From the Shelf
Sophomore Novels from Authors of Well-Loved Debuts
I'm always intrigued by sophomore novels by authors whose debuts I loved: Will they live up to my expectations? Will they feel the same or different--and which do I prefer?
I fell in love with Brit Bennett's writing in her 2016 debut, The Mothers (Riverhead, $16), a powerful story of race and motherhood and coming-of-age. The Vanishing Half (Riverhead, $27) lived up to every one of my expectations from Bennett, delivering a compelling and ruminative story of two twins, one who lives as a white woman and one as a black woman, and the many ways race runs cracks down their lives--and the lives of those around them.
Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing (Vintage, $16.95), also a 2016 debut, dealt with many similar themes: race and racism, and the legacy of both on generations of one family. I tore through her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom (Knopf, $27.95), with equal fervor, desperate to understand the ways that faith and science intersect in the life of Gifty, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience, especially as they relate to the experience of losing her brother to addiction.
Shelf's review called Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut, Here Comes the Sun (Liveright, $15.95), a "stunning, multi-layered novel" that explores "the implications of race, reputation, class and money." Those same qualifiers could easily be applied to her follow-up novel, Patsy (Liveright, $16.95), which proves her place as an author capable of using vivid backdrops and complex, nuanced characters to explore the gray area that arise when those four themes converge in one life.
In this Issue...
by Amy Timberlake
Reclusive Badger and gregarious Skunk struggle to connect as new roommates--boundaries are crossed, hurtful things are said--in this charming, funny and touching trilogy opener.
by Scholastique Mukasonga
National Book Award finalist Scholastique Mukasonga continues to plumb autobiographical elements from her extraordinary personal history in this haunting five-story collection.
by Ayad Akhtar
This astounding work of reality fiction explores the roots of a critically acclaimed Pakistani-Muslim playwright and his family's fractured pursuit of an American dream derailed by post-9/11 politics.
Review by Subjects:
Words You Love to Hate
Merriam-Webster collected a "great big list of words you love to hate."
The New York Public Library recommended "10 books by or about refugees and immigrants."
"Four classic Prince songs re-imagined as pulp fiction covers." (via Open Culture)
"More than 650 new words have been added to Dictionary.com--here are 50 of them," Mental Floss noted.
Russia Beyond explored the moments "when Russia appeared in William Shakespeare's plays."
Rediscover: Winston Groom
Winston Groom, "a Southern writer who found a measure of belated celebrity when his 1986 novel, Forrest Gump, was made into the 1994 Oscar-winning film starring Tom Hanks," died September 17 at age 77, the New York Times reported. Groom had published "three well-regarded novels and a nonfiction finalist for a Pulitzer Prize when he wrote the book that would define him as a writer and turn the Gumpian phrase 'life is like a box of chocolates' into a modern-day proverb." The film grossed more than $670 million globally at the box office, earned 13 Academy Award nominations and won six Oscars, including best picture. Groom wrote a sequel, Gump & Co. (1995), in the wake of the movie's success. His other books include Conversations with the Enemy (1983), a Pulitzer Prize finalist for general nonfiction; Shrouds of Glory (1995); Patriotic Fire (2006) and El Paso (2016).
"Forrest Gump is not the only reason to celebrate him as a great writer," said P.J. O'Rourke, the political satirist and journalist who knew Groom for decades. He called Groom's debut novel, Better Times Than These (1978), "the best novel written about the Vietnam War.... And this is not even to mention Winston's extraordinary historical and nonfiction works." His most recent book, The Patriots: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the Making of America, will be released in November by National Geographic ($30, 9781426221491).
The Writer's Life
Ayad Akhtar: 'Our Lust for Unreality'
|photo: Vincent Tullo|
Born in New York and raised in Wisconsin, Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright of Pakistani-Muslim ancestry. His first novel, American Dervish, and his plays, Disgraced and The Who and the What set the scene for what is, in his second novel, Homeland Elegies (reviewed below), an astonishing conversation about Muslim American self-identity. Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013, and two of Akhtar's four plays were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. He was recently named president of PEN America. We spoke with Akhtar via Zoom while he was socially distancing in upstate New York.
Where did the idea for Homeland Elegies originate, and for whom did you write it?
I was in Rome for two months, finding myself with a new perspective on my American homeland in the era of Trump. I was immersed in the works written during the classical tradition, and felt I was seeing things somehow more clearly, a picture of the nation focused by a larger historical frame. Something about the various divisions I'd been observing in American life over the past decade began to coalesce, not just intellectually, but emotionally. And I saw my own family's saga in America implicated in all of this, expressing it. One afternoon, in the library at the American Academy, I stumbled on a poem by Leopardi, the first in his Canti, entitled "To Italy." I read it and it ignited something in me--the idea of speaking to the nation. To my fellow citizens. To America. Less than 24 hours later, the opening of the book, substantially unchanged in its final form, poured out of me. I use the word "poured" for a reason. The entirety of this book quite literally poured out of me. Sentence by sentence, section by section--over the course of 11 months.
How did you decide to blend fact and fiction in crafting the story?
I was looking to write a literary form of serial reality entertainment, a literary corollary for the Instagram feed--a succession of inducements (both high and low) to keep the reader absorbed, scrolling on. A form that was in dialogue with the curated autobiographical self-staging that has become the dominant form of public discourse on social media, and which is now even our dominant political modality.
I am trying to meet the world where it is, in its thralldom to fiction-as-fact, in its confusion over the difference between a good story and the truth. I wanted to find a form that could embody this collapse, this confusion. Our lust for unreality--our trust in entertainment as a paradigm for consciousness itself. I wanted to find a language and form for a novel that could give it the teeth to speak to us directly about what matters, not metaphorically, not as a commentary upon, but as a voicing of the actual, of the essential, of the real.
A non-Muslim friend of yours, after reading the novel, commented that one almost had to be an outsider, maybe even Muslim, really to understand America. Is it advantageous to have an outsider's lens truly to comprehend this country?
I think being an outsider who is also an insider can be a unique perspective. It can make you see things that others don't naturally tend to notice. Being Muslim, for example, gives one a very particular perspective of both race and history in this country. There is a foreign policy history that much of the American public is not aware of, which makes it difficult for many to understand how something like 9/11 can happen. The less usual lens a Muslim-American has on the nation can be very illuminating and, in the case of that particular friend, that lens helped him to see the country and the current dilemmas we are living through more clearly.
In Homeland Elegies you explore the difference between the America your parents were drawn to in the 1960s and the country as it exists now. If they had to do it again, do you think they would leave Pakistan and come here today?
Probably not. My father said as much toward the end of his life. Back when he was younger, American prosperity was still married to a sense of aspirational, even moral, supremacy. Today, the American aura for folks around the world has definitely changed.
You describe yourself as a cultural Muslim. May I ask what that means to you?
I have been raised on the ethos and mythos of Islam. It has shaped me. It has shaped my aesthetics and my sense of the power of the unseen. But I am not a believer in the unique importance and primacy of the Quran in human history. I haven't been a "believer"--practicing or otherwise--since my late adolescence, when, as with so many, my childhood faith foundered upon the shores of my intellectual development. But I do still find deep inspiration in the Islamic tradition, as I do in others. I am an avid and repeated reader of the Old and New Testaments, Meister Eckhart, the Vedas, Ibn Arabi.
The narrator experiences perceptive dreams that lend shape and context to a number of his actual experiences. Does that happen to you too?
This is a perfect example of the Muslim imprint. Indeed, I have an active dream life that I pay close attention to. Dreams are very important in many Muslim cultures, and I grew up with that. My approach to dreams is less inspired by Joseph (or Yusuf to Muslims) and more Jung these days, though!
In writing the book you say it consolidated something in you, a sense of belonging. Can you elaborate on that?
I think what happened to me in writing this book happens to many writers when they finally release long stored up things. I wasn't aware just how much kindling I had been gathering until the writing ignited in me, and there's no question that the ensuing conflagration consolidated something essential in me. I'm not sure it's belonging as such, though I do feel, somehow, clearer about the question of belonging. In the wake of writing Homeland Elegies, I feel more undivided than I ever have.
As a son of Pakistani American doctors, how did your parents react when you informed them of your decision to pursue a career in theater?
Just as in the book, they didn't really understand. Hard to blame them! A career in the theater? What's that? But they were ultimately supportive of me. Unusually so, considering what I've seen many of my artistic desi (South Asian) friends and colleagues go through. But again, it all makes sense. As immigrants, security feels that much more precarious--and the fear that one won't find a place can be that much more decisive and intense.
The chapter revealing the Islamic origins of various family members' names touches upon the system of arranged marriages and "love" marriages in Pakistani culture. Was there any pressure on you to submit to an arranged marriage?
Alas, no. My maternal grandmother brought it up once in my mid-20s, and after my response, no one else in the family ever brought it up again!
If you could move to any country in the world, where would you choose to live?
This one. As the end of the book makes clear, I love this country for better and worse. It is the only home I've ever known. I don't long for another. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
by Scholastique Mukasonga , trans. by Jordan Stump
A Rwandan exile living in France, Scholastique Mukasonga pulled from her extraordinary life to write two notable memoirs, Cockroaches and The Barefoot Woman. Autobiographical elements continue to haunt her exquisite collection, Igifu, through five wrenching stories. Born in 1956, Mukasonga had a tumultuous childhood marked by horrific anti-Tutsi violence that forced her family from their home village. The ongoing expulsions and persecutions culminated for Mukasonga during the 1994 genocide with the massacre of 27 family members. Two years earlier, Mukasonga had settled in France.
Her horrifying loss sparks the collection's final--and most indelible--story, simply titled "Grief," in which a Tutsi woman living in France learns of the personal implications of the Rwandan genocide. Each of Mukasonga's other stories expose raw moments of excruciating challenge. "Igifu" means "hunger," a constant state of being for a girl and her family. Starvation nearly kills her, but she's revived by middle-of-the-night kindness that comes almost too late. In "The Glorious Cow," a young man recalls his pastoral childhood among a family of devoted caretakers to beloved cows, and their destruction when genocide sweeps through his homeland. That perpetual anticipation of slaughter drives "Fear," a relentless reality that merely changes in degrees from "everyday" to "great fear." In "The Curse of Beauty," a Tutsi woman is punished her entire (short) life for being beautiful, by men who threaten, buy, abuse, discard and eventually murder her.
Providing welcome continuity, French professor Jordan Stump translates the book, making Igifu the third of Mukasonga's four English-language titles Stump has translated with graceful agility. Despite the undeniable terror, Mukasonga's storytelling proves illuminating and resilient. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: National Book Award finalist Scholastique Mukasonga continues to plumb autobiographical elements from her extraordinary personal history in this haunting five-story collection.
by Ayad Akhtar
In Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar's impressive whirlwind of a second novel, the author turns his own phenomenally successful American story inside out, eloquently exposing fault lines that persist for those viewed as outsiders in their country of birth. Taking the literary form of a reality drama, Homeland Elegies explores the socio-economic upheavals that created Trump's America through the astonishing family saga of an American Muslim playwright of Pakistani ancestry.
A narrator named Ayad, born in New York and raised in Milwaukee with a firm belief in American exceptionalism, struggles to reconcile the complicated truths behind the United States' obsession with wealth as holy pursuit and its fanatic consumerism. His Islamic heritage bears the traumatic aftershocks of 9/11, when living in New York became an act of provocation for Americans like himself, the beginning of his "deepening travails as a Muslim in this country." Through profoundly intimate vignettes, Ayad shares the distorted American dreams of a father who served as Trump's physician in the '90s and an uncle whose conversion to Christianity is a misguided effort to feel safe in the U.S. Meanwhile, his dying mother pines for an idealized version of Pakistan, the same country that learned terror-as-tactic at the feet of the CIA.
True to the legacy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced, Akhtar (American Dervish) dissects themes of Muslim self-identity with incredible precision. Homeland Elegies will appeal intellectually to readers secure in their sense of belonging as well as those who, like Ayad, wrestle with feelings of otherness. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
Discover: This astounding work of reality fiction explores the roots of a critically acclaimed Pakistani-Muslim playwright and his family's fractured pursuit of an American dream derailed by post-9/11 politics.
A World Between
by Emily Hashimoto
Eleanor and Leena meet in an elevator, beginning a whirlwind romance that encapsulates love's maddening hold, breathtaking delights and lifelong endurance.
A women's studies major driven toward political activism, Eleanor Suzuki starts dating Leena Shah, a "hyperfocused" premed student who is "gorgeous and cool and on her way to sainthood." Committed to "romance and drama and excitement," Eleanor comes out to her Japanese American father and Jewish mother, but Leena, set to study abroad in South Africa, lets go of Eleanor: "Let's say, this was fun." Six years later, chance reunites them. On a straightforward track--public health school, not med school; dating an Indian man, not a woman--Leena welcomes Eleanor's presence as a friend. Yet as her parents await her engagement, Leena longs for the "lighter, freer time" she and Eleanor once shared. And though Eleanor doesn't want to ruin Leena's life plans, she thinks of the electrifying past that could have been her future.
Spanning 13 years, Emily Hashimoto's debut novel A World Between is the story of two women's lives colliding ungracefully in an approximation of a dance, continuously moving together and apart. It explores the tumult women face over what life to lead. Via immersive prose, Hashimoto lays the rails of cultural pressure directing Leena's "march toward the mandap." For Eleanor, Hashimoto invokes feminist bell hooks, whose Communion inspires the woman to live truthfully. Their uncertain relationship is thrillingly imperfect--never cloying or sappy. Punctuated by the crushing heartbreaks and soaring splendors of intimacy and vulnerability, A World Between depicts the concessions and transformations necessary to wrangle insecurities and seek happiness. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
Discover: An irresistibly messy romance ebbs and flows across the years between two queer women whose identities clash, shift, align, stagnate and evolve.
by Philippe Djian , trans. by Mark Polizzotti
Philippe Djian's Marlene begins ambiguously with a man named Dan breaking down a door behind which Mona has locked herself. The initial section, entitled "Girl," is but a few short paragraphs long, beginning a crisp yet dreamlike trip through five lives torn apart by war, secrets and betrayal. It is eventually revealed that Mona is the angst-ridden 18-year-old daughter of Richard and Nath, and is staying with Dan due to trouble at home. Dan and Richard are bonded combat veterans, serving and saving each other's lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, each struggling to return to "normal" life.
The difficulties faced by veterans is a theme grimly underlying the whole of Marlene. Dan lives with an "indispensable vigilance" and dedication to structure that keep him contained but still can't tamp his night terrors. Richard exists at the other end of the spectrum--drinking, driving and spending to excess, seeking thrills in schemes fraught with danger. Mona returns home from Dan's just as Richard is released from a stint in jail. Then Nath's estranged sister, Marlene, comes to town looking for a fresh start, lighting the fuse on a powder keg yearning for ignition.
Djian (Oh…, winner of the Prix Interallié) writes in a lean style that is both smooth and abrupt, almost as if the translation is off, even as it understands how every word and short section is intentional and effective. A slim volume, Marlene begs to be read in one tense sitting. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: Two combat veterans struggling to fit into their lives at home are pushed to the brink when the sister-in-law of one of them comes to town.
by Jen DeLuca
In Well Played, Jen DeLuca returns to the delightful world of the Renaissance Faire where she set her first novel, Well Met. Stacey, who loves working as a tavern wench every summer, is unsettled by the engagement of her friends Emily and Simon. Their lives are changing drastically, which makes Stacey realize she's been doing the exact same things--working in a dental office, making sure her mother is in good health, acting as a tavern wench--for years, and there are no changes on her horizon.
On a lonely, drunken whim one night, Stacey sends a message to Dex MacLean of the band The Dueling Kilts, with whom she had a summertime fling. She's horrified in the morning, but Dex replies and turns out to be surprisingly thoughtful via e-mail. Stacey and Dex embark on an epistolary friendship that feels almost like a relationship, until Faire rolls around again, and Stacey discovers that it wasn't actually Dex answering her messages. She's spent the last year falling in love with a virtual stranger.
Poignant, and yet still funny, Well Played is an enjoyable romance full of the what-might-have-beens that every adult has faced at some point. Where Stacey thought her life was headed, where it actually is and where she hopes it can someday go--if she can forgive the deception of "Dex"--make her a very sympathetic heroine. Full of nods to Faire culture and glimpses into small-town life, Well Played is a perfect light read. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.
Discover: A tavern wench finds herself falling for a fellow Renaissance Faire cast member in this charming romance.
Biography & Memoir
Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions
by Annik LaFarge
Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions opens in a jazz club in Chicago where Annik LaFarge (On the High Line) heard a quartet riffing on the funeral march from Chopin's Opus 35 Sonata. LaFarge had a decades-long connection with the sonata and was fascinated by its transformation into a jazz vernacular. Her quick Google search revealed not only that musicians have been using the funeral march for more than 100 years, but that Chopin is the subject of video games, a popular manga series and a Netflix cartoon based on the same. Intrigued, LaFarge set out to understand the work, the world from which it came, and Chopin's continued power over the imagination. The result is a charming and deeply personal account of both her subject and her search.
LaFarge follows Chopin's footsteps for the three years in which Chopin wrote his sonata, between 1837 and 1840, visiting the sites in Majorca and Paris where he lived and worked. She places him firmly in the context of literal revolutions in Poland and France and the artistic revolution of European Romanticism. She explores the difference between the modern piano and the pianos of Chopin's time. She looks at Chopin's role as a modern Polish hero and as a broader cultural icon.
Discover: A historical and musical exploration of the most familiar and surprising of Chopin's works, the funeral march from the Opus 35 Sonata.
The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War
by David Nasaw
The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War sheds light on what to many readers will be an unfamiliar legacy of the Second World War. David Nasaw, author of sweeping biographies such as Andrew Carnegie, provides a characteristically thorough and impressively researched account of the roughly one million displaced persons (DPs) who found themselves stranded in Germany at the end of the war. After millions of forced laborers and POWs were repatriated, the Allied nations overseeing war-ravaged Germany were left with the problem of those who refused repatriation or had no home to return to. These Last Million included concentration camp survivors, Eastern Europeans whose lands had been occupied or annexed by the Soviet Union, Nazi collaborators and outright war criminals. As the allied countries decided what to do with these displaced persons, they were housed in what were meant to be temporary camps that over years transformed into something like island communities.
The Last Million showcases Nasaw's deft handling of complexity--not only the number of global controversies that affected the displaced persons, but the morally complex matters of collaboration. Many DPs had served in SS units and participated in the murder of Jews, but some had been drafted into military units under threat or performed innocuous administrative tasks. Sadly, Nasaw's account is one where moral questions were often coopted by political convenience, with nations such as the United States eventually letting in hundreds of war criminals. The Last Million is a detailed account of new beginnings, sometimes for people who didn't deserve them. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine
Discover: The Last Million meticulously follows the fate of the approximately one million displaced persons stranded in Germany after World War II.
Liar's Circus: A Strange and Terrifying Journey into the Upside-Down World of Trump's MAGA Rallies
by Carl Hoffman
Carl Hoffman, chronicling his experiences attending President Trump's political rallies in Liar's Circus: A Strange and Terrifying Journey into the Upside-Down World of Trump's MAGA Rallies, isn't subtle about their impact. "A Trump rally is a sensual assault that hijacks your soul," he says. Hoffman, an award-winning journalist (The Last Wild Men of Borneo), embeds himself with Trump's fervent followers in this eye-opening diary of stadium shows and bizarre personalities.
Some of Trump's most rabid fans follow his MAGA ("Make America Great Again") rallies like Deadheads used to follow the Grateful Dead. "I realized Trump was a preacher and this was a fundamentalist revival," he concludes after one frenetic event. Hoffman, who never hides his journalism credentials, is an affable skeptic who finds most rally-goers welcoming and eager to convince him that Trump is "heaven-sent." He puts into context quotes from MAGA-goers and Trump himself with observations from sociologists and historians, noting, for example, the similarity between cultural identity rituals in remote communities half a world away and MAGA rallies "where the identity of the hundreds of thousands who participated in them was solidified, confirmed." Hoffman, while pointing out that many MAGA-goers cling to racist and xenophobic outlooks, reserves blame for "Trump and the people around him... who were lying to them and misleading them."
Liar's Circus is an illuminating and weirdly entertaining addition to the slew of books currently in print about President Trump, offering a well-documented, personal look at the people who placed him in power. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.
Discover: Carl Hoffman investigates the weird, wild world MAGA rallies in this informative, entertaining piece of immersive journalism.
The Penguin Book of Exorcisms
by Joseph P. Laycock, editor
"How Did you feel when You say you were forced to Utter such words?" the justice of the peace Joseph Pitkin reports inquiring of a Boston woman two years after encountering her in the frothing, obscenity-spewing throes of what both believed to be a demonic possession. "I was Pressd as if my soul would be pressd out of my Body," Martha Roberson replied. So runs the account in Pitkin's diary of the 1740s, published for the first time in The Penguin Book of Exorcisms, an addition to the Penguin Classics collection that surveys the development of supernatural belief through spellbinding primary sources.
Like Penguin's volumes dedicated to witches, mermaids and the concept of Hell, editor Joseph P. Laycock's collection hopscotches across eras and cultures to track the genesis of an age-old idea that has persisted into contemporary culture. Demons, devils, dybbuks, jinn, zar and Chinese fox-spirits abound in accounts dating back to ancient times. Despite the international sweep, the emphasis is most often on the Christian tradition, with eyewitness reports on, among many others, the 17th-century possession of a convent of Ursuline nuns and the famous cases that inspired The Exorcist and Robert Eggers's film The Witch. One fascinating constant: a vigorous skepticism, dating back centuries, from writers eager to find rational explanations or even expose hoaxes. (A tip for those purporting to be possessed: don't mistake the Latin of The Aeneid for God's searing word.)
The editor's introductions are sharp and cogent. Laycock's selections honor this series' twin audiences: researchers and curious readers hungry for illumination--and a touch of terror. --Alan Scherstuhl, freelance writer and editor
Discover: This gripping anthology traces the history of demonic possession through firsthand accounts over centuries.
Nature & Environment
Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays
by Robert Michael Pyle
After decades of writing and naturalist study, Robert Michael Pyle (Wintergreen; Where Bigfoot Walks) thoughtfully collects essays on a theme in Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays. He conceives of a single, interconnected whole, not a binary of natural and non-natural worlds, but an organism of which humans are an inextricable (if often unaware) part. He explores the "extinction of experience" that threatens our future, defines his religion as "Alltheism" (with nods to Darwin, Muir and Kurt Cobain) and envisions wilderness as a continuum, with some version of the wild existing in every vacant lot and on every street corner. The introduction, "Pyrex, Postcards, and Panzers," makes the point nicely: it took both pretty pictures and tanks to teach the author about the interrelatedness of the natural world--which is to say, simply, the world.
With 24 books to his credit and having studied, written, lived and taught all over the world, Pyle has a broad and rich body of work to draw on for this collection, first conceived of (by this title) in the late 1960s. Nature Matrix as published in 2020 may contain different essays than in it might have in the 1970s, but the principle remains faithful. These 15 essays (ranging back to 1969, five of them previously unpublished) cover classic Pyle territory: butterflies, conservation, quiet appreciation of the outdoors.
Pyle's voice varies from cantankerous to droll, awe-filled to academic; his characters and fascinations are equally wide-ranging. It is the persistent note of wonder as much as his impressive depth of knowledge and passion that makes Nature Matrix a remarkable addition to Pyle's life's work. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Discover: These collected essays arguing for nature as a unified matrix serve as an excellent introduction to the work of this veteran writer, or a continuing pleasure for readers in the know.
Children's & Young Adult
Skunk and Badger
by Amy Timberlake , illust. by Jon Klassen
Things start out badly for accidental roommates Skunk and Badger and only get worse in this sweet (though occasionally stinky) story featuring an all-new literary theme--badger meets skunk, badger loses skunk, badger gets skunk back. Amy Timberlake writes with whimsical humor reminiscent of A.A. Milne, Arnold Lobel and Kenneth Grahame, which is reinforced by Jon Klassen's splendid illustrations. Working together, they build a world that is both authentic and fantastically original.
When curmudgeonly Badger, a rock scientist doing "Important Rock Work" in his Aunt Lula's borrowed brownstone, opens the door to find a suspiciously friendly skunk with "too much slick in [his] stripe, too much puff in his tail," he quickly shuts the door, hoping the fellow will go away. He doesn't. Skunk, like Badger, has been offered a room in Aunt Lula's row house. Badger, though attached to the persnickety solitariness of his trade, is tugged inexorably toward Skunk's charming ways: candles and mismatched cloth napkins at breakfast, chickens for friends and talk of "Quantum Leaps" and rocket potatoes.
Skunk and Badger--like so many of their literary odd-couple predecessors--take a while to truly connect. In fact, thanks to an excruciating pileup of prejudice and miscommunication, the two overcome the biggest bumps in their road to friendship only as book one in the proposed trilogy comes to a close. Luckily, Edgar Award winner and Newbery Honoree Timberlake (One Came Home; That Girl Lucy Moon) and Caldecott and Greenaway medal-winner Klassen (This Is Not My Hat; Extra Yarn; Sam and Dave Dig a Hole) have no intention of letting this hard-won friendship fade away. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: Reclusive Badger and gregarious Skunk struggle to connect as new roommates--boundaries are crossed, hurtful things are said--in this charming, funny and touching trilogy opener.
by Tehlor Kay Mejia , Anna-Marie McLemore
In Miss Meteor, former best friends Lita Perez and Chicky Quintanilla are reunited through a zany plot to win their town's beauty pageant. Chicky wants to be Lita's manager for the competition to get back at a girl who has bullied Chicky ever since people discovered she might be queer; Lita wants to win so she can accomplish her childhood dream before turning back into stardust. Lita and her guardian landed in Meteor, Ariz., when the meteorite that the town is named after crashed to Earth. The teen is slowly returning to the galaxy from whence she came and hopes to win the Miss Meteor crown first, a feat usually reserved for the thin, blonde and blue-eyed--not the Latinx-presenting curvy and brown like Lita and Chicky. Along the way, the two repair their friendship, combat racism and classism and forge new relationships with two boys in their own slow burn romances.
The dual voice narrative is filled with humor and fresh dialogue. The Quintanillas' diner is themed after another Quintanilla--Selena, the Tex-Mex superstar (no relation). And Chicky's beauty queen sisters offer much of the comic relief as they try to doll up Lita. The sliver of magical realism ratchets up the stakes, as Lita struggles to find a solution for her disappearing act. Chicky's coming out as pansexual is a stirring moment, and Lita's romance with a trans boy is especially sweet. The insidious effect of microaggressions and thinly veiled racism is also woven throughout, giving this seemingly light novel an added layer of empowerment. --Shelley Diaz, supervising librarian, BookOps: New York Public Library & Brooklyn Public Library
Discover: Two Latinx ex-best friends are determined to win their local beauty pageant despite poor odds and otherworldly obstacles, in Anna-Marie McLemore and Tehlor Kay Mejia's fresh YA novel.
by Tiffany D. Jackson
Coming of age is tremendously costly for Enchanted Jones, the star-struck protagonist in Grown, Tiffany D. Jackson's fourth YA novel. The Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe New Talent award-winner has never shied away from constructing provocative plots. Here, Jackson brings the same level of dramatic intensity to this story about a young Black woman's abusive relationship with a famous R&B singer as she did in Monday's Not Coming and Allegedly.
Seventeen-year-old Enchanted is seduced into believing superstar Korey Fields genuinely cares for her and intends to launch her career as a professional singer. The more time she spends with him, though, the more his abuse intensifies. Enchanted becomes progressively alienated from her loved ones and increasingly sure Korey has no intention of furthering her professional aspirations. Korey's violent tendencies parallel the shocking revelations that have come to light in recent years involving powerful and influential men who sexually prey on girls and women. "He took me from my family and friends," she laments, "he took my freedom, he took my heart, he took my songs!"
That the book opens on a crime scene adds a heightened element of suspense--readers know Korey is dead, but who killed him? Intimate flashbacks fill in the gaps, showing how Enchanted became enmeshed in Korey's high-profile web. And as allegations from Korey's previous "mentees" surface, Enchanted becomes the prime suspect. Jackson masterfully includes several twists that will keep readers on shaky ground but by book's conclusion, Jackson reveals Enchanted as the true heroine of this dark drama. --Rachel Werner, Hugo House and The Loft Literary Center faculty
Discover: A gritty murder mystery unfolds as an aspiring singer attempts to escape an abusive relationship with a famous R&B mogul.