If you have heard of Scheherazade, the woman who stayed alive night after night by telling a murderous king cliffhanger stories, then you may want to check out A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston, a retelling of The Arabian Nights.
She knows her village is next on Lo-Melkhiin's list. Bound by the laws of men, he has to choose a wife from each city district and each village before beginning again. He has taken three hundred wives and all have died in his palace. She fears that her fiery sister will be his next victim and her love for her sister is so strong that she successfully devises a way to make it impossible for Lo-Melkhiin not to choose her instead.
Her goal is to stay calm and to survive the night at the palace. And she does. When she survives the next night and the next, the servants and guards of the palace take notice. There's something different about her and it has to do with her sister's love and fierce will. Although she still lives, her sister prays to her as does her mother and her sister's mother. Soon, all of the women in her village and in the palace pray to her, and the longer she survives the more her story spreads. Praying to a deceased person brings comfort and goodwill to the living; praying to one who still lives translates to power that person can use to combat evil.
She tells Lo-Melkhiin stories about her sister and her family, falls into trances while spinning thread and weaves images into cloth that begin to come true. Her power grows; but the more she uses, the more she weakens. As she unravels the secrets of the palace and of Lo-Melkhiin, she feels she may have just enough power to defeat evil. For her sister. For her village. For all of the unmarried women under Lo-Melkhiin's rule. For herself.
A Thousand Nights is an elegant and descriptive retelling that stands on its own. You do not need to be familiar with The Arabian Nights to enjoy Johnston's version. The only named character is Lo-Melkhiin, which lends an air of mystery and power to the other characters, especially the women and the protagonist. A Thousand Nights starts off at a slow crawl and doesn't pick up much pace for the majority of the book, but if you can look past that you will find the beauty in the descriptions of the desert and its people and the feminist undertones in the quiet strength and cleverness and power of its women. Look out for Johnston's companion novel, Spindle, its publication date to be announced.
High school heartthrob Sakamoto is unflappable. In Nami Sano’s new manga series Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, he evades a bevy of traps set by his fellow schoolmates and keeps the flocks of smitten girls in check like a true gentleman, all while aiding his less popular classmates. Throughout the premiere volume, he remains upstanding as he helps his classmates, teachers and even the bullies who target him, with his seemingly endless repertoire of “secret skills.” Sakamoto has an ability for every occasion and deploys them only once he tires of toying with his adversaries.
When a group of jealous dudes rigs a dusty eraser to fall on Sakamoto as he enters the classroom, he catches it without even looking. In the bathroom, the pranksters hurl buckets of water over the walls of the stall Sakamoto occupies, but he already has his fashionable umbrella open. When he gets back to class he discovers his desk is missing, so he makes the best of it by lounging on the windowsill and letting the sun illuminate his alabaster skin and the breeze whisper through his hair.
There’s just no getting to Sakamoto. After witnessing a guy surrendering his lunch money to a group of bullies, Sakamoto becomes his self-appointed mentor and gets them both jobs at a fast food joint. Together, they man the grill and fry stations during busy weeknights, and Sakamoto’s student begins to develop a sense of pride derived from his newfound work ethic.
Handsome, charming, selfless, witty...Sakamoto has so much going for him; so much that it makes readers wonder whether he’s even human. Readers who enjoy shonen manga will enjoy the satire in the first volume of Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, and readers who are more partial to rom-coms will be head over heels for the titular character.
It’s nighttime, the lights are off in your living room and you see your frightened mother standing there in the darkness peering out the window. Your mom clutches her phone and calls the police because she thinks, no, she knows that the man inside the car parked across the street from your home is the same man who’s been tracking you down for years. He has found the both of you. So, your mom tells you to “Get your things,” because you’re moving for the fifth time. Well, that is exactly what Cameron Weaver, a teenage boy, and his mom experience in Allan Stratton’s psychological thriller teen novel, The Dogs. Oh, and the maniac that is stalking Cameron and his mom, is his dear ol’ Dad.
Cameron’s mom rents a new place that is 800 miles away. They move into a creepy, dilapidated farmhouse way out in the country in a town called Wolf Hollow. On Cameron’s first day at his new school, he hears rumors that his house is haunted. This is not good news for Cameron because he tends to imagine things. Ever since he and his Mom started running away from his Dad, Cameron has become more fearful and prone to having nightmares. The worst part is that his nightmares feel real because he never experiences the waking up part. Cameron’s new environment has a negative effect on him because he begins to hear strange noises, such as dogs howling. He starts to see and converse with a young boy named Jacky McTavish, who lived in the same house decades ago. By the way, Jacky may or may not be dead. No one really knows what happen to him, except maybe the mysterious property owner, Art Sinclair, who used to be Jacky’s best friend. When Cameron learns that a murder occurred at his house back in the early 1960s that involved Jacky, Jacky’s parents and a pack of dogs, he starts his own secret investigation to learn what really happened to Jacky. As Cameron gets deeper into his investigation, he finds himself getting into trouble. Furthermore, he and others start to question his sanity.
For those who are looking for a psychological thriller with a bit of mystery, I definitely recommend that you get your paws on The Dogs. The writing is splendid—Allan Stratton sure knows how to set the tone and lure you into the story.
Jen Larsen’s critically acclaimed memoir Stranger Here detailed her own choice to have weight-loss surgery and the unexpected highs and lows that followed losing 180 pounds. In her teen fiction debut, Larsen tackles weight-loss surgery again in Future Perfect.
Ashley Perkins is the type of kid that any parent or grandparent would be shouting about from the rooftops: class valedictorian, AP student, on the volleyball team and now she’s set her sights on getting into Harvard. All of her friends and family know she is a shoo-in for admission. In her grandmother’s eyes, though, the main thing setting Ashley back is her looks: she’s fat.
Every year since her 13th birthday, Ashley’s grandmother presents her with a card: 50 pounds lost equals a trip to Disneyland, 80 pounds lost equals a shopping trip to Paris, 100 pounds lost equals a brand new car. Every year, Ashley has turned down her grandmother’s offer, but when this year’s card offers her Harvard tuition for the cost of having weight-loss surgery, Ashley struggles with the decision more than she ever has. Should she give in to her grandmother’s demands for how her body “should” look to get everything she’s ever dreamed?
Between the Covers recently caught up with Jen to talk about her novel.
Between the Covers: (No spoilers, please!) While you were writing this novel, did you know what choice Ashley was going to make? Did it change for you while developing her character?
Jen Larsen: I did know! Because her final choice is completely central to why I wrote this book. I wanted to write a character who was everything I wanted to be, and as brave as I wish I were, when I was her age. I wanted to write a book that was the book I needed when I was struggling with my own body issue demons, fear, doubt and isolation.
BTC: You documented your own weight loss surgery and its impact on your life in your memoir Stranger Here; what influence did your own weight loss have on this novel?
JL: When I chose to get surgery, I thought it was my only option—that I had no other choice, because it would be impossible for me to be fat and happy and lovable. That idea is dangerous and so incredibly wrong and yet so prevalent. Future Perfect is a counter to it, an argument for the fact that the body image standards that get pushed on us by the media and even by our own well-meaning family are limited, bigoted and cruel. There's no loving yourself "despite" your flaws, because your body isn't flawed. Not looking like a Victoria's Secret model is not some kind of defect.
BTC: Unlike other teen heroines "of size," Ashley never hides behind her body as a suit of "fat armor." She's not separate from her body, she just is. That is so refreshing! In developing Ashley's character, what pitfalls did you want to avoid? How did you reconcile those pitfalls with having to write a teenage character?
JL: It was really, really important that Ashley's voice be authentic. She rejects the idea that fat is a dirty word. She is fiercely, defiantly happy in her body, almost defensively so — because I think when you're a teenager you are very much still in a role where your beliefs and feelings feel challenged by your adults and your peer group. You feel as if you always need to be on guard, fighting back.
But Ashley also has ordinary doubts and fears and worries that nag at her. She compares herself to other girls, she has fleeting moments of self-doubt when she wonders why her boyfriend thinks she's beautiful, she struggles with her family's nagging and comments. When you're a teenager, your family's opinion is both the most important and the opinion you feel like you need to reject or rebel against. And that's part of what fuels her need to push back as hard as she can.
BTC: This novel could've easily translated to an adult trying to decide if this surgery was for her, so why teen? Teen voice can be very hard to capture, and these kids were very realistic. How did you transition your writing style to suit teen, if at all?
JL: Because I believe teen fiction is so, so important. There's this huge number of brilliant, hungry kids out there looking for themselves in the books they read, wanting their worries, interests, hopes, needs understood and validated. I choose teen because I thought this story and idea and message is so important for teens to hear when they're in the throes of their own struggles with the expectations of the adults around them.
BTC: Ashley's group of friends could each have a wonderful novel in and of themselves! In writing these characters, why was it important for you to stress how, in a lot of ways, these friends were her family perhaps more than her family was?
JL: Thank you! I love her friends very much. I wanted to talk about what happens when the family you have isn't the family you need. It's so important to surround yourself with people who give you strength, who love you and support you. It's okay to push back against your family's expectations if they don't understand you, or care for you the way you need, and create your own community to help give you the strength you need and support your sense of identity and self-worth.
BTC: I've seen a lot of people comment that "No loving grandmother would ever do this to a child!" Do you agree? Why is Grandmother so hard on Ashley when she gives others such love and attention (her dad, Jolene, etc.)?
JL: That kind of direct criticism and pressure on kids about their weight and size is incredibly common, from the really subtle stuff I used to get as a kid ("Why don't you just butter one piece of toast and then press it against the other piece?") to flat-out disapproval and condemnation. Parents and caregivers are roped into The War on Obesity by doctors, and forget that study after study shows that shaming and coercion is useless and, in fact, incredibly harmful. It can cause life-long eating issues, disorders, depression and even more weight gain. It is real and it is common and it is horrific.
Ashley's grandmother genuinely believes she's doing right and good—that she is taking care of her granddaughter in the best way she knows how, and actually helping her to achieve her identity. She thinks if Ashley wants to be successful, she can't be fat. That she'll be denied opportunities and struggle in her career. She thinks she's helping Ashley fight back. And in that sense, she's helping Jolene fight back against the people who reject Jolene's sense of self, unaware of the irony in celebrating Jolene's body autonomy while dismissing Ashley's.
BTC: What's next for you and your writing? (Please, please tell me there's a Jolene book somewhere.)
JL: I love Jolene and would love to write a book about her! But currently I'm working on a couple of new teen books—my first fantasy novel ever, a retelling of the "Princess and the Pea" and a book that's incredibly important to me, about two girls in love and San Francisco and social justice.
Thank you so much for such awesome questions!
One-Punch Man is just the best, and that’s his problem. Following the adventures of Saitama, “a guy who’s a hero for fun,” this hit Japanese series by writer ONE and artist Yusuke Murata is debuting stateside simultaneously as a manga as well as an anime streaming on Hulu.
The book follows a pretty simple premise: Saitama is a hero who trained so hard that his hair fell out, and now he can beat anybody with just one punch. Unfortunately, Saitama also discovers that without the risk of defeat, fighting evildoers has become a reluctant chore. Now, instead of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he wanders listlessly from farmers market to farmers market, looking for sales and pining for a fight that isn’t over in one punch.
Despite his reluctance, Saitama’s abilities get him dragged into all kinds of unlikely scenarios. A man who gains crablike powers after eating too much seafood goes on a rampage! Mosquito season turns out to be the work of an anthropomorphic bug woman! Skinhead terrorists cause baldness to go out of style! Saitama even gets roped into training a pupil, the angst-y cyborg Genos, whose hilariously lengthy origin story is in desperate need of an editor.
In a season where it’s hard to avoid three-hour superhero slugfests, this series is a breath of fresh air. It’s skewering humor and clever satirization is sure to appeal to both superhero fans and haters alike.
New York Times bestselling author Julie Murphy is back with her second teen novel, Dumplin', in which she explores self-esteem and body image against the backdrop of a small Texas town and its popular teen pageant.
Willowdean Dickson is fat and happy in her skin. For as long as she can remember, her former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet mother has called her "Dumplin'" and has made suggestions about her appearance in what she thought was a helpful way. Her support system exists in her best friend Ellen, their shared love of Dolly Parton and her resilience.
With Ellen working at a Forever 21-esque clothing store and spending time with her boyfriend, Willowdean takes a job at a popular fast food place called Harpy's. There, she meets Bo, a somewhat brooding and very hot guy who goes to a different high school. What happens when you are comfortable and confident in your own skin and then a guy you like starts paying attention to you? When Bo reciprocates Willowdean's interest, she starts to feel inadequate and experiences self-doubt. Still, the two of them can't resist the magnetic pull between them, even though Willowdean's doubts and Bo's baggage prevent the pair from really getting to know each other. Things begin to unravel further for her when Bo transfers to her high school and she becomes overwhelmed with the thoughts and comments of others, real and imagined. Guys like Bo don't date girls like her. To make matters worse, their romance doesn't extend from Harpy's to school.
But if you're Willowdean Dickson, you decide to regain your confidence and screw-what-others-think attitude by entering the most important competition in your small Texas town: the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant. At the same time, she and Ellen have a falling out with each other, unlikely pageant candidates gravitate towards her and she ends whatever this thing with Bo is.
Dumplin' is about losing and regaining confidence in oneself no matter what one looks like and relationships between mothers and daughters, best friends and love interests. Willowdean will make readers feel all the feels. Fans of Murphy's New York Times best seller Side Effects May Vary and strong female characters will gravitate towards Dumplin'.
Carry On is Rainbow Rowell’s much anticipated new book about Simon and Baz, two teenage magicians first introduced to us in another one of her novels. In Fangirl, the main character spends much of her time writing fanfiction about Simon Snow’s adventures at Watford School of Magicks and his turbulent relationship with his vampire roommate Baz. Though intended to be a parody of Harry Potter fanfiction, the short excerpts about these two boys captured the hearts and imaginations of readers as well as the author. We needed an entire book devoted to Simon and Baz, and Rowell does not disappoint. You may be thinking a book based on fanfiction in another book sounds a little too meta, but have no fear. Rowell has created a fresh story that stands firmly on its own. It's the author’s first fantasy book, but it's also part murder mystery, part love story, and absolutely the kind of compulsively readable book we expect from Rowell.
Unlike other heroes in noteworthy fantasy books, Simon is “the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.” It is prophesied that he will save the World of Mages, but he can’t even control his power well enough to use his wand most of the time. He is constantly reminded of his shortcomings by his nemesis Baz. As their final year of school begins, Baz goes missing, and Simon can’t focus on anything but where Baz is and what he might be up to. When Baz finally appears, things have changed. The boys decide to strike up a truce in order to solve a decades old murder and destroy the monster threatening their magical world.
Rowell captures the confusing, thrilling struggle to become oneself perfectly once again, proving she is a master of the coming-of age story in any genre. Her characters are so carefully and realistically drawn even when they are blood-sucking vampires that it is impossible not to become engrossed in their lives and swept up in their relationships. Be warned, you will miss them when you finish the book. To help with the literary hangover that awaits, Rowell has created playlists for both Simon and Baz that are absolutely pitch perfect. Sigh, swoon, repeat.
Readers will also enjoy Rowell’s other works as well as The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness for another spin on a Chosen One story.
Imagine a future where new high school graduates are funneled into one of two life options: prison (that's where they'll end up anyway) or a job at one of two superstores, AllMART or Q-Mart. This is the premise of Blythe Woolston’s MARTians, which follows Zoë Zindleman, a teen who is an unexpected early graduate of her now-closed efficiency high school.
Zoë’s homeroom technician explains that once upon a time a student like her might go to college to prepare for a professional position, but that was then and this is now. She’s lucky to have a job referral for both stores. Home life is a problem, because her house has been on the market for a long time, and so have all the other abandoned, looted dwellings on their cul-de-sac. And now that Zoë has job security, her mother, AnnaMom has decided to move away without her.
Lucky for Zoë, she meets Timmer, a fellow graduate who has had the advantage of working for AllMART for several months now. He’s also on his own, and he helps her navigate the world of the newly independent. He offers her a place to live at an abandoned strip mall, which serves as home to a variety of scrappy misfits. Of course, she could choose to live in the AllMART dormitory—after all, AllMART acts in loco parentis for its employees. AllMART is so much more than a job, her personal human resources manager reminds her. It’s all she can do to learn the departments within the vast store, all the while encouraged to remember “Your smile is the AllMART welcome mat.”
Although published as a teen novel, this dystopian satire features the kind sophisticated ideas and sharp prose found in adult science fiction classics. Savvy readers will notice references to Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, which influenced this cautionary tale of a future that leaves superstores at the center of everyone’s existence. Equally funny and chilling, MARTians is a novel to share.
Having won the 2015 Eisner Award for both “Best New Series” and “Best Publication for Teens,” Lumberjanes, by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke Allen, is a series to keep an eye on. The Lumberjanes, a group of five snappy scouts at a camp for “Hardcore Lady Types,” are an endearing bunch whose wacky adventures are sure to elicit smiles.
The power of “Friendship to the Max” gets the girls through a number of sticky situations, ranging from dodging their strict cabin supervisor after hours to battling sea monsters armed only with their scrunchies. Yetis, were-bears and outhouses full of raptors aside, Lumberjanes is a book about friendship and individuality. April, Jo, Mal, Molly and Ripley each have their own quirks and skills that, when combined, make for an unstoppable force of feel-good girl power.
Fans of other offbeat series like Adventure Time or Bee and PuppyCat will feel right at home with Lumberjanes. Allen’s artwork is stylized and modern, the action is exhilarating and the zany sense of humor has something to offer readers of all ages. The film rights have recently been picked up by 20th Century Fox, so read Lumberjanes soon before everyone else is wondering “what the Joan Jett” this series is all about!
Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates capped a remarkable year last night when he won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Between the World and Me, a frank narrative outlining his experience as a black man in America. Coates received a standing ovation from the crowd at Cipriani Wall Street and told the audience, “I wanted to make racism tactile, visceral. Because it is.” Coates wrote the memoir as a letter to his teenage son and dedicated last night’s award to Prince Jones, a classmate from Howard University who was killed by a police officer while unarmed. Coates’ award-winning title has been selected as the adult nonfiction title in Baltimore County’s inaugural community-wide read, BC Reads, coming in April.
Adam Johnson won the fiction award for Fortune Smiles, a collection of short stories dealing with a wide range of global subjects. The award for young people’s literature was given to Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, a novel about a mentally ill teenager inspired by Shusterman’s son. Robin Coste Lewis won the poetry award for her debut collection Voyage of the Sable Venus, an exploration of race, gender and identity.
The National Book Award, which was established in 1950, has been awarded to some of the country’s most celebrated authors, including William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Presented by the National Book Foundation, the awards were open to American authors who published books from December 1, 2014, to November 30, 2015. The prizes were presented at a black-tie dinner, and all four winners will receive $10,000. Watch the entire ceremony, including all of the winners' acceptance speeches here.