With everything going on in the world right now, chances are that you missed quite a few great new releases. Allow these bite-sized book reviews to get you and your to-read list up to speed!
Reading has always been an excellent way to escape the real world for a little while. They can offer a sense of comfort and adventure, but they can also push us to look beyond the world we know and see new possibilities (as well as underlying realities that have always existed but gone unacknowledged). This has always been the case, but the recent uncertainty, fear, and turmoil that has pervaded all of our lives over the last three months or so has thrown the importance of books into even sharper relief.
While the world may have felt like it stopped for a while this spring, book publishing didn’t. And so, we wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the new book releases that you may have missed.
Below are some bite-sized book reviews for spring 2020 books that we think you’ll want to read ASAP.
April, May, June 2020 bite-sized book reviews
‘They Went Left’ by Monica Hesse
They Went Left is a beautifully tragic novel that’s all about the trauma, memory holes, and compromises that people, namely those who survived Nazi concentration camps, had to live and grapple with long after the war ended. It details the lives of broken families separated due to paperwork mistakes, found families brought together by chance, and individuals harboring secrets of shameful acts during the war.
Each character in this novel is haunted by their pasts at every turn, none moreso than Zofia, the main character. After she was forcefully separated from her family at a concentration camp, she spent the rest of the war with one goal in mind: Find her brother. Reuniting with him was the only thing that kept her going through the weeks, months, and years of sheer torture. But the more she looks for him, the more she feels her past threatening to break down the door separating her from her memories. The door she’s not sure when or why she shut, but knows that the contents behind it may destroy her.
What sets this book apart from other historical fiction books about World War II (like Monica Hesse’s Girl in the Blue Coat) is the way in which it spends more time on the little-known details of the war’s aftermath rather than the conflict itself. And when I say “little-known,” I mean it. From how difficult it was to locate friends and family members after being brutally separated to the fact that a simple clerical error could rip apart families apart to the volume of people who were forced to live in camps because they didn’t have a home to return to, this book shines a light on heartbreaking aspects of post-war life.
This is an incredibly impressive novel about a timeframe and group of people that history often forgets. I’m grateful to Monica Hesse for opening my eyes, as well as my heart, to them. Their stories will stay with me forever.
‘What I Like About You’ by Marisa Kanter
Marisa Kanter’s What I Like About You is such a sweet YA rom-com, in more ways than one. Combining a love for books (as well as the entire publishing industry) with a love for baking and decadent sweets, this book is truly a bookworm’s dream.
Halle/Kels is a relatable teen (aside from her blogging/Twitter fame) whose online life has eclipsed her IRL so long that she doesn’t really know how she is. It also doesn’t help that she has never lived in the same place for any considerable amount of time. Seeing the world through her eyes is both fascinating and heartbreaking because she has so little confidence in herself and overestimates the difference between herself and her online persona. Nash, on the other hand, is almost the complete opposite. He’s very much himself in both places, though he too goes by a pseudonym.
But they make for quite the pair. Or well, thrupple, perhaps? There’s technically a love triangle going on here, but it’s interestingly more of a really over-complicated straight line, which makes things ever the more dramatic and makes every interaction an extremely layered situation.
While the love triangle/line drags on a little too long for me and doesn’t leave quite enough room for a swoon-worthy resolution, What I Like About You is ultimately a fun and entertaining read and a great escape from current stressors.
‘Superman Smashes the Klan’ by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru
Superman Smashes the Klan is a ton of fun from start to finish. It’s such an enjoyable read that you’ll have a hard time putting it down, opting instead to read it all in one sitting (and then perhaps start it over again).
Centering on a working-class Chinese immigrant family that’s settling into their new home in Metropolis, Superman Smashes the Klan weaves an engaging story about family, otherness, and allyship in the face of bigotry. Not only that, but it also breaks down the structure of hate groups (including the potential monetary motivation behind some high-ranking members) as well as others’ susceptibilities to them. But like, for a story with such heavy subject matter, it’s as light and fun as you’d expect a good Superman comic to be. I was pleasantly surprised by just how well the heaviness and levity fit together, and even more surprised by how much I smiled while reading a story involving the KKK.
At a time where racism is publicly (and loudly) rearing its ugly head, this book serves as a sort of optimistic balm. It provides hope in the face of hate, showing us all that resistance isn’t futile. Superman Smashes the Klan strikes the perfect balance of 1940s atmosphere with a modern day lens and sentimentality to it, which connects the characters’ struggles with what American citizens are facing today. The essay at the end of the book pushes those connections even further, weaving together U.S. History, Superman’s history, and the author’s personal story. It was a great touch.
If you’re in need of some hope in the face of *gestures wildly around* all this, you could never go wrong with a Superman tale. Namely this one.
‘We Are Not From Here’ by Jenny Torres Sanchez
Make no mistake: We Are Not From Here is a difficult book to read. But it’s absolutely worth it. It’s magnetic and heartbreaking, depressing yet hopeful. While you may not have (literally) walked in these characters’ shoes, it’s hard not to put yourself in them and feel the depths of their successes and failures.
We Are Not From Here tells the story of Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña, three Guatemalan teenagers who are forced to leave the only home they’ve ever known and embark on the perilous journey from Guatemala to the United States in hopes of a better, safer life. While it is an adventure novel in a sense, this book does not pull punches or hide the horrific reality of what it takes to reach the U.S. southern border.
Yes, there are kind-hearted helpers along the way who stop at nothing to aid those desperate for better lives. But they’re few and far between, serving as a temporary respite from dehydration, highway stops, and an unforgiving train. This book describes every step of the way in such graphic and specific detail that evokes pretty visceral reactions.
Honestly, it’s hard to read We Are Not From Here because of how heavy it is. It really hurts to reflect on just how awful this journey is and just how many people embark on it every single day, only to die along the way or be detained at the border. The book is incredibly well-written, but it isn’t one that you’ll be able to read in a single sitting.
If you’re looking to expand your horizons and read about experiences different from your own, I highly recommend this title. In today’s world, it should be considered mandatory reading for anyone and everyone.
‘I Keep My Worries in My Teeth’ by Anna Cox
I Keep My Worries in My Teeth is an binge-worthy novel that’s laced with so many unexpected surprises and oddities as it goes along. This book is part contemporary yet absurdist fiction and part short story collection all rolled into one. It centers on three women of different ages and life stages whose lives are upended by an explosion at the local pencil factory (which is the town’s life blood). What follows are three stories strength in the face of paralyzing fear and anxiety and tests of the will of women. And I absolutely loved it.
This book is first and foremost a character piece. Though there’s a bit of “action” wrapped up in the plot’s catalyst, everything that follows is very much tied to these women’s decisions, dreams, and fears. The book is told from their three very different perspectives, putting the reader directly in their minds and amidst their thoughts, however disconnected or layered they may be. My favorite character was the youngest woman who lost the use of her voice due to the accident. She was constantly full of surprises and an astonishing maturity that I didn’t expect.
One of the things that makes this book really stand out is the way in which it plays with reality. There are quite a few instances of things that the reader would find to be slightly weird in the “real world” (such as one woman’s job as a pencil mouthfeel tester) that is completely normalized in the world of the novel, but it just adds to the book’s charm as well as one of its larger messages about perspective.
It’s hard not to breeze through this debut, and not just because of its length. Though it features characters dealing directly with serious topics such as grief, anxiety, and irreversible physical injury (just to name a few), I Keep My Worries in My Teeth keeps things light and makes for an incredibly enjoyable read.
‘You Brought Me The Ocean’ by Alex Sanchez and Julie Maroh
Oh my, what a lovely graphic novel. You Brought Me The Ocean is a heartfelt story of identity and friendship set against a superhero universe backdrop where literally almost everything is possible.
Jake Hyde is preparing for his future, but finds that he wants different things for himself and his future than those who care about him do. And so, he just bides his time and plays everything safe. Once he starts spending time with varsity swimmer/outcast Kenny Liu, however, everything changes and Jake starts to take more chances and go after what he wants. But when the cost means lying to those he loves, he must figure out how he can become the person he wants to be deep down.
Having never heard of Aqualad before, this was the first DC YA graphic novel that I’ve ever cracked open where I didn’t bring any preconceived notions about the characters or story arc along with me. And I’m so glad I didn’t. The writing here is simple yet heartfelt, taking the audience through a very personal (but, from my limited knowledge, relatively typical?) coming out experience.
Paired with the incredibly lush watercolor-sequence and illustrations, the book has a tenderness I wasn’t expecting. I also wasn’t expecting the ending to be what it was, as it subverts normal graphic novel storytelling in a way that really makes sense in this context. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that it sticks to the themes and introduced conflicts of the story rather than pivoting to something “bigger.”
I’m really really glad I read You Brought Me the Ocean and continue to be satisfied by the line of DC YA graphic novels. This is yet another solid and really lovely piece of YA fiction.