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Did I Ever Tell You?: A Memoir

Genevieve Kingston. S&S/Rucci, $27.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-6680-0629-0

Actor and playwright Kingston delivers a knockout debut about coming to terms with her mother’s death. When Kingston was seven years old, her mother, Kristina, revealed that her once-manageable cancer had become terminal. Four years later, Kristina died, leaving behind a chest of letters and gifts for Kingston to open on birthdays and other milestones, including her first period and her high school graduation. Those missives taught the teenager things about Kristina she’d never known, including her professional achievements and family history, and kept Kingston feeling that “my mother anticipated what I needed before I knew it myself.” When, shortly after Kingston left for college, tragedy struck her family again, she clung to her mother’s letters harder than ever, relying on them and her surviving relatives to make it to graduation. Kingston shares many memorable moments, including how she tried to forestall her parents from sharing news of her mother’s diagnosis by cracking jokes, without allowing the proceedings to become maudlin. This gorgeous, openhearted meditation on grief and family deserves a wide readership. Agent: Brettne Bloom, Book Group. (May)

Reviewed on 05/31/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Tits Up: What Sex Workers, Milk Bankers, Plastic Surgeons, Bra Designers, and Witches Tell Us About Breasts

Sarah Thornton. Norton, $28.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-393-88102-8

In this fun and far-ranging account, sociologist Thornton (Seven Days in the Art World) explores the topic of women’s breasts from a female perspective—tying in multiple aesthetic, professional, and spiritual threads of analysis while eschewing the “male gaze.” Relating her own anecdotes on breastfeeding in the 1990s—when it still had a strongly taboo feeling, especially in public—and her postmastectomy mismatched synthetic breasts (nicknamed Bert and Ernie), she explains that losing her natural breasts for medical reasons inspired her to discover more about how other women (including trans women) relate to their tits. In sections covering the sex industry, breastfeeding, plastic surgeons, bra designers, and the body positivity movement, Thornton draws from informative, intimate conversations with experts. These include a wry, thoughtful plastic surgeon; sex workers who perform feats of asymmetric breast movement; cheerfully aging hippies who revel in the freedom of topless communal events; and Old Navy bra designers (the model who serves as the template for all the company’s bras has perfectly average breasts and a master’s degree in economics that helps her give market-oriented feedback). What emerges is an arresting look at how these subjects’ niche experiences have erased, in their own minds, any perception of breasts as merely “passive erotic playthings.” It’s an inviting and down-to-earth portrayal of women’s relationship with their bodies. (May)

Reviewed on 05/31/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History

Nellie Bowles. Thesis, $30 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-42014-0

The American progressive left has lost its mind, according to this thin debut. Bowles, staff writer for the Free Press, surveys the far left’s most criticized flash points and failures of the past four years, including violence in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, drug use in Los Angeles’s Echo Park Tent Community, and the rise and recall of Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s anti–mass incarceration district attorney. Bowles concedes that “New Progressives” are well-meaning in their desire to battle bigotry and systemic violence, but criticizes their tactics, which she most successfully lampoons through personal recollections, like her mildly funny roast of an antiracist course she attended. Led by mostly white women instructors for mostly white women participants, the course serves as fodder for Bowles’s keen observation that critiques of “whiteness” have become just another outlet for white women’s “self-flagellation” over their bodies. Unfortunately, such perceptiveness is fleeting; by and large, the narrative has a feeling of incompleteness, as complicated subjects such as gender-affirming care for minors receive limited treatments so Bowles can quickly move on to easier, fringier targets, like nerdy Tumblr asexuals. Bowles glosses all these topics with the standard wokeness-gone-too-far veneer that originally made them go viral in right-wing media, while not adding much journalistic depth. The result is a toothless recap of anti-woke talking points. (May)

Reviewed on 05/31/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Tokyo Ever After (Tokyo Ever After #1)

Emiko Jean. Flatiron, $18.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-76660-1

Mount Shasta, Calif., high school senior Izumi Tanaka is a normal 18-year-old American girl: she enjoys baking, watching Real Housewives, and dressing like “Lululemon’s sloppy sister.” But Japanese American Izzy, conceived during a one-night stand in her mother Hanako’s final year at Harvard, has never known the identity of her father. So when she and her best friend find a letter in Hanako’s bedroom, the duo jump at the chance to ferret out Izzy’s dad’s true identity—only to find out he’s the Crown Prince of Japan. Desperate to know her father, Izzy agrees to spend the summer in his home country. But press surveillance, pressure to quickly learn the language and etiquette, and an unexpected romance make her time in Tokyo more fraught than she imagined. Add in a medley of cousins and an upcoming wedding, and Izzy is in for an unforgettable summer. Abrupt switches from Izzy’s perspective to lyrical descriptions of Japan may disrupt readers’ enjoyment, but a snarky voice plus interspersed text conversations and tabloid coverage keep the pages turning in Jean’s (Empress of All Seasons) fun, frothy, and often heartfelt duology starter. Ages 12–up. Agent: Erin Harris, Folio Literary Management. (May)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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That Thing about Bollywood

Supriya Kelkar. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5344-6673-9

Kelkar’s (Bindu’s Bindis) novel features Oceanview Academy middle schooler Sonali, whose stoicism contrasts with her love of Bollywood movies’ melodrama. Stuck in a Los Angeles home with constantly arguing parents and her sensitive nine-year-old brother Ronak, Gujarati American Sonali, 11, tries to make sense of her world through the Hindi movies she’s seen all her life. Ever since an earnest public attempt five years ago to stop her parents’ fighting led to widespread embarrassment in front of family, Sonali has resolved to hide her emotions and do her best to ignore her parents’ arguments. But her efforts prove futile when her parents decide to try the “nesting” method of separation, where they take turns living in the house with Sonali and Ronak. The contemporary narrative takes an entertaining fabulist turn as Sonali’s life begins to transform into a Bollywood movie, with everything she feels and thinks made apparent through her “Bollywooditis.” Sonali’s first-person perspective is sympathetic as she navigates friendship and family drama, and Kelkar successfully infuses a resonant narrative with “filmi magic,” offering a tale with universal appeal through an engaging cultural lens. Ages 8–12. Agent: Kathleen Rushall, Andrea Brown Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Shadows Over London (Empire of the House of Thorns #1)

Christian Klaver. CamCat, $24.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7443-0376-6

When she was six, Justice Kasric watched her blue-eyed merchant father play chess with the Faerie King. Now 15, Justice believes the event was merely a dream. She spends her days yearning for adventure, watching from the sidelines while her 16-year-old sister Faith, as slender and golden-haired as Justice but not as curious, becomes the toast of Victorian London society. One night, however, their father shatters their comfortable lifestyles when he forces the family—Justice, Faith, their younger brother Henry, and their constantly medicated, distant mother—into a locked carriage that takes them to a shadowy mansion. Justice’s discovery that the Faerie have invaded the human world and are targeting her family gains further urgency when she learns that her parents are on opposite sides of the conflict. Together, the Kasric siblings—including older brothers Benedict and Joshua—must find a way to save their family. While characters lack depth at times, and insufficient historical details don’t fully evoke the Victorian setting, Klaver’s (the Supernatural Case Files of Sherlock Holmes series) rich, lyrical descriptions augment the fantastical source material in this engaging series starter. Ages 13–up. Agent: Lucienne Diver, the Knight Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Lake

Natasha Preston. Delacorte, $10.99 paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-12497-0

Nine years before this novel begins, eight-year-old best friends Esme Randal and Kayla Price snuck out of their cabin at Camp Pine Lake in Texas. They swore never to discuss the terrible events that followed, but when the girls, now 17, return to the camp as counselors-in-training from their hometown of Lewisburg, Pa., that proves easier said than done. Someone begins sabotaging camp activities, and ominous—and increasingly public—threats appear, referencing that fateful summer. The only other person who knows Esme and Kayla’s secret is a local girl named Lillian Campbell, whom they left to fend for herself that night in the woods. They’re loath to voice their suspicions of revenge lest they get in trouble or look bad in front of hunky fellow counselors Jake and Olly, but as events escalate, they realize they may not have a choice. Narrating from Esme’s increasingly apprehensive first-person perspective, Preston (The Twin) pays homage to classic summer camp slasher films. The underdeveloped, predominantly white cast relies heavily on stereotype, and the clichéd tormenter’s motive feels unearned, but horror fans will likely appreciate this paranoia-fueled tale’s gruesome, shocking close. Ages 12–up. Agent: Jon Elek, United Agents. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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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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