Best New Books, E-Books and E-Audiobooks at the Library: April 9, 2021

  • You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; suspense): In Caroline Kepnes’ third You novel, Joe Goldberg is ready to settle down. Volunteering at a library on Bainbridge Island, he’s keeping things squeaky clean while also falling in love with his boss, Mary Kay. Her social and family ties distract her from Joe–the real thing, staring her in the face across the circulation desk–but this time, he’s committed to doing no harm. If he gently thumbs the scales of justice (and true love) in his favor, surely that will be OK, right? Of course, this new beginning is dogged by loose ends from his last known address, loose ends that refuse to be neatly tied off. You Love Me is a wild ride, full of twists and slapstick gore. Kepnes’ novel is a metatext in some ways. Joe’s obsession with Mary Kay is true to what we know of him, and his interior monologue full of TV, music, film and book references make him a compelling antihero. Mary Kay’s relationship with a rocker from the heyday of Seattle’s grunge scene feels realistic, while her female friends are more like caricatures, overdrawn in a way that’s often hilarious. A plot thread featuring a screenplay based on Joe’s life is both a callback to Hidden Bodies and a wink at the Netflix series based on the books. Kepnes makes Joe compelling in a way that allows for some brilliant sleight of hand. Surprises seem to come from out of nowhere, and the end is truly shocking, yet there’s a relaxed flow as it all unfolds. You Love Me is more broadly funny than You; Joe’s restraint from violence does not mean the body count is low, and some of the deaths are, to put it mildly, absolutely bonkers. The reader has to wrestle with a character who is charming, funny, well read, accommodating to a fault–and also a monster. Start here if you like, but be prepared to read the whole series. It will really get under your skin.
  • First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami and Philip Gabriel (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; short stories): You can’t have a conversation about literary fiction of the past 50 years without mentioning Haruki Murakami, and First Person Singular reminds us why. As one of the standard-bearers of contemporary magical realism, Murakami has traveled deep into the hearts and minds of both his characters and his readers. In First Person Singular, he offers eight new stories, all told in first person–hence the title–as perhaps memoir, perhaps fiction. For example, “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” finds a baseball-loving writers named Haruki Murakami musing on his favorite team and the ties that bind us together. Murakami is always blurring lines, and here it’s left up to the reader to decide what’s real. By distorting reality, the author creates a special closeness to his audience, and he acknowledges this relationship with intelligence and grace. Murakami’s most significant (and perhaps only) shortcoming is his frequent fumbling of sexuality, which renders some of his work, to put it lightly, cringe-y. Sex is present in all of his books, whether it be tragic, as in Norwegian Wood, occult and Oedipal, as in Kafka on the Shore, or even as the basis for an entire collection, as in Men Without Women. But in First Person Singular, sexuality takes on a new meaning. Murakami is surely aware of this frequent criticism of his work, and here he toys with readers’ expectations. The story “Carnaval” is the best example of this. Its opening line, “Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest,” introduces a dated, male voice, but Murakami then subverts expectations to tell a story that’s deeper than any one person’s perspective. At the heart of this story are truly moving observations about friendship and the connection between people and art. While in the past, Murakami wrote about Watanabe of Norwegian Wood sleeping with random women, and K of Sputnik Sweetheart imposing himself on a women who is a lesbian, the older Murakami seems more intelligent and compassionate. With this collection, Murakami leverages his position as an aging man in a rapidly changing world to set an example for others: Your perspective should never stay the same, and your writing must grow until it can’t fit its container.
  • The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade (physical book available at library; family drama): Expanding on her short story with the same title, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds begs the question: What makes a sacrifice selfless? In three parts that unfold over the course of a year in the aptly named New Mexico town of Las Penas, The Five Wounds is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window. Quade’s characters are experts at pushing love away, especially when intimate connection is most necessary. The novel begins with a crucifixion. Amadeo Padilla is a ne’er-do-well who is hand-selected by the devout men of Las Penas to play Jesus in the annual reenactment of Christ’s Passion. To carry the cross is a great honor, and Amadeo treats this invitation as an opportunity to redeem himself in his mother’s eyes. He also sees it as a way to opt out of parenting his pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Angel, who has recently arrived on his doorstep. While the terrain of Las Penas seems inhospitable at first glance, life pushes up through the fractured earth. As each member of the Padilla family battles their personal demons, hope shimmers like a mirage over everyday life, a sweet what-if that Quade expertly suspends above the text. What if parents put their daughters first? What if compassion were a two-way street? What if love were enough? After Quade’s 2015 short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, it is a treat to see the author’s exceptional command of pacing on display in a novel. Proof that what you say is just as important as how you say it, her precise lines are wanting in neither substance nor style, and her darkly hilarious, tender, gorgeous use of language is one of the crowning pleasures of the novel. In The Five Wounds, Quade expands a familiar biblical tale–a 33-year-old guy shoulders the pain of the world and gets crucified–into an irreverent 21st-century meditation on the restorative powers of empathy.

Best New Books, E-Books and E-Audiobooks at the Library: April 6, 2021

  • Wilde Child by Eloisa James (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; historical romance): Eloisa James returns to the adventures of her wonderful Wildes in Wilde Child, a sparkling Georgian romance between an unconventional, theater-loving heroine and a stuffy viscount. Lady Joan Wilde’s reputation has always preceded her. Her golden blond hair (courtesy of her mother’s affair with a Prussian aristocrat) marks her as an illegitimate daughter, and her parentage is constantly whispered about among high society. Thankfully, Joan has a loving family who doesn’t mind embracing her eccentric ways, as Wilde Child continues to showcase the supportive familial bonds that readers love and have come to expect from this series. Joan has grown up loving the stage, often performing for her family in the privacy of their home at Lindow Castle. In true Joan fashion, she wants to shake things up a bit and take the leading role in a local theater troupe’s production of Hamlet. However, a woman in breeches, front and center in a Shakespeare play, is asking for scandal. Joan is unabashedly herself, and her tenacity and passion for acting make her the star of every scene. She is a whimsical departure from the shy wallflowers that so often populate the subgenre, with often hilarious results. Unfortunately, Joan’s brash personality is the bane of Thaddeus Erskine Shaw’s existence. As Viscount Greywick and heir to the Duke of Eversley, Thaddeus shouldn’t be seen with the likes of Joan. She consistently gets under his skin, and he is baffled by the way such an unconventional woman snatches his attention like no one else. His solution is to help the Wildes find a suitable husband for Joan, but before she’ll even consider marriage, she wants to make her dream of performing come true. Thaddeus’ solution is to protect and accompany Joan during the play’s production in a neighboring village, but enacting such a plan puts Thaddeus and Joan in rather close quarters. Thaddeus’ slow burn for Joan is something to be savored, especially for readers who love to watch a buttoned-up hero slowly come undone. James dials Thaddeus’ inner yearning up to 11, while Joan can’t help herself from teasing the stalwart, seemingly unmoved viscount. Thaddeus’ process of loosening his tight grip upon his conduct (with the help of Joan’s insistent presence) is a welcome foil to the often entertainingly outlandish Wilde household. James’ writing shines when her characters don’t take themselves too seriously, and the Wilde clan’s infectious energy is the epitome of delightful. Overflowing with tried-and-true romance tropes like opposites attract and secret pining, Wilde Child proves that sometimes there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The wheel can roll right along if it continues to produce this caliber of happily ever after.
  • Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pasteleria alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own. Xander Amaro, the restaurant’s new hire, has never really felt at home anywhere. Originally from Mexico, he’s spent the last 10 years living with his grandfather in the U.S. without legal documentation, always looking over his shoulder, always feeling he doesn’t quite belong. If only he could track down his biological father, Xander thinks, he might finally feel comfortable in his own life. When a dangerous loan shark threatens the community, Pen and Xander must work together with their families–the ones they were born into and the ones they’ve made–to save the restaurant. Along the way, they discover exactly where they’re meant to be. Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut YA novel, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, is fueled by vivid imagery and evocative descriptions, from the chaos of the kitchen on a busy night to the smells of the restaurant that linger in Pen’s hair after each shift. Chapters alternate between Pen’s and Xander’s first-person perspectives as Kemp explores their nuanced personalities and never shies away from their dark places, including Pen’s depression and Xander’s anxiety about his immigration status. Kemp develops these aspects of her protagonists with respect, making them parts of their whole, complex selves. Pen explains to Xander that Nacho’s Tacos employees are a family, and this perfectly describes the cast of characters Kemp has assembled. Though the book’s villain, El Martillo, feels a bit underdeveloped, the other supporting characters are as complex and well-crafted as the protagonists. This is a powerful, heartwarming story of family, first love and resilience.
  • The Beauty of Living Twice by Sharon Stone (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; memoir): It’s impossible to overstate just how famous Sharon Stone was in the 1990s. After the phenomenon of 1992’s Basic Instinct, the legendary beauty earned further acclaim for roles in Casino and The Muse and became one of the highest paid actors on the planet. As a result, her every move was scrutinized. She would have broken the internet–if that had been a thing back in 1996–when she wore a black turtleneck from the Gap to the Oscars. In Stone’s generous new memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, she writes about it all, starting with her loving but fraught childhood in blue-collar Pennsylvania, where her family laughed hard and fought loudly. “They did a horrible, beautiful, awful, amazing job with us,” she writes of her parents. “They gave us their best. They gave us everything. All of it. The full Irish.” Stone also reveals in this memoir that she and her sister were sexually abused by her maternal grandfather. That portion of the book is understandably vague and brief, but it’s clear this betrayal impacted the family irrevocably. In fact, The Beauty of Living Twice alternates between vague summarization and incredibly personal recollections. Stone writes in detail about the massive stroke she suffered in 2001, which left her in financial and physical ruin that took years to recover from. She dishes on her experiences with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood and her philanthropic efforts around the world. But she only briefly talks about her experience of adopting three sons, one of whom became the subject of an acrimonious custody dispute with her ex-husband Phil Bronstein. Overall, the book reads like an oral history, as if someone were typing furiously while Stone reminisced about her exceptional life. (“Remind me to tell you about James Brown,” she writes late in the book. She does not, unfortunately, tell us about James Brown.) Somehow, this old Hollywood narrative style works, and Stone delivers a bighearted, wonderfully rambling story full of wisdom and humor.
  • Girlhood by Melissa Febos (physical book available at library; essays): Girlhood is a time of life that’s often idealized as innocent and safe. This, of course, speaks to our gendered expectations for the so-called fairer sex. But the truth about girls’ early lives is more complex. Girlhood can be exploited just as often as it is protected, and Melissa Febos brings these complications to the fore in Girlhood, a collection of seven memoiristic essays. The author of Whip Smart, about her time working as a dominatrix, and Abandon Me, another essay collection, Febos is a dab hand at the memoir genre. The essays that compose Girlhood tell a story of Febos’ life that reaches back to her childhood on Cape Cod and her young adulthood in New York City to examine her internalized beliefs. While her route to making sense of her own life is usually circuitous, her thoughtfulness as she reaches toward a conclusion is a delight to follow. Many of Febos’ girlhood experiences stemmed from her body developing maturely at a young age. She fearlessly interrogates her adolescent reaction to these changes and the attendant shame, voyeurism and almighty male gaze that subsumed her young life. Each essay is layered like a sfogliatelle: Recollections of a growing girl in a sexist culture lay upon her adult analyses and rich cultural references, from Greek myths to 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault. Sources listed at the book’s conclusion range widely from Black feminist and race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw to British art critic John Berger. In one of the strongest essays, “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” Febos and her partner attend cuddle parties. Based on the belief that there is a primal need for human touch, a cuddle party is when strangers gather together to experience consensual, nonsexual touch. These parties prompt Febos to examine her history of accommodating and prioritizing men’s needs over her own. Girlhood offers what some may view as a dark portrayal of young adulthood, in which opportunities for degradation are seemingly limitless. And some of Febos’ later-in-life experiences, such as heroin addiction and sex work, won’t be shared by every reader. But anyone raised as a girl will be able to relate to something in Girlhood, and those who weren’t will marvel at this book’s eye-opening, transformative perspective.
  • The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman (e-book and e-audiobook available on Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Nami Miyamoto is living her dream: She is headed to college in the fall, she loves her supportive family, and she just confessed her feelings to her longtime crush–and learned that he feels the same way. It seems like everything is falling into place. Then, on her way to a graduation party, Nami is unexpectedly and brutally murdered. But that’s only the beginning of Nami’s story. Her consciousness is revived in Infinity, an afterlife ruled by an artificial intelligence assistant from Earth named Ophelia. (Think Siri or Alexa, but much more vengeful.) Determined to stop Ophelia’s plans to destroy humanity, Nami joins the rebellion. In the midst of their struggle, she must come to terms with what it really means to be alive. It’s not surprising that a book set in an afterlife would grapple with weighty, philosophical themes, but the cerebral tone of The Infinity Courts sets it apart from its YA genre fiction peers. Ethereal and thoughtful, this story is as much about emotion as it is action. Nami is motivated by her feelings, which makes her a stubborn, sometimes reluctant hero. When she first arrives in Infinity, she must wrestle with grief, loss and forgiveness, all from the other side of her own death. Her participation in the rebellion is shaped by her ever-evolving beliefs about what defines good and evil during a war and who deserves to be saved. Though Nami’s fellow rebels are outwardly committed to freedom, author Akemi Dawn Bowman also establishes the internal desires that drive each of them. For example, Theo sympathizes with the humans Ophelia has captured, while Ahmet wants to retain as much of his humanity as he can. The narrative raises age-old questions about the individual versus the community but proposes a range of answers rather than one definitive solution. The shifting beliefs of Nami and the other rebels propel the plot forward while impressively reflecting the mutable, unpredictable nature of humanity. Best known for realistic fiction, including her Morris Award finalist debut novel, Starfish, Bowman combines the psychological with the heart-pounding in her powerful leap into science fiction. Featuring an imaginative world, a terrifying villain and complex heroine, The Infinity Courts is a mesmerizing series opener that’s sure to lead to a thrilling, expectation-shattering sequel.
  • Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; family saga): The relationship between mothers and daughters is a richly mined topic in fiction. In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature. Of Women and Salt tells the intertwined stories of women in two families from the 19th century to the present day. After an unstable childhood during the Cuban revolution, Carmen leaves her mother behind and immigrates to Florida. Later, in a wealthy suburb, Carmen tries to provide her daughter Jeanette with a comfortable American life. Jeanette has a drug addiction, is hiding a tragic secret and is desperately seeking a purpose. Their lives intersect with that of Gloria, an immigrant from El Salvador who hopes to give her young daughter, Ana, a better life in Miami. Then Gloria is seized by ICE, and Ana must reunite with her mother at a detention center in Texas. They are deported to Mexico with no resources and forced to start over on their own. Some novels attempt to tell a sweeping narrative only to get bogged down by a busy plot and too many characters, but despite a large cast from numerous time periods, Of Women and Salt expertly threads each women’s story to another’s and pulls their stories taut. Disparate hardships propel each of their lives, but they are linked by a shared struggle to carry on in a harsh world, whether each survives her circumstance–or not. Motherhood is “a constant calculation of what-if,” Garcia writes. At the heart of Of Women and Salt are the sacrifices made by mothers so their daughters can have different lives–perhaps better ones. But daughters may make choices based on their own wishes and needs, and this possibility is ever poised to pierce a mother’s heart. In this way, the novel is quietly heartbreaking. As Garcia writes, “Even the best mothers in the world can’t always save their daughters.”
  • Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (physical book available at library; historical fiction): There’s plenty of Civil War fiction out there; it’s a seemingly bottomless category of novels exploring people both prominent and obscure whose lives are touched in some way by the war. But with the exception of books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, only recently have novels about enslaved or freeborn Black people during the war and Reconstruction become prominent. With its revelatory history and fresh perspectives, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s splendid Libertie is a welcome addition to the canon. Greenidge’s second novel was inspired by the life of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first woman in New York to earn a medical degree, and by one of her children, a daughter who moved to Haiti upon her marriage. In Libertie, they’re transformed into Dr. Kathy Sampson and the titular narrator Libertie, whose incredible story is shaped by her own choices as well as other people’s designs. The novel begins just before the war in a free Black community in Brooklyn, a borough that’s still mostly farmland. As a child, Libertie marvels at her mother’s diligence, stoicism and mystifying ability to heal. But as Libertie grows up, Greenidge masterfully details the way the girl begins to separate herself from her mother and find her own path. Libertie ventures from Brooklyn to one of the new all-Black colleges that arises after the war, then marries her mother’s kind and intelligent assistant and drops out of school. Libertie’s marriage leads to a rare fit of histrionics on Dr. Sampson’s part, but this negative reaction to Libertie’s relocation to Haiti, a country untroubled by white rule, eventually proves justified. The Haitian scenes allow Greenidge to explore the grinding universality of patriarchy, but this is balanced by Libertie’s determination to live her best life. Passionate and brilliantly written, Libertie shines a light on a part of history still unknown by far too many but that is now getting the finest treatment.
  • The Elephant of Belfast by S. Kirk Walsh (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card; historical fiction): Loosely based on true events–and the real people and animals that played a part–The Elephant of Belfast captures the turmoil of both a city and a young woman’s life during World War II. S. Kirk Walsh’s first novel opens in 1940, just as German bombardment begins to threaten Northern Ireland. The Bellevue Zoo has welcomed a new elephant named Violet to its menagerie, parading the pachyderm through the streets of Belfast with all the pomp of a visiting dignitary. Onlookers are bewildered, but young zookeeper Hettie Quin finds a sense of purpose in the elephant’s presence. Hettie’s older sister is dead and her father absent, and she tiptoes around the house she shares with her mother, Rose. Hettie wants to be taken seriously as the only female zookeeper at Bellevue, though navigating her terse boss and the physical demands of working with large exotic animals proves challenging. But Hettie steadily proves to herself that she is capable, even resilient, despite the nearly constant state of upheaval caused by her tense relationship with Rose, confusion about the opposite sex, the ever-present Catholic and Protestant divide and the threat of bombing raids. When the Luftwaffe bombs start to fall in April 1941, caring for Violet becomes Hettie’s sole focus. In a time where everyone is looking for something solid to hold on to, Hettie has Violet, and their relationship keeps the young woman from falling into total despair. With such a unique premise, the novel remains engaging despite occasionally cliched prose and a plot that gets bogged down in detail. Hettie’s grief and longing are palpable, her mounting losses real and tangible. Through heart-stirring scenes of violence and destruction in a city unprepared for the chaos of war, Walsh showcases a flair for description and emotion, and for rendering ordinary lives amid extraordinary circumstances.
  • The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec and Jayne Entwistle (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; fantasy): In Genevieve Gornichec’s fantasy novel, The Witch’s Heart (12 hours), Angrboda has been burned three times for performing witchcraft, but she remains alive at the edges of the mythical Ironwood, where she begins a lasting, tenuous relationship with the trickster god Loki, Odin’s half brother. But Ragnarok, the destruction of the known world, threatens their future–and the future of their unusual offspring. Jayne Entwistle, best known for her narration of the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley, brings Angrboda to life with a husky, sage voice and northern English lilt. Her comforting tone and gentle pacing reinforce the novel’s focus on Angrboda’s domestic challenges in the shadow of cosmic conflicts. Accents used to delineate characters create a lively cast of women and men who visit Angrboda in her forest hovel. As many listeners will want to continue this dive into Norse mythology, a helpful list of resources for further reading follows the narration.
  • House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Seven years ago, Iris Hollow and her two older sisters disappeared from the streets of Edinburgh. They returned, transformed, a month later, with shocking white hair and their beautiful blue eyes now dark. Their parents’ relief quickly turned to suspicion as it became clear the sisters didn’t just look different; they now wielded the ability to force people to do their bidding. These days, Iris is finishing up high school while middle sister Vivi tours Europe with her punk rock band and the oldest, Grey, has become a fashion designer and model known for her outlandish, almost grotesque creations. When Grey vanishes without a trace, Iris and Vivi search for her, joined by Grey’s delightful and charming boyfriend, Tyler. But the search soon becomes a race for their lives when they realize they’re being hunted by a dangerous, otherworldly figure. Australian-born British author Krystal Sutherland blends elements of detective fiction, fairy tales and horror in House of Hollow. Iris’ first-person narration gives the book a gorgeous but often dark feel that’s buoyed by witty banter between Vivi and Tyler, which cuts the tension and provides necessary levity. As the search for Grey grows increasingly frantic and desperate, Sutherland excellently conveys the way Iris and her sisters are bound not just by family ties but also by the trauma they shared when they were younger. Readers who enjoy fantasy books with contemporary or urban settings such as Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series or Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood will find much to enjoy here. Sutherland’s lush, gruesome prose, a sinister Scottish woodland setting and the powerful yet destructive role of magic combine for a truly chilling tale. Pick this up before bedtime, if you dare.
  • The Cost of Knowing by Brittney Morris (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Alex Rufus is cursed. Everything he touches gives him a glimpse of the future, but he never knows when what he envisions will manifest. He knows, for example, that the ice cream shop he works at is going to be sold and that his girlfriend is going to break up with him–he just doesn’t know when. Worst of all, Alex knows that his little brother, Isaiah, is going to die, but without knowing when, he can’t try to prevent it from happening. When Alex makes a critical discovery about the source of his visions, he attempts to find a cure to get rid of them so that he and his brother can fully enjoy what little time Isaiah may have left. But their lives as two Black boys in a wealthy gated community are complicated, and Alex may not be able to protect his brother from every danger. In The Cost of Knowing, author Brittney Morris gives Black boys power in a world that considers them powerless. Though Alex treats his abilities like a burden, they eventually enable both him and Isaiah to reclaim their lives, face their greatest fears and live out their dreams. Indeed, Alex spends much of the book motivated by what he fears, but this is a rational reaction not just to the vision he’s trying to stop from coming to fruition but also to his daily experiences as a Black teen in his mostly white Chicago suburb, where he regularly endures microaggressions from his neighbors. Throughout the novel, Morris frames Alex’s fears as possible for him to overcome, a choice that speaks to the hopes of every Black boy in America–to live without fear and to be seen by everyone as worthy of dignity and respect. Emotional and gripping, The Cost of Knowing uses fantastical elements to convey how life-threateningly real the problems that Black boys face in America are–so real, in fact, that even having superpowers isn’t always enough to overcome them.
  • Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; memoir): Bestselling author Jenny Lawson’s writing often elicits a range of emotional responses, from gasp-laughs to sympathetic murmurs to the particular type of groan that accompanies massive secondhand embarrassment. Lawson, aka the Bloggess, believes “we are so much less alone if we learn to wear our imperfections proudly.” Her brand of sharing has created a community endlessly drawn to her hilarious confessions of foibles and fears; conversations with her loving yet exasperated husband, Victor; and chronicles of her experiences with mental and physical illness. Broken (in the best possible way), Lawson’s fourth book, is a loop-de-loop of an emotional roller coaster that swoops from poetic to profane, madcap to moving and back again. She’s in fine form in this collection of essays, which offers support, humor and her take on society’s ills and wonders. Years of frustration and righteous rage are channeled into the trenchant essay “An Open Letter to My Health Insurance Company,” in which Lawson shares what it’s like to rely on medication controlled by an impenetrable and uncaring health care system. She also confides that rheumatoid arthritis, which causes her feet to swell and then deflate, has resulted in “Six Times I’ve Lost My Shoes While Wearing Them.” Her poignant account of the times a shoe has taken “a ride in an elevator without me” is a thing of hilarious beauty. So, too, are a compilation of tweets about everyday mortification called “Awkwarding Brings Us Together,” as well as stories about the book editing process, an ill-fated kayaking trip and the time a (live) squirrel fell on her head. Lawson’s more serious essays, especially her musings on her spotty memory and her family’s history of dementia, are sad and affecting. She writes with love and admiration about her grandmother, who “goes missing sometimes, lost in her own mind,” and shares her conviction that treatment for mental illness is getting slowly but surely better with every generation. To wit, her diary of transcranial magnetic stimulation treatment for depression is harrowing, edifying but also hopeful. After all, she writes, “Nothing lasts forever. The good and the bad.”
  • Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Award-winning science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders’ highly anticipated first YA novel, Victories Greater Than Death, invites readers aboard the starship Indomitable for a colorful tour of a delightfully strange universe. Tina might look like a normal human, but she’s actually the clone of a legendary alien war hero, Captain Thaoh Argentian, hidden on Earth until she’s old enough to join the war between the peacekeeping Royal Fleet and their genocide-minded enemies who call themselves the Compassion. One day, the Fleet will return and unlock all of Captain Argentian’s memories, which are hidden deep in Tina’s DNA. Tina wants nothing more than to step into her big heroic destiny, but when the Fleet does finally arrive, she finds herself falling short of the life she imagined. Argentian’s knowledge was passed on to Tina but not her memories, leaving Tina a walking encyclopedia of alien trivia with none of the experience to make it useful. She might be able to name every species on the Indomitable‘s bridge, but that doesn’t mean she can lead them. Tina’s strained relationship to her past life makes her a compelling protagonist, especially when the lines between “doing what’s right” and “doing what Argentian would do” conflict. Tina is accompanied on her adventure by her best friend, Rachel, and a squad of Earthling Fleet recruits from across the globe. They represent an admirably diverse cross section of interests, cultures and queer identities, and their friendships and escapades form the book’s lively core. Together, the Earthlings experience the universe at its most ridiculous, as when they see Beyonce on a billboard in an interstellar marketplace or they travel to a world dubbed “Best Planet Ever” in an attempt to increase tourism. But they must also face the universe at its most cruel, as the Compassion’s leader wipes out entire planetary populations in pursuit of his own twisted goals. Readers who enjoy a humorous, relaxed approach to science fiction will find much to enjoy here, as Anders’ tone lands squarely between Star Trek and “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.” The Indomitable‘s crew are endlessly charming as they meet each new cosmic challenge with courage.
  • Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; speculative fiction): Readers of Helen Oyeyemi’s latest mind-teaser will know they’re in for an unusual experience when the novel’s narrator, a 38-year-old hypnotist, begins the story by describing a set of Czech days-of-the-week underwear, a gift from a former boyfriend. And that’s before the narrator boards a train for a “non-honeymoon honeymoon” with his current love and their pet mongoose. Such is the uncommonly inventive setup of Peaces. Otto Shin is one half of “a starry-eyed young couple” and has happily adopted the surname of his partner, Xavier. As the novel begins, they and their mongoose have boarded a sleeper train called The Lucky Day at their local station “in deepest Kent.” The ride was a gift from Xavier’s aunt. But, in one of the novel’s many engagingly bizarre flourishes, Otto and Xavier don’t quite know where they’re going. Even more curious: When Xavier calls his aunt from the train to check in on her, she says she’s in the company of someone named Yuri. Yuri claims to be a friend of Xavier’s, but Xavier doesn’t know who he is. That’s just the start of the book’s many complications. Soon Otto and Xavier meet the train’s owner, Ava Kapoor, a theremin player who lives full time on The Lucky Day and has her own pet mongoose. Ava is days away from collecting an inheritance, but a series of events threatens her bounty. Among the characters that deepen the plot are a composer named Karel, who wrote a piece Ava used to play; Karel’s mysterious son, Prem; and a doctor assigned to assess Ava’s state of mind. The story’s second half is convoluted, and Oyeyemi tends to overwrite, as when she describes a photo of a “fainting couch upholstered in brocade the color of Darjeeling tea in the fourth minute of brewing.” But fans of the British writer’s previous work, such as the PEN award-winning What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, will enjoy this novel’s surreal twists and imaginative scenarios. Peaces is like the work of a hypnotist: Those open to its allure will inevitably fall under its thrall.
  • The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card; contemporary romance): Rosie Danan returns with The Intimacy Experiment, a steamy contemporary romance that is every bit as enjoyable as her debut, The Roommate. It’s s triumph of feminist fiction, supporting the importance of healthy emotional and physical intimacy and showing how to make the world a better place with love. Startup executive Naomi Grant thinks of herself as something of a superhero. She’s a former porn star who left behind her previous name and identity to build an enormous platform and take-no-prisoners public image, which she has used to transition into a career as a sex educator. But given the cultural stigma surrounding sex work, she isn’t welcome in the lecture circuit or in higher education. She’s the perfect foil to Rabbi Ethan Cohen, one of the city’s hottest bachelors, who’s been tasked with attracting a younger generation to the faith. His own background is somewhat nontraditional, in that he was a career academic before devoting his life to his faith. Faced with budget woes and low participation, Ethan decides to pursue a controversial initiative with Naomi by asking her to co-host a seminar series on modern intimacy. Rather than judging her former career as a sex worker, he focuses on her intelligence and the successful company and message she’s created. Not only does he acknowledge the brain behind Naomi’s beauty, he also understands that the things she’s talking about are important to the millennial generation his congregation needs to survive. The Intimacy Experiment is sexy and modern and fun, but also thoughtful and authentic. Danan avoids tired stereotypes: Ethan isn’t the least bit squeamish about sex, and Naomi is vulnerable and open when considering their budding romance. There’s a lot at stake for both of these flawed, richly layered characters. For them to love each other, openly and without reserve, is a risk to their professional reputations. And even without all of that, it takes a brave person to tell another, “I think I could be good at loving you,” and mean it. It takes a brave person to believe they’re worthy of that love. Danan crafts a beautiful arc as Naomi learns to stand in the real world and let her true self shine through, reconciling both her “superhero” and “secret’ identities, and trusting that Ethan will love all of who she is.
  • To Love and to Loathe by Martha Waters (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; historical romance): Martha Waters is back with the second book in her Regency Vows series, To Love and To Loathe. This absolutely perfect Regency romance is chock-full of chatty, flirty characters and delectable scoundrels. It’s charming, happy and perhaps best of all, it’s got a scandalous wager between enemies. The tension between the widowed Diana, Lady Templeton and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham, is through the roof. Their flirting is legendary–everyone can see it–and in an era ruled by gossip, it seems obvious the two will wind up together. Except, of course, to Diana and Jeremy, because their frenemies love to bicker. Over one particularly dicey row, Diana makes Jeremy a wager that comes back to haunt her. She bets Jeremy that he’ll marry within a year, or she’ll give him 100 pounds. But Jeremy, who’s reeling after his last mistress criticized his skills in the bedroom, proposes something even more shocking. He suggests they have an affair for a fortnight, because he knows the sharp-tongued, honest to a fault Diana won’t shy away from telling him the truth. What follows is a saucy and scandalous romance that’s addictive fun while capably portraying both characters’ internal conflict. Waters sets a jaunty pace with flirty dialogue, easy camaraderie and enjoyable characters. All the typical trademarks of Regency era are present, but thanks to Waters’ charm, this story feels timeless and young and fun.
  • Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card; family drama): Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s 2016 debut novel, The Nest, was an instant bestseller for a reason. It had the lure of cash; a charismatic, lovable rogue as a central figure; and a crackling cast of New York City characters. In her second novel, Good Company, Sweeney once again flexes her talent for crafting loving family dynamics that splinter due to errant behavior. Flora Mancini’s seemingly idyllic life in Los Angeles as a voice-over actor and wife to Julian, a full-time TV actor, hits the rocks when she discovers an envelope containing her husband’s wedding ring, supposedly lost years earlier. From this pivotal moment, chapters begin to alternate between present and the past, revealing the reason for the ring’s disappearance when the couple was living in New York City with their young daughter, Ruby, and struggling to keep Julian’s theater company, Good Company, from sinking. When the lure of steady work spurs the Mancinis to switch coasts, upgrading their climate and lifestyle, they are able to reunite with Flora’s best friend, Margot, another Good Company alum. Margot’s husband, David, was forced to give up his East Coast job as a heart surgeon after he had a stroke, and Margot was lucky to land a recurring role on a daytime soap opera. Now she’s living the celebrity life. Along the way, there have been bumps in the road for the four friends, but life on the West Coast is treating the former Manhattanites well. Flora’s discovery, however, shatters the illusion of her perfect marriage and her rock-solid friendship with Margot. As in The Nest, Sweeney skillfully navigates the narrow path between literary and commercial fiction with plenty of wit, warmth, heartache and joy. Like a comfy armchair, this is a novel you can sink into and enjoy. Good company, indeed.
  • The Light of Days by Judy Batalion (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; European history): As Judy Batalion notes toward the end of her scrupulously researched narrative history, The Light of Days, there were plenty of reasons why the stories of young Jewish women who valiantly resisted the Nazis in Europe during World War II were ignored or silenced after the war. Some of those reasons were sexist, but most weren’t so nefarious. Still, the effect until now has been that bits and pieces of this great story have been scattered through bygone personal memoirs and archived survivor testimonies. The Light of Days is a huge achievement that brings an overarching coherence to this largely unknown story. Batalion focuses on the lives and actions of about a dozen and a half young women and teenage girls who joined the fray in the Polish ghettos in Warsaw and Bedzin. Chief among these was the spirited Renia Kukielka, who became a courier for one of the activist Jewish youth groups at the core of the resistance. Batalion interweaves the personalities and actions of other young women–messengers and warriors–into the arc of Kukielka’s story. The narrative reaches its crescendo in the spring and summer of 1943, during and just after the dramatic but ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Batalion uses a kind of you-are-there approach that at times feels awkward but dramatically makes its point in the end. The Light of Days also offers arresting insights into community life during this perilous time. It is astounding to read about the number and variety of Jewish youth groups that commanded the loyalties of young people. It’s also surreal to learn that mail continued to circulate among Jewish communities even as the Nazi killing machine was roaring down the tracks. Batalion interviewed many survivors’ families, and these passages in the book invite us to wonder what it would be like to battle and survive for half a decade, witnessing the loss of friends and family, only to resume a “normal” life after experiencing all that trauma. Kukielka at least seemed to maintain some essential part of herself through it all. Her adult life, Batalion reports, was “happy, passionate, filled with beauty.”
  • War and Millie McGonigle by Karen Cushman (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): Newbery Medalist Karen Cushman loves to write about “gutsy girls figuring out who they are.” The titular character of War and Millie McGonigle is yet another outstanding creation. Twelve-year-old Millie knows all too well what it’s like to endure a personal and a national crisis simultaneously. It’s September 1941. Over the summer, as World War II raged in Europe, Millie’s beloved grandmother died on Millie’s birthday. No wonder Millie feels that the world is “full of war and death.” Just before she died, Gram gave Millie a diary and instructed her to use it to remember good things. Now Millie keeps her “Book of Dead Things” like a talisman, jotting down notes and sketches of things she sees, such as an octopus caught by a fisherman on the San Diego beach near her home. She’s also developed a ritual of writing her last name in the sand over and over, which she hopes will keep death away from her family. Money is tight for the McGonigles, but everyone pitches in to help the war effort. After Mama becomes a welder and Pop gets a job as a clerk at the Navy Exchange, Millie is left to oversee her younger siblings, including Lily, who has weak lungs. Gram’s absent-minded cousin Edna also moves in, making the family’s tight quarters even tighter. As Millie seeks freedom outdoors, she finds joy in a new friend and develops a crush on an older surfer. As always, Cushman exquisitely captures her story’s historical setting. Readers will feel the San Diego sun on their shoulders as Millie steers her rowboat into warm bay waters and the sand between their toes as Millie explores the mud flats. Millie’s winning first-person narration is filled with 1940s slang like “holy mackerel” and “good gravy,” as well as references to “The Lone Ranger,” Bob Hope and the ongoing fear of polio. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the McGonigles sleep in their clothes and keep suitcases packed in case they have to evacuate, and their blackout curtains make Millie feel as though there is “not a glimmer of light left on earth.” Despite such serious topics, War and Millie McGonigle is a lively book filled with humor, love and transformation. Millie gradually learns to navigate her grief, deal with her fears and shift her focus from war and death to life and the living. Though Cushman roots the story in tangible details of the ’40s, it has much to offer contemporary readers. Gram, for instance, was a crusader who felt that all girls should know “songs of protest and the phone number of your state representative.” Millie follows in her grandmother’s footsteps and repeatedly intervenes to prevent bullying against kids of Italian and Japanese descent. Reminiscent of Katherine Paterson’s sensitive portrayals of grief, War and Millie McGonigle acknowledges the suffocating enormities of fear, injustice and tragedy Millie experiences while revealing a path forward. As Gram tells Millie, “Life’s not hopeless. We can do something about what worries and scares us…Despite the horror, people care, work together for a better world, and bravely fight back.”
  • Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; thriller): In Jeff Vandermeer’s eco-thriller Hummingbird Salamander, security analyst Jane Smith receives an envelope containing a key and a short list of animals. The contents of the envelope seem to be random, but Jane investigates them anyway and ends up at a storage unit where she finds a taxidermied hummingbird. After prying out the eyes of the bird, she finds another clue, which leads to an unraveling, deadly mystery that unravels Jane as well. Jane has an exceptionally unique voice. Even from her first-person point of view, it’s apparent that she is selfish, brazen and highly unusual. She gives strange nicknames to her belongings, such as “Shovel Pig” the purse and “Bog” the cellphone. She is closer friends with her purse than with her husband. Though Jane has “made it”–she has a high-paying job, a family, a nice house–she seems to experience life as an outsider. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy for her to throw it all away, though the reader must take certain leaps to understand this motivation. The story falls short when it comes to establishing why Jane would go to such excruciating lengths to solve the mystery. The reader’s questions are ultimately answered, though only in a sense, and far too late. Vandermeer is a well-established, highly acclaimed author who is known for weird, inventive fiction, including his Southern Reach Trilogy, the first novel of which was adapted to film. Hummingbird Salamander is not a great introduction to his style, but his existing fans will likely be carried through by its intriguing, propulsive plot.

Best New E-Books, E-Audiobooks, and Books at the Library: March 29, 2021

  • The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park and Robert Sae-Heng (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Middle Grade): In The One Thing You’d Save, a teacher named Ms. Chang invites her students to participate in a thought exercise. If their house caught fire, what one thing would they choose to save? Each child, along with Ms. Chang, considers, chooses and then explains their selection. The responses vary widely, ranging from the practical (a wallet, an expensive laptop) to the sentimental (a beloved hand-knit sweater, the program from a New York Mets game) to the lifesaving (an insulin kit). Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park presents the story through the narrative poems made up of first-person internal monologue and spoken dialogue. The students’ interactions range from playful to serious, lighthearted to profound, as they consider which objects are most important to them. Rich with youthful attitude, Park’s verses provide a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of the preoccupations, loves, losses and aspirations of a diverse group of children and their teacher. Debut illustrator Robert Sae-Heng’s grayscale images envision the objects the students describe, as well as scenes of their homes, the classroom, the night sky, the city and more, through the scenes never include the speakers themselves. Occasional full-spread illustrations offer wordless moments that encourage the reader to rest and contemplate before moving on. As the characters discuss, share and interpret their ideas, The One Thing You’d Save forms a delightful portrait of a group of learners in community with one another. In a brief note, Park explains that her verses are variations on a Korean poetry form called sijo, which consists of three lines of 13 to 17 syllables. She writes, “Using old forms in new ways is how poetry continually renews itself, and the world.” It’s impossible not to feel a sense of renewal from this thoughtful book.
  • Red Island House by Andrea Lee (physical book available at library; Literary Fiction): Andrea Lee’s lush and lyrical Red Island House is an episodic novel of race and culture that flirts with fabulism as it portrays a couple at odds with each other and their island home. It’s set in Madagascar, an island nation that floats between Africa and India both culturally and geographically. “Though defined by cartographers as part of Africa, Madagascar really belongs only to itself,” Lee writes. The novel is a bit like that as well. The protagonist, Shay, is a refined academic and an expatriate American. Senna is a big and brash Italian man. They meet at a wedding in Como, Italy, and fall inexorably in love. He’s older and wealthy, and it’s a second marriage for them both. When Senna builds his dream vacation home in the rough northwestern reaches of Madagascar, on the tiny island of Naratrany, he tells Shay that it’s for her, like an elaborate wedding gift. But she knows better. The house is a fantasy of Senna’s that long precedes her arrival, and it proceeds regardless of her wishes or comfort. Their visits to Naratrany expose and exacerbate the space between them, and each time they touch down there, Senna becomes a terrain that Shay doesn’t recognize and can’t navigate. With time, tiny cracks become cleavages. In Madagascar, Shay is thrust into a role she doesn’t want, as mistress of the Red House, a vast neocolonial manse that requires nearly a dozen staff members to maintain. The fact that Shay is Black complicates things in ways she can’t quite come to terms with. The Red House is not a plantation, the people who work there aren’t enslaved, and yet there is something deeply discomfiting in its hierarchical social arrangements. What can Shay make of the man and the marriage that puts her in this position? “Through years of her Naratrany holidays, she never shakes the sensation that her leisure is built on old crimes,” she thinks. The tableau haunts and unsettles her. At first Shay believes she can wall off these problems at the Red House, but the rot cannot be contained. The ebb and flow of Shay’s marriage is just part of the story, as Red Island House contains vignettes about a fascinating array of characters and entanglements in the Naratrany society that surrounds through never quite embraces the couple. From the feuding female entrepreneurs whom Shay calls “Sirens” to the local eminence grise who may or may not have spiritual powers, it’s a complex and seductive tapestry. Shay’s volatile, uneasy relationship with the island, a place she and Senna can occupy but never possess, parallels the one she has with her husband. She knows her relationship with her second home “is incomplete, deliberately detached, based in guilt and fear–unworthy of the people and place.” What’s more interesting is that she also admits that her attitude is “in no way superior to that of Senna, who, for his part, has always viewed the country as his personal playground; as if it were indeed Libertalia, the fictional pirate colony that has captivated Western imagination since it was first born from Daniel Defoe’s pen.” This description captures both Shay’s ambivalence and Lee’s style, which is rife with cultural allusions of all sorts. Lee’s striking writing is layered and thick with evocative descriptions of people, landscapes, feelings and foreboding. Sociological and psychological, it’s prose with the abstract feel of poetry. The stories of Red Island House are vibrant and enchanting despite the current of dread that runs through the novel from the start.
  • Just as I Am by Cicely Tyson and Robin Miles (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Memoir): The late Cicely Tyson was more than an actor; she was a titan who inspired, prodded and enthralled her audience. From her breakout role in the 1972 film Sounder to her Emmy-nominated turn in “How to Get Away With Murder,” Tyson played her characters with integrity, endowing each with humanity and dignity. But she was also a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, an activist and an artist, and the story of her life is as complex as it is compelling. In her memoir, Just as I Am (16 hours), Tyson lays out the whole of her life–including her turbulent relationship with her mother and her fraught marriage to musician Miles Davis–with unflinching honesty and hard-earned wisdom. In the foreword, actor Viola Davis describes her first meeting with Tyson with humor and love, and the relationship between the two groundbreaking artists is a joy to imagine. Award-winning audiobook narrator Robin Miles performs the majority of the book, bringing the same warmth and depth of characterization that she brought to the audiobooks for Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste. But Tyson herself steals the show with her generous, funny and wise introduction, the many years apparent in her voice but the fire in her spirit still burning brightly. Listing to Just as I Am is a profound delight.
  • Breathing Underwater by Sarah Allen (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Middle Grade): When 13-year-old Olivia climbs aboard her aunt and uncle’s RV with her prized camera and her 16-year-old sister, Ruth, she’s both excited and trepidatious. She has two big plans for this trip: first, to dig up a time capsule that she and Ruth buried in California before moving away three years ago; and second, to surprise Ruth by revisiting the places where they took photos together during their cross-country move to Tennessee, photos of them having a blast and doing the silly things sisters do, before Ruth started sliding into what Olivia has dubbed “The Pit,” a difficult and ongoing experience with depression. Although Ruth has changed since their last trip together, Olivia is still optimistic about her plans. After all, “who wouldn’t be excited about a cross-country road trip in an RV? Digging up buried treasure? And exploring pirate ships?” Ruth, for one. She’s acting distant, hooked up to her old iPod at all times, her energy and enthusiasm lagging. Olivia feels responsible for her older sister, and she tries everything to pull Ruth out of “The Pit.” As they travel across the country, Olivia struggles to understand that she can’t take responsibility for her sister’s mental health or happiness. Author Sarah Allen’s second book, Breathing Underwater, uses accessible yet lyrical language to depict Olivia’s attempts to recapture the joyful memories she and Ruth shared in the past. Olivia’s first-person perspective sheds light on the swirling mix of love, guilt and responsibility that she feels for her sister. It also allows Allen to sensitively describe what depression looks like when it’s experienced by a young person, as well as the impact it can have on their family. Notably, Allen offers no quick fixes and no saccharine, orchestrated happy ending. Olivia cannot heal her sister, but the girls do find a way forward together in a way that feels authentic and true to who they have each become. Breathing Underwater is a lovely, important book that will be an especially welcome balm for any young reader who loves someone with mental illness. Olivia’s love for her sister shines through on every page and reinforces what a powerful thing it is to simply be there for someone.
  • Watercress by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Children’s Picture Book): Author Andrea Wang’s childhood memory of picking watercress by the side of the road serves as the inspiration for this emotional powerhouse of a picture book, which she describes in an author’s note as “both an apology and a love letter” to her parents. Riding with her family in an old Pontiac, a Chinese American girl describes the embarrassing moment when her parents stop the car to enthusiastically pick bunches of watercress growing in a ditch near the road. Dinner that night includes the watercress, served with garlic, but the girl refuses to eat. When her mother reminds her the meal is free, the girl withdraws further: “Free is hand-me-down clothes and roadside trash-heap furniture and now, dinner from a ditch.” Her mother responds by leaving the table to find a childhood photo and sharing, for the first time, the story of her own brother, who died as a boy during a famine in China. After hearing this story, the girl feels remorse for being ashamed of her family, a moment that Wang captures with care and subtlety. Wang’s writing is tender and detailed, describing the watercress as “delicate and slightly bitter, like Mom’s memories of home.” With raw honesty, the book’s first-person narration allows readers to see through the girl’s eyes. We experience both the sting of her shame and her newfound understanding alongside her. Caldecott Honor illustrator Jason Chin’s soft, expressive watercolors lean on sepia tones, an appropriate choice for a tale that serves as a recollection of memory. Along with depicting the self-conscious girl with a photorealistic eloquence, Chin incorporates occasional images of the mother’s memoires of her life in China. The spread in which she shares her memoires of the famine is especially haunting. On one page, the mother describes how they ate anything they could find, and her family listens from the dinner table with expressions of sadness; on the opposite page, her brother’s chair at the table is empty. Watercress is a delicate and deeply felt exploration of memory, trauma and family.
  • Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour and Zeno Robinson (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Satirical Fiction): Debut author Mateo Askaripour frames his novel, Black Buck (11 hours), as a “how-to” manual for fellow Black workers that reveals the secrets of the narrator’s success. This framing device is particularly well suited to the audiobook format, as its similarity to motivational tapes subtly adds to the novel’s rich satirization of the bizarre and toxic realm of white startup culture. Narrator Zeno Robinson strikes just the right balance in his performance of protagonist Darren Vender’s first-person narrative, hitting both his swaggering cockiness and subsequent regret with equal sensitivity. Robinson also exhibits commanding range with other characters, including Darren’s mom and girlfriend and his white colleagues at the startup. Fast-paced, funny and dark, Askaripour’s stellar debut doesn’t let up in its takedown of corporate racism.

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.

Best New E-Books and E-Audiobooks: March 15, 2021

  • The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Biography): Thank goodness Jennifer Doudna didn’t listen to her high school guidance counselor, who told her that girls don’t do science. Instead, Doudna followed her passion and pursued biochemistry, inspired by her childhood explorations of beaches, meadows and lava flow caves in her hometown of Hilo, Hawaii. When Doudna read James Watson’s book The Double Helix as a sixth grader, she realized that “science can be very exciting, like being on a trail of a cool mystery and you’re getting a clue here and a clue there. And then you put the pieces together.” That’s exactly the feeling you’ll have while reading Walter Isaacson’s marvelous biography The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. It’s a hefty but inspiring book that chronicles Doudna’s and others’ development of the gene-editing tool CRISPR. With his dynamic and formidable style, Isaacson explains the long scientific journey that led to the tool’s discovery and the exciting developments that have followed, noting, “In the history of science, there are few real eureka moments, but this came pretty close.” Like Lab Girl on steroids, The Code Breaker paints a detailed picture of how scientists work. As Doudna interacts with a variety of talented colleagues over the years (color photos are included), she experiences excitement, uncertainty, rivalry, betrayal, and more. At one moment she’s joyfully stirring spaghetti while explaining CRISPR to her 9-year-old son; during another, she’s standing in her backyard in the middle of a rainy night, reeling from the realization that leaving her academic post at the University of California, Berkeley to work in the genetics industry was a huge mistake. The timing of Isaacson’s book could hardly be better. He was well into his research and writing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and while many of us were baking bread and worrying about toilet paper, Doudna headed to Berkeley to lead one of the teams developing diagnostic tests and messenger RNA (or mRNA) vaccines, catapulting CRISPR into the global spotlight as a lifesaving tool. The Code Breaker includes a lengthy section about these recent events, culminating in Doudna winning a Nobel Prize in October 2020. As the Moderna chairperson put it when he saw the promising clinical trial results of the company’s vaccine, “It was a bad day for viruses…We may never have a pandemic again.” In addition to being an accomplished historian of science and technology, Isaacson is a professor at Tulane University and former editor of Time magazine. His previous biography subjects include Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs–all united by their creative intellect and natural curiosity. As a biographer, Isaacson is truly an immersive tour guide, combining the energy of a TED Talk with the intimacy of a series of fireside chats. For this book, he tried his hand at gene editing and enrolled in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials. He takes a big-picture approach to CRISPR’s significance and legacy as well, discussing its many uses for treating diseases such as sickle cell anemia, while also considering the myriad complicated moral issues surrounding CRISPR’s use. For readers seeking to understand the many twists, turns and nuances of the biotechnology revolution, there’s no better place to turn than The Code Breaker.
  • We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire by Joy McCullough (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Young Adult Fiction): In We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, Joy McCullough portrays the inner workings of a young woman whose anger ignites like a gallon of gasoline touched by a lit match. Em Morales is the youngest sister in a close-knit family. As the book opens, she is preoccupied by her older sister’s court case. Nor, a college student, was sexually assaulted outside of a frat party and is pursuing justice through the legal system. The jury finds Nor’s attacker guilty, but a sympathetic judge sentences him to time served. Outside the courthouse, a furious Em goes viral for commenting that the sentence makes her want to learn to use a sword. In fact, violent revenge is the subject of the book’s parallel narrative, a series of poems written by Em about Marguerite de Bressieux, a 15th-century noblewoman who hunted rapists. We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire explores how one person’s traumatic experience can ripple through an entire family and depicts how trauma can affect every person differently. Nor wants to put the horror of the past behind her and rebuild her life, but Em is consumed by her anger. Though the book features many strong and unapologetically feminist characters, the extent to which Em’s own feelings are foregrounded is sometimes uncomfortable, given the other characters in the book who have personally experienced sexual violence. Nonetheless, We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire is an unusual novel that readers drawn to complex, imperfect protagonists will appreciate.
  • Festival Days by Jo Ann Beard (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Memoir): Jo Ann Beard’s prose is never more intensely vibrant than when describing death. Her celebrated essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” published in The New Yorker in 1996, depicts the decline of a beloved dog and the end of a marriage before segueing into the horror of a mass shooting at the University of Iowa. Beard’s new collection of essays, Festival Days, shimmers with a similar emotional intensity, especially when evoking the flashes of memory that come to those pausing on the threshold between life and death. Beard is known as a nonfiction essayist, but her work often reads like suspenseful fiction. Her essay “Werner,” included in this volume, is about a man who jumps from a burning building in New York City. Beard’s narration so completely enters the subjective experience of Werner, clutching his cat under his arm as he contemplates the jump, it feels to the reader like a virtual reality experience. Similarly, Beard’s prose in the essay “Cheri” conforms intimately to the physical and mental experiences of a dying woman. Allowing her work to exist beyond the labels of fiction or nonfiction, Beard’s metaphorical patterns evince the imaginative truths that underlie her writing. Festival Days is woven from these repeating symbols: the elderly dog, the husband’s betrayal, the friend dying of cancer. In three different essays in this collection, someone falls through a thin sheet of ice into a winter lake. Twice they are rescued; once they are not. These resonances across the essays suggest a greater unity, a story unfolding over a lifetime. Beard’s literary powers are most evident in the long eponymous essay that concludes this collection. Here, Beard weaves metaphor and memory into a stunning portrait of lifelong friendship, of those relationships that hold us and ground us across the decades, that persist with love even to the final goodbye.
  • That Way Madness Lies by Dahlia Adler (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Young Adult Fiction): Since 2016, Hogarth Press has enlisted well-known writers, including Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, to reinvent Shakespeare’s best-known plays for a modern readership. Editor Dahlia Adler undertakes a similar project in That Way Madness Lies, but the re-imagined versions here take the form of short stories, and the resulting anthology’s intended readership is teens. Adler notes in her introduction that “to say Shakespeare did not do marginalized people any favors is an understatement; many of us still live with the effects of his caricatures and common story lines today.” With this anthology, she intends to correct that imbalance. The bestselling and award-winning young adult authors gathered here “have deconstructed and reconstructed an inarguably brilliant but very white and very straight canon,” giving Shakespeare the same treatment Edgar Allan Poe received in Adler’s previous anthology, His Hideous Heart. Some stories include an accompanying note that illuminates the author’s approach. Patrice Caldwell explains that Hamlet‘s gothic overtones led her to recast Hamlet as female (and Hamlet’s uncle as a vampire), while Adler’s own story seeks to reclaim the figure of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice‘s anti-Semitism. Caldwell isn’t the only writer to give her story a bit of supernatural flair either; Lindsay Smith’s exploration of Julius Caesar incorporates witchcraft and dark sacrifices. The contributors take varying liberties with their source material. A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy’s “Some Other Metal” is set in a theater, but their version of Much Ado About Nothing applies a queer, science fiction approach to the romance at its center. Kiersten White’s “Partying Is Such Sweet Sorrow” recounts the plot of Romeo and Juliet through text messages but remains (for the most part) faithful to the spirit of the original. On the other hand, some stories–such as Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka’s “Severe Weather Warning”–conceal their Shakespearean roots so deeply as to be almost unrecognizable without the aid of context and some winking allusions. (Their story contains a cat named Ariel.) The majority of the stories stand capably on their own merits but will be enriched by familiarity with–or better yet, reading alongside–Shakespeare’s original plays and sonnets. Budding writers may even be inspired to put their own spins on the Bard of Avon’s timeless tales.

Best New Books, E-Books, and E-Audiobooks: March 8, 2021

  • What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Family Drama): “If there’s something I’ve learned in this country, it’s that your address decides everything.” That piece of advice is tucked among the rich character descriptions in the opening chapter of Naima Coster’s second novel, What’s Mine and Yours. What could be taken as a passing remark is actually a poignant thesis for the story that follows as it unfolds from the 1990s to the present. In early 2000s North Carolina, Jade is thrilled that her son, Gee, and other students from their part of town will have the opportunity to transfer to the predominately white Central High School. The newspaper reports that the merging of the city and county school systems is popular among the town’s residents, and pilot programs provide incentives for students to transfer across the system. But at the crowded town hall meeting before the start of the school year, Gee doesn’t share his mom’s enthusiasm. He’s sure this isn’t a welcoming committee; he’s heard white parents plan to protest. Lacey May is among those pushing back. She hasn’t had it easy; after her husband went to jail, she chose to couple up with a man who could provide for her and her three daughters. Lacey May’s oldest, Noelle, is embarrassed by her mother’s actions and is sure they’re motivated by the color of her new classmates’ skin. Noelle and her sisters are half-Latina, though they pass for white. She concocts a plan with Central’s theater teacher: They’ll put on a Shakespearean performance to build a bridge between existing students and newcomers. The play brings Noelle and Gee together, even as their mothers continue to rage outside the classroom. In vividly detailed scenes spanning more than 25 years, Coster illuminates the impact of Noelle’s and Gee’s families and formative years. The pair is the heart of What’s Mine and Yours, but Coster allows every major player their time in the spotlight. Her rich character development illustrates the many ways family and circumstances can influence who we become.
  • Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Tamsin is a witch, but unlike other witches her age, she has spent the last five years banished from the witches’ land of Within, cursed to never feel love as punishment for a terrible deed. Now she ekes out a lonely existence as a harsh, callous village witch among the Ordinary folk. Wren is a source: someone who is magic but cannot use magic. But unlike other sources, she didn’t travel to Within when her magic appeared, as the witches’ governing coven requires. Instead, she stayed behind to care for her ailing father, hiding the evidence of her relationship to magic as best she could. When a dark plague sweeps across the land, Tamsin hopes to return to Within and hunt for the witch who cast it, potentially earning the right to return home. Determined to rescue her father from the plague, Wren seeks Tamsin’s aid. The girls strike a bargain and set off to Within. The romantic arc of Sweet & Bitter Magic trods an enjoyable if well-worn “opposites attract” path. Chapters alternate between Tamsin’s and Wren’s perspectives, and each young woman exhibits both flaws and growth that readers will find relatable, perhaps even healing. Tamsin must outgrow her tendency to be selfish and let go of her guilt over her past mistakes, while Wren struggles to prioritize her own desires and develop confidence in her own abilities. Debut author Adrienne Tooley’s magical system of witches and sources is simple but intriguing, and the novel’s setting evokes a mix of European fairy tales and medieval society. The land of Within is filled with such strange and vivid imagery that readers will be reluctant to leave it behind. With its combination of fresh and familiar elements and two heroines whose emotional journeys are sure to resonate, Sweet & Bitter Magic is a treat for readers who loved the queer fantasy of Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass and the atmospheric, witchy vibes of Peternelle van Arsdale’s The Beast Is an Animal.
  • Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Carey Parker has a show-stopping singing voice just like their idol and namesake, the legendary Mariah Carey. But as a genderqueer teenager who’s faced bullying at school from classmates and teachers alike, Carey has learned to avoid the spotlight and the negative attention it draws. When Carey’s voice catches the ear of Cris, a cute and talented musician, Cris encourages Carey to try out for their school’s upcoming production of the musical Wicked. Carey should be a shoo-in for the lead role of Elphaba, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, but they’re reluctant to audition, as their confidence still hasn’t recovered from their best friend Joey’s cold reaction to their coming out. Landing the role turns out to be only the beginning of the battle, as a bigoted teacher tries to force Carey and the director out of the musical entirely. Though Carey takes center stage in Can’t Take That Away, debut author Steven Salvatore surrounds them with characters who demonstrate the vital role that support networks play in the lives of queer teens. From the book’s opening scene, in which Carey’s favorite teacher gives them color-coded bracelets to “express their gender identity on any given day,” Carey and their friends constantly help each other grow and fight together for what they believe in. Aspiring fashion designer Monroe crafts Carey the perfect audition outfit for maximum confidence, while Carey’s therapist patiently works with them to uncover the root of their fears. Although the book’s antagonists sometimes behave with almost cartoonish prejudice, it’s still satisfying when Carey and their friends band together to oppose them. Music is also central in Can’t Take That Away, and Salvatore excels at describing how it grounds and connects Carey to the world. Sometimes music is a source of comfort for Carey, as when they recite Mariah Carey trivia to help them get through panic attacks. Other times, however, it’s a source of bittersweet pain. Carey shares their love of music with their grandmother, whose health has deteriorated and who can no longer sing along with the songs they used to perform together. The book is filled with big emotions that swell and crash with all the drama of the artists Salvatore frequently name-drops. Even readers unfamiliar with the musical references will be able to understand Carey’s emotional connections to them as they belt songs out with passion. In the climactic confrontation with the school’s administration over its discriminatory behavior, Salvatore’s characters stand up for their rights with clarity and conviction. There’s an admirably practical emphasis on creating tangible, actionable change, rather than settling for empty promises or rhetoric. As empowering as it is entertaining, Salvatore’s debut novel hits all the right notes.
  • Vera by Carol Edgarian (Historical Fiction): “I sometimes wondered what it would have been like to be raised a normal girl,” says the narrator of Carol Edgarian’s novel Vera. “But that was not my story.” It is 1906, and Vera Johnson is being raised in a “respectable” household by a widowed Swedish woman pretending to be her mother. Vera’s real mother, however, is Rose, the madam of San Francisco’s most infamous brothel. Rose has kept Vera a secret for nearly 15 years while continuing to provide for her financially. Then the destructive San Francisco earthquake happens, shaking more than the ground beneath their feet. Readers may come to Vera for a tale about the San Francisco earthquake, or for a juicy novel about the women who populate society’s underbelly. But the novel is actually about motherhood and Vera’s struggle to be cared for as she needs to be. Vera yearns for her mother’s love and respect, and she doesn’t care about how Rose’s disreputable place in society could impact her own life. The many memorable characters populating Vera may provide interesting fodder for book club conversations. Vera is feisty and chafes at the confines of life in this era; her refusal to conform brings to mind a more street-savvy Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. She is forced to be stronger than any 15-year-old should have to be. And Rose intriguingly demonstrates the tough choices a woman of her time must make in order to be truly free.
  • The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner (e-book available on the Libby or Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical Fiction): When an author threads a story with multiple perspectives that span years, they run the risk that readers will prefer one character’s voice over another, creating a divide in investment that’s difficult to bridge. With The Lost Apothecary, first-time novelist Sarah Penner takes that risk, weaving together the tales of three women separated by more than two centuries but united through pain, fear and hope. In Penner’s case, the risk pays off in a spellbinding way. In 1791 London, Nella works in her apothecary shop with a very specific purpose: making discreet poisons to help women rid themselves of the dangerous men in their lives. Nella’s work is solitary for good reason, until she meets Eliza, a 12-year-old whose curiosity transforms her from unlikely client to unlikely friend. Meanwhile in the present, Caroline is making a solo journey to London in the wake of her husband’s infidelity. As she wanders the city, a chance discovery reawakens her long-buried passion for history, and as she seeks her new purpose in life, she just might find it in the story of Nella and Eliza. What’s most striking about The Lost Apothecary is not how expertly Penner braids the three strands of her story together, though the structure and pacing are certainly well done. What is most admirable is that, as she leaps between first-person perspectives–including two women who are often reflecting on the exact same events–the sense of character never once falters. Their presences and voices are distinct, even as they’re bound by an emotional link that is clear to the reader (though not always clear to the characters). There’s a powerful unity to this story, making it nimble yet sturdy, light yet satiating. Like in a well-brewed potion, all the ingredients have been given exactly the right level of care and time, and the result is a novel that simply overwhelms with its delicate spell.
  • Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Darcy Phillips is a love guru. Through her top-secret relationship counseling service–she emails advice in response to notes her classmates pass discreetly into long abandoned locker number 89–Darcy can solve any romantic woe, no matter how epic or seemingly trivial. When popular senior Alexander Brougham spots Darcy opening the locker, however, he quickly pieces together her secret, putting both her business and her reputation at risk. Darcy agrees to help Brougham win back his ex-girlfriend in exchange for his silence, but the task will put her relationship knowledge to the test in more ways than one. Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper effortlessly conveys the complex web of social interactions that high school students navigate every day. Darcy’s frank, thoughtful and not quite self-aware narration is captivating and genuine, an authentic depiction of young adulthood in the 21st century. Teen readers will connect with Darcy’s struggles, cheer for her relationships, cringe at her missteps and maybe even take a piece of advice from locker 89 to heart. Gonzales’ novel also admirably reflects recent shifts in the representation of LGBTQ+ characters in YA literature. By including both queer and transgender characters whose sexuality and gender identity are neither their defining trait nor the source of the conflicts that drive their narratives, Gonzales reflects the lived experiences of teens today and delivers a relatable read with multiple points of identification. Heartfelt, witty and thoroughly entertaining, Perfect on Paper is an enthralling tale of young love and the joy, heartbreak and growth it brings.
  • How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Literary Fiction): In 2017, Imbolo Mbue won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her novel Behold the Dreamers, but it’s taken 17 years for the novel she began before that one, How Beautiful We Were, to reach publication. Readers who enjoyed Behold the Dreamers will be pleased that Mbue persisted to tell this powerful story of the fateful clash between an American oil company and the tiny African village forced to live with the consequences of its environmental destruction. Set in an unnamed country that Mbue says bears some resemblance to her native Cameroon, the novel chronicles more than four decades in Kosawa, the only one of eight “sibling villages” that must live with the “curse that came from living on land beneath which oil sat.” As the deaths of their children mount and the damage to their agriculture becomes more catastrophic, the villagers’ frustration turns to desperation. They kidnap several oil company representatives, which initiates a series of events that brings both disaster and hope to the community. Mbue narrates her story through the voices of five members of Kosawa’s Nangi family–Thula, a young woman who evolves into an activist; her mother, Sahel; grandmother Yaya; uncle Bongo; and brother Juba–along with a collective of Thula’s contemporaries she calls the Children. While there are clear villains and heroes, the political and ethical questions faced by Mbue’s characters are never presented in black-and-white terms, even when Mbue describes Kosawa’s response to the oil company’s intransigence. Mbue devotes considerable attention to issues like patriarchy and the beauty and role of myth and magic in the lives of Kosawa’s villagers, deepening and contextualizing the novel’s tragic elements. How Beautiful We Were proceeds at a deliberate pace that’s appropriate for the moral gravity of the story and the fateful choices–wise and unwise, but always undeniably human–made by Mbue’s characters. To those disinclined to question the role that economic exploitation plays in supporting our modern lifestyle, reading this novel may prove an unsettling experience.

Best New E-Books: March 4, 2021

  • The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Mystery Novel): Who among us–perhaps after binge-watching “Murder, She Wrote” or finishing yet another murder-mystery novel–hasn’t thought we’d be passable crime-solvers, if ever called upon to ferret out clues or mull over motives? In Elly Griffiths’ The Postscript Murders, a motley and charming trio of amateur sleuths gets their chance for the saddest of reasons: Their friend, the intelligent and gregarious Peggy, is found dead in her home. Healthcare aide Natalka discovers 90-year-old Peggy in her armchair, where she liked to look out the bay window at her Shoreham-by-Sea, England, neighborhood and seafront. There is a notebook, binoculars and mystery novel by her side, as well as a business card that reads, “Mrs. M. Smith, Murder Consultant.” That surprising job title seems even stranger when Natalka, Benedict (coffee shop owner and ex-monk) and Edwin (retired after many years at the BBC) sort through Peggy’s extensive collection of crime novels and realize the vast majority are dedicated to her. What, they wonder, does “Thanks for the murders” mean? The trio runs their theories by Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, whom Griffiths fans will remember from 2019’s Edgar Award-winning The Stranger Diaries. Here, Kaur reluctantly considers the trio’s speculation about Peggy’s demise, ultimately partnering with them when a literary festival in Aberdeen, Scotland, becomes the site of additional untimely deaths and other assorted dangers. Griffiths’ strong sense of place–the sea is sparkling yet unsettling, Aberdeen’s cliffs beautiful yet unforgiving–provides a rich foundation for a cleverly constructed story with complex, memorable characters. Each is granted multiple turns to share their innermost thoughts, from feverish yet fearful interest in their detective work to poignant musings on years past. Through them, the societal tendency to underestimate the elderly is examined and defied time and again. The Postscript Murders is a cozy bibliophile’s delight of a mystery that turns writerly research and acknowledgments into fodder for pivotal plot points, offers a tongue-in-cheek peek at the publishing business and pays tribute to friendships that transform into chosen families.
  • The Soul of a Woman by Isabel Allende (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Memoir): “My anger against machismo started in those childhood years of seeing my mother and the housemaids as victims,” writes Isabel Allende in The Soul of a Woman, her reflection on how feminism has shaped her life. “They were subordinate and had no resources or voice…My feelings of frustration were so powerful that they marked me forever.” Allende, a fixture of Latin American storytelling since the publication of The House of the Spirits in 1982, is well qualified to deliver a feminist manifesto. Those who have followed her career are familiar with the number of times she has struggled defiantly to overcome roadblocks in her path. The House of the Spirits, which addressed the ghosts of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, was rejected by Chile’s macho publishing culture. (Eventually it was published in Argentina instead, to great acclaim.) While many critics have praised her work, comparing her to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she’s also had many detractors, mostly male writers who seemed determined to dismiss her. In The Soul of a Woman, Allende describes these experiences and others that imbued her with the grit and tenacity that define her today. Allende discusses her past matter-of-factly and directly, without losing her piquante humor. Her mother was an unconventional and vivacious woman who grew bitter under the heavy hand of patriarchy and misogyny. Allende decided to adopt a different way of life for herself, despite the misgivings of her mother and stepfather, the Chilean ambassador to Argentina. She details her career from its roots in feminist journalism through the literary pursuits that made her a success in spite of adversity and personal tragedy. Ultimately Allende tells us of a life lived fully, for better or worse. The passionate choices she has made are boldly laid out without apologies in this slim volume. Allende even reflects on the twilight of her life, though it seems unbelievable that such a vibrant spirit could ever dim. But when it does, the blaze her life leaves behind will illuminate this world for decades to come.
  • Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Speculative Fiction): Anyone who has read Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpieces knows that, in his works, little is as it first appears. Situations are not quite as his unreliable narrators believe. First-person protagonists speak in formal prose that sounds not quite right. And his later works are wonderfully unclassifiable–not quite detective fiction or dystopian sagas but borrowing from these forms while veering into original terrain. He continues his genre-twisting ways with Klara and the Sun, a return to the dystopian tenor of Never Let Me Go that, like that work, explores whether science could–or should–manipulate the future. Klara is an AF, an Artificial Friend available for purchase. Like Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day, she speaks in quirky locutions such as “I was able to bring several speculations together.” She and other AFs are on display in a store, where the prime real estate is the front window. The advantages of that position include access to the Sun, from which AFs derive “nourishment.” A teenager named Josie, suffering from an unspecified illness, insists that her Mother purchase Klara. What follows is the story of Josie’s home life and Klara’s role in the family’s affairs. Among them are the Mother’s trauma from the death of another daughter, a young man sweet on Josie and, most provocatively, the issue of whether science can correct injustices wrought by illness or one’s station in life. Ishiguro is an expert at slowly doling out information to build tension. The wonder of this book is that he incorporates many elements, from environmental damage to genetic testing, without the story seeming heavy-handed. But the predominant theme in Klara and the Sun is loneliness. “Humans, in their wish to escape loneliness,” Klara says, “made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom.” As Ishiguro notes in this brilliant book, each person has their own Sun, a source that gives them strength, and feels enervated when the source leaves them in shadow.

Best New Books and E-Books: March 1, 2021

  • This Will Be Funny Someday by Katie Henry (YA Fiction): Sixteen-year-old Izzy is content with her life–or, at least, she’s trying to be. As the younger sibling to a boisterous pair of twins, the daughter of distracted parents and the girlfriend of a popular and somewhat clingy boyfriend, Izzy tries to fit in wherever she can. That mostly means remaining silent and fading into the background, whether at school, at home or with the people she calls her friends. So when Izzy accidentally and unwittingly stumbles into a comedy club, she seizes the opportunity to finally express herself. She forms genuine friendships with other young people she meets at the club who are as passionate about stand-up as she is and begins to build a new life outside the routine she’s always known. But keeping her two lives separate proves challenging, and Izzy is forced to reckon with who she really is and what she wants to stand for. Katie Henry’s third novel, This Will Be Funny Someday, is a vibrant and engaging coming-of-age story. The book plunges readers into Izzy’s life as she faces new experiences and hurdles that shape her identity, from her relationship with her boyfriend to her role in her family. Told from Izzy’s perspective, the novel is shaped by her unique point of view–a perspective that’s still growing into itself. The book’s dynamic cast of characters, including not just Izzy’s friends from the club but also her former best friend, Naomi, introduce realistic conflicts that readers will find both captivating and truthful, from sexism and racism to repairing a broken bond. Izzy’s story is about growth just as much as it is about success, and Henry demonstrates how she is subject to the consequences of her actions as well as worthy of her triumphs. Honest and hopeful, This Will Be Funny Someday will resonate with readers who crave characters who are authentic in both their struggles and their victories.
  • A New Day by Brad Meltzer and Dan Santat (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Children’s Picture Book: Ages 3-5): Sunday has been feeling overworked and underappreciated, so she walks off the job, leaving the remaining days of the week wondering how they’ll fill her shoes. The auditions to find her replacement quickly descend into hilarious chaos as the proposed successors grow more far-fetched; even “UnicornsWithFlashlightsForHornsDay” gets an audience. Monday through Saturday are run ragged from evaluating potential days full of sweets, dogs, hats and superheroes, while in the background, a group of frustrated cats continues their campaign for “Caturday.” How will the days of the week ever find the perfect seventh day? Bestselling author Brad Meltzer’s eclectic text is peppered with clever asides and loads of playful language as it bounces between narrative and dialogue, delivered energetically via speech bubbles. Pop culture and historical references run the gamut from Shark Week to Elbridge Gerry (James Madison’s vice president, for whom the practice of gerrymandering is named), sure to earn a laugh from readers of every age. Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat illustrates A New Day with all the energy and bustle of a zany animated movie. Cheerful and colorful, every page is eye-catching, entertaining and full of enticing details. Saturday rocks a beige cardigan that recalls Jeff Bridges’ iconic Big Lebowski character, but its pattern is formed by knitted letter z’s. Children gobble boxes labelled “CAN-D” and “SHOOGR.” The anthropomorphized days are instantly recognizable characters with the appearances and personalities we’d expect from them. Monday has a tie and holds a clipboard; Thursday has a laid-back, almost end-of-the-week smirk; and Friday wears a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops. While A New Day begins like a rough day at the office and unwinds like a sugar-high explosion, it never loses its sense of purpose and teamwork. An enormously fun read with a heaping side of silliness, A New Day doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s an earnest reminder that, with a little creativity and thoughtfulness, we can make each day a day worth celebrating.
  • Win by Harlan Coben (e-book available on the Overdrive/Libby app with your library card; Suspense Novel): Windsor Horne Lockwood III has a charmed life: he’s a handsome, highly intelligent white man with access to immense generational wealth. But every rose has its thorn, and in Harlan Coben’s suspenseful and oft-surprising Win, the rakish titular character explains that he has long had to contend with negative assumptions due to his name, slight frame and regal bearing. Even this is an advantage, however: It’s caused him to cultivate exceptional combat skills (those who underestimate him soon regret it, often from a hospital bed). This has made him an excellent sidekick to Myron Bolitar, the sports agent-turned-investigator at the forefront of 11 of Coben’s novels thus far. With Win, the author is trying something completely different. For the first time since readers met Win in 1995, the “preternaturally overconfident” sidekick emerges from the shadows to take center stage. His origin story is a departure from Coben’s Bolitar-universe narrative norm, one that readers will find intriguing thanks to a voice that is less open and more calculating, bolstered by a largely misanthropic worldview. And Win’s got a lot to say, whether regarding his hedonistic pursuits or why the FBI thinks he knows something about a bizarre murder scene at a wealthy loner’s Manhattan penthouse. The FBI isn’t surprised Win doesn’t know the man, but are curious about two things found near him: a Vermeer painting stolen from the Lockwood family, and a suitcase bearing Win’s initials. The last time Win saw these items was 20 years prior, around the time his cousin Patricia was kidnapped and held prisoner at an isolated cabin. She escaped, but the case was never solved. Now, it seems this new murder victim was not only connected to Patricia’s terrifying ordeal, but to domestic terrorists who committed multiple as-yet-unsolved crimes 40 years ago. Ever the investigator, Win delves into the past and casts a critical eye on the present, using his wits and wealth to gain access and information. Coben, as is his wont, raises moral dilemmas readers will enjoy chewing on and pulse-pounding action scenes will keep the pages at least semi-frantically turning. As lies are challenged, secrets are revealed and seemingly impossible decisions made, Win makes it clear that “Life is lived in the grays.”

Best New E-Books: February 24, 2021

  • Mazie by Melanie Crowder (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): It’s 1959, and 17-year-old Mazie Butterfield dreams of becoming a Broadway star–no easy feat for a Nebraska farm girl who waitresses as a carhop for meager tips. When her beloved grandmother dies and leaves her a small inheritance, Mazie breaks up with her boyfriend, Jesse, and heads to New York City. Mazie knows getting a part in a Broadway musical will be tough, but she’s not prepared for the callousness of show business. Before she’s even opened her mouth to sing, casting directors dismiss her for her broad stature, freckles and quaint surname. Just when her money runs out, she gets a part in a traveling stage production that puts her at odds with a lecherous director. Mazie always knew that running toward a dream would be hard; she just never realized the heart she’d break could be her own. The farm girl with big-city dreams is a classic Hollywood trope that feels fresh and contemporary in Melanie Crowder’s capable hands. The titular protagonist of Mazie is hardworking, if a tad naive. She’s open to new experiences, including getting acquainted with Broadway’s underground gay scene. Her confrontations with men who abuse their positions ring frustratingly true even in our #MeToo era. The conflict between Mazie and Jesse highlights the tough choices faced by those who seek stardom, leaving behind family and friends and altering their appearances and even their names to appease audiences. Although Mazie is white and Christian, she is asked to lose weight and slough off her country manners in order to be more palatable to Broadway producers. Crowder has clearly done her research as she brings the golden age of musical theater to life, but readers may find themselves just as nostalgic for the quiet life of a small Nebraska farm as for glitzy, postwar Manhattan by the time they finish Mazie’s story.
  • J.D. and the Great Barber Battle by J. Dillard and Akeem S. Roberts (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Children’s Chapter: Ages 6-8): In J.D. Jones’ family, nobody gets a haircut until they turn 9, when they receive a home buzz cut. J.D.’s mom has been busy lately, so J.D. is glad for a chance to spend time with her when she cuts his hair before the first day of third grade. He hopes she can manage a basic fade, but when he looks in the mirror to check out his new hairstyle, what he sees is…not good. J.D. is used to his classmates’ teasing over his hand-me-down clothes, but being mocked for his hair is a new low, so he springs into action. He tries his mom’s hair relaxer, which only makes his hair look worse. Next, he uses the family’s clippers, but not before testing them out on his little brother first. Fortunately, it turns out that J.D. is a haircutting whiz. Not only does he escape punishment for cutting his brother’s hair without permission, but soon everyone is asking J.D. to work his magic on their hair, lining up to pay him for his haircuts. He sets up shop on his back porch and is quickly flush with cash, until the owner of the only barber shop in town tries to shut him down. Desperate, J.D. challenges him to a haircutting competition that will put all of his new skills to the test. Debut author J. Dillard is a former master barber, and he effortlessly welcomes readers into J.D.’s small hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, where “everyone…knows everything about everyone else.” It’s a lively place, where J.D. is surrounded by a close-knit group of family and friends, where money is always a little tight. Like most kids his age, J.D. longs to define himself and to discover where he can excel, and young readers will enjoy watching him gain self-confidence along with his skills as a barber and entrepreneur. Dillard has a sharp ear for dialogue, and J.D.’s conversational narration paired with the story’s gentle humor and perfectly placed pop culture references will ensure a wide appeal. Akeem S. Roberts’ cartoon-style illustrations of J.D. and his friends are packed with personality and make this a great choice for readers transitioning into chapter books. The first book in a planned series, J.D. and the Great Barber Battle feels like a winner.
  • The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical Fiction): Grab a cup of tea and a scone, and curl up with The Kitchen Front, Jennifer Ryan’s positively delicious novel about four British women competing in a cooking contest during World War II. The winner will become the first female host of a BBC radio show called “The Kitchen Front,” which guides listeners in creative ways to use food rations. Ryan, author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane, continues to excel at creating warmhearted, intriguing homefront drama. Both the book and the contest are divided into three rounds, in which each contestant must cook a starter, main course and dessert. The stakes are high for the competitors, each of whom yearns for the career-boosting prize. There’s Audrey, the anchor of the book, a struggling war widow with three sons, as well as her estranged, wealthy sister, Lady Gwendoline, who’s trapped in a loveless relationship with her abusive husband. Lady G’s shy young kitchen maid, Nell, is also competing, as well as a professional cook from France named Zelda, a single woman who’s trying to hide an unplanned pregnancy. Ryan uses alternating chapters to explore each woman’s personality, moving the drama steadily along with brisk dialogue and action. This is very much a book about women’s rights, strengths and abilities, and the class differences among characters add drama and a dash of complexity. Recipes are included for each round, some adapted from wartime leaflets. They’re fun to read, and each is well integrated into the unfolding drama. Readers are likely to be more inclined to try some (vegetarian Lord Woolton pie or Audrey’s fruit scones) than others (Lady Gwendoline’s sardine rolls). Historical details sprinkled throughout are equally fascinating, such as the fact that during the war, the moat around the Tower of London was drained to grow cabbages and potatoes that fed struggling Londoners in the East End. Though the four contestants each face personal difficulties, endure shortages and fear bombing raids, their village of Fenley feels removed from the raging horrors of World War II. Ryan injects humor into their sorrow–as well as empowerment–as the group gradually learns to band together and pool their talents instead of facing off as kitchen opponents. While The Kitchen Front goes down like a spoonful of sugar, Ryan manages to instill substance and plenty of food for thought in its creative and ultimately uplifting story.

Best New Books and E-Books: February 17, 2021

  • The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec (Fantasy): Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, is both staggering in its beauty and delicate in its execution as it takes the Norse characters and stories we are so familiar with and shoves them to the background. Gone are the death-defying feats of Odin and nearly invisible is the quick-tempered Thor. In their stead, Gornichec highlights the overlooked witch Angrboda, Loki’s mate and the mother of monsters. The Witch’s Heart opens with literal heartbreak and flames. Angrboda has been burned three times and her heart has been stabbed and removed for refusing to help Odin peer into the future. Yet still she lives, largely stripped of her powers and reduced to foraging for roots and snaring rabbits in a forest at the edge of the world. When a god–the frost giant trickster Loki–returns her gouged-out heart, Angrboda is distrustful. But as Loki continues to insinuate himself into Angrboda’s life, distrust turns first to affection and then to deep love. The witch and the god have three fate-possessed children together: the wolf Fenrir, the Midgard serpent Jormungandr, and the half-dead girl and future queen of the dead Hel. Together with the help of the huntress Skadi, Angrboda attempts to shield her growing family from Odin’s searching eye, but the threat that her unusual family poses to the gods in Asgard can’t be ignored for long, and every step they take pushes them collectively towards a climactic conflict: Ragnarok. Gornichec’s work is not a book of swashbuckling Viking adventure. Rather, it is a character study of a woman whose story has otherwise been relegated to but a few sentences of mythology. Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, looms in Angrboda’s visions, but for the most part this is a story of small moments with large consquences. Gornichec lingers over scenes of domesticity–over Skadi helping Angrboda build her furniture, over the feelings of resentment that accompany your child liking their other parent more than they like you, over the simple wonder and occasional annoyance of sharing a bed with someone you love. The Witch’s Heart invites us to swim in these details, lulling us with descriptions of a family dynamic that we know can’t possibly last. And this is where the beauty of Gornichec’s work lives. She never denies the tragedy that is inevitable in any story of Norse mythology. Angrboda, like all the others, is bound by fate and her rebellions must be within its confines. For some readers, the small scale of Gornichec’s novel and the focus on the inevitability of Ragnarok might be frustrating. After all, this story is not what we have been told to expect of tales of Vikings and witches. But to those readers, Gornichec offers this: instead of fighting the end, focus on the details and savor the life–and the change–that can be built in the cracks that fate has neglected.
  • The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Nicole Lesperance blends crystalline prose, an atmospheric setting and memorable characters to create a story that dances and shines as brightly as the northern lights in her debut YA novel, The Wide Starlight. Eli has always known her life should have been different. She should have grown up in the frozen landscape of Svalbard, a group of islands north of Norway, where she was born. She would speak Norwegian and her mother’s family would call her by her full name, Eline. Instead, she lives with her American father on Cape Cod, where everyone calls her Eli and she has lost all familiarity with the language she once called her own. The biggest difference, however, and the loss Eli feels most acutely, is her mother’s absence. Ever since the night she carried 6-year-old Eli out onto a frozen fjord, whistled at the multicolored aurora in the sky and flew away, Eli has felt a gaping hole where her mother should be. So when her mother suddenly reappears, Eli is overwhelmed and unsure how she should act or feel. Then weird, inexplicable occurrences begin to happen all around town that my be linked to her mother’s return, and before Eli can begin to piece together what’s going on, her mother vanishes again. Desperate for answers, Eli journeys to Svalbard, but more than family secrets may be waiting for her under the ice. Lesperance’s story has a breathtakingly frosty atmosphere that’s anchored by her descriptions of the icy world of Eli’s childhood, which is both enchanting and unforgivingly harsh. The author just as vividly evokes the ostensibly mundane contemporary setting of Cape Cod, immersing readers in a seaside landscape dotted with scrubby pine forests. When Eli travels to Norway, readers will practically feel the bitter sting of the frigid air, hear the crunch of packed snow underfoot and see the brilliant gleam of sunlight reflecting off the ice. Both locations are perfect choices for a story imbued with magic and wonder. Yet for all its trappings of snow-swept fantasy, what lies at the glowing core of The Wide Starlight is the deep and sacred bond between mother and daughter, as Lesperance explores the lengths to which that bond can stretch and still remain intact.
  • The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): It’s the year 2043, and deadly swarms of bioengineered flies have devastated the human population over the past 18 years. Even if a person’s flesh isn’t completely consumed by the swarms, infections can remain dormant for years. Survivors call it the Fly Flu. Young people, like 18-year-old Nico and 12-year-old Kit, don’t remember a time before the Fly Flu. As the novel opens, they don’t know each other yet, but they have quite a bit in common. They’ve both grown up in small families in New England, and they’re both afraid that their parents are on the verge of succumbing to latent infections. Kit’s beloved mother, Dakota, has been acting increasingly tired and confused. Nico’s mother has already died, and she fears her father may be close behind. Circumstances conspire to spur Nico and Kit to leave the homes they’ve always known–and as they pursue their destinies, to find one another. David Arnold’s The Electric Kingdom is a mind-blowing blend of post-apocalyptic fantasy, science fiction and time-travel saga. In an author’s note, Arnold writes, “I’ve spent most of my writing career exploring the metaphorical ways in which art and story can save us, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I explored their literal saving graces as well.” Indeed, stories form the backbone of Arnold’s engrossing novel, whether they are read in familiar books or written in new chronicles, told around campfires or conveyed in works of visual art. Alternating between the perspectives of Kit, Nico and the enigmatic “Deliverer,” whose identity remains unknown until close to the novel’s end, The Electric Kingdom incorporates themes of journeys and the unknown, which Arnold has explored in earlier books. The Electric Kingdom satisfyingly blends elements of several genres, making it a perfect choice for readers who don’t gravitate toward genre fiction but enjoy novels that explore philosophical questions, such as science versus religion, or tales of survival in dangerous circumstances. It’s also a deeply emotional story. Powerful scenes capture devastating sadness and loss, while offering a tentative glimpse of hope even when it seems fruitless. It’s the kind of novel worth re-reading–and readers will find something new to appreciate about it with each return.
  • My First Day by Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Children’s Picture Book: Ages 4-7): My First Day is a captivating story that depicts one child’s journey to school. “Today is the first day.” A young Vietnamese boy, his backpack resting snugly on his shoulders, heads out. Mama told him he’s finally big enough to do this alone. Paddling where “the great river, mother Mekong, tumbles into the endless sea,” the boy cuts a striking figure as he stands resolutely in his boat while tall, foam-crested waves in rich shades of green and cyan swell around him. The book’s language is both plain-spoken (“I set out upon the waves and begin my adventure”) and evocative (“I paddle out into the floodwaters, past yesterdays and all the things I didn’t know”). Author-illustrators Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien draw seamless parallels between the boy’s travels and the first day of school that awaits him: “There is still a world to learn,” he says as he first leaves home. Later, he likens his journey to the “unfamiliar hallways of the forest” and refers to the “blackboard” of the river. With resilience, the boy endures rough waters, rain, crocodiles and pythons–some real, some imaginary. These darker spreads, filled with menacing, beguiling shadows, eventually make way for exquisite, light-filled pages. Coral-hued rays of sunlight break through clouds, and the sky fills with brilliant colors and “a dance of storks and new worlds.” In one thrilling spread, Quang and Lien provide an underwater perspective: The boy floats on the surface as we look up at him alongside schools of fish who move gracefully through the water. Fluid, energetic lines, compelling page turns and a forward momentum as the boy steadfastly paddles through the water make My First Day a particularly propulsive, cinematic story. Readers everywhere who know the thrill of the first day of school will delight to see other children arriving in their respective boats at the book’s close, though they may be sad to see the boy’s adventure end. The book’s back matter includes a note reminding readers that children go to school in many different ways and that some children are “even heroes on their journeys!”