Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, August 31, 2021

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

From My Shelf

It's About Time

Brain Pickings blog founder Maria Popova is fond of quoting Annie Dillard: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." But as summer wanes and another complicated school year looms, how we spend our days--and even perceive time--may feel ever-shifting, and ripe for reflection. 

New Yorker staff writer Alan Burdick draws from a breadth of fields to explore time in his exquisite, erudite Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (Simon & Schuster, $17). Burdick wonders, "Are we born into time or is time born into us? The answer depends on what one means by time, of course, but also what is meant by 'we' and when this we begins." 

David Eagleman first pondered time when he fell off a roof as a kid, and time seemed to crawl. Now, his luminous career researching time perception has yielded an impressive catalogue of popular neuroscience texts bursting with fascinating examples and contagious enthusiasm. Start with Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Vintage, $17), then Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain (Vintage, $17).

In her own dizzyingly beautiful Figuring (Vintage, $18), Popova offers a poetic blend of biography and philosophy. She posits novel connections among ways of understanding the world, considering towering scientific minds across generations--often centering perspectives of queer women. Popova, humbly, just calls it her "very long, very yellow book." 

And for a brilliant, unforgettable plunge into science and culture, see physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's radiant, rousing The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred (Bold Type, $28). In addition to explaining quarks, she interrogates who most often gets to delight in such concepts and why that matters: "If our society is defined by white supremacist heterocispatriarchal values, science must contend with how it is shaped by those values." It's about time. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

The Writer's Life

Reading with... Shelley Parker-Chan

photo: Harvard Wang

Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian Australian former diplomat who worked on human rights, gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights in Southeast Asia. She was raised on Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance, and her writing owes more than a little to all three. Her debut novel, the Chinese historical fantasy She Who Became the Sun, was just published by Tor.

On your nightstand now:

Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto, which is a super fun rom-com caper. The details of Chinese-Indonesian family dynamics are a delight--I've been howling in recognition and texting the best lines to all my friends. I've also just stolen back my early copy of Zen Cho's Black Water Sister from my book-thieving family. Nobody does a comedic-terrifying Chinese grandma as well as Zen.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Tamora Pierce's Tortall books! I was obsessed with fierce-tempered Alanna, who disguises herself as a boy to take her brother's place as a knight-in-training. I remember finishing Wild Magic, the first book in her next series, and discovering to my shock that the next one wasn't out yet. It was the first time that had ever happened to me. I was so desperate for it that I started to dream about finding it in random places. I was always pleased with the genius story that dream-me was reading, until I woke up and it was ridiculous.

Your top five authors:

As a proxy, I'll say my current fiction auto-buys are: Tana French, Nghi Vo, Madeline Miller, Naomi Novik and Tasha Suri.

Book you've faked reading:

Jin Yong is the granddaddy of the wuxia Chinese martial arts adventure genre, but for a long time his books weren't readily available in English. I read an incomplete fan translation of The Legend of the Condor Heroes back in the day, and I suppose I have some secondhand knowledge from TV dramas, but I generally just nod and sweat when people start talking about famous wuxia sects. Though now that there are new translations by Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood, I no longer have an excuse.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Garth Greenwell's Cleanness. In particular the story "Gospodar," which is a single BDSM scene, is a revelation. It excavates that incommunicable interiority that gives rise to both the excitement and disappointment of (queer) sexual encounters with strangers. I've never read anything like it.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Who could pass over the strutting, butch, goth brilliance of Tommy Arnold's cover for Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir? The cherry on top is the Charles Stross blurb that was heard around the world: "Lesbian necromancers in space." I couldn't imagine a better cover for a book that begins, "Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth."

Book you hid from your parents:

My parents didn't mind what I read, but before discovering the romance genre, I did hide in the library stacks and surreptitiously re-read the spicy scenes in David Gemmell historical fantasy books. Good ancient Greek warrior content.

Book that changed your life:

Probably Roméo Dallaire's Shake Hands with the Devil. Dallaire commanded the UN's mission to Rwanda in 1993, and his book is a searing indictment of the international community's refusal to take action in the face of genocidal violence. I was a jaded cog in the international bureaucracy at the time, and I was very familiar with that brand of cowardly, self-serving pettiness. That book told me it was time to get out.

Favorite line from a book:

"The boy thought that there was something wrong with him. All through his life--even when he was a great man with the world at his feet--he was to feel this gap: something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand." --T.H. White, The Once and Future King.

I've always loved this line about Lancelot, whose deepest desires were to be cruel, and because of that strove all the harder to be kind. I never knew, until I read Helen Macdonald's brilliant memoir of grief, H Is for Hawk, that White spent his whole life tormented by his (gay, sadistic, unspeakable) sexuality. It makes this line unbearably sad.

Five books you'll never part with:

Underland by Robert Macfarlane (brain-opening!), The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes (stunning work of art criticism), The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (brutal), Wintercombe by Pamela Belle (perfect high-stakes historical romance), House of Aunts by Zen Cho (absolute tearjerker).

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

When you have friends who are incredible writers, you have the privilege of seeing their books take shape. But it also means you'll never read those finished books for the first time; you'll never get that thrill of opening them and realising they're what you've been looking for. I wish I could experience C.S. Pacat's Kings Rising without knowing how it was going to end the Captive Prince series. I wish I could discover Vanessa Len's time-traveler London of Only a Monster for the first time.

Book Candy

10 Bizarre Things That Have Words

Merriam-Webster looked up "10 bizarre things that somehow have words."


Mental Floss shared "9 fascinating facts about Oscar Wilde."


"Minecraft library provides gamers with 'a safe haven for press freedom,' " Dezeen reported.


Hear Sherlock Holmes stories read by the great Christopher Lee," courtesy of Open Culture.


The New York Public Library recommended "nine new debut novels that dazzle."

Great Reads

Rediscover: Stephen B. Oates

Stephen B. Oates, a Civil War historian and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and William Faulkner, among others, died on August 20 at age 85, the New York Times reported. His best-known works consisted of what he called the Civil War quartet, studies of John Brown, Nat Turner, Lincoln and Dr. King, who, he wrote, "humanize the monstrous moral paradox of slavery and racial oppression in a land based on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.... All four were driven, visionary men, all were caught up in the issues of slavery and race, and all devised their own solutions to those inflammable problems. And all perished, too, in the conflicts and hostilities that surrounded the quest for equality in their country."

Oates also wrote a biography of Clara Barton, A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, and several books in the first person from the perspective of historical figures, The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 and The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865. His son, Greg Oates, said the first-person books were inspired by Hal Holbrook's and Julie Harris's impersonations of Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson, respectively. Oates's Civil War quartet, including The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion, is available from Harper Perennial.

Book Review



by Anthony Veasna So

A cleverly wrought and sparkling debut story collection irrevocably tinged by grief, Anthony Veasna So's Afterparties is forever tied to its author's fate. So, on the precipice of literary fame, died of a drug overdose in 2020, before the release of this book. But Afterparties alone is a towering testament to the worlds inside So's own. At times numbingly sad, other times strikingly humorous, So's nine stories of Cambodian Americans in California's Central Valley are simultaneously a love letter, an indictment and a memoir. They lope between settings public and private--the counter of a donut shop, the aisles of a grocery store and the bed of a pair of queer lovers--and are each awash in the cognitive dissonance of the young immigrant experience. Each story is set against the Khmer Rouge genocide, which killed millions of Cambodians in the late 1970s, and traces how that trauma has infiltrated a new generation of American-born (or American-raised) youth. So himself was raised with this backdrop, and thus he is present in every chapter, a charismatic and emotionally charged hand pointing out each character to readers, allowing those characters to be turned over and examined.

This collection is so powerful and pungent because it seems hand-squeezed from reality. The description of smells and tastes and emotions are so carefully constructed that readers can practically taste the donut glaze on their fingertips as they turn the page. So was a talent--of that there can be no denial. And his presence is felt very much still, his complexities seeping onto every page of this soulful book. --Lauren Puckett, freelance writer

Discover: Afterparties is an acerbic yet colorful collection of nine stories set among communities of Cambodian Americans both failed by and inspired by the American Dream.

Ecco, $27.99, hardcover, 272p., 9780063049901

The Last Chance Library

by Freya Sampson

With The Last Chance Library, British author Freya Sampson delivers a refreshingly feel-good first novel about the sustaining power of books and how libraries unite communities and forge lasting relationships that improve lives.

The story orbits around a shy, small-town Brit, June Jones, 28 years old and suffering protracted grief after the death of her mother, who was the local librarian of Chalcot, a residential area. June is content continuing to live in the home she shared with her mother and working as an assistant librarian in the same library. There, June is privy to fascinating books and interacts with a host of quirky locals who depend on the library and all it has to offer. The patrons include two older ladies who are hang-abouts and gossips, one of whom constantly complains about noisy kids. A shy, bookish teenager relies on the respite of the library to escape her crowded family home. A mother and son who love to bake are constantly in search of new cookbooks. A precocious boy, the grandson of June's neighbor, frequents the library to nourish his overactive curiosity. And a retired, 82-year-old man shows up--always dapper in a suit and tie--to tackle the daily crossword puzzle. 

When budget cuts in town threaten closure of the library, the patrons rebel and devise ways to save it. The Last Chance Library proceeds with great wit and tenderness. Readers will eagerly invest in the cause to save the library and be greatly amused by plot twists that play out with pleasant surprises and heart-tugging twists. -- Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: In this delightfully heartwarming first novel, quirky residents of a small English village band together to save the local library.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 336p., 9780593201381

Mystery & Thriller

Felonious Monk

by William Kotzwinkle

A monk inherits an uncle's estate and a $2 million debt to an organized crime ring in William Kotzwinkle's darkly funny crime thriller Felonious Monk.

Tommy Martini had a bright future, until he accidentally killed someone with a single punch. Luckily, his uncle with mob connections, Father Vittorio, stepped in to make a deal, whisking Tommy off to a Mexican monastery where the young man could show his contrition. The deal came with court-mandated medication to combat Tommy's anger. For five years, Tommy thrives as a monk, until he's summoned at age 26 to Vittorio's deathbed.

At Vittorio's estate in Paloma, Ariz., Tommy faces both culture shock and the rest of the criminally-minded Martini family. Everyone is shocked when Tommy inherits Vittorio's estate. Most of the family want him dead, but cousin Dominic throws away Tommy's meds and begs him to fight professionally. Tommy is about to give away his inheritance and return to the monastery when two thugs show up to collect $2 million Vittorio owed. No longer on medication, Tommy beats up the thugs and decides to forgo a life of peace until he eliminates his uncle's enemies.

Seasoned novelist William Kotzwinkle (Doctor Rat) tempers the blood-soaked brutality in Felonious Monk with tough-guy witticisms: "Rage is good.... It's part of evolution." "When you put someone in the ground your mood improves." "I don't kill all my men, Martini, just some of them." Kotzwinkle's writing draws readers into the righteous violence rather than push them away. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this pulpy crime thriller, killer-turned-monk Tommy Martini does a lot of wrong in the name of doing right.

Blackstone, $26.99, hardcover, 278p., 9781094009254


The Scoundrel's Daughter

by Anne Gracie

Scoundrel's Daughter is a charming novel to launch the Brides of Bellaire Gardens series from acclaimed author Anne Gracie (Marry in Scandal), with an intriguing cast of characters sure to delight readers. Lady Alice Charlton has buried her abusive, obnoxious late husband and is happily looking forward to enjoying life as a single lady of moderate means. Her pleasant anticipation is shattered, however, when a scoundrel appears and threatens the public release of letters written by her late husband to his mistress. The sketchy stranger demands Alice introduce his daughter, Lucy, into society and guarantee the girl's marriage to a lord in return for the letters.

Dismayed, Alice reluctantly agrees but soon discovers Lucy has no interest in marrying a lord. Alice turns to her nephew, Gerald, for assistance in recovering the letters, and he approaches his ex-commander, Lord James Tarrant, for aid. Neither Alice, James, Lucy or Gerald have heretofore been interested in marriage. It isn't long, however, before James is mustering all the charm he possesses to entice the lovely Alice into seeing him as a potential husband. Gerald has a much more difficult prospect in Lucy, however, for she's a decidedly independent young woman who isn't inclined to see him in a favorable light.

This duel between determined male suitors and reluctant ladies is grounded with authentic emotional connections and a well-crafted plot. Paired with colorful secondary characters--which include three adorable little girls, a cat, one extremely annoying mother and several quirky gentlemen--the result is a thoroughly entertaining tale. Readers are in for a treat. --Lois Faye Dyer, writer and reviewer

Discover: In this charming novel, two ladies form an unlikely alliance, thwart a blackmailer, and unexpectedly find husbands in Regency England.

Berkley, $7.99, mass market paperbound, 368p., 9780593200544

Beware the Mermaids

by Carrie Talick

Carrie Talick's exciting first novel, Beware the Mermaids, opens with a scene that packs a wallop. Nancy Hadley, a native Californian who came from modest beginnings to become a wealthy housewife, lives in Hermosa Beach. Nancy--a lifelong sailor, thanks to a doting Finnish grandfather who instilled in her an instinct and love for the sea--cheerfully escorts a charity league on a tour of the Bucephalus, a 38-foot racing yacht owned by Nancy and her husband, Roger. As the group boards the well-appointed sailing vessel, Nancy catches scheming, philandering Roger in a compromising position with none other than Nancy's cunning, devious nemesis, a woman who hailed from the East Coast and clawed her way into "the upper echelons of society."

What follows is the start of an acrimonious divorce between Nancy and Roger. The Bucephalus, which both refuse to relinquish, becomes the obstacle in finalizing the legalities of their split. Locked in a grueling tug-of-war, determined Nancy gears up for a fight. She moves out of their lavish home, buys a boat of her own to live on and rallies the support of her tight-knit circle of girlfriends, intent on teaching them how to sail. When Nancy suggests that she and Roger, via competing vessels and crews, both enter the Border Dash Race, which sails from Newport Harbor to Ensenada, Mexico--winner take all--the stage is set for high-stakes fun and drama.

Fans of women's fiction will eagerly climb aboard Talik's smart, sassy, suspenseful story that sails through choppy waters and shifting tides of betrayal, friendship and new romance. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: This exciting, emotionally charged story follows an acrimoniously divorcing couple who compete in a high-stakes boat race.

Alcove Press, $16.99, paperback, 352p., 9781643858241

Biography & Memoir

Exodus, Revisited: My Unorthodox Journey to Berlin

by Deborah Feldman

In her third memoir, Exodus, Revisited: My Unorthodox Journey to Berlin, Deborah Feldman--whose first book, Unorthodox, was the basis for the Netflix series of the same name--expands upon her 2014 book, Exodus. Her resolve and unwavering quest to fill the space left when she fled her repressive Hasidic community are impressive. "The needle of my inner compass quivered without pause in its search for something, the nature of which I would not be able to pinpoint for some time."

She demonstrates her commitment as well as her anxiety, and those new to Feldman's story will catch up easily. This book begins after she leaves her marriage and Brooklyn with her son, but she references life in the insular society, particularly memories of her beloved grandmother, a Holocaust survivor "by a hairsbreadth." Few will share Feldman's roots, but the obstacles in her path are familiar: single motherhood, a drawn-out divorce, economic insecurity. Attracted to Europe, her ancestral home yet the site of "the apocalypse that had nearly wiped us out," she visited historic Jewish sites including "Bubby's" Hungary; she witnessed antisemitism yet committed to relocating. In an inspiring leap, Feldman is able to "push past the superficial levels" of her fear, settling with her son in cosmopolitan, literary Berlin in 2014, starting over "twice in one decade."

Near the book's end she confides to readers, "So you can imagine my shock when I received that fateful phone call, the one I warned you about at the very beginning of this story" that reveals the hidden link in her genealogy. Satisfied at last, she writes, "there is really no greater triumph in my life than that of having found my way home." --Cheryl McKeon, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.

Discover: An inspiring story of commitment to oneself follows a woman seeking true "home" after fleeing a repressive religious sect.

Plume, $18, paperback, 368p., 9780593185261


The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War

by Craig Whitlock, The Washington Post

This bombshell report by Craig Whitlock and the Washington Post reveals the mendacity of U.S. civilian and military leaders spanning the past three presidential administrations. Whitlock, a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Post investigative reporter, plumbs the murky depths of the U.S.'s longest and costliest war, uncovering the government's sustained effort to mislead the American people on the war in Afghanistan. Based on more than 1,000 interviews and 10,000 documents--many of which were obtained from two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits the Post filed against the federal government--the book is a damning account of "what went wrong and how three consecutive presidents and their administrations failed to tell the truth."

After achieving a clear-cut goal of destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan post-9/11, the U.S. fell victim to mission creep and the absence of an overall strategy, which haunted three diverse administrations all loathe to admit defeat in the "graveyard of empires." The mountain of interviews and quotes from those directly involved--senior officials, generals, soldiers, aid workers and Afghani allies--form the bulk of Whitlock's report and serve as a necessary truth tonic to the toxic evasions and lies of the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, which Whitlock details extensively. In the words of one top diplomat under President Bush, "we did not know what we were doing." It is a refrain throughout much of the book, and readers will be astonished by the starkly contrasting nature of these revelations, set against the glib dishonesty of senior U.S. officials predicting "victory on the horizon." --Peggy Kurkowski, book reviewer and copywriter in Denver

Discover: What The Pentagon Papers did for Vietnam, The Afghanistan Papers does for the long war in Afghanistan, revealing the hopelessly muddled nature of the conflict from those deeply in the know.

Simon & Schuster, $30, hardcover, 368p., 9781982159009

Now in Paperback

The Thursday Murder Club

by Richard Osman

With The Thursday Murder Club, British TV personality Richard Osman (The World Cup of Everything) has crafted a very funny cozy mystery set in an upscale assisted living community in bucolic Kent, England.

In the luxury facility, four elderly residents--each retired, sharp and energetic--meet once a week in the Jigsaw Room, where they covertly gather to crack actual cold case murders. The group was founded by resident Elizabeth, a shrewd and devious former spy, and Penny, a retired police detective inspector who provided the cases to solve. With Penny now in a coma, however, Elizabeth keeps the club in session, continuing to work cold cases with other fellow residents and mystery aficionados. They include dapper Ibrahim, a psychiatrist; brassy, tattooed Ron, a former trade union official; and unassuming Joyce, a nurse whose interspersed diary commentaries enlighten readers to the often zany inner workings of the club.

When a real-life murder happens at the facility--the bludgeoning of the builder who constructed the retirement community--the club and its members employ their offbeat skills and talents to root out the killer. They skillfully manipulate the help of a 26-year-old female police constable--an ambitious transplant from London--and her Detective Chief Inspector boss, who follow a host of leads and red herrings.

Osman's suspenseful, complex and deeply entertaining storytelling--along with rich characterizations depicting the quirky absurdities and power of pensioners--transforms darker themes of murder and crime-solving into smart, clever fun. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: In Richard Osman's clever, cozy whodunnit, residents of a British retirement community wield their crime-solving powers to catch a killer.

Penguin Books, $17, paperback, 384p., 9781984880987

The Butterfly House

by Katrine Engberg

Fans of The Tenant, the first of Katrine Engberg's Kørner and Werner books, will cheer the publication of its finely wrought follow-up, The Butterfly House. However, it's not quite accurate to report that the Copenhagen Police's odd-couple detectives are, as the saying goes, together again. As The Butterfly House opens, Detective Anette Werner is holed up at home, having just had a baby. Not that this stops her from doing what her more rule-abiding partner, Jeppe Kørner, dubs "rogue maternity-leave sleuthing": when Werner learns of a new case from the police radio she has neglected to return to headquarters, she's off and running.

Early one October morning, a corpse is found in Caritas Fountain, in Copenhagen's Old Market Square. Before she was dumped there, the victim--a middle-aged health-care aide--was cut and left to bleed to death. When another body is discovered in a different fountain the following day, it's determined that the victims have more in common than just their killer.

Engberg nimbly integrates two subplots into her main story, which leans on psychological analysis without being ponderous about it. Like The Tenant, The Butterfly House makes terrific use of its setting's cultural institutions and social mores. (Kørner remarks, upon viewing footage of the killer's means of transporting the bodies: "A murderer on a cargo bike, only in Denmark!") The novel's roaming perspective has a thrillingly nerve-racking effect: each time the viewpoint shifts, readers can't help but wonder if this is the character who's going to get it--or give it. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: The welcome second book in the Kørner and Werner series finds the latter detective blowing off her maternity leave when a corpse turns up in Copenhagen's Caritas Fountain.

Gallery/Scout Press, $16.99, paperback, 368p., 9781982127619

Life of a Klansman: A Family History in White Supremacy

by Edward Ball

In 1998, Edward Ball won the National Book Award for Slaves in the Family, his unflinching history concerning slavery his father's ancestors perpetuated in South Carolina. He continues unraveling the tightly knotted legacy of white supremacy by studying his mother's ancestors in Louisiana: specifically, Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, "our klansman."

A fighter in the rebel army during the Civil War and in the white militias of Reconstruction, Constant is but a focal point in Ball's broader concern, bringing clarity to the corrosive ideologies of slavery and race science, whose fallout continues to revisit generation after generation of Americans. "I am trying to make this thing visible," he writes, "whiteness. It looks transparent and flimsy, maybe. Some would say it does not even exist. But I am trying to make it conspicuous, as visible and as plain as blackness." Spanning most of the 19th century, Life of a Klansman is a nuanced case study of one cog within a machine of terrorism and oppression.

Ball creates a dynamic space for challenging reconciliation, breaking from the narrative periodically to reflect with empathy for family members acting in ways he abhors, yet never absolving them. In documenting white violence, Ball writes, "Here is a way not to see these events: the marauders like Constant are immoral, abject, and bad people.... It is truer to say this. The marauders are our people, and they fight for us." Never does the author lose sight of his complicit inheritance of privilege at the expense of Black lives.

A 2020 NPR Staff Pick, Life of a Klansman removes the histrionic hoods and gazes purposefully into the frantic eyes of a homegrown terrorism. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: This expansive study of a 19th-century Klansman adds depth and clarity to the ways white supremacist ideology became cemented into American society once slavery was abolished.

Picador, $20, paperback, 416p., 9781250798619

Children's & Young Adult

Take Me with You When You Go

by David Levithan, Jennifer Niven

The captivating Take Me with You When You Go deftly relates the difficult but ultimately uplifting story of a brother and sister who, although they don't have parents they can count on, do have each other--even when one of them unexpectedly runs off.

One morning, 15-year-old Ezra Ahern wakes up to find his sister, Beatrix, gone. She's made her bed ("an exquisite f*** you" to her mom and stepdad) and taken off with money Ezra hid in his room. She's left behind everything else, including Ezra, who must now singlehandedly deal with the rage and abuse from their mom and stepdad. But 18-year-old Bea felt she had to leave; even with high school graduation only two months away, the constant worrying about whether she's "smart enough, brave enough, nice enough, pretty enough, funny enough, enough-enough" became too much. Except now she's alone on the streets, messaging a Mystery Guy and pinning all her hopes on him for the new life she wants so badly.

Levithan (Every Day; The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S.) and Niven (All the Bright Places; Holding Up the Universe) have written a compelling, contemporary portrait of a brother and sister who rely on their love for each other to survive. The novel, told entirely through e-mails between Ezra and Bea, suspensefully and urgently delves into the nuances of parental abuse and the toll it takes on its victims. This novel about a supremely troubled family still somehow manages to remain almost unfailingly optimistic, as the two siblings never stop fighting for each other and for the life they truly deserve. --Lynn Becker, reviewer, blogger, and children's book author

Discover: Younger brother Ezra is left behind to deal with his abusive parents after his 18-year-old sister Bea runs away from home in this compelling, captivating YA novel.

Knopf Books for Young Readers, $18.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 12-up, 9780525580997

Negative Cat

by Sophie Blackall

A couple of classic children's book premises--a kid wants a pet, and a kid has a learning challenge--are brought together in Negative Cat, Sophie Blackall's winsome picture book salute to pets, perseverance and ideas so crazy they just might work.

As the story begins, the narrator's browbeaten parents finally give in to his pestering for a cat--with certain conditions. The most daunting? He must read for 20 minutes each day. Unfortunately, the cat that the boy chooses at the rescue shelter isn't scoring points at his new home: among other problems, "Max leaves hairballs on the rug, his tail in the butter, and poop in the vestibule." Meanwhile, the narrator hasn't kept up with his reading, so his mom phones the shelter lady, who comes over to reclaim Max. In desperation, the boy grabs a book: "I begin to read slowly. Out loud. The only way I know how." The boy's voice lures Max out from under the bed, and--what's this?--he ambles over for a cuddle. This gives the shelter lady an idea....

Inspired by a phenomenon observed at the Animal Rescue League of Berks County, Pa., Negative Cat is so ceaselessly entertaining that readers may not pick up on its underlying educational mission. Caldecott medalist (for Finding Winnie and Hello Lighthouse) Blackall accents her meticulously coy art with dialogue balloons containing the narrator's relatives' remarks ("He doesn't even purr," and so on), which collectively form their own hilarious Greek chorus of negativity. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: A boy's new pet starts out as a problem and becomes the solution to another problem in Sophie Blackall's droll and commiserative picture book.

Nancy Paulsen Books, $17.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9780399257193

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