STAFF PICK: On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Title: On the Come Up
Author: Angie Thomas
Narrator: Bahni Turpin 

Two years ago, when I was attending a publishing program in New York City with a big group of book-minded people, one debut had made a particularly big splash. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give dominated conversations amongst professors and classmates alike; I simply couldn’t escape the hype around it. However, it wasn’t until my roommate left several teary Snapchat messages to me a year later praising the book to the heavens that I finally picked it up. Needless to say, I am fully on the Angie Thomas bandwagon now.

The Hate U Give was such an emotional and eye-opening book for me—and many, many others I’m sure—that it almost seems unfair that On the Come Up would have to live in the shadow of Thomas’s phenomenal debut. But, no matter how high expectations were for her follow up novel, Thomas has shattered them again. On the Come Up absolutely stands on its own, and it is already making huge ripples with Fox—the studio that brought The Hate U Give to the big screen—picking up the film rights.

On the Come Up begins after the events of The Hate U Give, with Garden Heights still reeling in the aftermath of protests and riots. Sixteen-year-old Brianna “Bri” Jackson yearns to be a rapper. She breathes flow and rhymes and dreams about her chance to break out when she should be focusing on ACT prep. Bri has lived a life marred by violence and struggles: her father, the legendary underground rapper Lawless, was murdered when she was a child; her mother, who battled addiction and has been eight years clean, has just lost her job; and her brother, Trey, can only find menial work at a pizza shop despite graduating from college with honors.

Rapping for Bri is not just an avenue for honest expression, but also a way to lift her family out of poverty. When she is inspired to pen a bitter song after a particularly violent and targeted incident with a security guard at her school, Bri thinks her time in the spotlight has finally come—and it has, but not in the way she expected.

On the Come Up highlights the difficulty and frustrations of speaking the truth, your truth, in a world full of people who are bent on policing your speech. As Bri’s song goes viral, her words are twisted and used as evidence that she really is an aggressive hoodlum—an image that many around her want her to adopt.

This is a book that demands not just to be read, but also to be heard. Narrator Bahni Turpin returns with the same power and passion that she brought to The Hate U Give. Bri’s lyrics, which are already compelling on the page, are simply brought to life with Turpin’s performance. I can almost see myself standing in the garage-turned-recording studio, watching Bri speak her truths into the mic.

Thomas, who herself was a teen rapper, wrote the book for “black girls who are often made to feel as if they are somehow both too much and not enough in a world that makes wrongheaded assumptions about them.” It’s frankly remarkable that a novel so heavily entrenched in the issue of systemic racism can also be lighthearted and, at times, surprisingly funny. So, plug in your headphones, and treat yourself to a compelling, fun, and earnest story of a girl who finally gets to step into the spotlight.

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least win her first battle. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.

But it’s hard to get your come up when you’re labeled a hoodlum at school, and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. So Bri pours her anger and frustration into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons. 

Bri soon finds herself at the center of a controversy, portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. But with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri doesn’t just want to make it—she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.  

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STAFF PICK: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

Title: The Gilded Wolves
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Narrator: 
P. J. OchlanLaurie Catherine Winkel

Paris, 1889. Underneath the façade of this dusty, churning city lies a world lush and ripe with mystery. A powerful secret society by the name of the Order of Babel runs rampant underground, throwing elaborate parties and harboring dangerous secrets.

It is the eve of the Exposition Universelle, and the excitement of the city is at a breaking point. The wonder and ugliness of a distant world over a century old are on display—Claude Debussy gathers inspiration from his first encounter with Javanese gamelan music, and some 400 people make up the main attraction in the “Negro village.” In the midst of this, Roshani Chokshi weaves a tale of pure enchantment, gifting select people with the ability to Forge, a power believed to come from the broken pieces of the Tower of Babel.

Wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie is trying to reclaim his inheritance and position as the patriarch of House Vance, one of the former reigning houses of the Order of Babel. When the Order seeks his help in finding an ancient artifact in exchange for his inheritance, listeners are thrown head first into a fast-paced heist that leads Séverin and his friends to discover some startling secrets.

The audiobook weaves together the stories of six characters: Séverin, a thief and heir to the dead House Vance; Laila, a dancer with a tragic past; Tristan, Séverin’s brother in all but blood; Zofia, a girl with a wicked sense for numbers and science; Enrique, a snarky, lovable history buff; and last but not least, Hypnos, the patriarch of House Nyx. The diversity of the cast in race, orientation, experiences, and perspectives is what truly makes this audiobook shine. Narrators P. J. Ochlan and Laurie Catherine Winkel embody each of the characters so thoroughly that I can’t help but become engrossed in their losses and triumphs. Their laugh-out-loud banter endears me to them, and their quirks and personalities make them feel so complex and real that you can’t help but fall in love with the entire cast.

Around them, 1889 Paris unfolds spectacularly. Chokshi’s lush descriptions lure you into an irresistible and mysterious world that is cocooned in a city on the cusp of transformation. The Gilded Wolves may be a tale of pure fantasy, but it is grounded in reality. Amidst the fast-paced plot and large cast of characters, Chokshi still finds the time to breathe depth into the story by bringing in honest discussions about colonialism, exploitation, and cultural erasure. She doesn’t hesitate to criticize and challenge—in fact, Chokshi aptly uses the post-industrial Parisian setting as an opportunity to deconstruct colonialism. That’s the true mark of a brave and astute writer. If you haven’t listened to Chokshi’s work before, there is no better place to start.

Whether you’re here for the characters, the gorgeous writing, or that one particularly lustful romance that will leave you swooning, The Gilded Wolves is a listen you won’t want to miss. Full of twists and delightful puzzles, this is an enchanting experience that will keep you on your toes until the very end.

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STAFF PICK: Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

Title: Broken Things
Author: Lauren Oliver
Narrators: Sarah DrewSaskia Maarleveld, and Erin Spencer

Five years ago, when Summer Marks was found stabbed to death in a ritualistic killing, suspicion immediately fell on her two best friends, Mia and Brynn, who had described the exact crime in a co-written sequel to a book all three girls were obsessed with, The Way into Lovelorn. Although there wasn’t enough evidence to convict, the town nevertheless pointed fingers at Mia and Brynn, who consequently became ostracized from the community.

In the aftermath, Mia transferred to another school in hopes of outrunning her classmates’ vicious remarks, while Brynn deliberately prolonged her stint in rehab to avoid rejoining society. However, when Mia makes a strange discovery about Summer, she resurrects the mystery of Summer’s death and begins her hunt for answers alongside Brynn, Owen Waldmann—an old friend and Summer’s then-boyfriend, and Abby—a teenage YouTube sensation whose need for homeschooling brought her and Mia together.

Lauren Oliver unfolds her story through alternating chapters from Mia and Brynn’s perspectives that shuffle between ‘then’ and ‘now.’ Slowly, snippets from the past coalesce with the present narrative to form a story of two young girls brought together by the enigmatic Summer Marks, who had always seemed undeniably perfect to Mia and Brynn—until they begin to examine her life in retrospect.

The characters leap off the page with excellent narration from Sarah Drew, Saskia Maarleveld, and Erin Spencer, whose passionate performances kept me captivated and utterly unable to press pause.

Shortly after the novel opens, Mia and Brynn’s hometown, Twin Lakes—a name that conjures the shadowy, atmospheric intensity of Twin Peaks—is ravaged by a hurricane. As the girls meet for the first time since Summer’s murder—in a community on the precipice of chaos and recovery, no less—old wounds and dark memories are dredged up. Before they can begin to heal and stitch their lives back together, Mia and Brynn must unravel the mysterious circumstances of Summer’s murder so they can close this chapter of their lives and clear their names.

The heart of the mystery revolves around fictional author Georgia C. Wells’ The Way into Lovelorn, which inexplicably ends mid-sentence, and its unofficial sequel Return to Lovelorn, which spawned from the girls’ obsession with the original text. In excerpts peppered between chapters, The Way into Lovelorn and Return to Lovelorn unfold like Narnia-esque tales with a sinister undercurrent. As Wells’ fiction creeps into reality, gripping the minds of three young, impressionable girls, I can’t help but recall the Slender Man stabbing in 2014 wherein two girls lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her to impress the fictional Slender Man.

The mystery will keep you hooked, but Broken Things is much more than that. It’s about the complexities of friendship, the meaningful bonds stories can forge, and how long and complicated the road to healing can be. Broken Things is an unmissable entry from one of today’s most prolific voices.

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STAFF PICK: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

Title: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Narrator: Derek Perkins

A mere half-decade ago, a brilliant albeit obscure Israeli professor of history took the literary world by storm. Published first in Hebrew in 2011 and translated into English in 2014, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens transformed the history of humankind—a gargantuan topic in itself—into a household conversation piece. In 2016, Harari published a follow-up, Homo Deus, which extended the scope of Sapiens to examine the future of humankind. Now, he has turned his sights to the present with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which reflects on topical issues plaguing the here and now.

Harari poses some big questions in his introduction: “What are today’s greatest challenges and choices? What should we pay attention to? What should we teach our kids?” The book, broken into five sections that cover technology, politics, fear, truth, and resilience, attempt to examine the major forces that will influence the future of our planet. The scope of the book is huge, yet Harari acknowledges the lessons and issues he grapples with within 300 pages is not exhaustive of all that we could learn. Rather, 21 Lessons for the 21 Century is, as he puts it, a stepping stone to “help readers participate in some of the major conversations of our time.”

Harari delves into topics ranging from immigration to religion to artificial intelligence with eloquence and clarity. As was made clear in Sapiens and Homo Deus, the true mark of his talent as a scholarly writer is his ability to delineate information in an accessible and engaging manner. Much of the content builds on what he has discussed before in Sapiens and Homo Deus, so readers familiar with Harari’s previous works will recognize certain arguments and strands of thinking.

Derek Perkins is, as always, an exquisite narrator. If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine I am once again sitting in a grand lecture hall at university, listening to a particularly captivating professor muse about the predicament of our world. Perkins, without fail, manages to transform Harari’s words into a lively conversation.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century may not be an exhaustive book, but it is a crucial book for anyone who wishes to join the global conversation. Those who have read Harari’s previous works will not be disappointed, and those discovering him for the first time may well stumble upon a new favorite.

 

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STAFF PICK: Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Post by Miranda Winters-Sayle

Title: Ponti
Author: Sharlene Teo
Narrator: Vera Chok

Capturing the profound affect relationships have on our futures, Ponti is cleverly told through three perspectives that reflect the past, present, and future. Sixteen-year-old Szu struggles to connect with her distant mother, Amisa, a once beautiful actress who claimed her 15 minutes of fame in a B-list horror movie. Szu befriends Circe, a sharp-tongued privileged girl equally lonely as her, and the two develop an intense friendship that will change their lives forever.

Set in Singapore, Amisa’s younger years are explored as she stars in Ponti!, a horror movie about a monster that masquerades as a beautiful young woman to lure in its victims. Amisa, who plays a ghost, must come to terms that the movie has neither kick started her career as an actress or brought her the fame and happiness she dreamed of.

In the future, we learn that Circe is helping produce a remake of the Ponti! trilogy, which causes her to confront her own guilt for abandoning Szu after she experiences a major loss.

I was surprised that Ponti is Sharlene Teo‘s debut novel. The imagery she uses made me feel as though I were in Singapore, and the characters were so well developed that I felt like I knew them personally. The teenage relationship between Szu and Circe were written so realistically — their bond, dialogue, and teenage angst were relatable and recognizable.

Vera Chok was a fantastic choice to narrate Ponti, as she was able to seamlessly portray young Szu just as effectively as middle-aged Circe. Her knowledge of Chinese and Malay allowed her to perform accents, which is vital for a novel like Ponti, which reflects a distinct culture and its surreal cities and people.

 

Ponti.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STAFF PICK: The Piranhas by Roberto Saviano

Title: The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples
Author: Roberto Saviano
Narrator: Edoardo Ballerini

Seduced by easy money and pushed by a complex reality, Nicolas Fiorillo is the 15-year-old protagonist of The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples, which exposes the real-life phenomenon of youth gangs, or paranza. Paranza refers not only to gangs, but to the “boats that go out to catch fish through trickery of light… It takes possession of it, and the fish come looking for it.”

The author, an Italian journalist who grew up in Naples, saw his first murder victim at 13. His own father, a doctor, suffered a beating for trying to help an 18-year-old left to die in the street, who was a victim of the Camorra, an Italian Mafia-type crime syndicate.

Saviano begins his stunning novel with a profound statement:

“What you are about to read actually occurred. Facts have been modified and connected to others in order to make a violent and complex world more comprehensible…”

Violent and brutal and glamorous, The Piranhas is weaved with details found in his international crime classic, Gomorrah, which traced the decline of Naples under the Camorra rule. Since its publication, he has been placed under police protection.

Nicolas, an ambitious and promising teenager from the slums of Naples, has a dark desire to acquire power and wealth. Backed by a group of loyal friends, he sets out to create his own paranza, roaming the streets while learning how to become gangsters. What begins with small-time cheating and stealing soon becomes shooting semiautomatic pistols and AK-47s. Saviano succeeds at reminding listeners of the stark reality of child gangsters, such as having Nicolas and his friends play PlayStation in between committing crimes.

Narrator Edoardo Ballerini‘s ability to portray a variety of characters made listening a smooth and entrancing experience. Filled with inevitable consequences that all criminals face while climbing to the top, The Piranhas will leave you in awe of Naples while also grieving for it.

The Piranhas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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