2016, Tin House Books
In Relief Map, Livy Markos is 16 and trying to get used to herself. She’s shot up several inches, is on the verge of something romantic with her best friend Nelson, and has recently participated in a serious crime. Meanwhile, her small town has turned against itself, on the lookout for an international fugitive, Revaz. It’s the summer she discovers that her community might not operate in right and wrong, black and white; but rather, that important choices often come in an ambiguous shade of gray. Refreshingly, author Rosalie Knecht has Livy make some seriously wrong decisions, the consequences of which reverberate throughout her town and her relationship with Nelson.
Relief Map is a novel about people who refuse to play the roles assigned to them by authority figures. Livy is not the carefree teenager her parents and neighbors expect her to be, and Revaz is not the terrorist the FBI suspects him of being. Knecht doesn’t give us a heroine and a bad guy, she gives us complicated characters trying to navigate the moral wilderness. For Livy, that means teetering on the edge of disaster, sometimes calling on Nelson to help see her through. And their sensitive friendship, their intimate knowledge of each others’ family lives and emotional topography, is my favorite part of this novel. Livy and Nelson’s loyalty and faith in one another, even in the face of certain punishment, is what gave me hope that everything just might work out. It’s rare to read something that so perfectly captures the in-between of friendship or something more. You get the feeling that Livy is sticking her toe in the deep end, testing whether sex with Nelson could mean the end of their relationship, or the beginning of one even more delicate, complex, and lovely than they had before. —Monika Zaleska
Laurie Halse Anderson
1999, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Some stories stick in your heart and head forever. Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak is one that stayed with me long after I read the last page. Speak is about voicelessness—physically and psychologically—but more than anything, it drives home messages of resilience, quiet strength, and the reassertion of agency. After being caught apparently tipping off the police about an end-of-summer party, Melinda Sordino is left with no friends, no allies, and no support when she starts her first day of high school. She’s quiet and withdrawn, and nobody understands why. What they don’t know is that Melinda harbors a terrible secret: There was much more to that fateful party and one of its attendees—identified for much of the novel as “IT”—than anybody imagined. The novel wrestles with the issues we unfortunately see so often when it comes to heinous crimes like rape—victim blaming, invalidation of victim confessions, and a slew of others—in ways that capture the complexity and severity of Melinda’s turmoil. Throughout the novel, Anderson is careful to show that even though Melinda has been deeply affected by an horrific event, she is more than her victimhood and stronger than she believes herself to be. —Victoria Chiu
Julia Gfrörer’s minicomic Dark Age is as much an exploration of nature as it is of physical intimacy. Two nude, scruffy-haired characters hold on to each other as they go exploring in the wilderness. Their literal closeness seems to emphasize that being together is just as important as finding something new on their adventure. The characters are drawn in detail that is just as—sometimes more—intricate than their surroundings, which underlines the importance of the relationship. When the two separate, the panels go all black, and I can’t help but think it is a deeper signifier of their codependency. Death and darkness are encroaching, but what reigns in this story is the safe haven that a relationship can provide, and the relentless need to offer relief to the people we love. —Rachel Davies ♦