Poppy the penguin comes from a long line of performers, but, try as she might, she just can’t fit in with her family’s loud, high-flying acts. Opening up to her family about her feelings allows her to realize a way to be true to both herself and her family legacy. The classic red and white of the circus is joined by primary tones of blue and yellow in this encouraging picture book about being honest with yourself and the people who love you.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (December 27, 2020)
A mysterious death brings chaos and clarity in Priyanka Champaneri’s novel, The City of Good Death.
To die in Kashi is to be freed from the endless burden of reincarnation and rebirth. Pramesh, who manages a hostel for dying pilgrims, confronts grief and loss on a daily basis. But when death touches his own family, his comfortable life turns sour. A relentless ghost takes up residence at the hostel, forcing Pramesh to confront the past he has long tried to bury.
Kashi is steeped in the supernatural, but this does not lessen the impact of the hauntings at the hostel. Tension rises like the sacred Ganges as the restless specter threatens to destroy Pramesh’s livelihood and family. And Pramesh, ever more desperate for answers, does everything he can to rid his home of the spirit—except for the one thing he must: make peace with his past.
Pramesh is not the only one who struggles to put the past to rest. There is Bhut, a police officer still haunted by a childhood tragedy; Mrs. Chalwah, an elderly neighbor who watches the world from an upstairs window; and Shobha, Pramesh’s wife, who can no longer hold back her curiosity about the in-laws she was never allowed to meet. Their plot threads are woven together, resulting in a chilling story.
Lush prose evokes the thick, close atmosphere of Kashi and the intricate religious practices upon which life and death depend. Rumor and superstition hold sway over even the most level-headed people, twisting what’s explainable into something extraordinary—with tragic consequences. The resolution is like a sigh of relief after the previous intensity, promising new starts and peaceful futures.
The City of Good Death is a breathtaking, unforgettable novel about how remembering the past is just as important as moving on.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (December 27, 2020)
In Erik Raschke’s lean, taut novel To the Mountain, a father races to find his lost autistic son during a blizzard.
In a remote juvenile center in Colorado, twelve-year-old Marshall endures bullying, overzealous staff members, and intense sensory overload, forcing him to retreat inward. Marshall is on the autism spectrum, and his violent outbursts have overwhelmed his father, Jace.
Leslie, a kind orderly, takes Marshall under his wing; the two form a friendship. On a routine expedition away from the center, a van crash strands Marshall and injured Leslie in the midst of a wintery wilderness, where Marshall journeys upward in the mistaken belief that his mother’s spirit is waiting at the peak.
Raschke’s sparse prose evokes both the frozen isolation of the mountain, and the circumstances that lead to Marshall being stranded, well; the crash is described with a melodic cadence and visceral sensory details, as when the smell within the van is compared to a butcher shop scrubbed clean.
Jace is nearby working in search and rescue when he receives news of his son’s accident. He makes a reckless attempt to find Marshall as the weather worsens and Marshall’s already fragile psyche begins to splinter.
The novel excels at detailing how Marshall experiences the world, from how words are garbled in his hearing to the catchy song he uses to self-soothe. Within a few tense pages, it’s clear that Marshall has strength inside. Jace’s experiences split the narrative, resulting in a grounded view of Marshall’s plight: Marshall may not be equipped to handle society, but thanks to Jace’s unwavering love and dedication, he’s learned important survival techniques.
In the lyrical and haunting novel To The Mountain, a father-son relationship is tested by traumatic events.
JOHN M. MURRAY (December 27, 2020)
Rodney simply cannot pay attention to his teacher while an open window beckons him to go outside, in Carmen Bogan’s Where’s Rodney? A city boy unused to the great outdoors, Rodney is awed and enchanted when a field trip takes him to a majestic park where he can finally be free to explore the wonders of nature, honored through beautifully depicted scenery and expressive portraiture from Floyd Cooper, all in soothing and dreamy textured earth tones.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (July 31, 2017)
Melanie Finn’s novel The Hare interrogates the complicated, often messy aesthetics of modern womanhood.
Rosie is guileless, yearning, and eighteen when she submits a delicate self-portrait as part of a lark application to Parsons; because Parsons cannot “appreciate Rosie’s complete lack of irony,” she is admitted on scholarship. This luck helps her to escape her grandmother’s boarding house, but releases her to drift in New York City instead.
In New York, wandering the galleries of MoMA in search of her artistic voice, Rosie becomes the perfect bait for Bennett: older, from old money, and dedicated to his grifts. Bound by the shared secret of a shape they hit on a dark highway and by a baby that neither anticipated, Bennett and Rosie spiral into increasingly perilous situations. She winds up in an unheated Vermont hovel, without money or survival skills, but with a kind neighbor, Billy, to help her earn both; he ends up in prison.
Though the novel situates itself in domains considered to be the exclusive space of WASPy men, it is entirely about Rosie: the abuses that shaped her, the hunger she cannot sate, her need to belong, and her slow self-realization. The girl who was too crippled by doubt to make art becomes a woman who provides for herself from the larder of the land, who raises a child on her own, and who is capable of brutal self-defense; her transformation is moving. Still, some of Rosie’s later conflicts are gratuitous ancillaries to her story, present most to force Rosie to opine on social topics; in particular, her initially resentful reaction toward a transwoman weighs down her otherwise buoyant pursuit of self.
The Hare is a bold and authentic novel concerned with the time-consuming, socially defiant, and brutal work of women’s self-actualization.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (December 27, 2020)