From the Shelf
Armchair Travel: Sri Lanka
On a recent armchair travel adventure, I visited Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean. Some call it the pearl earring of India, dangling as it does off India's southeastern tip. Formerly known as Ceylon, the island nation's difficult history of colonization was followed by a 25-year-long civil war that ended in 2009.
It's been an intriguing journey, exploring Sri Lanka's tumultuous post-independence years through the stories of writers from the South Asian diaspora, beginning with the phenomenally talented Ru Freeman, who lives in the U.S. Her soulful epic On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf Press, $16) filters life at the cusp of war through the eyes of four spirited children living on a multiethnic street, a gorgeous rendering of how ordinary people summon extraordinary strength when it is required of them.
Mosquito (Europa Editions, $16.95) by Roma Tearne features a writer named Theo who returns to his birthplace after years in England and falls in love with a young artist. Theo is enthralled by his homeland, "this beautiful place, with its idyllic landscape of sea and sky and glorious weather." Yet he is fatalistic about Sri Lanka's future, lamenting to his servant, "Has there ever been a country that, once colonized, avoided civil war?"
In Aruk Arudpragasam's A Story of a Brief Marriage (Flatiron, $15.99) a young Tamil refugee works at a makeshift hospital in a camp for displaced persons. Arudpragasam captures a single day in his life as war wages on. The landscape is utterly transformed by turmoil but nothing can extinguish the lush, resilient beauty and powerful ancient roots of the country.
The plan for now is to continue exploring virtually, with the hope that one day I'll actually leave the house and resume travel, whatever that may look like in the future. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
In this Issue...
by Nathacha Appanah
Street children on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean make their own rules in this soulful novel by an acclaimed Mauritian-French writer.
by Hye-Young Pyun
In this riveting literary thriller set in Seoul, each of two intersecting storylines concerns a young woman related to someone undone by debt.
by Nick Lake
Lake's exhilarating YA science fiction thriller tells a story of survival in the Alaskan wilderness and examines the conflicting roles of individuality and family.
Review by Subjects:
Frog and Toad, Self-Quarantined Friends
"Frog and Toad are self-quarantined friends," McSweeney's style.
J.K. Rowling is publishing The Ickabog, her new children's novel free online, one chapter per day.
Merriam-Webster looked up some "surprisingly specific words for shapes."
"Over 80,000 carved wood blocks make up one of the world's oldest intact Buddhist canons," Atlas Obscura reported.
The National Library of Scotland "has lifted the lid on a vast Ian Rankin archive spanning five decades," the Scotsman reported.
Rediscover: Robb Forman Dew
Robb Forman Dew, who wrote fiction, memoirs, essays, criticism and cookbooks, died on May 22 at age 73. Dew was perhaps best known for her debut novel, Dale Loves Sophie to Death, which was published in 1981 and won the American Book Award for a first novel in 1982. The book's title was taken from graffiti on a bridge on a rural road and was one of several of Dew's works that drew on the life and culture of small-town central Ohio. Dew continued to explore domestic life in her following work. Her trilogy--The Evidence Against Her (2001), The Truth of the Matter (2005) and Being Polite to Hitler (2011)--was set in fictional Washburn, Ohio, and was her crowning achievement. Her other works of fiction included The Time of Her Life (1984) and Fortunate Lives (1992). She also published two nonfiction works: A Southern Thanksgiving: Recipes and Musings for a Manageable Feast (1992) and The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out (1994).
A resident of Massachusetts much of her adult life, Dew was born into a storytelling tradition and grew up in Louisiana and Ohio--and described herself as "deeply, gratefully, and inescapably Southern." She added: "I've always felt that the only way we can define our history is through stories." Dale Loves Sophie to Death is available in paperback from Back Bay Books ($16.99, 9780316890663).
The Writer's Life
Alia Volz: 'We Were Good Outlaws'
|photo: Dennis Hearne|
Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27) is Alia Volz's often hilarious memoir about growing up with her famous mother, who ran "Sticky Fingers Brownies," bringing joy to San Franciscans in the mid-1970s with her pot edibles. Eventually Meridy Volz provided medical marijuana to AIDS patients, leading California to groundbreaking cannabis legalization laws.
Part of the brilliance of Home Baked is its depth. As a bookseller, I can imagine it being shelved in different sections--San Francisco history, memoir, sociology. Would you agree?
Absolutely. My greatest challenge in writing Home Baked was figuring out how to unite my fascinations into one compelling narrative. The '70s and '80s were unusually frothy, dynamic, turbulent periods in San Francisco. I became enamored of the vibrant subcultures and political movements flourishing then. Sticky Fingers Brownies was woven intricately into the fabric of the city, so my family story allowed me to spin a grander historical narrative. The memoir is a Trojan horse that sneaks a history lesson into your brain under the guise of entertainment.
One of my favorite images is of you in a grade school "D.A.R.E." class for Nancy Reagan's anti-drug message. How did you know to keep still, at age nine? Do you remember your parents teaching you this, or was it inherent in your upbringing?
Like many from their generation, my parents saw cannabis as essentially wholesome and good. Prohibition was wrong. Police (and authority figures in general) were not to be trusted. My parents raised me with a strong moral compass, but one with an unusual orientation. We were good outlaws.
I grew up knowing that if I ever talked about what my parents did for a living, they might go to prison. That information is so deeply ingrained in my sense of self that I don't remember learning it. Ratting my parents out didn't occur to me as an option. It would have destroyed our world, and I never wanted to do that.
Much of your memoir is hilarious. Do you recall your childhood as easygoing?
I wouldn't say that. My parents had a tumultuous marriage that ended in divorce. Then the AIDS crisis came along and devastated a community that I loved. I was also a social misfit--one of those overly bright, sensitive, socially awkward kids sitting alone at recess--which is typical of people who grow up to be writers. But comedy doesn't come from ease or simplicity. There's nothing funny about things going according to plan. The great Buster Keaton ends up running for his life in every film reel. Humor is a way of squeezing pleasure out of difficult moments.
"Honest memoir" might be a cliché, but Home Baked doesn't keep secrets, and it feels so full of love. As you interviewed your parents and their extended community, did you feel any resistance to sharing stories?
Quite the opposite! My interviewees were eager to talk. U.S.-American culture is so dismissive of anyone past the bread-winning age that I think elders are often left holding stories no one wants to hear. When they die, the unrecorded past is lost. People entrusted me with their memories, which was something I took seriously. There's a responsibility--a weight--that comes with carrying someone else's story.
I did have some challenging conversations with my dad. He's a complex person whose character flaws were prominent during the period covered in my book. But he was surprisingly open with me. Through the interview process, we had conversations that were years overdue. We became close again, which was an unexpected gift.
Your mom's brownies transitioned from recreational to palliative during the AIDS epidemic. As a child, how did you cope with the tragedies of the anti-gay movement and the AIDS years?
Children are resilient. What is childhood if not one adaption after another? My folks never subscribed to the idea that withholding information would protect me from the world. Was it traumatic to see people I loved suffer and die? Of course. If you were not traumatized by the AIDS crisis, you weren't paying attention. Those were formative moments--but not only in a negative way. I learned from the tenderness with which people in the LGBTQ+ community cared for one another, and the bravery of people facing unfathomable loss. It made me a better person. It made me who I am.
Do you have any favorite anecdotes from the "Sticky Fingers" era, either your memories or others'?
The whole book is comprised of favorite anecdotes. And you should see what ended up on the cutting-room floor!
I do enjoy the story of how the signature recipe was invented. My mom had no kitchen skills--none whatsoever. So, when a friend gave her a fledgling DIY bakery, the first thing she did was find someone else to bake. Her best friend, Barb, took over in the kitchen. One night when Barb was up late baking, she forgot to add flour to a round of batter. Realizing her silly mistake, she pulled the undercooked brownies out of the oven and started absently licking the batter from her fingers. Next thing she knew, she was flying. Barb had accidentally discovered a key element of cannabis cooking. Heat makes the plant release THC, increasing potency. But too much heat causes the THC to dissipate. Barb had found the sweet spot. From then on, her brownies were always undercooked, left molten and jiggly in the center. This made for an infamously intense high. Word spread through the city, and within months, my mom and her friends were moving thousands of brownies per weekend. The undercooked brownies left your hands tarred with gooey residue, hence the name Sticky Fingers Brownies.
Did you plan for Home Baked's publication date to be 4/20, or was that a coincidence?
Let's just say I wasn't shocked when my editor suggested it. Once we knew Home Baked would be a spring book, the date was pretty obvious.
Can you imagine living anywhere besides San Francisco?
Definitely. I spent two years in Ecuador, a year in Spain, and a year in Cuba. There were two years in Santa Fe and three years in Los Angeles, as well as shorter stints in other states and other countries. San Francisco is so intertwined with my sense of self that it can be hard to define where I begin and where my hometown ends. When I'm elsewhere, my sense of self becomes clearer. Each time I moved away was supposed to be the last, but something always pulled me back. I needed to finish this book. Maybe now I'll be able to move on.
Home Baked is copiously researched, with 15 pages of resources. Did you write your memories first, then research, confirm and fill in the details?
Home Baked began as an oral history, so the interviews came first--hundreds of hours with dozens of people who were affected by this underground marijuana-brownie business. The stories entrusted to me in the interviews became the backbone of the book. Next, I dove into historical archives to substantiate--or occasionally refute--the wild stories. Most of my interviewees proved to be reliable, which surprised me given the age of the stories and the copious drugs everyone was taking. When inconsistencies did come up, I tried to weave them into the story. I find that kind of complication exciting. What we forget can be as revealing as what we remember.
I didn't decide to reframe Home Baked as a memoir until late in the process, so my childhood memories were the last sections written. Everyone assumes the opposite, but I've always been more interested in exploring the world around me than my own bellybutton. --Cheryl McKeon, bookseller, Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y.
Tropic of Violence
by Nathacha Appanah , trans. by Geoffrey Strachan
Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah (The Last Brother), translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan, offers readers a spellbinding immersion into the inner lives of slum dwellers, many of them lost, abandoned immigrant youth. Appanah humanizes their ordeals and gives them a haunting voice in the form of Moise, a boy with one dark eye and one green eye, the mark of the djinn.
The novel is set in Mayotte, a French island between Madagascar and the coast of Mozambique. Nestled in a sparkling lagoon, it is little more than a shantytown marred by poverty, filth and violence. Migrants and refugees arrive on Mayotte in overcrowded boats, many drowning in their desperation to reach French soil. Those who survive are dismayed to find the island is a distant "département" of France and functions as its most neglected outpost.
The largest slum on the island is nicknamed Gaza. It is "a violent no man's land... Gaza is Capetown, it's Calcutta, it's Rio... Gaza is France." The slum is ruled by a vicious gang leader named Bruce. Moise is Bruce's latest recruit, and it is his reluctant transformation from polite, scholarly teenager to scar-faced gang member that propels Appanah's novel, her fourth to be translated into English.
Moise's story is thrown into sharp relief by multiple narrators, including an idealistic NGO volunteer. By deploying their varied perspectives, as well as intensely vivid language to capture the reader's imagination, Appanah renders emotionally accessible a life experience most of us will never fully comprehend. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
Discover: Street children on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean make their own rules in this soulful novel by an acclaimed Mauritian-French writer.
Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here
by Nancy Wayson Dinan
Set against the true events of Memorial Day weekend 2015 in central Texas, Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here explores empathy, history, local lore, fantastical happenings and simple humanity. Amid catastrophic flooding, Nancy Wayson Dinan's protagonist offers a compelling balance between the weird and the ordinary. Eighteen-year-old Boyd has always been unusually perceptive. Her best friend Isaac is the only one who never asked anything of her, in the unspoken way that people do.
It's the fourth year of the drought, the beginning of summer, and Isaac is camped on the edge of the lake below Boyd's house, panning for gold. After the first night's rain, landscapes are rearranged, people scattered, and the rain still falls. Boyd can feel Isaac lost somewhere, "the copper fear in his mouth... the shivering of his chilled limbs." Bridges out and all roads blocked, she sets out cross-country, on foot. "She had no doubt she could find Isaac; she was drawn to him like a magnetic pole, reading his distress like a Geiger counter."
Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here is fabulous and engrossing, both faithful to the real-world details of central Texas and wildly imaginative, peopled with treasure hunters, prehistoric beasts, distracted professors and one improbable young woman facing a momentous decision. Dinan's storytelling flows as forcefully as a flash flood in this spellbinding first novel in which a handsome young man, refreshingly, awaits rescue by a powerful woman. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Discover: Forces of nature and preternatural human empathy come together in an extraordinary novel about relationships, love and place.
by Lee Martin
When a jilted fiancé becomes a murderer, the repercussions in a small Illinois town ripple beyond the tragedy, in Yours, Jean, Lee Martin's fifth novel, based on a true crime near his hometown. The first day of school dawns bright that September 1952, and Jean De Belle's new job as the Lawrenceville High School librarian marks a fresh start after her breakup with Charlie Camplain. But Charlie shows up at the school, and when Jean again refuses him, he shoots her.
Martin (The Bright Forever) introduces key characters early: the hotel clerk who rented Charlie a room; the cabdriver who dropped him at the school; Tom, the senior boy who Charlie demands drive him out of town. Charlie is caught quickly, and the community loses interest in the murder, turning to other intrigues. Tom and his girlfriend broke up that morning, and nobody is saying why. But the cabdriver discovers his daughter and Tom had a one-night stand and she's in trouble.
Mary Ellen, mother of Tom's girlfriend, another teacher and Jean's good friend, grieves for the murdered woman, until rumors swirl and gossips bring her under scrutiny: Were she and Jean more than just friends, and is Mary Ellen thus a moral threat to Lawrenceville students? Period details of the 1950s enhance Martin's gripping novel, as do mid-century reactions to class stratification, teen pregnancy and family dynamics. Nevertheless, there are unexpected kindnesses. Martin maintains suspense and, as Tom says, what happens "makes you think," about "everything we do and where it takes us." --Cheryl McKeon, bookseller, Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y.
Discover: The reverberations of a violent crime in a small Midwestern town illuminate the complexities of the human heart.
I'd Give Anything
by Marisa de los Santos
At 18, Ginny Beale loved her life: fiercely loyal friends, a budding first love, endless shimmering possibility. But that was before the fire that killed her best friend's father and left Ginny terrified that someone she loved was responsible. In her sixth novel for adults, I'd Give Anything, Marisa de los Santos, with her signature warmth and wisdom, explores the ripple effects of that night on Ginny's life.
Ginny's story begins with her teenage journal entries: earnest, hopeful, as effervescent as the champagne her brother Trevor steals from their mother's liquor cabinet. The narrative shifts between Ginny's high school years and her present reality, where she's reeling from a workplace scandal that got her husband fired and ended their marriage. Mornings at the dog park and straight-talking advice from her best friend Kirsten pull Ginny back from the edge of despair. But when Ginny's daughter, Avery, finds out about the fire and begins pressing her mother for answers, Ginny must confront what she has believed--and assumed--all these years.
De los Santos (I'll Be Your Blue Sky) draws her characters with compassion and clarity: Ginny may be a little lost, but she digs deep to find the gumption she thought she lost long ago. Avery is a sensitive, anxious child, but she's relentless in her pursuit of the truth--not for revenge, but for freedom. The answers aren't all neat and tidy, and the reconciliations aren't instant. But this story, in true de los Santos fashion, is full of hope and people who are willing to try. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: This compassionate novel explores one woman's quest to confront a long-held secret and rebuild her life.
Mystery & Thriller
The Law of Lines
by Hye-Young Pyun , trans. by Sora Kim-Russell
Those who didn't know that Korean noir is a thing may have gotten their first taste while watching 2019's Oscar-winning Parasite. Readers jonesing for another Seoul-set chiller that works the theme of economic inequality would do well to start with Hye-Young Pyun's The Law of Lines.
As the novel begins, 27-year-old Se-oh Yun returns home to find that the house she shares with her elderly father has gone up in flames; he dies at the hospital from his injuries. According to a detective, the explosion occurred after the old man cut the house's gas hose. Se-oh begins spying on her father's debt collector when she learns that the man visited the house just after the fire broke out.
Meanwhile, Ki-jeong Shin, a teacher, receives a phone call from the police saying that her sister's body was found in the Namgang River. An autopsy confirms death by drowning, although whether it was suicide or an accident remains unclear. When the police give Ki-jeong the name of the person who made the last call to her sister's phone, Ki-jeong doesn't recognize it, but readers will.
Pyun (The Hole, City of Ash and Red) toys tantalizingly with reader expectations, but her book is also an eviscerating look at how greed and unregulated finance wreak havoc on the social and economic fabric. For the characters in The Law of Lines, each new day brings fresh quicksand; as one character puts it, "The bad luck that poverty ushered in was close to fate." --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Discover: In this riveting literary thriller set in Seoul, each of two intersecting storylines concerns a young woman related to someone undone by debt.
by Catherine Jinks
Catherine Jinks's Shepherd takes place over several days in 1840 New South Wales, and the gritty cat-and-mouse thriller evokes emotions that linger. Tom Clay was 12 years old when he was nabbed for poaching and shipped to Australia to serve his sentence working for Mr. Barrett. Tom is reliable despite his age, and Barrett sends him to a remote shepherds' hut to help guard the flock.
A boy among rough and violent men, Tom has been failed by most everyone in his life. Trained to silence by his father, Tom keeps his own counsel, sharing himself only with his beloved dogs and fiercely tending the sheep he has named. Menace lurks in the form of Dan Carver, a former shepherd and "black-hearted villain" whose motto is "No witnesses." When Carver returns for vengeance, Tom goes on the run with Rowdy Cavanagh, a handsome no-hoper with the gift of gab that Tom wants nothing to do with.
Tom comes from the best poachers in Suffolk County, and his and Rowdy's lives now depend on his wit and skill. To beat Carver, he'll also need to share his burdens and trust others. Multiple award-winner Jinks (Evil Genius) steps out of her middle-grade norm and crafts a breathtaking pursuit novel full of brutality and tenderness. Painting the reality of the frontier colony, where "the blacks" were feared but the true treachery lay elsewhere, Jinks highlights a world of unfair punishment, where one must endure it, but the weight is lighter with a friend to share it. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: In the fashion of True Grit, a boy and his unwanted companion must navigate harsh territory to outwit a vicious man trying to kill them.
by Emily Henry
With Beach Read, Emily Henry (Hello Girls) offers readers a fun, clever romance novel that tackles stereotypes and misconceptions about the genre head-on. When "women's fiction" author January Andrews's father dies suddenly, she discovers that he left her the keys to a beach house she didn't know he'd owned--that he'd shared with a mistress she hadn't known about either. Newly single, broke and no longer able to believe in the romance that grounds the stories she's always written, she moves into the house, only to discover that her next-door neighbor, Augustus Everett, is a condescending author of serious literary fiction. Despite their different styles, the pair have two things in common: crippling writer's block and a belief that the other looks down on their style of writing. So, they strike a deal: January will write a serious novel without a happy ending, while Gus will draft a romance.
Beach Read is itself a romance, so it will come as no surprise that these adversaries do ultimately become lovers. Gus eventually tells January that her writing "makes the world seem brighter, and the people in it a little braver." The same could be said of Henry's writing: though the characters in Beach Read face common challenges (heartbreak, career disappointments, realizing one's parents are flawed), the ways Henry explores vulnerability and emotions through their experiences shed light on the very real processes of grief, healing and finding love. This is not a romance seen through rose-colored glasses, guaranteeing neither its characters nor its readers a neat, pat happily-ever-after; it is a story that reveals the work it takes to find peace in moments of "happy for now." --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: A clever rom-com tackles genre stereotypes in this story of two authors whose struggles to find happiness for their characters might also lead them to happiness--and love--themselves.
Food & Wine
Foil Pack Dinners: 100 Delicious, Quick-Prep Recipes for the Grill and Oven
by Julia Rutland
The release of Foil Pack Dinners: 100 Delicious, Quick-Prep Recipes for the Grill and Oven by Julia Rutland (The Campfire Foodie Cookbook; On a Stick Cookbook) is perfectly timed for the many people who are rediscovering the pleasures of home cooking. As the introduction explains, cooking in foil is a simplified version of the classic French technique of cooking "en papillote." By creating a pouch out of foil, the food is allowed to cook in its own juices, making the final results moist and delicious. And, better yet, there are almost no dishes to wash--the food can even be eaten directly out of the foil, if desired.
The five chapters focus on chicken, other meats, fish, vegetables and handheld items like sandwiches and burritos. With recipes ranging from adapted classics such as Chicken Piccata and Irish Beef Stew to grill originals like Bourbon and Bacon Shrimp or Mexican Street Corn, Foil Pack Dinners is full of recipes that will please even the pickiest of palates.
Each recipe has clear instructions, even down to whether or not the foil packet should be made flat-style or tent-style before being placed in the oven or on the grill. A copy of this cheerful cookbook and a roll of aluminum foil would make a perfect pairing as a gift for any cook--whether expert or novice--and is sure to be a welcome addition to kitchens everywhere. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.
Discover: These easy recipes for delicious dinners can be cooked in the oven or on the grill.
Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power and History's First Global Manhunt
by Steven Johnson
In Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power and History's First Global Manhunt, Steven Johnson (How We Got to Now) makes a compelling case that a single, brutal attack on an Indian treasure ship by 17th-century British pirate Henry Every played a critical role in shaping the global economy.
The story reads like a thriller. Henry Every leads a mutiny. He and his fellow mutineers turn pirate and sail the captured ship to the Gulf of Aden, where Indian ships carrying pilgrims to and from Mecca present fat targets. The pirates seize a rich ship and subsequently become the objects of a global manhunt. And though his crew is captured and hanged, Every is never found.
As he did inhis earlier study, The Ghost Map, Johnson uses his core story to discuss bigger issues. He outlines the history of piracy and explains why pirates caught the public's imagination. He traces the rise of the Mughal Empire in India and describes the lives of women in the Mughal court. He explains the economic base of the British East India Company, the special nature of piracy as a crime and how a clever official used Every's crime to expand the East India Company's power in India. Finally, Johnson pulls his threads together in a courtroom scene in which not only Every's crew but Britain's international reputation were on trial.
Johnson ends Enemy of All Mankind with an open-ended discussion of what might have happened to Every. A satisfying conclusion to a story with as many questions as answers. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins
Discover: In this thrilling and complicated history, a brutal pirate attack on an Indian ship laid the foundation for the British Empire and the modern world.
Essays & Criticism
Weird but Normal: Essays
by Mia Mercado
In Weird but Normal, Mia Mercado, who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times and Bustle, is hilariously forthcoming about the trials of her life as a millennial woman--workplace sexism, online dating disillusionment, depression, unruly body hair, identity crises and all. "The feeling of not feeling normal" is one Mercado knows well and has come to believe is nothing short of ordinary.
In 33 thematically organized essays, Mercado employs a wry and conversational tone to detail her familiarity with feeling out of place. As a biracial person in the Midwest of the U.S., she's endured so many uninvited questions about her race that her "answer is not only well-rehearsed, it comes equipped with a brief lesson in Filipino history and the etymology of my last name." Another recurring topic is Mercado's prolific online history, beginning with teenage screen names and continuing into adulthood with a stint on a dating app rife with the profiles of "guys with children they adamantly specify they haven't fathered." Whether imagining her routine from her dog's point of view or recalling quitting an unfulfilling job, Mercado skillfully blends lightheartedness, sincerity and satire.
Although Mercado's message--that feeling strange is universal--doesn't come as a surprise, it does come as a proposition worth believing thanks to her unabashed portrayal of her own life's twists and turns. It's this candor paired with her willingness to laugh about it all that makes Mercado at once engaging and inspiring and Weird but Normal a comfort to read. --Sylvia Al-Mateen, freelance reviewer and editor
Discover: In 33 witty personal essays, a millennial humor writer makes the case that feeling different--whether in relation to identity, relationships, mental health or work--is as human as it gets.
Children's & Young Adult
Nowhere on Earth
by Nick Lake
The 2020 Carnegie Medal-shortlisted Nowhere on Earth by Nick Lake (In Darkness) follows the otherworldly story of 16-year-old Emily Perez, her unusual little brother, Aidan, and rugged bush pilot Bob Simpson as they trek through the Alaskan wilderness in search of a remote satellite facility.
After a mysterious school fire derails her life, Emily runs away from home with her little brother in tow. Her bad luck turns worse when their plane crashes, leaving them hungry and freezing in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. If this weren't bad enough, mysterious men in black show up, shoot at her and attempt to kidnap her brother for government experimentation. Luckily, Emily has learned a few key survival skills from her military veteran father and her "yoga enthusiast, gym bunny" mother. Enlisting the help of their pilot, the charismatic and capable Bob Simpson, Emily will stop at nothing to protect her brother.
More than simply another action-packed science fiction story, Nowhere on Earth is an interesting exploration of individuality, family and how they often conflict. It is only through a combination of trials-by-fire in the harsh, cold mountains and the loving instruction of the cosmically wise Aidan that Emily begins to allow herself the freedom to make her own decisions and follow her passions rather than subverting her needs for her family's sake. Where others might be broken, Emily is reborn, stronger, braver and more decisively herself than ever before. --Cade Williams, freelance reviewer
Discover: Lake's exhilarating YA science fiction thriller tells a story of survival in the Alaskan wilderness and examines the conflicting roles of individuality and family.
by Kelly Yang
In this noteworthy, immensely enjoyable novel, Kelly Yang (Front Desk) tackles some of the systemic inequalities that foster racism, misogyny and sexual assault. She convincingly brings to light the ways in which victims are often judged more harshly than their aggressors, but also provides a template for change.
As an 11th-grader in Shanghai, Claire insists she will support herself rather than rely on a husband. To ensure she gets into a good college, though, Claire's Chinese tutor provides answers to homework assignments and essay tests. When Claire goes rogue and writes her own paper, she scores such low grades that her concerned parents send her to finish high school in the U.S. Just like that, she's a "parachute," a kid from China who goes to the U.S. without her parents.
Dani is a scholarship student at American Prep, the school Claire now attends. Dani's a powerhouse on the debate team and her entire college admissions strategy hinges on qualifying for an upcoming debate. Dani works hard outside of school, too: like her single mom, Dani's employed as a maid; the pair still barely make ends meet. Out of desperation, Dani's mom decides to rent out their spare bedroom to Claire, "a nice girl from China." Regrettably, the two girls immediately clash.
Yang dives with aplomb into issues of opulence and poverty, power and impotence. While it is also a story of friendship amid culture clash, Yang clearly portrays how girls and women everywhere deserve more. Main characters Claire and Dani are strong and compelling enough to take on the powers that be, and the supporting cast is fully realized. Yang's characters recognize they will need to shift the culture to respect women as the strong, intelligent, independent beings they are. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
Discover: In this thoroughly enjoyable novel, American high schooler Dani and Chinese "parachute" Claire face similar problems regarding men, aggression and authority.
Atomic Women: The Untold Stories of the Scientists Who Helped Create the Nuclear Bomb
by Roseanne Montillo
In Atomic Women, Roseanne Montillo (The Wilderness of Ruin) pulls female scientists out of history's shadows to reveal the vital roles they played in inventing the atomic bomb. Her riveting YA narrative nonfiction gives her subjects long overdue credit for their groundbreaking work while addressing the lasting ramifications of their accomplishments.
It was long held that Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre, "more because she had assisted [him] than because she deserved it on her own merits." In reality, her contribution to their work was essential. Curie's influence would convince untold numbers of women to enter the scientific field, including her own daughter, Irène, and Lise Meitner, a young woman who "was certain that she did not want to be a part of the 'kitchen, children, church' movement that all her schoolmates were striving for." Both women, Montillo explains, helped lay the foundation for the Manhattan Project. Not only did the women have to battle for their place at the scientific table, they also had to contest with their consciences. The fearless German Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who was willing to work with hexafluoride when many male scientists would not, found herself wrestling with questions like how she would "explain to her daughter... the role she played" in creating a bomb that would kill thousands of people.
Montillo powerfully explains how the brilliant figures of Atomic Women overcame gender bias and pursued scientific passions. She highlights the depths of the passion these women had for their work by sharing inspirational anecdotes from those who snuck into college classes, persevered through rejection and repeatedly conceded recognition. Atomic Women is an impressive commemoration of extraordinary scientists. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: In the vein of Code Girls and Rise of the Rocket Girls, this YA nonfiction expertly spotlights the women involved in the creation of the atomic bomb as the brilliant scientists they were.