Frontlist | 17 books to check out during the 2020 Portland Book Festival

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The Portland Book Festival has long been a reliable source for finding new authors and books to enjoy, and this year is no exception.

This year’s festival, occurring virtually, is spread over more than two weeks, from Nov. 5-21 – you can find the full schedule at literary-arts.org. Events range from two-person conversations to panels such as “An Evening with the National Book Awards” to kids’ storytimes to pop-up readings filmed at the Portland Art Museum (which will be accessible throughout the festival). Registration for the festival is free, as are most of the events.

Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies

Akhtar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, mines his life as the Muslim American son of a Pakistani immigrant in this work of auto-fiction, an ambitious novel that addresses identity, inheritance and much more in the era of Trump. Akhtar is unsparing in his examination of nearly every corner of one family’s American experience — political, financial, religious, social, personal.

Emily Arrow, “Studio: A Place for Art to Start

The popular children’s entertainer calls her first picture book a “studio poem” that’s essentially an ode to artists and their spaces. Aimed at kids ages 3 to 7, the book has a distinct Richard Scarry vibe, with a young bunny visiting animal artists and makers working in all sorts of mediums (look for the ladybug that appears on nearly every page). (Here’s our interview with Arrow in March, when the book came out.)

Chelsea Bieker, “Godshot

In a drought-stricken town in California, a flock of true believers clings to the charismatic preacher who once brought rain and vows to bring it again if they fulfill the “assignments” he gives them. Among them is Lacey, a teenage girl whose mother abruptly abandons her assignment and vanishes just as Lacey enters puberty, becoming eligible to serve the preacher herself. Bieker’s taut prose and characters make this an intense read.

Alexis Coe, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington

He was a celebrated general who had unwittingly triggered the French and Indian War. He was a freedom fighter who balked at liberating the hundreds of people enslaved on his plantation. He was a crusader for national unity who ended his first presidential term under attack by fellow Founders. He was a doting parent whose mother languished in such poverty that Congress considered sending her a pension. Historian Alexis Coe’s treatment of America’s first president is definitely not your father’s George Washington biography – it’s as if Coe flipped on the light in a room where we’ve seen only shadows.

Liz Crain, “Dumplings = Love: Delicious Recipes From Around the World

Portland food writer Liz Crain thinks homemade dumplings are the food equivalent of a warm hug. Crain’s new cookbook, “Dumplings = Love” (Sasquatch Books, 192 pages, $22.95), shows how making dumplings can bring almost as much comfort as eating them. While many of the dumplings Crain features come from Asia, some are original creations, inspired by dishes she loves, like Shrimp & Grits Dumplings, which are a mash-up of Midwestern casseroles and Creole cuisine. (Here’s our October interview with Crain.)

Karen English, “Red Shoes

Grade schoolers and their parents may recognize Karen English as the author of The Carver Chronicles chapter book series, featuring Black and Latino boys who attend Carver Elementary School. English’s latest title is a heartwarming picture book about the adventures of a pair of “dazzling” red shoes first spotted as little Malika shops with her grandmother.

Alison Farrell, “The Hike

The premise of this picture book couldn’t be simpler: Three friends and their dog go for a hike up a mountain. But as soon as they step onto the trail, the pages turn into a delightfully illustrated guide to everything they see along the way. This is a book that young readers will want to return to over and over again so they can study the illustrations, learn the animal and plant names – and find the chipmunk.

Genevieve HudsonBoys of Alabama

Max is 16, the “age of change,” as someone tells him, when his family transplants itself from Germany to Alabama. In the swampy heat, Max finds himself shimmering, sublimating from a quiet boy who doesn’t believe in God into a muscled football player who attends church – and not just any church, but one that handles snakes and speaks in tongues. The one constant in Max’s life: He loved a boy in Germany, and he soon finds a boy to love in Alabama. Hudson’s absorbing debut novel is a big helping of Southern Gothic with a queer perspective and a generous heart.

Christine Kendall, “The True Definition of Neva Beane

Twelve-year-old Neva loves words, but they can’t fill the void she’s feeling this summer. Her world is changing around her – her musician parents are away on tour, her older brother has some mysterious preoccupation, her best friend is suddenly no longer as available – and she’s feeling left out and lonely. Kendall weaves a compassionate coming-of-age middle grade novel that celebrates intergenerational and community ties.

Tehlor Kay Mejia & Anna-Marie McLemoreMiss Meteor

In a New Mexico town whose claim to fame is a meteorite that landed there decades ago, two Latina teens decide this is the year a brown girl finally wins the Miss Meteor pageant. Lita (short for Estrellita) chases the tiara, while Chicky (short for Chiquita) and her sisters assist with posture, makeup, rhinestones and duct tape. All that stands in their way is blond, blue-eyed Kendra, whose family history makes her a shoo-in for Miss Meteor, and Lita’s and Chicky’s own histories and secrets. It isn’t long before their pageant quest turns into a journey toward their true identities.

Kim Johnson, “This Is My America

This debut young adult novel could not be more of the Black Lives Matter moment. Johnson’s teen protagonist, Tracy Beaumont, is a Black girl seeking justice for her wrongly imprisoned father, whose time on Texas’ Death Row is running out. A columnist for her high school newspaper who also runs Know Your Rights workshops that teach Black residents how to navigate police encounters, Tracy is unstoppable as she peels back the layers of trauma, fear, racism and violence in her father’s case and their community’s history.

Liara Tamani, “All the Things We Never Knew

Basketball brings together Carli and Rex, both the stars of their high school teams, in this young-adult novel about love at first sight. As intense as their feelings are, they don’t know or trust each other enough to start sharing their real secrets. Can their relationship survive repeated rounds of miscommunication and misunderstanding?

Vanessa Veselka, “The Great Offshore Grounds

Vanessa Veselka is in the prime of her life, but she remembers the Rose City in the 1980s. “I was living in a world with a lot of danger,” she says. These experiences can be found in her new novel, “The Great Offshore Grounds,” but they’re somewhat buried. “The Great Offshore Grounds” follows siblings Livy, Cheyenne and Essex, all poor and trapped in lives where “nothing was going to happen,” who set off on a cross-country family quest. (Here’s our August interview with Veselka.)

Bryan Washington, “Memorial

Hunger of many kinds fills this love story between Ben and Mike, which sprawls across two continents and multiple timeframes. There’s physical hunger; Mike works in restaurants and at his dying father’s bar, and his mother teaches Ben to cook. There’s hunger for family; both men are still bitter about their parents’ breakups. And there’s the hunger to be seen that’s kept them in a relationship growing more stale by the day – unless they can find their way back to their initial attraction.

Renée Watson, “Ways to Make Sunshine

In this debut title of a new middle grade series, Renée Watson presents Ryan Hart, a literary sister to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby. Like Ramona, Ryan is surrounded by a family that perseveres through ups and downs with love; like Ramona, Ryan gets into scrapes, solves problems and resolves conflicts in her own idiosyncratic way. But Ryan is uniquely herself in facing the challenges of daily life as a Black girl in Portland.

Lidia YuknavitchVerge

“Verge,” a collection of 20 high-voltage stories, is aptly named, as its characters teeter on the brink of mainstream society. Yuknavitch directs our gaze firmly to them by spotlighting their humanity: a college instructor who sees in a streetwalker a reflection of her past; a young woman who blunts the horror of being sex-trafficked with a bedtime story; a girl who chooses a disastrous path out of a yearning to impress her absent brother. Tension, emotion, shock and sex cross wires as characters end up in “oh-no-they-didn’t” yet relatable predicaments: After all, we’re all one step from the edge.

C. Pam ZhangHow Much of These Hills is Gold

In this astonishing debut novel, C. Pam Zhang examines California’s gold rush from the perspective of a Chinese American family driven less by a vision of riches than by a thirst to belong, somewhere, and to claim ownership of something, anything. Opening with the family’s two surviving children, Lucy and Sam, in desperate straits, Zhang tells a memorable tale that’s part Western, part coming-of-age journey, and part myth. Amid loss, poverty, sexism, racism and more than one encounter with fool’s gold, Lucy and Sam make their way to their own maybe-happily-ever-afters.

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