Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Picador: The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

From My Shelf

Happy Holidays

With just about all reports in, it's clear that 2014 ended strongly for indie bookstores: sales at average indies in December rose 9%, according to the American Booksellers Association, and sales for the year were up 6%. These results jibe with our reports over the past month and a half on indie holiday sales and mark a striking contrast to four or five years ago, when many booksellers were saying "flat is the new up" or "down slightly is the new up."

Holiday shoppers at Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Commenting on ABA statistics, CEO Oren Teicher said, "It's clear that the resurgence in independent bookstores is both continuing and strengthening." At Shelf Awareness, we see proof of this resurgence every day: again and again we write about new independent bookstores that are opening and established indies that are opening branches.

The reasons for indies' resurgence are myriad: "buy local" campaigns; the power of promotions like Indies First and Small Business Saturday; the "return" of printed books, whose popularity appears to be increasing again; a range of sidelines that appeal to book buyers; bricks-and-mortar booksellers' emphasis on what distinguishes them from other book retailers, such as events, community ties and creating a "third place"; a renewed acknowledgement among consumers that bricks-and-mortar stores are one of the best places for discovering new books; more support from publishers, who are daily reminded of the value of their traditional bookstore partners; bad publicity for a certain online retailing behemoth; and last but not least: the enthusiasm, knowledge and skill of booksellers and the support of book lovers--not just with dollars, but with loyalty and enthusiasm and appreciation of all that indies offer.

So congratulations booksellers and book buyers everywhere! It was a wonderful holiday season at most stores--and you're all directly responsible for that. --John Mutter, editor-in-chief

Viking Children's: I Was Here by Gayle Forman

Knopf: Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

Plume: Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb

Book Candy

'28 Reasons to Stay Inside and Read a Book'

Just in time for the Snowpocalypse in parts of New York and New England, the hashtag #BlizzardBooks has been lighting up social media, thanks to publisher Little, Brown "and the rest of us book nerds on Twitter." For its part, Buzzfeed suggested "28 reasons you should stay inside and read a book."
 
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Bustle herded together "11 cats in books who are cooler, smarter, and way more magical than we'll ever be."

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"Ever worried you might be generally addicted to books?" The Guardian offered "15 signs to prove you're a book addict.... But don't worry about kicking the habit. Books are awesome."

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Flavorwire found the "50 of the greatest literary moments on TV."

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Noting that the "best most of us can hope for when we die is that someone we knew in life might still be around to give us a passable eulogy," Mental Floss gathered "11 eulogies for writers written by writers."

The Jaguar's Children

by John Vaillant

The Jaguar's Children is a striking and heartrending first novel by John Vaillant (The Tiger; The Golden Spruce). It opens with a text message.

Thu Apr 5 - 08:31 [text]
Hello I'm sorry to bother you but I need your assistance--I am Hector --Cesar's friend--It's an emergency now for Cesar--Are you in el norte? I think we are also--Arizona near Nogales or Sonoita--Since yesterday we are in this truck with no one coming--We need water and a doctor--And a torch for cutting metal

The sender is Hector María de la Soledad Lázaro Gonzalez, a young man from a small pueblo in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He has paid 30,000 pesos to a band of coyotes to be transported across the Mexican border, from Altar in Sonora into Arizona. Along with his companion Cesar and 13 others, Hector has been sealed inside a water tank for this illegal journey, and the truck has broken down and the passengers--now prisoners--have been abandoned.

With Cesar injured, Hector becomes responsible for his friend as well as for himself. The plight of the 15 people trapped in the truck is the central struggle of the book, which spans only a few days in real time, from Hector's discovery of Cesar's hidden cell phone (containing only one U.S. phone number, for a person Hector doesn't know) to their eventual fate. During these days, as food supplies and water dwindle and the immigrants bicker and weaken, Hector uses the phone to compose text messages and record lengthy sound files in which he tells his story, and Cesar's. The Jaguar's Children is the transcript of these messages.

Hector initially identifies himself as Cesar's friend, but as his chronicle unfolds, it becomes clear that their connection is more tenuous. Originally schoolmates, Cesar is older, more successful and popular, and Hector is rather a hanger-on; in the hours before their departure from the border town of Altar, however, Cesar began to unburden himself to the younger man. Hector is at first hopeful that his unknown contact in the United States will save the truckload of thirsty immigrants, but as conditions worsen and he gets no response, he feels an increasing urgency to record the story of both lives. His narrative thus progressively deepens, and gains increasing gravity.

Unquestionably, the immigrants' suffering is a large part of the novel's significant and essential emotional impact: these people are treated as worse than beasts by the coyotes who leave them in such straits, and their torments are both unimaginable and graphically described. This agony is leavened somewhat by the interspersed history of Hector's life in Oaxaca, but even those tales are disturbing, as they examine the injustices and poverty that drive Hector and Cesar to undertake such a dangerous flight in the first place. Principally, however, Vaillant's masterful debut novel is deeply compelling, realistic and heartfelt, and brings to light important considerations about the way we treat one another.

Vaillant's writing is extremely well crafted, precise and poetic, not only painfully affecting but carefully structured. He uses Spanish-language word order and sentence structure, so that Hector's voice speaks aloud from the page. This sense of realism is outstanding, and while it is part of what makes this book distressing, it is also a fine achievement. Indeed, the reader must beware the fine line between fact and fiction, as Hector's is represented as a true story to the less discerning members of the audience. That this story could happen--does happen--is part of its import.

The Jaguar's Children is at once a work of intense suspense, as we worry over the question of Hector and Cesar's survival, a larger story of conflict between two nations, and the indigenous cultures in a parallel struggle for survival. Lyrically composed, tragic and disturbing, Hector's account will certainly be one of the most memorable books of the year. This heartbreaking novel is worth the pain, for the wisdom it has to share and the respects it can help us all to pay. --Julia Jenkins

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, hardcover, 9780544315495

Weinstein: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

John Vaillant: Looking at the World Differently

Vaillant Jaguars Children photo by  John_Sinal
photo: John Sinal

John Vaillant's work has appeared in the New Yorker, the AtlanticNational Geographic and Outside, among other magazines. His two previous nonfiction books, The Tiger and The Golden Spruce, were award-winners and international bestsellers. Vaillant was born in Massachusetts and lives in Vancouver, B.C. The Jaguar's Children is his first novel.

Is Hector's story based on a specific incident?

The idea came from a conglomeration of different border-crossing incidents. There was one particularly awful case in which a boxcar load of immigrants attached to a train was taken across the border and never opened. It wasn't found for weeks, until it got to Iowa. Just a hideous, nightmarish situation. I started wondering, what happens in there? What would you go through? And then my family and I lived in Oaxaca for a year, 2009-2010. In Oaxaca, water trucks are a common sight. On one side, they read, "Agua por Uso Humano," "water for human use," and I kept thinking about that, and I kept thinking about thirst, and the anagram of agua and jaguar. It just fell into place. All these disconnected observations and ideas gradually coalesced. There was a moment when this fellow, the narrator, just announced himself to me, in January 2010.

This is your first published work of fiction. What led you here from your nonfiction books?

Trying to find a container that was suitable for the story I wanted to tell. Needless to say, Oaxaca is a really interesting place--Mexico is full of stories. There was a nonfiction story that was jaguar-related that I was pursuing and actively researching down there, and for a couple of reasons it didn't fully coalesce. A lot of what I was experiencing were more like travel anecdotes, but I didn't want to write a travel book. It felt too trivial. So then I asked, how do I take all of these things I'm seeing and hearing and feeling and put them all together in a place where they will make sense and hang together and create a synergetic narrative and a picture of what is going on down there right now? And the novel was the right form.

This is also somewhat of a departure from your writing about the relationship between people and the natural environment.

I'm really interested in hearing voices that I, or we, don't usually get to hear, so that's in a sense what the books are about: creating a platform for these people or beings who are generally invisible, to get some air time. You know, it's not a selfless, altruistic mission on my part--I'm really curious and I want to see what that world is like. I want to understand it better and re-create it in a way that feels authentic. Ideally people who live that life, whether they're tigers or conservationists or biologists or foresters or Mexicans in Oaxaca, will feel that their realities were accurately reflected. So the whole natural world connection is almost incidental, honestly. For me, those margins where human beings and the natural world collide, that's where the most dynamic tension is. It's a kind of a front line, and also a fault line. Whether it's human beings and corn, or human beings and thirst, or human beings and tigers, or the forest, there is a common thread. But it's certainly not intentional; it's just where my natural interest seems to go.

Did you go to Oaxaca with a book or a story in mind?

I was deep in The Tiger then. I was in the middle of edits, and to be perfectly honest, all I wanted to do was finish that book, lie in a hammock and read books that didn't have tigers in them. Or any other big cats. That really was the plan.

And here we are.

Here we are. That's the beauty of the muse, really. All the books I've done have really come unannounced. It wasn't a premeditated objective to write any of those stories, they've all come to me, and I see them as gifts of sorts. Really time-consuming ones. This again came right when I was just about wrapping up The Tiger and ready to read Under the Volcano or some other books about Mexico. And instead, Hector showed up.

Hector's perspective is of a Mexican indio from Oaxaca, and his voice is convincing.

I do have a strange, kind of inside track to Mexico. For three generations, my father's family lived there, and I grew up steeped in Mexican lore as it was refracted through their experience. My grandfather was a well-known archeologist who wrote the first comprehensive history of the Aztec nation, a book called Aztecs of Mexico. My grandmother told us many stories about him. Her house, all her kids' houses, including my father's, were filled with things from Mexico, some of them very very old, none of them more modern than 1930 because that's when they came back. So Mexican art and artifacts were featured in my upbringing, as were stories of my grandfather.

In what ways was your year in Oaxaca helpful?

My wife is a potter and an anthropologist, and she wanted to spend time with traditional Mexican potters. I would follow her around in her trips to these villages, quite remote and very very traditional, so we'd meet people who didn't speak any Spanish at all. People who have never really succumbed to the dominant culture. They were nominally Christian, but observing and worshiping traditional deities and certainly pursuing traditional practices, whether it was ceramics or agriculture. So it was really like going into another world. I had a notebook and a camera and my innate curiosity. The fact that I had a deep Mexican connection in the family gave me more of a motive to try to understand it. What was it that kept three generations of my family down there when they were all Americans? And perfectly well-connected Americans; they could have had fine lives up here, but for some reason Mexico was the place that offered them something different, something more.

But ultimately this is a story about a Zapotec guy from southern Mexico. Think about the U.S./Mexican border: it's the most active border on the planet, the site of the largest human migration on earth, and Oaxaqueños play a huge role in that. One in three people from that state go to the States at some point to work, most of them illegally. And all kinds of things happen to them. As I came to understand that, it just started to feel more and more important.

And there was another inspiration. Just as I vowed not to read any more books about tigers, my father-in-law gave me The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. It's a wonderful novel about a low-caste, indigenous guy from northern India, who notices that there's something big going on in Bangalore and Delhi. Big money is being made. He's very smart, but he just doesn't understand the system well enough to know even how the money's being made. And that's how a lot of indigenous Oaxaqueños approach the U.S.--they may have family up there, they may not, but they do not understand the culture terribly well--or often the hazards of the journey, which are many, and can be absolutely lethal. So you have these people who are capable in their sphere but naïve about the wider world, making the journey north, and a lot of them come to grief on the border.

Was this book as difficult or traumatic to write as it may be to read?

I wondered a lot about why I would want to return to this place over and over again, and go back into that truck. It's a hideous, deadly place. But I thought, nobody else is probably going to do this. And this is something that happens to people, that shouldn't be happening. And Hector was a very compelling person. But as far as difficulty goes--it was extremely difficult. The novel is a different animal, so to speak, than nonfiction, and certain narrative tools do translate, but being in that voice and pacing it and dealing with the other voices... really was new to me. You're not really the same after doing something like that. I look at the world differently and feel it differently as a result of spending so much time there.

So the challenge of immersing yourself in the painful subject matter was ultimately rewarding, which I think is the case for readers as well. This is about more than just a nightmarish border-crossing incident.

So much of the book isn't about that. It's really about being a young person in a very troubled--some could argue broken--society and first trying to find his place in it, and then ultimately having circumstances align in such a way that he has to leave. The time you spend in the truck is desperate and terrible, but also you get to see how strong Hector is, and what he's made of. He's extraordinary in some ways, but he's not superhuman. It's amazing what people survive. It's amazing the kind of clarity and wisdom those kinds of stressors can evoke and inspire. I think it's a crucible for him and for his character. I think all of us undergo tests, some of them truly terrible--it's part of the human experience. Hector is a guy trying to figure it out. Trying to survive at the immediate level, but also at the cultural and occupational levels. The world is changing really fast around us. There are pressures being brought to bear that I have no control over, so what do I have control over? How should I respond to the people around me, to those who are trying to help me and those who are trying to impede me or hurt me? In that sense it feels like a kind of fundamental story. --Julia Jenkins

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: The Power Broker

Just over 40 years ago, Knopf published The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro's exhaustive biography of the man who for much of the 20th century put an everlasting mark on New York City and the state of New York by building and rebuilding many of the area's parks, highways and bridges. The book shows Moses's accomplishments--particularly in building much-needed parks and recreational facilities--but also highlights his increasingly brutal, arrogant, vindictive approach to "urban renewal." Over time this led to the destruction of many New York City neighborhoods and some pristine land as Moses came to favor building ever more highways--even through the center of Manhattan--at the expense of mass transit, of development and appreciation of the city's waterfront and of keeping viable neighborhoods intact. (His decisions were especially painful for local baseball fans, since they led to the move of baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to the West Coast.) Besides being an astounding portrait of an influential urban planner, The Power Broker is a detailed history of New York.

The subject of Robert Moses has received renewed interest following the publication in December of Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City, a graphic novel by French artists Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez, published by Nobrow Press (distributed by Consortium). By focusing on a visual representation of Moses's work, the book tends to highlight his more positive accomplishments.

Grand Central: Save Me by Kristyn Kusek Lewis

Book Review

Fiction

See How Small

by Scott Blackwood

Part mystery and part ghost story, See How Small builds slowly into a complex narrative about a brutal crime and its impact on the Austin, Tex., neighborhood of its victims. During a robbery of an ice-cream store, three teenage girl employees are stripped, gagged with their underwear and killed in the fire the robbers leave in their wake. The crime goes unsolved for years and gradually takes its toll on the witnesses, store customers, first responders, the girls' families and the criminals themselves.

In short chapters, the narrative moves among characters--the owner of the store and mother of two of the victims, the fireman who found the girls too late to save them, the getaway car driver, a local news reporter and others--exposing their personal struggles independent of the tragedy and at the same time revealing clues to the events that led to the crime. In a kind of Greek chorus, even the dead girls provide commentary on their pasts and imagined futures.

Blackwood's language rarely misses--whether describing Hollis (an unstable war vet who "can't find the mental thread on which to string the everyday beads of life") or the fireman's teen daughter's boyfriend (who "smells pungently like bong smoke and carries around a little tackle box of harmonicas in different keys and can't play a lick"). Scott Blackwood (We Agreed to Meet Just Here) so successfully weaves together disparate strands that See How Small turns into a rich tapestry of human failing and hopeful striving. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Scott Blackwood's second novel deftly explores the aftermath of a brutal crime and the ways violence damages a community.

Little, Brown, $25, hardcover, 9780316373807

St. Martin's: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Blood-Drenched Beard

by Daniel Galera , trans. by Alison Entrekin

Daniel Galera's U.S. debut features a nameless, Brazilian physical education teacher who suffers from prosopagnosia, a rare disorder also known as face blindness. He cannot recognize or remember faces, even his own. He must identify people by other means and sees the world in a slightly different way than most. Those close to him understand his disability, but when he interacts with others who are unaware, it can create awkward, even potentially volatile, situations.

After his father commits suicide, the protagonist decides he needs a change of scenery and moves to a small apartment on the water in the seaside town of Garopaba, where his grandfather Gaudério lived--and died under mysterious circumstances. His subtle investigation into his grandfather's life doesn't sit well with the locals, who react suspiciously at the mere mention of Gaudério's name. The narrator's prosopagnosia only adds to their distrust, and it isn't long before they treat him like an outcast. The townspeople's growing hostility doesn't deter him, although his digging may result in him hollowing out his own grave.

Galera, a swimmer himself, makes strong use of his protagonist's affinity for water, depicting the unpredictability and danger but also illustrating the beauty, and the cleansing and healing nature, of the sea. Evocative use of the weather and the ocean enhance suspense as the protagonist searches for answers about his family and, ultimately, his own personal identity.

Atmospheric, multilayered and poetic, Blood-Drenched Beard makes a splash, and the ripples will surely affect all they touch. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: Brazilian author Daniel Galera's U.S debut, a captivating and powerful story of a young man's search for the truth about his grandfather.

Penguin Press, $26.95, hardcover, 9781594205743

Ecco: The Book of Love by Roger Rosenblatt

The Same Sky

by Amanda Eyre Ward

While they share The Same Sky, Carla and Alice's lives could not be more different. Impoverished Carla, age 10, lives with her grandmother and toddler brothers in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, subsisting on the money her mother sends from Texas. In Texas, Alice and her husband own a successful barbecue restaurant, enjoying a comfortable life and a happy marriage. Amanda Eyre Ward alternates chapters between Carla and Alice, and even as their stories unfold it is not immediately apparent why they share the novel--until their lives converge at a heartrending intersection for both.

Ward is unsparing in describing the horror of Carla's plight--crime, violence and hunger force her to attempt the perilous migration across Mexico to find her mother and a better life in the United States. The story rings true, and the author's yearlong research, meeting immigrant children and visiting shelters, is evident. Alice, meanwhile, is grieving her infertility and frustration at thwarted adoption efforts. She and Jake appreciate what they have, but Alice feels incomplete and can't abandon hope for parenthood.

Young Carla and adult Alice share a number of qualities: tenacity, loyalty, strength and a deep capacity for love. The contrast between their fates is stark, but Alice's privilege doesn't inspire resentment in the reader. They also share a community, and when Carla is forced to make a decision, it affects Alice dramatically. In a world of brutality, inequity and immigrant injustice, redemption overcomes sorrow in The Same Sky. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: This is the story of a struggling Honduran immigrant and the impact she has on a Texas couple.

Ballantine, $25, hardcover, 9780553390506

Shelf Awareness: Marissa Meyer

My Father's Wives

by Mike Greenberg

Sports-radio host Mike Greenberg has followed up the three female protagonists of his first novel, All You Could Ask For, with the half-dozen women in the title roles of his second, My Father's Wives.

At their son's ninth birthday party, Mrs. Sweetwater told her husband to leave and not come back. It was the last Jonathan saw of his father, and for more than 30 years he hasn't given much thought to Senator Percy Sweetwater. But he's just had another birthday and has started to question his own role as a husband and father. Jonathan wonders whether he'd understand himself better if he understood his own father more, but since Percy has passed on, he'll need to get his answers indirectly--from his mother, and from the five women who succeeded her as his father's wives, none of whom he's ever met.

Even in fiction, it's neither easy nor likely to resolve the mysteries of a lifetime in the span of a couple weeks, and by the time Jonathan meets the last of Percy's widows, he understands that he's only beginning to ask the right questions. As Greenberg fleshes out Jonathan as a character, he follows a few story threads--primarily those involving his relationship with his boss and his work--that in some ways shortchange the central plot of a son learning about himself and his father. While some readers may wish for more focus on the core of the novel, My Father's Wives features appealing characters and an interesting premise--and Greenberg's ability to get to the heart of manhood, family and relationships. --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

Discover: A man seeks to get to know his late, estranged father--and ultimately himself--through the women his father married.

Morrow, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062325860

Mystery & Thriller

Unbecoming

by Rebecca Scherm

In the opening pages of Rebecca Scherm's debut novel, Unbecoming, Julie from California is working in Paris at an antiques repair shop, polishing and replacing hinges, cleaning beadwork and resetting jewels. Except her name is really Grace, and she's from Garland, Tennessee. Two young men are about to be paroled from prison in Garland, and Grace is nervous, because her name is not all she's lying about. From this beginning, we follow Grace back in time: her unhappy home life, her great luck in being loved by a popular boy from a good family, her joy at being his mother's daughter, her departure for college in New York City, her work in art appraisal and her ignominious retreat from all of the above. Only at the end of the novel do we learn how exactly Grace landed in Paris with a new name, a forged biography and a fear of her past.

Unbecoming is beguiling: a love story with twists and turns; the tale of an insecure, insufficiently loved girl from the wrong side of the tracks; a delightfully nuanced narrative about trust and trustworthiness. Grace is endearing and intriguing, although she is not all (or is more than) she seems. Layers of lies, longing and duplicity recall The Talented Mr. Ripley, another chilling masterpiece of dishonesty's helpless acceleration. Scherm's light, confident touch with pacing, suspense and characterization is pitch-perfect. Beware staying up all night to rush through this engrossing, enchanting debut. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A delicious, deceptively simple tale of art, crime, love and betrayal.

Viking, $27.95, hardcover, 9780525427506

Dead Red

by Tim O'Mara

The baseball term "sitting dead red" (a batter waiting for a specific fastball from a pitcher) takes a military connotation in Tim O'Mara's third Raymond Donne mystery. Ricky Torres, an Iraq War vet and friend from Donne's days on the police force, summons the ex-cop-turned-schoolteacher in the middle of the night. While seated in a taxi cab next to Donne, Torres is able to say only, "I made a mistake," before a shooter lying in wait--sitting dead red--assassinates him.

Donne barely escapes with his own life and is determined to find out who kill3e his friend, despite orders from the police chief to stay out of the investigation. Torres had been working part-time for another ex-cop, Jack Knight. Now a PI, Knight is looking into the disappearance of a public relations guru's teenage daughter. As Donne and Knight do their digging, each question begets another. Was the murder tied to this case? Did Torres make a mistake?

Well-timed twists and red herrings keep the pace of the layered Dead Red swift. The less-than-likable Knight plays a strong foil to the kind, empathetic protagonist. And quietly, beneath the boisterous mystery plot, O'Mara studies the complexity and strength of a police family as it deals with the death of one of its own. Mystery readers unfamiliar with O'Mara's work won't have trouble starting with Dead Red, but they'll likely find themselves enamored with Raymond Donne's world and heading back for the previous titles in the series (Sacrifice Fly and Crooked Numbers). --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: A police-force buddy's murder pulls New York City schoolteacher Ray Donne back into the world of cops and crime.

Minotaur, $26.99, hardcover, 9781250058638

Biography & Memoir

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully

by Allen Kurzweil

During his single year at a boarding school in Switzerland, sixth-grader Allen Kurzweil roomed with a boy improbably named Cesar Augustus, who bullied him physically and emotionally. Then Allen moved on, lived all over the world, found a successful career in journalism and writing, married a French anthropologist and had a son. But throughout those intervening years, Allen was bothered by the memory of Cesar.

In researching Cesar's likely whereabouts, Allen dismisses false leads and relives old trauma. Eventually, he finds his childhood tormentor in a nearly unbelievable narrative: Cesar was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a criminal scam so outlandish that it reads like a novel. Allen Kurzweil's Whipping Boy is a work of nonfiction, with no names changed; just when it starts feeling like a thriller, it gets stranger than fiction.

Kurzweil is obsessed with Cesar, his "menace and muse." He wants to right wrongs, to avenge himself and to solve a mystery. He also wants to stick up for his son, also bullied at a young age. Along the way, he is distracted--as is the reader--by the monstrosity and incredibility of con men who claim to be royalty, with costumes and jewelry to match, who manage to defraud eminent savvy businesspeople; and he is forced to consider questions about the nature of memory. But in the end, courage and closure are the rewards for a heartfelt, very funny, poignant and extremely weird story to which Kurzweil's self-deprecatory voice is perfectly suited. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: The lengthy and bizarre search for a childhood bully, with humor, pathos and redemption.

Harper, $27.99, hardcover, 9780062269485

Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye

by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

In Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, Marie Mutsuki Mockett (Picking Bones from Ash) offers an intensely personal and moving reflection of grief, mourning and the role that Buddhism plays in resolving those feelings amid catastrophe. The title alludes to a belief that souls pause at one final physical location, such as the long-dormant volcano Mount Osore, before passing into the afterlife. Mockett, whose maternal family owns a Zen Buddhist temple on the tsunami-devastated Tohoku coast of Northeastern Japan, returns to bury her grandparents' bones.

Mockett reflects on her personal losses (the passing of her father three years earlier and the recent death of her grandfather) and undertakes a pilgrimage to Shinto, Zen and Shingon Buddhist temples to meditate on her family deaths in the context of the tsunami, finding comfort and understanding in the rituals of owakare ("the great parting"), omukae ("the great receiving," when the dead revisit) and okuribi ("the great sending off," when the dead return to the afterlife). She visits a river known as Sai no Kawara, where dead children's souls go to do penance. In reconciling the divergent beliefs and traditions between Buddhism and Shintoism and between Buddhism and the West, she recognizes that grief, and its subsequent resolution, is a shared experience that crosses cultural and religious boundaries. "Grief is not a one-way street... for the dead miss us as much as miss them." Mockett's memoir speaks to the heart and is a moving testament to what human spirits can endure. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: An unconventional travelogue of grief and mourning.

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780393063011

Social Science

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

by Johann Hari

British journalist Johann Hari spent three years traveling around the world to understand the war on drugs, culminating in Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. His book spans the start of the war in the U.S. nearly a century ago in the small office of Harry Anslinger, an assistant prohibition commissioner and, later, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to the more recent beginnings of its end in Canada, Colorado, Portugal and Sweden. Hari lays out heartbreaking, often gruesome and unbelievable stories of prohibition and legalization to illustrate how historical battles to eliminate drugs have succeeded and failed, how they have shaped--and been shaped by--race and racial tensions in the United States and beyond and how they have influenced so much of our contemporary cultural thinking.

In 2011, Hari was the subject of a journalistic scandal involving, among other things, sourcing and citing quotations. This experience seems to have made the research in Chasing the Scream all the more thorough; each chapter is introduced with an explanation of how and why Hari came to interview people on a given topic. This approach results in book that is more than the sum of its parts; Hari does not just present information for readers to interpret, but invites readers along on his process of discovery. Though not all readers will agree with Hari's conclusions, it's likely that Chasing the Scream will invite a careful reevaluation of what we thought we knew about drugs and why we fight so hard against them. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: An account of the decades-old war on drugs, from a British journalist who traveled the world to understand how we got to where we are.

Bloomsbury, $27, hardcover, 9781620408902

Children's & Young Adult

Fairest: The Lunar Chronicles: Levana's Story

by Marissa Meyer

In this stand-alone novel, Marissa Meyer reveals the history of the villainous queen of Luna, and lays some groundwork for the relationships central to her outstanding Lunar Chronicles.

The author depicts Levana as a child born into a family where cruelty reigned. When one of the royal guards, Sir Evret Hayle, shows kindness to Levana at her parents' funeral, he sets in motion a series of events that lead to tragic consequences. A recurring nightmare and haunting refrain ("Come here, baby sister. I want to show you something") reveal a horrifying incident when Levana was six, at the hands of her older sister, Channary, who inherited the throne upon the death of their parents. While Queen Channary takes more interest in her trysts than in the workings of the planet she rules, Levana proves a quick study in more strategic matters. Readers learn of plans hatched by her parents for a half-human, half-beast army and the laboratory invention of a pandemic (letumosis, which figures prominently in Cinder) that could sweep the earth but have no effect on Lunars, plus an antidote that could be used to resume trade with the Earthens.

Meyer builds layers on the Snow White story, as Levana becomes obsessed with appearing to be "the fairest queen that Luna had ever known." Her envy and greed drive her to take drastic measures to win Evret Hayle's love and the love of her subjects. The more she gets, the more she wants. Meyer's meticulous construction reconfirms her as a master architect. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Marissa Meyer reveals the background of the villainous Queen Levana, ruler of Luna, in this stand-alone entry in the superlative Lunar Chronicles.

Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, $17.99, hardcover, 230p., ages 12-up, 9781250060556

The Founding Fathers

by Jonah Winter , illus. by Barry Blitt

Jonah Winter pays tribute to the men who founded the United States in all their strengths, weaknesses and contradictions. New Yorker artist Barry Blitt's pen-and-ink and watercolors play up some amusing aspects yet stay true to their characters. 

Winter's introduction describes the tensions between the Founding Fathers and their inconsistencies ("They claimed in their Declaration of Independence that 'all men are created equal.' And yet, in their Constitution, they made no such claim"). He then profiles 14 of them (showcased on the endpapers in Blitt's terrific cameos) with a bio, followed by facts such as their height, weight, political leaning (with words such as "straight" for Washington and "cranky" for John Adams), wealth and more. Winter's telling choices play up some of the men's more striking differences, such as "human slaves owned" (Benjamin Franklin, for instance, had two, "whom he freed"; Thomas Jefferson owned "around 200"), followed by their "position on slavery" (Franklin "absolutely opposed it," while Jefferson "spoke out against it, but was also for it"). The leaders' most famous quotes and their achievements also appear. For each, Blitt creates a full-page portrait (e.g., John Hancock, who financed the Revolution, asleep on a pile of moneybags), as well as often humorous vignettes to accompany their "stats."

Winter also introduces lesser-known figures, such as John Jay, who was the chief peacemaker in a treaty with Britain at the end of the American Revolution. Readers could dip in and out, but they'll read straight through this delectably designed volume. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Fourteen of the men who helped found the United States, in pithy bios and stats, plus humorous portraits.

Atheneum, $17.99, hardcover, 48p., ages 5-8, 9781442442740

Performing Arts

No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead

by Peter Richardson

The Grateful Dead's long, strange trip has influenced several generations of music lovers around the world. Peter Richardson (A Bomb in Every Issue) takes a cultural viewpoint to the 30-year musical career of this lasting group of misfits and druggies, revealing them as intelligent, thoughtful, passionate individuals.

The Grateful Dead is more than a band, it's a community of likeminded musicians, stage crew, sound experts and incredibly loyal fans that remains vibrant today, nearly 20 years after the group's official disbanding when reluctant leader and lead guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia died in 1995 (and as the surviving members of the group plan a reunion concert this summer). Richardson delves deep, showing the band and its various musical and business enterprises as truly revolutionary endeavors. No Simple Highway concerns itself with the relevance of the band's jam-based, best-heard-live musical style, looking at the group's 1960s inception in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, its country-music-influenced middle period, and its final massive success in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Richardson avoids romanticizing Garcia & Co., preferring instead to offer a story in vivid detail and let the reader make up his or her own mind about the drugs, the parties, the communal living and the anti-authoritarian, audience-focused stance the Grateful Dead held throughout its career. No Simple Highway offers a complete look at why this influential group was able to become one of the biggest rock bands of all time. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: An exhaustively researched and entertaining cultural history of one of the most successful yet resolutely iconoclast musical groups ever.

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 9781250010629

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