Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, July 29, 2014

From My Shelf

Remembering Walter Dean Myers

Children's author Walter Dean Myers died on July 1, following a brief illness. He was 76.

Wherever Walter Dean Myers found grit, he wrapped his nacre around it layer by layer, and polished it into pearls.

Walter Dean Myers
photo: Malin Fezehai

The community in which he grew up formed the backdrop for his picture book Harlem (illustrated by his son Christopher Myers), the poems of Here in Harlem, the stories in 145th Street and many others. He took his grief over his brother's death in Vietnam and paid him loving tribute in Fallen Angels, and showed war's ravages in Sunrise over Fallujah, set in Iraq, and in Invasion, set during World War II.

He took us into gang life in Scorpions, a Newbery Honor book, and inside the judicial system with Monster, the inaugural Printz Award winner. Monster grew out of Myers's work in prisons and juvenile detention centers, where he shared his own experience as a dropout (from Manhattan's prestigious Stuyvesant High School), and how books helped him turned his life around.

"It used to be that if a man had a strong back, he could find work," Myers said in a speech at the International Reading Association. "That's no longer true. You have to be able to read and write to find work." Myers believed "reading is not optional" long before he made that his platform as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.

His recent essay in the New York Times challenged his peers in the field he loved: What more can we do for children of color? Where are we at fault? At the 2010 ALSC Institute, Walter described traveling by PATH train from Manhattan to his home in Jersey City. He noticed a teenager reading. "She was reading my book," he said. "Then she put it down. She was thinking. That's why I write."

Thank you, Walter, for your insatiable curiosity, your dissatisfaction with the status quo, and your devotion to young people. You will never stop making us think. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Harlequin: The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Ecco: The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman

Plume: Purity of Vengeancy by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Book Candy

Vacation Reads; Shakespearean Insult Generator

Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, chose her "top 10 holidays in fiction" for the Guardian, noting that she "always liked taking my fictional characters on vacation. As in life, I think it shakes characters out of their routines, which in turn leads to more zippy interactions and conflicts and, yes, better sex."

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Chill reads: Bustle helpfully recommended "11 books to read when you're mega-stressed."

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Who's who, digitally speaking. Flavorwire highlighted the "35 writers who run the literary Internet."

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To "craft your very own volley of Elizabethan smack talk, Buzzfeed helpfully offered the "Shakespearean insult generator."

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"How many books is too many books? What makes you a book hoarder? What do you do when you have too many?" asked Jacket Copy, noting that in Japanese, "there's a word for it: tsundoku."

The Fortune Hunter

by Daisy Goodwin

At the heart of Daisy Goodwin's The Fortune Hunter is a passionate love triangle that plays out in the ballrooms and on the hunting fields of Victorian England. As with her first novel, The American Heiress, which is based on the life of wealthy American Cora Cash, who married into the British aristocracy, this intriguing story was inspired by an actual figure: the Empress Elizabeth ("Sisi") of Austria. Goodwin describes the empress in her author's note as the Princess Diana of 19th-century Europe--famously beautiful and unfulfilled in her marriage to an older royal.

Readers have to wait a bit before meeting the Austrian monarch. Goodwin opens The Fortune Hunter with the other central female character in the story, Charlotte Baird, who might well be the only woman in London who dreads having a full dance card. Instead of being forced to make small talk with bumbling suitors enticed by the fortune to which she's the sole heir, she would rather be taking photographs. Mentioning her unusual pursuit--a cutting-edge development at the time--is usually a conversation stopper and ensures she isn't asked to dance a second time.

Twenty-year-old Charlotte knows she can't avoid marriage forever, but none of the men she meets holds her interest... until Bay Middleton. Undeniably handsome, the dashing cavalry captain is also witty, easygoing, kind and intrigued by a woman who would rather stand behind a camera than have a dress made.

But in this gilded world, which Goodwin re-creates in glittering detail, marriage is less about matters of the heart and more about advancing one's social status. Charlotte's imperious half-brother and guardian, Fred, and his ambitious fiancée, Augusta, warn her away from Bay, declaring him to be a ladies' man and a fortune hunter. Even worse than Bay's reputation for dallying with married women is that he's untitled and of modest means.

Just as Charlotte and Bay's secret relationship escalates from flirtation into something more serious, the empress enters the picture. Bay is widely acknowledged as the best rider in England, and his commanding officer assigns him to act as Sisi's pilot. His task is to guide her across the English countryside and through the protocols of one of the most prestigious and challenging fox hunts.

Attractive and athletic, intelligent and adventurous, 38-year-old Sisi seems to have everything. In truth, she is desperately lonely--at age 15 she married the Emperor Franz Joseph, a man with little time for anything other than presiding over his kingdom--and despairing over the toll age is taking on the beauty that has been "her weapon and her power."

Having escaped the stifling formality of the Austrian court and desperate to outrun her anxieties, Sisi arrives in England eager for the excitement of the hunt. Despite Bay's reluctance at being tasked as a "royal nursemaid," he quickly warms to Sisi, impressed by her riding skills and her fearlessness in leading the pack with him during the hunt. Plus, he's far from immune to her lauded looks.

The Fortune Hunter unfolds from the alternating perspectives of Charlotte, Bay and Sisi, allowing readers to get to know each character intimately--their hopes, fears, desires and driving factors. The story's strength is its portrayal of two vastly different yet strong, remarkable women. While Sisi is bound to a life of duty, the orphaned Charlotte's inheritance allows her a certain amount of control over her own life and the freedom and means to pursue photography. While Sisi's celebrated visage sells everything from chocolates to liver salts in Vienna, Charlotte is constantly reminded that hers is "not a face to launch a thousand ships." The empress crashes a wedding to size up Charlotte and leaves satisfied that someone so plain-looking couldn't possibly be a rival for Bay's attention.

The empress cuts an imposing figure across the pages of The Fortune Hunter, but it's quirky, spirited Charlotte who steals the story. When we first meet her she's pondering whether Queen Victoria should be a kitten or a cod fish as she alters a photo of the British royal family, superimposing images of animal heads onto the faces of the monarch and her clan.

Photography is an integral aspect of the storyline. Charlotte's passion for the pastime illuminates her unconventional character. Toting around camera equipment and having silver nitrate-stained hands from developing plates is considered "deuced odd," Fred tells her, and might give her a reputation.

The photography theme also compels the plot forward at several pivotal points. Goodwin does a terrific job conveying the impact of this strange, powerful new medium and its effect on people seeing fixed images of themselves for the first time. As Bay finds out, what is reflected back sometimes reveals truths you'd rather keep private. When the hunting party gathers one morning before setting out on the chase, Charlotte takes a candid shot of the empress and Bay off in the distance. After developing the photo, she sees him gazing at the monarch with obvious adoration and lust.

Charlotte doesn't wait around while Bay equivocates between wooing her and spending time with the empress (with whom he hunts by day and begins secretly trysting with by night). She heads for London to help her godmother, a photographer and her mentor, prepare entries for a prestigious photographic exhibit that will be attended by Queen Victoria, and then makes plans to journey to America.

Goodwin keeps the romantic tension taut until the very end, when Bay--who genuinely cares for both women--ultimately must decide where his heart lies. Will he publicly declare his allegiance to the empress, at her urging? Or, thanks to a twist of fate, will he grasp a second chance to reunite with Charlotte, if she hasn't yet sailed beyond his reach?

In The Fortune Hunter, Goodwin vividly evokes the atmosphere of the era while illuminating the universal sentiments of love, desire, purpose and ambition. Swiftly plotted, peopled with interesting, sympathetic characters and laced with humor and clever dialogue, this lively novel is historical fiction at its entertaining best. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Listen to a clip from the audio of The Fortune Hunter, narrated by Clare Corbett (ISBN 9781427236111, $39.99, 12 CDs, 14 hours), here.

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 9781250043894

St. Martin's: The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

Daisy Goodwin: Making the Past Come Alive

photo: Mike Hogan

Daisy Goodwin, a Harkness scholar who attended Columbia University's film school after earning a degree in history at Cambridge University, is a leading television producer in the United Kingdom. She is also a book reviewer for the London Times and was chair of the judging panel for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction. The Fortune Hunter is Goodwin's second novel, following the New York Times bestseller The American Heiress.

What was your inspiration for writing The Fortune Hunter? How did a jigsaw puzzle play a part?

I have been fascinated by the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, or Sisi as she was known to her family, ever since I was a little girl. I was given a jigsaw puzzle of the famous Winterhalter portrait of the Empress wearing a spangled ball gown and diamond stars in her hair when I was recovering from an operation, and I remember spending hours trying to fit her together. Someone knocked the puzzle over when I was halfway through and some of the pieces were lost so I never managed to finish it but, as so often in life, it is the unfinished images that linger in the memory.

Years later I visited Vienna, and I went to the Hofburg Palace and saw the original picture that my puzzle was based on. I started to research Sisi's life, and I was astonished at what a contemporary figure she seemed. Her worries over her weight, her fading beauty and her quest to find meaning in a life of unlooked-for celebrity all seemed to me to be very contemporary issues. When I discovered that Sisi came to England and had had a relationship with the splendidly named Captain Bay Middleton, I realised that my next novel was taking shape. Although it takes some liberties with the chronology of Sisi's visits to England, all the characters in it are based on real people. I love trying to create living, breathing people out of the names you read in history books.

The title character is Bay Middleton, the man at the center of a love triangle. When did he first come to your attention? What can you tell us about him, both the fictional version and the real-life figure?

I started researching The Fortune Hunter around the time of the royal wedding, so obviously anyone with the name Middleton leapt out at me. And Bay is such a glamorous nickname. I think I fell in love with his name first, and the rest followed. When I started to research his life, I found that he was a famous ladies' man. Before his liaison with Sisi, he was having an affair with Blanche Hozier, a married society lady. It is quite likely that Clementine, her daughter, was Bay's child. Clementine Hozier, of course, went on to marry Winston Churchill. Bay was the greatest horseman of his generation, and he was just as famous in hunting circles as Sisi was in Vienna. I recently met his great-great-granddaughter, who is a well-known TV presenter in the U.K., and discovered that she has called her younger son Bay.

The real-life Bay was probably slightly less handsome than the fictional one, and there were some reports that he might have been slightly deaf. But I suspect that he was one of those men who feigned deafness when he found people boring. In real life and on the page, his two interests are horses and women. In real life, his relationship with Sisi went on for at least five years. But although they stopped hunting together, I suspect that Bay never got over Sisi entirely. When he died in a hunting accident in 1892, the medallion that she gave him at their last meeting was found in his pocket. The reality of his life came home to me when I visited his grave in a small churchyard in Leicestershire. There was a beautiful stone Celtic cross with his name BAY across the central strut. But the really touching thing was that someone had laid fresh flowers at the base. I think it must have been a woman. Even a hundred odd years after his death, Bay Middleton still has his female admirers.

Much less is known about Charlotte's life than about Sisi's. Which character was more challenging to create? Did you empathize with one woman more than the other?

There have been numerous biographies of Sisi (the best is The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann), but Charlotte Baird's life is pretty much unrecorded. So when I write about Sisi, I am fleshing out what I have read about her, even if I do give her my own spin. With Charlotte, I really had a blank slate so I tried to come up with a character who would have nothing in common with Sisi, except of course her interest in Bay. I had enormous fun getting inside Charlotte's head. She pretty much wrote herself from the very first sentence. As she says to Bay, she is the sort of woman who notices things. The other thing I love about Charlotte is her irreverence. I suppose because she is an orphan, the worst things in life have already happened to her, so she has no fear. But I also have some sympathy for Sisi. It must be hard to be continually surrounded by people who fawn on you to your face but are poisonous behind your back. Sisi is closer to me in age and, I suppose, I have given her some of my own concerns about getting older and losing appeal, although I am not quite in her league.

Why did you decide to give Charlotte an interest in photography?

I have always been fascinated by the impact the advent of photography must have had on people's perceptions of themselves. To see yourself as others see you, for the first time, must have been a revelation in the 1860s and '70s. Today photography is commonplace, but then it must have changed the way people thought about everything. Imagine being able to see a photograph of a desert or a glacier. It must have been an extraordinary moment. Some of the most interesting photographers at that time were women. I have based Charlotte's godmother on a real-life female photographer called Lady Hawarden. I wanted Charlotte to have a lens, literally, through which to see the world. The things that photographs reveal is a theme in the book. It also ties the two women in the book together. Sisi was so worried about unflattering photographs that she carried a leather fan with her wherever she went to shield herself from Victorian paparazzi--the 19th-century equivalent of a baseball cap and sunglasses.

How did you go about researching different aspects of The Fortune Hunter, such as the time period, the settings and the details on hunting? Did you visit Windsor Castle, where Sisi and Bay speak with Queen Victoria in the story?

History was always my favorite subject at school so the research for this book was an absolute pleasure. I spent hours in libraries reading about Victorian racetracks and visiting obscure museums which have authentic ladies' side saddles. I did go riding quite a lot when I was writing the book just to remind myself what it is like to go really fast across open country, but I was too scared to gallop. Fox hunting is a really extreme sport. I have been on a day trip to Windsor Castle, but I read a great deal about what it must have looked like in the 1870s.

In addition to The Fortune Hunter, you're the author of The American Heiress, which takes place in the late 19th century. What draws you to writing historical fiction?

I like the challenge of making the past come alive. I grew up reading the great 19th-century novels so when I started to write it felt natural to set the books in the Victorian era. I would like one day to write a novel set in the present, but as my next book is set in Queen Victoria's court, that isn't going to happen just yet. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Review

Fiction

Forensic Songs

by Mike McCormack

Forensic Songs, the second collection of short stories from Mike McCormack, is a striking work of cross-genre virtuosity, where hints of speculative fiction and fable bring a surprising spark to McCormack's serious literary sensibility. These pieces are clever, touching, timely and at times prescient. Their skeletons are often the same; McCormack presents conflicting, seemingly irreconcilable perspectives. Two people are usually bound together and yet trapped in opposition: aging brothers, estranged spouses, a father and his son, an inmate and his jailer. Some of the stories seem to be near-future dystopias: "The Last Thing We Need" is set in an Ireland where every citizen is legally obligated to write his or her childhood memoir. It's both a clever jab at a too-true cliché about contemporary Irish writing and a sly commentary on ubiquitous government surveillance.

Other pieces are straightforward family dramas, intimate portraits of familiar pain. In "There Are Things We Know," two middle-aged brothers cope with a legacy of heart failure in their family, while in "Of One Mind" a young boy tries to convince his mild-mannered father to give him the beating he's sure will turn him into a serial killer. Although McCormack's language is often casual, these are rigorously formal stories. Each one is so carefully and elegantly orchestrated that reading them feels like watching a masterful game of chess. McCormack comes across as clever and wise without being jaded or clichéd. These stories deliver discomfort and redemption in equal doses. They beg to be discussed and debated for hours, so give a copy to a friend. --Emma Page, bookseller at Island Books in Mercer Island, Wash.

Discover: A distinctly Irish story collection, perfect for literary-minded book clubs and fans of George Saunders's Tenth of December.

Soho Press, $15, paperback, 9781616954147

Harlequin: The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Shirley

by Susan Scarf Merrell

Author Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery"; The Haunting of Hill House; We Have Always Lived in the Castle) casts a long and chilling shadow. The psychological thriller Shirley, from Susan Scarf Merrell (A Member of the Family), follows in its namesake's tradition.

Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived in small-town Vermont while she wrote and he taught at Bennington College in the 1960s. In this book, Fred and Rose Nemser, Merrell's inventions, are newlyweds and move into the Hyman-Jackson home when Fred becomes a graduate student and teaching assistant. Rose, our 19-year-old narrator, is pregnant, recently rescued from a childhood of poverty and family dysfunction by her new husband; she is staggered by Shirley's big house, big family and art. Stan takes Fred under his wing, tutoring him in both their profession and in marriage. Shirley's mentorship of the malleable Rose is more complex.

Rose wants to write about Shirley; she wants to replace Shirley's children in their mother's heart; she wants to be Shirley. In her devotion, she can't help wondering about the phone calls that go unanswered every night, and the female student who went missing so many years ago (whom Shirley and Stan so emphatically did not know). Naturally, not all of Rose's overtures are welcome.

An apt tribute to Shirley Jackson herself, Merrell's novel recalls Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Edgar Allan Poe. Jackson's fans are the clear winners here; Shirley, Stan, Fred and Rose may not be so lucky. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: Shirley Jackson is brought back to life in a quietly disturbing tale worthy of its subject.

Blue Rider/Penguin, $25.95, hardcover, 9780399166457

Harlequin: Swan Point by Sherryl Woods

Expecting

by Ann Lewis Hamilton

TV writer Ann Lewis Hamilton's (Grey's Anatomy, Party of Five, Thirtysomething) debut is a sweet--albeit twisted--little novel about modern technology going awry with heartbreaking consequences.

Expecting centers on Laurie and Alan, married and devastated by two miscarriages. Hoping the third time will be the charm (and wanting to take no chances), they turn to artificial insemination. Laurie conceives, but there's one problem: it wasn't Alan's sperm. This horrible mistake turns the formerly happy couple's world upside-down, as Alan grapples with accepting a child that's not biologically his while Laurie becomes obsessed with tracking down "Donor 296."

The baby's biological father is an Indian college student juggling two girlfriends. He's slacking at his studies and donated his sperm to pay back money he stole from his fraternity. On paper, Jack stinks. Alan, resentful of Jack's connection to the baby growing in his wife's belly, seems to revert to childish behavior and his pouting makes the situation even more difficult for his pregnant wife. But Jack's sweet nature wins Laurie over and they begin an unusual relationship that inspires Jack to start growing up. 

With surprising twists and clearly drawn supporting characters (Jack's two zany girlfriends and strict parents are particularly enjoyable), this book is likely to provoke some deep thought on how best to handle such a challenging situation. Hamilton excels at taking a heavy subject and spinning it into a humorous, descriptive, engaging read. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend

Discover: A debut novel about what happens when vials are accidentally switched at a fertility clinic.

Sourcebooks Landmark, $14.99, paperback, 9781402295058

Harlequin: Since You've Been Gone by Anouska Knight

The Actress

by Amy Sohn

Struggling actress Maddy Freed rockets from anonymity to celebrity after winning accolades at an indie film festival. She leaves her sagging couch and crappy Brooklyn apartment for glittering, glamorous, star-studded Hollywood and captures the attention of Steven Weller, a Tom Cruise-esque aging superstar who sweeps her off her feet (despite long-swirling rumors that he's gay). Once in a relationship with the charming and magnetic Steven, Maddy instantly garners money, fame and plum film projects. It's a dream come true... or is it?

While exploring the May-December romance between a somewhat naïve budding actress and a seasoned mega-star, Amy Sohn (Motherland; Run Catch Kiss) also highlights the well-established sometimes-soulless Hollywood machine that keeps the secrets of its star players. Steven is an irresistible, mysterious figure whose generosity and compassion are matched by his ability for deception. Maddy's journey into Steven's seductive world--which is less of a fairy tale than it seemed--lends the book an addictive, voyeuristic vibe. While she desperately tries to find a way back to herself amidst the smoke and mirrors of her new life, readers will be hanging on every word.

Sohn has crafted a sinful story with refreshing twists and turns that readers won't see coming. It's thoughtfully written; even peripheral characters are given loving attention. The intriguing, darkly sexy tale will appeal to anyone who can't resist diving into a glossy gossip magazine once in a while but, unlike those rags, this novel resonates long after it's been devoured. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend

Discover: An up-and-coming actress's twisted relationship with one of Tinseltown's biggest stars.

Simon & Schuster, $26, hardcover, 9781451698619

Greenleaf Book Group: The Good Dog

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Half a King

by Joe Abercrombie

Fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie kicks off his Shattered Sea series with everything fans have come to expect and love: an intricate, twisting plot, fierce action sequences, characters bursting with life, and first-class world building. Yarvi is the cunning, wise and compassionate heir of the throne of Gettland, a kingdom that prizes acts of valor and skill in combat. Born with a deformed hand, he is an inept fighter; betrayed by his uncle and sold into slavery, Yarvi uses his wits and charm to form a band of outcasts and sets out on an epic quest of revenge. 

Half a King spans a continent, with its own geography and peoples, swashbuckling action and last-minute escapes. Yarvi's journey is a constant struggle to stay alive, and Abercrombie perfectly conveys the razor-thin margin of survival for Yarvi and his intrepid crew. Like Abercrombie's previous novels, Half a King never gets weighed down by discursive plot meanderings or long-winded exposition; his books explode out of the gate and never seem to slow down, entertaining readers with realpolitik and ultraviolent battles. Yarvi is a sympathetic protagonist who develops the requisite toughness and force of will to lead others as the book marches on. Unlike some of Abercrombie's previous main characters, Yarvi has a strong moral compass that isn't easily shaken, which helps readers feel even more invested in his fate.

Half a King is another gem in Abercrombie's treasure trove of fantastical stories, an action-packed novel that is a joy to read from the opening sentence until its unpredictable end. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: A rightful ruler cast out by his uncle forms a band of misfits in order to take back the throne.

Del Rey, $26, hardcover, 9780804178327

IPS: Point of View New York City

Food & Wine

A Mouthful of Stars: A Constellation of Favorite Recipes from My World Travels

by Kim Sunée

In her foreword, Frances Mayes (traveler and author of Under the Tuscan Sun) writes that chef and food writer Kim Sunée (Trail of Crumbs) had gone on more adventures by the age of 30 than most have in an entire lifetime. Consider: Sunée was born in South Korea before being adopted and raised in New Orleans; she then traveled to Sweden and spent 10 years in France. This international background is reflected in Sunée's cookbook, A Mouthful of Stars, which Mayes calls "astonishing" proof of Sunée's aim to "cook as she lives, passionately and expansively."

This passion could not shine through any more brightly in Sunée's colorful, sometimes whimsical cookbook, which compiles reflections from her travels with recipes from places that have played a strong role in her growth as a chef: Seoul, North Africa, Provence, Paris, Sweden, the Southern U.S. and Tuscany. Each recipe here is based on the traditional dishes of these delectable cuisines, such as Pan-Fried Peppers with Coconut and Tamarind (India), Provençal Beef Stew, Spicy Fried Chicken (American South) and Swedish Beet and Apple Salad. The recipes are simple and easy to follow, though home cooks with less experience in the kitchen may miss introductory information like total preparation time and required equipment, which is not included. Details aside, however, lovers of food or travel or both will likely delight in this diverse collection of dishes (complemented by Leela Cyd's stunning photographs) and Sunée's travel anecdotes. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A whimsical collection of recipes from around the globe from memoirist Kim Sunée.

Andrews McMeel, $27.99, hardcover, 9781449430085

Biography & Memoir

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces

by Miles J. Unger

Art historian Miles J. Unger (Magnifico and Machiavelli) describes his subject as the "first truly modern artist," a man who emancipated himself from the grip of patrons and social norms. Unger focuses on six of Michelangelo's greatest works in order to reveal the inner workings of this "more than mortal man, angel divine" (as Ariosto described him in his epic Orlando Furioso).

After an apprenticeship in Florence for painting, 21-year-old Michelangelo went to Rome to sculpt. Four years later, he finished his Pietà. Michelangelo's contract stipulated that he would use the "most beautiful marble" to create the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ in her arms and "no other living master will do better." Unger slowly, lovingly walks us through the piece, pointing out its intricacies, its high degree of finish, its genius.

Homesick, Michelangelo returned to Florence to take on "the Giant," a massive piece of stone on which several artists had already attempted work--the perfect commission to sate his thirst for glory. With the installation of David before he was even 30, he became the "most celebrated sculptor in Europe."

During the early part of a commission he never finished (Pope Julius II's tomb), the artist took on another: nothing less than a depiction of Creation itself, for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Unger completes his story with Florence's Sagrestia Nuova (a mortuary chapel intended for the Medicis), The Last Judgment fresco and the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica. In no small way, Unger has created an innovative, stimulating and wise masterpiece of his own. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: A dazzling and surprising art-biography of the great Michelangelo.

Simon & Schuster, $29.95, hardcover, 9781451678741

History

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

by Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre (Double Cross) offers a fresh look at master double agent Kim Philby, examining his duplicity against the backdrop of his closest friendships with fellow operatives who loved but never truly knew him. Charming, clever and almost universally liked, Philby rose through the ranks of British intelligence to become head of MI6's office in Washington, D.C. Along the way, he made many close friends in the intelligence community, including CIA counterintelligence head James Jesus Angleton, but none was so close or staunchly supportive of Philby as fellow MI6 agent Nicholas Elliott. Brought together by class and clubs, baptized together by fire and gin, the two were as close as brothers, Elliott thought. He never suspected his friend Philby was passing every secret Elliott told him to the U.S.S.R.

Macintyre shines a light not into what happened, but how it could be allowed to happen. Although Philby himself insisted his duplicity stemmed solely from a lifelong devotion to Communist ideals, Macintyre paints a different picture, that of a clever sociopath who betrayed hundreds of people to their deaths with no remorse. As readers watch Philby's career progress, an image emerges of a man in love not with Marxism, but with his own ability to lead a double life and never show his true face to those seemingly closest to him.

Fans of James Bond will enjoy this look into the era that inspired Ian Fleming's novels, but any suspense-loving student of human nature will be shocked and thrilled by this true narrative of deceit. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A portrait of one of the most notorious double agents in Cold War history, and his close friends who unwittingly helped him.

Crown, $27, hardcover, 9780804136631

Children's & Young Adult

Through the Woods

by Emily Carroll

Emily Carroll's ghost tale/graphic novel hybrid offers a visual representation of the kind of ghost stories told around the campfire--the ones that leave you with the feeling that the threat lurks just beyond the light cast by the flames. Carroll uses a muted palette of predominantly black, white, red and blue to chilling effect.

Jealousy, envy and fear permeate these five stories, and the woods mark a rite of passage. Once you enter, you can never go back to the innocence you'd known before. The middle of three sisters narrates one tale, in which their father, off on a hunt, tells the girls that if he does not come home in three days, they should go to the neighbor's house. He does not return, and one by one her sisters disappear. Dimly lit vertical and horizontal panels heighten the tension until the narrator finally follows their father's advice. But just who is their neighbor--death itself?

Another story, illustrated a falsely upbeat palette of red, blue and gold, tells of a new bride left behind by her hunter husband in a house he acquired through the murder of his previous wife. The creepiest of the five, "The Nesting Place," stars Bell, who goes to live with her brother and his eerily cheerful wife, Rebecca. A parallel series of panels depicts Bell falling in the same cave where Rebecca did as a girl, and Bell discovers Rebecca's true nature.

The cover hints at the bony hands reaching from the edges of the woods to pull readers inside. Bone-rattling. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A ghostly graphic novel offering five spine-tingling tales of villains motivated by jealousy and anger.

Margaret K. McElderry/S&S, $21.99, hardcover, 208p., ages 14-up, 9781442465954

Dog Days of School

by Kelly DiPucchio , illus. by Brian Biggs

Be careful what you wish for--that's Kelly DiPucchio's (Zombie in Love) message in this humorous tale of a boy-dog swap.

Charlie, a boy tired of practicing his letters, drawing pictures, making excuses and even "tired of being tired," pines for a different life. "I wish I was a dog," he says to the brightest star in the sky one Sunday night, as his pooch, Norman, slumbers peacefully nearby on his dogbed. Come Monday morning, the switch is complete. Charlie's mother pats Norman's head, while Brian Biggs portrays Charlie (on the dogbed) using his right foot to scratch behind his ear. Biggs's depictions of Norman attempting human activities with a dog's anatomy steal the show. The canine's gray spots in lieu of the rosy cheeks of his human classmates play up the parody. His thick black outlines and splashes of egg-yolk yellow, grape and poppy shades lend his vignettes just the right amount of a comic-strip quality. While it's not always apparent why Charlie, as a dog, sometimes operates as a two-legged creature and other times as a four-legged one (he plays fetch on two legs and drinks from a toilet on all four), what becomes crystal-clear is Charlie's contentment with being who he is by story's end.

A touching scene of Charlie banished to the back yard while Norman stands on his hind legs at the door affirms their bond. Soon all returns to normal for Norman and Charlie. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A comical tale of a boy, tired of school, who gets his wish to trade places with his dog.

Disney/Hyperion, $16.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 6-8, 9780786854936

Reference & Writing

Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life

by Robert Benson

Robert Benson (The Echo Within) provides an inspirational primer for those poor souls who feel compelled to write. The inviting chapters of Dancing on the Head of a Pen, crammed with pragmatic motivational techniques, prove Benson is a worthy guide through the thickets and brambles of a creative life. In a supportive, easy-going manner, Benson discusses the rituals of quiet time and personal space, the need for good writers to be good readers, and having a clear audience in mind when one writes.

Benson, author of nearly a dozen books, believes "Eventually something... magical may happen to writers if they go to their rooms and take up their tools each day." His life-affirming approach to what Norman Mailer called "the spooky art" is filled with the understated wisdom of a diligent craftsman who has paid his dues at the writing desk. Benson believes in the power of a writing life to deepen the intimacy of relationships, "eschewing phoniness, digging for authentic communication." As a focusing tool, he advocates picturing an audience of friends and family. Benson asserts that only by slowing down and savoring the daily process of writing are we able to let the best work bubble to the surface: "Time is the actual currency of the speed-worshiping age in which we live and write and have our being.... Hurry is not a proper posture for a writer."

Dancing on the Head of a Pen is a beguiling look at the craft of writing, filled with uplifting anecdotes and easy charm, ideal for compulsive scribblers and for those who merely love a good book. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: A charming, wise little book on writing that inspires as well as instructs.

WaterBrook Press, $14.99, hardcover, 9781400074358

Art & Photography

Bricks & Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made

by Tom Wilkinson

British academic Tom Wilkinson's first book is a rich, insightful inquiry into why buildings should be built first and foremost for people. His prose is smart, witty and opinionated; he wears his considerable learning to the side, like a beret. Even the buildings he picks are fresh and suggestive: one may never have existed while another isn't even a building, it's a footbridge.

Bricks and Mortals meanders from one structure and theme--power, morality, business, colonialism, entertainment, health--to another. The goal is to demonstrate how "architecture shapes people's lives and vice versa." Wilkinson's 10 chosen structures from around the world tell us much about his perspective. He presents them chronologically, starting with the biblical Tower of Babel and moving on to Nero's Golden House in Rome, Beijing's Garden of Perfect Brightness and Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus (Festival Theater) in Germany.

One of his best and most stimulating dissections deals with E.1027, a huge villa overlooking the French Riviera. "A love poem, a present," it was designed and built by Eileen Gray for her partner, architecture critic Jean Badovici. Through this massive house, Wilkinson reveals "the secret sex life of buildings, their capacity to enflame and arouse"--as in the case of the great modern architect Le Corbusier, who painted murals in and on E.1027 and decades later drowned in the water below it, a possible suicide.

As he easily jumps from architecture to popular culture to philosophy to history, Wilkinson's stimulating critical inquiries reveal an engaged social conscience. Outstanding. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: An insightful, accessible book that answers the question of whether bad people can make good buildings.

Bloomsbury, $30, hardcover, 9781620406298

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