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A black man settles an old score in a small Wyoming town in the early 1900s.

In this historical novel, Conhaim (Comanche Captive, 2017) draws on various elements of the classic Western—gunfights, a malicious landowner, a stranger coming to town, and a warmhearted barmaid with a tough exterior—to tell a story inspired by his longtime fascination with the singer and activist Paul Robeson. African American traveler Benjamin Neill is closemouthed about his intentions when he rides into a Wyoming town in 1904, but he quickly settles down at Sally Murphy’s Sun and Sagebrush Inn. There, he strikes up a friendship and shares his traveling library with David Cohen, a young Jewish orphan who works at the inn. James Neill, the town marshal, is away in Cheyenne, where he learns about Benjamin, who’s skilled at speaking to working-class groups of all races. Later revelations reveal Benjamin’s desire for revenge, but before a climactic gunfight, he sings deep-pitched spirituals with Sally, offers advice to David, and performs an oration to a crowd that turns up to hear him speak: “To many Negroes he’s known simply as the prophet Benjamin,” one character explains. Conhaim does a good job of balancing genre tropes with a unique storytelling style. Benjamin is a compelling, multilayered protagonist who moves beyond his Robeson inspiration. Although the book grapples with race primarily from white characters’ perspectives, Benjamin’s voice also comes through clearly (“until our people can stand in full human dignity as Americans we should not bear America’s arms”). The prose is vivid and often dramatic, which makes for a memorable read: “David crashed onto the face of the automatic piano with a tremendous crescendo in low C, triggering the thing to start playing a familiar show tune as it rolled backward and struck the wall.”

A well-developed and thoughtful novel of right and wrong in the Old West.

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A debut set of true crime essays explores San Francisco’s dark side.

Drexler wrote the column “Notorious Crooks” for the Sunday San Francisco Examiner from 2014 to 2018 and runs walking tours of the area’s crime hot spots. In this work, he collects bizarre, seedy tales of notorious culprits and unsolved mysteries, covering a century from the 1870s through the 1980s. The infamous characters surveyed include Juanita “Duchess” Spinelli, a “modern-day Fagin” who ran a crime school and was “the first woman to be executed in California”; obese “gambling czar” Elmer “Bones” Remmer; and Dorothy Ellingson, who in 1925 killed her mother for threatening to send her to reform school—her insanity plea failed. The press blamed cars and music for the 16-year-old’s degeneracy, branding her a “Jazzmaniac.” Drexler takes readers on a sprightly tour through the car thefts and holdups of the Terror Bandits, attempted jailbreaks (both Folsom Prison and San Quentin are in the general vicinity), murders, and more. The stories of female criminals feel less familiar and thus tend to stand out, especially those of Inez Burns, an abortionist who performed as many as 30 procedures a week and was rumored to have had Rita Hayworth as a patient, and Sally Stanford, who ran a speak-easy and then a brothel. The disparity in how these two women fared says something about the shifting morality of the 20th century. While Burns, whose services had formerly been considered a “necessary evil,” was indicted in 1946, serving two years in prison and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes, Stanford went on to run for the Sausalito City Council (she won on her sixth attempt) and was later elected mayor. A longer, final section deftly focuses on the Zodiac Killer case, which Drexler (who has appeared on television as an expert on the crimes) calls “the most famous unsolved murder mystery of modern times.” The author makes good use of primary sources such as court transcripts, providing an appropriate level of detail that never seems gratuitous or overly sordid. Black-and-white photographs are provided for many of the historical figures discussed.

A lighthearted, informative take on rather grim events.

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Kirkus Reviews - 18h ago

A convoluted graphic novel thriller about a teen discovering the dark and twisted secrets of her childhood.

Beck, a brown-skinned young woman with straight black hair, is en route by car with her father to begin her first year at the University of Chicago. The excitement of leaving her isolated home-school environment is abruptly derailed when a routine stop at a gas station turns fatal. Beck flees, and a concerned woman drives her into the city, but urban Chicago is bewildering for Beck, who is accustomed to rural living. This chance encounter with a seemingly random stranger later proves pivotal when Beck learns about mysterious circumstances from her past. An innocuous stuffed toy holds clues to Beck’s deep family secret and sets off a chain of events that forces two men in her life to confront one another. Themes of social media and surveillance, complicated familial relationships, and so much more are overshadowed by hasty plot twists, lackluster characterization, and a polarizing conclusion. The dark vector-style illustrations, heavy with deep crimson and indigo, are reminiscent of Faith Erin Hicks. Variations in the panels add visual interest. The cast is ethnically diverse.

The disturbing and rushed ending may baffle some readers while opening up discussion for others. (Graphic fiction. 12-14)

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Someone is in a hurry to grow up—until she isn’t.

On Prunella’s birthday she decides that she is “a BIG kid now” and proceeds to reject all manner of items and activities she decides she’s outgrown. “That’s for babies!” Pru repeatedly declares, even discarding “her favorite doll, Talking Sally…in a box of old toys.” The depiction of the doll makes it seem like a sentient, oddly small person, lending a perhaps unintentionally creepy feeling to the story as Pru begins to regret her rejection of Sally when she gets bored after spurning many opportunities for fun, including a tea party that Talking Sally suggests from the toy box. Then nighttime comes, and with it a lightning storm. Frightened Pru retrieves Sally from the box of toys, asking “Sally, are you scared in there?” And then she reassures the doll, “Don’t be scared! I’m here!” Seeking additional reassurance for herself, Pru ends up in her parents’ bed, and then throughout the following day she happily plays with Sally, embracing activities she’d previously eschewed and acknowledging that seeking comfort is both “for babies…and big kids like me!” Pru and her family present white, as does Sally, and all display snub noses that give them a piglike air. While eagerness to grow up is common in children, both text and art fail to create a compelling story around this feeling.

Not for us. (Picture book. 3-5)

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A child in a pith helmet goes hunting for elephants.

A white boy with blue hair resembling grass heads to Africa and hires a guide, who also appears to be white, and in a zebra-patterned vehicle they set off to catch an elephant. When the boy and his guide find their prey minding his own business and eating breakfast, the text strongly cautions against bothering an elephant. Nevertheless, the boy successfully nets him, and the elephant’s herd’s attempts to rescue their family member are to no avail. Once home, the elephant doesn’t fit anywhere and becomes a general nuisance to the boy’s neighbors. Eventually, the elephant becomes homesick and refuses to eat, which is when the boy has an epiphany that the elephant should be with his family. Reuniting the elephant with his family proves to be difficult, as “all elephant herds tend to look alike.” The boy is heartbroken to leave the elephant, and the elephant is depicted as crying for its captor, but the boy consoles himself with the belief that the elephant is “back home in Africa where he belongs.” This unfortunate book, painted in cheerful yellows and blues, completely overlooks the reality that poaching and rehoming have rendered African elephants near extinction. Reading the elephant as a metaphor for African humans, it’s even more unfortunate. With many countries throughout the continent of Africa struggling to reclaim the resources and dignity stolen for generations, this book plays it for laughs.

A hard pass. (Picture book. 5-8)

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A little boy connects with his African-immigrant grandfather over a shared loved of the “big five” animals of Grandpa’s homeland.

On a five-day visit to his grandfather’s house, Danny enjoys the paintings and colorful masks on prominent display. Grandpa commits to teaching Danny about the big five animals, with each one designated to a day throughout Danny’s visit. From Monday through Friday, Danny’s grandfather tells him about elephants, lions, rhinoceroses, leopards, and buffalo, introducing them by their attributes via a guessing game. “The third animal has thick skin and two horns on his nose,” prompts Grandpa, to which Danny responds: “That’s the rhino!” Grandpa then adds, “Do you know what a rhino is good at? Grazing!” Abbot’s colorful illustrations are jovial and heartwarming, adding amusing details, such as a depiction of a smiling rhino with grass drooping from its mouth next to Grandpa and Danny, similarly munching on cucumbers. While talking about these animals, Danny and his grandfather play and learn and make a host of diverse friends along the way. The African country that is Grandpa’s homeland is never specified, but perhaps it is South Africa, where the Dutch author traces part of her heritage. Grandpa has deep brown skin and graying black hair while his grandson has tan skin and fluffy brown hair.

A sweet celebration of family and introduction to some perennially popular animals. (Picture book. 3-6)

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In this debut novel set in a post-apocalyptic future, a young woman struggles to uncover the truth about her heritage.

A woman named Root remembers how she always felt different from the other people in her village. She was the blind daughter of a “weaver”—a revered village herbalist and wise woman—and she had a penchant for asking unwanted questions. According to village beliefs, to break from tradition and attempt to “remake the World That Is” would have devastating results. Many suspect that Root had a strange illness known as “the Nothing” within her—a condition that could eventually cause a person to transform into a savage, bestial “chimera.” To prevent this transformation, those thought to suffer from the Nothing were given a sedative drink and then burned alive in the Goodafter Pit. Root was 17 when she started hearing a voice in her head and soon gained extraordinary abilities. Her resulting flight set her on a path to discovering the true origins of the World That Is, which centers on a cataclysmic event known as the Reckoning. Crafty surprises abound in this debut novel as Giesler’s story switches between Root’s narration of the story of her life, framed as a presentation to a gathering of listeners, and the journal of her ancestor Ruth Troyer, who was alive during the initial days of the Reckoning. Giesler does an excellent job of connecting Root’s modern perspective and Ruth’s past knowledge to the rustic setting of the reconstructed civilization. The author also pays close attention to the development of language, religion, and cultural ceremonies across the centuries, resulting in some phenomenal worldbuilding. Root is a feisty, compelling narrator, and although some of her folksy asides are occasionally awkward, her monologue is full of appealing personality.

An often mesmerizing end-of-the-world adventure.

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Will and Annalie continue the search for their dad in the middle installment of an Australian eco-thriller trilogy (The Flooded Earth, 2018).

Ever since their father, Spinner, disappeared, the 12-year-old twins have been seeking him out on the ocean. Society is rebuilding since the Flood that broke the planet (not quite our world but one that’s overwhelmingly familiar), but it still seems torn between the despotic Admiralty on the one side and criminal pirates and gangs on the other. Out on the Sunfish, Will and Annalie have nobody but each other and their dearest friends: rich girl Essie, undocumented former slave Pod, and Spinner’s cybernetically enhanced parrot, Graham. While they quest for Spinner and his research into geo-engineering the Flood, the children avoid the wicked forces of the Admiralty and survive all manner of adventures: a storm at sea, stranding on a deserted island, capture by pirates, arrest by immigration officers, and having to eat some pretty gross bugs. The eponymous castle in the sea plays a startlingly small role but leaves unanswered questions, hopefully to be addressed in the conclusion. The perils are all excitingly perilous, but they are also relatively nonterrifying; in a dark and malicious world, the levels of danger feel more exciting than dreadful. The characters are racially ambiguous, with names and origin stories that imply some diversity of background.

A post-apocalyptic disaster story with the cozy feel of Swallows and Amazons. (Science fiction. 10-12)

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A young child is confident a new puppy will adhere to newly learned rules on a first outing beyond the backyard fence.

The unnamed, pigtailed, bespectacled narrator is patient yet strict with their new dog, Patch, named for the black splotch over one eye. They practice the commands of “sit,” “down,” and “stay” (a hard one) to prepare. Once they open the gate and venture out, the leashed Patch is quite excited to encounter butterflies, bugs, and muddy puddles. The highlight of the walk is when they meet Benny, a little boy with his new puppy, a much larger, shaggy canine called Smallfry. “The two puppies leap…and roll…and tussle.” After untangling their leashes, Patch and her owner walk home for a cleanup, some water, and a nap. Fundamentals of puppy training and pet ownership are the underlying themes that give structure to this rather bland storyline—both Benny and the narrator are careful to disclose that their pups have had their shots before allowing them to play, for instance. Carter supplies attractive illustrations done with colored pencil, watercolor, and digital media against a stark white background. The narrator presents white and Benny black; the narrator’s jewel-toned, print dress is especially attractive.

The genuine love expressed between owner and pet fortifies the responsibilities Patch’s owner undertakes. (Picture book. 5-7)

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Earth is getting clobbered by giant ants from space in this second part of the second prequel trilogy to the child-warrior Ender's Game series (The Swarm, 2016, etc.).

There's a self-inflicted element, however, in the damage caused by the Formic invaders. The International Fleet's officer corps is riddled with useless careerists, lackeys, cronies, and favored offspring. The IF high command refuses to share vital intelligence and grows ever more paranoid and ineffectual. It fails to grasp the Formics' Hive Queen's vast intelligence and tactical brilliance, instead sending an official denial that she even exists. Terrorist pirates operate freely in the solar system's outer reaches. And politically there's a bid to oust the relentless and capable Ukko Jukes as Hegemon. It's not all gloom and doom, though. Clever, ruthless, well-connected Col. Li details Special Forces' Mazer Rackham, along with Chinese child-warrior Bingwen and his Rat Army, with identifying the incompetent officers, which Li will then find subtle ways to eliminate. The Rat Army also notices certain asteroids that move mysteriously or vanish and deduces that the Hive Queen has some deep unknown purpose—including, it seems, taking human captives. Almost without exception, the characters are familiar from the previous installments and engaged in similar hair-raising tasks. Since we know from chronologically later installments of the grand architecture that Earth will, somehow, win, the main source of tension lies in exactly how the authors are going to pull these particular chestnuts from the fire. And a case can be made for the story as commentary on the current climate of militaristic nationalism.

Churns agreeably, if with minimal forward momentum.

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