Reviews of the Week with Joe Ide, Elena Ferrante, George Saunders, 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.

A relevant history of hip-hop; a compelling conclusion to a lauded mystery series; the rich narration of a coming-of-age novel; a treatise on writing from a prize-winning author; a beautifully illustrated search for the elusive aurora. These starred 2021 releases round out the #ReviewsOfTheDay as we continue to celebrate our annual December 15 Starred Review issue. Booklist wishes you all well.

Monday, December 14

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (Young Adult Edition): A Hip-Hop History, by Jeff Chang and Dave Cook

This engrossing, engaging account bills itself as a history of hip-hop, but it’s so much more. Divided into four roughly even, chronological sections beginning in 1969 and spanning into 2020, the book reviews social and political history in light of the myriad individuals and influences that created this vibrant culture. East Coast, West Coast, Black lives, gang wars, civil unrest—all are framed within the context of how they influenced, and were influenced by, the evolving hip-hop scene. Companies blacklisted artists and cancelled contracts, album releases were delayed, and songs were censored, all in testimony to the growing power of this gloriously defiant art form that gave voice to marginalized populations. This young adult version is an update to the 2005 adult edition, and terms that are generally considered to be offensive have been removed. There are also exhortations for young people to work together for positive change, beginning with DJ Kool Herc’s introduction and carrying through to the final chapter, “Black Lives Matter.” 

Tuesday, December 15

Smoke, by Joe Ide

Throughout the previous four novels in his Isaiah “IQ” Quintabe series, Ide has displayed a rare ability to mix dark comedy and gut-churning drama (think Thomas Perry), sometimes leaning toward the former (IQ, 2016), other times the latter (Hi Five2020). Here he strikes the balance straight down the middle, juggling between Isaiah’s fraught attempt to break away from his peril-plagued career as a quixotic investigator and his best friend Dodson’s parallel effort to save his marriage by transforming himself from a hustler on the streets of East Long Beach to, of all things, a marketing trainee in the straight world. Ide sets us up to expect Dodson’s foray into button-down business culture to deliver the comedy, leaving all the gut-churning for Isaiah’s journey, which takes him to a small town in the woods near Lake Tahoe, where he finds not peace but more hapless souls in need of help (serial killers lurk).

Wednesday, December 16

The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante and read by Marisa Tomei

Academy Award-winner Tomei pulls out all the stops in her clever and impassioned narration that matches the accolades for Ferrante’s lauded and incisive coming-of-age novel. The book is set in late-1970s and early-1980s Naples, Italy, as Giovanna, on the precipice of adolescence, forges a relationship with her difficult, estranged aunt; watches her parents’ marriage crumble; and takes her own steps into adulthood. Tomei’s intensity matches Giovana’s punch for punch in a way that recognizes and respects teenage anger, disdain, bitterness, and, yes, love. Ferrante’s books have been championed for their English translations, and Tomei brings the listener closer to the Italian original as she slides into Italian pronunciations of proper nouns and frequently uses Italian accents and cadences to differentiate characters who speak in dialect over those who speak a more refined Italian.

Thursday, December 17

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, by George Saunders

How did Saunders, who first trained as an engineer and labored in oil fields, become a writer recognized with a Man Booker Prize and MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships? In great part by reading the masters, especially the giants of nineteenth-century Russia’s “resistance literature.” So important to Saunders are the stories of Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, he’s been teaching them to MFA students at Syracuse University, his alma mater, for more than two decades. Admirers of Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) and Saunders’ equally imaginative short story collections will discover the full scope of his passion for and knowledge of literature in his deeply inquisitive, candid, funny, and philosophical analysis of seven stories, each included here, by his Russian mentors. Saunders discusses each story’s structure, energy flow, the questions it raises, and how “meaning is made,” embracing both technical finesse and the mysteries at creation’s core, writing, “That’s what craft is: A way to open ourselves up to the suprapersonal wisdom within us.”

Friday, December 18

Seeking an Aurora, by Elizabeth Pulford and illustrated by Anne Bannock

A father awakens his child at night. They dress in warm clothing, quietly leave the house, and trudge through the frozen countryside together. “What’s an aurora?” asks the child, who follows up with more questions along the way. “Is it scary?” Dad shakes his head. “Are stars in the aurora?” “No.” The enigmatic father leads the way to the top of a steep hill. They sit down, surrounded by the starry sky, which suddenly amazes them with “dancing light, glowing and . . . / glimmering, shimmering, and shining. / Colored ribbons swirling and twirling / Lighting up the sky on the still, dark night.” Awestruck, the two stand and watch in silence. On the walk home, Dad tells everything he knows about the aurora. An appended note shares that information with readers. First published in Australia and New Zealand, this picture book captures the beauty of the aurora phenomenon as well as the wonder it inspires in viewers.'

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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