Cora, her twin brother Kyle, and their friend Sybella have been inseparable since the second grade. As they start fifth grade, though, conflict arises between Cora and Sybella, and their best-friendship seems doomed. Told through the perspectives of both girls, Rebecca Donnelly’s The Friendship Lie is a story for young readers who’re realizing that relationships aren’t always simple.
The conflict behind Cora and Sybella’s falling out isn’t explained until the end of the book, with the story unfolding in non-linear chapters titled by their place in relation to “the event.” This solve-the-mystery tone drives the book forward and makes it even more satisfying when the girls realize that uncovering the source of their misunderstanding is less important than apologizing and caring for their relationship. Perfectly capturing the struggles of navigating early interpersonal conflict, this book is designed to not only resonate with young readers, but also to subtly share wisdom regarding emotional intelligence.
Incorporating diverse experiences without belaboring their presence, The Friendship Lie also embodies social consciousness without becoming a “very special episode.” The microaggressions that Sybella experiences as a biracial child, and the fact that Dina, Cora’s father’s grad student, dates women, organically create representation without tokenization.
Cora and Sybella themselves are both whip smart young women, unique without being tropes, and they find equally confident role models in Auntie Lake and Dina. Any kid reading this book is going to subliminally acquire new environmental consciousness; the entire plot is set against the backdrop of a club created by Cora and Kyle’s father, a garbologist.
Educational without moralizing, and capturing kid logic without condescending, The Friendship Lie is a refreshing middle grade novel—and is particularly great if you’re looking for a book that passes the Bechdel test.
JESSIE HORNESS (June 27, 2019)
Across the whole of the twentieth century, one glittering and palatial estate looms over the Catskills: the Hotel Neversink, host to presidents and movie stars and the exclusive domain of the immigrant Sikorsky family. Adam O’Fallon Price’s The Hotel Neversink is a historical microcosm, a family saga, and literary mystery—all elements that work together to engrossing effect.
The story of the Hotel Neversink may technically begin with a high-flying lumber baron, but really it begins on a Polish mountainside, as the Sikorskys, with eldest daughter Jeanie overseeing everything, pack their failing farm in and head for America. They wind up in Liberty, a town nestled in the Catskills, where Asher purchases a sprawling mansion in foreclosure. So the Hotel Neversink is born: the grandest among a grand generation of Catskills resorts, begrudgingly accepted by the locals who never asked for, or wanted, this influx of Jewish neighbors.
And then, in the midst of the hotel’s most storied years, a visiting child goes missing.
In the years to come, more children disappear from Liberty, culminating in the near death of a family member and the discovery of a body in the hotel basement. The hotel’s fortunes wane, but the Sikorskys press on: one family member develops a mania; one grandson clings hard to Asher’s vision; the survivor grapples with their trauma, screaming into literal tornadoes in the process; and Jeanie works to gild a reputation that’s always concealed dark secrets. All the while, the killer advances.
In its focus on the personalities that keep the hotel going, Price’s novel is riveting and sensitive. Their foibles and fears, dramas and dreams propel the book’s pages. Though their Judaism sometimes feels filtered, it dictates their persistence, and it’s no minor feat that third-generation Len remains devout in an area that isn’t a flourishing Jewish center—at least, not in the hotel’s lean years.
As much about a place as it is about a people, The Hotel Neversink is worth checking into—so long as you lock your door tight.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (June 27, 2019)
A Shipwrecked History from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century
Throughout the ages, humans have always found ingenious ways to kill each other, but a bloodletting milestone was surely reached when the great powers of the classical world—the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, et al—took to the sea to battle for territory and treasure. Historical sources from approximately 3000 BCE onward make mention of an extraordinary list of lethal naval weaponry: bronze rams, grapnels, drags, arrows wrapped in burning sulfur, javelins, slings, darts, mangonels, catapults, and later “Greek fire,” a napalm-like burning liquid shot from projectile tubes by the Byzantine navy to defend Constantinople from Arab ships. The consequences were devastating. Some of the ancient sea battles featured nearly 1,000 ships, carrying upwards of 100,000 men—a large percentage of whom ended up at the bottom of the wine-dark Med.
While accurate casualty numbers will never be known, we can be certain the “sea is our greatest battlefield, and … our largest graveyard,” writes James P. Delgado in his awe-inspiring War at Sea: A Shipwrecked History from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. With recent advances in underwater technology, the pace of discovery has quickened, and Delgado chronologically updates the ledger of new finds—grave markers on the world’s sea floor—from the ancient world to the Viking age, royal navy battles of Western Europe, Colonial America, the US Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Cold War.
MATT SUTHERLAND (June 27, 2019)
Eerie and otherworldly, Amelinda Bérubé’s Here There Are Monsters creeps across the page and into the woods where Skye’s younger sister has gone missing, painting a haunting picture of the sisters’ relationship, but also of relationships between human beings and their own desires.
With elegant and terrifying wood creatures reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro, the story seems simple: about a girl lost in the swampy woods as her sister lay sleeping. But these are not ordinary girls. Between them, they have created kingdoms. In their flights of powerful fancy, Deirdre is a queen and Skye is her protector.
Skye had begun to reject the games, wanting a normal life—friends, trips to the mall, and a boyfriend. Deirdre tried to reengage her sister, but ended up drawing more deeply into her imaginary spaces in the woods. When the scrim between the imaginative world and the actual one thins and breaks, each sister chooses the kind of life she wants for herself.
The forest encroaches throughout, a menacing space with the potential to extend its boundaries at will. This setting amplifies the darkness within both girls and their decisions. As Deirdre says, “‘It’s like it’s been waiting for us. It feels alive. Like a dryad forest.”
The language reads like poetry, attentive to sounds and stark images. When Deirdre sits among the detritus of the forest, trying to construct her monsters from sticks, bones, and leaves, her loneliness and strangeness are palpable. Though Bérubé engages a kind of fantasy world, she is still attentive to the social structure at play for teenagers, and her clever use of imaginative elements highlights the crisis of understanding oneself.
Thick with atmosphere and tension, Here There Are Monsters does what fairy tales do: it edifies as it terrifies.
CAMILLE-YVETTE WELSCH (June 27, 2019)
A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America
Lyz Lenz’s God Land is a nuanced examination of the political, personal, and religious complexity of middle America.
Beginning with Lenz’s own faith-filled dream of a new church (one which ended up dissolving) and the challenge of compromising in an ending marriage, the author’s personal story is the impetus for her research. It comes to mirror religion’s broader fragmentation.
Lenz’s marriage broke apart in the wake of the 2016 election, but just like the division that took over the nation, the break only revealed trouble that had been there all along. The divisive nature of faith and politics in contemporary America is what this book is about, and its message is vital: the divides we create are dangerous, and faith that claims to bring people together often leads a ferocious charge to division.
Showcasing a deep understanding of middle America that’s devoid of stereotypes, platitudes, and weak generalities, this journalistic narrative is populated by a wide range of voices who put a face on the hurt, confusion, fear, hope, and healing of everyday Americans. Their experiences suggest that people should come together—in faith, across differences, and with persistence.
Though the book is liberal in tone, it does not aim for political movements, but rather for open-handedness, generosity, working against authoritarianism, and thinking beyond orthodoxy. The pain it captures is heart-wrenching, but it still brims with hope. Stories of generosity (a gift from a stranger) and resilience in faith (Lenz and her ex-husband trying out around twenty churches in a handful of years) speak to paths forward and the possibility of healed divisions.
God Land is a courageous narrative account of the religious and political divides that threaten to rip America down its middle.
MELISSA WUSKE (June 27, 2019)