer chose for himself, Hakeem Oluseyi), tells the story of his peripatetic childhood, his contradictory persona of "gangsta nerd," his eventual journey to graduate school at Stanford and the addiction to crack cocaine that almost pulled him all the way down.

Oluseyi vividly recounts his chaotic growing-up years: bouncing among multiple relatives' houses in different states; devouring the entire set of encyclopedias his mom bought from a salesman; falling behind in school because he moved so much. He won prizes at science fairs but had to act tough to survive in dangerous neighborhoods; later, he experimented with drugs but managed to graduate from college and get into Stanford. He charts his scientific journey and eventual work building telescopes under renowned Black solar physicist Art Walker, and admits his constant struggle to "keep up" in a world of privileged white scientists. Oluseyi is skilled at translating high-level science into understandable terms, but the true power of his memoir lies in his candid, vulnerable exploration of his inner journey. He makes mistakes and even falls into self-sabotage at times, but eventually learns to deal with the long-term effects of trauma and become the physicist--and man--he dreams of being.

Written in an easy conversational style, A Quantum Life mixes fascinating science with one man's struggle to reach for the (literal and metaphorical) stars. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Hakeem Oluseyi vividly recounts his journey from a chaotic childhood and drug abuse to his eventual career in astrophysics.

Ballantine Books, $28, hardcover, 368p., 9781984819093


From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War that Made the West

by John Sedgwick

A little-known tale of an Old West railroad rivalry comes to life in From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War that Made the West by historian John Sedgwick (Blood Moon). Despite the joining of the U.S. East and West by the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the interior of the young nation was still considered wild, raw and largely unpopulated. Two ambitious railroad men--General William Jackson Palmer, founder and owner of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and William Barstow Strong, general manager of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad--both dreamed of running their own tracks from Colorado to the Pacific, bringing trade, wealth and workers in their wake. The stage was set early for a clash as Palmer and Strong pitted their reputations against each other in a frenzy of tracklaying that ultimately helped build and sustain numerous towns along the way (Denver, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and San Diego, to name a few).

As he analyzes the impact of railroad funding, federal land grants and price wars resulting in cheap tickets, Sedgwick persuasively argues that this epic rivalry between the Rio Grande and Santa Fe railroads was essential to "making" the West, with special significance for the sleepy coastal hamlet of Los Angeles. Throughout From the River to the Sea, Sedgwick skillfully stage-manages a lively cast of characters, all touched by this epochal railroad war and its long-lasting implications for the American West. --Peggy Kurkowski, book reviewer and copywriter in Denver

Discover: All aboard for this illuminating, rousing history of U.S. railroads, rivalries and the race to run tracks from Colorado to the Pacific in the 1870s and early 1880s.

Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster, $30, hardcover, 352p., 9781982104283

Social Science

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

by Amanda Montell

Amanda Montell (Wordslut) delves into the bizarre world of cults and the cult-like in Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. With wit and wisdom, she shows how the language choices that cultish leaders make (even if they do not consider themselves to be part of a cult) are often deliberate, targeted at drawing followers further in and keeping outsiders at bay. "Cultish language isn't a magic bullet or lethal poison; it's more like a placebo pill" that works on some people.

This is because language is powerful--as Montell points out, "There's a reason most religions encourage prayer: Language strengthens beliefs." Whether that belief is in a fringe religion, a niche form of exercise like SoulCycle or CrossFit, or a favorite multi-level marketing company that sells diet pills or kitchen gadgets, adherents invoke very specific language choices to encourage new believers to remain a passionate part of the group.

Montell also explores the underlying behavior that causes people to join cultish groups. Some people turn to religion, some to exercise, and others to QAnon, but everyone is looking for a way to belong. Montell interviews many former members of cults or cult-like groups--including her own father, who was part of the Synanon cult as a child--and they all agree that "insider" language played a pivotal role in their sense of belonging. Sarcastic and erudite, Cultish is catnip for word-lovers, and anyone who has caught themselves going down cultish rabbit holes on Instagram or Wikipedia. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: This fascinating book is both an exploration of fanatical language and how it influences people, and a history of why so many Americans are drawn to cultish groups.

Harper Wave, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9780062993151

Now in Paperback

Blacktop Wasteland

by S.A. Cosby

Aficionados of good noir expect a moral dilemma, a crime, a double cross, a chase and wittily blunt dialogue, all unfolding against a pitiless landscape. S.A. Cosby's unforgettable Blacktop Wasteland has all that, but it doesn't play out in the genre's customary metropolis. The novel revolves around a Black family living in Virginia's Red Hill County--"no one's destination," as lifelong resident Beauregard Montage puts it--and won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was named a New York Times Notable Book and one of NPR's Best Books of 2020.

Things aren't going well for Beauregard. The garage he owns with his cousin is losing customers to a new (white-owned) shop. He's got a mother in a nursing home that needs to be paid, a kid who needs braces, another who needs glasses and still another who won't make it out of Red Hill if Beauregard can't cover her fall college tuition. He's been flying right for a while now: five years in juvie will do that, plus he wants to do better for his kids than his long-absent father did for him. But when Beauregard is invited to be the getaway driver in a diamond heist in another county, does he really have a choice?

Blacktop Wasteland starts with a car chase, and Cosby (My Darkest Prayer) never takes his foot off the accelerator. He's a natural storyteller and a nimble writer (one character is "as useful as a white crayon"). Cosby works the magic performed by only the best noir scribes: somehow he gets readers to root for the protagonist as he commits a crime. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Noir moves out of the city and into rural Virginia in this high-octane thriller centered on a Black mechanic forced by mounting debt to take part in a diamond heist.

Flatiron, $16.99, paperback, 320p., 9781250252692

Children's & Young Adult

The Coming Storm

by Regina M. Hansen

Ethereal and enchanting, this YA fantasy debut set on Canada's Prince Edward Island, suffused with folklore and mythical magic, tells an elegiac story about the complexity of sorrow.

Thirteen-year-old fiddler Beet MacNeill is heartbroken when her older cousin, Gerry Campbell, dies mysteriously and violently at sea. He shows up as a ghost playing his fiddle--but only to Beet. Then, claiming to be blood related, the eerily beautiful Marina Shaw arrives to collect Gerry's baby son.

Her offer is refused. But Marina is suspiciously persistent. Beet distrusts the woman's "greedy" singing voice--how it drags people toward her like an undertow, hollow and in opposition to ghost Gerry's sweetly sad tune. Beet works to stop Marina, helped by Jeannine, her supernatural-loving friend who'd "see the Devil in a boiled egg," and by "stupid Sean MacInnes," who always stands too close to Beet. But Marina may be more legend than lady; the ocean itself moves with her music and Beet knows well that "the sea will have its own."

This multilayered narrative builds like a rising tide; beautifully voiced chapters from Beet in 1950 alternate with chapters recounting from past decades a shapeshifting sea monster and a woman seen when someone dies at sea. Regina M. Hansen's lyrical prose achieves stunning worldbuilding: "the thrum of the sea like a kind of magic"; waves "white capped like the manes of gray horses." Above all, Beet's devotion to protecting the son of the cousin she grieves lends her a special strength. It is in that grief--and in Gerry's song--where Beet searches admirably for answers, exalting the hope and love in sorrow. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

Discover: To protect her deceased cousin's son, a 13-year-old fiddler on Prince Edward Island uncovers, via folklore and town tales, how to stop a woman whose voice is a dangerous lure.

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $18.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 12-up, 9781534482449

Sharice's Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman

by Sharice Davids, Nancy K. Mays, illus. by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley

Kansas congresswoman Sharice Davids uplifts her audience and shares her groundbreaking story in this marvelous autobiography. Davids's text is accompanied by the bold, Ojibwe Woodland digital illustrations of Wasauksing, First Nation member Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley (This Is How I Know). Sharice's Big Voice tells the story of the first LGBTQ person to represent Kansas in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the first ever Indigenous women elected to Congress. 

Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, briefly explains her Nation's history and delightfully ties it into the book's title and her love of talking: "We call ourselves People of the Big Voice. (Which obviously fits me well.)" Young Sharice's penchant for talking sometimes got her into trouble, but it also helped her connect with people. Davids, with the help of Kansas author Nancy K. Mays, pays tribute to her mother in the book, a career army drill sergeant who was her inspiration: "I knew I wanted to be like her when I grew up. Focused and fierce. Confident and kind. A person who serves others." Pawis-Steckley's art is also focused and fierce. In an artist's note, he states that he found in himself "the illustration style that best honored the relationship both Sharice and I have to our past, present, and future as Indigenous people on Turtle Island"; the rich colors, detailed patterns and thick black lines demand attention and will undoubtedly draw readers in.

Davids doesn't put a strong focus on her status as a member of the LGBTQ community in the picture book, but she includes brief references that offer an opportunity for adults to address with children this aspect of her life and why it's a notable first in Kansas. The Kansas congresswoman collects another win with this spirited and fun autobiography for young readers. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: Sharice Davids, the first LGBTQ person elected to Congress from Kansas and one of the first Indigenous women in the House of Representatives, inspires young readers with her lively autobiography.

HarperCollins, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780062979667

Anemone Is Not the Enemy

by Anna McGregor

In Anemone Is Not the Enemy, Anna McGregor (Colouroos) skillfully aligns a scientific principle with the value of friendship.

Everyone is afraid of Anemone: " 'Oh no, it's Anemone!' 'Whatever you do, don't get too close,' " a group of striped fish say as high tide pushes them into the tidal pool. The water around them slowly disappears until the fish are near Anemone--and "Sting!" Bubblegum-pink Anemone feels bad--"Sorry! I can't help it!"--but the fish are not forgiving. Then, a clownfish appears as the king tide comes in, bringing with it an octopus. Clownie swims right into Anemone's tentacles to avoid the octopus, which, like the other fish, gets a "Sting!" A humorously dark ending has Anemone asking Clownie if it is going to leave the rockpool. The orange and white fish replies: "Nah, we've got a good thing going here..." and on the next page, continues with "...believe me!" The page turn depicts a double-page view that includes "The Ocean," where readers will spy many predators surrounding the striped fish introduced earlier in the book.

McGregor takes a natural occurrence, symbiosis, and turns it into an entertaining and accessible story about making friends and working together. A "Did You Know?" page at the end of the book describes this relationship, explaining that clownfish are not affected by an anemone's poisons and that they also clean the sea anemone's tentacles. McGregor's digital illustrations use a natural, seaside palette, allowing Clownie's orange and Anemone's pink to be the brightest objects on the page. Her seemingly simple illustrations show clear emotion on the sea creatures' faces and also include a secondary story about a hermit crab. This offering from an Australian author/artist is short and sweet, perfect for an individual reader or a bedtime story. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer

Discover: An anemone and a clownfish form a friendship based on symbiosis in this pleasing picture book based on natural concepts.

Scribble US, $16.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-6, 9781950354511

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