Have Fun in Burma follows Adela, just out of high school, through her summer of self-discovery. No pizza binges and thoughtless beachside flings for this heroine, though. Rosalie Metro’s earnest young lead is up for more of a challenge, and her choices bring into relief the unconscious imperialism in even the best-intentioned travel. The result is a rare “finding yourself” travel story done right, gently relating the grit and discomfort of a truly expanding consciousness.
Inspired by her friendship with a Burmese political refugee who works in the cafeteria of her prestigious college prep school, Adela decides to spend her summer seeing the world. Armed with conviction and adolescent self-assurance, she signs up with Myanmar Volunteers United. For three months, she’s to teach English to the monks at a Buddhist monastery. Instead, she gets a series of lessons of her own, each set against the backdrop of the country’s Buddhist-Muslim conflict.
Metro’s empathy for Adela’s shortcomings make the story potent. Sure, she may hope that her ex-boyfriend sees her selfie with one of the Burmese children, but Adela’s overriding motivation is to do the right thing. The right thing, however, is rarely as clear as the idealistic youth believes. Adela’s coming-of-age lessons are all about the muddiness of being “good” and the discomfiting discovery that, whether we like it or not, we all play a role in the imperialist history of our school books.
Consciousness-raising without moralizing, Have Fun in Burma prods readers toward self-examination while remaining the kind of story that you’d devour in a long bath. Recommended paired with your favorite spicy takeout and a schedule free of interruptions—both for hurtling through the pages and for pondering their contents.
JESSIE HORNESS (February 27, 2018)
In an intoxicating swirl of futuristic imagery and existential inner reflection, Meet Me in the Strange treats music and spirituality as one and the same.
Davi lives in a wondrous hotel in a city filled with oddities and beauties. In this future world, culture has been infused with alien yet lovely customs. A museum includes a simultaneously fantastical and ordinary space exhibit; a record shop houses the most unique popular music. Exhilarating prose describes a world that is bright and brilliant, with spots that are dark and utterly ordinary.
Characters are also all about contradictions, including Anna Z—maybe special; maybe crazy—whom Davi befriends because of their mutual love of musician Django Conn, is enamored with, and attempts to save. She delivers long-winded speeches that could be received as either rants or sermons. To protect her, Davi hides her away in the family hotel, using hidden rooms and tunnels. Though this is done in the name of Anna’s protection, it’s also done to keep her.
The story is told through Davi’s eyes, though Davi is not broadly described; only minor details are included to flesh them out, like Davi’s taste in music. Davi’s gender is never revealed; they assume a sort of implicit androgyny. This mysteriousness is mirrored in the turns of the prose, as the reader is allowed to belong to an enigmatic world and observe it with awe.
Meet Me in the Strange is a wondrous, alien tale, not quite like any other story out there.
HANNAH HOHMAN (February 27, 2018)
Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq
The Beekeeper is Dunya Mikhail’s haunting account of Abdullah, who devoted his life to rescuing mostly Yazidi women and children kidnapped and kept captive by the Daesh, aka the Islamic State. The book includes autobiographical elements about growing up in Baghdad and confronting war, told through poetry and lyrical prose.
Intensely relevant and powerful, the book carries the stories of the Islamic State’s victims forward with appalling details, including descriptions of abuse, rape, and slave markets. Beyond the atrocities, it tells the true and inspiring story of Abdullah’s selfless heroism in a time of crisis.
This is a stunning creative study that blurs the lines between prose and poetry. Through her inspired descriptions of the Iraq of the past, Mikhail gives a glimpse into what has been lost, skillfully utilizing elements of journalism and creative nonfiction for a uniquely varied structure and voice.
Photographs of the captives give faces to the unthinkable atrocities committed by Daesh. Other memorable photographs, taken by Arab women, are included to show the inspiration behind Mikhail’s poignant personal prose and poetry; they center on Baghdad during the Iraq-Iran war.
Mikhail brilliantly captures the large-scale atrocities of Daesh in an individualized way. An extensive and beautiful passage about her own experience of fleeing from Baghdad recalls, “From above, there are no souls, only bodies,” contrasting her feelings with her mother’s, who “seems concerned about the heavy stuff we can’t carry with us—the Persian carpet, the piano, the antique sewing machine.” Poetic portions are where Mikhail is most in her element; they glow with inspiration. Still, transitions between the first-person accounts of former captives and the autobiographical, creative portions of the book are abrupt.
The Beekeeper is a brutally important, electrifying, and lyrical true story.
PAIGE VAN DE WINKLE (February 27, 2018)
Carrie Rubin’s The Bone Curse supplements the usual medical thriller storyline with elements of Vodou and the occult. The result is a polished, entertaining novel.
Ben Oris is an endearing med student who leans heavily on science as a life philosophy. On a trip to Paris with his Haitian friend Laurette, an ancient bone cuts Ben’s palm. What seems at first to be a simple laceration becomes horrifyingly suspect as Ben’s friends and family—people whom he cares about deeply—begin to drop dead around him, having contracted a vicious disease with no cure in sight.
While Ben searches for a scientific solution, Laurette uses her experience with Haitian Vodou to propose a different answer: Ben is cursed. The Bone Curse tracks his quest to cure the people he loves, and perhaps himself in the process.
Ben is a dimensional and appealing main character, complete with vices and virtues that compel interest. It is through Ben’s voice that the adeptness of Rubin’s prose is revealed most, through tight sentences and quick-witted humor. The rest of the cast is intriguing enough to hold attention, particularly when the pacing lags at the beginning.
Developments are increasingly predictable, though when the novel steps outside of convention, it triumphs. Ben’s family structure is interesting—he has two gay dads and an absent biological mother. The history and culture of Haitian Vodou are compellingly introduced as well, with thorough research and respect. These aspects, which are more unexpected than not in the genre, are the most novel parts of an otherwise typical—but still engaging—read.
The Bone Curse is a strong medical thriller––inclusive, skillfully written, and inviting.
MYA ALEXICE (February 27, 2018)
“The Vanishings went unwitnessed—until the telltale puddle of clothing was found there was no reason to suppose a Vanishing had happened at all.” In Malcolm McNeill’s The Beginning Woods, adults are disappearing all over the globe, and an international conclave of scientists housed in Paris’s Trocadero Palace continues to work against increasingly unsurmountable odds. As it happens, one particularly spooky baby deposited at London’s Surbiton Center for Orphaned and Abandoned Babies started the Vanishings twelve years ago, although no one—not even that former baby—knows that secret.
When a Kobold arrived at the orphanage, all sharp teeth and gangly limbs, everyone knew something was wrong. Told day after day that nobody wanted him, no one was more surprised than the Kobold himself when the Mulgans—jovial, hook-handed Forbes and meek Alice—decided to adopt him. Thus began the life of Max Mulgan, a suburban Londoner and his adopted parents’ last, best dream.
However, Max can’t stop dreaming about his “forever parents.” He immerses himself in storybooks, searching for any clue about the people he’s convinced he really belongs to—that is, until books and many other acts of imagination are outlawed in an attempt to end the Vanishings. But it’s too late for Max. In the grip of his own imagination, he searches for the beginning of his own story in a quest that will take him away from the world he’s known and deep into the Beginning Woods.
Unafraid to grapple with complexity, The Beginning Woods changes the geography of fairies back into something as fundamental and frightening as human nature itself. Filled with gorgeous imagery and memorable prose, McNeill’s middle grade novel will break hearts and bind them back together with a happy ending. This is a love letter to the power of imagination.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (February 27, 2018)