Norah Piehl

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Pulitzer-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer) takes his first foray into children’s books with Simone, a thoughtful and emotionally intense family story set during the California fire season. Simone, a young Vietnamese American girl, is dreaming of floating in the ocean when she is awakened by her mother (whom she calls M&aacute, the only Vietnamese word she knows). A wildfire is approaching their town, and they’ve been ordered to evacuate.

Simone and her mother are prepared with go bags and an evacuation route—but even then Simone has to make tough choices: “I’ll be back for you,” she reluctantly says to the books and toys she can’t take. The pain of leaving things behind and the panic of vacating her home in an emergency remind Simone’s m&aacute of when floods forced her to evacuate her childhood home in Vietnam and abandon everything but her precious crayons. Despite the disorientation and chaos at the evacuation shelter, Simone’s m&aacute helps Simone find a path forward: “You don’t fight fire with fire, / You fight fire with water,” she says.

Minnie Phan’s hand-lettered text reinforces Simone’s first-person perspective, and Phan’s colored pencil and watercolor palette gorgeously interprets the book’s themes. Simone dreams in color, but when she awakens, the world is black and white, with the only remaining colors the red and orange of the flames. Likewise, her mother’s memories of Vietnam are blue, like the floodwaters that engulfed her home. Toward the end, as Simone and her new friends use artwork to remember their homes and to re-imagine their future, color returns to the pages. The illustrations combine with Nguyen’s words—“It’s up to us”—to offer a vision of hope and healing in the wake of generations of displacement.

In Simone, Minnie Phan’s illustrations combine with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s prose to offer a vision of hope and healing in the wake of generations of displacement.
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In some ways, Grant Snider’s Poetry Comics is exactly what you’d expect—a series of short narratives that combine lyrical words with cartoons. But in almost every other way, this collection manages to surprise readers at each turn of the page.

Poetry Comics is loosely structured around seasons of the year, beginning in spring with tadpoles and leafing trees, and wrapping up in winter with snowfall and the boredom of being stuck indoors. But not all the topics of Snider’s poems—which are mostly in free verse but include some rhyming verses—are seasonal in nature. Many are introspective, touching on personal growth and the creative process in ways that will resonate with readers of various ages: “Maybe a moment is a taste— / a pickle’s sour crunch. / If only there were a way / to put it on paper / I could capture a moment / in all its wild power.” A recurring exploration of “How to Write a Poem” addresses frustration and revision before reaching a joyful conclusion.

Most of the poems include one or two figures leaping acrobatically through panels, often interacting with birds, insects, plants, trees and other elements of the natural world. The pen-and-ink illustrations, colored and edited digitally, span a gorgeous range of pastel and more saturated hues (on display to particularly great effect in “Poem for Painting My Room”). At times, the artwork is more conceptual, as in “Best Friends,” which visualizes a friendship via shapes in two different colors, or “Shape Story,” whose creative panel structure might prompt readers to think not only about what makes a poem but about how comics are constructed.

That may be the greatest value of Snider’s creativity-infused collection: Young readers and aspiring creatives who might be daunted by the prospect of writing a traditional poem or drawing a full graphic novel will find in these pages dozens of new models for, as Snider puts it, helping “say things / I never knew were in me.”

Grant Snider’s Poetry Comics are often introspective, touching on personal growth and the creative process in ways that will resonate with readers of various ages.
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Award-winning poet Diana Khoi Nguyen traverses deeply personal emotional landscapes in her second collection, Root Fractures. Nguyen’s poems, as the title suggests, trace her family’s fractures, from their origins in Vietnam, to her father’s attempts to resettle and assimilate in California, to her brother’s self-erasure from the family. Movingly read by Nguyen herself, the audiobook offers a close approximation of attending a poetry reading. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of producing this audio version was that Nguyen, who’s also a multimedia artist, often incorporates photographs and unique text treatments in her written work. The audiobook of Root Fractures comes with a PDF of these poems, whose visual forms are also described on the recording. Clever techniques, such as muted sound to approximate grayed-out text or multiple tracks to replicate overlapping text, make the auditory experience a beautiful complement to the visual one.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Root Fractures.

Movingly read by author Diana Khoi Nguyen herself, the audiobook of Root Fractures offers a close approximation of attending a poetry reading.
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Alex Michaelides has crafted a superb psychological thriller in The Fury (8 hours), combining classic whodunit elements with contemporary storytelling techniques. Glamorous American actress Lana Farrar invites a small circle of friends (and frenemies) to her private Greek island for a getaway. This includes playwright and consummate hanger-on Elliot Chase, who narrates the story. After one of their number turns up dead, Elliot reveals ever more secrets and lies—including some of his own. Alex Jennings’ reading, with its measured pace and conversational, almost confessional tone, perfectly captures Elliot’s personality, as well as the varied voices of the small cast of characters. Listeners will be loath to press pause on this entirely unpredictable tale.

Read our review of the print edition of The Fury.

Listeners will be loath to press pause on this entirely unpredictable tale of a Greek island getaway gone wrong.
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Agnes Lee’s debut graphic novel, 49 Days, opens with a series of short vignettes about a young woman trying to make a journey but being foiled—sometimes in dramatic and frightening fashion—by the forces of nature. Every day, she must start her journey only to fail again.

These opening sections are intentionally disorienting for the reader, as they are for the young protagonist, Kit—who, readers soon discover, is actually making her way through what’s known in Buddhist tradition as the bardo, a 49-day space between death and rebirth. 

Kit has died in an accident, and over the course of the novel, Kit’s attempts to reach the afterlife are interspersed with two other narratives: first, Kit’s memories of growing up in a loving family and falling in love; and second, glimpses of how Kit’s two siblings, mother and other loved ones are coping in the wake of her death. 

For Kit’s Korean American family, many memories and important moments center around food, prayer and ritual. Lee, who illustrates the New York Times’ “Metropolitan Diary” column, excels at capturing small moments of family life—learning a new word, sharing a meal together, begging to keep a stray cat—and at conveying intense grief—finding new pain in old joys, falling apart at the sight of that beloved cat waiting by the door of an empty room.

Lee cleverly utilizes three different colors, in addition to black and white, to indicate these three different narrative strands: Kit’s metaphysical journey is a soft blue, while her memories are a muted orange and the activities of her living family are a gentle pink. This is an unusual, profoundly moving graphic novel whose elegance belies its complexity and whose emotional impact only grows upon rereading.

49 Days is an unusual, profoundly moving graphic novel whose elegance belies its complexity and whose emotional impact only grows upon rereading.
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Following Jack and Elizabeth from their meet cute as alt rock-loving college students in 1990s Chicago to their contemplation of a move to the suburbs in the early 21st century, the audiobook of Nathan Hill’s second novel Wellness (19 hours) chronicles not only the couple’s evolving love story but also the ever-shifting wellness culture that forms its partial backdrop. Even though the audio version of this expansive novel stretches to almost 19 hours, Ari Fliakos’s warm, intelligent narration sustains listeners’ interest. Fliakos, who also read Hill’s (even longer) debut, The Nix, excels at differentiating among a dozen or more primary and secondary characters of different genders and ages, making the dialogue sections especially engaging. With wry humor and pathos, this Gen X coming-of-(middle)-age novel makes for a profoundly emotional and humanistic listening experience.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Wellness.

With wry humor and pathos, this coming-of-(middle)-age novel makes for a profoundly emotional and humanistic listening experience.
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It would be an understatement to say that her dad’s abrupt departure from the family has disrupted Belén’s life. Ever since he abandoned Belén, her older sister Ava and their mom in their East Oakland neighborhood, Ava has seemed distant and dismissive, and their mom is hardly ever home. Even Belén’s former refuge, books and reading, hasn’t come through for her. Now, in the midst of senior year of high school, she’s on the verge of flunking out. To make things even more complicated, Belén’s brilliant, ambitious best friend, Leti, is pregnant, and Leti’s lifelong dream of attending UC Berkeley hangs in the balance, especially when Leti’s racist parents learn her boyfriend is Black. Belén wants to be a good friend to Leti, but how can she, when she’s barely holding herself together?

In one short year, Belén’s life has become almost completely unrecognizable. Unfortunately, her relatives all claim that one thing is entirely too recognizable: Belén’s resemblance to her father, a high school dropout. Is she fated not only to look like him but also to repeat his various failings? Are she and Leti doomed to retrace old ways of thinking and being, or can they outline new and different paths for themselves?

Debut novelist Carolina Ixta lives and works in Oakland, and her knowledge of and affection for the city is apparent on every page of Shut Up, This Is Serious. Ixta doesn’t shy away from representing the city’s complexities—its vast socioeconomic inequalities, its legacy of racial tensions, its rich but complicated Mexican American community—in clear-eyed detail conveyed through Belén’s intimate first-person narration. While the setting is so vivid that Oakland itself almost becomes a character, Belén’s story still manages to take center stage. Many of her struggles—to find self-acceptance and confidence; to shed harmful relationships and seek out healthy ones; to accept help from supportive adults; to imagine a better future for herself, her family and her friends—will resonate with a wide swath of readers, who will be captivated by Belén and Leti’s efforts to thrive.

Caroline Ixta doesn't shy away from representing Oakland’s complexities—its vast socioeconomic inequalities, its legacy of racial tensions, its rich but complicated Mexican American community—in clear-eyed detail conveyed through protagonist Belén's intimate first-person narration.
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Lex Croucher’s delightful young adult debut novel is set in an alternate version of England in the Middle Ages, one in which the primary political turmoil is a conflict between the Catholics and the Arthurian cultists—those who are convinced that the Arthurian legends are true and that the once and future king is destined to rise again. Meanwhile, inside the castle walls, the King of England’s daughter, Gwen (short for Gwendoline, not Guinevere) is bristling over her impending marriage to Art (yes, short for Arthur), the descendant of King Arthur who is destined to unite the two factions.

As the title of Gwen & Art Are Not in Love suggests, the two are anything but a love match. When they were younger, they fought over trivial matters, but when they reunite as young adults they realize their impending nuptials might be ill-advised for other reasons. When Arthur visits the royal court for the annual tournament, Gwen spots him kissing another young man; Arthur, in turn, uncovers Gwen’s secret diary that confesses her attraction to Lady Bridget Leclair, the only female knight of the realm.

The two reluctantly enter into a pact: They’ll pretend to get along, in order to keep one another’s secrets safe. The marriage bit? They’ll figure it out later. But plans have a way of getting complicated, especially when Arthur has eyes for Gwen’s quiet, studious brother Gabriel, the heir to the throne.

Croucher, the author of a number of irreverent Regency rom-coms, clearly has a lot of fun with their material here, and they offer readers a quirky, queer Arthurian remix with serious undertones. Lighthearted and genuinely entertaining banter soon gives way to political machinations and intense battlefield scenes that throw the stakes for the main characters into high contrast. Fans of Arthurian romance will find much to appreciate here, as well those who enjoy queer reimaginings of history and literature. But anyone who enjoys a swashbuckling tale of talented, thoughtful young people coming into their own will root for Gwen and Art (and Bridget and Gabriel) as they discover their true purpose, and maybe save England at the same time.

Correction, December 6, 2023: This article previously used incorrect pronouns for author Lex Croucher. Croucher uses they/them pronouns.

Lex Croucher offers readers a quirky, queer Arthurian remix in which lighthearted, entertaining banter alternates with political machinations and intense battlefield scenes.
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Two master strategists go head to head—or nose to nose—in Down the Hole, a wickedly funny picture book written by Scott Slater and illustrated by Adam Ming.

As he’s done many times before, Fox positions himself at the edge of the meadow, above a hole in the ground, ready to make his move: “There were bunnies in that hole. Not as many as there used to be, of course, but there were still a few left. He was certain of that.”

Pretending to look for help, Fox calls underground, and his yells are received with what seems at first like a friendly response. Rabbit is willing to help out poor old Fox, but he just needs a bit more information first. While Fox connives to lure Rabbit up to the surface, Rabbit puts his own plan into motion and masterfully uses stalling tactics to get Fox exactly where he wants him.

Clever dialogue, mounting suspense and humor combine to create a picture book that’s sure to leave young listeners on the edge of their seat. Careful observers will eventually be able to deduce Fox’s fate from a two-page spread that might prompt knowing squeals during what’s sure to be a raucous read-aloud.

Adam Ming’s richly hued illustrations, digitally rendered but with hand-painted textures, effectively impart the animal adversaries with winningly human facial expressions: raised eyebrows, worried grimaces and even a smirk or two. The action takes place above and below the earth’s surface—sometimes both at the same time—and rapidly changes in scale. A plethora of little details, especially concerning Rabbit and his accomplices, help maintain visual interest in one rabbit hole readers won’t mind falling down over and over again.

Richly hued illustrations in Down the Hole make for one rabbit hole readers won’t mind falling down over and over again.
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Set in early 1990s Mexico City, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest supernatural thriller Silver Nitrate (13 hours) will appeal to film buffs as well as fans of horror fiction. Montserrat is a talented sound editor, but she has a hard time finding steady work in the male-dominated Mexican film industry. When her oldest friend (and lifelong romantic interest), a washed-up actor, moves in next door to a horror director, he and Montserrat embark on a dark and dangerous quest that might change their lives, for better or for worse. Narrator Gisela Chipe excels at the frequent shifts between English and Spanish, and although at times her delivery is a little flat, she effectively imbues a variety of secondary characters—both those providing comic relief and those who are more menacing—with individual personalities.

Narrator Gisela Chipe effectively imbues both comic and menacing characters with individual personalities in Silver Nitrate.
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Susan Casey has made a career of writing about the ocean and the creatures who inhabit it. In her latest, Casey considers how little we know about the ocean’s deepest reaches and profiles the people who are intent on improving that knowledge via manned submersibles.

In a well-researched investigation of the history of deep ocean exploration, Casey follows both a wealthy entrepreneur intent on breaking records and the scientists whose research relies on the same high-tech equipment. The audiobook of The Underworld (12 hours) is accompanied by a PDF with illustrations, photographs and other resources to aid listeners’ understanding. Casey’s motivation, as listeners learn, is personal, and hearing the author read her thrilling account of finally descending into the ocean’s depths herself provides additional emotional heft.

Hearing Susan Casey read her own thrilling account provides additional emotional heft to this investigation of the ocean’s deepest reaches.
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For My First Popsicle: An Anthology of Food and Feelings (7 hours), actor Zosia Mamet (“Girls,” “The Flight Attendant”) has gathered a who’s-who of creative folks, including fellow actors like Busy Philipps, musicians like Patti Smith, writers like David Sedaris and chefs like Kwame Onwuachi. Each contributed an essay about food or a food-related memory, and the collection of nearly 50 essays offers a veritable smorgasbord of cuisines and emotional resonance. Some essays are funny and sweet, while others engage with more serious subjects, such as depression or disordered eating. Because the essays are short (most run well under 10 minutes), listening to the collection feels like browsing a gourmet buffet. Many contributors read their own works; others are read by notable audiobook narrators or actors, including Mamet herself. The audiobook comes with a PDF of recipes associated with each essay. 

If you’re the kind of person who likes to pop on an audiobook or podcast while you’re cooking, My First Popsicle might be just the thing for dinner tonight. 

If you're the kind of person who likes to pop on an audiobook or podcast while you're cooking, My First Popsicle might be just the thing for dinner tonight.
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In the midst of a messy divorce and plagued by writer’s block, Emily accepts an invitation from her longtime best friend, Chess (now a lifestyle guru), to spend the summer at a luxurious Italian villa. It turns out, however, that the villa has a sordid history: Nearly 50 years earlier, in the mid-1970s, it was the site of a scandalous celebrity murder that in turn inspired a bestselling feminist horror novel. Emily’s growing obsession with the villa’s history inspires her to write at long last—but investigating that long-ago crime and its aftermath opens up old fissures in her relationship with Chess. Will the villa’s dark history repeat itself? 

Rachel Hawkins’ gothic novel The Villa (8 hours) has a wonderfully complicated narrative: Inspired by everything from Fleetwood Mac and Mary Shelley to the Manson murders, it includes not only two separate narratives with two sets of characters but also a novel-within-a-novel, podcast episodes, blog posts and more. Aided in some moments by music, the talented narrators—Shiromi Arserio, Julia Whelan and Kimberly M. Wetherell—prove more than up to the task of guiding listeners through the emotional atmosphere that Hawkins has so superbly created.

Three talented narrators guide listeners through the complicated emotional atmosphere that Rachel Hawkins has so superbly created in The Villa.

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