Best New Books: March 19, 2021

  • American Betiya by Anuradha D. Rajurkar (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Young Adult Fiction): What are you willing to look past in order to be happy? Rani Kelkar just wants to take beautiful photographs, become a pediatrician and not disappoint her conservative Indian parents. That means focusing on school and applying to Chicago-area colleges–and absolutely no boys. But when she meets Oliver, a talented artist with tattoos, piercings and a rebel attitude, Rani quickly falls for him. However, it soon becomes clear that Oliver doesn’t understand or respect Rani’s Indian culture. What’s more, she’s lying to her parents, and her relationship with her best friend is straining under the weight of Rani and Oliver’s secret. It soon become clear that Rani must choose between her first love and herself. American Betiya fearlessly portrays Rani’s struggle between honoring her Indian heritage and attempting to fit in with her peers. Debut author Anuradha D. Rajurkar evokes a sense of deep discomfort through Oliver’s behavior; every time he calls Rani “Princess Jasmine,” the words lie uneasily on the page. When Rani travels to India, Rajurkar depicts the beauty of the country and its people with self-assurance while still holding space for Rani’s changing beliefs about her culture, never taking her personal growth for granted. The book’s laser-focused prose will resonate with any teen reader who has been harassed for their brown skin, struggled with first love or borne the pressure of family expectations. Rajurkar’s depiction of a young woman who attempts to shrink herself in order to satisfy the desires of others before recognizing her own inner strength is impossible to read without tightness in your chest and your heart in your throat.
  • We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker (Crime Fiction): Life, much like storytelling, tends to be linear: We’re born (characters); we live (plots); we conclude. But what fun could a mischievous author have by reversing that narrative? Rising star Chris Whitaker explores this possibility in We Begin at the End, an addictive flip on the small-town mystery, which begins when all is supposed to be said and done, in what would traditionally be a crime story’s aftermath. In the California costal village of Cape Haven, 13-year-old Duchess Day Radley is a self-proclaimed outlaw with a disheveled appearance, obscenity-rich rants and an obsession with protecting her 5-year-old brother, Robin, and their saloon-dancer single mom, Star. Thirty years ago, Star’s 7-year-old sister, Sissy, was murdered. The man who found her body, Walker, aka Walk, is now Cape Haven’s chief of police, while his best friend, Vincent King, is being released from prison after serving his sentence for Sissy’s murder, due in part to Walk’s testimony. Just as Duchess obsesses over Robin, Walk keeps a close eye on Duchess, knowing that Vincent’s return to Cape Haven could provoke the troubled teen. When a suspicious fire destroys the dingy nightclub where her mother performs, Duchess and Robin are whisked away to the Montana home of their grandparents, who reluctantly begin the difficult task of finding a workable foster home for the displaced siblings. Meanwhile, Vincent’s return proves troublesome for Walk, who can’t figure out a way to make things right with the best friend he put in prison. The investigation into the nightclub torching and the subsequent suspicious behavior of club owner Dickie Darke serve to reunite Walk with his long-ago girlfriend Martha May, now a family lawyer. As surprises surface, British writer Whitaker combines a brisk pace, a solid California voice and perhaps a record-setting cuss count. By the book’s end, you’ll want to begin at the end again.
  • The Daughters of Kobani by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (Middle Eastern History): The story of how young Kurdish women brought down terrorists from the Islamic State group has been waiting to be told. If Kobani, Syria, is a city that has gone unnoticed in the saga of Middle Eastern wars, then The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice will change that. It’s the story of a new generation of combatants, long denied choices about education, marriage or their very futures, who vanquished hosts of kidnappers, rapists and enslavers. Yet when author and journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon was asked to tell their story, she hesitated. “It just doesn’t make sense that the Middle East would be home to AK-47-wielding women driven with fervor and without apology or hesitation to make women’s equality a reality–and that the Americans would be the ones backing them.” She decided to go see for herself. By 2016, civil war was tearing Syria apart, leaving room for ISIS, with help from allies such as Russia and Iran, to swagger in. President Barack Obama pledged that there would be no American troops on the ground; American support would have to come from the air, with airstrikes and weapons drops, while consultants and diplomats strategized from afar. On the front lines in Kobani were women like Azeema, trained as an expert sniper, and her childhood friend Rojda, whose mother still called her every day. Based on hours of on-the-ground reporting and countless interviews with Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) fighters, Lemmon delivers a vivid, street-by-bombed-out-street account of the final days of the battle for Kobani. Strewn throughout are reports of what the soldiers wree up against: appalling ISIS acts like beheadings, torture and worse. The YPJ was outnumbered and underequipped, but they were fearless. The battles for Kobani, and later Raqqa, were key moments in a history that is still being made. With international interest waning and ISIS sleeper cells and foreign fighter recruitments quietly continuing, ready to reignite the landscape, those Kurdish and Arab victories in 2017 and onward hold no guarantees. As Lemmon observes, it is “easier to kill a terrorist than to slay an ideology.” Still, no matter the final outcome, the women who fought this war have shown the world what courage and justice look like. And if the next generation must keep fighting, these warriors have shown them how.

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