From the Shelf
Finding Meaning in Small Steps
Cleaning, cooking and organizing do not come naturally to me. I try to think of them as meditative. When I visualize what the house will look like when there's a lovingly prepared meal on the table and things are put away, that usually works.
That's a technique David Allen discusses in Getting Things Done (Penguin, $18), which I learned about when Cory Doctorow cited it as a book that changed his life. Allen advocates looking at what you want from a 50,000-foot vertical perspective, and then thinking about whether the things you're doing "on the runway"--horizontally--contribute to that wish. In other words, don't get so mired in the daily tasks that you leave out the "why" of the task in which you are engaged.
That is the strategy in Martha Stewart's Organizing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30), too. She begins with a monthly calendar and a couple of breathtaking photographic spreads for each, with big ideas and seasonal connections. Then she delves more deeply into strategies with sections like "Organize Your Home," tackling it space by space (e.g., kitchen, office, bedroom). Whether you live in an apartment or three-bedroom house, ideas abound for DIY cleaning solutions or reasonably priced shelving, tables and wire tamers. Each suggestion contributes to the aerial view.
I have been rereading How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Melville House, $25.99). Her ideas would seem to be at odds with Martha Stewart. But they're not. Both authors emphasize stepping back, looking at what you're doing through a larger lens. Odell emphasizes starting where you are, getting to know the history of where you live, and checking in with yourself so that you find meaning in each small act as it contributes to how you wish to live your life.
In this Issue...
by Calvin Hennick
A white father shows his biracial son the heart of America in the piercing Once More to the Rodeo.
by Michael P. Spradlin
Close Calls is a middle-grade exploration of the adrenaline-inducing brushes with death faced by 11 U.S. presidents.
by Owen Matthews
An Impeccable Spy is a biography of Richard Sorge, a raconteur, womanizer and agent for the Soviet Union who provided intelligence that helped change the course of World War II.
Review by Subjects:
01/23/2020 - 7:00PMTruly Devious #3, Young Adult Book Talk & Signing Maureen Johnson is the bestselling author of several novels, including 13 Little Blue Envelopes and the Truly Devious series. Johnson will discuss and sign The Hand on the Wall (Truly Devious #3) ($18.99 Katherine Tegen Books), the witty and pulse-pounding conclusion to the Truly Devious series as Stevie Bell solves the mystery that has haunted Ellingham Academy for over 75 years. Ellingham...
01/24/2020 - 7:00PMIsomeric Design in Ancestral Pueblo Pottery, an Art Book Talk & Signing Scott Ortman, author and contributor, will discuss and sign Painted Reflections : Isomeric Design in Ancestral Pueblo Pottery ($37.50 Museum of New Mexico Press). This book examines design in Ancestral Pueblo pottery from various museum collections in the Southwest. The concept of isomeric design is based on an analogy with isomers in chemistry, which refers to compounds that are chemically...
Truth: A Lies and Liars Words Quiz
Merriam-Webster's Liar, Liar Quiz tests "your knowledge of words for lies, liars, and those being lied to. In other words, everyone."
To celebrate the premiere of the PBS Masterpiece series, Mental Floss featured "10 facts about Jane Austen's Sanditon."
More than 700 author interviews, which were broadcast between 1982 and 1993 on the CBS Radio News program Book Beat, are now digitally available online.
Author Jaclyn Moriarty chose her "top 10 books about new beginnings" for the Guardian.
The New York Public Library is celebrating 125 years by unveiling its top 10 checkouts of all time.
Anna Wiener: Reckoning with Tech Culture
|(photo: Russell Perkins)|
Anna Wiener writes about Silicon Valley and tech culture for the New Yorker. Her debut, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), explores her experiences moving from the publishing industry to the tech industry, and reflects on the near-surreal pace--and consequences--of rapid innovation and the fetishization of "progress." Wiener lives in San Francisco.
This is an extremely funny book. Yet, the humor invites readers to consider that what goes on in the tech industry often isn't funny at all. How did you approach that?
Thank you! I'm so glad you thought the book was funny, and not purely horrifying. There's so much about Silicon Valley that is fundamentally humorous, and it has to be humorous because otherwise it's too grim. The way people speak to each other; corporate feudalism; the hubris; the pervasive, frantic branding. I willingly participated in an adult scavenger hunt with my coworkers. That's bleak. (Should people be paid overtime for after-hours team-building exercises? Probably.) So I can't really take credit. In most cases, I was just documenting.
Rebecca Solnit--author of Men Explain Things to Me--deemed you "Joan Didion at a start up."
How incredibly generous of her, no? I'm a longtime admirer of Rebecca Solnit's writing, including her essays about San Francisco during the current tech boom, and a longtime admirer of Didion's, so the comparison means a lot to me, though I don't think it's deserved. It also makes me wonder if Joan Didion has ever been in a startup office. Imagine Joan Didion in a WeWork. Joan Didion within 10 yards of a RipStik. She would never. The thought makes me want to die.
Readers will notice early on your decision not to "name names," though we can likely deduce which company's app you used to rent a room in someone's home, or which pink-mustachioed rideshare you used to commute. What led to that decision?
I wanted to avoid naming companies, services and executives to shy away from cultural associations, and to do my best to keep the book from feeling dated. I also like generics. They're playful and ambiguous. In many ways, the actual companies I worked for don't really matter: on the cultural level, they could have been any number of startups from this period, just as a lot of the executives--specifically with respect to behavior--could have been any number of Silicon Valley executives. My hope is that stripping companies down to their functions will raise questions about the extent to which we actually need these services. (The way I thought about it was basically, How might I explain this to someone in 40 years? There is no way to explain Groupon to someone in the future without sounding completely frivolous, ridiculous.)
You do, however, name numbers--even sharing how much you made exercising your stock options.
Concrete numbers are helpful, I think (I hope!) in animating incentives and stakes. There's also a lot of information out there about what programmers make--the median salary at Facebook is $240,000, etc., etc.--but there's less information about salaries for nontechnical, entry-level employees, and I suspect there's more variation, especially at startups. In general, I think there should be more transparency around compensation, especially in industries like tech where the pay gap can be dramatic. There also needs to be more talk about equity. For people who work at private, venture-backed companies, whether or not you have equity can be the difference between maintaining a nice 401K and building generational wealth. A lot of people don't know the right questions to ask, especially starting out, and companies will take advantage of that.
One very relatable thing you write about is struggling with the urge to please those around you. How did you navigate that as you relayed stories that might not please those who recognize themselves in the book?
A question right at the beating heart of the Venn diagram of "writing memoir" and "being a woman!" Both, for me, are ongoing crises. In this case, I'm not particularly interested in pleasing people simply on the basis of their structural position. The unnamed founders, executives and venture capitalists in the book are people with power and influence. If I were to withhold criticism, whom would that protect, and what systems would it reinforce? (The people who are named in the book--friends, coworkers--did have a chance to read their sections, and we worked together to make changes to anything they felt wasn't quite right.)
Uncanny Valley offers something like a time capsule of the San Francisco Bay Area, not just in tech but in terms of the humanitarian crises the industry engenders. How has the city changed in your time there? How has what you notice about it changed?
When I moved here, in early 2013, I knew I had missed something, but I thought the change was over. I didn't realize I was actually catching the beginning of a transition. We're still in it. I don't know how, or when, this ends. The biggest issue right now is probably housing. It has become very, very expensive to live in San Francisco, and this wasn't a cheap city to begin with. The homeless population has risen by 30% in the past two years. A lot of people are struggling. At the same time, there's all this money sloshing around. All these new, ridiculous restaurants. Empty storefronts. Airbnbs. A surplus of Lyft and Uber drivers, some of whom travel from Sacramento or Los Angeles, many of whom spend a good part of the day idling. All these Victorian houses being flipped, after--the indignity--getting painted gray.
It's no longer a destination for artists or musicians or writers, and you can see the culture shifting. It's complicated: there are a lot of factors contributing to the housing crisis (and attendant issues), and tech is just one of them--but tech is an accelerant of sorts. San Francisco is a small city. The tech industry is oriented toward growth and speed. As a result, it's like a swift, blunt force.
At one company, in the face of rampant sexism, you stopped writing publicly under your own name. Did you consider writing this book Jane Austen-style, or whistleblower style, anonymously? "By a Lady in Tech," say?
I didn't. I did consider writing it as fiction, but I didn't want the book to be mistaken for satire.
What's next for you? Have you picked up the bass yet?
by Garth Greenwell
In Cleanness, Garth Greenwell returns to Bulgaria and to some of the same emotional territory he explored in his highly praised debut novel, What Belongs to You. The nine perceptive, sometimes disturbing, stories in this collection delve into the complexities of romance and desire, reflected through the prism of an alienated foreigner.
These stories span the seven years their unnamed narrator spends as a teacher at the American College in Sofia. Though it's no longer under the domination of the former Soviet Union, Greenwell's Bulgaria is a grim place, a country "where so few come and fewer still stay long enough to learn the language," where Communist repression has been replaced by rampant corruption, and where, in the narrator's cynical view, the attention devoted to events like the Arab Spring "ran out before it could reach Bulgaria."
At the heart of the collection is the narrator's relationship with R. (identified only by an initial, like all the other characters), a younger man from Portugal who's studying in Sofia. Over the course of three wistful stories, Greenwell traces the arc of their relationship, in a country where their homosexuality constantly places them under the "pressure of secrecy, where it was too dangerous to hold hands in the streets, to kiss in public, however chastely."
Midway through Cleanness, the narrator observes that "we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves." This truth about love and life is one of the many beautifully illustrated in these quietly passionate stories. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer
Discover: In nine mature stories, Garth Greenwell examines the complex emotional life of an American expatriate in Bulgaria.
by Sayed Kashua , trans. by Mitch Ginsburg
In Palestinian Israeli author Sayed Kashua's intriguing fourth novel, Track Changes, an Arab Palestinian family's crisis prompts questions about the veracity of telling one's own stories. Mitch Ginsburg returns for a second adept translation partnership, following Kashua's Second Person Singular, winner of the 2011 Bernstein Prize.
Kashua's unnamed narrator's life is complicated. He used to be a Jerusalem newspaper editor, but now he's living solo in an Illinois grad school dorm room, separated from his wife and their three children. He's written 30 books, but none of them bear his name. He's authored other people's memoirs--with varying degrees of accuracy, embellishment, even all-out fiction.
Fourteen years have passed since his father whispered to him on his wedding day that "he would never know love and asked not to see him until the day he dies." A Skype message from a Palestinian hospital reveals that death is now imminent. Father and son have secrets to reveal, memories to bare, bonds hopefully to reconnect. At the crux of their cleaving is the narrator's less-than-a-page-long, written-in-an-hour, published-in-a-student-journal, 15-year-old short story that demands final reckoning.
That Kashua's protagonist is a nameless "I" who shares considerable biographical overlaps suggests, perhaps even implies, the so-called truth of Kashua's first-person fiction. Yet his character, whose job is to transcribe others' memories onto the page, repeatedly reveals his elisions from and additions to strangers' memoirs-for-hire, often inserting his own memories as their own, thereby erasing his life in scattered pieces. For savvy, curious readers, that interplay of parsing fact and fiction proves to be a lively, interactive experience. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: Sayed Kashua's fourth novel, Track Changes, weaves together an Arab Palestinian family-in-crisis narrative with an ingenious exploration challenging the expectations of reliable storytelling.
Meg and Jo
by Virginia Kantra
Virginia Kantra (Carolina Dreaming) energetically reinvents Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women. Kantra relocates the March family from New England to bucolic 21st-century Bunyan, N.C. Mother "Marmee" struggles to maintain the artisanal goat-cheese-producing family farm, while Father March, a pastor-preacher, is away serving as an army chaplain and military missionary activist.
Part of the story is filtered through Jo, a single 28-year-old journalist in search of a job, living in New York City. She works as a prep cook at an upscale eatery while secretly blogging about the food industry. When the tattooed, Michelin-star chef-owner of the restaurant takes a shine to her, she fears the consequences of mixing business with pleasure. The other half of the story is narrated by Meg, a devoted wife and stay-at-home mother of twins, whose life is deeply rooted in Bunyan. Is she truly fulfilled? While the other two March sisters pursue their own aspirations--Beth, chasing a career in the Branson, Mo., music business, and Amy in Paris, intent on becoming a fashionista--Marmee suddenly takes ill. Responsible Meg picks up the slack, faced with choices that might upend her sensible life and affect those of the family as well.
Kantra retains Alcott's basic story blueprint and the essence of her unforgettable characters, including the irrepressible Aunt Phee and Trey, an updated take on Theodore "Laurie" Laurence. The narrative successfully weaves in provocative contemporary values and references, delivering a modern-day story--with bold new twists--that explores timeless themes of love, romance and the bonds of family. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: A lively, hip, 21st-century reinvention of Louisa May Alcott's beloved classic about the tight-knit March family.
Mystery & Thriller
Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar
by Kate Saunders
Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders is a cozy, old-fashioned murder mystery set in 1850s England, starring a quick-witted, middle-aged detective with a dry sense of humor and a reputation for treating her cases with the utmost discretion. Mrs. Rodd, as she's known, is the widow of an esteemed archdeacon, and as such she has connections to vicarages all across the country. This comes in useful when she is hired by wealthy businessman Jacob Welland to investigate the whereabouts of his brother. Joshua Welland was a student at the University of Oxford but suddenly dropped out and disappeared. Jacob is on his deathbed, so time is of the essence.
Laetitia Rodd is a practical heroine, so she maintains a flexible approach to the easily shocked, Victorian sensibilities of the time. Soon after she arrives in Oxford and begins her search for Joshua, a series of scandals rocks the vicarage where Mrs. Rodd is staying, briefly throwing her off course. Saunders juxtaposes the picturesque British countryside and Mrs. Rodd's charming North London neighborhood as backdrop, while her heroine sets about exploring possible links between the missing scholar and the disquieting secrets uncovered in Oxford.
Saunders, an author, actress and journalist, has expressed a fascination with the work of Charles Dickens, and her work is clearly influenced by that great writer. She introduced Mrs. Rodd in The Secrets of Wishtide, and this second book in the series works well as a stand-alone and a delightful reintroduction to a female investigator. Readers of historical whodunits are sure to enjoy her company. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
Discover: Secrets, clandestine affairs and a shocking crime preoccupy a sensible lady sleuth in this entertaining murder mystery set in Victorian times.
Good Girls Lie
by J.T. Ellison
A girl's body hangs from the gates of a prestigious girls' boarding school, and Ash Carlisle's name is in the air. Readers learn quickly that she arrived at the school under false pretenses that won her a full scholarship and travel expenses from England to the United States. The Goode School is an elite institution that guarantees its graduates will gain admittance to the university of their choice. Although Ash quickly demonstrates the lengths to which she will go in order to succeed, for a time she is so overwhelmed by the arcane traditions of the school--its hazing and its secret societies--that she might appear to be no different from her classmates. But Ash is not the only one at the school with secrets. Another student dies, and rumors fly about how her secrets drove her to suicide, but it's quickly revealed not to be the entire story.
Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison (No One Knows) is an intense work of suspense, featuring a protagonist who holds her cards close to her vest. As she encounters hostile fellow students and learns about dark stories from the school's past, the audience is kept off balance, wondering who the worst villain will turn out to be. The final act's twist will send readers back to the beginning, eager to see how the pieces fit perfectly without having given anything away. Intriguing secondary characters with chapters from their points of view help to keep the story engrossing from beginning to end. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library
Discover: Death and deception haunt an elite girls' boarding school in this intricately plotted work of suspense.
by W.H. Cameron
"For the second time in as many weeks, I cross the spine of Shatter Hill at midnight and spot fire at the crossroad below." Melisende Dulac had a difficult past before moving from the East Coast to the Oregon high desert, where she transports bodies for the funeral home run by her disappeared husband's aunt and uncle. Now her present is treacherously close to eclipsing it.
What she saw at the scene of the first crossroad fire put Mel at odds with numerous locals, including the sheriff's department. Her precarious situation is further jeopardized by what she finds at the second: multiple cars and bodies, a gun, a horse, a head, a newborn baby and a glimpse of a woman who might be the Shatter Hill Spirit. Guided by the voice of her beloved brother Fitz, who died 17 years ago, Mel fights back against forces that have put her, an outsider, in the crosshairs.
The plot of W.H. Cameron's Crossroad is a stellar foundation for all the splendid extras layered on top. The author splices in Mel's history at a pace that whets readers' appetite for more. But the true tour de force is Cameron's character work. Mel is exquisitely drawn, and Cameron insightfully cultivates a supporting cast that further defines her. Appealing in their own right, they help push past and present forward to a conclusion that is resoundingly satisfying. Crossroad is marked by dark humor, grace and seeds of connections that hopefully signal a path to more Melisende Dulac. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: A young woman struggles to come to terms with her complex past while caught up in a mysterious fatal accident and its aftermath.
Food & Wine
The Defined Dish: Healthy and Wholesome Weeknight Recipes
by Alex Snodgrass
In the introduction to The Defined Dish, Alex Snodgrass talks about her history with food: her creation of the blog of the same name, the big Italian meals she ate with her family as a kid, her appreciation of Texan treats and her eventual embracing of a Whole30 diet to help manage her postpartum anxiety. The recipes in her cookbook reflect these experiences. Italian dishes like Chicken Saltimbocca Roll-Ups and Weeknight Lamb Bolognese grace the chapter called "Mom-bo Italiano," while the pages of "Tacos y Más" offer up a variety of taco-inspired meals. Further chapters break down dishes by type (salads, soups, date-night dinners) and offer whole-food variations on old favorites (Spaghetti Squash Pad Thai in "Better than Takeout" and One-Pot Hamburger Helper in "Cleaned-Up Kid Food").
The Defined Dish promises "healthy and wholesome weeknight recipes," and it delivers across every page. A focus on clean, whole-food dishes is at the heart of Snodgrass's approach to food, which she summarizes as "nourish, not punish." Easy ingredient swaps are suggested to make recipes paleo, dairy-free or gluten-free, and every dish is packed with good-for-you meats and vegetables designed to nourish the body. But there's more to good food than simple nourishment, and Snodgrass's food doesn't look like stereotypical "diet food." Her hearty dishes serve as a testament to the possibility of finding balance between nourishment and joy when cooking--and eating. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: A popular food blogger offers hearty, healthy, easy-to-prepare dishes for weeknight meals.
Biography & Memoir
An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's Master Agent
by Owen Matthews
An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's Master Agent is both admiring and sharply critical of its subject. Owen Matthews, author of Stalin's Children, begins the introduction by writing that Sorge "was a bad man who became a great spy--indeed one of the greatest spies who ever lived." As a famous spy, Sorge presents distinct challenges for the author, not only to say something new but also to penetrate the web of deceptions and self-deceptions that spies inhabit. Matthews's vast research and some highly educated guesswork allow readers glimpses of Sorge's beliefs and character. It is not always a flattering portrait, but Matthews convincingly argues for the importance of Sorge's espionage to the Soviet Union at a time when the course of World War II, and of history, was far from certain.
Matthews credits much of Sorge's success as a spy to his exceptional social skills. He seemed to be able to make friends of anyone after a night of drunken carousing, even an infamous Nazi. Contrary to the title, however, Sorge's tradecraft was not always impeccable. Sorge had a daredevil streak that led him to take unnecessary risks, including seducing the wives of key assets and riding his motorcycle at dangerous speeds and crashing on more than one occasion. He was also a master manipulator, using people callously to get what he wanted. More than anything, though, Sorge was an enigma. Matthews does an admirable job trying to peel back his mask, but Sorge's many contradictions remain. A devout Communist living an impressively dissolute lifestyle, Sorge was a complicated man but an undeniably excellent spy. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine
Discover: An Impeccable Spy is a biography of Richard Sorge, a raconteur, womanizer and agent for the Soviet Union who provided intelligence that helped change the course of World War II.
Once More to the Rodeo
by Calvin Hennick
Calvin Hennick's big-hearted but toughminded debut charts a course across 1,300 miles of American fault lines. His memoir recounts in vivid detail and urgent, conversational prose a 2016 road trip with his five-year-old son, from Worcester, Mass., to see family and a rodeo in small-town Iowa, where the author spent much of his unhappy childhood.
Hennick is a white man married to black woman; their son, Nile, is, in the boy's own words, "tannish" and, at the trip's start, still blissfully unaware of the ugly facts of American racism. Hennick conceived of the journey as a chance to explore with Nile questions of race and manhood, and one showstopping early passage finds the father fighting for the words to explain the legacy of Jackie Robinson--and the son asking, for the first time, "Am I white? Or am I black?"
Much of the book's considerable power comes from the contrast between Hennick's unsparing frankness as a writer and the tender circumspection of his parenting. Page after page, mile after mile, Hennick depicts himself trying to say the right thing at the right moment, trying to tell his son hard truths while still providing him the kind of safe, loving childhood Hennick himself never had. Scenes between them prickle with candid, everyday feelings too rarely dramatized in stories of child-rearing. Inevitably, as father and son motor toward corn country, Once More to the Rodeo plunges increasingly into the author's past, blooming into a treatise on family, fatherhood and the limits of forgiveness. --Alan Scherstuhl, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A white father shows his biracial son the heart of America in the piercing Once More to the Rodeo.
Reference & Writing
Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer's Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book
by Courtney Maum
Once authors have landed a book deal, all they have to do is sit back and enjoy the book's publication, bestseller status and royalty checks, right? Wrong. According to Courtney Maum's straight-shooting Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer's Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book, the anxiety and roller-coaster ride are just beginning.
Maum, author of the novel Touch and other titles, addresses the questions she couldn't find answered anywhere when she was a debut author. What's the right tone for an e-mail blast asking friends and family to preorder the book? How does one grapple with envy toward other authors whose books are getting more attention and selling more copies? How to combat the letdown once attention fades post-publication? And even what's the best way to handle reading at a nudist book club?
Maum tackles these questions and many more in a clear, witty and self-effacing voice. While advising writers not to query with exaggerated claims such as their novel having "been commissioned by Jesus," she admits she declared to an agent in 2003 that her first book would change lives. Maum has learned many valuable lessons since then, such as how authors should consider making joint appearances with others who've written comparable titles. Instead of competing against one another, together the books might garner more attention than each on its own. Writing can be solitary, but Maum is like a debut author's best friend, and she brings along other friends in the business to share eye-opening anecdotes about how to survive birthing that first-book baby. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd
Discover: With humor and insight, author Courtney Maum tells debut authors everything they need to know in this must-read guide.
Children's & Young Adult
Close Calls: How Eleven U.S. Presidents Escaped from the Brink of Death
by Michael P. Spradlin
Due to harrowing situations in office, in war zones and even in a nuclear reactor, some U.S. presidents have narrowly escaped death. Michael P. Spradlin, author of the Spy Goddess and Medal of Honor series, recounts 11 of these brushes with untimely demise in Close Calls, a fascinating collection of historical narratives.
Through nonfiction that reads like thrilling adventure tales, Spradlin engages young readers in the lives of the nation's commanders-in-chief. With death threats and assassination plots brewing, president-elect Abraham Lincoln was protected by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency--and Kate Warne, the first female detective in the United States--on his train ride to Washington, D.C. A fortunate Theodore Roosevelt was saved by his penchant for long speeches: a 50-page manuscript in his coat pocket deflected an assassin's bullet, preventing it from hitting vital organs. The circumstances of these and nine other accounts uncover the terror, valor and sometimes even humor--as Reagan told his wife after being shot, "Honey, I forgot to duck!"--in the experiences of U.S. presidents who were threatened with ghastly, premature death.
Spradlin supplements the biographical reports with sidebars explaining people or things pertinent to the correlating story, such as the patrol torpedo boats, aka "Devil Boats," in John F. Kennedy's chapter or Harry Truman's famous saying, "The buck stops here." These engaging offshoots enhance already absorbing content for a wonderfully entertaining, richly informative read. Middle-grade readers will surely be excited to learn history through Spradlin's concise, accessible writing. Plus, they'll feel in on a secret, possessing the details of these lesser-known stories. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: Close Calls is a middle-grade exploration of the adrenaline-inducing brushes with death faced by 11 U.S. presidents.
by Amy McCulloch
Set in a world where smartphones have evolved into "cute and interactive" cyber companions called bakus, Jinxed is a thrilling, techno-savvy series opener starring an appealing, self-motivated "total nerd" who finds her life's focus called into question.
Twelve-year-old Lacey Chu badly wants to be accepted into her dream school, Profectus Academy of Science and Technology. Once there, she knows she'll get a "level three spaniel" baku and be fast-tracked to work for Moncha Corp., "the largest tech firm in North America." Lacey wants to be a companioneer so she can "design new animals" and work on old ones, just like her idol, Moncha founder Monica Chan. But Lacey's dreams are dashed when Profectus rejects her. While searching in a ravine for her friend's lost baku, Lacey comes across "a crumpled pile of black metal"--a very expensive, but nearly destroyed cat baku. Soon after Lacey "leashes" Jinx, a message arrives welcoming her to Profectus. Lacey secretly restores the baku in time for school, where she wins a coveted spot on the competitive baku battle team. But Jinx isn't like the other bakus, and Lacey's attempts to keep a low profile while she figures out what's happening keep going awry.
Amy McCulloch (The Potion Diaries) ratchets up the tension, with bitter rivalries forming among the baku-battling students, along with ever-growing questions surrounding Jinx's creator and Lacey's acceptance into Profectus. Twists, turns and a touch of espionage, along with shades of Philip Pullman's daemons and Hogwarts' quidditch matches, make Jinxed a real winner. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
Discover: Twelve-year-old Lacey Chu dreams of working for the high-tech Moncha Corp., but complications abound as she begins attending its training school, Profectus Academy.
by Abigail Hing Wen
"This novel is a romp," Abigail Hing Wen promises (and delivers!) about Loveboat, Taipei. The Loveboat, she explains in her opening note to readers, is the popular name for Chien Tan, a real-life Taiwanese summer language program aimed at diasporic teens, with a reputation for having "zero supervision." As a teenager, Wen experienced her own "notorious" Loveboat summer, sneaking out, clubbing, eating at night markets, romancing... all of which she weaves into her #OwnVoices YA debut.
Eighteen-year-old Ever Wong dreams of dancing but is resigned to going to Northwestern and becoming the doctor her Chinese immigrant parents expect her to be. When she's taken off the NYU Tisch waitlist, she's momentarily hopeful, until her mother throws away her acceptance letter. Despite the senior summer plans Ever has already made, she's exiled to Chien Tan, though her parents insist "this isn't a punishment." Her reluctance is assuaged by the near instant friendships she forms: her roommate, Sophie, quickly becomes her new BFF; Sophie's prodigy cousin Rick turns out to be rather sweet; and wealthy bad-boy Xavier's scandalous behavior proves catching. Eight weeks pass quickly--but that's just enough time to break all the "Wong Family Rules." Ever's freedom odyssey features discos and bars, glam shots and nude pics, even first sex and first love (not necessarily in that order).
While Loveboat shenanigans keep pages turning, Wen also skillfully deals with crucial matters of identity, parental sacrifice, filial guilt and internalized racism. One particularly seamless example is Ever's rejection of the all-too-common in Asian communities epicanthoplasty, and her pride in her own single eyelids. (That the book has a cover featuring Asian eyes with double eyelids feels like an unfortunate misstep.) With so much to learn, Wen's rollicking journey awaits with an energetic "welcome aboard." --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: After a life of doing everything right, 18-year-old Ever decides she's going to break all the "Wong Family Rules" during the summer language-immersion program she's sent to in Loveboat, Taipei.