Excerpt: The Epiphany Machine
David Burr Gerrard received his MFA in fiction from Columbia University and teaches creative writing at the New School in New York City. The Epiphany Machine (just published by Putnam), his second novel, is an alternative history of New York City, set from the 1960s to the near future, in which a tattoo machine predicts the future with irrevocable consequences. Here's an excerpt:
The first time I asked my father about the epiphany machine was also the only time that he hit me. What made an impression on me was not the actual physical contact, a gentle slap only slightly more abrasive than the wind that was blowing very hard for an October day. My father seemed no more likely to slap me than to slit my throat and watch me bleed out into the leaf-clogged gutter, so for all I knew that might come next. In my young mind, for him to have hit me at all meant that something must have been unlocked in him, something that would have remained boxed up had I not liberated it with the magic words "the epiphany machine," and that would now never cease to pursue me until it had achieved my destruction.
He knelt down and looked me in the eye. "You have no idea how much I've gone through to protect you from that horrible thing."
This made me sob.
"If you're old enough to know about the epiphany machine, then you're too old to cry."
This only made me sob harder.
"Venter, you need to tell me who told you about the machine. Was it your grandmother? She promised me she wouldn't say anything about it until we both agreed that you were old enough."
"It wasn't her. I just heard about it on TV."
This was not technically a lie. One night, after I was supposed to be asleep, I had heard my grandmother weeping while watching an eleven-o'clock news report suggesting that the epiphany machine might be responsible for the spread of HIV, another thing I had never heard of. I connected this to the time when my father had made an excessively big show of not freaking out over the cover of a copy of a magazine that had been left on the table at a coffee shop: "Did a Tiny Cult in New York City Help Spread HIV?" But these events had happened weeks earlier--which might as well have been decades according to my sense of time--and were not why I had asked about the device. I had asked because, at recess that morning, I had heard one teacher whisper to another as I passed by, "His mother got a tattoo from the epiphany machine." Now I wanted to know what it was. I was also wondering whether the epiphany machine had something to do with the tattoo on my father's forearm--SHOULD NEVER BECOME A FATHER--that he had sat me down to talk about shortly before I was old enough to read it, claiming he had gotten it as a stupid prank when he was very young, long before I was born.
"On TV!" my father said, laughing. "My brilliant boy, I'm sorry I slapped you. Let's take a walk." We walked past the crematorium across from our house to the cemetery two blocks away. (Queens was and remains a city of the dead with some half-hearted gentrification from the living.) The wind continued as we maintained silence for several rows of what my father and grandmother called "nails on a sum," aping what they said had been my attempt, at the age of three, to say that gravestones looked like thumbnails. I got myself together and stopped crying, but then I suddenly realized that my father must be taking me to see my mother's grave--that this was how he was going to tell me that my mother was dead, and had not merely run away. I started sobbing again. This time my father did not scold me, but he did not comfort me either. He just looked out at the traffic. Finally, he spoke.
"Do you know why your grandmother and I think that 'nails on a sum' is funny?"
"Because it's silly?"
"Because it's not silly. Because it's actually exactly correct. They've told you in school what a sum is, right?"
"That's in adding."
"Exactly. Can you give me an example of a sum?"
"In two plus two equals four, the sum is four."
"Good, my brilliant boy!"
This made me feel very, very good, as the fact that I hated him at the moment did not make me long any less for him to think that I was a genius.
"The sum is what things add up to," my father continued. "Everyone wants his or her life to add up to something. All the people in this cemetery, all the people that we're walking on, they all did lots of stuff, hoping to make the sums of their lives go higher and higher and higher. Maybe a few of them had sums that were very high, most of them had sums that were not so high. In every case, the gravestone is like a nail on that sum--not like the nail on your thumb, actually, but like the nails in a roof, the nails that say: no, house, you're not going any higher. Gravestones are like nails on a person's life, keeping the sum from getting any higher."
Often, he couldn't tell exactly at which level to speak to me, and so said things that made no sense on any level.
"I don't understand," I said.
"Okay. In a baseball game, there's a score, right? At the end of the game, each team has gotten a certain number of runs. The sum that I'm talking about in a person's life, that's like a score."
Something was stirring in me, a mature and morally serious version of the most childish emotion of all: impatience.
"Dad," I said. "What is the epiphany machine and where is my mother?"
"I'm getting to that," he said. "So the sum of one's life is the sum of everything you've done. And as you get a little older you start to realize that sooner or later you're going to end up here, in this cemetery or one exactly like it, and you want to make sure that your sum is as high as possible. The problem is that life is more confusing than a baseball game. In a baseball game, a run is a run and that's that. In life, sometimes you're not sure what counts as a run. Also, you don't know what the teams are. Or whether you're even playing. Sometimes you think you're playing and you're actually just sitting in the stands, watching other people play."
"Okay. All this means that you have to make up your own way of scoring. You have to decide what's important. For a lot of people, it's money. For a lot of other people, it's some kind of religious fulfillment. You know what the most important thing is to me?"
I shook my head. I knew what he was going to say, but I wanted to hear him say it.
"You are the most important thing to me. So whenever something good happens to you, or whenever I see you smile, or whenever you learn how to do something, that's like a run for me. When something bad happens to you, that's like a run for the other team. That's why I had to do what I did just now. Even though I didn't really hit you--it was really just a love tap, wasn't it?--I still felt horrible while I was doing it. I felt much worse than you felt, believe me. But the epiphany machine is very bad and I have to do whatever it takes to keep you safe from it. It's the sort of thing that could cause you to lose the whole game."
"I'm saying that figuring out what's important in life and how to go about getting it is very difficult. Sometimes you get confused and you get tempted to just let other people make the rules. And some people are really happy to make the rules for other people. Adam Lyons, the man who runs the epiphany machine, is one of those people. There was a time when I let myself get confused enough that I let him write those words on me that you know aren't true."
"The epiphany machine writes things about people on their arms?"
"Exactly, my brilliant boy! I figured out that the machine was wrong. Your mother, on the other hand... well, Venter, it told her that she ABANDONS WHAT MATTERS MOST. You weren't born yet so she didn't know what matters most. Then you were born and she abandoned you."
"Why did she listen to the machine if you didn't?"
"That's the first question you should ask her if you meet her."
"I don't ever want to meet her."
"That shows that you are a very smart boy."
If I had actually been a very smart boy, I probably would have kept asking questions. At the very least I would have recognized his persistent flattery as a shutting-down of my curiosity no less violent than the slap. But I wanted his praise more than I wanted the truth.
South Pole Station
by Ashley Shelby
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station Guide welcomes Cooper Gosling, an artist in residence, with the fact that the average annual temperature is -56.7 degrees Fahrenheit. She'd already been vetted for a grant: subjected to an exam ("True or false: I prefer flowers to trucks"), questioned about why she wants to paint in Antarctica and treated to a trust-building exercise involving Tabasco and 7UP. In Ashley Shelby's witty and affecting debut novel, South Pole Station, Cooper joins a group of eccentrics on the ice for a slide into the surreal. There is Sal, an astrophysicist with one year left to prove his cosmological theory; Pavano, a helioseismologist in the pay of big oil and global warming deniers; Pearl, a cook with culinary ambitions; Bozer, the construction chief who sports a Confederate bandanna; Tucker, the calm and cool African American area director; and various other "margin-dwellers" for whom the Pole is the only place they feel at home.
South Pole Station, told from various viewpoints, always circles around Cooper, who was raised, along with her brother, on tales of polar exploration. The tension in the novel, aside from extreme weather conditions and personal interactions, comes from the opposition to Pavano. The scientists go out of their way to thwart him, which ultimately results in an accident involving Cooper, and the threat by several congressmen to withdraw funding.
Shelby makes serious statements about scientific quests, climate change, politics and people in extremis, but it's the "Polies" who undergird the story. With South Pole Station's satire, science, wry wit and warmth, Ashley Shelby has written one of the best novels of the year. --Marilyn Dahl
Discover: A blocked artist gets a grant to paint in Antarctica, and finds both inspiration and family among the "margin-dwellers" who call the ice their home.
hardcover, 368p., 9781250112828
So Much Blue
by Percival Everett
Percival Everett's So Much Blue is a masterstroke of a novel that blends biting humor, beautiful ekphrasis and heartbreaking pathos in a stirring, unforgettable composition.
Everett (Erasure) is known for his literary skill and probing intelligence. Here he combines three stories from the point of view of painter Kevin Pace. Pace's present-day life entails family troubles with his daughter and wife, and a secretive, giant painting he keeps under lock and key. Intermittent flashbacks form two underlying narratives, one about a tragic experience in El Salvador when Pace was a young man, and the other about an extramarital affair in Paris when he was older. Layered together much like a painting, the three stories harmonize with striking, revelatory power.
To get there, Everett flexes the full range of his talent, including a sly, cynical sense of humor that cuts to the absurdity of the novel's situations and characters. A rundown cantina in the countryside of El Salvador, for example, is "so much a cliché that it wasn't one." With the same deftness, Everett switches tones and finds his characters in more serious moods. Pace's painting becomes an extended metaphor for his life, and Everett uses the device to sublime effect: "If this feeling were a color, I considered, it would be the orange threads of slightly diluted saffron."
So Much Blue explores the dimensions of human experience as few books can. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author
Discover: Percival Everett renders a rich emotional tapestry in this novel about an artist coming to terms with his past.
paperback, 236p., 9781555977825
The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Following her husband's death, Cora Seaborne leaves London in search of the dirt, earth, fossils, rocks and trees that once entertained her as a young girl. Her arrival in Essex coincides with growing rumors of the return of the Essex Serpent, a great beast living in the Blackwater that is said to claim human lives. A budding naturalist whose passions were squashed by her cruel husband, Cora sets off in search of the mythical beast, but finds instead a local parson, William Ransome, with whom she forms an unlikely friendship.
Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent transpires over 11 months in the late 19th century, told through the stories of vibrant supporting characters. But the novel is much larger than a single year, person or place as Perry explores questions of science and faith, passion and reason, good and evil, friendship and animosity, past and present, humor and fear. This complex and beautiful novel perfectly captures the tension that exists between opposing forces at every moment of a life, be it large or small. With a quietude that reflects the beauty of the landscapes she describes, and a fortitude that captures the power of a woman's mind, Sarah Perry has proven herself a writer who can dazzle with luminous prose in The Essex Serpent. Here is a novel that will remind readers that they can be, like Perry's perfectly flawed characters, "children of the earth and lost in wonder." --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: In this quiet, beautiful novel, a young widow searches for the mythical Essex Serpent and finds unexpected friendship in its wake.
hardcover, 432p., 9780062666376
by Gail Godwin
In Gail Godwin's novel Grief Cottage, Marcus Harshaw is 11 years old when he faces the sudden, tragic death of his single mother. That summer he is left in the custody of his great-aunt Charlotte on a remote South Carolina island. His new guardian--a thrice married and divorced, set-in-her-ways, reclusive artist--takes in precocious, self-contained Marcus, and provides him a safe haven.
The young man's formative years with his mother--and their chronic struggles to make ends meet--made Marcus wise beyond his years, enabling him to adapt and be sensitive toward his aunt's brooding, hermetic life. Charlotte gained notoriety painting images of a deserted, dilapidated local house nicknamed Grief Cottage; its occupying family disappeared during Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The battered, run-down residence becomes a source of intrigue for Marcus, too, as he seeks to learn more about its history and those who perished there. This quest also unearths questions about Marcus's background--his relationship with his mother, how he lost his best friend from school and the identity of his absent father.
Godwin (Publishing: A Writer's Memoir) has written an exquisite narrative with metaphor embedded in subplots like the preservation of nested Loggerhead turtle eggs and the presence of a ghost at Grief Cottage. This grace-filled story probes aspects of life and death, isolation and family, and how great pain and loss can ultimately lead to unforeseen transcendence. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: An orphaned 11-year-old works through his grief when he goes to live with his great-aunt on a remote South Carolina island.
hardcover, 336p., 9781632867049
The Little French Bistro
by Nina George
While vacationing in Paris with her demeaning ogre of a husband, unfulfilled and unhappy, 60-year-old Marianne Messmann from Celle, Germany, decides to end her life by taking a plunge into the River Seine. But when a stranger rescues Marianne, she sets off on a journey to find her true self--the woman she sadly left behind and lost when she married 41 years before.
Marianne's second chance at life seems dictated by providence. This begins in the hospital, where she finds a glazed tile depicting a beautiful harbor and a dainty red boat, sails slack, named Mariann--"a magnificent scene in the tiny space." On the back is written Port de Kerdruc, Fin. Marianne takes this as a sign. She ditches her husband and sets her sights on Kerdruc, located miles away in the Finistère region, a place in western France that "bulged out into the Atlantic--Brittany."
Kerdruc is all Marianne imagines and hopes for. She lands a job at a bistro where she's befriended by a host of locals--dynamic characters, artists and dreamers--who also carry challenges and burdens of loss, regret and a lack of love and fulfillment. Amid Marianne's liberation and self-discovery, she falls in love again. But when her contrite husband tracks her down, Marianne is faced with a difficult choice. Loyal bonds of community, the tug of romance, gentle humor and poignant revelations buoy Nina George's (The Little Paris Bookshop) beautifully written, French-infused story brightened with hope. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: A small, lively town in France offers an unfulfilled, 60-year-old woman liberation and a chance for personal reinvention.
hardcover, 320p., 9780451495587
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Legendary classic movie star Evelyn Hugo is famous for her scandalous love life, especially her seven marriages that have been tabloid fodder for decades. However, despite being a household name, nobody who is still alive knows the secrets Evelyn has kept for years. At age 79, she's ready to divulge all--but only on her terms. A woman who always gets what she wants, Evelyn has specifically selected as her biographer Monique Grant, a "puff piece" writer for Vivant magazine with her own marital and career woes.
More than a bit curious about why such an iconic figure would choose an unknown journalist to author her blockbuster biography, Monique gradually learns the hidden truth about the woman behind the gossipy headlines and whirlwind affairs with some of the most famous men in the world. As Evelyn reveals secrets about domestic abuse, backstage machinations and forbidden love, Monique is shocked to discover secrets about herself, including her personal connection to one of the silver screen's luminaries.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is more than escapism fiction sweeping its audience back to an era when show biz glamour danced with real-life intrigue, romantic entanglements and perceived impropriety. With memorable characters rivaling any Hollywood blockbuster, Taylor Jenkins Reid (One True Loves) marries themes of loyalty, betrayal, friendship and love into a soaring, fast-paced and gripping performance. It leaves readers asking if they are merely role-playing with those they love or being true to an authentic self. --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com.
Discover: Hidden secrets are revealed about love, marriage and identity when a glamorous Hollywood icon taps an unknown writer to pen her tell-all memoir.
hardcover, 400p., 9781501139239
by Thrity Umrigar
Thrity Umrigar (The Story Hour) is best known for her moving novels that delve into class, privilege and family. In Everybody's Son, she also tackles issues of race and identity. At its heart, though, it is a story about the bonds between children and parents--both biological and adoptive--and the struggle to be true to oneself.
Ten-year-old Anton lives in the projects with his mother, Juanita. After she leaves him alone for seven days with no food, Anton breaks a window to escape the oppressive heat in their apartment. Police find Juanita in a crack house where her drug dealer left her, half-naked and barely conscious.
Anton's new life with his foster parents is the exact opposite of everything he has ever known. Judge David Coleman and his wife, Delores, are thrilled to have a child in their home again, after the tragic death of their son. David uses his power and connections to adopt Anton.
Though Anton comes to love his new family and grows up with incredible advantages, he always feels, deep inside, torn between two worlds. His college girlfriend, Carine, tells him, "I can't decide if you're the blackest white man I've ever met or the whitest black man." The truth of these words crushes Anton, who will eventually have to come to terms with his history.
Umrigar's gorgeous language creates a vibrant world. She has crafted another emotionally intense and compelling novel that explores difficult moral questions as well as family bonds. --Suzan L. Jackson, freelance writer and author of Book by Book blog
Discover: A poor black child adopted by a wealthy, powerful white couple grows up torn between two worlds.
hardcover, 352p., 9780062442246
by Beatriz Williams
A master of the historical fiction genre, Beatriz Williams (The Wicked City) sweeps readers across war-torn Europe to the tropical landscape of Central Florida with Cocoa Beach, a breathtaking family drama set amid the backdrop and aftermath of World War I.
It's February 1917, and Virginia Fortescue is driving a rickety ambulance across the muddy battlefields of northern France when she becomes smitten with army surgeon Captain Simon Fitzwilliam. Virginia is determined to resist Simon's charms, especially considering he has a wife back in England. It's an unconsummated marriage of convenience, Simon explains; his wife, Lydia, loved Simon's deceased twin, Samuel, and she stood to inherit a vast fortune. Marrying Lydia would guarantee that the wealth would remain in the family and that Simon would have easy access to the money. Despite Virginia's hesitations, the two eventually marry.
Five years later, Simon dies in a mysterious fire at a lavish villa he's building for Virginia and Evelyn, their daughter. Determined to settle his estate and learn the truth behind Simon's death, Virginia travels to Cocoa Beach, Fla., where she encounters bootleggers, bandits, criminals and conspirators. She also discovers there's much more to Simon--including a shady past and layers of deception--than she ever could have imagined.
The literal and figurative symbolism of a once grand home that has been destroyed allows Williams to give everyone who has suffered heartbreak and been wrong in love and life a chance to see themselves in Virginia. Amid the ashes, it is possible to find the truth and emerge stronger, renewed and with a foundation built upon self-assurance and independence. --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com
Discover: Cocoa Beach is a breathtaking family drama that moves from the battlefields of World War I France to the sun-soaked beaches of Prohibition Era Florida.
hardcover, 384p., 9780062404985
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
by Arundhati Roy
Twenty years after winning the Booker Prize for her debut novel, The God of Small Things, human rights activist and essayist Arundhati Roy is back in fiction mode with an epic saga of love and war.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness unfolds amid decades of civil unrest in the Indian subcontinent, during the tumultuous era after the British partition of India, once a treasured colonial jewel. India and Pakistan are at war over the disputed region of Kashmir, a mountainous province in the north renowned for its beauty. Kashmir is a battleground between Hindus and Muslims, soldiers and militants, where children turn into freedom fighters, "tombstones grow out of the ground like young children's teeth" and martyrdom spreads through "saffron fields... like a creeping mist."
Roy infuses her storytelling with mesmerizing imagery and characters. She cleverly compares the tired country of India with an old woman who is forced to hide her varicose veins under imported fishnet stockings and jam her aching feet into high-heeled shoes. Anjum is a transgender prostitute and reality TV star, learning to love herself and yearning for motherhood. Musa, a handsome young Kashmiri freedom fighter, is dealing with unimaginable loss and yet personifies dignity and truth. Love blossoms in the most unlikely of places, including a graveyard repurposed as Paradise Heavenly Guesthouse. As with those in The God of Small Things, Roy's characters finally succumb to her particular version of "happily ever after": bound together by loneliness, they accept each other with the relief that comes with being understood and finding a place to belong. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and freelance reviewer
Discover: An entertaining cast of characters searches for love in the chaos of post-colonial India.
hardcover, 464p., 9781524733155
by Victor LaValle
The Changeling is Victor LaValle's version of the marshmallow test: forgo the quick thrill of a mass-market mystery/horror and be patient as the author genially paces you through 120 pages of buildup, and you'll receive the kind of shock that fairy tales are made of.
LaValle's (The Ecstatic, The Ballad of Black Tom) fourth novel is about Apollo Kagwa, a rare book dealer in New York City. He's the son of a Ugandan immigrant who disappeared when Apollo was young. Life is going pretty well for him--beautiful wife, new baby, signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird--until it's most definitely, terrifyingly not. When the baby is killed and his wife disappears, Apollo must venture out in an increasingly unreal landscape--forgotten islands in the East River, a cemetery on Long Island--to find answers, if not justice.
Part of the horror and joy of this book is in the turns it takes, lowering the reader by degrees into its strange and pressurized world. Readers are hereby encouraged to jump in with little foreknowledge.
LaValle is clearly in his element exploring the strange worlds that exist at the peripheries of his beloved New York. His brisk tempo and friendly tone are like a Grimms' tale, masking subcutaneous menace. The twists never betray the story logic, which is as much about navigating the shoals of adulthood as it is about losing parents.
Strange, exuberant and haunting, The Changeling taps into the anxieties of fatherhood and revels in the layers of a city. --Zak Nelson, writer and bookseller
Discover: This dark fairy tale for grownups explores the emotional stakes of fatherhood and uncovers a New York hiding in plain sight.
Spiegel & Grau,
hardcover, 448p., 9780812995947
The Lost Letter
by Jillian Cantor
Katie Nelson never shared her father's passion for stamp collecting. But as she tagged along with him on countless Sunday-morning drives around Los Angeles during her childhood, she came to understand the reason for his never-ending quest--or so she thought. Their trips to yard sales, thrift shops and estate sales yielded hundreds of old letters and sheets of yellowed stamps, and Katie always imagined her father, Ted, simply loved the thrill of the hunt. However, when she moves Ted, now widowed, to a memory-care facility, she sorts through his collection and finds an intriguing item: an unsent letter with a highly unusual German stamp from the 1930s. Jillian Cantor (Margot, The Hours Count) unravels the story of the stamp alongside Katie's family history in her third novel, The Lost Letter.
Cantor shifts back and forth between two eras: that of the Anschluss (Hitler's annexation of Austria) and Katie's quest to find out more about the stamp's provenance in 1980s Los Angeles. The World War II narrative follows the journey of Kristoff, a young artist working as an apprentice to stamp engraver Frederick Faber in the mountain town of Grotsburg. Faber's skill has brought him professional recognition and a comfortable living, but his abilities and his Jewish heritage also attract the unwelcome attention of the Nazis.
Both stories offer glimmers of hope, whether through small acts of resistance or larger stories of redemption. Cantor's conclusion skillfully draws together two sets of world events--including the fall of the Berlin Wall--and her characters' intertwined personal histories. The Lost Letter is a poignant story of love, sacrifice and the bravery of everyday resistance. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Jillian Cantor's third novel tells the story of an unusual World War II-era German stamp and its connection to an American family.
hardcover, 336p., 9780399185670
by Kelly J. Ford
Kelly J. Ford's novel Cottonmouths captures life in backwoods America like a fish in a frying pan. Ford takes her young, raw, flailing characters and rakes them over the heat of a high-octane plot until their vulnerable insides sizzle on the page.
When Emily Skinner drops out of college and returns to Drear's Bluff, a small town in the Ozark region of Arkansas, she finds her best friend Jody Monroe raising a child by herself. The single mom lives on an old farm and leases an outbuilding to meth-cookers in order to make ends meet. That Emily, a closeted lesbian whose sexuality disturbs her conservative parents, is in love with Jody adds even more heat to an already explosive set-up.
The results are thrilling. The only hangups occur when Ford uses Emily's internal voice to recapitulate plot points, as though the reader needed to be reminded of major developments. These narrative reminders are unnecessary given that Ford is such a strong writer. Her prose is sharp and lyrical, rendering the South--and outdated attitudes--with uncompromising candor, though such honesty doesn't preclude sympathy for the many small-town characters caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and resentment. Ford's writing fully shines when addressing young, forbidden love and the way it torments her protagonist: "The craving came on like a fever, as if a coal had been stoked within and blurred the edges of reasonable thought." It's a love that burns and breaks and leads to dangerous places. Cottonmouths grips the heart and doesn't let go. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author
Discover: In this intense debut novel set in rural Arkansas, a young woman is torn between her heart and conscience.
hardcover, 296p., 9781510719156
by Val Emmich
When actor Gavin Winters is caught fueling a backyard bonfire with items that remind him of his recently deceased partner, Sydney, he tries to escape his grief--and the media spotlight--with old friends Ollie and Paige Sully back home in New Jersey. Their 10-year-old daughter, Joan Lennon Sully--named in honor of John Lennon by her musician father--has her own issues with memory: she can't forget. One of few people known to have Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, Joan remembers her days to the last detail, including each visit "Uncle" Sydney made to the Sully home.
Joan has a hard time understanding "normal" memory and how someone, particularly her beloved, Alzheimer's-stricken Grandma Joan, could forget her name. Determined to become unforgettable, the young musician decides to win the Next Great Songwriter contest and enlists the help of Gavin, her dad's old bandmate, trading memories of Sydney for Gavin's lyric-writing prowess. When Joan's recollections reveal Sydney's secrets, Gavin wonders if his insecurities about parenthood caused a rift with his partner deeper than he imagined.
Actor and singer-songwriter Val Emmich has written an endearing and sincere paean to the bonds of music and family in The Reminders. Quirky and lighthearted yet still soulful, Emmich's debut reveals his skilled hand for crafting relationships and voice, adult and child alike. Told from Joan and Gavin's perspectives, the novel mines the charming duo for thought-provoking notions about memory, and wraps them in a charismatic, Beatles-themed story of grief, hope and love. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: Both struggling with issues involving memory, a grieving man and a young girl with a remarkable mind team up to write a contest-winning song.
hardcover, 320p., 9780316316996
by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman
Although it is the last of Mexican author and editor Yuri Herrera's loosely connected border trilogy to be translated into English, Kingdom Cons is the first in the series. Short, allegorical and centered in the world of northern Mexico cartels, it is the story of an uneducated street singer and composer of corridos, popular ballads about peasant oppression and the heroes who free them. Drifting through cantinas "offering rhymes in exchange for pity, for coins," Lobo finds his hardscrabble life miraculously changed when a narco jefe drinking with his honchos kills a drunk refusing to pay Lobo for a song. The jefe then takes the young musician back to his fortified, opulent mountain compound to become his bard--celebrating in song his exploits and benevolent outlaw generosity.
The other two volumes of Herrera's trilogy (Signs Preceding the End of the World, winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award, and The Transmigration of Bodies) are centered on the actual border between Mexico and the United States and on those who are mired in the political and legal no-man's land of living on both sides. The allegorical characters here are caught in the metaphorical borders that separate the rich from the poor, the powerful from the weak and the mercenary from the artistic.
In Kingdom Cons, Herrera has created a mythical hierarchy of power where only an artist might elude the jealousy and retribution of those trapped in the struggle to be on top. This is not just a drug cartel hierarchy, nor is it a Mexican mythology. Rather, it illustrates the difficulty of living on borders wherever they may be found. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: The last of Yuri Herrera's well-regarded border trilogy to be translated into English, Kingdom Cons is an allegory of power, class and art set in the remote compound of a Mexican cartel boss.
And Other Stories,
dist. by Consortium,
paperback, 112p., 9781908276926
How to Survive a Summer
by Nick White
Will Dillard, a Midwestern graduate student in film studies, is jolted from his quiet life upon learning about a new horror movie called Proud Flesh. His friend Bevy describes the slasher flick as "Friday the 13th meets Sleepaway Camp meets I don't know what." But for Will, the terror is far worse.
Proud Flesh, grotesquely twisted from a memoir written by one of the volunteer counselors, transports Will back to the fateful summer his father sent him to Camp Levi, a program whose aim was to cure homosexuality. Contrary to its objective, Camp Levi did no curing, instead leaving its participants with gaping wounds. As the movie begins to take on a cult-like popularity in gay clubs, Will is surrounded by reminders of the summer he'd rather forget--and the camp's victim who didn't survive. He realizes he can no longer run; he must confront his ghosts.
How to Survive a Summer, Nick White's debut, adeptly carries readers between the past, as Will recounts the weeks spent in the Mississippi woods, and 10 years later, as he comes to terms with the camp's devastating effects. White's language is soulful, creating a heavy atmosphere that mimics Will's burdens, weighing him down with internal conflict and overwhelming guilt.
White's theme of acceptance, especially self-acceptance, is at times painful and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he embeds sparks of hope throughout, making How to Survive a Summer a heartbreaking novel with the potential to leave the reader's heart stronger along the break lines. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: A victim of a gay conversion camp must confront his traumatic experience when a popular movie is based on his summer there.
Blue Rider Press,
hardcover, 352p., 9780399573682
by Helen Simpson
Aging is no fun, as the protagonists of Helen Simpson's Cockfosters are all too aware. The breezy, dialogue-heavy style of these stories, each named after a location, masks the melancholy that drives them, with each piece focusing on middle-aged Britons who wonder what the rest of their lives have in store. The title story sets the tone: two 40ish women ride the Piccadilly Line back to Cockfosters, its northernmost terminal, to retrieve the glasses one of them left behind. As they discuss the pain of not knowing when they'll die, their journey is a metaphor for one of the collection's themes: life might be easier, or at least more predictable, if people knew the date on which they'll reach the end of the line.
Simpson explores this theme, as well as that of economic inequality, throughout these stories. A husband frets as much about aging as about the impending visit of his bombastic mother-in-law. After their holiday reading of The Chimes, book group attendees converse about "very average people who've made a great deal of money over the last twenty years." A 50-year-old acupuncturist likens the coming stage of life to Arizona, "brilliantly lit and level and filled with dependable sunshine," to a history professor client. The other woman agrees and says that one might as well be brave about death. After all, as another character in this wise book says, it "makes nothing out of something, and it lasts forever." --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer
Discover: Nine stories dramatize the problems of income inequality and aging among residents of modern-day Britain.
hardcover, 192p., 9780451493071
by Catherine Lacey
In The Answers, Catherine Lacey (Nobody Is Ever Missing) focuses on a young woman whose passivity and introspection take her places she never planned. Born Junia Stone in East Tennessee, Mary Parsons was renamed and taken in by her aunt when her Bible-obsessed father tried to raise her "in a state of complete purity." A self-described "homeschooled semi-orphan from a barely literate state," she remembers her time at college as "a gestational period, four years of warning and training for this life that was coming." She graduates and moves to New York City with her loopy roommate Chandra.
When she's stricken with body-wracking disease, Mary lets Chandra lead her through a maze of traditional health care before venturing to Chandra's preferred healers. She finally discovers miraculous relief with Chandra's last recommendation: Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia ("PAKing"), as practiced with the hocus-pocus jive of the personal masseuse Ed. Problem is, a full PAKing treatment costs thousands, so Mary turns to Craigslist. After numerous interviews, Mary is offered a job with the Girlfriend Experiment, designed to illuminate love and companionship.
When the job and PAKing sessions inevitably end, Mary has a new perspective on the uncertainty of life. She reflects: "I thought of all those billions of hearts beating out there, trying to find love or keep love going. All those people, getting in the way of each other--how do we even stand it? How do we make our way around?" Lacey doesn't give us answers, but she sure gives us a wild story with a memorable protagonist. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: In an adept novel filled with wacky alternative health cures and a bizarre celebrity psychological experiment, a young woman searches for stable ground.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
hardcover, 304p., 9780374100261
Since I Laid My Burden Down
by Brontez Purnell
Reconciliation doesn't come easy, and for DeShawn it's damn near impossible. So many of the men who touched him throughout his life have passed on. In Brontez Purnell's brazen debut novel, a tired Alabama man, freewheeling in the punk underground of San Francisco, returns home when his uncle dies. There his ghosts come back to haunt him with the heady energy they had when still alive.
Since I Laid My Burden Down entwines past and present as DeShawn is repeatedly called upon to clean up the messes left by the deceased. Arnold was a gritty musician and lover who committed suicide. Jatius was an older childhood friend who did, too. Time and again DeShawn has tangled with white men and black men, men with troubled upbringings and those who paid him attention at just the right moment. The disparities of these rendezvous, though, have come into high relief with age--wisdom he's earned fair and square.
Immensely quotable and supremely enjoyable, Purnell's incendiary sense of humor flips the script on what might otherwise be a somber subject. DeShawn tells his mother that when he dies, he wants to be cremated. "Where do you want your ashes thrown?" she asks. "IN THE EYES OF MY ENEMIES!" he responds.
Since I Laid My Burden Down is a remarkable work of fiction, an invaluable addition to queer literature. Though wounded--and reckless at times--DeShawn remains tenacious, proving that strength lies in how one chooses to live, as well as why one chooses to stay alive. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: In Brontez Purnell's outstanding and wicked first novel, returning home to Alabama forces DeShawn to come to grips with the dead men who have shaped him.
Amethyst Editions/Feminist Press,
paperback, 208p., 9781558614314
by Elin Hilderbrand
Tabitha and Harper Frost were as close as identical twins could be, until their parents divorced when they were 17. Tabitha moved to Nantucket with their mother, famed fashion designer Eleanor Roxie-Frost (ERF); Harper and their father, Billy, moved to Martha's Vineyard. The twins stayed in touch for a few years, but in their mid-20s tragedy struck, and now they haven't spoken in 14 years.
But then, in a matter of days, Billy dies and Eleanor falls, breaking her hip. The sisters are overwhelmed by their lives. Tabitha's teenage daughter, Ainsley, is out of control, and the ERF boutique she manages is losing money. Meanwhile, Harper's reputation on Martha's Vineyard is in flames after her lover's wife catches them together, and spreads the news via the island's gossip mill.
In a desperate attempt to salvage what's left of their lives, Harper and Tabitha trade places, with Harper heading to Nantucket to run the ERF store and keep tabs on Ainsley, while Tabitha heads to Martha's Vineyard to sort out Billy's house and possessions.
Funny, frank and romantic, The Identicals is Elin Hilderbrand (Winter Storms) at her best. Tabitha's uptight resentment and Harper's free-spirited flailing are both products of their childhood. Hilderbrand deftly explores their stories and failings while keeping the plot entertaining and quickly paced. Readers are sure to love both sisters--laughing along with their misadventures--and may want to research island summer vacations after reading The Identicals. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans
Discover: Twin sisters Tabitha and Harper switch island homes, from Nantucket to Martha's Vineyard, for one memorable summer.
hardcover, 432p., 9780316375191
by Julie Garwood
Julie Garwood (Fast Track) took a three-year break from writing for health reasons, so her fans are sure to be thrilled by the release of Wired. The 13th novel in Garwood's FBI series (but easily read as a standalone), the fast-paced Wired features Allison Trent, a college student and gifted hacker who models on the side to pay for school. Allison has also been supporting her wastrel cousin and the greedy requests of her aunt and uncle; she feels that she owes them since they took her in after the death of her parents.
But then FBI Agent Liam Scott hears Allison talking in a college seminar and gives her the opportunity of a lifetime: work as a freelance hacker for the FBI and help him find a mole who is leaking sensitive Bureau info to the press.
Trying to balance the demands of her avaricious family, her college schedule, the high volume of work the FBI has for her, and her growing attraction to Liam keeps Allison on her toes. Then, when threats start being made against Allison, she is happy to have Liam at her side, protecting her. But can she learn to stand up for herself?
Full of entertaining characters, Wired is a funny, romantic suspense novel that will keep readers up too late, eager to find out what happens next. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans
Discover: A talented hacker starts working with the FBI to track down a mole, and soon begins to fall for the agent in charge of her protection.
hardcover, 320p., 9780525954460
The Velveteen Daughter
by Laurel Davis Huber
In this beautiful novel, Laurel Davis Huber's brilliant writing elegantly captures the complicated lives of two artistic women: author Margery Williams Bianco, who most famously wrote The Velveteen Rabbit, and Pamela, her troubled daughter. The girl, a child prodigy, had her art displayed in galleries in Italy, England and the United States before she was out of her teens. But this early success and ability wreaked havoc on Pamela's psyche, and she struggled throughout her life with depression.
The Velveteen Daughter opens on September 1, 1944, when a distraught Pamela arrives unexpectedly at Margery's New York apartment with her son Lorenzo in tow. Margery makes Lorenzo breakfast, and Pamela goes to lie down; both women separately reflect on the years that led them to this breaking point. Slowly, through a series of flashbacks, the reader learns of Margery's hesitation to display Pamela's talent, overruled by her husband, Francesco. Pamela had an unrequited love affair with the author Richard Hughes, and expressed disgust at her cousin Agnes's marriage to Eugene O'Neill, which both played roles in her own failed marriage.
Huber delicately portrays how each woman longs to reach out to the other, and yet is unable to, trapped in a terrible cycle of love and hesitation. Beautifully written, heartbreakingly captivating and full of literary and artistic magic from the early 20th century, The Velveteen Daughter is sure to appeal to fans of Margery's classic, and to anyone who has struggled to understand their parents or their children. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm
Discover: This wonderful and tragic novel tells of the real relationship of Margery Williams Bianco, author of The Velveteen Rabbit, and her daughter Pamela.
She Writes Press,
paperback, 416p., 9781631521928
The Lost History of Stars
by Dave Boling
Fourteen-year-old Lettie Venter--imprisoned in a British concentration camp in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War--treasures memories of happier days, like stargazing with her grandfather. Now, the men in her family are fighting the British for their land, settled by her Dutch forebears and now coveted for diamond and gold deposits. The Lost History of Stars is Lettie's heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and Dave Boling's (Guernica) unsparing prose portrays the tragedy of innocents caught in the horrors of war.
Lettie's first-person account, which reads like the journal she faithfully keeps, begins in 1900, the day "Tommies" ride into their yard, threaten her and her family, and ransack their farm. It happens quickly, yet agonizingly: "Half an hour by the clock... a week's worth of heartbeats... a lifetime's tears." When their crammed cart arrives at the concentration camp, children "were already sickened by a disease whose name I had never heard" after drinking from mud puddles on the arduous journey. The narrative then goes back a year, before the men in her family were called up to fight, followed by the months after their drafting, when women and children tended the farm.
Surrounded by starvation, sickness and death in the camp, Lettie is nevertheless a typical adolescent. She and her family exhibit bravery and tenacity throughout their tribulation. "It was only when everything was taken away that you got to see what was at your core." Lettie's coming of age in these horrific circumstances is a tribute to grit and family love. Dave Boling writes a historically accurate novel of war's innocent victims. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco
Discover: A teenage girl narrates her experiences in a British concentration camp during the Boer War.
hardcover, 352p., 9781616204174
Disasters in the First World
by Olivia Clare
In Olivia Clare's lyrical and elegiac first short story collection, Disasters in the First World, the characters' mental health is examined with clear-eyed compassion. The excellent "Pétur" introduces Adam, who watches his mother behave in increasingly strange ways on a shared vacation to Iceland. At first he attributes her oddness to her free-spirit personality, but eventually, he learns the startling truth--that her behavior may have clinical roots. In "Olivia," another standout, the titular character mitigates her anxiety and depression by creating an "Asking place" in her guest bedroom; she visits daily to petition a greater power for happiness. When a young friend of her husband comes to stay with them for a few weeks, Olivia is at first dismayed at having to give up, even temporarily, her sanctuary. But she softens when she realizes that her guest's suffering might be even more debilitating than her own.
Clare's writing sparkles with unexpected word choice, a nod to her previous work, the poetry collection The 26-Hour Day. Her stories unfold in wonderfully astonishing turns. Despite their collective focus on mental breaking points, none offers a simplified diagnosis of a character's suffering. Instead, they reveal the multifaceted impact that mental illness can have on both the sufferer and their loved ones. Clare furthermore suggests that no one is completely defined by how well--or not--their brain functions. Tender yet occasionally biting, Disasters in the First World ekes narrative poetry out of tragedy. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor
Discover: In her first collection of short stories, poet Olivia Clare writes compassionately and unflinchingly about mental suffering.
paperback, 192p., 9780802126610
Mystery & Thriller
by Fiona Barton
When a London building is demolished, an infant's bones are unearthed, having been buried beneath the structure for decades. Three women take special notice.
Reporter Kate Waters wants to know who the baby was. How did it die? Who buried it? Emma, a book editor, is shaken by the news of the tiny skeleton's discovery, and hopes the baby isn't who she fears it is. Angela, still mourning the long-ago kidnapping of her daughter, Alice, from the hospital shortly after the baby's birth, both hopes and fears the bones belong to Alice, so she can finally have closure.
As Kate digs into the past, she discovers that quite a few people who lived in the area around the time of the baby's birth have dark secrets they'd prefer to keep buried. Kate might get the scoop of her career, but is she willing to destroy people's lives for it?
Kate, who also appears in Fiona Barton's The Widow, is an appealing protagonist. She's tenacious yet compassionate with her interview subjects: "The college lecturers who taught Media Studies... banged on about objectivity and balance, but she'd like them to sit down with a rape victim or the mother of an abused child and remain unaffected. Without empathy, without feeling someone's pain, how could you... capture the truth of the situation?" Barton captures the truth in Emma's and Angela's aching hearts, takes readers down surprising paths, and ties complex stories together in a satisfying way. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd
Discover: Three women search for one dead baby's identity in Fiona Barton's psychological thriller.
hardcover, 384p., 9781101990483
by Adam Hamdy
Adam Hamdy's high-octane novel Pendulum is the very definition of addictive reading. This taut cat-and-mouse thriller throws readers immediately into the action when photojournalist John Wallace awakens in his apartment to discover he's been drugged and bound. His hulking captor is a cunning serial killer in black armor whose face is hidden with a black mask and black goggles. The killer has put a noose around Wallace's neck, tied it to a rafter and is intent on making this murder look like a suicide. Through sheer luck, John is able to escape (albeit with some broken ribs and collarbone), but the murderer is constantly on his heels as he attempts to hide and piece together who is after him and why.
John Wallace is an interesting protagonist, withdrawn and adrift. While shooting photos in Afghanistan, he witnessed the massacre of innocent women and children, but though he testified against the men responsible, the case was lost and the stress from the trial ruined many relationships. Pendulum, the first book in a proposed trilogy, outpaces most psychological thrillers with the richness of its lead character and the abundance of strong, interesting supporting characters.
Some of the action is a bit far-fetched, but the pacing is relentless in a way that allows readers to suspend disbelief easily. Pendulum has so many twists, turns and surprises that the less readers know about the story, the more they'll enjoy the ride. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant
Discover: Adam Hamdy's high-octane cat-and-mouse psychological thriller offers relentless suspense, quicksilver pacing and characters with surprising depth.
hardcover, 496p., 9781681441351
You'll Never Know, Dear
by Hallie Ephron
The cover of Hallie Ephron's You'll Never Know, Dear gives the impression that the sinister reside inside. Indeed, the opening pages include some marvelously unnerving descriptions, with shelf after shelf of bisque heads, glass eyes, stiff wigs and "bald, celluloid baby dolls, placid and patient, their painted eyes forever open." Fear not: in the first-rate hands of Ephron, four-time Mary Higgins Clark Award finalist, working through the creepy is worth the reward.
When Lis Strenger was 7, her sister Janey disappeared from the family yard under her watch. Also missing was Janey's doll, a special owner-replica doll made by the girls' mother, Sorrel Woodham. Unbeknownst to Lis, now a mother herself, for almost 40 years Miss Sorrel has purchased a classified ad on the anniversary of Janey's disappearance. Along with a photograph of the doll made in her daughter's image is a $5,000 reward offered for its return.
In the 39th year, Janey's doll may have finally come home. A mysterious young woman shows up with a very old, worn and dirty doll that bears Miss Sorrel's stamp. She runs off before Sorrel can question her, but three decades of Woodham women are determined to identify the doll, find the mystery owner and perhaps discover what happened to Janey.
You'll Never Know, Dear is a grabber, a mystery ballasted by women on a mission and the ties that bind them. Ephron is sharp; she swerves around potential plot snags and tosses red herrings like a master. Power past the menacing doll-head cover and reap the benefits of great writing. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: A mysterious woman shows up with a doll that might have belonged to Sorrel Woodham's missing daughter Janey, reigniting the investigation into her disappearance 40 years earlier.
hardcover, 304p., 9780062473615
Cast the First Stone
by James W. Ziskin
James W. Ziskin (Heart of Stone) produces a memorable romp through 1960s Hollywood in his smart and fun thriller Cast the First Stone.
The Ellie Stone Mystery series follows a young, clever--if somewhat naive--reporter for an upstate New York newspaper. In this installment, Ellie is whisked off to Los Angeles to track down and profile Toby Eberle, a local boy on the brink of stardom. But when Eberle goes missing, and the producer of the film he was starring in is found murdered, Stone must piece together the truth or lose her big story.
Cast the First Stone starts off a little slowly, bogged down by Stone's excessive internal monologue--usually in the form of rhetorical questions used to frame the plot--but soon finds its stride. Ziskin crafts a female lead who is intelligent, resourceful and energetic, and genuinely funny. Her reaction to Hollywood superficiality is both wry and self-deprecatory, especially when people keep telling her, unprompted, that she's pretty but not "Hollywood pretty." Ziskin succeeds at sustaining the historical reality of the early 1960s, not only in the material fashions of the times, but in disturbing reminders of the era's backward mores. For example, as Stone investigates the murder, she discovers a coordinated attempt on behalf of the studios to cover up the homosexual activities of big-name macho actors. Society's intolerance of gays becomes a major theme in the narrative as Stone questions her own attitudes and biases. This adds a serious aspect of social justice to the more standard plot twists and mystery tropes. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author
Discover: A spunky reporter discovers the dark side of Hollywood in this mystery thriller set in the 1960s.
Seventh Street Books,
paperback, 303p., 9781633882812
by William Shaw
William South is an ordinary copper. A birdwatcher in his free time, he's patient and meticulous, keen to police everyday troubles folks find themselves in. With death in his past, what South wants most is to avoid the murder squad at all costs. When former London Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi joins the Kent Police and draws a bludgeoning for her first case, South's boss puts him on her team to help with the "local impact" of the crime. The victim is South's neighbor and fellow birdwatcher Bob Raynor.
South initially fights the assignment, but can't help but be intrigued by both Cupidi and revelations about his dead friend. How much didn't he know about seemingly harmless Bob? Did Cupidi really leave London because of her troubled teen daughter? When more bodies start turning up, South is blindsided by a connection between the case and his childhood. And as he's preparing to go all-in, Cupidi mysteriously starts shutting him out.
William Shaw's The Birdwatcher is a gem of an addition to the stellar Mulholland line of crime fiction. Shaw's writing is true British procedural; lean and spectacle-free, it nevertheless grabs and doesn't let go. With minimal telling, Shaw paints full characters and relationships with seemingly preternatural ease. Particularly satisfying are South's relationship with Cupidi's daughter Zoe and emotional flashbacks to his childhood in Ireland during the Troubles. A well-plotted mystery with love and loyalty at its core, The Birdwatcher is a gratifying standalone that both satisfies and cries for more. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: A policeman forced to assist a new co-worker with the investigation of a brutal murder discovers personal connections to his own violent past.
hardcover, 336p., 9780316316248
by Riley Sager
Riley Sager uses the slasher movie trope of the "final girl" (the lone female who manages to survive and escape the killer) as the foundation for a nail-biting thriller.
Quincy Carpenter. Samantha Boyd. Lisa Milner. Even though the three women have never met in person, their names are inextricably linked as the Final Girls, lone female survivors of mass murders so gruesome they rival big-screen slasher flicks. Years after surviving a bloody massacre, Quincy runs a successful baking blog and enjoys a stable relationship with her compassionate boyfriend, Jeff. But when Lisa Milner dies under suspicious circumstances and Sam Boyd turns up on her doorstep, Quincy can no longer hide from her past.
Part thriller, part horror story, Final Girls borrows riffs from Friday the 13th, Halloween and Single White Female, but remains its own sophisticated creature. Although the story's inspiration is pure camp, Sager takes on the heavy theme of trauma survival thoroughly and with due seriousness. While a final girl's tale in a movie usually ends with survival as success, Quincy, Lisa and Sam have to live with and fight their demons. Quincy's coping mechanisms include pill popping and shoplifting; her veneer of normalcy hides darker currents of anger and guilt, which Sager uses to propel the plot and wind tension to the breaking point. Taut and bloody, this chilling mystery invites Gillian Flynn comparisons. Readers should prepare to sleep with the lights on. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: When horror movie-style slasher sprees really happen, a survivor must face her past when other "final girls" are in danger.
hardcover, 352p., 9781101985366
She Rides Shotgun
by Jordan Harper
Jordan Harper's first novel, She Rides Shotgun, is a sanguinary crime novel with heart. Nate McClusky is an ex-con ("all muscles and dragons and gunfighter eyes") who gets crosswise with the Aryan Steel gang ("all the dirty whiteboys in California"). He shanked the brother of its leader Crazy Craig Hollington in his last days at Pelican Bay State Prison. Crazy Craig puts out a warrant to the Steel's gang network on the outside to execute Nate, his ex-wife and his 11-year-old daughter, Polly--a precocious kid with few friends and an odd attachment to a beat-up teddy bear. When Nate is released early, he picks up Polly at her Fontana middle school and scares her into taking off with him in his stolen car with a command: "You're coming with me. Right now, no time for fuss." And then they're off on a wild odyssey of violence, righteous retribution and father-daughter bonding.
A screenwriter for TV shows like Gotham and The Mentalist, Jordan first tapped into crime fiction with the story collection Love and Other Wounds. He knows how this game is played. Introspective, shy Polly grows up fast in the company of her crime-hardened father. In fits and starts, Nate cultivates the family connection he needs and wants. She Rides Shotgun is a True Grit sort of saga, but on hot-wired horsepower instead of horseback. With Harper's storytelling chops, it's a rolling hell-bent adventure with all the snappy dialogue and action of the best noir fiction. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Harper's irresistible first novel tempers the brutality of crime with an empathetic story of an unlikely father-daughter alliance.
hardcover, 272p., 9780062394408
by Don Winslow
At the start of Don Winslow's The Force, New York Police Department "hero cop" Denny Malone is behind bars. How did he get there? Winslow takes readers through his descent step by step.
Detective Malone thinks of himself as king of Manhattan North. He heads up a special team called Da Force that can tackle cases without having to worry about departmental jurisdictional lines, because often crimes involve narcotics and guns and homicide. Over their 18 years on the job, Malone and his brothers in blue have slowly crossed their own lines--the ones between right and wrong. They rip off drug dealers, beat down child abusers, accept bribes--justifying it as street justice, doing wrong in order to do right. Until all they can do is wrong, and the only way Malone can make his way back is to do the unthinkable.
Like Da Force, Winslow is in command of his turf. He provides details that will make readers feel as though they're doing ride-alongs with these cops and being plunged into Manhattan's mean streets. He shows what it's like to be on the front lines and feel as if every day could be the last, to experience the high that comes with cheating death, to believe one might be invincible. What these cops go through--and become--isn't pretty, and readers may not like or forgive their actions. Winslow, however, reveals the abyss the members of Da Force have to gaze into in order to do their job, and how it's understandable that the abyss eventually gazes back. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, editor at The Edit Ninja
Discover: An elite NYPD task force slides into corruption in Don Winslow's immersive thriller.
hardcover, 496p., 9780062664419
Science Fiction & Fantasy
The Punch Escrow
by Tal M. Klein
The Punch Escrow is a tremendously fun and accessible work of hard science fiction. Tal M. Klein's debut novel takes place in the year 2147, when technological advancements have solved--or at least ameliorated--some of humanity's most pressing challenges. Illnesses and even aging can be reversed by advanced nanotechnology. Clouds of genetically engineered mosquitoes transform pollution into water vapor. Printers can replicate handmade Turkish coffee on a molecular level. Klein's future is thoroughly imagined, and further supported by lengthy footnotes on subjects from quantum foam to steam reforming.
Most importantly, though, Klein's future has adapted to commercialized teleportation, allowing protagonist Joel Byram to take a pricy shortcut to meet his wife early on in the novel. Joel is a "salter"--he interfaces with artificial intelligences, tricking them and telling them jokes in order to make them more intelligent. His wife, Sylvia, works for International Transport (IT), the organization that controls teleportation technology.
Joel's world falls apart when a terrorist incident during teleportation results in his accidental duplication. The two Joels must think on their feet in order to dodge IT and the religious extremists out to end teleportation. The pair must also navigate the difficult ethical and philosophical questions that emerge from their simultaneous existence, much of it swirling around which one of them is the "real" Joel. The Punch Escrow is first and foremost an entertaining thriller, but its head-tripping brainteasers might stick with the reader well after the novel ends. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Discover: The Punch Escrow is a brainy hard science fiction thriller about a teleportation accident that duplicates Joel Byram.
paperback, 300p., 9781942645580
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
by Nicole Galland, Neal Stephenson
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a collaboration by novelists Neal Stephenson (Seveneves) and Nicole Galland (Stepdog), combines witches, time travel, particle physics and espionage. It's a dizzying range of subjects, but the two authors rope their sprawling novel together with a compelling and propulsive central conceit. At the outset, the modern-day protagonist (and major narrator throughout) is trapped in Victorian England and may not be able to get home.
Mel Stokes, a professor of ancient languages, is hired by a shadowy government agency to translate writings from across geographies and times that discuss magic. Digging further with her handler, Tristan, she finds that magic disappeared from the earth around the time of photography's rise. This leads them to an exiled physicist and his put-upon wife, and the discovery that time travel is possible, given the right conditions. From there, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. delves into a battle for the future of magic and technology. To its credit, the novel is never portentous regarding its subject matter. Instead, it zips along with a light touch, keeping the reader on her toes as it bounces among eras.
If anything, the book can be too quick (especially regarding how Mel comes to be trapped in the Victorian Era), but given its 400-plus page length, Stephenson and Galland can't be faulted for trying to trim the fat. Fans of both authors, and of swashbuckling fantasy, will certainly enjoy the ride. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a collaboration by writers Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, is a rollicking adventure through time and space.
hardcover, 768p., 9780062409164
by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Javier Pina
Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray collaborated eight times previously to publish comics like Power Girl. While Hype involves the common story of a physically gifted superhero combatting evil forces in the world, the concept borders on pure genius.
Amanda Marr is a behavioral psychologist focused on preserving human compassion with emergent technologies. She has been coerced by the Department of Defense into socializing and teaching empathy to a super soldier named Noah Haller (called "Hype," for his hyperawareness of situations and conditions around him), but he can maintain consciousness for only 45 minutes before his body completely breaks down. Hype's first mission was a public relations disaster; his inability to decipher a cult member's reaction resulted in the fiery death of children. Amanda has just six weeks to prepare Hype for his next mission, preventing biological warfare, but she must first quell her own developing feelings for him.
Palmiotti and Gray's script is fast-paced and intelligent, rooted in believable scientific, philosophical and psychological reality despite its superhero setting. The art by Javier Pina and Alessia Nocera, while advancing the action, has a frozen quality that does not give quite the impact one would expect with such clever writing. However, this is the team's first installment, and the combined star power of Palmiotti and Gray is enough to merit a continued run. Hype has the right mix of mojo and fun to become the next big hit. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: An emerging superhero must learn empathy from a behavioral psychologist in order to battle the terrorists threatening the world with biological war.
paperback, 64p., 9781945293177
Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home
by Nicole J. Georges
Lambda Award-winning artist Nicole Georges (Calling Dr. Laura) adopted a scrappy Shar-Pei mixed-breed when she was 16 years old. Her boyfriend named the dog Beija because, he said, "It means 'stranger' in Polish." It doesn't, but the name stuck, and so did the pup.
In Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home, Georges details her 15-year friendship with Beija, through relocating from Missouri to Oregon, unstable housing, shattered dreams and finding a place to call home. Rescued from the pound, Beija is temperamental, protective and loud, but over time Georges figures out how to care for her. The rules are eventually distilled to these: don't bend at the waist, don't touch her sides, don't pick her up, don't sit near her bed and don't be a man, a child or another dog.
Eventually, in Portland, Ore., Georges cultivates a reputation as a zinester and artist in the punk scene, with Beija always nearby as her erratic sidekick wearing a warning scarf: Don't pet me. Together they weather breakups, coming out of the closet, a stint at an animal sanctuary and the overzealous attention of a pet psychic. In the process, Georges begins to recognize the needs and neuroses she shares with her dog, and how they can better care for one another.
Fetch is beautiful. Georges's artwork is inviting and frank as she tells a touching story of companionship and personal growth. A dog pack of two, she and Beija form a special bond, a friendship that hits home. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Portland artist Nicole Georges didn't know what she was getting into when she adopted Beija the dog at 16, but their friendship changed everything.
paperback, 328p., 9780544577831
Food & Wine
Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being
by Brittany Wood Nickerson
Basil rules pesto, cilantro sparks salsas and mint muddles into a soothing tea, food aficionados know. But Massachusetts herbalist and health educator Brittany Wood Nickerson guides us beyond the everyday uses of common herbs in her lavishly photographed book advocating their medicinal benefits in Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being.
The introduction, "Empower," urges readers to live well through home herbalism, before Nickerson suggests "finding your own deep, meaningful, intimate relationship with herbs, cooking, medicine and health." She shares knowledge from her studies of Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine and Western herbalism, and teaches cooks to listen to their bodies, trust their instincts and taste. Flavor is a powerful indicator of an herb's power, she writes, and "as long as you can taste an herb, it is having a medicinal effect." Use of culinary herbs can "renew our connections with age-old cherished traditions."
The less adventurous home cook may resist the more esoteric of the 110 recipes, like Lavender and Dandelion Flower Muffins, or Lactofermented Dilly Beans. Herb-centric traditional fare, however, calls for easily procured ingredients: Prosciutto-wrapped Dates with Sage; Red Grape Chimichurri with Dill and Oregano; Lemon Roasted Asparagus with Baked Goat Cheese encrusted with chives, oregano, thyme and pecans.
An East Coaster who studied in California, Nickerson delivers a beautiful guide suitable for all seasons and growing climates, and sure to bring healthy dishes to any table. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco
Discover: An herbalist offers 110 recipes and a primer on the health benefits of common culinary herbs.
hardcover, 312p., 9781612126906
Neighborhood: Hearty Salads and Plant-Based Recipes from Home and Abroad
by Hetty McKinnon, photography by Luisa Brimble
Globetrotting epicure Hetty McKinnon (Community) offers recipes inspired by her travels and her Brooklyn, N.Y., delivery service in Neighborhood: Hearty Salads and Plant-Based Recipes from Home and Abroad.
She begins with advice: always keep two types of soft herbs in the fridge. Stock the pantry with canned legumes. Leftover salad? Put an egg on it. Blend it into soup. Jazz up a grilled cheese. Make an Iranian frittata.
McKinnon then groups recipes by the regions that inspired them. In "Dear America," she honors the American South with a salad of shredded collard greens, baked sweet potato, pinto beans and paprika buttermilk dressing. In "So Frenchie," a highlight is cumin-spiced cauliflower with fried lentils and spinach yogurt. "This Is Australia" includes a green and gold medley of asparagus and golden beets with faro, crispy sage and lemony brown butter. "To Asia, with Love" provides show-stopping brussels sprouts with stir-fried lotus root, black fungus, five-spice tofu and hoisin-sesame sauce.
Each dish is vegetarian, many also gluten-free and vegan, and McKinnon offers substitution suggestions for hard-to-find produce--e.g., black fungus can be replaced with shitake mushrooms. And in the spirit of community, McKinnon calls on chefs from three continents to contribute desserts based on fresh fruits.
Neighborhood is one of those rare cookbooks with even more photos than recipes. The lush colors and textures shine while McKinnon spotlights flavors of neighborhoods the world over, with simple instructions and dishes bound to please. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer
Discover: Globetrotter Hetty McKinnon creates delectable and vibrant salads with fresh, international flavors.
paperback, 240p., 9781611804553
Biography & Memoir
A Stone of Hope
by Jim St. Germain, Jon Sternfeld
"As a member of an underprivileged group I had built a path forward, largely through the efforts of others. I felt like I had no choice but to pay it all back, become a voice for the downtrodden, a vessel for others as so many had been for me." Jim St. Germain's humble words succinctly capture the essence of his inspiring, powerful memoir, A Stone of Hope.
St. Germain, a Haitian immigrant, grew up on the streets of Brooklyn's Crown Heights, living in an overcrowded apartment. When at the age of 15 he was convicted for selling drugs, he encountered one of the people who would advocate for him instead of writing him off. His lawyer negotiated St. Germain a placement in Boys Town, an unsecure detention facility designed to rehabilitate young offenders. The adults who worked with him there, his lawyers, even a dean from his middle school all had faith in the young man who would go on to graduate college and law school, have a son, co-found a nonprofit mentoring organization and contribute to numerous movements for justice system reform.
Through the love entrusted to him, St. Germain learned that being a man doesn't mean being tough and denying pain. That knowledge is reflected in his passionate words and heartfelt admissions. His exceptional experiences facilitate his ability to break open stereotypes and expose the realities hiding beneath. Achingly candid, authentically insightful and compellingly optimistic, A Stone of Hope is destined to help move mountains. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: A young Haitian immigrant who rose out of poverty embodies the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."
hardcover, 304p., 9780062458797
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist) has tackled issues of race, gender and class head-on with intelligence and unabashed insight. In Hunger, Gay turns the lens inward on her lengthy battle with body image and weight loss, reflecting on the hypocrisies underlying modern notions of beauty and femininity.
A violent rape at the age of 12 propels Gay into a 30-year psychological battle in which she turns to her appetite to stop the hurt and "fill the gaping wound of me, or to try to fill the gaping wound of me." Food became a source of safety for her. In this memoir, Gay uses her experiences to draw out the fallacies of unrealistic demands society places upon women to occupy a smaller space. Behind the deceptively simple passages lies a minefield of emotional pain and longing, whose revelation exposes uncomfortable truths about the destructive patterns that push women to embrace unhealthy behaviors.
"Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes," she writes. "And then I think about how f***ed up it is to promote this idea that our truest selves are thin women hiding in our fat bodies like imposters, usurpers, illegitimates."
At its rawest, Hunger addresses the dreams and desires, the hopes and fears, and the actualities of living in an overweight body, "hungering for what I cannot have, or perhaps wanting what I dare not allow myself to have."
Gay's journey ends not with the silver linings promised by reality television, but with uncertainty, the unknown and a quiet confidence despite the brutality of her past. Hunger is a work of exceptional courage by a writer of exceptional talent. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: A voice of feminist literature ruminates on her internal struggles with body size and body image in a brutally honest, no-holds barred memoir.
hardcover, 320p., 9780062362599
Chester B. Himes
by Lawrence P. Jackson
Lawrence P. Jackson's absorbing and definitive biography of Chester Himes is essential reading for fans of the prolific African American novelist. Though Himes wrote two outstanding memoirs, Jackson--professor of English and history at Johns Hopkins University--shines as an astute literary critic and compelling biographer.
At age 19, Himes was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 20 to 25 years in prison. He started writing short prison stories. When he was paroled early at age 26 in 1936, he had already published stories in Esquire. He spent 16 years trying to get his first novel published. A hard-hitting look at prison life and homosexuality, it was rejected and rewritten numerous times. By the time a toned-down version was finally published as Cast the First Stone in 1952, Himes had already published two other novels.
His contentious relationships with publishers, editors and peers marginalized his career as much as the racial and political content of his novels. In the late 1950s, he moved to France and began writing noir mysteries featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. "The two Harlem detectives solving crimes enabled him to depict black urban life, with its rural slave and blues roots, with a kind of opulence and intrigue that was difficult in books with more obvious political meaning," writes Jackson. These mysteries (including Cotton Comes to Harlem) brought Himes international fame, financial security and stability.
Jackson's outstanding biography is a massive (580 pages) and intimate look at the volatile life and layered fiction of noir expatriate Chester Himes. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant
Discover: Jackson's outstanding and intimate biography of Chester Himes is essential reading for fans of noir fiction, and those interested in race relations in history and lives of adversity.
hardcover, 624p., 9780393063899
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India
by Sujatha Gidla
Sujatha Gidla was born into the lowest level of India's caste system, the untouchables. She compares it to anti-black racism in the United States, and then goes on to explain, "Each caste has its own special role and its own place to live.... The untouchables, whose special role--whose hereditary duty--is to labor in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all." She goes on to list some of the thousands of restrictions placed upon this unit of society that, if violated, are often dealt with by violence or death.
In Ants Among Elephants, Gidla tells her family's history, of her great-grandparents, grandparents and parents who came of age when the caste system was still in full force, when India was becoming an independent nation, shaking off the mantle of British rule. Most of the story is dominated by Gidla's uncle Satyamurthy, who became a famous poet and leader of a Maoist guerilla group in the early 1970s, a position that forced him to go into hiding for most of his life.
Throughout, Gidla does not hide the atrocities of the caste system. She discusses how untouchable women are forced to clean public toilets using their hands, a broom and a tin plate to fill baskets to carry away the waste on their heads; how they are forced to become mistresses to those higher on the social ladder. Gidla's family history is intertwined with the evolution of Indian society, yielding a moving portrayal of one family's struggle to live. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: A woman from the untouchable level of India's caste system tells her family's history as it relates to the country's gaining independence from Britain.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
hardcover, 320p., 9780865478114
The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness
by Jennifer Latson
To Eli D'Angelo, everyone is a friend. With his exuberant and highly sociable personality, the teenager greets strangers with affectionate hugs and rapid-fire chatter. While these qualities may seem positive and endearing, Eli's trusting nature makes him particularly vulnerable for potential harm from others.
Eli is among an estimated 30,000 people in the United States who have Williams Syndrome, a genetic neurological condition characterized by developmental delays, cardiovascular issues, visual-spatial challenges and distinct, elfin-like facial features. People with Williams often have above average musical and language abilities with certain fixations. Eli, for example, is particularly obsessed with twirling objects and floor scrubbers.
For three years, journalist Jennifer Latson followed Eli and his mother, Gayle, to explore the impact of Williams on their family. The Boy Who Loved Too Much offers a scientific overview of the condition and an easy-to-understand explanation of the genetic and hormonal factors involved. It also draws the reader into Eli and Gayle's everyday interactions and gatherings with other families affected by Williams. Latson effectively parallels Eli's emotional growth with Gayle's as she shows how the diagnosis intensifies the typical push-pull parental desire of wanting to protect a child from the world while also encouraging self-sufficiency and learning to let go.
"He'd probably be happier if he stayed a child forever. Then again, she thought, wouldn't everyone? Adolescence might be the most challenging stage of life with Williams, but it's also a challenge for every human being. Growing up is never easy. The reward isn't necessarily happiness; it's independence. But what Gayle wanted for Eli--what parents everywhere want for their children--was both." --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com
Discover: This book shows how parenting a teenager with Williams Syndrome presents challenges and growth for both mother and son.
Simon & Schuster,
hardcover, 304p., 9781476774046
Aphra Behn: A Secret Life
by Janet Todd
Aphra Behn was a 17th-century playwright, poet, translator, propagandist and spy, and one of the first English women to successfully support herself as a professional writer. She was an iconoclast who expressed many radical political, religious and sexual ideas through her work. Aphra Behn: A Secret Life is a revised and updated reissue of the 1996 biography by Janet Todd (A Man of Genius), the British scholar, biographer and novelist.
Behn is a tricky subject for any biographer. Very little was written about her by anyone who knew her. As a professional artist, she intentionally invented and hid behind her public image. Todd calls her "a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess... not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks and intrigue." In addition, despite her many radical convictions, she was a strongly anti-democratic Royalist, and her ideas did not line up neatly with modern definitions of social liberalism or feminism. However, Todd thoroughly understands the particular cultural and political environment of the Restoration. She traces a convincing and entertaining path through the likely events of Behn's life in the vivid context of her times, examining the evidence and alternatives for every possibility and providing close readings of her works. Her approach creates an effective mixture of historical research, literary criticism and fiction that brings us as close as we may ever get to the truth of this enterprising and enigmatic literary figure. --Sara Catterall
Discover: This entertaining and thorough biography of a great 17th-century English playwright mingles scholarly research with novelistic speculation.
paperback, 608p., 9781909572065
Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship
by Michelle Kuo
When Michelle Kuo graduated from Harvard in 2003, she joined Teach for America and went to Helena, Ark., a rural town in the heart of the Delta. She dreamed of galvanizing her students through black literature, believing that books could change lives. "It was unabashedly romantic." She chronicles her aspirations, and the hard reality she encountered, in Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship.
After failing to rouse her students with fiery prose from James Baldwin and Malcolm X, she found a hit with A Raisin in the Sun. She bought YA books for them; they began to guard them "like amulets." Patrick was 15, mild-mannered, and thrived under Kuo's attention. After two years teaching, she went to Harvard Law School; upon graduation, she heard that Patrick had been jailed for murder. Shocked, she turned down a law firm job, and went back to Helena for Patrick and what she considered unfinished business for both of them. They restarted their relationship reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and moved on to haikus, Tennyson, Mary Oliver and Frederick Douglass (for Patrick, "to keep reading was urgent--in fact, not a choice at all.") Every day Patrick wrote, every day they recited poems. He found his métier in writing letters to his young daughter, infused with poetry: "...a silver carp surfaces as if it is jewelry in the water." Both teacher and student evolved.
Tender and gritty, with reflections on race and justice and pedagogy, Reading with Patrick is a paean to literature, to caring and to Forster's maxim, "Only connect." --Marilyn Dahl
Discover: A recent university graduate goes to Arkansas to teach in a rural black school, where she forms an unexpected and life-changing bond with a student.
hardcover, 320p., 9780812997316
Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening
by Manal Al-Sharif
Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif is internationally known for her role in women's driving rights campaigns. Daring to Drive is a memoir of her life and her transformation from a fundamentalist teenager into a central member of the Saudi women's rights movement.
Al-Sharif grew up poor in Mecca. She was beaten regularly by her parents and teachers. Her Libyan mother insisted that she be genitally mutilated, but also that she be educated through college. Like many of her generation, she internalized the fundamentalism taught to her at school and forced it on her family. But she maintained her love of books and art, college broadened her views and September 11, 2001, "was the date of the complete transformation in my beliefs." After graduation, she went to work for the state-owned oil company Aramco, living and learning to drive inside its multinational, mixed-gender compound. She married and divorced, spent six months working in New Hampshire, went skydiving and took a solo vacation to Puerto Rico. When she turned 32, she joined a feminist driving rights group.
Al-Sharif writes gracefully with great openness and perception. She describes how the restrictions on women frustrate many Saudi men as well--with pointless and often cruel personal and monetary costs--and how Saudi Arabia's repressive rules and acceptance of violence poison both public and private life. Nevertheless, Al-Sharif conveys her love of Saudi Arabia despite everything, and her hopes for a more just and equitable nation. "What has happened to the two fundamental principles of being a Muslim--living in peace and showing compassion?" --Sara Catterall
Discover: This intimate memoir by a feminist activist and working single mother describes the best and worst of Saudi Arabia, and her hopes for a better future.
Simon & Schuster,
hardcover, 304p., 9781476793023
by Janet Capron
New York City writer Janet Capron offers a wild, bristling account of city life in the 1970s in her provocative semi-fictional memoir Blue Money.
According to her author's note, names from real life have been changed--except for Capron's--and some characters are fictionalized composites of real people. But the environment, the situations and the emotional turmoil are grittily true. Capron reconstructs an episodic narrative in which, as a young woman, she leaves a sheltered, privileged life to become a prostitute in a city seething with drugs and crime. Blue Money follows Capron through a jungle of johns, drug addiction and hallucinations, and the more tender thicket of young love, and the treachery of reckless men and the pain they bring. Many chapters contain explicit content, including a graphic scene of sexual violence that's not for the faint of heart.
Capron writes with the fearless, experiential drive of a Beat poet, though her images are more controlled and precise than the subject matter would suggest. There's an enormous amount of clarity here. For example, the author's self-described stint as a radical feminist produces sharp insights into the way patriarchy divides "good" women from "bad" women. "I would build an arch across this ancient fissure. I would free myself from all the hobbling generalizations," she writes. Capron skillfully digs into social hierarchies to find the city's hidden pulse. She finds plenty of seediness and self-destruction, but also, in the book's best moments, "the unexpected, electric weight of intimacy." --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author
Discover: This intense, electrifying memoir explores a life of prostitution in 1970s New York City.
paperback, 212p., 9781944700263
Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals
by Jeremy McCarter
Jeremy McCarter's Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals offers a rousing history of a pivotal era in American history as lived and seen through the struggles of five prominent activists.
McCarter, a former culture critic for New York magazine and Newsweek, co-authored Hamilton: The Revolution with Lin-Manuel Miranda. He knows how to bring history to life, and he does it here splendidly with the lives of Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Walter Lippmann and John Reed--pioneers of socialist thought--as well as crusading suffragist Alice Paul. McCarter frames their respective struggles and evolving ideologies through lively narration, vividly capturing social and political realities of the U.S. in the early 20th-century. He reveals a formative time in both American and world history when society, coming out of the Industrial Revolution, was fraught with inequality and class warfare.
McCarter is almost elegiac in the way he writes of naive idealism. Young Radicals charts the rocky course of utopian idealism to the catastrophes of World War I, the atrocities of the Russian Revolution, and the mass disillusionment that would characterize the "Lost Generation." Yet all is not hopeless. That idealism melded with what became the progressive movement and produced tangible improvements in the human condition, including Paul's eventual victory in securing women's suffrage. Many of the political battles McCarter evaluates are shockingly relevant to modern-day politics. For instance, opining against the nativism and ethnic violence of his day, Bourne writes of "that miracle of hope, the peaceful living side by side, with character substantially preserved, of the most heterogeneous peoples under the sun." --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author
Discover: Jeremy McCarter illuminates American ideals of equality in this multifaceted biographical history.
hardcover, 400p., 9780812993059
The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II
by Svetlana Aleksievich, trans. by Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear
Since Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, a number of publishers have rereleased her decades-old classics in English translation, including Voices from Chernobyl and Zinky Boys. Originally published in 1985, The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II is a brilliant work of history and reporting that showcases Alexievich's boundless empathy and inimitable style.
Instead of a chronological history focused on military affairs, The Unwomanly Face of War patches together dozens of voices under themes that include love during wartime and the backbreaking, thankless tasks many women performed behind the front lines, such as laundry and baking. "Women's stories are different and about different things. 'Women's' war has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings."
Almost all her interviewees are women, some of the approximately one million who served in the Red Army during World War II. Some of them tell lengthy, gutting stories; others can hardly speak about the war. Alexievich has an eye for odd details that border on the absurd, such as the woman who recalls bringing a suitcase full of candy to war. "Altogether I carried 481 wounded soldiers from under fire," Maria Petrovna Smirnova recalls. The Unwomanly Face of War is a necessary account of almost unbelievable suffering told on a human scale. On the incomprehensibility of war, Alexievich concludes: "There is only one path--to love this human being. To understand through love." --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Discover: The Unwomanly Face of War is Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich's searing oral history of World War II through the eyes of Russian women who fought and served.
hardcover, 384p., 9780399588723
The Chickensh*t Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives
by Jesse Eisinger
In The Chickensh*t Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives, Pulitzer Prize-winning financial journalist and senior reporter at ProPublica Jesse Eisinger delves into the unpunished crimes of big businesses in the United States. The result is an urgent spotlight on a justice system that is anything but just when it comes to dealing with the evolution of what Eisinger deems an "ecosystem of corporate fraud."
The term "Chickensh*t Club" comes from a speech delivered by James Comey, who served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Manhattan before becoming director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The "club" was made up of prosecutors reluctant to see a case to court unless they felt victory was assured. Afraid to have a loss or hung jury on their records, they simply didn't bring risky or complicated cases to trial. Settlements with corporations, rather than prosecution of individuals, became the norm.
What follows is a comprehensive investigation into individuals, companies and systems that allowed this continuance of corruption. Eisinger puts a range of targets in his crosshairs, from big banks to big pharma, shattering the illusion of any company being "too big to fail" and instead characterizing people at the helm of corporations as having become too powerful to be prosecuted--or in Eisinger's words, "too big to jail."
His writing is incisive, adeptly mixing legal jargon and conversational prose for a white-knuckle read that's at once probing and damning. The title may elicit a laugh, but the content is chilling. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer
Discover: A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist compiles a scathing indictment of the United States Justice Department's increasing inability to litigate white-collar crime.
Simon & Schuster,
hardcover, 400p., 9781501121364
If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating
by Alan Alda
Arguably best known for his role as Captain Hawkeye Pierce on the television series M.A.S.H., Alan Alda's first stab at interviewing scientists for PBS's Scientific American Frontiers didn't go so famously. Alda says, "I walked over to the scientist, smiled confidently--and immediately made three huge blunders." Despite the mistakes, that experience sparked his ensuing two decades of work in the realm of communication, as well as contributions to the establishment of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? is the chronicle of his endeavors and the lessons he learned along the way.
Alda makes dogged attempts to teach scientists improvisation exercises. He also shares anecdotes from his acting experiences (and how they translate into universal communication skills), entertaining stories of private experiments he tried on himself, and a plethora of research he gathered through reading and interviewing experts. His findings point to the importance of developing empathy in order to better relate to others and thus to more clearly communicate ideas. "People are dying because we can't communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another," Alda believes. Whether it's doctors to patients, teachers to students, or scientists to laymen, the clear transferance of ideas is vital.
Delivered with a witty, engaging style, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? offers readers a variety of accessible ways to build their own empathy levels. It's a valuable life tool presented in a wonderfully entertaining narrative. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: Comedic actor Alan Alda illustrates a growing need for improved human communication and how improvisation skills can help bridge the gap between speaker and audience.
hardcover, 240p., 9780812989144
Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen
by James Suzman
For more than 25 years, anthropologist James Suzman has lived, worked with and studied the Bushmen of the Kalahari region in southern Africa. In this mix of memoir and scientific analysis, he shares a comprehensive history of one group in particular, the Khoisan, whose ancestors were among the earliest humans on earth. He traces the changes they have endured, particularly those created when Western explorers arrived in the 1600s and commandeered the land, forcing the Khoisan into increasingly smaller areas, a displacement similar to that of Native Americans onto reservations in the U.S.
Using personal stories from his adoptive family, Suzman discusses the Khoisan's methods of hunting with poison-tipped arrows, the importance of meat in their diet and the effects of drought and overhunting by nonnatives, including the widespread slaughter of elephants. He also explores the Khoisans' concepts of time, money, work and personal freedom. Many of this group, however, are turning their backs on the old ways, preferring cell phones and connecting on social media to scratching out a living in the sandy soils of the Kalahari. Ironically, Suzman shares, there are Khoisans of this latter demographic who earn a meager wage by living in mock tribal villages. These facsimiles harken back to the days of their ancestors and give eager tourists the opportunity to see "real" Bushmen. Suzman's thoughtful details preserve an insightful link to a shared human history. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: A rich compendium of historical and scientific facts augmented by personal stories of life among the Khoisan tribe in southern Africa.
hardcover, 320p., 9781632865724
Essays & Criticism
The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing
by Margot Livesey
Literature lovers looking for a better understanding of their favorite works, as well as writers who are struggling to create good literature will find new insights in Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. Margot Livesey (Mercury) is an admired writing teacher and a graceful and perceptive writer, the author of eight novels. This collection offers her experienced opinions and insights on the mechanics of writing fiction, novels in particular. It is also a memoir of her development as a writer in the context of her life and relationships. She describes her early misunderstandings and errors in composing fiction, and how she has moved from unconscious to conscious choices of techniques.
Much of her teaching is by example, using walk-through analysis of classic novels and stories such as Madame Bovary, Persuasion, A Passage to India and The Portrait of a Lady. She distills useful advice from authorities such as Aristotle, Francine Prose, E.M. Forster and offers "sixteen golden sovereigns" of advice that she has extracted from reading Shakespeare. Bad writing can also be educational, in her experience, but the main thing is to read with careful attention to how an author succeeds and fails. "For the practicing artist, influence requires a more active engagement. We must work to be influenced." There are many good books on the art of writing, but even those who have a collection of favorites will appreciate these clear and thoughtful essays on writers and the architecture behind their art. --Sara Catterall
Discover: Admired writer and teacher Margot Livesey combines memoir, analysis of classic works and discussion of techniques in this useful and enjoyable essay collection.
paperback, 224p., 9781941040683
Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us
by Sam Kean
Journalist and frequent NPR guest Sam Kean (The Disappearing Spoon) has made a living out of deciphering science and making clever and entertaining what is often dry drudgery. In Caesar's Last Breath, he takes on the science of gases in his trademark effervescent, loopy style--kicking it off with the emergence of Earth from a fiery, uninhabitable atmosphere, a "dragon's breath of volcanoes."
From the planet's hellish beginnings, Kean works his way through the evolution of the atmospheric building blocks of life: oxygen and nitrogen. Biology, chemistry and geology turn quickly into comedic stories, wordplay and metaphors. The search molecularly to combine nitrogen with hydrogen to make ammonia ("the gateway to fertilizer") leads him to the eccentric 20th-century German scientist Fritz Haber and his engineer countryman Carl Bosch. The two succeeded at producing commercial quantities of ammonia and supplied the world with its agricultural bounty, but they also became the fathers of German chemical warfare in World War I and developed synthetic gasoline to fuel Hitler's war engine.
In a similar vein, Kean highlights the other key elements of Earth's atmosphere and the unusual and downright freaky stories behind their discovery. If he occasionally gets a bit corny in his search for colloquial humor, Kean can also put a metaphor right on the money--such as his description of the birth of the Earth's volatile moon as "glowing like a blackened, bloodshot eye." Irreverent, lightly scientific, Caesar's Last Breath is nonetheless a lively, rewarding journey through the evolution of Earth's gaseous atmosphere. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Sam Kean takes on the science and evolution of Earth's atmosphere and the history of the scientists who unraveled its mysteries.
hardcover, 384p., 9780316381642
Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History's Most Iconic Extinct Creatures
by Ben Mezrich
Any major scientific initiative is driven by two factors: the practical application to everyday human life that success of the endeavor would enable, and the "because we want to see if we can" factor. There's a lot to be said for the energizing effect of any "one giant leap for mankind" that we achieve--innovation powers more inventing, more research, more searching for answers. The stories behind these leaps forward are integral to inspiring more people to become curious about the world around them, and Ben Mezrich's Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History's Most Iconic Extinct Creatures provides both scientific advance and engaging storytelling. As it turns out, there's more at stake with these efforts than simply testing the limits of human ingenuity.
Sergey Zimov is a Russian scientist studying permafrost, which currently--currently being the operative word--covers nearly a quarter of the surface of Earth. It's melting, and if that continues, the amount of methane gas and carbon dioxide released would be devastating to our atmosphere and to life across the globe. When the Woolly Mammoth last walked the Earth, there was significantly less permafrost, and so the thinking goes that if our planet is returning to that environment, we need to restore the other missing pieces of that ecosystem to balance it out. Dr. George Church, considered to be one of the finest minds working in genetics research, is leading a team of scientists in designing, or engineering, a Woolly Mammoth gene sequence to be merged into the genetic code of a type of Asian elephant. Mezrich deftly moves his story back and forth in time, capturing the last days of a majestic animal, the early days of the scientists working to crack the code, and the current efforts safely to increase the pace of progress before the damage to the Earth is irrevocable. --Matthew Tiffany, LCPC, writer for Condalmo and psychotherapist
Discover: The stories of the people and the science behind efforts to bring an extinct species back to life.
hardcover, 304p., 9781501135552
Nature & Environment
Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution
by Marcus Eriksen
On June 1, 2008, environmental activist Marcus Eriksen and his friend Joel set sail from Long Beach, Calif., toward Hawaii. Their vessel was far from ordinary; built from more than 200,000 plastic soda bottles, an old airplane fuselage, pieces of old fishing nets, ropes and cargo straps, and several salvaged masts, the contraption was aptly named Junk Raft. Eriksen wanted to bring badly needed attention to the overwhelming amount of plastic found in the world's oceans. He planned to sail Junk through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, one of many swirling masses around the world, where plastic pollution gathers in the sea. This is not a stable mass of identifiable pieces, but a soup of minute micro and macro particles that creates an underwater fog of plastic residue.
Eriksen's story is an adventure of two men battling the weather, lack of food and entropy to cross a vast ocean; it is also meant to raise awareness of the role plastic plays in our environment. He discusses the effects plastic has on the sea creatures that ingest it and humanity's place in this food chain. He also specifies the responsibility manufacturers and designers need to assume to create truly recyclable plastics, and highlights the efforts of activists to prevent more plastics from finding their way into the oceans. Eriksen's adept ability to combine personal exploration with scientific data makes this an entertaining, highly informative read sure to change the way one interacts with ubiquitous plastics. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: Two men on a raft made of junk bring worldwide attention to the plastic soup that pervades our oceans.
hardcover, 216p., 9780807056400
All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands
by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
"Identity is everything when you live in the periphery," writes memoirist and journalist Stephanie Elizondo Griest in All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands. This poignant and fascinating work of journalism explores two borderland communities, the Tejanos and the Mohawks. Mostly American born, Tejanos live a few miles north of the U.S./Mexico border, largely without heat, clean water or better prospects for the future. Their culture, meanwhile, brims with ancient traditions. In a standout chapter, Griest visits one of many "miracle trees" believed by the Tejanos to predict the future and heal the sick. In another, she speaks with a clutch of nuns trying to convince the Vatican to canonize Mother Julia, a beloved nun who died in the 1970s and whose spirit is believed to be working miracles still in their community.
The book's second half turns north to the Mohawks from the Akwesasne Nation, a sovereign state of indigenous people that overlaps the U.S./Canada border. Like the Tejanos, the Mohawks struggle to maintain their complex belief systems and traditional ways of life. Griest tells the story of Saint Kateri, Native America's first Catholic saint. The Mohawks claim her as one of their own, but her story of canonization highlights how tightly the legacy of colonialism intertwines throughout their history.
Griest also introduces artists and activists in both communities working to bring greater awareness to their suffering. With sensitivity and eye-opening detail, her dispatches reveal both the pain and strength of borderlands people. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A journalist tells the fascinating and heartbreaking real-life stories of two communities from the borderlands.
University of North Carolina Press,
hardcover, 312p., 9781469631592
Children's & Young Adult
Can You Find My Robot's Arm?
by Chihiro Takeuchi
Where, oh where is Robot's arm? His wee robot friend (think squashed R2-D2) is ever so helpful, looking all through the house, up a tree, at an aquarium for the missing limb, but alas, it's "nowhere to be found." He resorts to offering alternatives but "[n]o, a broom won't make a good arm. Neither will a pencil. Neither will scissors. And an umbrella certainly won't do." The diligent bot-pal tries--and discards--every possible option in every locale, including a library, a candy store ("Shall we look in here? Sweet!") and even a robot factory, ultimately deciding that "[m]aybe a fork is not such a bad arm after all."
Young readers accustomed to I Spy and Where's Waldo? will pore over the intricately detailed black-on-cream cut-paper illustrations, searching for the lost arm, but it's not until the final page that they will be rewarded with a sighting--wouldn't you know it, even robo-dogs are rascally when it comes to carrying off appealing looking objects!
Striking geometric silhouetted images invite long, happy perusal (gears and wind-up keys abound) while opposing pages offer pleasing muted blues, greens and peaches, against which the simple, playful text stands out nicely: "It isn't in the amusement park, but will this lollipop do?"
Chihiro Takeuchi is a well-known cut-paper artist in Osaka, Japan. Can You Find My Robot's Arm? is her debut English-language picture book, although she has written and illustrated several books in Japanese. Readers will surely be asking librarians, "Can you find more books by Chihiro Takeuchi?" --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A one-armed robot and his mini-bot friend search high and low for his missing appendage in this charming, funny cut-paper picture book.
Tundra/Penguin Random House,
hardcover, 40p., ages 2-5, 9781101919033
Hello Goodbye Dog
by Maria Gianferrari, illus. by Patrice Barton
"There was nothing Moose loved more than hello," especially greetings from her human, Zara. But dogs aren't allowed at Zara's school and "There was nothing Moose disliked more than goodbye." Smart pup that she is, for every "goodbye," Moose finds a way to say "hello": she zooms out the door to Mrs. Perkins's classroom for story time ("Moose... loves story time"), she chews through the backyard rope to sneak into Mrs. Chen's library hour and she even manages a cafeteria dash for homemade cookies and a Zara-read book. Getting Moose to "goodbye"--and go home for good--becomes an all-school chase. And then Zara has an idea: therapy dog school. Moose gets tested and certified, becoming the "Class Reading Dog." Hello Goodbye Dog Moose is now the school's official Hello Goodbye Dog.
Author Maria Gianferrari and artist Patrice Barton are clearly dog people; both highlight canine family members in their back flap bios. That pooch-love is evident throughout: Gianferrari's clever text perfectly embodies Moose's mournful "AAAA-WOOO"s over "Goodbye was tag without an 'It.'/ Goodbye was tug and no war./ Goodbye was hide without seek," while Barton's whimsically energetic drawings showcase Moose's delighted devotion to Zara, her mischievous plotting toward her next hello and her rapt attention to reading.
As mirthful and charming as the story is, even more notable is the easy diversity playing out on every page. Zara's mobility is enabled by her wheelchair; Mom is African American; and the students and adults-in-charge represent multiple ethnicities. Effortlessly inclusive, Gianferrari and Barton's creative Hello Goodbye Dog becomes an inviting mirror or window for any child, welcoming every reader in. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: Hello Goodbye Dog Moose loses the "goodbye" when her human Zara takes her to therapy dog school, making Moose the official "Class Reading Dog."
Roaring Brook Press,
hardcover, 40p., ages 3-7, 9781626721777
What Goes Up
by Katie Kennedy
Rosa Hayashi is a "science princess" from New Mexico whose parents expect great things of her. Eddie Toivonen is from Oolitic, Indiana, and doesn't have the luxury of living with parents; the only one he has is a jailbird. Eddie and Rosa are among 200 brainiac high schoolers who have traveled to Iowa to compete for two trainee spots at a NASA space agency. Both want to succeed, but Eddie must do so: "It was either exploring the cosmos for the Interworlds Agency or handing people fries back in Oolitic."
The competition is a mind-and-body workout that requires defusing a live (well, sort of) bomb and free-associating about the physical laws of the universe while in a plummeting elevator. Then comes an unplanned challenge: the Interworlds Agency's scientists perceive a gravitational anomaly, and Rosa and Eddie must travel to a parallel Earth in order to save the real one.
Katie Kennedy (Learning to Swear in America) has invented a young cast so sympathetic and disarmingly funny that even science-indifferent readers will resolve to understand the laws of physics and other geeky topics of conversation that come up alongside more typical teen concerns. What Goes Up isn't so much about what's out there as about what's down here: the miracle of unlikely friendships, the mixed blessing of privilege and the stigma of social class. As Rosa says to Eddie, "How do we know who we are under the weight of all the expectations?" --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author
Discover: No science knowledge--or even interest--is necessary to appreciate this cheeky YA novel about whiz kid teens competing for trainee spots at a NASA space agency.
hardcover, 336p., ages 13-up, 9781619639126
Waste of Space
by Gina Damico
Chazz Young, CEO of DV8, a cable television network dedicated to trashy reality shows like So You Think You Can Pole Dance, has a vision. As he tells the astrophysicists he's hired from NASAW (National Association for the Study of Astronomy and Weightlessness), "[w]e want to take a bunch of teenagers and shoot them into space." Of course, "we'll be faking it," he reassures them: "[T]he mission commences. Lifelong friendships are formed. Bitter fights erupt. Maybe a slap or two. A slap in zero gravity--that's never been done before!... Every eye in America will tune in to check on their new cosmic sweethearts."
But--surprise! Things don't go quite as planned, as the 10 unwitting teens, carefully selected to fit Chazz's hilariously offensive stereotypes--the Party Girl, Rich Kid, Black Gay Astronaut--proceed to do... nothing much. Desperate to hold his viewers' attention, Chazz stirs things up with a manufactured asteroid attack and other space crises. But it's when the 24/7 live streaming contact is unexpectedly cut off--and not by DV8--that the strain of the adventure begins to show in each of the space travelers. Are they the victims of Chazz's heartless manipulations for TV ratings, or some other nefarious force performing psycho-social experiments?
Gina Damico's (Wax; Hellhole; Croak trilogy) biting satire is a fun and funny read that turns darker as it goes along. Watching the typecast caricatures become more human as they begin to crack, readers will experience the disintegration of the wall that usually separates viewers from the more absurd reality programming. Told in a series of transcripts, e-mails and personal accounts and "edited" by an unnamed whistle-blowing intern, Waste of Space is, decidedly, not a waste of time. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A reality TV show fake-launches 10 teenagers into fake space with disastrous effects when the astrophysicists hired for an authentic touch go rogue.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
hardcover, 400p., ages 12-up, 9780544633162
Magellan: Over the Edge of the World: The True Story of the Terrifying First Circumnavigation of the Globe
by Laurence Bergreen
Although the Strait of Magellan is marked on modern maps, many readers may not be familiar with the Portuguese explorer for whom the Strait is named. Setting out in 1519 with five ships and more than 200 sailors, Fernão de Magalhães (known in English as Ferdinand Magellan) sailed for Spain in an attempt to find the Spice Islands (an archipelago in present-day Indonesia). Magellan was an ambitious man who bristled at sharing power with his fellow captains, ruthlessly drove his sailors (sometimes unnecessarily cutting their rations) and mistreated the indigenous communities along his route, often trying to convert people to Christianity. He survived vicious mutinies only to find death in the Philippines--before his mission was accomplished--by needlessly interfering in a local conflict.
Laurence Bergreen, a prolific biographer (Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504; Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu), has ably adapted Magellan: Over the Edge of the World from his adult book, Over the Edge of the World. Bergreen tells the story of the Armada de Molucca, at first focusing on Magellan--his good decisions and his bad--but then describing the fates of the other boats, captains and men, revealing that only one boat and 18 men returned to Seville after the full circumnavigation. He details shocking shipboard conditions, such as food contaminated by weevils and rat urine and the prevalence of scurvy caused by the lack of vitamin C and medical knowledge. Excerpts from the journal kept by Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar who survived the expedition, appear throughout the book and some of the archival illustrations are also from Pigafetta's work. Excellent chapter notes, an extensive bibliography and maps are included. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer
Discover: This absorbing biography of one of the great explorers from the Age of Discovery allows young readers to make their own assessment of Magellan's accomplishments.
hardcover, 224p., ages 12-up, 9781626721203
by Alan Gratz
Conversations about refugees are often heated, focused on hypotheticals and unknowns. By making visible three young emigrants--rather than those who fear them--Refugee aims to provide a corrective to this American myopia. Josef, 12, is escaping Germany in the late 1930s; after his father is released from Dachau, his Jewish family scrambles aboard the ill-fated German liner St. Louis. Isabel, 11, is escaping Cuba in 1994, leaving in a handmade boat for a better life, one that includes more opportunities for her future as well as keeping her activist father out of Castro's prisons. And Mahmoud, 12, leaves Aleppo, Syria, in 2015 with his family in a panic after their apartment building is bombed. Moving briskly among Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud, each short chapter brings new tragedy, occasional hope and continued instability to all three children.
Alan Gratz (Code of Honor; Projekt 1065; The League of Seven; Prisoner B-3087) uses his trademark straightforward prose to illuminate the danger facing refugee families. Insightful details help contemporary readers to connect with the story, especially in Mahmoud's chapters, in which smartphones play an important role ("Google Maps told them it would be an eight-hour walk, and they split the journey up by sleeping in a field"). Gratz focuses on individual villains and heroes, rather than structural causes of refugee crises, but nevertheless young readers will finish this book and ask: What should we do? Adults will be similarly struck by the words of Isabel's grandfather: "[A] funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabela: It didn't. Because I didn't change it." --Stephanie Anderson, assistant director for public services, Darien Library (Conn.)
Discover: Action-filled short chapters provide painstaking portraits of three young refugees from Nazi Germany, Castro's Cuba and contemporary Syria in Alan Gratz's middle-grade novel.
hardcover, 352p., ages 9-12, 9780545880831
The Scariest Book Ever
by Bob Shea
"BOO!" A spooky ghost tells the reader it "sure can't wait to find out" what monsters are hiding in those "dark woods" a few pages back. "Hope I don't spill this orange juice on my nice white-- Whoops!" it exclaims as the orange juice mysteriously upends itself directly onto its sheet. "Well, would you look at that. I'm so clumsy.... I guess you'll have to go into the scary dark woods without me." With the page turn, the reader is shown the "scary dark" woods: yellow, orange and blue pointed trees with long, black shadows, a bright yellow flower and a blue hole, all on a pink background.
The now-naked ghost peeks out from behind a chair: "Well? What did you see? A dark hole? Nothing good ever comes out of a dark hole! It's okay, you don't have to go back." The next page turn reveals a tiny white bunny in a hooded sweatshirt leaping from the hole. The bunny hops along, delivering party invitations to all the happy woodland creatures. In the house, the ghost hides, trying to use housecleaning and doughnuts to convince the reader to stay inside. "Can't you just stay here on this page?"
Young readers will see right through the fraidy-cat ghost's bravado as the cutesy animals of the "dark woods" (all depicted in bold yellows, oranges and pinks) get together to pick pumpkins and make costumes for their Halloween party. With accessible second person text and a creeped-out, naked ghost, Bob Shea's The Scariest Book Ever is a super fun, super funny read for the brave and the fearful alike. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A very spooky ghost is (definitely not!) afraid of the dark woods in Bob Shea's amusing The Scariest Book Ever.
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-7, 9781484730461
by Antoinette Portis
In the world of young children, what is right in front of them most often dictates their preferences: "This is my favorite cloud/ because it's the one I am watching." Throughout a day, a child's favorite friends, colors, foods and books may change based simply on what they can see or hear or touch at that exact moment. Author and illustrator Antoinette Portis (Wait; The Red Hat; Not a Box, winner of a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award) uses this adorable tendency as the basis for her picture book Now.
The book's narrator, a lively little girl, shares her favorite things with readers: a breeze, a hole, a tooth, a hug. Her delightful bouquet of cherished choices blooms into rich sensations through the child's wonder and awe, as well as Portis's vibrant illustrations (using sumi ink, brush and bamboo stick). She basks in it all: "This is my favorite smell. This is my favorite bird. And this is my favorite song/ because it is the one I am singing." Portis's strong, solid brush strokes elicit the simplicity of childhood--everything stable and certain with little room for shades in any ideas or colors.
Now is a story that invites discussion between an adult reader and a child audience. It's a conversation that ignites analytical readers: identifying shapes and colors; sharing thoughts on sights, sounds and smells; and, of course, selecting one's own favorites, which are likely to change with each subsequent read. Sweet, charming and destined to be a favorite. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: Kindling a host of sensations through words and images, a child takes readers on a bold and brilliantly colorful grand tour of some of her favorite things.
Roaring Brook Press,
hardcover, 32p., ages 3-6, 9781626721371
Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World's Largest Rainforest
by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Keith Ellenbogen
As part of the Scientists in the Field series, author Sy Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus) and photographer Keith Ellenbogen trek up the Río Negro, one of the main arteries of the Amazon River, to study piaba: shy, "pip-squeak" fish that may be the answer to saving the region and improving global climate.
Traveling by riverboat, Montgomery and Ellenbogen bring the South American rain forest to life, sharing vivid sights and sounds through engaging storytelling and captivating photographs. Their examination of the many types of fish all called piaba by locals explains, in accessible language, how fishing and exporting the hundreds of species treasured for personal aquariums can provide jobs, reduce the practice of other destructive trades in the rain forest and increase the production of oxygen, thereby slowing climate change. Interspersed throughout the chapters are pages of fun facts (for example, "Meeting the Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon--in the Dark") that add to the plethora of fascinating information about the region.
The underwater photos of piaba, with additional images of piranhas, stingrays and pink river dolphins, emphasize these distinctive waters, darkened by natural chemicals found in the plant life. Meanwhile, surface images of Brazil's plants, animals and people burst with vibrant colors and textures. Anyone flipping through these pages will be drawn in by the stunning world displayed in the photographs.
While Amazon Adventure is geared toward readers aged 10-12, this extraordinary look at "the lungs of the world" is sure to intrigue fish enthusiasts, eco-conscious readers and anthropology buffs of any age. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: An exciting adventure on the Amazon reveals a small fish that means a big deal to the world.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
hardcover, 80p., ages 10-12, 9780544352995
Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win
by Rachel Ignotofsky
Featuring stylized pictures and fact-filled biographical sketches of women athletes from around the world, this jam-packed compendium includes skaters, gymnasts, track and field stars, tennis players, golfers, skydivers, martial artists, mountaineers and many others.
Beginning with figure skater Madge Syers (born 1881) and finishing with gymnast Simone Biles (born 1997), graphic designer Rachel Ignotofsky (Women in Science) has created another great browsing book, attractively formatted on deeply colored glossy pages. Middle-graders, as well as teens and adults, may choose individual women to read about, poring over the amusing portraits (studded with fun facts) opposite the one-page profiles, all illustrated with captioned vignettes that capture the essence of the athlete's story. Other readers will read straight through, gaining insight into the discriminatory practices that prevailed until recently; the drive and ambition that fueled exceptional women to fight back; and the philanthropic and leadership roles in which female former athletes continue their careers.
Ignotofsky writes about women athletes of all types: there are profiles of para triathlete Melissa Stockwell, wounded during the Iraq War, and wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc, a Canadian paralyzed in an accident when she was 13. Ignotofsky also writes about the women of the 2016 Refugee Olympic Team who, without a country, competed in the Games for the first time. Well-known women like Kristi Yamaguchi, Serena Williams and Mia Hamm are represented alongside women who don't get the same recognition: Ellen MacArthur, an English woman who sailed around the world alone, and Anjali Bhagwhat, a shooter from India. An illustrated timeline, illustrations of muscle anatomy, comparisons of salaries and media coverage between male and female athletes, influential teams, short descriptions of additional women and sources round out this comprehensive volume that will excite and inspire. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer
Discover: Engaging text and remarkable portraits of women from many decades, countries and athletic fields add up to a 20th- and 21st-century history of women's advances in an important arena.
Ten Speed Press/Crown,
hardcover, 128p., ages 10-up, 9781607749783
Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!
by Andrea J. Loney, illus. by Keith Mallett
James, the oldest son born to John and Susan Elizabeth VanDerZee, the butler and maid for President Ulysees S. Grant, was raised in Lenox, Mass., in an artistically inclined family. He "liked to paint, but drawing people was hard. He could never get their expressions right. James wanted to share the beauty he saw in his heart."
When a gentleman comes to his home and uses a "contraption called a camera" that perfectly captures "everyone's smiles and [his] mother's sweet gaze," James knows immediately how one makes great pictures: with a camera. He weeds his neighbor's garden for a quarter a day until finally he saves $5 and becomes the second person in Lenox to own a camera.
In time, James moves to New York, then New Jersey, then back to New York, where he opens his own portrait studio in Harlem amid the cultural celebration "called the Harlem Renaissance." Unlike other photographers of his time who mainly take pictures of poor, rural black people, James photographs famous people--Marcus Garvey, Joe Louis, the New York Black Yankees, Florence Mills, Mamie Smith--and focuses on showing the growing black middle class. Andrea J. Loney's (BunnyBear) text highlights VanDerZee's determination and imagination as it lays out his journey from young dreamer to success story to outdated craftsman to eventual historical hero. Keith Mallett's (How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz) acrylic on canvas illustrations set tone beautifully with gentle spring and fall colors in Lenox, strong browns and reds in the darkrooms and brassy golds and blues in the Harlem of the 1920s and '30s. The vibrant illustrations paired with the lively text make Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! a picture book biography that truly shares the beauty VanDerZee saw in his heart. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee is a picture book biography that shares the beauty in VanDerZee's life and work.
Lee & Low,
hardcover, 40p., ages 6-9, 9781620142608
I See London, I See France
by Sarah Mlynowski
After a stressful adolescence caring for her younger sister and agoraphobic mother, Sydney is ready to experience a classic rite of passage away from home: backpacking Europe with her best friend, Leela. She's got just enough money, a copy of Travel Europe and a plan--a plan that unravels when they board their flight and see Leela's ex, Matt, on their plane. Matt and his hot friend Jackson cause itinerary changes, at first by attraction, and then by post-breakup repulsion. As the girls skip to Amsterdam, Paris and beyond, both also skip between fearless adventuring and emotional meltdown, and Sydney finds it harder to keep Leela (plus her family at home) together in the way she always has.
Louise Rennison was an early travel inspiration for Sydney and Leela, and Sarah Mlynowski (Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have)) brings Rennison's delightfully madcap energy to her story's older characters. As a result, throughout breakups, panic attacks and other emergencies, the plot never loses its buoyancy or charm. The book may not work for some younger teens--for example, readers who can't already guess what a group of 19-year-olds might get up to in Amsterdam will receive a thorough education about its offerings. But Mlynowski's respect for the complex emotional experiences of late adolescence will make the book especially compelling for older teen and adult readers, reminiscent of the best of Paula Danziger, allowing I See London, I See France to be a poolside read for the ages. --Stephanie Anderson, assistant director for public services, Darien Library (Conn.)
Discover: This lovably screwball YA novel will have readers checking whether their passports are still valid.
hardcover, 384p., ages 14-up, 9780062397072
King Louie's Shoes
by D.J. Steinberg, illus. by Robert Neubecker
Roll out the red carpet for author D.J. Steinberg (Grasshopper Pie and Other Poems) and illustrator Robert Neubecker (Linus the Vegetarian T. rex), whose imperial collaboration tells the delightfully informative and visually stunning story of King Louis XIV's shoe folly.
This nonfiction picture book introduces young readers to the king who was big in every way except height. He gave big parties, grew a big army and gave big gifts. But as Steinberg succinctly explains, "King Louie (which is how you say 'Louis' in French) was a shrimp." After failing several attempts to appear taller--a high throne, a full wig--he calls on his royal cobbler to craft a pair of high-heeled shoes.
Louie's shoes are a hit, igniting a fashion trend. But when Louie's preposterous heels make him take a tumble on the dance floor, he realizes height is not the quality that makes a king great. "Off came the shoes./ Up came the king... dancing holes in his stocking feet!"
Using different font colors and sizes, Steinberg's clever words draw as much attention as Neubecker's vibrantly alluring illustrations. Caricature drawings of the exaggerated wig and heels, a revealing carpenter and Louie's tantrum add lighthearted humor to this true tale. Meanwhile, the fashion of the period is creatively communicated through the women's hooped skirts, men's breeches and plenty of rich color. King Louie's Shoes is a lively way to sneak in culture and knowledge with young readers while enjoying a splendid story time celebration of footwear. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: Diminutive French King Louis XIV learns a big lesson when he tries to be tall.
Beach Lane Books,
hardcover, 48p., ages 4-8, 9781481426572
by Chae Strathie, illus. by Nicola O'Byrne
"Max had been looking forward to visiting the big museum for AGES. It had everything from snails and whales to moon rocks and mammoths. But, best of all, there were... DINOSAURS!" When it turns out Max doesn't have enough time to ask his favorite dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex, all of his questions, the museum curator suggests he write the T. Rex a letter. Max does just that, politely asking the dinosaur if it would be okay to pose a few questions.
"Dear Max,/ ROOOOAAAARRRR!!!... I am a terrifying, sharp-toothed, super-strong king of the dinosaurs. I am longer than a bus. I do NOT write nice letters to small children. I eat them."
The scary response (on a piece of paper with a corner chomped off) does not deter Max. He continues writing letters to the T. Rex--asking questions about what he eats and how fast he runs--and receives friendly and informative letters in return. Many of the letters to and from the T. Rex are "real" letters on folded paper that can be opened for a more tactile reading experience. In Chae Strathie's (Captain Firebeard's School for Pirates) accessible text, letters, birthday cards, postcards and e-mails all give facts about the dinosaurs housed in the museum. Nicola O'Byrne's (Open Very Carefully) brightly colored illustrations depict Max and the T. Rex partaking in kid-friendly activities like swimming, building sandcastles and celebrating birthdays (as well as one particularly humorous illustration of the T. Rex using a typewriter). Dear Dinosaur puts an entertaining and interactive spin on a topic that is always a kid favorite. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Young Max learns all about his favorite dinosaur, the T. Rex, by exchanging letters, cards and e-mails with the extinct creature.
hardcover, 28p., ages 5-8, 9780764168987
The Art of Starving
by Sam J. Miller
"I'm pretty sure boys can't even get eating disorders." Matt hasn't eaten much in the last few days, but he has good reason: "Hunger makes you better. Smarter. Sharper," and he needs his senses and abilities as sharp as possible to save his family. Five days ago, Matt's older sister Maya ran away from home. Though Maya calls and says she's fine, Matt knows there's more she's not telling and that someone has hurt her badly enough to make her leave. His prime suspect is popular soccer star Tariq, the last one to see Maya before she disappeared. As Matt disciplines himself to eat less and less, his senses seem to increase to superhuman levels. Matt is convinced he can use his newfound abilities to uncover Tariq's secret and make him pay for whatever he did to Maya.
The Art of Starving is the provocative story of a teenage boy in the throes of an eating disorder. Grappling with his sister's sudden departure, unresolved issues from his absent father and growing up gay and poor in a small town has left Matt spiraling. His narration is biting, sharply witty and possibly delusional; keeping readers in the moment with Matt and showing only his perspective is a brilliant choice by Sam J. Miller to allow readers full insight into Matt's mind but keep the mysteries of Maya and Matt's possible powers at bay. Miller's powerful, provocative and daring work forces readers to question reality and how much of our world is shaped by what we see. --Kyla Paterno, former children's and YA book buyer
Discover: A teenage boy starves himself in hopes of increasing seemingly superhuman abilities so he can save his runaway sister.
hardcover, 384p., ages 13-up, 9780062456717
Reference & Writing
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story
by Edwidge Danticat
Edwidge Danticat established her credentials as a memoirist with her 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Brother, I'm Dying. In The Art of Death, another entry in Graywolf Press's "The Art of" series on literary craft and criticism, Danticat again displays abundant prowess. She seamlessly blends an account of her mother's death from ovarian cancer in 2014 with an enlightening and compact survey of death in prose and poetry, "in order to learn (or relearn) how one writes about death, so I can write, or continue to write, about the deaths that have most touched my life."
Moving from fellow memoirists like Christopher Hitchens and Susan Sontag, through the searing suicides of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, to the works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, the breadth of Danticat's literary reach is impressive--especially so in a book that spans fewer than 200 pages. She confesses that her selection is "not an objective grouping but a deeply personal one," encompassing the body of literature she has turned to "when living with and writing about death."
Embedded within this literary criticism, she also offers a concise, but moving, description of her mother's final illness. Sitting by her mother's bedside, Danticat, ever the writer, imagines "a type of story I could tell her to keep her awake, and thus alive--a story that would never end."
"We cannot write about death without writing about life," Danticat says. And so, despite its ostensible subject, The Art of Death overflows with life, quietly but insistently inspiring anyone reading it to make good use of what remains of that precious gift. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer
Discover: Novelist Edwidge Danticat combines a memoir of her mother's death with a meditation on the subject of death in literature.
paperback, 160p., 9781555977771
Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World
by Billy Bragg
Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg has always been a firebrand, using his music and public persona to push for progressive causes. It's no surprise, then, that he'd be fascinated by the intertwining of politics and pop culture in his homeland of Britain. Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is a look at how one short-lived musical craze based on American blues, jazz and folk ended up leading to the British Invasion and modern rock 'n' roll.
Bragg traces the history of skiffle, "a uniquely British take on American folk and blues," from its beginnings in England's inchoate jazz scene to its direct influence on the founding of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and other important British rock bands. Unlike most popular music of the time, skiffle was a grassroots movement, where young working-class teenagers and folk agitators sang songs with reckless abandon (to the dismay of some of the jazz players who gave the genre its start). Bragg's writing is perfectly matched for his subject matter: funny, informative without being laborious, and always willing to knock someone down a peg if he feels it's necessary. Anyone with an interest in the history of pop music will heartily enjoy this book, and most likely learn about singers and musicians that they'd never heard of who changed the course of music. And while politics do appear now and again (Bragg did once rewrite lyrics to "The Internationale"), Bragg isn't interested in making a political argument here. Instead, he's content to show how leftist activism is intertwined with the origins of rock. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: British singer and activist Billy Bragg tells the story of the roots of modern pop music from the genre known as skiffle.
Faber & Faber,
hardcover, 464p., 9780571327744
Scribbled in the Dark
by Charles Simic
Acclaimed poet Charles Simic is 79 at the time of Scribbled in the Dark's publishing. It's hard not to read the images of darkness falling and lost hope contained in these poems as anything other than meditations on death. But that discounts the streak of puckish glee throughout the collection, the joy in language and in a good joke. Simic may know the lights are being turned off, but there's no reason that that can't be both laughed and cried about.
The quatrain "Shadow on the Wall" is a perfect example of this humor. "Round midnight/ Let's invite/ A fellow bedlamite/ For a bite," he propositions the reader, using a sing-song rhyme that is found nowhere else in the collection. Is Simic suggesting a merry midnight snack with a lunatic? And who is getting bitten? The poem is a lark, only to be followed two pages later by the titular piece, which soberly depicts "Streams of blood in the gutter/ Waiting for sunrise."
Most of the poems in Scribbled in the Dark are simply images teased into verse. Simic will take a single motion (eyes catching on the street, a shout from outside his door), and pry open all its energy onto the page, evoking the tiniest fraction of time to reveal its beauty. None of that might be enough in the case of the man who finds that "little by little night overtakes him," but it might elicit a smile now and again. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: Charles Simic, one of America's most celebrated poets, faces darkness with both sadness and glee.
hardcover, 96p., 9780062661173
by Todd Boss
The work of Minneapolis poet, librettist and film producer Todd Boss (Yellowrocket; Pitch) frequently leans on his years growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. The title, from the poem "When My Mother Says Tough Luck," gives away the work-hard-and-take-your-lumps farm ethic echoed in similar titles like "When My Father Says Toughen Up" and "When We Say Knuckle Down." The latter puts an exclamation point on it: "we mean the knuckles/ of our wills... the whole body,/ the whole mind, the whole/ damned soul is a goddamned hand."
Boss's daily commute narrowly avoided the 2007 devastating collapse of the Twin Cities I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi. That fortunate escape from tragedy led to the long 35-section poem "Fragments for the 35W Bridge" that sits at the heart of Tough Luck. Although almost exclusively written in single word lines, this centerpiece poem nonetheless illustrates Boss's reliance on rhythm and rhyme to tell a story (such as this view of the detritus below the broken bridge: "half-sunk wrecks and suck-pocked rocks"). But more than a story, "Fragments" is a meditation on the risks of everyday life and the way that time inexorably eats away at even the seemingly indomitable: "A worn gusset plate. A few cruddy bolts. A single lousy joint. What a healthy terrorist Time is." Boss's poems sing with authenticity and permanence. As he notes, partly tongue-in-cheek, in "Fragments": "no badly aging load-bearing metaphor of mine ever imploded during rush hour and killed anyone." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Minneapolis poet Todd Boss captures both the personal and eternal in poems celebrating the family farm and meditating on the 2007 Twin Cities bridge disaster.
hardcover, 112p., 9780393608625