This terrifying and tender novel is a blunt answer to the question of why immigrants from Latin America cross the U.S. border—and a testimony to the courage it takes to do it.
Cummins (The Crooked Branch, 2013, etc.) opens this propulsive novel with a massacre. In a pleasant Acapulco neighborhood, gunmen slaughter 16 people at a family barbecue, from a grandmother to the girl whose quinceañera they are celebrating. The only survivors are Lydia, a young mother, and her 8-year-old son, Luca. She knows they must escape, fast and far. Lydia’s husband, Sebastián, is among the dead; he was a fearless journalist whose coverage of the local cartel, Los Jardineros, is the reason los sicarios were sent, as the sign fastened to his dead chest makes clear. Lydia knows there is more to it, that her friendship with a courtly older man who has become her favorite customer at the small bookstore she runs is a secret key, and that she and her son are marked for death. Cummins does a splendid job of capturing Lydia’s and Luca’s numb shock and then panic in the aftermath of the shootings, then their indomitable will to survive and reach el norte—any place they might go in Mexico is cartel territory, and any stranger might be an assassin. She vividly recounts their harrowing travels for more than 1,000 miles by bus, atop a lethally dangerous freight train, and finally on foot across the implacable Sonoran Desert. Peril and brutality follow them, but they also encounter unexpected generosity and heroism. Lydia and Luca are utterly believable characters, and their breathtaking journey moves with the velocity and power of one of those freight trains.
Intensely suspenseful and deeply humane, this novel makes migrants seeking to cross the southern U.S. border indelibly individual.
An ambitious novel about an Israeli, a Palestinian, and the grief they share in common.
Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin both lose their daughters when the girls are still young. Rami’s Smadar dies in an explosion caused by suicide bombers; Bassam’s Abir is killed by a rubber bullet. Rami is Israeli, Bassam Palestinian. They both become advocates for peace in the Middle East. McCann’s (Thirteen Ways of Looking, 2015, etc.) latest novel is a soaring, ambitious triumph: It tells the stories of Rami and Bassam, both based on real people, and their daughters and their land and much else, besides. The novel is splintered into short, numbered segments that count up to 500 before crawling back down to 1. The effect is kaleidoscopic. McCann wheels outward in a widening circuit, not unlike the birds that form a central metaphor that recurs throughout the book. Some segments describe Israeli-Palestinian politics; others are composed of photographs; still others are made up entirely of quotes from figures as disparate as Picasso and Mahmoud Darwish. The result is a sprawling masterpiece but not a perfect one. Rarely does McCann incorporate the voices of women. Smadar and Abir are necessarily rendered silent by their deaths, but McCann doesn’t make much space, either, for Rami’s and Bassam’s wives to inhabit. Nor does he assemble women writers, artists, and intellectuals with anything approaching the frequency with which he defers to figures like Darwish and Borges. Still, his writing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply nuanced and sensitive to the afflictions of both sides. As a whole, the book is a remarkable achievement.
Imperfect but ultimately triumphant, McCann’s latest novel might be his finest yet.
This extremely urban fantasy, a love/hate song to and rallying cry for the author’s home of New York, expands her story “The City, Born Great” (from How Long ’Til Black Future Month, 2018).
When a great city reaches the point when it's ready to come to life, it chooses a human avatar, who guides the city through its birthing and contends with an extradimensional Enemy who seeks to strike at this vulnerable moment. Now, it is New York City’s time to be born, but its avatar is too weakened by the battle to complete the process. So each of the individual boroughs instantiates its own avatar to continue the fight. Manhattan is a multiracial grad student new to the city with a secret violent past that he can no longer quite remember; Brooklyn is an African American rap star–turned–lawyer and city councilwoman; Queens is an Indian math whiz here on a visa; the Bronx is a tough Lenape woman who runs a nonprofit art center; and Staten Island is a frightened and insular Irish American woman who wants nothing to do with the other four. Can these boroughs successfully awaken and heal their primary avatar and repel the invading white tentacles of the Enemy? The novel is a bold calling out of the racial tensions dividing not only New York City, but the U.S. as a whole; it underscores that people of color are an integral part of the city’s tapestry even if some white people prefer to treat them as interlopers. It's no accident that the only white avatar is the racist woman representing Staten Island, nor that the Enemy appears as a Woman in White who employs the forces of racism and gentrification in her invasion; her true self is openly inspired by the tropes of the xenophobic author H.P. Lovecraft. Although the story is a fantasy, many aspects of the plot draw on contemporary incidents. In the real world, white people don’t need a nudge from an eldritch abomination to call down a violent police reaction on people of color innocently conducting their daily lives, and just as in the book, third parties are fraudulently transferring property deeds from African American homeowners in Brooklyn, and gentrification forces out the people who made the neighborhood attractive in the first place. In the face of these behaviors, whataboutism, #BothSides, and #NotAllWhitePeople are feeble arguments.
Subtle dystopian fiction from the author of World and Town (2010).
It’s the not-too-distant future, and the United States has become AutoAmerica. The citizenry has been divided into the Netted and the Surplus. The job of the former is to rule, while the primary function of the latter is to consume. These are new social classes, but, as Grant, the narrator, notes, they look a lot like the old social classes. The Netted are “angelfair.” Grant is “coppertoned,” and his services as a professor are no longer needed. Eleanor, his “spy-eyed” wife, is still practicing law, though, mostly fighting on behalf of the oppressed; when the novel begins, she has just been released from prison. What's most remarkable about the worldbuilding here is that the sense of horror that suffuses so much dystopian fiction is absent. Grant’s tone is wryly matter-of-fact—perhaps because, as a dark-skinned person, he never took the freedoms and opportunities he once had for granted. And, really, the totalitarian country he describes is entirely believable. It’s not the product of a single cataclysmic event. It is, instead, the result of a million seemingly inconsequential actions, the cumulative effect of citizens giving away little pieces of their agency every time they choose convenience over autonomy. But life changes for Grant’s family when the government decides to resurrect the sport of baseball, because it happens that his daughter, Gwen, is a pitching prodigy who has spent her childhood honing her skills in an underground league. Baseball offers a way out and up for Gwen, but she’s not sure that what she would gain is more valuable than what she would have to leave behind. The juxtaposition of America’s pastime and the AI–enabled surveillance state Jen presents here is brilliant. Sports are a classic national obsession as well as an avenue to fame and success for the disenfranchised. In this sense, Gwen’s story feels familiar, and the ease with which the reader identifies with this narrative helps to make everything else about AutoAmerica seem eerily familiar, too. We recognize the world Jen creates because it is, finally, nearly identical to our own.
A former tech worker–turned-journalist gives the inside scoop on life inside the wickedly weird and wealthy world of Silicon Valley startups.
Before Wiener took a customer support job at a San Francisco–based tech startup, she was a broke 20-something pursuing dead-end jobs in the New York publishing industry. Friends who had left the city warned her that the San Francisco they loved had been replaced by “a late capitalist hellscape” that catered to the “on-demand” whims of young techies with “plump bank accounts.” Wiener quickly learned that the tech workplace was younger, more casual, and more male-dominant than she had expected. Helping company clients, she often felt like she was one step above artificial intelligence. “I was an intelligent artifice, an empathetic text, a snippet or a warm voice, giving instructions, listening comfortingly,” she writes. Despite bouts of existential angst, within a year of moving west, Wiener moved into middle management and a work life that included a healthy salary as well as “an acronym and enterprise accounts.” Still, her salary represented a tiny fraction of the total wealth—which sometimes amounted to billions—she saw generated in the high-stakes startup world around her. As she burrowed deeper into the tech world, she saw excesses that repulsed almost as much as they excited her. Quasi-autocratic corporate cultures, including her own, demanded body-and-soul loyalty for “perks” such as ultrastylish workplace surroundings, interoffice skateboarding, luxurious company retreats, and work-at-home privileges on platforms that looked like “video game[s] for children.” Wiener also witnessed the ruthlessness of Silicon Valley’s quest to control consumer behavior through data acquisition and the way it actively promoted men while telling females to “trust karma” when it came to advancement. Equal parts bildungsroman and insider report, this book reveals not just excesses of the tech-startup landscape, but also the Faustian bargains and hidden political agendas embedded in the so-called “inspiration culture” underlying a too-powerful industry.
A brisk account of a father’s search for his 27-year-old son, who vanished on a solo trek through Costa Rica’s Corcovado jungle.
Alaskan adventurer and ecologist Dial (Mathematics and Biology/Alaska Pacific Univ.; Packrafting! An Introduction and How-To Guide, 2008) chronicles his quest to figure out what happened to his son, Cody. Fusing personal history with elegy and adventure, this arresting narrative of every parent's worst fear begins with the author’s background and then recounts the Dial family’s many exciting excursions. Meticulous memories of father and son exploring places like Alaska and Borneo establish Cody as a person who grew into a capable adventurer and biologist. In the second section, the author pieces together Cody’s volcano climbs and resourceful forays in Central America before contact with his parents ceased. His last email was written in Costa Rica in 2014, and its haunting last line—“…it should be difficult to get lost forever”—reverberates throughout the text. When he realized that his son may have disappeared, Dial left for Costa Rica to unearth the truth. With the assistance of his friends, wife, and an intriguing mixture of officials and locals (who weren’t always forthcoming with information), Dial confronted rumors of foul play and continued to sift through his own knowledge of his son’s character for clues. The author’s guilt at having sparked Cody’s interest in the wild mingles with the veteran adventurer’s tactical calm in the face of numerous obstacles. His descriptions of Costa Rica's jungles echo with mystery, and, despite his grief, Dial’s writing remains measured and cleareyed. When he recounts how a TV crew took a sensational angle for the sake of drama, the author’s dismay is palpable. Two years later, Cody’s remains were found, and it was determined that his death was an accident, which brought his family some sense of closure. In its emotional restraint and careful descriptions of the wild, this is a slow-burning tribute.
A poignant, highly moving memoir of tragic circumstances and a lifelong love of exploring.
A former parole officer illuminates numerous significant flaws in the American criminal justice system.
After teaching high school English and then earning a master’s degree, Hardy took a job as a parole officer in his hometown of New Orleans, which “has become emblematic of institutional decay in America.” Carrying a gun and wearing a bulletproof vest, he spent most of his days in the poverty-stricken sections of New Orleans, checking on convicted criminals paroled after serving prison time. When not meeting with parolees, Hardy was dealing with clients on probation after they had been arrested and brought before a judge but before being incarcerated by the state of Louisiana, which was “the world’s leading incarcerator” until 2018. The author understood that he would be paid modestly, work long hours, and encounter potentially dangerous situations. What he did not anticipate was the crushing case load: about 220 parolees and probationers, four times the number suggested by agency standards. To tell the narrative cohesively, Hardy focuses on seven of his clients—six men and one woman, black and white, all involved in some manner with illegal drugs. A few of the seven seem sincere about cleaning up, finding stable housing, and accepting minimum wage jobs that might lead to exiting probation or parole; the other clients show no real commitment to escaping the criminal justice system. Hardy quickly realized that budgetary constraints would severely limit the alternatives he could provide. In addition to telling the often harrowing stories of his clients, Hardy offers insights into police officers, social workers, prosecutors, judges, and, especially, his PO colleagues. In brief passages, he also illuminates how the relentlessly depressing job affects his life at home with his wife. After four years, Hardy resigned to become a special agent for the FBI. Throughout, the author is refreshingly candid with readers, who will realize that his ultimate goal is to prevent his clients from continued lives of crime, violence, or even death.
A powerful, necessary book with revelatory passages on nearly every page.
A feminist, activist, and prolific writer recounts her emergence from solitude and vulnerability.
“To have a voice,” writes Solnit (Whose Story Is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters, 2019, etc.) in her absorbing new memoir, “means not just the animal capacity to utter sounds but the ability to participate fully in the conversations that shape your society, your relations to others, and your own life.” As a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s, Solnit lacked the “three key things that matter in having a voice: audibility, credibility, and consequence.” Instead, she felt silenced by a society that effaced women, circumscribed their freedom through harassment and violence, and insisted that they learn “deferential limits.” So she became expert “at the art of nonexistence, since existence was so perilous.” At 19, “young, ignorant, poor, and almost friendless,” Solnit was finishing her last semester at San Francisco State University, living in a dingy residential hotel, when she found an affordable, light-filled studio apartment. Furnished with pieces she found on the street or in thrift stores, the tiny apartment, where she lived for the next 25 years, became a refuge from a pervasive threat of violence. A joyous walker, she was often “followed and yelled at and mugged and grabbed.” In the news, movies, and TV, women were beaten, raped, and murdered by boyfriends, husbands, or serial killers: “Even if none of these terrible things happen to you,” writes the author, “the possibility they might and the constant reminders have an impact.” Books offered another kind of refuge where “I ceased to be myself, and this nonexistence I pursued and devoured like a drug.” Solnit traces her discovery of communities—artists, punk musicians, gay men and women—that sustained her and the people and places that inspired many of her books. Writing offered her a way of participating in the world, probing “what’s hidden beneath the assumptions or conventions,” illuminating forgotten people and places, and showing “how invisibility permits atrocity.”
A perceptive, radiant portrait of a writer of indelible consequence.
A heart-stopping plot about a character whose life has always been defined by her family and their land.
Readers who have followed Cassie Logan since Song of the Trees (1975) will feel the paradigm shift as she moves first to Ohio and then California and Colorado, where she still suffers racism, although different from that in Mississippi. In California, after Cassie miscarries, then gains and loses the love of her life, grief becomes her constant companion. Later, as a successful lawyer and the only Negro in a Boston firm, she remains dedicated to her family and their values, using her legal skills to advance civil rights, initially reluctantly but then willingly when injustice visits a close friend. Not surprisingly, Mama, Papa, Big Ma, and Uncle Hammer figure prominently in this novel, and when Cassie falls for a white colleague, several family members blatantly object to the relationship. This novel places the Logans’ struggles amid historical events: Opening in 1944, it includes the integration of Ole Miss, the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, and the impacts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Taylor (The Land, 2001, etc.) refers frequently to episodes from her other novels, but this story also gives readers an up-close and personal view of key events of the civil rights movement. In this Logan swan song, Taylor is at her best.
Surely the crown jewel of the Logan family saga.
(Historical fiction. 12-18)
McLemore (contributor: Color Outside the Lines, 2019, etc.) weaves another magic spell in this haunting retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.”
In their most ambitious novel yet, they interconnect the present-day trials of Mexican American Rosella and Romani American Emil with those of Lavinia, a young Romani woman in 16th-century Strasbourg, who is revealed to be Emil’s ancestor. Emil and Rosella became friends as children when they realized their darker skin color and families’ religious practices set them apart from the rest of their friends. Now teens, the two are drawn to each other during their town’s “glimmer,” an annual weeklong occurrence in which magical things happen. This year, the red shoes created by Rosella’s family cause people to pursue their romantic passions. However, Rosella is cursed with uncontrollable dancing, very similar to the plague of dancing that swept through Strasbourg in 1518, when the townspeople blamed Lavinia and the white trans boy she loved for their affliction. McLemore’s lush sentence-level writing is masterly, painting vivid pictures of Lavinia’s world. The past timeline is especially compelling, and readers will eagerly return to it. The author spins a tale of first love, misfits forging their own places in the world, and the inherent prejudices of people who fear what they don’t understand.
This novel will leave an indelible mark on readers’ hearts.
(Magical realism. 14-adult)
A graphic look at the magical black girls who are often forgotten or fetishized.
Echo is a dark-skinned black girl who learns very early that life is not fair and that she must dig deep within herself to rise above life’s worst circumstances. Echo is also a wizard, just like her mother, a crack addict who is often checked out of her children’s lives. Echo’s brothers stray to the streets while Echo navigates the hardships of the East Side of Cleveland, Ohio, while attending school on the privileged West Side. On her journey, beginning from the age of 6, Echo relays the lessons she learns while traveling between different human and magical worlds. With the help of other wizards, all of whom are women, she learns the importance of cultivating the darkness that surrounds her while holding on to the light within. Debut author Brown delves into heavy and uncomfortable topics including drug abuse, sexual violence, depression, poverty, intergenerational trauma, and the work required to end cycles that seem cell deep. The text transitions between different times in Echo’s life, but the prose is smooth, as each break seamlessly transports readers to the next moment as if it’s a continuation of the same thought. Through Echo’s lessons, readers learn what it’s like to persist despite hopelessness, survive in a world propelled by oppressive and exploitative systems, and cope with feelings of connection and disconnection.
A much-needed story. Just brilliant.
(Magical realism. 15-adult)
High school junior Izzy discovers that some secrets can’t stay hidden.
Isabella “Izzy” Crawford is caught in between worlds, from her interracial and interreligious family to her friendships with wealthy classmates at school and her outspoken, socially conscious best friend, Roz. Izzy describes herself as being able to pass for white like her deceased father; her Puerto Rican mother, Rita, and younger brother, Jack, cannot. New doors open for Izzy as she befriends Aubrey, the new girl in her a cappella group and sister of Hot Sam, a wealthy basketball player Roz obsesses over. As Izzy tries to figure out where she belongs, she is trapped in a whirlwind of secrets as her worlds inevitably collide. Padian (Wrecked, 2016, etc.) masterfully portrays the internal struggles Izzy goes through in her Catholic faith. While navigating the remnants of her Methodist father’s legacy and her mother’s deeply rooted Catholicism, Izzy must also explore her relationship with both sides of her family. While her mother, who “always doles out her wisdom—and warnings—in Spanish,” works on their application for a Habitat for Humanity house in an attempt to move from the mobile home park, Izzy begins to understand there is more to her deceased father’s family than she first imagined.
An absolutely enthralling depiction of family and self-discovery.
A Diné teen teams up with her younger brother and her best friend to battle monsters threatening their world.
After seventh grader Nizhoni Begay senses a monster lurking in the stands during her basketball game, she tells her younger brother, Mac. When the monster kidnaps her father as part of a multilayered plot to lure her brother—the only one who knows her monster-spotting abilities—into servitude, kill her, and destroy the world, Nizhoni seeks help from her biracial best friend, Davery, whose mother is African American, his father, Diné. Aided by Mr. Yazzie, a stuffed horned-toad toy that can talk, and a cast of characters from Diné culture, the three kids embark on an adventurous trek to free Dad and stop the monsters. But even with powers inherited from monster-slaying ancestors, assistance from Holy People, and weapons fashioned from the Sun, Nizhoni will need to believe in herself while sacrificing what’s most important if she hopes to succeed. Fans of Hugo and Nebula winner Roanhorse (Ohkay Owingeh) will appreciate her fast-paced prose, page-turning chapter endings, and, most of all, strong female protagonist. By reimagining a traditional story in a contemporary context, populating it with faceted Native characters, and centering it on and around the Navajo Nation, Roanhorse shows that Native stories are active and alive.
Native readers will see themselves as necessary heroes while readers of all walks will want to be their accomplices.
(glossary of Navajo terms, author’s note)
Daniel accompanies his parents to their job late one night and discovers a magical kingdom.
Daniel’s parents are night janitors and get ready for work just as Daniel gets ready for bed. Usually Auntie Clara babysits him, but one night when she cannot, Daniel must go with his parents to their job. Though the story takes place in the middle of the night, full-page illustrations brimming with color and depth bring the story to life. Unsurprisingly, Daniel is sleepy and on the verge of tears, but he must stay awake as his parents mop floors, vacuum, dust shelves, and clean the bathrooms. Despite his tiredness, Daniel can’t help but question why everything is a mess and why his parents must be the ones to clean up everything. It angers him to see his parents working so hard to clean up other people’s messes, but his parents reassure him with stories of the Paper Kingdom and well-meaning dragons. Lushly respectful illustrations perfectly complement this simple yet heartwarming story that highlights the struggles of working-class parents and the sacrifices they make for their families. Daniel’s parents sometimes appear multiple times on a spread, emphasizing their busyness. This diverse story features a family of color depicted with brown skin and black hair.
A beautiful, must-read tribute to hardworking families and the magic they create.
(Picture book. 4-8)
A young girl living on Martha’s Vineyard in 1805 doesn’t think her community of Deaf and hearing signers is special until the day the hearing world violently intrudes.
In present-tense narrator Mary Lambert’s life, it is easy to forget who is Deaf and who is hearing. Everyone she knows uses sign language, and a quarter of her village is Deaf. Mary only learns how different her community is when a young scientist with disdain for the Deaf and no understanding of their culture arrives, seeking to discover the cause of their “infirmity”—using Mary as an experimental subject. LeZotte weaves threads of adventure, family tragedy, community, racism, and hearing people’s negative assumptions about Deaf people into a beautiful and complex whole. Mary overcomes her own ordeal with the support of her community, but in the process she discovers that there is no silver bullet for the problems and prejudices of the world. There is no hollow inspirational content to be found in this tale, even where another author may have fallen into the trap. Though Mary is white of English descent, LeZotte acknowledges the racial tensions among the English, black, Irish, and Wampanoag residents of Martha’s Vineyard, creating a dynamic that Mary interacts within but cannot fix. Each element of the narrative comes together to create an all-too-rare thing: an excellent book about a Deaf person. A closing note provides further information on Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language and the history of both Martha’s Vineyard and Deaf education.
A vivid depiction of Deaf community along with an exciting plot and beautiful prose make this a must-read.
(Historical fiction. 8-14)
As he explores his identity and finds his footing in middle school, a sixth grader stands up to his bully best friend.
White, cisgender boys Rick and Jeff have been best friends since the third grade. When they’re alone, Jeff shares his video games, but at school Jeff picks on other kids and talks about girls with ostentatious lasciviousness. Despite their connection, Rick knows he can’t tell Jeff that he wants to join their school’s Rainbow Spectrum, a safe space for LGBTQIAP+ students, or that he’s questioning his own sexuality. The more Rick learns about himself, the more he realizes he needs to hold Jeff accountable for his behavior. An honest relationship develops between Rick and his cosplay-loving grandfather. Grandpa Ray reassures and supports Rick when he comes out as asexual. Adults in the story model moments of vulnerability and admit mistakes. Gino seamlessly introduces language to describe a variety of sexualities and gender identities through the perspective of Rick, who is learning many of the words for the first time. Although the book shares characters with Gino’s Stonewall Award–winning George (2015), it stands alone. The cast (including students of color) represents a spectrum of genders and sexualities with an emphasis on self-identification and encouragement of exploration.
A game-changing ace.