Reviews of the Week with Patricia Engel, Ali Benjamin, Courtney Summers, and More!

The Review of the Day has always been a brief, early way to spotlight exceptional upcoming titles on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

It’s all stars in this week’s #ReviewsOfTheDay as we usher in our annual December 15 Starred Review issue. Snap these titles up now—they will certainly make an impact in 2021. Booklist wishes you all well.

Monday, December 7

Infinite Country, by Patricia Engel

Fifteen-year-old Talia has a problem. She’s stuck in a correctional facility for adolescent girls when she should be in Bogotá with her father, readying for a flight that will reunite her with her mother and siblings in the U.S. A memorable line—“It was her idea to tie up the nun.”— launches the narrative with the force of a cannon as it switches back and forth between the present and the past. The immigrant’s story might be well-traveled ground, but Engel (The Veins of the Ocean, 2016) constructs a layered narrative outlining how the weight of every seemingly minor choice systematically cements into a crushing predicament. “They did not consider themselves immigrants. They never thought that far ahead and were young enough to believe none of their decisions were permanent.” 

Tuesday, December 8

Wonder Women of Science: Twelve Geniuses Who Are Currently Rocking Science, Technology, and the World, by Tiera Fletcher and Ginger Rue, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

While traditional collective biographies celebrate luminaries from the past, this book introduces 12 women who are actively engaged in STEM fields. Coauthor (and rocket scientist) Fletcher contributes a preface telling how, as an 11-year-old Black child growing up in a small Georgia town, she decided to become an aerospace engineer. The 12 intriguing chapters that follow introduce women such as a Brazilian wildlife ecologist working to save the tapir, an engineer researching ways to improve nuclear security, and a statistician working to end human trafficking. Following each chapter is a section clearly explaining a concept relevant to that discussion, such as nuclear fusion vs. nuclear fission or the differing uses of quantitative and qualitative research studies. Based on interviews with the 12 women, the text includes lengthy quotes, which add a personal tone to each chapter.

Wednesday, December 9

The Smash-Up, by Ali Benjamin

Benjamin’s first novel for adults repurposes Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome in a contemporary reflection on power and sex that crystallizes the visceral rage surrounding the fraught confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh. Ethan Frome’s wife, Zo, and her cohort of friends, All Them Witches, gather in the Frome house in suburban Massachusetts to paint protest signs, dance with abandon in pink Pussy Riot-inspired balaclavas, and simmer together. Ethan is sympathetic but doesn’t quite get it and feels disconnected from Zo, who is consumed by her activism. Neither has the focus or energy to fully engage with their complicated and difficult young daughter, Alex. Enter twentysomething caretaker, Maddie, who is too jaded to be a true MPDG (manic pixie dream girl) but is nonetheless the coy object of Ethan’s obsession as he wistfully imagines a more passionate life and faces the consequences of actions by his skeevy former business partner. Benjamin’s immediately engaging writing captures the complicated emotions and biting humor of these bruising times and their impact on relationships.

Thursday, December 10

The Land of Big Numbers, by Te-Ping Chen

Wall Street Journal correspondent Chen emerges as a fiction powerhouse, each of her 10 stories an immersive literary event. “Lulu,” which first appeared in the New Yorker, is a tale about the diverging life paths of twins, the overachieving daughter and the slacker son, at least in their youth. Granta initially published “Field Notes on a Marriage,” about the brief union between an American woman and an enigmatic Chinese mathematics professor. Seemingly small yet affecting moments define “Hotline Girl,” in which a woman chooses independence over an abusive relationship. “On the Street Where You Live” is about a man confronted by a runaway friend’s ex-lover, “Shanghai Murmur” features a flower shop employee who finds a regular customer’s valuable pen, “Beautiful Country” is about aChinese immigrant on vacation with her longtime white lover, and the collection’s titular tale portrays a young man who chooses wealth over wanting. Chen plays with the slyly surreal in “New Fruit,” inventing a peculiar fruit that can uplift or depress its consumer. “Flying Machine” tells of an elderly but tenacious inventor, and “Gubeikou Spirit” focuses on train passengers inexplicably trapped in a station for months.

Friday, December 11

The Project, by Courtney Summers

When a semi-truck slammed into her parents’ car and killed them instantly, Lo Denham survived only by the grace of God. Her older sister, Bea, believed that Lo lived because of Lev Warren, a man who claims to be divine. Now, Lo hasn’t seen or heard from her sister in almost six years; Bea’s been folded into The Unity Project, Lev Warren’s charitable organization that, despite cult rumors, remains steadfastly aboveboard. Lo is left with only a scar across her face, a fear of driving, and a thirst for uncovering—and writing—the truth. When The Unity Project intrudes upon her life in a shockingly violent way, Lo seizes the chance to look into the darkest of her suspicions and discover what’s happened to her sister during the years when she was missing. But to get close to the Project, she’ll have to get close to Lev Warren, and once she enters his orbit, she won’t leave unchanged. Summers follows up her smash hit Sadie (2018) with a deeply disconcerting investigative thriller that seems unassuming but worms under the skin and into the mind.'

About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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