When a middle school teacher’s best friend dies in a one-car accident, her world begins to fall apart.
Isabel Applebaum Moore and Josie Abrams have been inseparable since Izzy’s first day at Rhodes Avenue Middle School, keeping each other sane through the principal’s inane speeches and the younger teachers’ aggressive perkiness—not to mention the students’ hormonal moods. Josie even married Mark, Izzy’s friend since kindergarten, where they were seated next to each other, “two little alphabetized Jews, dark haired and slightly lost in a forest of Midwestern consonant clusters, all those strapping, blond Schultzes and Metzgers and Hrubys and Przybylskis—strapping even in kindergarten, if memory serves.” What happens following Josie’s death isn’t all that unusual: Isabel starts spending most of her time in her ratty old sweatpants, “which Josie used to call a blend of cotton and self-loathing”; her overwhelming sadness deals the fatal blow to her already rocky marriage to the good-hearted Chris; her 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, who also loved Josie, struggles with her changing family; her mother, Helene, a Holocaust survivor, coaxes her into attending a support group for “relationships in transition,” where she tentatively bonds with a good-looking older man named Cal by cracking jokes—just the way she bonded with Josie at their first staff meeting at Rhodes Avenue. Josie pushes Chris away and tries to pull him closer; she does the same with Cal and even with her old friend Mark. She thinks back on her relationship with Josie and gradually reveals the secrets they shared. What makes the book so special is Isabel’s smart, acerbic voice and her way of seeing everything from a sharp angle. Fox (Friends Like Us, 2012, etc.) studs Izzy's narration with surprising metaphors, turning ordinary domestic items into dangerous beasts (“the herd of wild minivans”) and Josie’s fatal accident into something almost domestic (“Her rusty 11-year-old Toyota skidded off the slick road like a can of soup rolling across a supermarket aisle”). Isabel (and Fox) has such an offbeat way of looking at things that you’ll eagerly keep reading just to see what she’s going to say next.
Read it for the magnetic voice and Fox's ever interesting perspective on work, love, friendship, and parenthood—because, really, what else is there?
A ravishing, profane, and bittersweet post-apocalyptic bildungsroman transcends genre into myth.
In a desolate future, young girls marked by the goddess Catchkeep fight to the death to become Archivist, needed but feared and shunned for her sacred duty to trap, interrogate, and dispatch ghosts. After three years as Archivist, Wasp is weary of killing, of loneliness, of hunger, of cruelty, of despair, so she barters with a supersoldier’s ghost to find his long-dead partner in exchange for a chance at escape. But looking for answers in the land of the dead only reveals that everything Wasp knew was a lie. Equal parts dark fantasy, science fiction, and fable, Wasp’s story is structured as a classic hero’s journey. Her bleak and brutal world, limned with the sparest of detail, forges her character: stoic, cynical, with burning compassion at the core; in contrast, the rich and mosaic (if capricious and violent) underworld overflows with symbol and metaphor that tease at deeper meanings never made fully explicit. Meanwhile, the nameless ghost’s history, told through disconnected snatches of memory, encompasses heroism, abuse, friendship, and betrayal in a tragedy only redeemed by the heart-rending convergence of their separate narratives. Names (and their absence) form a constant leitmotif, as identity is transformed by the act of claiming it.
Difficult, provocative, and unforgettable—the most dangerous kind of fiction.
(Science fiction/fantasy. 14 & up)
An ambitious graphic memoir that succeeds on a number of different levels.
Born in Canada, raised in her family’s native Yugoslavia and having returned to Canada, Bunjevac (Heartless, 2012) addresses the history of a troubled region that brought her to where she is—both in the book (which finds her reminiscing from her home in Toronto and conjuring a past she didn’t experience firsthand) and in her life. The title has dual meanings, as “fatherland” refers to the country of Yugoslavia, where German occupation gave way to communist rule and where Serbs and Croats experienced continual tension despite similar roots. The country no longer exists. Neither does the author’s father, as she tries to penetrate the mysteries of this particular “fatherland.” A Serbian nationalist committed to overthrowing the communist leader Josip Broz Tito, he had been imprisoned in his native Yugoslavia and exiled to Canada upon release, never allowed to return to his fatherland. He became involved with a terrorist organization operating throughout North America, targeting those who supported the Yugoslavian government, and he died in an explosion in the garage where the sect had been manufacturing bombs. By this point, the author and her mother had returned to Yugoslavia, fleeing from the man who had become dangerous, erratic and increasingly alcoholic (“Dad is a nervous wreck. At this time he is certain that he’s being followed”). Thus, the narrative artistry must reconstruct not only the father’s life before and after his family left him, but the decades (even centuries) of Balkan history that led them all to this juncture. That it covers so much in such a short memoir, and in such compelling and provocative fashion, attests to the author’s mastery over such powerful material.
The personal perspective humanizes historical currents that might otherwise seem abstract and inexplicable to American readers.
Hilarious, surreal, and bracingly original, Walker’s ambitious debut avoids moralistic traps to achieve something rarer: a genuinely subversive novel that’s also serious fun.
At just over 300 pounds, Plum Kettle is waiting for her real life to start: she’ll be a writer. She’ll be loved. She’ll be thin. In the meantime, she spends her days ghostwriting advice to distraught teenage girls on behalf of a popular teen magazine (“Dear Kitty, I have stretch marks on my boobs, please help”), meticulously counting calories (“turkey lasagna (230)”), and fantasizing about life after weight-loss surgery. But when a mysterious young woman in Technicolor tights starts following her, Plum finds herself drawn into an underground feminist community of radical women who refuse to bow to oppressive societal standards. Under the tutelage of Verena Baptist, anti-diet crusader and heiress to the Baptist diet fortune (a diet with which Plum is intimately familiar), Plum undertakes a far more daring—and more dangerous—five-step plan: to live as her true self now. Meanwhile, a violent guerrilla group, known only as “Jennifer,” has emerged, committing acts of vigilante justice against misogynists. As her surgery date nears and Jennifer’s acts grow increasingly drastic, Plum finds she’s at the center of what can only be described as a literal feminist conspiracy—and she’s transforming into a version of herself she never knew existed. But while it would be easy for the book to devolve into a tired parable about the virtues of loving yourself just the way you are, Walker’s sharp eye and dry humor push it away from empty platitudes and toward deeper and more challenging turf. Ultimately, for all the unsettling pleasure of Walker’s splashier scenarios—and there are many—it’s Plum’s achingly real inner life that gives the novel its arresting emotional weight.
Part Fight Club, part feminist manifesto, an offbeat and genre-bending novel that aims high—and delivers.
A girl tries to cope with her parents’ divorce and her own developing friendships and romance.
This award-winner from Austria focuses on Charlotte, who has become enraged by her parents’ divorce. First, her mother moves the children out of their home and into Charlotte’s grandmother’s small row house. Then Charlotte spots her father with his new wife, a blonde bombshell. As her rage grows, she neglects her schoolwork and keeps returning to her old home, sold to new owners, who begin to shoo her away. Now 15, she meets new friends at school, including handsome, Italian Carlo, who’s trying to cope with the death of his father. But then her mother abruptly moves them again, into a home in their old neighborhood, as she begins a relationship with another man. Just when things begin to settle down, more turmoil occurs. At last Charlotte begins to see life through the same lenses as her parents and makes her own decisions. Kreslehner develops a multilayered characterization of Charlotte, convincingly getting under the skin of a girl whose life becomes disrupted by divorce. It’s an immersive, believable portrait of how adolescents cope, or not, with divorce, drawn from an inside view.
Award-winning novelist, essayist and playwright Phillips (Color Me English, 2011, etc.) responds to Wuthering Heights.
A difficult daughter and an unhappy wife, Monica Johnson is contrary, self-destructive and—finally—mad. That Monica, in her broad outlines, resembles Cathy Earnshaw is no accident. Her story—as well as that of her husband and their sons—is interwoven with scenes inspired by Wuthering Heights and the life of its author. This is not to say that Monica is Cathy, transplanted from the moors to Oxford in the late 1950s. This is not a retelling. The interplay between this novel and Emily Brontë’s masterpiece is much more interesting than that. For example, Phillips imagines Heathcliff before Mr. Earnshaw takes him to the Heights. This boy is the son of a slave, a woman who worked a sugar plantation before being transported to England. Phillips isn’t the first to read Brontë’s “dark-skinned” antihero as black, but he also connects the boy to Monica’s husband, Julius—a man who gives up academic life in order to take up the cause of anti-colonialism in his West Indian home country—and to their neglected, dispossessed sons. The thematic links between the modern story and Wuthering Heights only become clear over time, and—even then—they’re too rich and subtle to work as simple allegory. Empire and race are among Phillips’ concerns, but he also offers heartbreaking depictions of alienation and the fragility of human relationships. While it would be easy to identify Heathcliff as the lost child of the title, it could also refer to Monica’s younger son—or her older boy. But Monica is lost, too. And then there’s Brontë, drifting further and further into her invented world as she dies. What Phillips seems to be saying, in the end, is that the lost child could be any of us—perhaps even that the lost child is all of us.
Linked autobiographical fictions explore the loss of a young husband.
With a delicate balance of cleverness and emotion, the 16 stories in Pietrzyk's (Pears on a Willow Tree, 2011, etc.) collection explore the event of her husband's sudden death at the breakfast table in 1997. Literal facts ("My husband, Robert K. Rauth, Jr., died of a heart attack when he was only 37") in some stories stand beside slightly altered ones in others (a husband named Roger, a husband who drove off the road, a husband who died in his early 40s). The author's wit, clarity, and literary inventiveness dance circles around the omnipresent sadness, making this book a prime example of the furious creative energy that can explode from the collision of grief with talent and craftsmanship. A few stories are traditionally told; many rely on formal strategies—a list, a quiz, a speech, an annotated index, various narrative voices, and a metafiction about the use of narrative voices. Running through them are recurrent details that add the weight of obsessive memory: a carefully organized library of books, a bowl of cornflakes, the music of Springsteen (a misunderstood line of which gives the collection its name), an extramarital affair. Pietrzyk explores every aspect of the truth, including the parts you have to make up, and never gives in to sentimentality or self-pity. As in Joyce Carol Oates' much less successful book A Widow's Story, one learns that the author is remarried—the last line of the last story is addressed to her second husband by name—but here there is no sense of duplicity or caginess. The relief is what we want, both for her and for ourselves. This book is the winner of the distinguished Drue Heinz Literature Prize, upholding its tradition of excellence in short fiction.
Like Magic Rocks in a fishbowl, these stories turn the stones of grief into something bright, crystalline, mesmerizing.
Claire’s parents are keeping secrets that could kill her.
Sixteen-year-old Claire Takata is a spirited, inquisitive amateur locksmith and sleuth. Claire and her brothers have always believed their father died of a heart attack 10 years ago and that their mother met their stepdad after he died. But when Claire finds an old letter in her father’s journal and pictures locked away in her stepdad’s desk that reveal otherwise, she is determined to find out the truth. Why have her mom and stepdad lied to her? Why does her mom never want to talk about her father? And what really happened to him? Through letters Claire has written to him over the decade since his death, Claire’s father has served as her confidant, an outlet for her grief, frustrations, and longings. The author also makes smart use of these letters, interspersing them between chapters to deliver important back story. Claire’s grief and sense of loss are compounded when she eventually discovers that her father had been a member of the yakuza, transnational Japanese organized crime syndicates—and then her sleuthing attracts the attention of someone tied to her father's past....The romantic tension between Claire and her best friend, Forrest, plays out authentically in a subplot, and the novel’s twists and turns will keep readers riveted and guessing even after they finish the book.
This fantastic debut packs a highly suspenseful blend of action, intrigue, and teen romance.
(Thriller. 12 & up)
A respected New York art dealer feels his reputation and the ideals he’s lived by falling out of his grasp in this novel by celebrated poet and memoirist Bialosky (The Players, 2015, etc.).
“Art should transport the seer from the ordinary to the sublime”: these words from Edward Darby’s father, a Romantic scholar, are always at the back of his mind. Both driven and haunted by his father's constant search for deeper meaning, Edward has built his career on finding the artists who are reinventing their mediums, creating art that has “the power to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life could be made special.” He gets his big break with fragile-but-brilliant artist Agnes Murray, who, in focusing on images from 9/11, has taken the anguish of that day and expressed it on canvas in a way that makes the public look—and, more important, feel. “Art must capture what we’re afraid of most,” Agnes says to Edward, quoting her mentor-turned-husband, Nate Fisher, a provocative megastar of the art world. Bialosky’s writing mirrors these qualities that determine “great work”; she captures in everyday moments the fears that consume us and have the power to either drive us forward or bring us to the brink of collapse. Feeling more and more distant from his wife and, perhaps more disturbingly, his passion for art, Edward finds himself drawn to sculptor Julia Rosenthal, a woman he first met long ago, who stirs up old memories and reinvigorates his appreciation for beauty in all forms. But Edward is aware that "one could not embark upon the new without giving up something in return." And for someone whose life is built around finding the significance in the smallest of moments—moments which Bialosky captures with such powerful insight—there is much at stake for him to lose. In the end, after betrayals and loss and sadness, Bialosky asks her hero to consider what he holds most dear.
Like Edward feels upon discovering a transcendent piece of art, this book finds that little opening at the edge of your soul and seeps in.
Jack London—socialist agitator, rancher, and, oh yes, writer: an illuminating study of a literary figure long receded into stereotype.
Tichi’s (English and American Studies/Vanderbilt Univ.; Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us), 2009, etc.) resurrection of London and her elevation of him from writer of hoary Arctic tales for children to wizened philosopher of the barricades is certainly timely. He lived in the first Gilded Age, a time “undershot with stupendous wealth inequality, cycles of joblessness…and an imperial global presence that brought indigenous populations to heel while exploiting their natural resources.” Though London was a marquee writer whose work elevated him from want to wealth, he remained true to his working-class roots and never surrendered his vision of an America reformed to allow for a greater share for all. He conveyed this vision in sometimes heavy-handed ways, as with his late novel The Iron Heel (1908), but Tichi credits him for displaying “a certain subtlety.” London’s message rings true in such books as White Fang (1906) but never at the expense of a walloping good story. Tichi traces the growth of London’s activism as he moved from place to place, especially when he visited the South Pacific and saw predatory capitalism at work undisguised: “In boyhood he had seen the flags of distant nations flying from the masts along the Oakland waterfront….Many of those flags signified political, corporate, and military power, and the word for that nexus was ‘imperialism.’ ” Tichi also limns a London who was far more evolved than the square-jawed prizefighter and adventurer of legend, a sophisticated political thinker who brought immense learning to bear—not least on his work establishing what today we would call an organic farm not far from San Francisco, building a vast working knowledge of agriculture, construction, irrigation, and other fields.
A fruitful, well-written blend of cultural history, literary criticism, and biography. Now the only question is, where’s the Jack London of today?
A 16-year-old gumshoe's new case reveals ancient—perhaps magical—family secrets.
Intrepid sleuth Scarlett has tested out of the last years of high school, founding a detective agency instead of going to college. Ever since the deaths of her Egyptian father and Sudanese mother, Scarlett's insisted on taking care of herself. Her older sister, a doctor, is too busy to spend much time at home, so Scarlett is proudly independent. When she takes a case from a frightened 9-year-old, Scarlett discovers a terrifying conspiracy that's endangered her own family for generations. As she investigates clues pointing to an ancient myth that the children of King Solomon are at war with the descendants of the jinn, she stumbles upon a cult of true believers. Scarlett is supported by a crew of irregulars that would make any private eye proud: a loving sister; a handsome Jewish best friend who's becoming something more; and solicitous neighbors from bakers to cops. Meanwhile, she must come to terms with her feelings about her sister, her memories of her parents, and her unobservant relationship with Islam. With some secrets left unresolved, dare we hope this is not the last mystery Scarlett will solve?
This whip-smart, determined, black Muslim heroine brings a fresh hard-boiled tone to the field of teen mysteries
. (Mystery. 12-15)