Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, August 20, 2021


Margaret K. McElderry Books: Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong

From My Shelf

Other Press: The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter

Annick Press: Living with Viola by Rosena Fung

Margaret K. McElderry Books: Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong

Trading Places

Who hasn't wondered what it would be like to have a different life for a stretch? To step outside of one's own day-to-day existence and be someone else? That's exactly what Birdy does in Lizzy Dent's fun summer read The Summer Job (Putnam, $16), when she pretends to be her best friend Heather and heads off to work as a sommelier in a recently refurbished boutique hotel in Scotland (despite knowing nothing about wine). Birdy quickly learns that impersonating someone else is no easy feat, as she builds lie upon lie to keep up her ruse.

That same step-into-someone-else's shoes set-up lays at the heart of Tana French's The Likeness (Penguin, $9.99), the second in French's Dublin Murder Squad series (though it can be read out of order, or as a standalone). When it's discovered that young detective Cassie Maddox bears an uncanny, almost unbelievable resemblance to a recent murder victim, she's sent undercover into the life of the deceased woman to try to root out a killer--but finds instead an unexpected sense of belonging in a life that isn't hers.

There's no undercover trickery in Beth O'Leary's heartwarming second novel, The Switch (Flatiron, $16.99), when Leena Cotton and her grandmother Eileen both decide to live in each other's homes (and lives) for a stretch in order to break out of their respective ruts.

Though the premise of each of these stories is slightly different, their messages are in many ways the same: there's something to that old adage about walking a mile in someone else's shoes, and the benefits of a change of perspective as a key to understanding others--and oneself. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm


Margaret K. McElderry Books: Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong


Book Candy

Millennial Heroines in Fiction

Author Emily Austin picked her "top 10 millennial heroines in fiction" for the Guardian.

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Open Culture sampled "Kurt Vonnegut's recipes in Deadeye Dick: Polka-Dot Brownies, Linzer Torte & Haitian Banana Soup."

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"What do you read when the world is falling apart?CrimeReads suggested "spy fiction, of course."

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Mental Floss shared 9 facts about author-illustrator Jill Murphy's classic The Worst Witch.

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Hobby Lobby must return rare "Gilgamesh Dream Tablet," bought for $1.6 million, to Iraq, USA Today reported.


Annick Press: The Words in My Hands by Asphyxia


Great Reads

Rediscover: Ghost Wars

After 20 years of U.S. intervention, the Afghan government capitulated to the Taliban in a matter of weeks. Though this eventual outcome was largely predictable, the speed of its unfolding has caught the public and many in government off guard. Afghanistan's tumultuous history of foreign interference offers answers as to how this stunning collapse occurred. Steve Coll, a New Yorker staff writer and dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, explores the most relevant decades of that history in Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Coll focuses especially on the CIA and its partnership with Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, to create training camps for radicalized fundamentalist fighters along the Pakistan-Afghan border during the Soviet occupation.

Coll, who also also won a Pulitzer Prize as a journalist for the Washington Post in 1990, followed up on Ghost Wars in 2018 with Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. He is also the author of The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008) and Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (2012). Ghost Wars is available from Penguin Books ($22). --Tobias Mutter


Harper: These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett


The Writer's Life

Reading with... Pedro Mairal

photo: Tili Hunt

Pedro Mairal is a professor of English literature in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has published four novels, two collections of stories, three collections of essays and six books of poetry. He has written for print and online magazines in the field of literature and culture. He won the Clarín newspaper award in 1998 for his first novel, One Night with Sabrina Love, which was made into a film in 2000. Mairal's novel The Woman from Uruguay (Bloomsbury), the story of two would-be lovers over the course of a single day, was a bestseller in Latin America and Spain and has been published in 12 countries.

On your nightstand now:

I just moved and I don't have a nightstand yet. My books are 600 kilometers away. I really miss them. I mean the physical presence of my books, knowing they are there, even if I haven't opened some of the volumes for years. But I can't stop buying books, so now, through the echo of this empty apartment in this foreign city, Moby-Dick is swimming around the rooms, from the closet to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the living room floor, in a beautiful blue cover edition. Also The Adversary by Carrère. But I haven't begun that one yet. And an illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland that my daughter asks me to read to her.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The first long book I read, the first "not for children book" I mean, was Southern Cross to Pole Star, the travel book by Aimé Tschiffely, who rode on horseback from Argentina to the USA with two horses in 1926. A trip that took more than two years.

Your top five authors:

Borges, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, García Márquez, Anton Chekhov.

Book you've faked reading:

I studied literature so that means I faked reading almost everything.

Book you're an evangelist for:

I'm an evangelist for the poetry anthology of César Mermet, a poet I helped bring to light. After his death, a group of poets and friends and I received his whole unpublished complete works. He never wanted to publish in his lifetime, so we started putting in order and typing more than 1,000 pages of manuscripts. Not only was it worth it, but I think that work justifies my life more than my own writing.

Book you've bought for the cover:

The photo book about Amy Winehouse by Blake Wood, where Amy shines happy riding a horse in Jamaica. "Sweet reunion, Jamaica and Spain/ Were like how we were again."

Book you hid from your parents:

The first time I moved alone, I took with me my father's book of the Da Vinci sketchbooks and drawings. So each time he came to visit I had to hide it.

Book that changed your life:

Don Segundo Sombra by Ricardo Güiraldes. A novel told by a kind of Kim in Kipling's book, who follows a silent wise gaucho, a South American lama, so to say. I even thought of escaping from home when I was 15, a bit inspired in this book. Of course I didn't.

Favorite line from a book:

"Fugitiveness remains" (Lo fugitivo permanece) said the Spanish poet Quevedo in the XVII century. Sometimes I feel I'm about to understand that fully, and sometimes it just works in my mind as an endless riddle.

Five books you'll never part with:

Some books live in me. Fictions, Borges. All Fires the Fire, Cortázar. Ariel, Sylvia Plath. Human Poems, César Vallejo. One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez. But the only thing I'll never part with is a copybook and a pen.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Rebel Girls: Empowering gifts for every girl!


Book Review

Fiction

The Human Zoo

by Sabina Murray


Sabina Murray (The Caprices) has built a lofty career on her ability to craft intricately layered, thought-provoking fiction: what she initially presents as straightforward storytelling is intensified with piercing cultural, sociopolitical and historical nuances that encourage greater interaction for deeper satisfaction. The Human Zoo is yet another compelling example of Murray's prowess. The narrative appears relatively simple--a Filipino American journalist living in New York City returns to her extended family in Manila, ostensibly to research her next book but more to escape her disintegrating marriage--onto which Murray will slyly layer intriguing complexity.

Christina "Ting" Klein--her mother Filipina, her father white American--is nearly 50, a peripatetic writer whose last assignment covered President Gumboc's popularity despite his murderous campaign against suspected drug dealers. Ting's new book, also called The Human Zoo, showcases real-life, early 20th-century indigenous Filipino chief Timicheg who, with his tribespeople, was exploited by a U.S. businessman to be ogled as savages by Coney Island tourists. In between stalled writing attempts and endless family functions, Ting is expected to introduce an in-law-to-be to her media contacts while perhaps reuniting with her former (married, powerful) boyfriend.

Like Ting, Murray, too, is of mixed Filipina and white parentage, and in 2017 wrote for Vice about President Duterte's inexplicably high ratings. She expertly presents the ironies of upper-class Manila life, lulling readers into what might be a quotidian family drama. But then corpses appear, threatening all semblance of safety. Fiction and headlines quickly blur. The Human Zoo sublimely transitions into a contemporary sociopolitical thriller enhanced with colonial legacy, cultural erasure, government corruption and unreliable narrators--an exhilarating literary experience. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Sabina Murray presents an initially straightforward domestic drama that swiftly transforms into an impressive sociopolitical thriller interwoven with contemporary Filipino headlines.

Grove, $27, hardcover, 304p., 9780802157508

Atheneum Books: Room for Everyone by Naaz Khan, illustrated by Mercè López


Mystery & Thriller

The Guilt Trip

by Sandie Jones


The two couples who travel to Portugal for the wedding of one's younger brother have plenty of guilt to unpack in British author Sandie Jones's melodramatic but highly entertaining fourth novel. Jones uses gossip, sniping and conjecture to drive The Guilt Trip, which explores the intricacies of relationships.

Rachel and Jack Hunter and their long-time friends Noah and Paige Collins are staying at a beautiful clifftop villa in Nazaré to celebrate the nuptials of Jack's brother, Will, to Alison "Ali" Foley. Will is well liked, but Ali seems to irritate everyone; the consensus is she is self-centered, a liar, manipulative and may have recently cheated on her fiancé. The others agree with Paige, who says, "I don't think I've ever met someone so divisive." Tensions quickly flare, most of it directed at Ali, but it becomes obvious that everyone has been hiding secrets for such a long time that at any moment each may "spontaneously combust," ruining relationships. Such a toxic atmosphere isn't conducive to such a happy occasion as a wedding, though few guests will forget this event. When violence erupts and ends in a fatality, the moment is shocking but quite expected.

Jones distinctively sculpts each character--though these are not the friends most readers would want, nor would invite to any occasion. But watching them offers vicarious enjoyment to those inclined to eavesdrop when others cause a scene. Perceptive dialogue and each interaction move the slow-churning plot to an intriguing finale. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this entertaining thriller buoyed by perceptive dialogue, couples who've come to Portugal for a wedding are overwhelmed by the secrets that threaten to ruin each relationship.

Minotaur Books, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250265586

Romance

Battle Royal

by Lucy Parker


Romance readers and Great British Bake Off fans will both rejoice with the release of Battle Royal by Lucy Parker (Headliners; The Austen Playbook). In this delectable romantic comedy, two baking enemies find themselves suddenly becoming more than friends as a competition heats up.

For the past four years, ever since she accidentally exploded a cake at judge Dominic DeVere and got kicked off her season of Operation Cake, contestant Sylvie Fairchild has ignored the stern Dominic as much as humanly possible. And Dominic has continued to roll his eyes at Sylvie's over-the-top, fantastical dessert creations. But now Operation Cake has invited Sylvie back--as part of the judging panel this time. Inevitably, Sylvie and Dominic are forced to spend a great deal of time together, much to their initial mutual irritation. But as Dominic and Sylvie get to know each other better, they have to admit that they might have been wrong about each other. Then they find out they're both in the running to create a cake for the next royal wedding. Can their budding relationship survive the pressure?

Sweet in more ways than one, Battle Royal is Lucy Parker at her brilliant best. Witty, yet sensitive and heartfelt, with characters who have had to overcome genuinely difficult life circumstances, Battle Royal perfectly mixes reality television, endless piles of baked goods and some frothy royal intrigue into a recipe for romantic success. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Discover: This funny romance pits a baking show contestant with a judge in a race to make the best royal wedding cake.

Avon, $15.99, paperback, 416p., 9780063040069

Biography & Memoir

All In: An Autobiography

by Billie Jean King, Johnette Howard, Maryanne Vollers


Billie Jean King's All In is a grand slam among sports autobiographies. One of the greatest tennis players of all time has written a memoir so revealing, honest and reflective that she has once again set the highest of bars for those who follow. In 1966, 22-year-old King was the number-one tennis player in the world. Using her spotlight, she fought inequities between men and women in tennis and helped create the Women's Tennis Association.

She vividly recalls the media blitz when she and Bobby Riggs competed for $100,000 in the "Battle of the Sexes" exhibition match in 1973. The media was even more aggressive in 1981, when King was outed as a lesbian when her personal secretary slapped her with a "galimony" lawsuit. Against her management's wishes, King held a press conference and admitted the affair. But her attempts to avoid tarnishing women's tennis and save endorsements led her to equivocate, which she now deeply regrets. "Who turns being outed into a way to burrow deeper into the closet?" King writes. "But that's what I did." Her husband of 16 years publicly stood by her. Behind the scenes, their marriage had been amicably ending for years. Also unknown at the time, King had started a serious relationship with tennis pro Ilana Kloss (a union that continues more than four decades later).

King's remarkably candid and meditative memoir captures the excitement of her high-profile career and human rights advocacy. Like an exciting tennis match, All In is brisk and nimble and will leave fans cheering. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Game, set, match: Billie Jean King has written one of the best sports memoirs ever--it's briskly paced, exciting, honest and reflective. 

Knopf, $30, hardcover, 496p., 9781101947333

Social Science

Paradise: One Town's Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire

by Lizzie Johnson


The first book by San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Lizzie Johnson, Paradise: One Town's Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire, is a terrifyingly intimate account of the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and laid waste to the rustic northern California town of Paradise, "a tinderbox nestled between two geological chimneys."

Early on the morning of November 8, 2018, gale force winds dislodged a section of Pacific Gas & Electric electrical line from a poorly maintained 100-year-old transmission tower and deposited it onto the bone-dry grass of a region that had received 0.88 inches of rain in the preceding six months. With that, the deadly Camp Fire was born. The ravenous blaze spread at an almost incomprehensible speed, obliterating Paradise, home to some 26,500 people, in barely four hours, destroying 95% of its commercial buildings and 90% of its residences, 18,800 structures in all.

Paradise is a comprehensive and vivid account of the fire, seen through the eyes of the town's terrified residents and the local and state officials who fought frantically to contain it and to reduce the unimaginable toll of life and property damage. For all the courage and heroism Johnson recounts, she clearly identifies her principal villain: PG&E. Though the company pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully causing a fire and 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter, the maximum fine imposed amounted to about 20 cents for each of its customers. And as Johnson thoroughly explains, other culprits like climate change, flawed forestry management and haphazard development in the wildland-urban interface guarantee that the Camp Fire won't be the last or the worst catastrophic wildfire. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: A skilled reporter's vivid account of one small community's encounter with a deadly wildfire.

Crown, $28, hardcover, 432p., 9780593136386

Essays & Criticism

What About the Baby?: Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction

by Alice McDermott


What About the Baby? offers 14 succinct and inspirational essays by National Book Award-winning author Alice McDermott (The Ninth Hour) on fiction writing for the novice novelist. Eschewing quick fixes and systematic how-to guides on writing, McDermott's essays focus on the big-picture concerns and realities of writing: What makes a good beginning? What makes a good ending? What makes a good sentence? What makes a reader keep reading? And what makes a writer keep writing? At nearly every turn, McDermott uses her own generous and lyrical prose to recommend patience over prolific achievement, hard work over reputational success, and valuing the truth of human emotion over the eye-catching lure of plot.

While some essays focus on more practical recommendations to beginning and emerging writers, others zoom out to consider what the writing life at large entails. In "Sentencing" and "Coaching," for example, McDermott speaks to the importance of vivid writing that honors clarity and precision. But in her more poetic and vulnerable entries, such as "Faith and Literature" and "Starting Over," McDermott explores her own writing passions, failures and routines to demonstrate how writing can be at once defeating and transcendent, full of doubt and unexpected discovery. Sprinkled with approachable personal anecdotes from McDermott's writing life and exemplary excerpts from authors such as Nabokov, Tolstoy and Woolf, this collection offers a tender but still often pragmatic set of reflections on writing. Most of all, it is a welcoming and warmhearted exploration of what it means to write (and re-write) when one finds one can do nothing else. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Alice McDermott offers a collection of 14 insightful and passionate essays about what it means to be a fiction writer in the contemporary literary field.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, hardcover, 256p., 9780374130626

Never Say You Can't Survive

by Charlie Jane Anders


Adult and YA speculative fiction author Charlie Jane Anders (All the Birds in the Sky; Victories Greater than Death) approaches the craft of writing from an innovative point of view in this insightful, instructive essay collection. 

Anders focuses on the cathartic and therapeutic aspects of writing fiction in this "mixture of encouragement, ideas for how to use writing to feel okay in a world that is not okay, and actual technical advice." Readers will find wisdom on traditional topics such as worldbuilding and creating dynamic characters, but Anders also discusses imposter syndrome, how to harness authentic emotion and fiction's place as a tool "to process the trauma of living through a moment when the whole world turns into flaming walls of [excrement]." She also relates moments in her own life when writing gave her strength or helped her to find her way through difficult times, from overcoming a learning disability in elementary school and writing a play with the help of a teacher to transitioning from male to female.

Originally conceived as a series of blog posts published on Tor.com during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, Anders's essays provide an inspiring testament to the power of art to bring clarity and healing. Aspiring writers will pick up tricks of the trade, but her advice about taking refuge in creativity could apply to any art. Never Say You Can't Survive reminds storytellers that they can "shape worlds, and the monsters are scared of you." --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Charlie Jane Anders reminds readers of the healing power of art in this insightful collection of essays about writing fiction.

Tor, $26.99, hardcover, 240p., 9781250800015

Science

How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason

by Lee McIntyre


As misinformation runs rampant, is it possible to do anything to combat conspiracy theories and science denialism? This is the question that science historian and philosopher Lee McIntyre (Post-Truth) earnestly attempts to address. In How to Talk to a Science Denier, he identifies and defines what tactics undergird science denial in all its forms, and then outlines strategies to combat misinformation and attempt to win science deniers back to the side of believing in science.

As he considers perspectives about a Flat Earth, those against vaccination and GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), as well as deniers of climate change, McIntyre carefully pulls apart the commonly held belief that people who hold such views are simply misinformed. He painstakingly connects the formation of beliefs to other constructs of identity, and presents a more compassionate and empathetic road map toward possible persuasion. Perhaps even more importantly, he outlines and demonstrates a process of technique rebuttal that allows space for engagement and leaves room for personal dignity for all parties. He emphasizes trust-building as part of the process, rather than a brute reliance on empirical proof as method of persuasion "to try to bring science deniers back into the fold and show them how useful science can be."

This book is a necessary tool in an age that depends more and more on people trusting and believing in science in order to meet the simultaneous challenges posed by the long-term effects of epidemics, climate change and post-truth misinformation. --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer

Discover: A science historian and philosopher carefully considers misinformation and science denialism, and what might be done to counter them empathetically.

The MIT Press, $24.95, hardcover, 264p., 9780262046107

Poetry

Everything Never Comes Your Way

by Nicole Stellon O'Donnell


In her inviting third poetry collection, Everything Never Comes Your Way, Nicole Stellon O'Donnell (You Are No Longer in Trouble) muses on the struggles and transcendence of "family-tethered Alaska life." The title comes from the opening poem, addressed to a young baseball player, and introduces the element of chance, which O'Donnell further investigates in "Memoir," about the vicissitudes of life and what we choose to omit from the record.

The book is heavily autobiographical, dwelling on dreams, a daughter's cancer treatment and a trip to observe school lessons in India. "Chicago Gothic" remembers a scandal from the poet's family history ("the crazy aunt who killed my great-grandmother by pushing her down the stairs"). Death is a certainty for which, she wryly announces, she likes to be prepared: "Just start the funeral now./ Today. Before any one/ of us has died. Call dinner/ a wake."

Another thread considers the late John Haines, an Alaskan poet for whom O'Donnell's adulation waned as she questioned his notion of the "single self in the wilderness as the key to enlightenment." Instead, she acknowledges how human arrogance is threatening other creatures' existence, especially in a late poem about the wolves of Denali National Park.

The style is alliterative; the structure varies from prose blocks to traditional forms like a canzone and a "golden shovel" incorporating Haines's lines. Use of the imperative creates an aphoristic tone, as in "Be wrong well." Whether picking cranberries, watching ravens or handling a family crisis, O'Donnell exudes hard-earned, place-specific wisdom. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck

Discover: This vibrant poetry collection, rooted in the Alaskan landscape, explores the rich themes of illness and connection with nature.

Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, $16.95, paperback, 88p., 9781597099240

Now in Paperback

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears

by Laura van den Berg


Laura van den Berg (The Third Hotel) leads her characters into bizarre and life-changing situations--all the more powerful for their underlying emotional resonance--in her thrilling and uncanny collection of 11 stories, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears.

The surreal permeates these stories in masterful fashion, as if each narrative, grounded in the real, slowly slips into the fantastical. The author admits this much in a sly, almost undetectable self-consciousness. "And this is the problem with translating experience into fiction, the way certain truths read like lies," the narrator says in "Last Night." In "Hill of Hell," the narrator explains "the way we are walled in by our secrets and the implacability of our judgments." When these walls come down, the experience for van den Berg's characters is both terrifying and liberating. When the world's expectations finally lay broken like a husk, each character emerges anew, shocked but utterly alive.

In one of the best stories, "Slumberland," a woman who has been photographing her Florida neighborhood at night discovers her neighbor has been crying for the pleasure of strangers on the phone; "dacryphilia," it's called. Like so many of van den Berg's stories, the plot twist provides an eerie but powerful form of human connection.

Longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize and named one of Time's 10 Best Fiction Books of 2020 as well as a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is not only a testament to the power of the short story, but to how, cumulatively, a collection can sustain an entire ethos and atmosphere. Van den Berg is a maestro of the form, and these stories shouldn't be missed. --Scott Neuffer, writer, poet, editor of trampset

Discover: In this uncanny collection of 11 stories, women confront a bewildering world to both terrifying and cathartic effect.

Picador, $17, paperback, 224p., 9781250798664

Children's & Young Adult

Rainbow in the Dark

by Sean McGinty


Sean McGinty's Rainbow in the Dark is a disquieting and disorienting work of YA techno-magical realism.

It is the story of "you" (aka Rainbow), a teen stranded in a deserted and uncanny video game-like setting. Rainbow has little to no idea who they are or where they came from, aside from the computer code "memories" they receive from blue boxes scattered across the Wilds. Most of these memories are just that: snapshots of Rainbow's life before. Others, however, tell the story of the Eternal God/dess of Teen Depression, a deity who becomes depressed by their own immortality and repeatedly commits suicide. Before Rainbow can make sense of their new surroundings and perplexing memories, they meet Chad01 the Warrior, Owlsy the Scholar and Lark the Mystic, Lost Kids on a quest to find a portal home. The group sets off on a dangerous journey that includes battling Keepers ("junkies") and Night Screamers (who feed on fear), outwitting wizards, saving fuzzies and running from pasts that haunt them in the direction of homes they can't remember.

McGinty (The End of Fun) has created in his sophomore YA work an exciting experiment that challenges accepted ideas about the way novels are written. The book reads like a guided meditation, the second-person perspective and conversational tone inviting readers not just to picture the character and the setting but to inhabit a new frame of consciousness. It is a book with a forceful sense of immediacy, a story that discourages dwelling on past mistakes or fearing the uncertainty of the future and instead prompts readers to focus on and live in the present moment. --Cade Williams, freelance reviewer and staff writer at the Harvard Independent.

Discover: An exciting and unnerving work of YA techno-magical realism told primarily from a second-person perspective.

Clarion Books, $17.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 13-up, 9780358380375

Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua

by Gloria Amescua, illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh


Educator and poet Gloria Amescua makes her picture-book debut with the inspiring Child of the Flower-Song People, spectacularly illustrated by award-winning Mexican American author/artist Duncan Tonatiuh (Undocumented). Amescua poignantly uses her own experiences of "almost losing my Spanish language and culture" as a Latina in Texas as her inspiration for documenting and celebrating Luz Jiménez's story.

Throughout Mexico, Luz is revered as "a powerful woman of the flower-song people"--the Nahua who were direct descendants of the native Aztecs. Born in 1897, Luz grew up speaking Nahuatl, learning traditional cooking and weaving and absorbing ancient tales. Her village was mostly "a forgotten shadow to those who governed," until mandatory public education arrived to silence the Nahuatl language and ban Nahua clothing, in order "to turn the native children into modern ones." Then the Mexican Revolution destroyed Luz's home, leaving her family fatherless. Fleeing to Mexico City, Luz quickly became "the most well-known model in all of Mexico," galvanizing artists who eschewed colonial erasure: "The world recognized the beauty and strength of the native people after five hundred years of being in shadows." From model to teacher, Luz channeled her artistic influence into preserving her language, traditions and history.

Amescua enhances her flowing prose with natural imagery (mountains, winds, blossoms), as if Amescua is re-grounding Luz's Nahua identity into the very earth. Tonatiuh's magnificent signature style--a hand-drawn and digitally colored contemporary adaptation of pre-Columbian art forms--couldn't be more ideal for animating Amescua's illuminating text, which also includes extensive backmatter to encourage further investigation. This perfectly paired collaboration provides both reclamation and revelation. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: This powerful picture book illuminates the inspiring life of Indigenous Mexican icon Luz Jiménez, who refused to be erased by colonialism.

Abrams, $18.99, hardcover, 48p., ages 6-10, 9781419740206

Big Apple Diaries

by Alyssa Bermudez


Big Apple Diaries by Alyssa Bermudez is a playfully illustrated graphic memoir that takes the form of journal entries by Bermudez's instantly empathetic middle-school self as she navigates tweenhood and the tragedy of 9/11.

Alyssa is "very shy," has "no boobs yet" and "really likes drawing." She also secretly likes Alejandro. He's from Colombia, Alyssa is half Puerto Rican, and both tweens feel that/;  they have no freedom. Rules set by her mom (who lives in Queens) and dad (who lives in Manhattan) mean Alyssa's social life is nonexistent. "[Mom] told me I have to put my grades before my friends," Alyssa writes. Unfortunately, focusing is impossible when Alejandro is so distracting ("He said, 'Hola lol!' Is that flirting?!"). Also, she wants to have fun with her classmates, but when she makes mistakes with them, her parents ground her: "I just feel really sad, ugly, and lonely." Then tragedy strikes and, after 9/11, the freedom Alyssa wants seems especially out of reach.

Bermudez convincingly captures the chaos of middle school. Throughout, particularly via her memories of 9/11, Bermudez demonstrates how support--from friends, parents, strangers--lends strength. Handwritten diary entries are interspersed with charming digital drawings. The inky, monochromatic renderings add flair by illustrating Bermudez's worries and hopes; through creative closeups and periodic panel usage, they also dramatize standout moments--among them, mistakes (shaving her "kissing caterpillar" eyebrows), daydreams (a comic-style Alejandro fan fiction) and monumental AIM conversations. While exploring her identity ("Am I too white?"; "What do I actually even like about Alejandro?") Alyssa exudes wit, flare and personality, showing how second-guessing oneself is part of self-discovery. Big Apple Diaries is a beautiful snapshot of preteen life. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

Discover: In this diary-style graphic memoir, a Puerto Rican middle schooler in New York City documents her embarrassments, joys and sorrows in genuine, comedic and moving cartoon-embellished entries.

Roaring Brook Press, $22.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 8-12, 9781250774279

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