A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena; Farrar Straus Giroux, 369 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.
Blood is pooling on the highway, as the spirits of 16-year-old Zarin and 18-year-old Porus hover over the scene of their fatal highway accident in Jeddah, Saudia Arabi, in the opening chapter of this brilliant, powerful, unforgettable debut novel by Tanaz Bhathena. The religious police arrive at the scene to investigate, and the story unfolds in the alternating voices of Zarin, Porus and other players.
Zarin is a tragic figure, an unloved orphan adopted after her mother's death by her uncle and abusive, mentally unstable aunt who emigrate from their native Mumbai, India, to Saudi Arabia with its harsh oppression of women. Zarin is smart, outspoken and friendless, at least when it comes to her classmates at her girls school; her many flirtations and her cigarette smoking make her the target of nasty gossip and cyber-bullying on a classmate's anonymous blog. She has no memories of being loved: she bears bruises from her aunt's abuse, has confusing nightmares of her barely remembered childhood. In one harrowing scene, the aunt chops off Zarin's curls, gives away her dresses and forces her into boys' clothing after the most innocent incident at age four.
The author, who was born in Mumbai and raised in Jeddah, Riyadh and Toronto, paints a vivid backdrop of Jeddah and the life of the Indian emigres there, the geography of beach and roadways and apartments, the classrooms, the meat counter at the local deli, the heat, the odors. The familiar pain of adolescence plays out against this foreign cultural environment with its terrible double standard of behavior for teenage boys and girls in a culture of polygamy, arranged marriages and twisted ideas about female sexuality. Zarin rebels at the silence and submissiveness expected of girls but is well aware she could someday face the nuclear option of an arranged marriage. Her friendship with Porus, a kindly Mumbai emigre she has known since childhood, stands in stark contrast to her relationships with the predatory braggarts who see her only as an easy target. Bhathena brilliantly spins out her tale to its inevitable and heart-rending finale, an eloquent and haunting epilogue about the healing power of love. (The age recommendation relates to disturbing incidents of sexual assault.)
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang; First Second Books, 277 pages ($16.99).
A lowly seamstress and a prince with a secret star in this beguiling and surprising tale of friendship, identity and finding the courage to be who you are in this gorgeous graphic novel from the artist who co-authored "Real Life" with Cory Doctorow. The sumptuous drawings cleverly bring to life a Paris of some fictional era, of royals, horse-drawn carriages, fancy balls and the first department stores. Frances, the seamstress, and her new employer Lady Crystallia take Paris nightlife by storm thanks to Frances' wild fashions. But their celebrity comes with a price: secrets can't stay secret forever when all of Paris is talking.
Things That Go by Ingela P. Arrhenius; Candlewick Studio ($12)
Wee ones who love firetrucks and police cars will love this compact pop-up book, with 15 brightly colored, fun pop-ups, among them an ice cream truck, a firetruck, a boat and a skateboard.