MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Editor's Choice

A Good NeighborhoodClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Therese Anne Fowler


In Oak Knoll, a verdant, tight-knit North Carolina neighborhood, professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her bright and talented biracial son. Xavier is headed to college in the fall, and after years of single parenting, Valerie is facing the prospect of an empty nest. All is well until the Whitmans move in next door―an apparently traditional family with new money, ambition, and a secretly troubled teenaged daughter.

Thanks to his thriving local business, Brad Whitman is something of a celebrity around town, and he's made a small fortune on his customer service and charm, while his wife, Julia, escaped her trailer park upbringing for the security of marriage and homemaking. Their new house is more than she ever imagined for herself, and who wouldn't want to live in Oak Knoll?

But with little in common except a property line, these two very different families quickly find themselves at odds: first, over an historic oak tree in Valerie's yard, and soon after, the blossoming romance between their two teenagers. Told in multiple points of view, A Good Neighborhood asks big questions about life in America today ― what does it mean to be a good neighbor? How do we live alongside each other when we don't see eye to eye? ― as it explores the effects of class, race, and heartrending star-crossed love in a story that's as provocative as it is powerful.

BookBrowse Review

After fictionalized biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald (Z, 2013) and Alva Vanderbilt (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018), Therese Anne Fowler has returned to the kind of contemporary setting that characterized her first three novels. A Good Neighborhood is an up-to-the-minute story packed with complex issues including celebrity culture, casual racism, sexual exploitation and environmental degradation. If you loved Tayari Jones's An American Marriage, this needs to be next on your to-read list.

North Carolina's Oak Knoll community is home to people of a variety of ages, races and backgrounds. It appears to be an idyllic neighborhood: Everyone knows everyone else, and the women get together once a month for book club at Valerie Alston-Holt's house. Valerie, an African American ecology professor, is a single mother to 18-year-old Xavier. Her husband Tom, a white sociology professor, died when Xavier was a baby. With the help of a partial scholarship, Xavier will be off to San Francisco in the fall to study classical guitar.

Even before they moved in, Valerie was predisposed to dislike her new neighbors, the Whitmans. They had the woods behind her property clear-cut to build an ostentatious house and swimming pool. Brad Whitman, an HVAC entrepreneur, has become a minor celebrity through his TV commercials, and it seems like he's showing off the $2 million he earned from the gadget he invented. Though turned off by this nouveau riche display and irked by Brad's initial assumption that the mixed-race Xavier was a lawn maintenance worker, Valerie is more distressed by the Whitmans' disregard for the local ecosystem. All told, she's far from thrilled when Xavier starts to show interest in Brad's stepdaughter, 17-year-old Juniper.

The families' dealings soon become even more problematic, and it all starts with a tree. Valerie notices that the venerable oak on her property—so old that a freed slave is buried under it—is dying. She's sure that digging the foundations for the Whitmans' house and pool disturbed the tree's root system. An environmental lawyer (see Beyond the Book) takes on her case and sues for the safe removal of the tree, the restoration of the landscape and emotional damages: $400,000 from the builder plus a cool $100,000 from the Whitmans.

It's just a tree, right? There may be hard feelings over the lawsuit, but surely all will quiet down and go back to normal? And what harm could Xavier and Juniper's Romeo and Juliet-style sneaking around do? The novel's unhurried willingness to delve into backstories might lull readers into a sense of safety, but there's no mistaking the foreshadowing. The first page mentions a funeral, and early on this story is branded a "slow tragedy."

In fact, the novel is narrated in a first-person plural voice, much like the Greek chorus of a classical tragedy. The neighborhood as a whole ("We, with our collective wisdom but imperfect knowledge") reflects on how things went from bad to worse within a few months. This narrative choice is highly effective because the neighbors, like readers, only gradually piece together what happens over this tumultuous summer. Gossip becomes theory becomes fact. There are also clear factions within the book's "us" that take different sides in the conflict, which creates a sense of varying viewpoints—an acknowledgment that, even when presented with the same scenario, we all interpret things differently.

Fowler is careful to give each character, even the potentially repugnant ones, a history that helps to account for the decisions they make. For instance, Brad's wife, Julia, grew up in a trailer and helped her mother on cleaning jobs. One of their employers molested Julia when she was a girl. The poverty of her upbringing explains why she's clung to Brad for financial security, while her experience of sexual abuse led her to push Juniper into making a purity pledge as a young teenager. This question of purity—both sexual and racial—becomes a central one, joining consent and privilege as a major, timely theme.

A Good Neighborhood makes for a compelling, though ultimately sobering, read. A feeling of dread only intensifies as you approach its last few chapters. Fowler may not be subtle with her message, but everything that happens is realistic in the context of recent American history, and she's right to imply that the post-racial society we might like to think we live in is still mostly a myth. This is a book that will make you think, and a book that will make you angry. I recommend it to socially engaged readers and book clubs alike.

Book reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Beyond the Book:
Tree Law in the United States

Neighborhood with Trees from Above In Therese Anne Fowler's A Good Neighborhood, a lawsuit over a tree precipitates a series of tragic events. It is not uncommon for a tree to be the basis of a dispute between neighbors. Fallen trees or branches often affect neighbors, but remain the responsibility of the person whose property contains the tree's trunk. If the trunk is on the line between two properties, though, it is considered a "boundary tree" and both parties share responsibility for it.

Tree law, which in the U.S. is set at the state or local level, addresses questions such as how many trees someone can plant, what regulations there are on the cutting down of trees, whether a tree is actually on government-owned land and so on. Other issues that might be brought to court are tree roots encroaching on someone else's land, a fallen branch causing personal injury or damage to property such as a car, cutting down someone else's tree without permission or the growth of a tree leading to the loss of a desirable view.

Although U.S. tree laws vary from state to state and often result from "case law" (the precedents set by previous legal suits), many of the basics were adopted wholesale from English common law. This includes the understanding that someone can cut any branches overhanging from a neighbor's tree up to their own boundary line—though more recent cases have stipulated that care should be taken not to damage the tree. If harm is caused to a neighbor's tree, even inadvertently, three times its replacement value may be required in compensation.

At the same time, tree owners are responsible for ensuring that their own trees are safe. If a well-maintained tree's branch falls, it is considered an act of God. However, if a potentially dangerous tree has not been dealt with appropriately, the landowner can be prosecuted if their tree falls and causes injury or damage. This is especially important in urban areas. If a neighbor reports a dangerous tree, the landowner can be forced to remove it. Sometimes utility companies will undertake removal if a tree looks likely to fall on their equipment.

What makes tree law especially complicated in the U.S. is that it can fall into various sections of a state code. For example, California's tree laws come under six different sections of the civil code. In addition, a charge of trespassing to inflict damage on a neighbor's tree could come under three sections of California's penal code.

Barri Bonapart, a California tree lawyer interviewed by online magazine Atlas Obscura, astutely noted that "It's never about the trees. The trees often serve as lightning rods for other issues that are the psychological underpinning of a dispute that people might have with each other." That is certainly true in A Good Neighborhood, where the oak tree in question is a symbol of respect for other people's differences and for the environment as much as it is a literal object being fought over by neighbors.

Little GodsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Meng Jin


On the night of June Fourth, a woman gives birth in a Beijing hospital alone. Thus begins the unraveling of Su Lan, a brilliant physicist who until this moment has successfully erased her past, fighting what she calls the mind's arrow of time.

When Su Lan dies unexpectedly seventeen years later, it is her daughter Liya who inherits the silences and contradictions of her life. Liya, who grew up in America, takes her mother's ashes to China—to her, an unknown country. In a territory inhabited by the ghosts of the living and the dead, Liya's memories are joined by those of two others: Zhu Wen, the woman last to know Su Lan before she left China, and Yongzong, the father Liya has never known. In this way a portrait of Su Lan emerges: an ambitious scientist, an ambivalent mother, and a woman whose relationship to her own past shapes and ultimately unmakes Liya's own sense of displacement.

A story of migrations literal and emotional, spanning time, space and class, Little Gods is a sharp yet expansive exploration of the aftermath of unfulfilled dreams, an immigrant story in negative that grapples with our tenuous connections to memory, history, and self.

BookBrowse Review

Little Gods, Meng Jin's intricate, emotionally intelligent debut, opens with a scene in which physicist Su Lan gives birth in Beijing in 1989. Through the eyes of a nurse working the night shift, we learn that inside the hospital, Su Lan is abandoned by her husband, while outside, the violence of the June 4th Tiananmen Square Massacre (see Beyond the Book) erupts around her. The narrative then skips forward 17 years to Su Lan's death.

The novel unfolds in a non-linear fashion; in the opening chapters we're introduced to a shadow of the woman that Su Lan becomes—a distant, hardworking single mother—before we delve into the past and begin to reconstruct her character. There are multiple narrators, all of whom played a role in Su Lan's life—some of these roles more significant than others. As we hear from Su Lan's neighbor, daughter, and former lover, a clearer portrait of this complex woman starts to form. Su Lan was brilliant, by all accounts, but desperately unhappy, and driven by a desire to leave China and start a better life for herself. This goal would only half come true, as she did successfully immigrate to America but with her infant daughter in tow, she was never able to fully realize her ambitions as a physicist.

The contradictory roles that she played throughout her life are shown clearly through the different characters who hold their own lives up as a mirror against Su Lan's. This is reflected upon most explicitly by the first narrator, Zhu Wen, an elderly woman with a physical deformity who found herself drawn to Su Lan when she moved in next door.

From the very beginning Su Lan had seen herself in my disfigured face, had seen the truth of what she was in my lopsided body. You look like someone I've always known, she'd said that day, the day she painted the room white, and she had meant it. In her mind we belonged to the same class of people, but it was not as I'd secretly hoped, that somehow she'd glimpsed her beauty in me, that hers was the body in which my mind and self belonged. No, she saw herself as a disposable, hideous human. To the world Su Lan was beautiful but to herself she was a monster, and her greatest fear was that this monster would be revealed.

Little Gods is about the multiplicity of the self; it's about the sides of ourselves that we choose to hide and the sides we choose to show, and to whom.

As Su Lan was never able to find contentment—always moving, always searching—this is a novel about movement, immigration, culture and belonging. The sharp contrast between U.S. and Chinese culture is a thread that runs through the narrative, but this tension is only perceived by Liya, Su Lan's daughter, who was raised in America and visits China for the first time in over a decade only after Su Lan dies. The rest of the characters who narrate the story, all an older generation, have lived their entire lives in China, and knew Su Lan only as the woman she was before she left. Only Liya knows the woman that her mother became in America, but finds herself unable to reconcile what she already knows about her mother with what she discovers.

The panoply of narrators naturally means that certain sections are more successful than others; certain voices are more compelling, certain storylines feel more relevant. But when viewed as a whole, Little Gods is like a jigsaw that falls into place as soon as you close the final page. An intricate novel about grief, loss, memory and the self as it relates to one's culture, Little Gods is a smart, emotionally charged novel that at times is nearly as elusive as Su Lan's character, but well worth the effort.

Book reviewed by Rachel Hullett

Beyond the Book:
The Tiananmen Square Massacre

Man standing in front of tank at Tiananmen Square demonstrationOne of the largest public squares in the world, Tiananmen Square lies in the heart of Beijing. It's named after a monumental gate built in the 1400s leading into the Forbidden City; Tiananmen means "Gate of Heavenly Place." Despite the serene undertones of the name, however, Tiananmen Square has long been a site of political unrest and violence.

The most notable event in its history is a series of student protests that culminated in a brutal massacre on June 4, 1989. Earlier that same year, in April, liberal Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang died, and the streets were flooded with mourners, mostly students. This mourning soon took the form of protest—students took to the streets in order to demand political and economic reform. Throughout the 1980s, the Communist Party in China had seen a significant division between those who wanted the state to retain control and those who advocated for change. Students largely fell into the latter category, and had been devastated by the loss of Hu Yaobang, in whom they saw a democratic leader they could trust.

The crowds that flooded Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989 were estimated to include up to one million people at their largest. The protests, which began in May and included hunger strikes, were largely ignored by the government at first, as party officials were not in agreement over how to respond. But, on May 20 martial law was declared, and troops were stationed throughout the city. Undeterred, the protestors created a statue they called "Goddess of Democracy" as a hub, and returned to the square every day.

On June 3, over 200,000 soldiers began advancing on the square, together with armored military vehicles, and a day later, they began firing shots into crowds of protesters and indiscriminately arresting whoever they could capture. No warning was given before they started shooting. Some protesters fled, some fought back and some simply stood witness, including the famous "Tank Man," who was photographed with a shopping bag, staring down a line of tanks. The man was pulled away by two protesters, and his identity and fate remain unknown, but the photo is still one of the defining images of the protests.

After the massacre, the government began to hunt down and imprison anyone suspected to be involved with the demonstrations; thousands of people were imprisoned and charged with counter-revolutionary crimes. Anyone who lost a loved one in the massacre was forbidden from publicly mourning.

The brutality displayed by the Chinese government was so shocking that the aftermath was global. In the United States, Congress voted to impose economic sanctions against China, and Japan enacted a similar edict. Global leaders denounced the Chinese government, including Soviet ally Gorbachev, who declared that he was saddened by the events.

The exact death toll of the massacre is still unknown; estimates range from as low as 300 into the thousands, with about 10,000 arrested. Even now the Tiananmen Square Massacre is a deeply sensitive subject in China, whose government regularly removes posts pertaining to the event from the internet. Automated censors are used to identify incriminating web content, and posts that mention dates or names associated with the protests, or which include images of the protests, are automatically removed. The Cyberspace Administration of China, or the CAC, cites "falsifying the history of the Communist Party" as grounds for these removals. Hong Kong is the only place in China where the massacre is openly commemorated.

The massacre plays a peripheral yet integral role in Meng Jin's Little Gods—the central character gives birth in Beijing on the very night it occurred, and her husband's role in the events is uncovered by their daughter, years later.

"The Tank Man," by Jeff Widener

The TruantsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Kate Weinberg


People disappear when they most want to be seen.

Jess Walker has come to a concrete campus under the flat grey skies of East Anglia for one reason: To be taught by the mesmerizing and rebellious Dr Lorna Clay, whose seminars soon transform Jess's thinking on life, love, and Agatha Christie. Swept up in Lorna's thrall, Jess falls in with a tightly-knit group of rule-breakers--Alec, a courageous South African journalist with a nihilistic streak; Georgie, a seductive, pill-popping aristocrat; and Nick, a handsome geologist with layers of his own.

But when tragedy strikes the group, Jess turns to Lorna. Together, the two seek refuge on a remote Italian island, where Jess tastes the life she's long dreamed of--and uncovers a shocking secret that will challenge everything she's learned.

BookBrowse Review

The Truants opens with Jess Walker, a first-year university student in Norfolk, England, experiencing a bout of bad luck. A nasty stomach flu has limited her ability to socialize during the first week of school, and she's been unexpectedly bumped from a course taught by her idol, the unconventional and charismatic literary critic Lorna Clay. In addition, Jess's newfound friendship with a wealthy and socially adept girl, Georgie, serves to remind her of her own relatively invisible existence as a middle child from an unremarkable family.

Soon, though, Jess's luck seems to change. It turns out she's been moved into another of Lorna's courses, one on Agatha Christie that Georgie is also taking. Meanwhile, Georgie begins dating Alec, a South African journalist on a fellowship, and Jess starts seeing a geology major named Nick. The two couples form a habit of spending time together.

This arrangement is quickly complicated by the fact that Jess is secretly attracted to Alec, and has potentially compromising information about him that could harm his relationship with Georgie. Lorna, who lives with another professor named Hugh Steadman, soon gets caught up in Jess and Georgie's social circle, and appears to have her own mysterious connection with Alec. Jess looks to Lorna for support as she wrestles with her desire for Alec and her guilty feelings toward Nick and Georgie, and discovers that her relationship predicaments seem intertwined with Lorna's teachings about the life and stories of Agatha Christie. Before long, Jess finds herself involved in no fewer than two love triangles, and a stinging betrayal sends the plot tumbling into whodunnit territory.

But unlike a Christie story, Weinberg's novel is less about actually solving the mystery and more about the struggle to find meaning in the silence following fast-burning infatuation. Jess sums up this phenomenon in the prologue, where she reflects from some point in the future on the events of the book about to unfold for the reader:

Back there, back then—a place I want to be, dancing along a line of heady, taboo possibilities. Rather than here, now, sitting amidst the rubble and debris of the whole awful thing.

Jess's first-person narration, which is, for the most part, an engrossing blend of straightforward, humorous and dramatic, reveals someone who has trouble understanding her own needs and intentions. This is apparent in how she thinks of her relationship with Lorna. At times, it seems Jess craves maternal attention from Lorna to make up for the lack of affection she receives from her own mother. At other times, she entertains the possibility that Lorna might be sexually interested in her. But attention and interest themselves, or perhaps the thrill of seeking them out, seem to be what she desires above all else. And even with some distance between herself and the "whole awful thing," she can't think of anything better than to go back to the beginning and chase those desires all over again. This seems even more sobering after we find out how relatively dull Lorna and Alec are—Lorna's "literary criticism" sounds like pretentious drivel, and Alec's attempts to paint himself as a human rights crusader come off as unconvincing and self-serving. Why Jess continues to be attracted to their void-like qualities even years later is, in a sense, the real mystery.

This isn't to say that it's hard to sympathize with Jess, or that it isn't clear that Alec and Lorna were older adults who had the power and resources to manipulate her, only that the novel relies heavily on Jess's self-exploration to fill out the story. Her reckoning with the past is a valid and worthwhile focus. However, she does more "sitting amidst the rubble and debris" than actually sorting through it, and so never quite breaks through to an honest and satisfying conclusion.

Still, Weinberg paints a fascinating, uncynical picture of the kind of intense, self-destructive attractions that people may be especially prone to in late adolescence but that could crop up at any time. The Truants is a reminder that these feelings, while potentially dangerous, aren't necessarily false, and that they may be worth trying to make peace with in the end.

Book reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Beyond the Book:
The Disappearance of Agatha Christie

Agatha ChristieIn Kate Weinberg's The Truants, the main character, Jess Walker, suggests to her professor, Lorna Clay, that famed author Agatha Christie's "hardest to crack" mystery may have emerged not in her writing, but in her life. Jess is referring to the time that Christie disappeared for 11 days, later claiming to have suffered memory loss, an event that remains the subject of much debate and speculation.

Christie was 36 years old at the time of her disappearance. On the evening of December 3, 1926, she drove away from her house in Berkshire, England. Her car, a green Morris Crowley, was later found in a ditch close to the city of Guildford (40 miles away), and Christie herself had vanished.

Christie's disappearance sparked national news stories and a search involving more than a thousand police officers and thousands more volunteers. Some people speculated that the event was a publicity stunt. Others thought that Christie's husband, Archie, was responsible for his wife going missing. Archie was known to be having an affair with a young woman named Nancy Neele, and he and Agatha had fought on the morning preceding her disappearance before he had gone off to spend the weekend with Nancy.

When Christie was found 11 days later, it turned out that she had been staying at a hotel in Harrogate, a spa town in Yorkshire. She had registered under the last name of her husband's mistress, and specified South Africa as her place of residence. She appeared to have simply been relaxing at the hotel, unaware of the massive ongoing search for her. When her husband showed up with the police, she didn't seem to immediately recognize him. She later said she suffered from amnesia, and this claim was backed up by psychiatrists.

Several theories have been posed as to what happened to Christie during her disappearance. Some people adhere to the belief that she did suffer from memory loss as she claimed, but others think that she made up the story. For example, in The Mystery of Agatha Christie, published in 1978, Gwen Robyns opined that Christie simply disappeared to get revenge on her husband, inventing her case of amnesia.

More specific takes have appeared in recent years. In 2006, Andrew Norman, a biographer of Christie's, theorized that the author suffered from a "fugue state," a rare type of amnesia. Norman, a former doctor who used medical case studies as evidence for his theory in his book The Finished Portrait, believed that Christie's amnesia was induced by a state of depression. Conversely, writer Andrew Wilson used his 2017 novel A Talent for Murder to explore his personal theory that Christie initially planned to commit suicide but changed her mind, then didn't want anyone to know that she had entertained the thought and made up the amnesia story as a cover. However, a 2017 Scientific American article by Stefania de Vito and Sergio Della Sala, which draws on multiple sources of expert opinion on the case, offsets theories that Christie lied by pointing out that the symptoms of amnesia are not so easy to fake.

In short, it's entirely plausible that Christie was telling the truth about her memory loss, though what exactly happened to her during those 11 days remains a mystery.

Agatha Christie

The End of the OceanClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Maja Lunde


In 2019, seventy-year-old Signe sets sail alone on a hazardous voyage across the ocean in a sailboat. On board, a cargo that can change lives. Signe is haunted by memories of the love of her life, whom she'll meet again soon.

In 2041, David and his young daughter, Lou, flee from a drought-stricken Southern Europe that has been ravaged by thirst and war. Separated from the rest of their family and desperate to find them, they discover an ancient sailboat in a dried-out garden, miles away from the nearest shore. Signe's sailboat.

As David and Lou discover Signe's personal effects, her long ago journey becomes inexorably linked to their own.

An evocative tale of the search for love and connection, The End of the Ocean is a profoundly moving father daughter story of survival and a clarion call for climate action.

BookBrowse Review

In The History of Bees, her debut novel for adults, internationally bestselling Norwegian writer Maja Lunde imagined a dystopian future in which the world's bees—essential pollinators for agricultural crops—have been wiped out by global warming. The End of the Ocean, ably translated by Diane Oatley, returns to the theme of climate change, this time tackling the environmental threats to our most precious resource: water.

In 2017, 70-year-old Signe, a lifelong environmental activist, returns to her hometown in Norway, where thousand-year-old ice caps are melting at an alarming rate because of rising temperatures. Even as the glaciers recede, a perverse business venture is underway to excavate them, extracting ice to be sold as a luxury commodity to rich oil sheiks in the Persian Gulf. The rage Signe feels at this wanton destruction merges with a sense of personal betrayal: Magnus, the businessman who approved the scheme, is her former boyfriend, the love of her life who once shared her ideals. Haunted by memories of her past, Signe embarks on a solo journey by sailboat to confront Magnus in his vacation cottage in France.

With flashbacks and reminiscences that mimic the ebb and flow of internal monologue, the book weaves together Signe's past and present, tracing the backstory leading up to her solitary journey. As Signe reflects on the disappointments and bitter losses of her life—the dashed ideals of her youthful activism, the collapse of her relationship with Magnus, her estrangement from her mother—her treacherous voyage across stormy seas becomes a personal reckoning with her past, an aging woman's quest to take stock of her life and to come to terms with an unraveling world she is helpless to do anything about. "I have been fighting my entire life, but I have been mostly alone," she laments. "There are so few of us, it was futile."

A parallel storyline, told in alternating chapters, transports us to a water-starved Earth in the near future. It's the year 2041, and the catastrophic effects of global warming (see Beyond the Book) that Signe and the environmentalists of her day warned about have already become a reality. Separated from the rest of their family, 25-year-old David and his young daughter Lou trek across a drought-stricken southern Europe, seeking safe haven in a camp for climate refugees. The father and daughter's story intersects with Signe's when they stumble upon her long-abandoned sailboat in a deserted, sun-scorched French town, miles from the shore.

David and Lou's story is more action-driven than the highly introspective chapters narrating Signe's journey. Here too, though, much of the action unfolds through flashbacks that fill in key details of the past, including David's old job at a desalination plant, the challenges of daily life under conditions of worsening drought and the climate-induced fire that destroyed his town and divided his family.

Clinging to the vain hope that they will be reunited with their missing family members, David and Lou struggle to adapt to an increasingly chaotic refugee camp, where fights break out that mirror the wars over water tearing apart the outside world. When the father and daughter find Signe's castaway sailboat in a garden outside the confines of the camp, the boat becomes a temporary retreat from a hellish reality that Lunde describes with cinematic vividness: The bleak camp where there is never enough food or water or medicine, the parched landscape beyond, the relentless heat, the constant clawing thirst, the desperate wait for rain—all feel palpably real.

Despite Lunde's grim vision of the future, a thread of hopefulness runs through the stories of Signe, David and Lou, tying them together with an underlying message of love, forgiveness and the power of the human will to survive. But although both Signe's journey and David and Lou's story end on a hopeful note, the book's overall message could not be more urgent.

A powerful reminder of what's at stake, The End of the Ocean is an unblinkered depiction of the devastating consequences of climate change and the price of inaction. "You don't think about how everything you have around you can disappear. Even if you hear that the world is changing. Even if you notice it on the thermometer," David reflects, thinking back to the drought and massive fire that upended his life. "You don't think about it until the day when it's no longer the alarm clock that wakes you up in the morning, but the sound of screams."

Book reviewed by Elisabeth Herschbach

Beyond the Book:
Climate Change and Water Scarcity

Desert Landscape with People and Tree Alternating between two storylines set in the recent past and the very near future, Maja Lunde's The End of the Ocean is a chilling reminder of how alarmingly fast the effects of climate change can snowball out of control. In one storyline, set in 2017, Signe recounts the troubling signs already evident in her native Norway: The glaciers are disappearing, the ice on lakes is gone, sea levels are rising, the seasons are disrupted. By 2041, the time period of the book's second storyline, the planet has reached crisis point. Southern Europe is ravaged by drought. Wildfires rage out of control, brought on by the parched conditions. Water nations are at war with drought nations. Masses of people have been displaced.

The blighted future described in The End of the Ocean takes place a mere two decades from now. Ominously, this time frame is not unrealistic. According to a 2018 United Nations report, more than 5 billion people around the globe are likely to suffer from critical water shortages by 2050. That's almost two-thirds of the current world population. The World Health Organization estimates that as much as half of the world's population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2025. Many nations, particularly in the Middle East, are already experiencing major problems with water scarcity. Indeed, experts say that long-term climate-related drought in Syria—the country's worst in 900 years—was a contributing factor to the civil unrest that sparked a brutal civil war in 2011.

As greenhouse gas emissions increase and temperatures continue to heat up, weather patterns around the globe are shifting, producing dangerous extremes. Some areas of the planet are getting wetter, experiencing deadly storms and flooding that can flush runoff, pollution and other contaminants into the waterways, affecting access to clean drinking water. Elsewhere, droughts are becoming more frequent and more intense, exacerbated by a confluence of factors related to global warming, including increased temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and drying soils and vegetation. And as drought conditions worsen, increased stress is put on groundwater supplies—stores of water under the Earth's surface, which many municipalities around the world rely heavily on for drinking water and irrigation.

In parts of California and northern India, groundwater supplies have already reached depletion levels. In many other areas of the world, groundwater levels are dwindling dangerously fast—including in southern Europe, where David and Lou struggle to survive drought and disaster in The End of the Ocean. Hydrologist Inge de Graaf, a researcher at the University of Freiburg in Germany, projects that groundwater supplies in southern Europe will reach depletion levels by the 2040s. By 2050, as many as 1.8 billion people worldwide could live in areas where groundwater stores are nearly or entirely depleted, she warns. In other words, unless we act fast, the fictional future Maja Lunde describes in The End of the Ocean may prove to be all too real.

Dealing with the planet's growing water problem requires concerted action on both a large and a small scale—from more efficient water management practices on the community level to changes in our habits and behaviors on an individual level. In this video, learn how one city in drought-prone Namibia is rising to the challenge.

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.