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We read all 20 National Book Award nominees for 2015. Here's what we thought.

Featuring everything from graphic novels for young adults to the interior lives of octopi.

Each year, just 20 American books are selected as National Book Award nominees — five in fiction, five in nonfiction, five in poetry, and five in young adult literature. Few people are likely to read all 20, so just like last year, we've decided to help you out by taking on that task, in case you're looking for some recommendations. For more on each title, visit the National Book Awards' website. The winners were announced at a ceremony on Wednesday, November 18.

Our thoughts on all 20 nominees are below.


Fiction

WINNER: Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson

Fortune smiles very little in Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson's new collection of short stories. The author's previous book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning epic The Orphan Master's Son, was certainly shot through with darkness, but there were episodes of adventure, a sense of high stakes, and, if not a happy ending, at least a hopeful one.

The characters in Fortune Smiles are offered no such consolation. Their struggles are mundane, their options hemmed in by their pasts — and as for endings, there are none. Instead, each of these six stories acts like a zoom camera, diving in to examine a small slice of a life tossed about by fate and then, just as quickly, cutting away.

But what slices! The word is overused in the literary world, but Johnson is truly fearless; he reminds you that fiction, not just the worlds it creates but the high-wire act of writing itself, can be as thrilling to witness as any special effects spectacle.

Johnson's daring manifests in two ways. First, his stories do not follow the arc we crave: beginning, struggle, resolution. Instead they dwell in the space between stories, with characters who are stuck, or at least spent, waiting for another life to begin. Often a story ends just as something shakes loose, just as a choice is made. We're left haunted and wondering.

Second, Johnson uses his unparalleled gift — creating characters who are instantly alive and indelibly specific, with just a few deft strokes — to transport the reader to places as unsettling as they are unfamiliar. One story is told from the perspective of a pedophile, another a retired Stasi prison warden. As I read them I felt nervous; Johnson made me know and understand these people, and I felt implicated in what might come next.

There are bad choices, moral failings, and doomed attempts at redemption, but underneath is a persistent yearning for connection that pins our gaze. These are feats of empathy, without a hint of cliché or a character you've ever met before. I can't recall a book in years that did so much to rekindle my love of fiction itself.

— David Roberts

Image credit: Random House

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

It's a familiar story: Two extraordinary people meet, fall in love, and become something bigger than themselves. Lotto and Mathilde (names so charming they're almost annoying) hail from vastly different backgrounds but find a home in each other, for better and for worse. We monitor their hopes and dreams over the course of their lives as they're interrupted by obstacles that crop up in the form of practical realities, and observe all the aches, pains, joy, sex, and love in between.

But Groff's storytelling is only familiar insomuch as it has a way of reaching into your chest and holding on with a silent, firm grip. We live in the same world as Lotto and Mathilde, but the author's prose so keenly notes every detail that their reality feels sharper, somehow more realized. Groff, whose quietly gut-wrenching short stories frequently appear in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, has more room to expand in the titanic Fates and Furies, but her choices are no less specific and bruising.

First, she sets to work making you fall in love with Lotto, just like everyone in the book. He is one of the more ostensibly clichéd characters — the charismatic yet insecure artist — but his enthusiasm is so genuine that you can't help but understand why every person he meets ends up rooting for him. We trace his childhood in Florida, moneyed and careless. We follow him to Vassar, where he throws himself into the waiting scrum of fumbling sex, and then meets Mathilde. We bear witness to their lives together, Lotto doggedly pursuing his passions as his stalwart wife stands by his side.

And then the perspective shifts.

Tilting vantage points crop up throughout the novel. Some slide in unannounced — friends at a party, musing on Lotto and Mathilde's charmed story. When Mathilde's side begins in earnest, though, it's a shock to the system. At that point, we've been in Lotto's exuberant and volatile head for so long that Mathilde's even-keeled rancor, simmering and patient, is a jarring counterpoint.

Again, though, Groff takes what could be typical and transforms it into a stunning, wrenching treatise on love, work, grief, and resentment. These subjects come up time and time again in art, but Fate and Furies is a gorgeous reminder that knowing the story isn't the same as feeling — really feeling — the roiling emotions that drive it.

— Caroline Framke

Image credit: Riverhead Books

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life's reputation precedes it. It's 2015's Big Book, the literary novel that somehow crossed over to become an unlikely bestseller. It's also known for being capital-D Difficult, for being the sort of challenging read that many will have to set aside. Its depictions of brutality, sexual abuse, and self-harm are so intense as to have garnered "recommendations" that include never wanting to read the book again and having no desire to recommend it to anyone else.

Yet one should not approach A Little Life with trepidation. All of the above is true; the plot contains some of the worst things humans can do to one another, and it does not flinch. And at 720 pages, it could take weeks to finish.

But Hanya Yanagihara's greatest skill stems from how well she structures her story, which starts as one thing (a novel about young men attempting to conquer the city) and ends as something altogether different, wounded and bloody but ultimately tender and loving.

The author expertly alternates between moments of deep cruelty and moments of almost unbelievable kindness; at all times, she keeps one eye on the ways that humans can be good to each other and, just as easily, terrible to each other. A Little Life's title refers to how insignificant any one life can feel in the face of the sweep of history (though Yanagihara does her very best to keep the novel from feeling rooted in a particular time period), and yet how tiny moments of crystalline goodness can make that life feel larger than the vast sweep of time and space.

In the four friends at the center of the story, but especially in the perfectly sketched portrait of Jude St. Francis, whose dark past and haunted present drive so much of the novel, Yanagihara finds a way to talk about friendship, horror, and, finally, somehow, a grace that exists even in anyone's darkest moments.

— Todd VanDerWerff

Image credit: Doubleday

Refund by Karen E. Bender

I grew up in the southern California where many of Refund’s stories take place, the one between 9/11 and the crash. The distinction between city and suburbs had largely dissolved. SUVs and reality television troubled us. Children were born to and raised by parents older but less confident than their own, possessed by the growing, uncertain notion that somehow, and sometime soon, the bottom would fall out.

What characterized that time was mitigation, the in-between where the possibility that our lifestyles could not go on forever gained urgent purchase in our imaginations before that lifestyle’s successor spilled wholly into view. It was still possible to get by, even if getting by — for another day, or week, or year — became the consuming preoccupation of middle-class life, not so much destroying grander ambitions as putting them off again.

Refund is assembled from stories published over the course of nearly 20 years, but it's extraordinarily consistent. Karen E. Bender is preoccupied with money, of course, but she is preoccupied with sickness and family and cats, too. Thirteen variations on a small set of themes give Bender opportunity to contradict herself, to complicate matters and avoid the didactic or obvious. Money, for example, does not merely corrupt: It dictates hope and worry, right now and tomorrow. It affords possibilities sometimes, but tends to dwindle as time passes. Possibilities narrow. Bender rarely comes off as cynical. However, money makes and complicates the series of small crises that must be addressed each day. Greater calamities — shootings, sudden deaths, terrorism — strike in many of Bender’s stories, but they tend to come early in the plot. They give way, always, to ordinary life: still mundane and urgent and precarious. She likes ambiguous endings. The big trouble passes. Bills pile up. The characters go on, somehow.

As a collection, Refund is uneven. It starts weak, and by its halfway point, I had mentally composed a kind of faint praise for it: "Bender is George Saunders, minus the science fiction and whatever special charm makes Saunders better than just good." But halfway in, somewhere around its titular story, Refund turns toward the remarkable. Stick with it. If fiction’s task is to distill what it was like to live in a specific time and place, I can give no better example than this, from "Refund," which is set in New York in the weeks after 9/11:

They drifted quickly from their damp new gratitude for their lives to the fact that they had to live them. One week after their return, they sat beside the pile of bills that had accumulated. They sat before the pile as though before a dozen accusations: then Josh got up and went to the closet and brought out suits that she had not seen since he was in his twenties. She was startled when she saw him, the same slim figure, but now with grey hair. Suddenly, she realized that she had stopped looking closely at herself in the mirror. She dragged out some of the dresses she had worn fifteen years ago: stretchy Lycra dresses that clung to her skin. Now she looked like a sausage exploding from its casing. She had been hostage to the absurd notion that by acting young, she would not age. The part-time jobs, the haphazard routine, had kept them mired in a state of hope, which now made it difficult to get off the odd welfare state that was the adjunct, free-lance, part-time job.

"We were fools," he said.

— Emmett Rensin

Image credit: Counterpoint

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Turner House has a huge cast for a book that's fewer than 350 pages long. A family saga, it aptly begins with a family tree — one that contains four generations and more than 50 names. This can seem a little daunting, but the good news is that Angela Flournoy's characters are so real, so cracklingly alive, that telling them apart is never a problem. The bigger challenge is getting them out of your head once you've finished the book; they're apt to take up residence for weeks, squatting in your memory with the barest permission or none at all, as one of the protagonists does in her family's Detroit home.

The house in the novel's title sits on Detroit's Yarrow Street, and we are introduced to it long before the city attains its current status as a metonym for urban decay. The house was purchased with money from a job at the Chrysler plant and filled with children when a black family was still in the minority on Detroit's East Side; its inhabitants later found themselves underwater, burdened with a mortgage worth many times its actual value, as the market crashed in 2008. The question at the heart of the novel is what they will do with it.

The Turner House is concerned with questions of family, origins, and home. Its present-day sections open with an eviction: The Turners' youngest daughter, Lelah, who is addicted to gambling, is kicked out of her apartment and covertly moves into her parents' now-vacant house on Yarrow Street. The novel's historical sections start in Arkansas, which the family patriarch, Francis, left under murky circumstances once it became clear that his dream of being a pastor wouldn't come to fruition.

"Ain't no haints in Detroit," Francis says at the beginning of the story, after his son Cha-Cha battles a malevolent ghost. But Flournoy's writing makes clear that all families, and all cities, are full of haints, the shades of the past and the present that pursue us, torment us, and might define us.

The Turner House contains a few unsatisfying rough edges — we never find out what happens to the house, an ambiguity that might be deliberate but is nonetheless frustrating — though Flournoy's remarkable sense of place, ear for dialogue, and memorable characters more than make up for it. They'll pop up in your mind, haint-like, long after you've turned the final page.

— Libby Nelson

Image credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Nonfiction

WINNER: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Reading Between the World and Me a few months after its much-discussed release this summer, it occurred to me that a lot of white people had read the book to learn about themselves, or about "racism in 2015." Stylistically and thematically, they missed the point.

Written as a letter to Coates's teenage son, the book reads like a literary monologue — one that's driven by the power of Coates's "madder but wiser" authorial voice. The persistence of that single voice throughout an entire book (even a short one) makes for an experience that's a little like reading poetry. It can be too much, and that's the point.

Coates opens Between the World and Me with its most powerful motif: the insistent physicalization of racism as an assault on the black body. But while it can't help but exist as a rebuke of white people, the book isn't about racism — it's about blackness, and in particular, black atheism.

The most transporting section takes place at Howard University, which houses "the mecca" of black love and diversity. The "letter" conceit is most convincing and intriguing when Coates reveals a certain anxiety about raising his son in relative affluence and safety. And he reaches his fullest jeremiad fervor when condemning the black quietist slogan, "You have to be twice as good to get half as far," or describing the alienation he feels as an atheist at a prayer service for a murdered friend.

I admit it: I'm worried that, having won the National Book Award, Between the World and Me might be frozen as "a reflection of our time." I hope enough people set it aside for the moment, and read it at a time when it can be appreciated on its own merits.

— Dara Lind

Image credit: Spiegel & Grau

Hold Still by Sally Mann

Hold Still is not a typical memoir. Photographer Sally Mann has structured the book around candid family snapshots that accompany her prose, chronicling the most intimate details of her life in a way that's both enlightening and offbeat.

Raised on a sprawling farm in rural Virginia, Mann, a self-described "problem child," goes on a journey of self-discovery that’s punctuated by scandal, harrowing murder, and an eerie reflection on the segregated South.

It all begins when Mann opens a box filled with old photographs and contemplates the wild and whimsical antics from her past: She refused to wear clothes until she was 5, developed an obsession with high-speed horseback riding, and almost crashed into a school bus as a reckless teen driver.

Resenting these early signs of rebellion, her parents shipped her off to a prestigious boarding school in Vermont; there, Mann discovered her unbridled passion for photography and writing, and Hold Still gives readers an inside look into her early musings and beloved experience in the darkroom.

But it is Mann’s deep connection to her Southern roots that stitches each chapter together and serves as a critical backdrop to her life.

She describes her unconditional love for the black woman who practically raised her, Gee-Gee, a housekeeper who worked for her family for nearly 50 years and provided a mystifying source of warmth that Mann’s parents lacked.

"I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back," Mann writes of the close relationship with her childhood nanny.

She also writes fondly of her husband, Larry, whom she met during Christmas break while a student at Bennington College, and details the struggles they endorsed as broke newlyweds after marrying on a whim at the tender ages of 19 and 21.

Hold Still is more than a collection of photographs; it is a refreshing visual portrait of Mann’s lifelong experiences, captured in an endlessly fascinating journal.

— Rachel Huggins

Image credit: Little, Brown and Company

If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power

The subtitle of If the Oceans Were Ink is "A Journey to the Heart of the Quran" — a promise that is, frankly, a lie. The book is ostensibly about Power's year-long study of the Quran with her friend and former colleague Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi (whom Power refers to as "the Sheikh"). But its true subject is Akram himself, and his friendship with Power.

As a book about the Quran, or about Islam, If the Oceans Were Ink is disappointing. Power is particularly interested in topics on which she suspects that, as a secular feminist, she disagrees with traditional Islamic views. As a result, she often neglects to present Islam according to the elements of the religion that Muslims think are most important, and several major areas (like dietary restrictions) go totally undiscussed. Compounding this, Akram's views on Islam, while conservative, are iconoclastic — especially when it comes to gender. Power is forthright about this; she clearly takes pride in how many people her friend pisses off. But it's impossible to understand the range of Muslim opinion on a specific issue when the reader's portal into Islamic thinking proudly speaks only for himself.

As an interfaith dialogue, however, Power's book succeeds. At her most insightful, she pushes against the limitations of her cosmopolitan, secular worldview and concludes that she's not as open-minded as she initially believed. And at a time when millions of Americans could probably use a window into an Islam that isn't the Islam they think they know — the Islam of armed jihad and "they hate us because we let women drive" — it's difficult to argue that a book like If the Oceans Were Ink isn't needed.

— Dara Lind

Image credit: Holt Paperbacks

Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith

You see these phrases everywhere in Ordinary Light, sometimes five or 10 per page: "I was grounded in a steadfast, sturdy certainty," "the blurry outside," "out here," "the presence of a thing called Home," "the strange zero-gravity hover of being in-between places," "I had stepped irreversibly into a strange and fearsome dominion."

Superficially, Tracy K. Smith’s book is as straightforward as memoirs come: Girl is born. Girl has childhood. Girl ages; she makes friends and loses them. She goes to school. She fears God and is wary of sex (and those roles reverse after a while). Her mom survives cancer but later dies of it. Girl becomes a poet. She’ll win the Pulitzer Prize. The chapters progress through time. But the animating logic is physical.

From her hometown in California to Yale and then back, Smith is and somehow always has been looking for borders: between self and other, between home and outside; feeling "grounded" in a "pocket of security" or otherwise "unmoored." She is always coming up against ideas, in physical confrontation with thoughts and places or contending with their weight. Eventually, inevitably, these borders become less certain: The outside offers new kinds of belonging; new pockets form in unexpected places. Pain and danger grow where safety was once surest, in homes and even bodies. We strive to be in the world but not of it. This proves impossible.

In the book's strongest places, I found myself in conspiracy with Smith, searching for the secure and the perilous in home and school and faith and politics. I found it weakest, as Smith might say, when I came up against the hard limits of what I was willing to believe.

Memoirists have broad license, even with the facts of their own biography, but in Ordinary Light Smith at least implies strict fidelity: She sometimes cuts scenes short, for example, because she doesn't remember the particulars of a conversation or event and is not willing to invent these details. But throughout Ordinary Light she engages in a different kind of suspicious revision: reporting certain weighty, symbolic modes of thought about her younger self as her thoughts at the time. As a young child, she understands the weight of duty on her father’s shoulders. Of seventh grade, she recalls "scanning the crowd," trying "to gather a sense of what everyone was becoming and where the children we’d so recently been had gone." That’s heavy for a 12-year-old.

Perhaps those inventions are necessary. Memoirs have had a tough couple of decades; commercially they are more viable than ever, but the critical and literary communities have become suspicious. Memoirs are solipsistic, narcissistic, myopic — in 2011, Neil Genzlinger begged "a moment of silence" for "the lost art of shutting up." Late last year Jonathan Yardley diagnosed memoir as an MFA-borne illness, "writing-school" books, filled "with all the self-absorption those places encourage."

So perhaps 10-year-old Tracy must, even in memory, interpret the world the way an adult poet would. The bulk of Ordinary Light occurs during Smith’s childhood, and while adult Smith’s stature and accomplishments might make her story worthy of enough interest to evade the cheapest accusations of narcissism, the experience of being young does not frequently escape navel-gazing. Ordinary Light is history, but it is a book and artwork first. It is something that must be held together by motifs sustained across hundreds of pages, something its author hopes will be worthy and interesting.

It is.

— Emmett Rensin

Image credit: Knopf

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery

For most of the 20th century, it was considered taboo in scientific circles to talk about how animals "think" or "feel." You could study behavior, sure. But no self-respecting researcher would say things like, "My cat is getting jealous" or, "Your dog sympathizes with you." That would be sloppy anthropomorphism — or, worse, romanticism.

Happily, that's been changing lately. It's getting harder to deny that other species often display keen intelligence and intricate emotions. Scientists have amassed evidence that dogs can read our moods, that rats can regret bad decisions, that chimpanzees can suffer depression.

But perhaps the strangest of all animal minds to contemplate is that of the octopus. In her delightful The Soul of an Octopus, writer Sy Montgomery spends three years in the company of these eight-limbed invertebrates, riveted by what seems like a genuinely alien consciousness.

Octopuses are the brainiest mollusks in the ocean, and they behave in all sorts of ways that seem eerily familiar. They recognize and remember faces, shunning people they dislike. They play games, they solve puzzles, and they're one of the few species (along with dogs) that understand pointing. They're so clever at fooling predators through ruses and disguises that a few experts wonder if octopuses possess some sort of theory of mind, a hallmark of human intelligence.

Yet they're about as different from us as can be, biologically speaking. Rather than a single brain, their neurons are spread throughout their entire bodies, concentrated in arms and suckers. What is it like to be an octopus? We haven't a clue, and straining for similarities to human behavior can only go so far.

What makes this book unusual is that Montgomery doesn't try to answer this question by sifting through piles of research. Instead, she ... listens. She develops extensive relationships with a handful of individual octopuses at the New England Aquarium, each with its own personality, its mundane dramas and tragedies. She records every small moment, treating each octopus like a character in a Jane Austen novel. The effect is wonderful. By the end, it's hard to shake the feeling that these bizarre creatures really do have rich internal lives, even if we still lack the imagination to grasp them entirely.

— Brad Plumer

Image credit: Atria Books


Poetry

WINNER: Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis

The centerpiece of Voyage of the Sable Venus is the epic poem of the same name, a piece that's more successful in its totality than in any given part. The primary subject of Lewis's poems is the struggle to live as a black woman in the United States (and in the world), and in the title work she's crafted her magnum opus.

"Voyage" sprawls on for dozens of pages, assembled entirely from descriptions of art objects depicting black women from millennia ago, right up through the present day. Lewis has changed the punctuation of these descriptions and assembled them into a narrative that roughly traces the history of black progress, but she has not radically altered the wording or phrasing.

At first, this approach can seem like a clever gimmick, an interesting way for Lewis to get at her major theme. But the longer the poem continues, the more it sinks beneath the skin. And once it's over, the impact is undeniable: These are all the ways that black women have been described, and all too often they've been robbed of their own power to describe themselves. In individual moments, the poem is enraging or humorous or moving, but its overall effect is chilling. It feels like the mountain of history swallowing a solitary figure whole.

But there's so much else going on in Voyage of the Sable Venus as well. I was particularly taken with "On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari," the lengthy poem that is placed second in the collection and contrasts the narrator of the past (who is on the titular journey) with the narrator of the present, who looks back on that self with melancholy wonder. Of particular note is a section featuring a stillborn buffalo. It's a knockout.

— Todd VanDerWerff

Image credit: Knopf

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

Ada Limón pees while standing up, or at least her narrator does. This collection of poems, centering on a New Yorker who's new to rural life (fields and a lover and a dog), sometimes boasts an enjoyable lady badassery that you don’t see in poetry every day.

But there’s also a self-conscious undercurrent:

"How do you love? / Like a fist. Like a knife. / But I want to be more like a weed, / a small frog trembling in air."

You can sometimes hear the narrator fighting with herself, such as when she talks about the "bright dead things" of the book’s title — carrots that she, as a child, ripped out too soon from a family garden. "I’m thirty-five and remember all that I’ve done wrong. / … Why must we practice / this surrender? What I mean is: there are days / I still want to kill the carrots because I can."

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote liberally from "How to Triumph Like a Girl," a poem about watching a horse race, which opens the book:

But mainly, let’s be honest, I like

that they’re ladies. As if this big

dangerous animal is also a part of me,

that somewhere inside the delicate

skin of my body, there pumps

an 8-pound female horse heart,

[…] that thinks, no it knows,

it’s going to come in first.

What I’m trying to say is: These poems are delicious.

— Susannah Locke

Image credit: Milkweed Editions

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

Inside the poet’s head is "the factory / where loss makes all things / beautiful grow." And that’s surely an appropriate description of this collection from Ross Gay, where the simple joys of gardening and daily life often stumble into death.

For example, "Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt" ends up referencing a car bomb and the "delicacy […] of my fingers / with which I will / one day close / my mother’s eyes."

And at the end of a meditation on the narrator’s ugly feet and an old friend: "but do you really think I’m talking to you about my feet? / Of course she’s dead: Tina was her name, of leukemia: so I heard— / why else would I try sadly to make music of her unremarkable kindness?"

But if you’re getting the sense that this collection is a downer, then I apologize for describing it wrong. (Gay also likes to break the fourth wall, to acknowledge that his narrator chose the wrong metaphor, for instance.) Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, as its title suggests, is ultimately a full-force celebration of life.

— Susannah Locke

Image credit: University of Pittsburgh Press

Elegy for a Broken Machine: Poems by Patrick Phillips

The first thing you'll notice about Patrick Phillips's slim but devastating collection Elegy for a Broken Machine is that its poems pack a visceral, physical punch.

They are divided among three sections, and the first focuses on the waning of Phillips's father's life, with the poet casting an eye upon a body that is failing, medicine's attempts to save it, and, ultimately, its new status as a corpse. These are poems marked by incisive, perfectly chosen images of a man's physicality, the way the body breaks down due to disease or age or simple accident.

Writing about a surgery in "Elegy Outside the ICU," Phillips concludes:

as for the second time
since dawn they skirted
the ruined arteries

with a long blue length
of vein that someone
had unlaced from his leg

so that by almost every definition
my father died
there on the table

and came back in the body
of his own father,
or his mother at the end

His father's condition is Phillips's jumping-off point, but he ruminates on death in all its forms, whether of a person or simply a piece of yourself. In another memorable poem, Phillips considers how, because he's no longer a smoker and thus no longer enjoys the instant sense of camaraderie with other smokers that takes hold as they stand outside to indulge together, he feels as if his life is lesser somehow.

Lest this sound too grim, however, Elegy also celebrates life, as in a lovely ode to a mother singing to calm her baby, a song "that would sound the same ten / thousand years ago, / and has no / meaning but to calm."

Mortality and maturity, life and death are not new themes for poets to consider, but collections like Phillips's latest make it obvious why they keep returning to such oft-tilled soil: This is where we find what makes us human.

— Todd VanDerWerff

Image credit: Knopf

How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes

Raw. Riveting. Refreshing. These are the words that best describe Terrance Hayes's gripping collection of poems that hold a magnifying glass to the experience of being black in America.

The 2014 MacArthur Fellow brings a new, experimental element to American poetry, both in subject matter and in delivery.

"We are on the side of Good God as well as the side of Goddamn," Hayes writes in the poem titled "Self-portrait as the Mind of a Camera," an honest assessment of the inexplicable tightrope African Americans walk on a daily basis.

With colorful language and clever wordplay, Hayes carves out his own space to examine the intersection of art and race, from the influence of hip-hop music and pop culture to confederacy in the South to police violence and the impact of the black church.

In one of his most introspective poems, "Model Prison Model," Hayes envisions a life caged in misery, one he might have lived if he took up the traditional profession of his family members — that of a correctional officer — instead of becoming a poet.

I feel like this is a good time to tell you

My parents and first cousin have worked

Decades as prison guards. Nonetheless,

When I, a black male poet, was asked

To participate in the construction of this vision,

I was surprised. During the uninspired years

I smoked so much I would have set myself aflame

Had I not been weeping half the time.

I am told when my uncle was an inmate

My father often found him cowering in his cell

Like a folded rag. You will note the imposing

Guard towers at each corner of the prison.

If you want to gain a deeper understanding of the US's fragile race relations or to explore the nuances of racial identity, How to Be Drawn is a must-read.

— Rachel Huggins

Image credit: Penguin Books


Young Adult Literature

WINNER: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Challenger Deep mines the trauma of mental illness with a haunting story of a 15-year-old plunging into schizophrenia and then slowly climbing out. It is a tale of two worlds: that of Caden Bosch’s upended reality, where he’s surrounded by bewildered family and friends; and that of Caden’s mind, aboard a pirate ship at sea headed toward the deepest point in the Pacific Ocean: Challenger Deep.

The real-life Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench has become a fascination for explorers desperate to reach the bottom. In Neal Shusterman's novel, both the sailor Caden and the teenage Caden are not quite so keen to descend into the depths. The two Cadens' stories are purposefully disjointed, uniting only in small details — a gold coin, a bundle of maps, blue hair — clues that creep out of the chaos. Slowly, a mystery begins to emerge: What in Caden’s real life inspires the shadows at sea? And how can he find his way back to shore?

What makes Challenger Deep so devastating, powerful, and potent is revealed in the final author’s note, where Shusterman writes that the story "is by no means a work of fiction." Shusterman explored the experience of his own son Brendan’s struggle with mental illness to create Caden’s tale.

The story is an intense collaboration between father and son. Brendan helped his father with the depiction of desperately needing a "mental cast" for a broken brain. And pivotal scenes are laced with Brendan’s artwork, all of it created during his initial struggles with schizophrenia.

Ultimately, Challenger Deep is a love story that Shusterman wrote for his son. Every page betrays a parent captivated by his child’s every step, even when those steps may lead down the most dangerous of paths.

— Melissa Bell

Image credit: HarperTeen

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Part rural noir, part magical realism, and part exploration of a very real psychological condition, Laura Ruby's Bone Gap is an engrossing and enjoyable read.

Set in the small town of Bone Gap, Illinois, the book follows teenager Finn O'Sullivan as he tries to solve the disappearance of his brother's girlfriend Roza. Finn is on his own in this endeavor, because the townspeople think he's odd, and his protestations that he saw Roza being kidnapped are strangely lacking in detail — so no one believes him.

As is revealed early on, Roza has indeed been kidnapped, and she becomes our secondary protagonist. She's no mere damsel in distress for Finn to save. We learn about her past, watch her try to escape her situation, and eventually see her make a shocking choice.

Beneath the noir and magical trappings, Ruby's real interest is physical appearance. Roza has been abducted because her kidnapper believes she is the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. Meanwhile, the handsome Finn falls for his classmate Priscilla "Petey" Willis, who is generally considered quite ugly. This sparks gossip and skepticism about Finn's intentions, which are eventually revealed in a twist that's expertly set up and key to these larger themes.

Even early on, the book is filled with memorable imagery — endless stalks of corn, a mysterious white horse, a beekeeper swarmed by her charges. Then as the story progresses, the real world surrenders more and more to the strangeness of magical realism.

And while the characters experience some disturbing and serious ordeals, things never get too grim. Ruby sympathizes with the underdogs and the oddballs — and explores what happens when they see things that everyone else misses.

— Andrew Prokop

Image credit: Balzer + Bray

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

Steve Sheinkin has made a name for himself as a writer of plot-driven historical nonfiction for younger readers, penning fast-paced biographies that double as histories of pivotal moments in American history. In Most Dangerous, his fourth book in this vein, he profiles Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers — a.k.a. the government's secret history of what had gone wrong during the Vietnam War — to the media.

It's a timely subject; Ellsberg was the Edward Snowden of the 1970s, and Most Dangerous will enthrall even those adults who already have a basic understanding of that period in history. The story clips along from the beginning of the Vietnam War through the American withdrawal, and details Ellsberg's realization that not only was the conflict a disaster but the highest levels of government knew it and weren't telling the public.

Most Dangerous handily navigates its complex subject matter, from the clouded beginnings of the Vietnam War through the Watergate break-in — and it does so with clarity and vigor. While the material requires at least a middle school level knowledge of how the US government works, the prose is straightforward, even for a young adult work. Sometimes this helps to simplify a complex subject and make the story tick along like a thriller; other times, particularly when it comes to dialogue or dealing with the inner lives of the people Sheinkin profiles, it can seem a little patronizing.

Mostly, though, Sheinkin's clear writing and succinct presentation could be a lesson for writers of adult biographies. His eye for the telling detail and the innate tension even in a moment long past — how a burglar faked a limp, or how painfully the moments passed while the New York Times's copies of the Pentagon Papers went to press — mean that even readers who know the story will learn plenty from his recounting of it.

— Libby Nelson

Image credit: Roaring Brook Press

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona and her boss, local villain Ballister Blackheart, live in a universe that allows seemingly disparate worlds to collide with a cheeky wink. Knights joust, and dragons are an ongoing concern, but their main adversary is a shadowy government presence that's enforcing a strict surveillance state and weaponizing sensitive material in sleek tech labs. Also: Nimona is a shape shifter.

The story — which takes the form of a graphic novel — is essentially a mashup that incorporates author Noelle Stevenson's many favorite elements of fantasy and science fiction.

Nimona began as a web comic on Stevenson's wildly popular Tumblr, where she quickly amassed followers by drawing playful cartoons of characters from fan-friendly properties ranging from The Lord of the Rings to Scooby Doo. She has a knack for pinpointing the aspects of these beloved works that fans love most, because she herself is an unapologetic fan.

It's this passionate investment in fandom that makes Stevenson well-equipped to dive deeper and to travel in more unexpected directions than you might expect. While Nimona starts off as an exaggerated take on existing character tropes — the reluctant villain, the enthusiastic sidekick, the self-righteous hero — it eventually hits its stride by delving into what makes these people (and shape shifters) tick.

You can feel the restraints of Nimona's original weekly rollout, as chapters tend to end with either pat conclusions or jarringly dramatic flourishes. But Stevenson's wit and compassion shine through, whether through her endearing illustrations (as seen in Blackheart's spiky build versus Nimona's rounded frame) or her endlessly imaginative world. Part of me wishes I had read Nimona in its original web comic form, if only because my visit with Nimona and Blackheart could have lasted more than just two hours.

— Caroline Framke

Image credit: HarperTeen

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Ali Benjamin's debut novel showcases many of her gifts as a science writer. Her factual descriptions of jellyfish — which figure heavily in the novel's plot — are beautiful and neatly showcase the sea creatures' alien features and wondrous natures.

But the real pleasure is in how she's able to weave those factual descriptions into a longer, larger work about a young girl trying to cope with her own feelings of grief and guilt after her former best friend dies.

Suzy has always been one of those kids who doesn't know how to fit in. And back when Franny was around, that didn't matter. But as the two girls grew older, they grew apart, and on the last day of sixth grade, a horrible incident tore a rift between them. Then Franny drowned while on vacation over the summer — and when The Thing About Jellyfish opens, a month after the tragedy, Suzy is struggling to accept that there will be no forgiveness, no chance to make things right. It's a realization that drives her to stop speaking entirely.

The story alternates between Suzy's attempts to grapple with grief in the present and brief flashbacks to her friendship with Franny in the past, building mystery and deepening the novel's core relationships. Benjamin does a skillful job of weaving Suzy's inner monologue into darker and darker territory, as the character's thoughts wander far afield of what normal 12-year-olds might be thinking about. She also ably handles simultaneous builds in the present-day story, as Suzy tries to figure out just how a strong swimmer like Franny could have drowned, and in the past, as she builds inexorably to the girls' split. While it can occasionally feel as if Suzy has no self-awareness whatsoever, more often than not, Benjamin makes this seem charming rather than irritating.

And she always has her fascination with studying jellyfish, strange and haunted, to fall back on. They're everything Suzy's not, ethereal and graceful and maybe even deadly. That just might be why she's so drawn to them.

— Todd VanDerWerff

Image credit: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers


Editor: Jen Trolio
Copy Editor: Tanya Pai

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