Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, November 5, 2021


Forge: Project Namahana by John Teschner

From My Shelf

Padma Lakshmi: Cooking in Season

Padma Lakshmi

One July several years ago my daughter Krishna asked for pomegranates. A treat in our family is pomegranate toast: silky peanut butter on toasted sourdough, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds on top for a tangy crunch. "We don't eat pomegranates in the summer, kanna," I said. I realized then that, as a child growing up in New York City, Krishna wouldn't know what's in season unless I told her. I started teaching her about when things grow through a story that would become Tomatoes for Neela. In it, the main character, Neela, is a young Indian American girl who loves cooking with her amma (mother) and jotting down the recipes in her little notebook. These rituals help make her feel closer to her paati (grandmother) who lives far away in India.

When I was growing up, there were very few children's books that had characters who looked like me. I wanted to write an intergenerational tale centered on a brown-skinned family to reinforce for kids of color that they're valuable and their stories matter. I wanted to inspire families to cook with their children as early and consistently as possible, to instill an appreciation for healthy eating and stewardship of the environment. The book also explores the ritual of writing down recipes, which imparts critical thinking skills: sequential order, spelling and basic fractions. Finally, Tomatoes for Neela underscores the importance of farm workers and everyone working along the food chain.

I hope this picture book will help the children in your life feel informed, empowered and creative in the kitchen. It's a dream come true to think that somewhere out there, maybe even right now, families are making their version of "Neela's Tomato Chutney" from the book and savoring it together. --Padma Lakshmi

Padma Lakshmi is a food expert, Emmy-nominated television host and producer, and bestselling author.


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The Writer's Life

Reading with... Sara Pennypacker

photo: Lorraine Scheppler

Sara Pennypacker is the author of the children's books Pax and its sequel, recently published by Crown, Pax, Journey Home (both illustrated by Jon Klassen), as well as the award-winning Clementine series and its spinoff series, Waylon, and the novels Summer of the Gypsy Moths and Here in the Real World. She divides her time between Cape Cod, Mass., and Florida.

On your nightstand now:

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I just finished it--quietly disturbing, yet quietly hopeful. I usually have a children's book on the table--right now, I'm reading Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. It's lovely. As a rabid swimmer, I always have a swimming book going, too, which I like to dip into a few pages at a time. This month it's Swimming to the Top of the Tide by Patricia Hanlon. I've ordered Richard Powers's Bewilderment, so that will be there soon.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The first book I remember being insane for was Heidi by Johanna Spyri. I begged my parents to let me sleep in the attic on a pile of hay and eat nothing but bread and cheese outside. They wisely refused. (They did, however, inexplicably allow me to get a kid goat as a pet.) It was the vivid description of a life different from my own that drew me in, but sadly, when I read the book as a writer, it left me cold.

Your top five authors:

I can't. I'll change my mind and then be haunted forever that this list is in print.

Book you've faked reading:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I really tried, but I just couldn't finish.

Book you're an evangelist for:

I was into The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis decades before it was made into a mini-series. I was just stunned that a book with barely any plot tension kept me up all night turning pages. "That's magic, we have to learn how to do that," I told all my writer friends.

More recently, Richard Powers's The Overstory. A masterpiece, but it about killed me. I praise it to the skies, but I warn that it will hurt a lot.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Ha! Well, more than once I've been stopped in my tracks and had to buy a copy of Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby, Age 8 in a used bookstore. The original cover, the one where Ramona has that impossibly skinny neck, where she looks brave and perplexed and vulnerable all at once. There's always someone I know who deserves to read that book with that perfect cover.

Book you hid from your parents:

When I was maybe 12, I used to go to the local thrift shop in the summers. Every week, I'd buy 10 paperbacks for a dollar, not caring too much what the books were, and consider myself rich in stories. Once, I somehow came home with a copy of The Story of O by Anne Desclos in my stash. Yikes. My parents never knew because I clandestinely disposed of that book page by page in the river beside our house.

Book that changed your life:

A series of novels hit me at just the right times in my development as a feminist. I remember being especially charged up by four of them. Marge Piercy's Small Changes when I was just out of college. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which I read when it came out--Reagan was president and I had two little children then. Whoa. Toni Morrison's Beloved a little later in motherhood. Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory blew open the global politics of feminism. There have been many more books recently, but to this day, when something happens in the world, I find myself wondering how the characters in those early books would react.

Favorite line from a book:

Hands down, it's from Ann-Marie MacDonald's brilliant The Way the Crow Flies. A father tucks his little girl in, thinking he has just comforted her about something upsetting that's going on. The reader knows that through an innocent misunderstanding, he has done exactly the opposite. He leaves the room and shuts off the light. The line is: "And Madeleine's eyes stayed open." I still get chills.

Five books you'll never part with:

There are more, but here are five:

Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell--Two brilliant American poets discussing the events of their day and the events of their days; informing, supporting and caring for each other.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry--first read in a French class 50 years ago, and never far from me since.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler--I go through it once for every novel I write and it never fails to illuminate.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins--for sentimental reasons: it's my father's old copy, and the first book I remember discussing with him.

Roget's International Thesaurus--not for looking up synonyms, though. I love to page through the concept half, seeing how words cross over into different areas, how the English language works!

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

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier--it was the absolute ideal comfort book for me: historical fiction with a strong sense of place, lots of rich period details and no one dies. First time I read that book, I purred.


Tundra Books (NY): Professor Goose Debunks Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Paulette Bourgeois, illustrated by Alex G. Griffiths


Book Candy

Cats as Writing Helpers

Margaret Atwood on her feline familiars: "They would help me write, as cats do, by climbing on to the keyboard." (via the Guardian)

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Mental Floss considered "where vs. whereas: when to use each one correctly."

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The secret codes of Lady Wroth, the first female English novelist, were deciphered by Smithsonian magazine.

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In its Words We're Watching series, Merriam-Webster looked up "Ghost Kitchen."

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Although not technically a bookish tidbit, Ian Fleming fans may find intrigue in Ars Technica's piece on epidemiologists analyzing health risks in all the James Bond films.

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School Library Journal showcased "9 YA novels with songs as their titles."


Tyndale House Publishers: Long Way Home by Lynn Austin


Great Reads

Rediscover: Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist "who showed how everyone from artists to assembly-line workers can be transported to a state of focused contentment by getting caught in the 'flow,' a term he coined and later popularized," died October 20 at age 87, the New York Times reported. Csikszentmihalyi "was a polymath whose passions for painting, chess playing and rock climbing informed his work on subjects as diverse as the teenage brain and the psychology of interior design." It was his research into creativity and focus, however, that became his life's work and made him a public figure after the publication of his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The concept subsequently became a part of popular and political culture.

Flow, he argued, was a state of mind, a level of concentration in which outside stimuli, even time itself, seem to fall away. But flow, he added, cannot be forced. "People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are a bit greater than usual, and they are able to give more than usual," he said in an interview with the Times in 1986. "If there is too little demand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate zone between boredom and anxiety." Csikszentmihalyi wrote a series of follow-up books to Flow, including one focused on the business world. Flow is available from Harper Perennial Modern Classics ($16.99).


Book Review

Fiction

Brickmakers

by Selva Almada, trans. by Annie McDermott


Argentinian literary powerhouse Selva Almada's stupendous second novel (after The Wind that Lays Waste) opens and ends in a deserted fairground where death claims two young men predestined to hate each other. Pájaro Tamai is "sprawled on his back," and not far away lies Marciano Miranda, "sprawled on his stomach, with one eye open," their youthful bodies losing their vibrancy forever.

While both men expire, Almada artfully, hauntingly reveals the inevitability of their demise. As boys, Pájaro and Marciano managed to be best friends despite their fathers' mutual hostility. The animosity bloomed when fathers Tamai and Miranda--the titular brickmakers--became viciously competitive neighbors. "Officially, the two men's feud began with the stolen puppy," when Tamai absconded with the best of Miranda's beloved greyhound litter--and turned the potential champion into a heinously tortured beast. Miranda never got over his brokenhearted disgust, severing any possibility of even civility. And then Miranda was murdered, leaving Marciano the 12-year-old head of his household. A 13-year-old Pájaro also became "man of the house" when abusive Tamai finally abandoned his family. Their poisonous paternal legacy eventually kills their sons--but not before the enemy fathers return as spirits, by turns poignant and taunting, to usher their firstborns into the beyond.

Violence seems inescapable throughout Brickmakers, even after its originating reasons have long been lost. While Almada exposes her characters' countless mistakes--arrogant, desperate, unforgivable--she also presents them with undeniable empathy. Paired once more with gloriously agile Annie McDermott, who translated Dead Girls (2020), Almada's breathtaking multigenerational tragedy is a haunting, unforgettable examination of the lasting consequences of careless inhumanity. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Latin American literary superstar Almada presents a haunting multigenerational family tragedy fueled by the consequences of toxic masculinity.

Graywolf, $16, paperback, 160p., 9781644450697

God of Mercy

by Okezie Nwoka


Tradition and change clash to devastating effect in Okezie Nwoka's compelling and heartrending debut, God of Mercy. The novel is set in two postcolonial African villages, one following Igbo beliefs and the other following a form of Christianity.

Ichulu villager Ofodile's promising youth has ripened into a troubled and bitter adulthood after years of failing to find a cure for his daughter Ijeoma's inability to speak. The village itself is troubled by flooding and erosion. The dibia, the community's spiritual leader, doctor and adviser, determines that the nearby Christ-worshipping village of Amalike has cursed Ijeoma and Ichulu. An attempt to make peace ends with the killings of several young men from Ichulu and the banishment of the survivors, including Ijeoma's beloved older cousin Uzodi. Ofodile becomes further embittered, believing he has failed to protect his deceased brother's son.

Then Ijeoma gains the power of levitation, hanging in the sky "like fruit too precious to pluck or a thought too erratic to name." The dibia pronounces her ability the sign of a holy war between Chukwu, the highest ranking god, and Ani, whom the village has traditionally worshipped. Meanwhile, a sadistic Christian pastor and faith healer in Amalike will stop at nothing to see any hint of Igbo faith stamped out forever, and word of Ijeoma and her ability has reached his ears.

Nwoka writes with a sure rhythm all their own, slipping easily between structured passages and stream-of-consciousness inner monologues. God of Mercy translates major religious conflicts to a small, personal scale. Book clubs looking for stories to inspire deep discussion need look no further. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Okezie Nwoka's compelling debut follows crisis and conflict between a traditional Igbo village and a neighboring village of Christian converts.

Astra House, $27, hardcover, 304p., 9781662600838

The Pastor

by Hanne Ørstavik, trans. by Martin Aitken


The desolate beauty of a Nordic winter mirrors the interior landscape of a troubled priest in The Pastor, a mesmerizing study of spiritual unease by Norwegian novelist Hanne Ørstavik.

Liv, a theology student uprooted by grief following the death of her friend Kristiane, abandons her Ph.D. fellowship in Germany to take a position as an assistant pastor in a small town in northern Norway. She is looking for God, she says, "not in the form of some remote aesthetic, more as a commitment, a place to stand in life." Ørstavik makes evocative use of her setting, letting the "allure of the horizontal" and the "vast, open expanse" of the place set the tone for Liv's fitful mind, wherein boundaries--between past and present, inside and out, language and reality--often dissolve.

Within Liv's own traumas are haunting resonances with the subject of her academic research: a rebellion by the Sami, an indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, against the colonizing Norwegians some 150 years previous. Liv identifies with the Sami for what she sees as their "foundational and original experience, a swell of powerlessness and rage" that speaks to her own religious ennui. With writerly grace and moral seriousness, Ørstavik bends these parallels toward the novel's most profound insights about how both language and violence might mediate a relationship with the divine.

Translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken, whose translation of Østravik's novel Love was a National Book Award finalist in 2018, The Pastor summons a sweep of images and questions bound to linger. --Theo Henderson, bookseller at Ravenna Third Place Books in Seattle, Wash.

Discover: Set against the desolate beauty of northern Norway, Hanne Ørstavik's mesmerizing novel explores traumas both personal and historical, and the chilling echoes between the two.

Archipelago Books, $20, paperback, 280p., 9781953861085

Mystery & Thriller

Shoot the Moonlight Out

by William Boyle


A rock flies through an open car window, killing the driver and creating a heart-aching domino effect of murder and mayhem in William Boyle's epic murder mystery Shoot the Moonlight Out.

In July 1996, in south Brooklyn, N.Y., teenaged punks Bobby and Zeke amuse themselves by throwing rocks at cars exiting an off-ramp. One rock kills a promising young writer named Amelia. The boys vow to never speak about the incident. Five years pass and Jack, Amelia's father, tries to process his grief by taking a writing class. Lily, the teacher of Jack's class, reminds Jack of Amelia. Lily is fatherless; Jack is daughterless. They strike up a friendship. Lily tells Jack about Micah, her ex-boyfriend stalker. Jack listens. Micah ends up dead.

Meanwhile, the aimless, guilt-ridden Bobby takes a job with Max, a Ponzi schemer who occasionally holds onto bags (filled with money or drugs or both) for leg-breaker and crime boss wannabe Charlie French. Bobby meets Francesca when Max brings Bobby along to visit a potential client. Love sparks fly and the penniless young lovers plot an escape from south Brooklyn. These characters collide in an operatic crescendo of violence and death that might be the only possible outcome for any of them.

All the damaged characters inhabiting Shoot the Moonlight Out would benefit from a visit with a trauma counselor. Instead, Boyle (City of Margins; The Lonely Witness) lets his wrecked individuals experience unexpected kindness in a bleak world to encourage their humanity. This effect is akin to witnessing the beauty of a flower growing through a crack of a neglected sidewalk. Bravo to William Boyle. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: Heartrending tragedy brings three emotionally damaged people together to heal in this magnificently written murder mystery.

Pegasus Crime, $25.95, hardcover, 320p., 9781643138251

Miss Moriarty, I Presume?

by Sherry Thomas


Sherry Thomas (A Study in Scarlet Women; The Luckiest Lady in London) continues her delightfully feminist, gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes series with a sixth entry: Miss Moriarty, I Presume? Charlotte Holmes, detective extraordinaire and lover of sweets, is astonished when her new client, known as Mr. Baxter, is none other than Mr. Moriarty. "Mr. Baxter" insists on Holmes's help in tracking down his daughter, who has been living in an occult commune in Cornwall. He has sent a cleaning lady to spy on Miss Baxter periodically, but she hasn't seen Miss Baxter for months, and Moriarty wants Holmes to find out why.

Unable safely to refuse Moriarty's request, Holmes and her lover, Lord Ingram, head to Cornwall with Mrs. Watson, Holmes's landlady, to see what they can find out. And they discover mysteries indeed: Miss Baxter doesn't emerge from her cottage even when a fire begins nearby, and clearly several of the commune's residents are hiding things. As the situation becomes ever more dangerous, Holmes, Mrs. Watson and Lord Ingram also realize that Moriarty cares more about entrapping Holmes than he does about finding his own daughter.

Atmospheric and fast-paced, Miss Moriarty, I Presume? is Sherlockian fiction at its finest. Fans of Laurie R. King or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself are sure to adore the way that Sherry Thomas leaves her readers guessing until the end. Thomas does an excellent job of capturing Victorian English society and mixing it neatly with Moriarty's sinister ploys and Holmes's intuitive leaps, to create a novel perfect for devouring. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Discover: In this delightful feminist recasting of Sherlock Holmes, Charlotte Holmes must face down her nemesis: the diabolical Moriarty.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 368p., 9780593200582

Romance

I Hate You More

by Lucy Gilmore


Rom-com fans will laugh out loud while reading I Hate You More by Lucy Gilmore (Ruff and Tumble), a fun opposites-attract story about a former beauty pageant winner who falls for a Type-A, by-the-book dog show judge.

Twenty-eight-year-old Ruby Taylor of Seattle, Wash., is beautiful--inside and out. Crowned a Beauty Queen multiple times as a child and teen, Ruby regularly competed and preened in front of judges, with a little help from her thrice-married mother. When Ruby finally gave up the circuit, she settled into a more fulfilling life as a nurses' aid, helping others at Parkwood Manor, a local retirement community. There, she and Mrs. Orson, a resident, bond over their shared affinity for reading erotic novels. When Mrs. O enlists Ruby's help to qualify Wheezy--a golden retriever, her late husband's pride and joy--for the West Coast Canine Classic dog show, Ruby agrees, not fully realizing what she's in for.

Rotund Wheezy has a little problem with obedience and an even bigger problem with bacon. Matters snowball when cranky veterinarian and dog show judge Spencer Wilson questions Wheezy's purebred status. This leaves Ruby and Wheezy to jump through hoops with training and dieting while waiting for blood work to prove Wheezy's lineage. Along the way, Spencer's identical twin brother, Caleb, steps in to train Wheezy. He's a fun-loving dog-trainer under house arrest--living at Spencer's while on probation for running an illegal gaming website. Meanwhile, the brothers face major territorial issues.

Gilmore's sexy, snarky rom-com takes the crown, humorously showcasing winning dynamics of dysfunctional families and quirky romantic relationships. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A golden retriever sparks a contentious romance between a former beauty queen and a dog show judge in this spunky, sexy rom-com.

Sourcebooks Casablanca, $14.99, paperback, 288p., 9781728226002

Biography & Memoir

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

by Ai Weiwei, trans. by Allan H. Barr


The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has always found inspiration in unlikely places: "The idea of writing this book came to me after I was taken into police custody in 2011," he writes in his acknowledgments for 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. "During that period of enforced isolation, I felt a need to think through my relationship with my father, Ai Qing." The upshot is an extravagantly rewarding hybrid: a combination history of modern China, biography of a dissident poet and memoir by his provocateur son.

The celebrated poet Ai Qing (1910-1996) was an open critic of the Communist government, putting him in the crosshairs of Chairman Mao's Anti-Rightist Campaign, which targeted outspoken intellectuals. The author's own story begins toward his book's midpoint: born in Beijing in 1957, Ai pursued the arts and went to the United States in 1981 with intent to become "a second Picasso." He ended up forfeiting his scholarship to Parsons School of Design, but stayed on in New York, where the 1988 riot in Tompkins Square Park awakened him to the galvanizing beauty of protest movements. After Ai returned to Beijing in 1993, he worked as an architect and committed himself to "little acts of mischief." He embraced blogging in 2005, using it for activism, as when he launched a campaign to hold the government accountable for the deaths resulting from 2008's Wenchuan earthquake.

A rousing but even-tempered call to action, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows also succeeds as something uncharacteristically modest for a work by Ai, known for commanding installations like his 2010 Tate Modern exhibition of 100,000,000 ceramic sunflower seeds: his book is the story of an artist finding his voice. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: This charged but graceful memoir by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei begins as a biography of his poet father, whose battles against censorship and authoritarianism mirrored the author's own.

Crown, $32, hardcover, 400p., 9780553419467

The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm

by Sarah Vogel


In 1985, a group of rock, blues and country musicians put on Farm Aid, a benefit concert for family farmers that brought the United States agricultural crisis into the spotlight. But lawyer Sarah Vogel had already spent years defending U.S. farmers in court. In The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm, Vogel details their class-action lawsuit against Farmers Home Administration, the federal office designed to support farmers with low-cost loans. The Reagan administration's efforts to cut costs put thousands of family farms into foreclosure, and Vogel knew it would take a national effort to stop FHA from driving farmers off their land.

Never a trial attorney, Vogel claims to be a "writing" lawyer, focusing on case law and logically constructed briefs. While there is plenty of law in The Farmer's Lawyer, Vogel is a gifted writer, weaving history, politics and vivid descriptions of the people and landscape with personal challenges like her financial turmoil as a single mother in a male-dominated field. Both in court and in this book, Vogel is able to bring the farmers she works with fully to life, including the devastating heartbreaks they experience. When she asserts, "You didn't need a law degree to understand injustice. Farmers like [these] felt it acutely," readers will agree, celebrating as Vogel and her team defeat the giant, giving farmers a fighting chance. Farm Aid may have provided the spotlight, but it was Vogel who gave the farmers hope. --Sara Beth West, freelance reviewer and librarian

Discover: Great for fans of legal dramas, Sarah Vogel's The Farmer's Lawyer will leave readers inspired as she details their fight for truth, justice and family farms in the 1980s.

Bloomsbury, $28, hardcover, 432p., 9781635575262

History

Empire of Rubber: Firestone's Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia

by Gregg Mitman


Gregg Mitman's Empire of Rubber: Firestone's Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia brings to light a disturbing history of corporate greed and economic neocolonialism in the tiny West African nation. In the 1920s, the American appetite for rubber increased rapidly alongside growth in automobile ownership, and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company looked for a fresh source of rubber free from the control of foreign powers like the United Kingdom. Historian and filmmaker Mitman's book is a twin history of Firestone and Liberia. It explains how the Firestone family grew their rubber business into a global behemoth and, through a mix of paternalism, greed and nationalistic fervor, fixed on the idea of owning vast rubber plantations in a nation largely established in the early 19th century by people of African descent escaping slavery and racial oppression in the United States. Mitman clearly evokes the terrible ironies that followed, as Firestone replicated Jim Crow policies in a Black republic and reaped enormous rewards through indigenous laborers working for meager wages.

Liberia's settler elite hoped that the foreign company's investments would bring wealth and security to their precarious nation, but theirs was a devil's bargain, with the benefits largely accruing to a few. Mitman places an emphasis on the many people who saw both the promise and dangers of Firestone's enterprise, including W.E.B. Du Bois, and on the indigenous people who saw their worlds upended. Empire of Rubber calls into question Western ideas of progress, and powerfully traces the results of the Firestone experiment to the war and poverty that would wrack the nation. --Hank Stephenson, the Sun magazine, manuscript reader

Discover: Empire of Rubber shows how the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company's expansion into Liberia was a form of economic colonialism with tragic, far-reaching consequences.

The New Press, $27.99, hardcover, 288p., 9781620973776

Social Science

The Uninnocent: Notes on Violence and Mercy

by Katharine Blake


Inspired by a shocking family crime, Katharine Blake's The Uninnocent: Notes on Violence and Mercy is a wise and moving reflection on some of the most vexing aspects of the American criminal justice system. Paramount among her concerns are sentencing practices that treat juveniles who commit serious offenses as adults.

Blake, an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School's Center for Justice Reform, takes as her point of departure an unspeakable act: her 16-year-old cousin Scott's random murder of a nine-year-old boy in his home state of Louisiana in 2010. At the time, Blake had just completed her first year at Stanford Law School, and the shock of the event influences her career path, eventually leading her to a job with the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and a stint teaching writing to inmates at San Quentin State Prison.

But this book is much more than a memoir of personal transformation or family dynamics. Devastated by Scott's crime, Blake takes the opportunity to explore a range of topics that emanate from it, including the insanity defense and the notion of criminal responsibility, as well as draconian sentencing practices that reject the idea of rehabilitation, what she calls a "condemnation of possibility." Blake is an evocative writer whose familiarity with sources that include Shakespeare, contemporary penology, and even the insights of neuroscience and cardiology lends color and depth to her meditations. Despite its brevity, The Uninnocent invites readers to ponder some large and difficult questions. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: Inspired by a family member's heinous crime, Katharine Blake thoughtfully explores problematic aspects of the juvenile justice system.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17, paperback, 224p., 9780374538521

Children's & Young Adult

We Light Up the Sky

by Lilliam Rivera


Sci-fi meets contemporary YA in We Light Up the Sky, a moving story about three unacquainted Latinx teens banding together ahead of an alien invasion.

Pedro, Luna and Rafa attend high school together but rarely socialize with each other. Then Rafa sees Tasha, Luna's cousin who died two years ago from Covid-19. Luna, stuck in a "deep well of sadness" from her loss, and Pedro, who once dated Tasha, want an explanation for this imposter. After reports of strange lights in the sky and a mysterious earthquake--and as plants and wild animals start to overrun Los Angeles--the three realize fake Tasha is an alien Visitor. Together, the trio face ridiculous mayhem (including dodging mall cops and mountain lions) to learn what danger the alien poses.

Lilliam Rivera (Never Look Back; Dealing in Dreams) depicts teens with complicated home lives coping with a world reeling after the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and ongoing racially motivated police brutality. Luna feels intense guilt that she didn't speak out the way Tasha had; Pedro, who is "oppressed in his own home," slings jokes ("the only way to survive") and is loud at school; Rafa, living under a highway ramp with his family, must "always exhibit a sense of calm" even though he is "panicking about everything." Racism occurs not as a storyline, but as an implied constant in the characters' lives. Each teen risks jeopardizing something--Rafa his family's safety, Pedro his self-protective persona, Luna her buried emotions--to figure out what the alien wants. As the three struggle to push back against the alien's presence, they realize "an uprising doesn't have to be a mass movement. It only needs a single person." A heart-pounding, eccentric and emotionally complex sci-fi. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

Discover: Three Latinx teens try to figure out why an alien is visiting Earth in this haunting, emotional and socially relevant YA novel set after Covid-19.

Bloomsbury, $17.99, hardcover, 272p., ages 12-up, 9781547603763

The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

by Eugene Yelchin, illus. by Eugene Yelchin


Eugene Yelchin (Breaking Stalin's Nose; The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge) grew up where street tar was a substitute for chewing gum, "asking questions was considered not patriotic" and the walls had ears--even those of your own home. Despite these challenges, he blossomed into an award-winning writer and illustrator. In this splendidly entertaining memoir of a bleak childhood in Cold War Russia, Yelchin turns a dark, drab world into a kaleidoscope of humorously enlightening anecdotes about a boy with a stolen pencil and a lot of questions.

Yelchin lived with his quirky parents, his athletically inclined older brother and his spunky grandmother. Together they were allotted one room in a communal apartment in Leningrad, where they shared the kitchen and bathroom with other tenants, including a KGB agent who spied on everyone. Yelchin recalls, "Our room was so small that every night Dad had to move all the furniture out of the way in order to unfold our beds." Yelchin's bed was a cot under his grandmother's enormous old dining table. After his family had gone to sleep, using a pencil he pilfered from his father, Yelchin would cover the underside of the table with drawings "like a ceiling of a prehistoric cave."

The Genius Under the Table offers a fascinating glimpse into life in the USSR through the eyes of an artistic, imaginative and very funny child. Yelchin adorns the story with his distinctive art, perfectly complementing the text, so each flip of the page brings a better understanding of this complex boy--his sense of humor, his understanding of the world and his struggles. Simply beautiful! --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: A Newbery Honoree uses charming art and humor to tell the story of his early life in Cold War-era Leningrad.

Candlewick Press, $16.99, hardcover, 208p., ages 9-14, 9781536215526

There's a Ghost in this House

by Oliver Jeffers


There's a Ghost in this House is a treasure of a picture book that invites readers to turn semi-transparent overlays to reveal a "Fraid of Ghosts" ("the collective noun for a group of ghosts") all hiding in plain sight.

A child with green skin and blue hair invites readers to come into their home and asks for help with a problem. Though they've heard "there's a GHOST in this house," they have yet to find one. They've been told ghosts are "white with holes for eyes," but these particular spirits remain "very hard to see." As the child plays tour guide around the house, readers will spy the adorable apparitions everywhere: on the stairs, behind the couch, atop the chandelier, in the attic. Cleverly used vellum sheets are included after almost every page turn so that, once the sheets are flipped, ghosts appear! Although the narrator is "not even sure what a ghost looks like," readers will have no trouble describing these mischievous beings.

The illustrations are splendid. Jeffers (A Child of Books; Here We Are) chose images from "old architectural reference books and furniture catalogues" and used "digital compositing magic" finished with "a bit of paint and a belief in ghosts" to compose his slightly spooky home. His sense of humor is spot on, and the joke refuses to get old. Even the ghosts are laughing along! Although the oblivious tour guide may never find one, readers will have plenty of fun locating the playful spirits inhabiting these pages. --Lynn Becker, reviewer, blogger and children's book author

Discover: In this standout picture book, a child invites readers into their haunted home and asks for help finding ghosts.

Philomel Books, $27.99, hardcover, 80p., ages 4-8, 9780593466186

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