Best New Books: December 11, 2020

  • The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): The real Lady Jane Franklin sponsored a number of expeditions to find her explorer husband, Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin, after he and his men went missing in the Arctic. Though there’s no record of an all-female expedition, that hasn’t stopped Greer Macallister from writing a cracking good story about one in her fourth novel, The Arctic Fury. Virginia Reeve is the leader of the all-female company, and when the book opens, she’s on trial for the murder of one of its members. The year is 1853, and the courthouse is in Boston, though the alleged homicide happened not far from the North Pole. Big-hearted Virginia is strong and rough around the edges, and much of her fortitude is born of trauma, having lived through both the horrific winter of 1846-47 and the accidental death of her mentor, a pathfinder named Ames whom she loved with a platonic fervor. Virginia’s crew is motley enough. Among them are a woman who handles the sled dogs, a cartographer, an illustrator, a writer, a ladies’ maid and her pampered mistress, Caprice. Though Caprice and Virginia cross swords early on, the hardships of their trek allow them to value each other’s qualities. Macallister’s book, written in prose as crisp as an Arctic summer, reminds us that women had all kinds of adventures during this period, from heading out into the frontier to holding conventions for women’s rights and writing antislavery books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Arctic Fury is a tribute to one young woman’s leadership and genius for survival.
  • Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): We humans like to imagine that we know what our animal friends are thinking, but in Perestroika in Paris, Jane Smiley actually burrows into the craniums of a menagerie that includes a horse, a dog, a raven, some rats and the humans they interact with, resulting in a remarkable novel that splits the difference between Charlotte’s Web and Animal Farm. At the outset, a careless trainer leaves a stall unlocked, and the curious filly Paras (short for Perestroika) wanders away from the racetrack and into the City of Lights. Paras knows the things a thoroughbred would know–her lineage, for instance–but not much else. In the city, Paras meets a worldly dog named Frida, who has been forced to fend for herself since her owner went missing. Like any street survivor, Frida knows how to avoid the gendarmes and which tricks will con treats from the citizenry. The adventure shifts into high gear when the pair is introduced to a raven, Sir Raoul Corvus Corax, whom Smiley imbues with intelligence, twitchiness and a certain French je ne sais quoi. With winter approaching, Frida and Paras face some crucial decisions regarding housing and food. While neither is equipped with the capacity for long-term logistical planning, their animal instincts kick in, propelling them to a surprising conclusion. Smiley has created an otherwordly universe in which her makeshift animal family supports one another in an environment that, while not necessarily hostile, is certainly hazardous. Perestroika in Paris takes its place alongside the likes of Through the Looking-Glass, in that it will reward both precocious young readers and their parents with a sense of wonder and whimsy.
  • The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell’Antonia (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): KJ Dell’Antonia’s The Chicken Sisters opens when Amanda Pogociello applies to “Food Wars,” a show that features culinary rivalries. As a practical woman, she has little hope that she’ll be chosen, but her story is compelling: In the late 19th century, two sisters founded two fried chicken joints, Chicken Mimi’s and Chicken Frannie’s, in nowheresville outside of Merinac, Kansas. The rivalry continues to the present day. Amanda works for the more upscale Chicken Frannie’s. Her mother, Barbara, operates Chicken Mimi’s, and Amanda is persona non grata there. Barbara wouldn’t even let Amanda use Mimi’s restroom when she was pregnant and desperate. To Amanda’s shock, the producers at “Food Wars” are intrigued. The first prize is $100,000, which both eateries need badly. Amanda contacts her sister, Mae, a semi-celebrity who fled Merinac at the first chance she got and is now a snooty lifestyle guru. Mae dismisses the idea of appearing on “Food Wars” because it’s beneath her and a rival to her own show, which is (of course) named “Sparkling.” But when Mae gets fired, she’s quick to change her mind. What follows upends the expectations of Amanda, Mae, their kids, Barbara, just about everyone who lives in this little Kansas hamlet and even the show’s producer, a sweetly cutthroat woman named Sabrina. The tale itself upends any expectations of rural, Green Acres-esque silliness. Yet Dell’Antonia, the author of How to Be a Happier Parent, takes her characters seriously, albeit always with gentle humor. In the end, “Food Wars” proves to be a catastrophe for Barbara and her daughters, as old wounds, resentments, postponed dreams and layers of grief are peeled back and allowed to heal. And the mean girls of “Food Wars” and “Sparkling” get what’s coming to them. It all works to make The Chicken Sisters a delight.
  • Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Ijeoma Oluo, author of the bestselling book So You Want to Talk About Race, offers a historical and sociological view of the toxic white male identity in her new book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Oluo persuasively argues that American society is structured to preserve the power (and tastes) of white men and outlines how we got here. Our now-ingrained power structure wasn’t inevitable but was purposely designed to center white men. Looking back at centuries of American history, Oluo shows how white male entitlement took hold from the early beginnings of this country–from slavery to westward expansion to the genocide and displacement of Indigenous Americans; from cowboy mythology glamorizing the violence of “Buffalo Bill” Cody to the modern-day obsession with spoiled but dangerous white men like Ammon Bundy. Americans are taught that the United States is a meritocracy and that anyone who tries to get ahead will be rewarded with opportunities. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out. With example after example–the male feminists of the early 20th century, NFL owners, presidential candidates and even their supporters–Oluo deftly shows how the society that white men built now rewards mediocre white men, regardless of their skills or talent, while punishing women and people of color for anything less than perfection. Unfortunately, when ordinary white men do not receive the unmitigated success they feel is their right, they turn their disappointments and anger on these women and people of color instead of on the elite white men who hoard opportunities and power for themselves. Because of this, disaffected white men are now the biggest domestic terror threat in the United States. Oluo expertly shows how inequality, toxic masculinity and an unequal power structure deeply hurt all Americans, including white men. Through careful research and scholarship, she breaks down the system that sustains the status quo while shedding light on the ways others can also dismantle this system to ensure a more equitable future for all. It’s an essential read during times of political upheaval and unsure futures.
  • Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon: Seventeen-year-old Sunny Dae is one of three nonwhite students at his high school; the other two are his best friends. He spends his days using his anxious energy to imagineer practical effects accessories for LARPing, a type of role-playing game in which participants dress up as the characters they play. His parents are workaholics obsessed with keeping up with the well-to-do families in their new neighborhood. His older brother, Gray, is back at home after flaming out as a musician in Los Angeles, licking his wounds in the basement, his rock-star dreams drowned out more and more every day by the dull reality of khakis and neckties. When Cirrus Soh, a beautiful new student with swagger to spare, mistakes Gray’s old room–decked out with rock ‘n’ roll posters, guitars and a totally metal wardrobe–for his, Sunny is happy to reinvent himself in the mold of his fallen rock god brother. Convinced Cirrus would recoil is she ever saw his real room or his real self, Sunny starts wearing his brother’s clothes, hides away the nerdy details of his life and, most consequentially, tells Cirrus he is the frontman of a rock band. Sunny’s rock ‘n’ roll charade gives him a confidence and bravado he’s never felt before. With help from his brother and best friends, he even manages to put together an actual rock band. However, author David Yoon isn’t interested in telling a coming-of-age story in Super Fake Love Song, but rather a story about coming to know ourselves. Who is Sunny, and why is he so willing to leave the person he was before he met Cirrus behind? “If there were no shame,” asks Sunny, “would we be freer?” Young men openly discussing and dismantling patriarchal shame in positive ways with their peers? You love to see it. It can be difficult for romantic comedies to strike the perfect balance between romantic and comedic, but in his sophomore outing, Yoon makes it look easy. Every character here is richly drawn, oozing with personality and overflowing with quippy one-liners that keep the laughs coming even as the emotional stakes increase. Roll down your windows and turn your speakers up to 11, because Super Fake Love Song is the real deal.

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