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Wishes

Mượn Thị Văn, illus. By Victo Ngai. Orchard, $18.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-338-30589-0

Inspired by her own family’s refugee journey from Vietnam to Hong Kong, Văn’s (If You Were Night) spare picture book, powerful in its deliberate simplicity, follows a black-haired, pale-skinned child as they, their guardian, and two younger siblings join other asylum seekers for a perilous maritime voyage. In a third-person voice, Văn anthropomorphizes objects, relaying their wishes: “The dream wished it was longer,” one spread reads, as a balding, mustached guardian holds the protagonist close, and a guardian with a bun rouses the second child to dress them. “The clock wished it was slower,” the subsequent pages read, as the two children tearfully hug their mustached guardian goodbye. The narrative continues as the now family of four make their way onto the boat and beyond. A final-act switch to first-person perspective drives home the journey’s personal nature. Intricate, lissome fine-lined art by Ngai (Dazzle Ships) recalls classical Asian compositions, Japanese woodblock prints, and an evocative sensibility in a gradated, surrealistic color palette. A seamless interweaving of elegant prose and atmospheric art marks this affecting immigrant narrative. Back matter includes heartfelt author’s and illustrator’s notes. Ages 4–8. (May)

Correction: A previous version of this review misquoted the book's text.

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Octopus Escapes

Maile Meloy, illus. by Felicita Sala. Putnam, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-984812-69-8

In a straightforward picture book debut by Meloy (the Apothecary series), a red-orange octopus is “happy in his cave,” until a human, portrayed as a pale hand, tricks the cephalopod into occupying a glove and subsequently takes him to “a glass house that wasn’t a cave.” Though the octopus is offered interactive tests and activities—including building blocks, a jar to unscrew, tight passages to navigate, and a camera to photograph visitors to his aquarium home—his days lack differentiation, and the pining octopus soon devises an intrepid plan to return home. The sympathetic prose is rhythmic, allowing readers to see the octopus’s perspective at every step of the process: of the glass house, “There were no waves. No little shivery ones. No big tumbling ones.” Sala (Green on Green) contributes vibrant art rendered in gouache, watercolor, and pastel on paper; particularly effective are spreads of the sinuous subject’s ocean life, with its richly varied flora and fauna. The Finding Nemo–esque adventure follows a predictable arc, but the tender narrative is gratifying and may serve as an effective jumping-off point for discussions about animal captivity. Ages 3–7. (May)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Josie and the Scary Snapper

Elisa Downing, illus. by Isadora Machado. Dark Window, $9.80 paper (34p) ISBN 978-1-77733-050-7

Josie, a light brown–skinned child with a cotton candy–esque cloud of pink hair, has difficulty falling asleep because she sees “monsters in the dark” every night. When her father gives her a Scary Snapper—a flashlight he promises will transform monsters “into something not scary at all”—Josie soon discovers the real objects behind many of her fears. Punctuated with “SNAP!”s throughout, Downing’s narrative about braving the unknown is well-paced as Josie shines her beam on frightening sounds and shadows in turn, revealing them to be household mainstays such as a coat rack and a sleeping cat. But when Josie’s Snapper doesn’t work on one particular monster, she discovers newfound courage in a satisfying speculative twist. Machado’s digital illustrations feature a soft-hued palette; cool tones effectively capture the nighttime mood, while the flashlight’s goldenrod beams of light turn nightmarish silhouettes to warmer-toned reality checks. Ideal for bedtime reads, this picture book debut will resonate with readers who might be afraid of the dark, a salient reminder of the power they hold within themselves. Ages 3–5. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

Michael Lewis. Norton, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-88155-4

Maverick doctors, scientists, and public health officials took charge of the fight against Covid-19 when the CDC and the Trump administration failed to act, according to this illuminating rehash of recent history. Lewis (The Fifth Risk) spotlights a group of doctors who overcame bureaucratic inertia and conventional wisdom to write the U.S.'s pandemic response plan in 2007, after President George W. Bush read a history of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and asked what the government would do in such a scenario. Carefully reinterpreting data from 1918, Veterans Affairs official Carter Mecher and other group members developed a "Swiss Cheese strategy" of multiple social interventions (school closures, bans on group gatherings, etc.) layered on top of one another to contain a disease outbreak until a vaccine could be developed. In January 2020, Mecher used sketchy, incomplete data emerging from China to forecast the spread of Covid-19 in the U.S., and shared his findings with California deputy chief health officer Charity Dean, who eventually convinced Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue the country's first statewide stay-at-home order. Though the book's first half is somewhat slow-going, Lewis draws vivid profiles of Mecher and Dean, in particular, and litters the narrative with lucid explanations of epidemiology, disease modeling, and genomic sequencing. Readers will be aghast that these experts weren't leading the battle from the start. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Valediction of Moses: A Proto-biblical Book

Idan Dershowitz. Mohr Siebeck, $39 (216p) ISBN 978-3-16160644-1

Dershowitz (The Dismembered Bible), chair of Hebrew Bible and Its Exegesis at the University of Potsdam, presents an innovative analysis of biblical manuscripts that were discovered then dismissed as forgeries during the late 19th century. In 1878, British antiquities dealer Moses Shapira acquired leather strips found near the Dead Sea that appeared to be an unknown version of Deuteronomy. While the discovery fascinated the English public, the British Museum in 1883 declined to purchase the manuscripts after two experts declared them forgeries. Dershowitz, however, makes a convincing case that the texts are authentic and represent a version of Deuteronomy older than the canonical one, and that “the odd details that made Shapira’s manuscripts seem so dubious in the late 1800s have now transformed into evidence substantiating their antiquity.” For example, vertical creases showing leather had been folded once was considered evidence of forgery, but that same treatment of texts has been found in verified ancient manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. He goes on to explore the significant differences between the Valediction of Moses and the traditional Deuteronomic text, notably the Ten Commandments, which here includes the additional prohibition “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” This is an astounding work of scholarship. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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What’s the Difference?: Recreational Culinary Reference for the Curious and Confused

Brette Warshaw. Harper, $27.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06299-619-0

Warshaw, founder of the What’s the Difference? newsletter (which explains the difference between things that are “often confused for one another”), debuts with a superbly fun collection of ingenious elucidations on various types of food and drink. She writes that broth and stock, often used interchangeably, are actually different—stock is made primarily from bones, while broth is meat-based. She also demystifies the often-perplexing egg labels that plague supermarket fridges, including cage-free, free-range, hormone-free, and pasture-raised (spoiler: cage-free doesn’t always mean happy chickens). Many will be surprised to discover that green tea and matcha are not the same—though matcha is a type of green tea—and that broccoli rabe isn’t broccoli at all but “is instead more closely related to the turnip.” Lest anyone feel secure in their food knowledge, Warshaw throws in a few curveballs—scallions, for instance, are indistinguishable, taste-wise, from young spring onions. Those interested in learning the differences between coriander and cilantro (which come from the same plant), clementines and tangerines, and prawns and shrimp need not look any further. Concise, informative, and a pleasure to dip into, this is an endlessly entertaining way to brush up on one’s food groups. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, InkWell Management. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America

Adam Serwer. One World, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-23080-0

Atlantic journalist Serwer reflects on the antecedents, methods, and legacies of Trumpism in his clear-eyed and incisive debut essay collection. Combining pieces published during the Trump presidency and new material, Serwer draws parallels between the conservative backlash to President Obama and the Southern Redemption movement that wiped out the gains of Reconstruction; examines how periods of greater “civility” between Democrats and Republicans have often hinged on the exclusion of minorities from the halls of power; points out the irony that some of the “most ardent [immigration] restrictionists” in the Trump White House were descended from people who fled poverty and persecution in their home countries; and argues that racial disparities in the spread of Covid-19 fueled conservative opposition to lockdowns, mask mandates, and other public health measures. Along the way, Serwer threads in snippets of his own biracial background and offers concise and illuminating history lessons on the Nation of Islam, the eugenics movement in America, and police unionization, among other topics. Though the territory is familiar, Serwer is a perceptive guide and a skillful synthesizer of scholarship by Eric Foner, Michelle Alexander, and others. This sober-minded inquiry into the Trump era provides essential perspective. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Hellion’s Waltz

Olivia Waite. Avon, $6.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-293183-2

Waite’s charming third Feminine Pursuits historical romance (after The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows) combines a fun caper plot with a grounded sapphic love story. Sophie Roseingrave and her family move from London to Carrisford after being preyed on by a scam artist who cost them their home, their music shop, and, in Sophie’s case, her faith in her abilities as a piano player. The Carrisford Weavers’ Library is about to pull off a con of their own, led by Maddie Crewe. Tired of being exploited by greedy shop owner Mr. Giles, they resolve to swindle him out of the earnings he’s long denied them. When Sophie catches wind there’s a con afoot, she’s determined to stop it—but her efforts to confront Maddie always seem to end in kissing. This cat-and-mouse dynamic dissipates disappointingly soon as Maddie lets Sophie in on the righteous motivation for her crime and Sophie agrees to help. The ensuing romance is sweet, steamy, and surprisingly straightforward. With few bumps in the relationship, the plot is instead driven by the increasingly complicated con and Sophie rediscovering her love of music. The attention to historical detail, diverse supporting cast, and heartening sense of queer comradery create a delightful backdrop. Waite’s fans will not be disappointed. Agent: Courtney Miller-Callihan, Handspun Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Cabinet of Wrath

Tara Campbell. Aqueduct, $12 trade paper (98p) ISBN 978-1-61976-210-7

Campbell (Midnight at the Organporium) delivers nine spooky stories of toys turned sinister that are sure to make readers reconsider the dolls, stuffed animals, and childhood playthings collecting dust in storage. In “Fairbanks,” an elderly woman playing around with voodoo believes that she’s successfully invited her husband’s spirit to inhabit her adult daughter’s old toys—but her daughter tries to convince her that she’s conjured more than just his ghost. Marie Antoinette’s daughter’s new doll becomes ever more demanding of treats in “Petite Marie.” And in “Spencer” a toy slowly fashions itself a new body from its neglectful owner’s body parts. Coupling a leisurely pace with horrifying tension, these eerie stories feel designed to be shared in the dark around a campfire. Though some of the shorter pieces end too abruptly, especially those dealing with heavy themes like immigration and rape, the imaginative scenarios and alluring voice never waver. Readers looking for bite-size horror will be delighted. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Staying Awake: The Gospel for Changemakers

Tyler Sit. Chalice, $16.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-0-8272-3552-6

In this eloquent debut, Sit, pastor of New City Church in Minneapolis, offers a blueprint for committing to social justice. His program, which he dubs “love training,” consists of nine spiritual disciplines that aim to increase individual and community capacity for withstanding adversity, navigating complex social issues, and living meaningful lives—while participating in a “Spirit-led justice” movement. The disciplines include worship (“Staying Awake to Love”), centering marginalized voices (“Staying Awake to Empire”), prayer, leadership development, generosity, and church planting. Two powerful stories bookend this spiritual manifesto: first, Sit’s account of participating in a Black Lives Matter protest after the 2015 police shooting death of Jamar Clark, and an epilogue detailing how Sit enacted his recommended practices following the murder of George Floyd not far from his church. Incorporating cartoons, poetry, practical exercises, personal testimony, and scriptural references, Sit’s work sizzles with energy, humor, and empathy. This impressive guide conveys urgent, timely guidance for pastors, Christians, and seekers looking to marry faith and social justice. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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