Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, April 21, 2017


St. Martin's Press: No Easy Target by Iris Johansen

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Diaper Dude by Chris Pegula with Frank Meyer / The Unmumsy Mum by Sarah Turner

Mira Books: Any Day Now (Sullivan's Crossing #2) by Robyn Carr

Going, Going, Gone?

Here's a fact for you: half of all Earth's species could be extinct by the year 2100. Horrifying? Most certainly. Surprising? Sadly, less so, especially to Joel Sartore, author, photographer, teacher and 25-year contributor to National Geographic magazine. In his new book, National Geographic The Photo Ark: One Man's Quest to Document the World's Animals (National Geographic, $35), Sartore sets about accomplishing his goals not only to photograph every animal in captivity across the globe, but also--and some would say more importantly--to inspire individuals to action.

Operating on the premise that to see these animals is to recognize the need to save them, Sartore's aim is to eventually document all 12,000 captive species. Six thousand of them appear here, ranging from the beloved and well-known to the rare and unusual--even some who are the last of their kind. The Bengal slow loris shares page space with the tiger-striped tree frog. The giant deep sea roach demonstrates its startling similarity in looks to the southern three-banded armadillo. A pair of common warthogs peer proudly from a double-page spread. With more 600 photographs, you will not find a collection of more accomplished and gorgeous wildlife images. And the accompanying text, with a foreword by actor Harrison Ford and commentary supplied by author and National Geographic magazine contributor Douglas Chadwick, manages to communicate the dire situation these animals face while remaining hopeful: "The hard truth is that nature writ large will continue regardless of the specific mix of animals on the planet. It doesn't need humans to prevail. But when we start looking at species one by one... we learn where we can make a difference."

Tomorrow is Earth Day. And Sartore wants you to know the animals of the planet are calling. What will your answer be? --Stefanie Hargeaves, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Diaper Dude by Chris Pegula with Frank Meyer / The Unmumsy Mum by Sarah Turner

Mira Books: Any Day Now (Sullivan's Crossing #2) by Robyn Carr

Getting Beyond Wild

In 1995, following the death of her mother and the collapse of her first marriage, Cheryl Strayed set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Some 1,100 miles later, readers were given Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, detailing Strayed's adventures in getting lost and thereby finding herself. "It had to do with how it felt to be wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to bear witness.... The experience was powerful and fundamental."

That yearning for the powerful and fundamental, the escapism and seclusion and a connection with the natural world, is not particular to Strayed. Following her rape by a fellow college student, Aspen Matis sought healing and solitude on the PCT. Girl in the Woods documents her five-month, 2,600-mile solo trek from Mexico to Canada along the trail, finding strength in her own self-reliance. In Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, Suzanne Roberts writes less about escaping a trauma of her past than facing the uncertainty of her future. Lacking a post-college plan, Roberts agreed to hike the trail with two other women; her book explores the relationships among those women, as well as with the male-dominated world of hiking and nature writing.

Robert Moor's On Trails: An Exploration offers a history of the concept of trails as a whole: how they came to be, how they are both shaped by and shape the landscapes in which they fall, and how they connect us to each other and to the greater world.

Any one of these stories will leave readers wondering what a hike, large or small, may yet reveal about themselves. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Diaper Dude by Chris Pegula with Frank Meyer / The Unmumsy Mum by Sarah Turner

Mira Books: Any Day Now (Sullivan's Crossing #2) by Robyn Carr

Children's Books: What on Earth?

Shelf Awareness pays tribute to everyone's favorite planet with these Earth Day picture books about trees, warthogs and "other wonders yet to find."

Trees (Candlewick, $14.99, ages 2-5) comes from Lemniscates, a Barcelona author/ illustrator/designer collective. Mixed-media illustrations and a few words on each beautiful two-page spread capture the "marvelous beings" that are trees. Trees is more than a pretty book, though--in simple language, it provides real, if poetically minimal, information: "Trees clean the air we breathe... and give us their seeds with every piece of fruit." Simply lovely.

Whimsical and quirkily informative, The Big Book of Beasts (Thames & Hudson, $19.95, ages 4-up) by Yuval Zommer (The Big Book of Bugs) introduces readers to baboons, binturongs, honey badgers and more than a dozen other mammals that qualify as beasts: "deadly, cunning and most importantly, wild!" Charming illustrations of each beast in various poses and habitats, questions and answers ("Just how lazy is a sloth?"), search-and-find challenges and special sections on Ice Age beasts and saving endangered species make this "Big Book" a big winner.

Everywhere, Wonder (Imprint/ Macmillan, $17.99, ages 3-6) takes readers on a wild adventure from a little boy's bookshelf into the wide world. Dreamy pictures show the boy drifting right through the panes of his bedroom window--as if it were water--into wondrous settings: rocketing toward Earth from the moon, gazing into the tree canopy in the jungles of Brazil and, in Sheboygan, enjoying an ice cream cone with "a tractor mechanic named Shirley." Author Matthew Swanson and illustrator Robbi Behr (Babies Ruin Everything) show readers how a lively imagination and a good book can carry you anywhere in this world--and beyond. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Diaper Dude by Chris Pegula with Frank Meyer / The Unmumsy Mum by Sarah Turner

Mira Books: Any Day Now (Sullivan's Crossing #2) by Robyn Carr

Literature & Libations: History with a Twist

Renee Patrick is the pseudonym for married authors Rosemarie and Vince Keenan. Both native New Yorkers, they live in Seattle, Wash. Dangerous to Know (Forge) is the second of their Lillian Frost & Edith Head mysteries.

photo: David Hiller

Historical fiction and cocktails make a perfect pairing. A drink with provenance is an uncommonly vivid chance to experience a bygone era in a glass. While writing our Lillian Frost & Edith Head mystery novels, we often enjoy a period-appropriate libation--after reaching the day's word count.

But the Golden Age of Hollywood, when our books are set, was no golden age for cocktails. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, many of America's best bartenders were plying their trade on other shores, and a generation of drinkers had grown accustomed to mixers meant to mask the taste of inferior liquor. The cocktails that held sway in the late 1930s were the simplest to prepare: the martini, the Manhattan, the old fashioned.

We prefer to turn the clock back even further. The Last Word appeared on the 1916 menu of the Detroit Athletic Club. Aside from its inclusion in a long-out-of-print 1951 collection, the drink had been utterly forgotten. Then in 2003, bartender extraordinaire Murray Stenson rediscovered the recipe and featured it at Seattle's Zig Zag Café--the same bar where, coincidentally, we plotted Lillian & Edith's Agatha Award-nominated debut, Design for Dying. Within five years, a drink that could have been poured at the premiere of D.W. Griffith's landmark silent film Intolerance had become what the Washington Post called "the Official Drink of the Classic Cocktail Renaissance." Like that, the best historical fiction aspires to shed new light on a century-old artifact.

The Last Word, from Ted Saucier's Bottoms Up! (1951)

½ oz. gin
½ oz. maraschino
½ oz. green chartreuse
½ oz. lime juice
Shake. Strain. No garnish.

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Diaper Dude by Chris Pegula with Frank Meyer / The Unmumsy Mum by Sarah Turner

Mira Books: Any Day Now (Sullivan's Crossing #2) by Robyn Carr

Romalyn Tilghman: The Kansas Spirit

photo: Rachael Warecki

"I love the Kansas spirit, the no-drama, get-it-done, attitude," says Romalyn Tilghman. Her debut novel, To the Stars Through Difficulties (She Writes Press), takes its title from the Kansas state motto, Ad Astra per Aspera. In the story, an artist, a graduate student, and a wife who lost her hometown to a tornado converge on the same historic Carnegie building, now an arts center. Tilghman believes the spirit of "grit and gumption" remains alive and well; the actual tornado-ravaged town of Greensburg, Kan., which rebuilt itself as a green community, is the basis for the destroyed Prairie Hill in her novel. "Seeing the commitment of its residents served as inspiration, as well as proof that a community can make miracles happen."

A Kansas native, Tilghman also found inspiration in her home state's history, particularly in the many historic libraries built with funding from industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Tilghman herself grew up "frequenting the Carnegie library in Manhattan [Kansas] before I learned to read" and, later, as an adult, she "thought about what it would've taken to build these in the early 1900s." She adds, "At the time, the Lawrence Arts Center was renovating the Carnegie library, and so it was easy to see community action happening in two eras." She found her imagination captured not by Carnegie, but by the unsung female volunteers who held bake sales, raffles and pancake suppers to furnish and supply the buildings. Tilghman observes that "volunteer work is often undervalued, especially women's.... I think women do carry a gene that requires them to make the world a better place for their children."

Tilghman's work as an arts consultant helps her communicate the transformative force of arts and crafts, specifically the "meditative" art of quilting. "To put one's head in a space of color and texture, to rearrange shapes, can become addictive." To the Stars Through Difficulties celebrates the healing power of women, art and tradition. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Diaper Dude by Chris Pegula with Frank Meyer / The Unmumsy Mum by Sarah Turner

Mira Books: Any Day Now (Sullivan's Crossing #2) by Robyn Carr

Happy Poetry Month

Welcome to National Poetry Month! Whether through events, social media campaigns, bookstore displays or individual excitement, April is a great time--but certainly not the only time--to appreciate the poetic form. Indeed, Rupi Kaur's collection milk and honey--a favorite in the Shelf office--was published in October of 2015, and has since sold more than a million copies! This year we've already seen some excellent collections published, and our reviewers have been raving:

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier: "In this searching, plaintive poetry collection, Native American poet Layli Long Soldier digs deep into the often unseen strata of language, history and identity. Whereas beautifully upends poetic forms to summon a powerful voice hidden in the interstices." --Scott Neuffer

Love's Last Number by Christopher Howell: "A former war journalist's elegant and profound poems use awe-inspiring imagery to answer some of the greatest questions of human existence. Love's Last Number showcases a visionary mind and serves as a testament to the power of imagination in connecting human beings to each other." --Scott Neuffer

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker: "Morgan Parker tackles weighty issues with deft wit and powerful candor in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Her insightful and irreverent collection turns a sharp eye toward a broad collage of subjects, including her muse Beyoncé, the Obamas and historical figures like the so-called Hottentot Venus." --Katie Weed

Madwoman by Shara McCallum: "Memory, fable and family history feature strongly in Shara McCallum's fifth collection of poetry. Sprinkled throughout with poems written in Jamaican patois, McCallum uses changes in language and structure--traditional poetic forms, lists, question-and-answer dialogues--expertly to reveal and question limits in the knowledge of self." --Richael Best


Doubleday Books: Unreliable by Lee Irby


Book Candy

How to Start a Mother-Daughter Book Club

Bustle offered tips on "how to start a mother-daughter book club, even if it's just the two of you."

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Buzzfeed
shared "18 jokes you'll only get if you've read Shakespeare."

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Mental Floss introduced "7 characters that didn't make it into the Harry Potter books.

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Paste introduced "13 musicians influenced by author William S. Burroughs."

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Salavat Fidai's pencil mini-sculptures "are popular all over the world. HBO even used them to announce the seventh season of Game of Thrones," Russia Beyond the Headlines reported.


Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions

by Richard Harris

Richard Harris, a science reporter for National Public Radio (NPR), presents a fascinating, thoroughly researched exploration of the advances, traps and pitfalls of biomedical science in Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions. Harris pairs statistics, contemporary and historical facts, interviews and personal stories from influential scientists in academia and private labs with accounts of patients facing illnesses and the rigmarole of medical trials to add a human dimension to the scientific aspects. This all works together to shine a bright light on the limitations and politics of modern biomedical research, which largely boils down to problems with investments and pressures of time, professional reputation and money.

The book begins by extolling some of the astounding strides made in medicine. This includes the deciphering of the human genome, our genetic blueprint, and how it has afforded greater insights and technology for research labs, which can now readily access information relating to diagnoses, treatments and cures of illness and disease. Antibiotics, drugs designed for specific infirmities, vaccines and heart surgery have increased life expectancy while also deepening the pool of finances allotted to scientific research. Harris notes that "the average American household spends $900 a year to support biomedical studies." Some of that is money baked into the price of costly prescription drugs and medical treatments, as pursuing biomedical goals is expensive, and federal funding is actually shrinking.

The rate of new drug development and approval has been falling since the 1950s. Yet, each year, more than a million biomedical studies are published in scientific literature. Research, however, has proven that "many of them are simply wrong." It's this hypothesis that sets up Harris's well-constructed narrative that demonstrates how, when an "exciting scientific discovery is reported, scientists are often quick to jump on the bandwagon without considering whether the original finding is in fact true."

In 10 well-drawn chapters, Harris documents flaws in the medical research process and how it has "gone astray, as perverse incentives discourage scientists from following the rigorous path of top-quality science." The culture has become such that scientists are often forced to choose between doing what is right and what is necessary to keep their labs and their careers afloat.

The work of C. Glenn Begley emerges as a cornerstone of Harris's reporting. Begley, an Australian-born scientist, left academia after 25 years to work for Amgen, a Southern California cancer research biotech company. Begley and his staff set out to find hopeful preclinical research that might spark new cancer drugs. After combing through a trove of experiments and data that could lead to groundbreaking new medicines, Begley asked Amgen scientists to repeat documented experiments to ensure they would come up with the same results put forth in the literature. He soon discovered that most of the time, Amgen labs could not replicate those successes.

Every dead-end report was filed away by Begley. And before he left the company, he resurrected the most promising leads, selecting 53 papers. This time, he asked the scientists who first published the reports to provide more information. Amgen then set out to reproduce the data with that exact material. If they failed, Amgen went one step further, and sent its own scientists to labs to witness how the original experiments were executed. Alarmingly, only six labs--or one out of 10--could reproduce the results.

This sobering discovery was published by Begley and an associate in 2012. The report spelled out the problem in stark terms, indicating a reproducibility crisis in biomedicine and warning that widely cited work and preclinical data, often marred with errors, missteps and red herrings, was published anyway due to pressure on scientists who feared that funding might be pulled from long-term projects.

Begley expected the report to serve as a "shot across the bow" that would change biomedical culture and open a healthy discussion. Instead, it was met with fierce opposition and skepticism from within the biomedical community. The report itself--and the aftermath of bringing such glaring shortcomings public--sets the foundation for all that follows in Rigor Mortis. Harris utilizes Begley's findings as a launchpad to dissect the scope of faulty methods, dubious technology, perverse incentives and the reasons why scientists don't always dig deep enough to ensure that studies are actually true.

Harris offers detailed supporting data and examples surrounding problems in the areas of funding, grants, publication and fame. He expounds upon the politics and intellectual tug-of-wars of biomedical science in academia and in the pharmaceutical industry, along with the many problems inherent in scientific training, integrity and the challenge of practicing "precision medicine." He explains the role of the F.D.A., federal guidelines and data sharing, along with the ways in which the biomedical industry manages failure and misconduct, algorithms and statistics on the road to forming conclusions. Harris concludes by aiming his focus on the efforts of the scientific community to seriously weigh and consider Begley's report. He emphasizes a need to raise standards of biomedical practice to improve the reliability of clinical research and data.

Embedded throughout this scientific exposé are patient case studies. Harris paints clear portraits that demonstrate how biomedical science filters down to the ill and infirm and those who love them. The personal stories about people caught in healthcare quagmires and the defects of the clinical trial industry add an emotional subtext that fleshes out the well-presented scientific analysis. These case histories will hold appeal for readers who are scientists, as well as laypeople searching to better understand the far-reaching consequences of biomedicine and its effect on humanity.

The plethora of information Harris presents is well-supported and makes a strong case, emphasizing the flaws embedded in the culture of biomedicine and the lack of transparency in the industry. Harris states, "The overarching goal of biomedical research is to understand the basic processes that lead to disease so that medical science can intervene to ease human suffering and improve health." Reading Rigor Mortis will help the biomedical community--and those affected by biomedical science--assess the state of the industry and make much-needed improvements that can benefit all. --Kathleen Gerard

Basic Books, $28, hardcover, 288p., 9780465097906

Music of the Ghosts

by Vaddey Ratner

In 2012, Vaddey Ratner burst onto the literary scene with her New York Times bestselling autobiographical debut, In the Shadow of the Banyan, which told a partially fictionalized version of her childhood in war-torn Cambodia. In a second novel laden with as much beauty and sorrow as her first, Ratner returns to the blood-stained Khmer Rouge era but also leads readers into a modern-day nation still reeling from the brutalities of its recent past. With each exquisite turn of phrase, Ratner illuminates the physical and emotional landscape of a society healing while constantly confronted with reminders of its trauma.

As a child, Suteera escaped with her aunt Amara across the border of Thailand from a Cambodia where they had "no more home, only this land of open graves." The other members of her family, from her grandparents to her baby brother Rin, perished in the attempt to flee the Khmer Rouge, with one notable exception. Her father, Sokhon, disappeared into the jungle before the evacuation, and although she "can't help but believe he vanished violently," Teera knows she will likely never know how and where his life ended. Now a grown woman living in Minneapolis, a haven for refugees from many countries, Teera must make an emotionally harrowing journey back to her birth nation to lay her aunt's ashes to rest. In addition to the remains of her last relative, Teera carries a letter from an old man at the Buddhist temple of Wat Nagara who says he and Sokhon were interred together in Slak Daek, one of Pol Pot's secret security prisons. He has in his possession some musical instruments that once belonged to her father and wishes to pass them on to her. Signed "the Old Musician," his letter also includes a sentence fragment that might have become a deeper explanation of his relationship with her father had the writer not discontinued it and crossed it out. She longs for and dreads her meeting with this stranger who might tell her how her father died, ending her uncertainty but also any hope that Sokhon survived.

The Old Musician, "disfigured and half-blind," awaits Teera with mixed emotions as well, believing "[s]he will be his scourge, her loathing his final and lasting suffering." Treated with respect by the monks of Wat Nagara, he believes "that he could never be forgiven, that he did not deserve the charity and kindness he received, that his only salvation was in the realization of his own worthlessness, his evil and monstrosity," which he believes Teera will recognize. He will give her Sokhon's lute-like sadiev, the "ancient instrument used to invoke the spirits of the dead," which he plays for the temple. He will also give her the truth--that he once loved her mother, Channara, a diplomat's daughter with an imagination that could "weave an entire universe into existence, a world so intriguing you can lose yourself in it for days," and that he shared a bond infinitely more intimate and terrible with her father.

Newly returned to the land she fled, Teera confronts memories both harrowing and cherished. When she thinks of her father's sadiev, "[s]he remembers a song, not its name but its melody, each note like a drop of predawn rain on bamboo." As she comes to know the Old Musician, she also finds herself falling in love with his young friend Narunn, a former novice monk turned doctor whose drive to help others and buoyancy of spirit helps her to discover "the cartography of love, its ever-expanding frontiers."

Although less autobiographical than Ratner's first release, Music of the Ghosts also draws on the author's personal experience and invokes the hot, lush Cambodian landscape with her trademark lyrical imagery. Often achingly sad but ultimately uplifting, the story begins with a war refugee's experience of fear and flight but truly distinguishes itself by approaching the question of what comes next for a survivor. Told in three movements with a short prelude and a free-verse interlude, Ratner's story of survivors confronting their losses and rebuilding their lives resonates like a symphony. Flashbacks to Teera's childhood and the Old Musician's persecution as an educated man under the Khmer Rouge regime give the reader a visceral sense of terror and confusion and show the desperate actions torture will coerce from even the best of people. Taken in concert, their stories illustrate a nation forging its way through the aftermath of a toxic dictatorship; although the regime fell, citizens must now live alongside neighbors who hurt them or grapple with the guilt of their own actions, whether complicit or coerced. Ratner transcends the victim/villain dichotomy by bringing Teera and the Old Musician together to heal as fellow survivors rather than accuser and perpetrator. She also skillfully orchestrates Teera’s emotional journey as she discovers that beneath the shroud of painful memories, her love for her first homeland still lives. Themes of loss and hope, survivors and the metaphorical ghosts that follow them, crescendo into a rich finale celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and the permanence of love despite the death of loved ones. Readers will shed happy and sad tears as they savor this reminder that regardless of past hurts, life is ours to live. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Touchstone, $26, hardcover, 336p., 9781476795782

Vaddey Ratner: The Meaning of Home

photo: Kristina Sherk

Vaddey Ratner is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Her critically acclaimed bestselling debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, has been translated into 17 languages. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. Her new novel, Music of the Ghosts, returns to Cambodia, and will be published by Touchstone on April 11, 2017.

In the Shadow of the Banyan was largely autobiographical. How was the writing process different for Music of the Ghosts?

With Banyan, the fear was delving into something so deeply personal, so traumatic. I didn't know whether I could stop the process, once I dove in. I didn't know what else I would find.

With Music of the Ghosts, I knew I wanted to write about forgiveness and atonement, but I didn't know whether the characters I'd brought forth were capable of this. I felt more at the mercy of the characters. I had to access them on all levels--emotional and psychological, political and intellectual--and within these pages, I had to make their journey complete, without the chronology of real-life histories to rely on.

Banyan was scary because it was autobiographical; Music was scary because it wasn't. 

The horror of the Khmer Rouge is hard to comprehend. How do people in such dire situations hold onto their humanity?

If, in your deepest, darkest hour, you can for one moment imagine the humanity of the enemy, if you can open your soul to see that the person who inflicts suffering on you has possibly himself suffered greatly so that he's driven by his own pain to hurt and harm, if you can see in him a human being like yourself, then you can imagine something larger than that moment's cruelty. This, I think, opens up the possibility for transformation, in yourself as well as in your enemy.

Teera's return to Cambodia throws her emotions into turmoil. Was it the same for you when you returned to Cambodia?

The emotional turmoil that Teera experiences on returning to Cambodia certainly echoes my own. Like Teera, when I fled as a child I had the sense that the most essential part of me was buried with the dead--that I had died with my family. When I returned as an adult, it was a kind of rebirth. I was able to find some relatives, and because so many had been lost, the ties we were able to rebuild were that much stronger.

Teera's profound love for what she calls home resonates with my own. When you flee as a refugee, you're essentially seeking the refuge of humanity, which has been attacked and diminished in the home you've left behind. You're seeking not just any place, but a place that upholds a sense of home and community, even if different from your own. Once you've known the meaning of home--the sanctuary and protection it provides--you have the urge to create a home wherever you end up. Teera's enduring love for Cambodia gives birth to the love she feels for America.

Music plays an important role in this story. What does music mean to you?

In Cambodian culture, music plays a role in every aspect of daily life--births and deaths, unions and separations, illness and healing. There is music offered to the gods, to spirits of the forests, to ancestors, to guests. When one sets off for a journey, there is music to send the traveler on the way. Music is blessing, music is nutrient, music is medicine. When words fail, music is our other voice.

How did you research the parts of the story that did not come from your first-hand experience?

I had examined the historical context as a student at Cornell University, where I was trained to take a very probing gaze, even when looking at something so personal. Few readers are familiar with the history and politics of the Khmer Rouge, including the connections to America's own exercise of power. So much I'd wanted to say about that history I couldn't say in Banyan, because the story was told from a child's point of view. The challenge in Music was to tie the intimate, personal trauma with the historical tragedy--to make both equally powerful. 

In what ways do you honor the "ghosts" in your life?

I honor the ghosts by giving credence to the living. As a writer, I try to tell stories that emphasize how precious life is, how unjust and untimely death can be, how unnecessary and wrong war is. There is enough suffering already without the expedient of weapons. Often the destruction brought on by violent conflicts is so thorough that you're left with only the memories of your loved ones. So as a survivor, you try to keep alive the hopes and dreams of those who died. You live as if also for them.

Personally, honoring the sacrifices of those who enabled me to survive requires me to imagine suffering much deeper than my own. Every time I return to Cambodia, I'm confronted with that suffering directly. I meet musicians, many of them maimed or blind, who have the energy to smile or to greet me, to offer music to a world that has trained itself to turn its gaze away. To live each day of my life aware not only of the suffering but the hope tied to it, I feel, is the only way to earn my right to share this world.

In your author's note, you mention one of the book's central concepts, that perpetrators and victims live side-by-side in today's Cambodia. Do you think the divide between them can ever truly be healed?

For me, healing doesn't mean taking something broken and making it whole again, which is not possible. Nor is it the same as forgetting. If anything, healing requires an active process of remembering, examining the wounds. I believe the divides can be healed, but as with any wound, there remains a scar, and I hope that scar serves as a reminder not to inflict further suffering.

Was it difficult to pace the novel since you were juggling different points in time? How did you decide where to reveal secrets and when to keep them waiting?

Yes, every time I thought about the trajectory of the novel, and how my characters would develop, my heart fluttered. I would ask myself again and again how was I going to carry it off? Astonishment, anger and despair, sympathy, acceptance, forgiveness. How would I convey all this? How was I going to achieve all of it at once?

I remember the whole time I was writing, I kept missing the mark in predicting when each layer of secrets would come. Both the Old Musician and Teera became so real that each would direct me, "No, not yet, this is not the right time."  So the moment, the crucial revelation, came when both characters were ready. It wasn't something I could have plotted out far in advance. When it happened, I felt privileged to have been allowed to witness it, to have been included in the intimacy of their sharing.

I came to realize that I didn't need to know everything. Yielding to my characters actually makes for better plot development. There are elements of the past that become necessary because of where the characters are at in the present, the questions they're asking, the journey they want to take. You don't want to constantly prepare your reader for the drama you envision. You want only to propel the story forward. The material you impart has to be the thing that is most important in that moment.

You are two beautiful books into your career as a novelist. Can we expect a third?

Novel writing for me is a reflection of my own growth. I'm grappling with questions that take a long time for me to come to grips with, so I can't predict how the ideas will mature, much less when. I certainly hope there's a third, and more after! 

The questions I'm confronting now circle around the theme of freedom. Empires rise and fall. Along with them, borders and boundaries and walls. These are not natural phenomena--they're things that people create, and that people undo. In a world of such shifting boundaries, what binds us, what confines us, and what makes us free? --Jaclyn Fulwood


Richard Harris: The Lack of Rigor in Biomedical Research

 photo: Meredith Rizzo

Richard Harris has served as a science journalist with National Public Radio (NPR) for the past 30 years. He's covered a wide range of topics from medicine to the environment, and he's traveled to all seven continents. His favorite places include the South Pole and Greenland. "Ice is simply beautiful," he says. Harris lives in Washington, D.C., and is a three-time winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award. Rigor Mortis (Basic Books) is his first book.

Tell us about your science background.

I have an undergraduate degree in biology, which is how I first learned about biology, genetics, biochemistry and--most importantly--the scientific method. As a college student, I discovered that I loved learning about science, but I didn't particularly enjoy life in the lab.

Therefore, writing?

Science journalism was the perfect career for me. I started it right out of college with a fellowship, then a job at a small newspaper. I never looked back. My perch in journalism provides me the perfect vantage point to keep learning and watching as scientific knowledge evolves. Of course, the world has changed a lot since my degree more than 30 years ago.

Why a book about biomedical research?

In 2014, my beat at NPR shifted to biomedical research. In the course of orienting myself to the lay of the land since I'd last reported on these topics, I discovered some unfortunate trends--especially a push toward hyper-competitiveness as more scientists found themselves vying for a shrinking pool of resources. I started to explore the impact of that on research and realized there was a book's worth of material. At the same time, scientists were increasingly becoming concerned that many research results couldn't be reproduced in other laboratories. The two issues are deeply connected.

The book offers a plethora of information.

I had an outline going into the project, but of course it morphed as I did the reporting for the book. I knew from the outset that I wanted to explore the various reasons behind the lack of rigor in biomedical research, starting with dubious ingredients, and including unconscious bias, poor use of statistics and the perverse incentives in biomedicine right now (driven by the struggle for funding). I also wanted to take time to explain how science really works, and why failure is an inevitable--even beneficial--part of it. I also kept my eye out for scientists who were exploring ways to address these problems.

Did you learn anything surprising in writing the book?

Going into the project, I thought scientists might be reluctant to talk to me about the less-than-flattering issues confronting their profession. I was surprised that was not the case--almost everyone was eager to talk, not only about what's wrong, but why. As a reporter, I had been aware of the power dynamics within science, but those issues were generally peripheral to whatever specific topic I was covering, not the focus of my reports. The book gave me an opportunity to look at these issues directly--and to talk about them with some of the nation's most talented and influential scientists.

Would you say that money is the driving force in the biomedical industry?

Money plays an important role, but it's not the only driving force. I think far too often scientists become enamored with their own ideas and look for ways to bolster their theories instead of looking for ways to challenge them. That's absolutely human nature; we all do that, often unconsciously. But science, when done properly, is supposed to be a system that prevents people from fooling themselves. It works in the long run, but not so well in the short run.

You state that the "rate of new-drug approval has been falling since the 1950s." Is this a result of the biomedical community or the FDA?

This is not at all a problem of bureaucracy. The FDA drug approval process has never been faster. Part of the reason for the slow pace is that drug companies solved some of the easy problems early on, and now they're working on harder ones. You know the cliché about low-hanging fruit--well, it applies here. Another problem is drug companies largely stopped doing their own basic research and have come to rely heavily on academic science for leads. When academic scientists produce results that drug companies can't reproduce, that leads to false starts and wasted effort. That phenomenon contributes to the downward trend in new-drug development as well.

How could biomedical science be improved?

It could be much improved if researchers spent more time questioning their own beliefs. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of science and science funding often provides a disincentive for scientists to say, "maybe I'm wrong."

Rigor Mortis underscores the fierce competition and politics (on all levels) prevalent in the biomedical research field.

Competition has become fiercer--and for good reason. A decade ago, about 30% of NIH (National Institutes of Health) grants got funded; today it's about half that, due to an increase in scientists seeking money and a 20% decrease (adjusting for inflation) in the amount of funding available. Scientists are locked in an unhealthy struggle. Unfortunately, young scientists who may have the freshest ideas are often the ones edged out in this competition. They leave the world of research to the senior investigators who are able to draw funding because of their reputations. At this point, there's little hope of infusing enough new money into science to right this imbalance. These deep structural problems have no obvious solutions. It's going to get worse before it gets better.

Does that mean you're pessimistic about the future of biomedical research?

Despite the lugubrious title of my book, I'm optimistic about the problems I write about. No scientist wants to waste his or her time, and the community as a whole is becoming aware of its flaws. There were similar problems with medical studies involving human volunteers in earlier times. During the 1990s, scientists and funders turned their attention toward those issues and have made significant improvements (of course, there's always room for more) in the conduct of clinical research. The same can easily happen in biomedical research if the right incentives are put in place.

Who is the ideal reader for this book?

Rigor Mortis is written for the same audience that listens to NPR's science reporting--people who are curious about the world around them and who want a deeper understanding of how the scientific enterprise works. Science has been a driving force in our lives, helping us to understand the remarkable world we live in, while providing us technologies that make our lives better. This book is for people who want to understand the very human process behind all that wonder. I also hope that scientists who are trying to figure out how to make their enterprise more productive and less error-prone will find insights in reading Rigor Mortis.

Did any books inspire you in writing Rigor Mortis?

One of the greatest joys about writing a book was having the time to read other books along the way. I drew inspiration from The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton; Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty by Herbert Weisberg; Failure: Why Science Is So Successful by Stuart Firestein; A Conspiracy of Cells by Michael Gold; The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine by James Le Fanu; and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by E.O. Wilson. --Kathleen Gerard


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


A Challenge to See the World in New Ways

National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Gene Luen Yang, in partnership with the Children's Book Council, the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, Every Child a Reader and Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, has launched Reading Without Walls Month, which makes its debut this April and will be an annual event.

The aim is to encourage young people to explore the world through books, break down barriers and celebrate diversity in children's books. The key ways Reading Without Walls does this is by challenging young people to do one of three things:

  • Read a book about a character who doesn't look like them or live like them.
  • Read a book about a topic they don't know much about.
  • Read a book in a format they don't normally read for fun, such as a chapter book, an audiobook, a graphic novel or a book in verse.

"We want to use Reading Without Walls as a way of getting kids to read outside of their comfort zone," Yang comments, emphasizing that most people have a comfort zone whether they realize it or not. This is a long-lasting problem, not something new--even though it seems very topical. Books are a solution to comfort zones and can lead readers to open up to people they might not have otherwise. "One of the primary functions of books is to build empathy between people," he says. "And empathy is good for you." He emphasizes, too, that his challenge applies to adults as well as young readers.

Yang notes that early on books helped him get out of his comfort zone, and lately he's noticed another comfort zone. "I've been reading the news that's fed to me," Yang explains. "Some algorithm figures out what makes me feel good and makes it so that I have to actively find news outside my comfort zone."

Yang and the sponsors are making a big push "to get communities to adopt Reading Without Walls for the spring," Yang says. A few bookstores, libraries and schools did so last year, particularly for summer reading lists, an "inspiring" start, Yang says, that he wants to expand this April.

The stores, libraries and schools that were part of the pilot program "usually put up a wall and write out the three challenges," he says. "Some put up a picture of me, which is kind of awesome. I can't argue with that." They also display book suggestions, and some of them have an area for "kids to suggest books to each other." One also made flyers that look like little books and have the "check-off criteria." Lastly, there are spots to post certificates of completion.
 
Yang is taking Reading Without Walls to the next level in April. This year, some 200 bookstores and 1,500 schools and libraries have already pledged to participate in the inaugural Reading Without Walls Month with events, displays, staff picks, reading recommendations and store-school-library partnerships. Those interested in joining can find free promotional materials on Macmillan's Reading Without Walls website (which includes a signup form for updates) and on Edelweiss. The material include posters, a reading list created by Yang and certificates of completion that the sponsors have put together.

Yang will promote his reading challenge across the Northeast United States and Canada during the first week of April, with the following schedule:

April 1: The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Arts Festival, New York City
April 2: Doylestown Bookstore, Doylestown, Pa.
April 3: R.J. Julia's Booksellers, Madison, Conn.
April 4: Books on the Square, Providence, R.I.
April 5: Toronto Public Library, Toronto, Ont.
April 6: Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass.
April 7: Print: A Bookstore, Portland, Me.
April 8: Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, Mass.
April 10: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

At the event that the Brookline Booksmith is cosponsoring with the Brookline Public Library, Yang will make a presentation for an hour at the neighboring Coolidge Corner Theatre, then go to the store for a signing. Earlier in the day, he'll make what Alex Schaffner, the bookstore's events co-director and children's bookseller, calls "a large-scale school visit." Between the store's promotional efforts, the library's excellent interactive programs and his exposure in school, Schaffner expects that Yang will be able to make the Reading Without Walls challenge to many young readers on April 6. Beyond the events, just having Yang in town is "helpful in drawing attention to the challenge," she added.

In promoting the challenge, the store has found the Reading Without Walls kit helpful, particularly the poster, which Schaffner calls "something that will stick around in our department for quite a while.... It's a great way to sort of poke at kids' thinking while they're browsing--my hope will always be that if kids are reading the poster, their reading choices (or at least how they think about the books they choose) will be slightly altered just from that."

In the time leading up to Yang's appearance, both in-store and through its blog, Brookline Booksmith is promoting Reading Without Walls as something "fun and interesting and something we also want to participate in." A recent blog post by Schaffner is about the Reading Without Walls challenges that Brookline Booksmith's children's staff has completed. Schaffner, for instance, has read Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee as her #1 book and One Last Word by Nikki Grimes for challenge #3. For #2, she thinks "a good nonfiction picture book will do the trick."

Readers are invited to share their completed challenges on Twitter with the #ReadingWithoutWalls hashtag. Many participants have already posted pictures of themselves and the book they read to meet the Reading Without Walls challenge.




Walter Foster Publishing: Fresh and Contemporary

The preeminent publisher of art instruction books, Walter Foster Publishing began like many California entrepreneurial success stories: In 1922, Walter Foster, a caricaturist, sign painter and Vaudevillian performer, among other talents, started publishing instructional art books in his home in Laguna Beach. In the beginning, he did it all: writing, illustrating, printing, binding--all of it! Walter was driven by his belief that anyone who wanted to draw or paint could do so with just a little help and encouragement.

Eventually, Walter Foster Publishing, an imprint of the London-based Quarto Group, grew into a world-renowned, trusted publisher of quality art-instruction books. It continued to grow its line of books for adults and launched a children's drawing book program that includes several licensed titles with Disney, Nickelodeon, Dreamworks, and others.

Anne Landa (left) and Rebecca Razo

However, it's been over the past decade or so that Walter Foster has "really hit its stride," says Rebecca Razo, publisher of Walter Foster and the forthcoming Laguna Press. "Anne Landa, group publisher of Quarto Southern California, took over running the business in January 2015, at which time we revamped our program." This includes adding a wider range of titles, not just for serious fine artists, but also for art hobbyists, crafters, and weekend art enthusiasts, as well as introducing more intuitive approaches to teaching art. "And we've modernized the aesthetic of our list across the board," Razo adds.

Walter Foster books enjoy a longstanding, solid reputation in the art and craft market at such retail establishments as Hobby Lobby and Michaels, as well as art supply chains, including Blick and AC Moore. And its presence continues to grow in the book trade. "One of the things we hear over and over again from people around the world is: 'I grew up with Walter Foster books!' " Razo says. But the company also wants booksellers and librarians to know that, as Razo puts it, "We're not just your parents' and grandparents' instructional-art book publisher." The list is "as fresh and contemporary as it is practical and useful," she says, adding, "And we've struck a perfect balance between continuing to serve the needs of our core audience--the serious fine artist--and publishing for those who just want to pass the time making great art."

"Being part of the Quarto Group has enabled Walter Foster to spread its wings," Anne Landa, group publisher, Quarto Southern California, says. Quarto's mission is, Landa continues, "to make and sell great books that entertain, educate and enrich the lives of adults and children around the world. We're constantly looking for new ways to create and deliver content that people need."

Since 1996, Walter Foster Publishing has been part of The Quarto Group, which specializes in illustrated nonfiction, is domiciled in the U.S., and is listed on the London Stock Exchange. Quarto has 48 imprints around the world that publish in 50 countries and 39 languages through traditional and non-traditional channels focusing on subjects that range from art 'how-to,' graphic design and home improvement to cooking, gardening, motoring and crafts. Its 400 employees are in the U.S., U.K., and Hong Kong. In the U.S., The Quarto Group has five creative hubs: in Lake Forest, Calif. (where Walter Foster is located); New York City; Beverly, Mass.; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Seattle, Wash., where becker&mayer, its the most recent acquisition, is based.


Gene Luen Yang: Books That Break Walls and Promote Diversity

Gene Luen Yang is an ideal person to promote Reading Without Walls: throughout his career, he's broken walls and promoted diversity.

He began drawing comic books in the fifth grade and began to become prominent as a cartoonist in 1997, when he received the Xeric grant for self-publishing for his Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks. After putting out several issues on his own, it was picked up by comics publisher Slave Labor, who published it and Loyola Chin and the San Pelegran Order (later collected into a single volume as Animal Crackers). While working on these comics, Yang received his Master's degree in education from Cal State Hayward and began teaching at a San Francisco school. He is a founding member of the Bay Area's Art Night Crew, a local group of cartoonists.

In 2006, his graphic novel American Born Chinese (Macmillan Children's Book Group/First Second Books) was the first graphic novel to be a finalist for a National Book Award (creating a fiery debate on whether graphic novels were eligible for the award and whether they were "real books"). American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to win the American Library Association's Printz Award for best YA book of the year and it won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album. The book has sold more than 500,000 copies and is widely taught in high schools and universities.

American Born Chinese follows three seemingly disparate characters. Jin Wang is a Chinese-American elementary school student whose parents are from Taiwan. He is desperate to fit in with his all-white classmates, but finds this difficult thanks to the interference of his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, who Yang depicts as a painful amalgamation of Chinese stereotypes. The third character is the Monkey King, a popular figure in Chinese folklore, who seeks to become an immortal god despite the lack of space for a monkey in heaven. Yang weaves these characters into a powerful narrative about outsiders crossing boundaries and finding places for themselves in unfamiliar worlds.

In 2013, Boxers & Saints (Macmillan Children's Book Group/First Second Books), his two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion, was a National Book Award finalist and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature.

In Boxers & Saints, Yang brings his deceptively light-hearted aesthetic to a period of immense chaos in modern Chinese history. Near the end of the Qing dynasty, a revolt against Christian missionaries and imperialist expansion led to an invasion by eight foreign nations, including the United States. In part one, Boxers, Yang follows Little Bao, a peasant boy who joins the Boxer movement after his village is abused by Westerners. In Saints, Yang follows Vibiana, a girl who finds a home with Christian missionaries after being rejected by her village. By showing both sides of this complex conflict, Yang illuminates universal attributes of human nature that transcend even the most violent divisions.

Yang also won an Eisner for The Eternal Smile: Three Stories (Macmillan Children's Book Group/First Second Books), a collaboration with artist Derek Kirk Kim. The three stories of Eternal Smile are vastly different. In the first, a brave warrior must slay an evil Frog King to rescue a princess, if he can ignore an inexplicable recurring omen. In the second, a greedy frog wonders about the origin of his obsession--to fill a pool with gold and dive in. In the final story, Janet's dreary life as an office worker takes an intriguing twist when a Nigerian prince promises vast riches if she will share her banking information. These funny, sometimes absurd stories offer insights into subconscious desire, the reality of fantasy, and what it means to dream.

He's also the author, with artist Mike Holmes, of the Secret Coders series (Macmillan Children's Book Group/First Second Books), which takes place at Stately Academy, a mysterious, sometimes creepy school full of robots, overbearing adults and plenty of computers. Twelve-year-old Hopper and Eni become fast friends as they seek to master the wonders of coding. The four volumes of this series introduce kids, in entertaining fashion, to the language of computers, while presenting a diverse cast of characters engaged in STEM education (and fun adventures).

This middle-grade series draws on Yang's background in education and as a teacher of computer science, using the narrative to teach kids about computer programming. He is a strong proponent of using comics in education, and of representing diversity through the comics medium, which he does in all of his comics work. 

A strong believer in collaboration, Yang has published books in partnership with cartoonists Derek Kirk Kim (besides The Eternal Smile, this includes Duncan's Kingdom), Thien Pham (Level Up) and Sonny Liew (The Shadow Hero). Yang's work has also been included in the anthologies Up All NightSecret IdentitiesStrange TalesNursery Rhyme ComicsShattered, Open Mic and Comic Squad: Recess. After speaking out against the lack of diversity in the casting of the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie, Yang was asked to write the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics (Dark Horse Comics). He has also written some of the Superman comics (DC Comics).  

Last fall, Yang was honored with the most valuable prize a creator can receive: a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant of $625,000, which are given to people who "show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future." Appropriately the Foundation said that Yang's work for young adults "demonstrates the potential of comics to broaden our understanding of diverse cultures and people."

Reading Without Walls began when Yang was appointed National Ambassador for Young People's Literature in January 2016, the first graphic novelist to be appointed to the role since it was created in 2008. Each National Ambassador does four speaking events a year during the two-year term and picks out a platform to focus on. Yang's choice was Reading Without Walls, an idea that he said developed in meetings with his publisher, Macmillan, and with the Children's Book Council, shortly before he became National Ambassador.

As part of Reading Without Walls, Yang has done a podcast talking with people "I admire, authors, animators and others, about books they read as a kid and how they influenced them and inspired them to do something beautiful."

In his 2014 Shelf Awareness Book Brahmin, Yang gave a personal example of how going outside established reading habits can have a profound impact on young readers. When asked for a book that changed his life, Yang said "Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. If I hadn't read McCloud's book when I was in my late teens, I probably would not be doing comics today. Every time I have trouble making my mortgage payment, I blame McCloud."

May every young reader have the same experience!


Walter Foster Jr. Grows Up Fast

Walter Foster Jr., was founded in fall 2014 as The Quarto Group implemented a broad plan for children's publishing in the U.S. that included bringing in sister imprints from the U.K. In addition to Walter Foster Jr., MoonDance and Seagrass, Quarto's global children's business includes Wide Eyed Editions, Frances Lincoln Children's Books, Small World, QEB, Words & Pictures and Ivy Kids.

Walter Foster Jr.'s mission statement is "Encouraging creativity and sparking imagination in children of all ages." This remains the company's focus, says Anne Landa, "whether that includes expanding our original line of learn-to-draw titles with new and existing formats and licenses, or continuing to develop on-trend enthusiast categories with titles such as Words to Live By or our new line of Board Books: ABC Yoga and ABC Love."

The imprint's list has quickly developed from traditional art and craft how-to titles to a more well-rounded active nonfiction list of some 20 to 40 books a season. Landa says these books are "unique, fun, and have a purpose--whether it's encouraging a young child to take an interest in learning about literary figures or great artists in a humorous way, learning about grammar and mathematics with a fun twist, or finding their creativity and learning how to draw or paint with their fingers or with step-by-step lessons from experts. We have the historical know-how based on 95 years of art instruction that has now passed down to the children's lists; we have something for everyone."

Reflecting the imprint's myriad subjects, Walter Foster Jr.'s markets range from art and craft stores such as Michaels and Hobby Lobby, to small indies "and many places in between!" Landa adds. "And we have a fantastic foreign rights team that ensure our books are published in every language possible," one of the many advantages of being part of The Quarto Group.

Walter Foster Jr., has grown organically, which the company plans to continue "by publishing to strong verticals within product type" as well as publishing series extensions and through continued strong backlist sales. Landa adds, "Our new licensed titles should also enable growth as we look to further expand our account base."


Fictional Characters with Overdue Library Books

Quirk Books highlighted "repeat offenders: characters with overdue library books," as well as the "most dangerous fictional libraries in pop culture."

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Buzzfeed invited wannabe authors to "pretend to write a book and find out what city suits you best."

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Sleeping with the book beside you. Bustle considered "15 weird things you do while reading that are actually totally normal."

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Road trip: "Norway for bookworms: A short travel guide for literature lovers" was presented by the Local.

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From Shakespeare to Seamus Heaney, author Sam Miller chose his "top 10 books about fathers" for the Guardian.

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Charles Dickens's reading desk was "specially crafted to fit his needs on stage," Bookshelf noted.


The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger


Fiction and Job Performance

Fast Company offered "five ways reading fiction makes you better at your job."

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Mental Floss noted "10 everyday phrases that come from printing."

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Pop Quiz: "How good are you with synonyms?" asked Buzzfeed.

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"Love The Hobbit? You can now buy your very own Hobbit home" in Montana, Travel+Leisure noted.

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Tariq Ali shared his "top 10 books about the Russian Revolution" with the Guardian.

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House & Garden's Emily Senior offered tips on "how to make your bookshelves beautiful" in Vogue.


Counterpoint: Grace by Natashia Deón


Favorite Fictional Libraries

For National Library Week, Quirk Books shared "our favorite fictional libraries."

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Look it up. Kory Stamper explored "why dictionaries still matter for kids today" at Brightly.

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Pop quiz: "Can you guess the classic book by these extremely vague descriptions?" Buzzfeed challenged.

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"Old books smell like chocolate and coffee, according to science," Bustle reported, citing researchers at the University of London's Institute for Sustainable Heritage and its "Historic Book Odour Wheel."

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Mental Floss shared "15 things you might not know about Of Mice and Men."

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"Poet's Pacific paradise: Pablo Neruda's homes in Chile." The Guardian visited "two of the Pacific-facing homes where the poet found inspiration."


Knopf Publishing Group: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve


Grammar Vigilante

A self-proclaimed "grammar vigilante" roams the night in Bristol, England, "correcting street signs and shop fronts where the apostrophes are in the wrong place," BBC News reported.

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Pop quiz: "What kind of fairytale reader are you?" asked Quirk Books.

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"This Game of Thrones-themed wedding is cool as hell," Buzzfeed noted.

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"The twins become nannies for a royal family." Mental Floss collected "12 of the Sweet Valley High Books' most ridiculous plotlines."

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Chekhov and dachshunds, Brodsky and cats. Russia Beyond the Headlines featured "8 Russian writers and their furry friends."


Shelf Awareness Sign-up Giveaway: Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire


Nine Places That Inspired Classic Novels

Bustle explored "9 real life places that inspired famous classic novels."

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"Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt." Buzzfeed showcased "37 of the most heartbreakingly beautiful lines in literature."

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Andy of Green Gables, for example. Quirk Books considered "mistitled books and the pitches we imagined for them."

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Flavorwire explored "20 honest and magical life lessons from Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales."

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Author Sara Flannery Murphy chose her "top 10 stories of obsession" for the Guardian.

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In Transylvania, "you can get chocolate eggs from the Easter Bunny at Dracula's castle," Food & Wine reported.


Exciting Second Sentences

The key to writing an exciting book opening? Author Marc Laidlaw suggested using "And then the murders began" as your second sentence, Bustle noted.

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Bookish age test from Buzzfeed: "Pretend to write a book and we'll guess how old you are."

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"A look inside fictional characters' fanny packs" was shared by Quirk Books.

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"The retreats where famous authors found inspiration" were featured in a Guardian slide show.

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Mental Floss invited On the Road fans to "see young Jack Kerouac's reading list."

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Studio North's library shaft climbable bookcase is located in a converted warehouse, where "the client's loft had an unused space that was once part of the building's industrial elevator shaft," Bookshelf reported.


Great Reads

Rediscover: The Guns of August

This month marks the centennial of the United States' entry into World War I. By the time President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, the conflict had been raging since August 1914, claiming millions of lives and toppling empires. What became a global catastrophe of industrialized warfare began with a spark to a long-packed powderkeg when Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

How this single act of violence begat a European apocalypse is the subject of Barbara W. Tuchman's 1962 book The Guns of August. Tuchman (1912-1989) won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction with her narrative, layperson-friendly look at the onset of World War I. It begins in 1910, with the funeral of British King Edward VII, and the visiting European heads of state, many related to the departed monarch and each other, who would soon be at war. She outlines prewar military plans, some of which were a generation in the making, that came into terrible fruition in August 1914. Tuchman chronicles the whirlwind of geopolitical folly that lead to war and the conflict's opening moves, up through the First Battle of the Marne (also called the Miracle of the Marne), when Allied forces halted the German advance into France and created the first lines of static trenches. The Guns of August was last published by Presidio Press in 2004 ($8.99, 9780345476098). --Tobias Mutter


Now in Paperback: April

FICTION
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor, $15.99)
All the Birds in the Sky weaves magic and science fiction into an emotionally complex story about growing up and finding love. Patricia discovers that she has the ability to talk to animals, and Laurence takes refuge from social torment in gadgetry. Both evolve from bullied, misunderstood children into socially accepted, internally conflicted adults.

Listen to the Lambs by Daniel Black (St. Martin's Griffin, $16.99)
In Daniel Black's allegorical tale of a successful African American man who gives up all of his material possessions--and his family--in order to live fully, readers will find the striking beauty of an exceptionally talented writer. Listen to the Lambs is a literary ballet of sweeping proportions.

Jane Two by Sean Patrick Flanery (Center Street, 14.99)
Actor Sean Patrick Flanery captures the essence and angst of a teenaged boy's life in his first novel, Jane Two. This authentic coming-of-age story is told by Mickey, who looks back at his formative years in Houston, Tex., when he was tucked inside the cocoon of small-town family life, tumultuous schoolyard bullies and friends, and also captivated by first love.

The Decent Proposal by Kemper Donovan (Harper Paperbacks, $15.99)
What would two people do for a million dollars? A mysterious, anonymous benefactor hires a lawyer to bring together two strangers, promising that they can split $1 million if they agree to spend at least two continuous hours with each other--engaging in substantial conversation--every week, for one year.

The Midnight Watch by David Dyer (St. Martin's Griffin, $15.99)
A former navy officer focuses on the actions of two crew members of a nearby ship whose decisions may have cost the lives of more than 1,500 souls who perished on the Titanic. With Dyer's skillful writing and nautical understanding, the famously tragic story resurfaces a century later, bringing a lesser-known aspect to light.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (Vintage, $16.95)
Three Indian immigrants struggle to shape their lives as they look for work in Northern England. Tochi is from the untouchable caste and is fleeing a violent past; Avtar is from a lower-middle-class family and wants to be able to provide for his parents and wife-to-be; Randeep is from an upper-middle-class household whose livelihood is threatened when Randeep's ailing father loses his job.

NONFICTION
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer (Simon & Schuster, $16)
When warring militant groups take control of Timbuktu, Mali, a band of librarians stages a daring mission to rescue thousands of ancient Islamic texts. The salvage operation--as precarious and fraught with obstacles as any Hollywood heist--involved moving more than 350,000 manuscripts hundreds of miles downriver.

Why Save the Bankers by Thomas Piketty (Mariner, $15.99)
Thomas Piketty may be the most important economist of the era. Why Save the Bankers? distills his convincing arguments about inequality into easily digestible essays on modern social and political issues. It is not a work of ideology, but a series of short, sometimes very funny, calls to common sense.

Trespassing Across America by Ken Ilgunas (Blue Rider, $16)
While working as a dishwasher at a camp 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Ken Ilgunas realized that he needed to take a new direction with his life. He decided to walk the length of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, a route of nearly 2,000 miles. During his hike, he gets to know the area and the people the plan would affect.

Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin's Griffin, $15.99)
After chronicling his wildly dysfunctional childhood (Running with Scissors) and his addiction and recovery (Dry), Augusten Burroughs tackles his largely unlucky search for romance and the man of his dreams in Lust & Wonder. Burroughs's wit and pen are razor-sharp, and his observations are acerbically funny. He avoids becoming unlikable by saving his best jabs for himself.

Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild (Mariner, $15.99)
Adam Hochschild uses the experiences of less famous American volunteers to bring the Spanish Civil War to life, but does not reduce it to a simple story of idealism and heroism. Spain in Our Hearts is gripping, illuminating and ultimately heartbreaking.

Lost Book of Moses by Chanan Tigay (Ecco, 15.99)
The Lost Book of Moses tells the story of Tigay's attempt to locate an ancient copy of Deuteronomy. The quest is a four-continent, 15-year trail of red herrings, unexpected leads and repeated dead ends and leads him to academic archives, antiquarian booksellers, museum storerooms, a hotel attic and a surprising number of Anglican church services.

 


The Writer's Life

Dr. Willie Parker: Living with Conviction and Purpose

photo: Chad Griffith

Dr. Willie Parker is chair of the board of Physicians for Reproductive Health. He is a recipient of Planned Parenthood's Margaret Sanger Award, and the subject of Trapped, a documentary about the legal battle to keep abortion clinics in the South open. In Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice (just published by Atria), Dr. Parker passionately asserts being a true Christian means providing care and having compassion for all people in need.

Your work puts you in danger, but you face it down every day. What would you say to people who want to do the right thing but fear for their safety and/or that of their loved ones?

I think it's important that one does a risk assessment based on what feels both empowering and/or threatening to you personally. Someone said that you can use another person's knowledge, but you can't use another person's wisdom. Analogously, you can use another person's inspiration, but you can't use their courage. You have to find your own.

If you're in a situation where you have to take into account the wellbeing of others, then the risk assessment and degree of security one feels has to reflect those things for others. But if it's just you, you have to do what lets you sleep at night. You have to embrace something that allows you to strike the right balance between honoring your conviction and feeling safe in your choices.

You've said being an abortion provider is "kind of a rent that I pay for being on the planet. Our rent is our service." Have you ever felt the rent is getting too high?

The cost for [having] clarity, serenity, and purpose--reached by doing the work that I do--will always compute as a small price to pay when I look at the fact that the only real threat is one of bodily harm, and that is not the worst thing that could happen to me. I'm more afraid of living without conviction and purpose than I am that someone might try to harm me. So, to have the things I mentioned compared to any negatives associated with what I do, I feel like I get off fairly cheap and have struck a good deal.

You're a devout Christian but also use science and medical facts to argue against the "life begins at conception" notion. How does one persuade people who find science less credible or weighty than their religious beliefs?

I don't feel attempts at persuasion are a good use of my time, nor do I feel that it benefits me in any way to be more vested in truth on behalf of someone else than I am for myself. I think the integrity of the question... [lies] in whether or not there are those who are honestly ignorant and those who are willfully ignorant. I don't use ignorance as a form of slight for someone who disagrees with me, but rather, I subscribe to the saying that you cannot awaken someone who's pretending to be asleep.

I believe truth is bigger than me and so it has to have hold of me, I can't have hold of it, which is to say I don't have a need to defend the truth. I am more content to be defended by the truth. So I have ultimate confidence that facts matter, and science matters. If they didn't, there would be no need to create alternative facts or generate junk science.

One of the things you advocate is talking about abortion openly to remove its stigma. But it's a volatile topic. How does one talk about it while preventing the discussion from escalating to a shouting match?

Mahatma Gandhi said, "Honest disagreement is the beginning of progress." I find the best way to honestly disagree is to set ground rules for engagement before embarking upon a conversation about issues that people feel very strongly about. That means I insist on an agreement to mutually respect indisputable facts.

Additionally, I insist on creating an air of mutual respect such that the contention or question is always about the issue, and not about the humanity of the person with whom I'm engaging. If I don't feel I'm in a situation where mutual respect can be maintained even in the face of vigorous disagreement, then I elect not to participate in that conversation. Hence, it's not as much what the subject is as how you choose to engage it.

What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about your work and your patients?

I would say the biggest misconceptions are that there is something morbid about it, and that women who seek abortion services are cold, aloof, indecisive, irresponsible or not mentally stable. Those opposed to abortion have done a good job of creating horror stories about what abortion is, and they enhance the power of those stories with a parallel shaming strategy that leaves women and people who provide abortions unwilling to post stories of their experiences that would contradict those narratives.

I want people to know that healthcare providers who provide abortion are no different from any other healthcare providers, and that the women who have abortions are no different from all of our mothers, sisters, partners and other female kin. That is who women who have abortions are.

Last year you spoke in Copenhagen at Women Deliver, the largest global conference on women's health and rights. How would you compare global abortion rights and perceptions with those in the U.S.?

It was a real privilege to speak at Women Deliver last year. Being in community with people from all around the globe was a new experience for me and one I will never forget.

What I know about the abortion picture around the world compared to the [one in the] U.S. is that in most places around the world, abortion is illegal and therefore quite dangerous for women who have to seek them. It is beyond question that abortion is lifesaving for the women who need it both literally and circumstantially. While the risks associated with abortion are so different [in] the U.S. [compared to that in] the rest of the world, particularly in developing countries, these efforts to outlaw abortion and make it difficult to access means we are closing the gap in the wrong way.

If someone told you they don't want to read your book, judging it by its cover, how would you convince the person to read it anyway?

If someone told me they would not read my book simply because of who I am and what I do or based on the title, it would indicate to me right away that person's mindset would not be easily swayed by any amount of lobbying I could do. Someone once said if you press against a closed door, that door only becomes more firmly closed. Minds are like parachutes--they function best when open.

I would say to anyone regarding my book--or any other piece of knowledge to which they might have access--reading or exposing yourself to a position different from your own doesn't change your position. It will either clarify your thinking on the issue so that you hold it more firmly, or it will make you question whether or not you should hold that position at all. We would all benefit if we would lose our fear of change, especially when it is for the better. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis


Michel Stone: The Human Stories Behind the Politics of Immigration

photo: Paige Phillips

Michel Stone is a graduate of Clemson University and a native South Carolinian who has published more than a dozen short stories and essays in various journals and magazines. She was the recipient of the 2011 South Carolina Fiction Award, and her 2012 debut novel, The Iguana Tree (Hub City Press), received an IPPY Award and was named an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. Her new novel, Border Child (just published by Nan A. Talese, and reviewed below), continues the heartwrenching journey of a young Mexican couple who are desperately seeking answers to the disappearance of their child during a border crossing.

How did you become interested in the subject of Mexican immigrants crossing into el Norte for better opportunities?

I grew up on Johns Island, a farming community in rural Charleston County, S.C. Throughout my childhood I'd see migrant Latino children in the tomato fields with their parents, and I suspected those children had traveled and seen far more than I ever would. They came from faraway lands and spoke a language I could not understand, but they'd vanish when the farming season ended. Until I was 13, the furthest I'd traveled was to visit my cousin in Alabama. The children in the fields intrigued me and I yearned to know their stories. How were we alike? How were our lives different? Did they go to school? What did they eat? What magnificent, mysterious, exotic stories they must have had!

What about your personal experiences with Mexican immigrants--was there a specific person or persons that inspired you to write these stories?

When I was a young mother, I had an encounter with a Mexican couple on a South Carolina farm. They confided in me that they'd crossed the border into the U.S. from Mexico without proper papers and that they'd handed over their infant to a paid smuggler who specialized in crossing with babies. They reunited with their baby son in Texas. Their story haunted me and was the catalyst for my ever-growing intrigue with the topic of border crossings, particularly from the humanities perspective. The hows and the whys gripped me. I have much less interest in the politics of the border. I've always been interested in the human story.

Writer Tayari Jones wrote a blurb for Border Child: "It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to tell the heartbreaking story of a little girl lost." What are your thoughts on this?

Tayari is a master at writing heartbreak and hope and at illuminating the complexities of family dynamics. I often talk about empathy, and I think that's what Tayari is talking about here. I recently read Desmond Tutu's "No Future Without Forgiveness," in which he expounds on the South African concept of Ubuntu, which means essentially that my humanity is inextricably bound to yours and that what dehumanizes me, dehumanizes you. That's what I try to convey in my fiction, and I think Tayari gets that.

Did you intend to write a standalone novel with The Iguana Tree?

I had no clue how the ending of The Iguana Tree would unsettle people and how often readers would ask if I intended to write a sequel. For the first year after the novel's publication, I would emphatically say no when asked that question and, indeed, I'd begun writing a novel with a completely new set of characters. Then I visited Hermiston, Ore., when that town read The Iguana Tree for their Community Read. Hermiston is a large agricultural community near the Columbia River, with a population that's about 35% Latino. At a panel discussion, I was deeply touched by that community's warm reception to my book. During the q&a, a woman asked if I planned to write a follow-up novel to tell the rest of the story. I said yes and the room erupted in applause. The next morning the local paper had a story about my visit and announced that I'd be writing a follow-up novel. Well, I had to do it after that! I began making notes on my flight home. I don't call Border Child a sequel; it’s a stand-alone novel. But readers of my first novel will recognize characters.

The Iguana Tree had an almost frenetic desperation to it, whereas Border Child is more reflective. If you were to write a third novel focused on the lives of Hector and Lilia Santos, how would you envision it?

A misconception of youth and inexperience is that we're invincible. Life's fickle journey eventually proves otherwise. Hector and Lilia had the inexperience and impetuousness of youth in The Iguana Tree. In Border Child, these characters have now weathered life-altering events. People become more reflective, more cautious and thoughtful after surviving trauma. A friend said to me, "Hector becomes a man in Border Child because he thinks increasingly about others before self." I suppose that's true. I have no plans to write a third book about these characters but if I did, I envision their lives mellowing, sweetening into a gentler existence. I owe them that!

What are your thoughts on international adoption, which Border Child touches upon, and on the difficulties and pain these families face? 

My primary interest in writing my novels is to examine the power of familial love and family dynamics, and how those dynamics change under hardship. Love, struggle, commitment, sacrifice, pain, joy, parenthood and childhood are universal concepts. A character's nationality, her skin tone, her story's setting won't change the definition of any of these words. Adopted children are children, and adoptive parents are parents. But the reality of international adoptions is fertile ground for fiction and a wonderful opportunity for a novelist to examine ways families of all stripes are alike, despite differences.

How would you approach the topic of immigration, given the current political climate?

Politicians are quick to throw out all or nothing answers, but life isn't like that. I read a great quote by Mother Teresa not long ago. She said, "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." I like to illuminate the one.

I'm writing my third novel now and it does involve this topic. It's set in Honduras with more of the frenetic urgency and desperation you referenced. I'm interested in the motivation of parents who allow their unaccompanied children to cross into the U.S. from Central America, particularly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The gang violence in those countries is a tremendous influence in these families' decisions. Can you imagine being a parent there, barely able to afford beans for your pot, yet you have five or six children and you know when those children reach eight or nine years old, the gangs will begin to conscript them? This is the type of scenario that gets my creative juices flowing. I love exploring the human condition in my fiction. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant


Book Review

Fiction

Sonora

by Hannah Lillith Assadi


Hannah Lillith Assadi's Sonora is a beautiful desert wind of a novel--wild, plangent and revealing. In the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., and later in the bohemian subculture of New York City, Ahlam, the daughter of a Jewish mother and Palestinian father, narrates her struggle to belong in a postmodern U.S.

Fans of Denis Johnson will find in Assadi a similarly edgy and visionary writer. Her hallucinatory prose evokes Arizona's harsh beauty, its legends of ancient treasures and alien spaceships, and the way endless suburbia displaces both the landscape and history. Assadi's raw, poetic talent continues to dazzle in later passages set in New York, where Ahlam and her best friend, Laura, get caught in a destructive whirl of partying and drug abuse. "The dawn is so violent when you've stayed up all night," she reflects on the growing danger in her life. Rather than glorifying the city's counterculture, Sonora offers a lurid yet achingly authentic female perspective on the emotional costs of hipsterdom.

Assadi smartly connects the alienation of her young characters to that of her older characters. Her shrewd dialogue leaves a trail of barbed insights into society. "When you are rich, your past disappears," says Ahlam's immigrant father, who's haunted by ambivalence toward the U.S. and fear that he doesn't belong. Both disturbing and touching, Sonora is a brilliant debut novel. Assadi is an exciting talent, and a writer to watch. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author

Discover: This startling coming-of-age story mixes childhood visions of Arizona with the postmodern anomie of New York City.

Soho Press, $16, paperback, 208p., 9781616957926

One of the Boys

by Daniel Magariel


With his fiction debut, Daniel Magariel shows he knows how to pack a knockout punch in a short jab. Tight and disturbing, One of the Boys explores the sinister damage an acrimonious divorce inflicts on two teenage boys caught between their unreliable mother and violent, cocaine-addicted father. Vulnerable and looking for some stability, the brothers want to believe that their father loves them and really will provide the safe new life he promised after they leave their mother in Kansas.

The suburban Albuquerque apartment he finds them, however, soon becomes a place that swings between a frat house and a crack house. For weeks at a time their dad disappears into his bedroom with his drugs and various women while the boys grow up fast, learning to cook, drive, buy groceries, manage school and sports, work part time at the Stop-N-Go, and somehow pay the bills. The drugs soon make their dad increasingly abusive and paranoid--until the binges end, and remorse and promises return. The brothers know the cycle: "Our dad was an act with a single end. His trajectory: down, down, down." In telling this bleak story from the younger brother's perspective, Magariel puts an exceptional spin on what is sadly a predicament common to many adolescent children of bitter divorce. The narrator's yearning for stability, his resilience and his confusion drive the narrative. Magariel doesn't pull his punches. This incisive debut is as heartbreaking as it is unflinching. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: In his taut first novel, Daniel Magariel tells the evocative story of two teen boys forced to grow up too fast in a home shaken by divorce, drugs and violence.

Scribner, $22, hardcover, 176p., 9781501156168

The Gargoyle Hunters

by John Freeman Gill


New York City is always reinventing itself: growing, pushing, regenerating, completely overhauling. Often that reinvention comes at the cost of preserving its past. As urban renewal projects multiply in 1970s New York, 13-year-old Griffin Watts gets swept up in his father's obsession with saving the city's ornate, often quirky architectural carvings from the wrecking ball. John Freeman Gill tells Griffin's story in his erudite, irreverent debut novel, The Gargoyle Hunters.

Gill (who writes the monthly "Edifice Complex" column for Avenue magazine) delves into the architectural history of Manhattan, as Griffin listens to his father wax eloquent about landmarks public and private: grand structures such as the Woolworth Building and humbler ones such as the Washington Market studio where Griffin's parents lived as newlyweds. "Every New Yorker," Gill notes, "has his own idiosyncratic system of cartography." With his parents' marriage crumbling as fast as the city around him, Griffin agrees to join his dad in "liberating"--i.e., stealing--and then selling scraps of the city, from limestone gargoyles to an entire set of exterior panels for a building. As he learns more about his dad's illicit work, Griffin starts to wonder if his father's obsession is an unhealthy one, but before long, both father and son may be in too deep to extricate themselves.

With a fresh, wry narrative voice, Gill presents a vividly imagined slice of New York history, a quirky portrait of the 1970s and a tender father-son story--with plenty of gargoyles on the side. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: John Freeman Gill's debut novel weaves together architecture, history and family drama against the backdrop of 1970s New York.

Knopf, $27.95, hardcover, 352p., 9781101946886

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

by Lisa See


Lisa See (China Dolls) pays homage to the enduring bond between mother and daughter while also illuminating the fascinating world of small tea farms in China during the economic reforms of the 1980s and '90s.

Born of the Akha people in the Yunnan province hills of southern China, Li-Yan knows her future by the age of 10. Like her a-ma, she will become the midwife and healer of Spring Well Village and marry a boy from a neighboring tea farm. A hidden grove of ancient tea trees and medicinal plants makes up her dowry, passed through the generations by the women of her family.

When Teacher Zhang suggests that Li-Yan has the intelligence to become the first person from her community to go to college, she sees a way out of her narrow existence. Then Mr. Huang, a Hong Kong businessman, arrives in Spring Well looking for the source of fermented Pu'er tea, an up-and-coming Hong Kong trend said to have health benefits. Between translating her family's words to Mr. Huang and sneaking away to meet San-Pa, the boy she loves, Li-Yan misses her opportunity to test into college. Worse, after San-Pa leaves to earn money for their marriage, Li-Yan realizes she's pregnant. When he does not return, tradition dictates she must kill her fatherless daughter at birth, but Li-Yan rebels and leaves newborn Yan-Yeh at the Menghai Social Welfare Institute, but never stops grieving for her lost child. Meanwhile, Yan-Yeh is adopted by an American family and struggles to understand why her birth mother abandoned her.

Meticulously researched, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores the link between tea production and an ethnic minority's survival and customs. An intimate portrait, this family drama will dazzle book clubs eager to watch a woman rise above her circumstances against an uncommon and captivating backdrop. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A young woman of China's Akha people rises through the tea industry but never forgets her infant daughter, whose life she saved by giving her away.

Scribner, $27, hardcover, 384p., 9781501154829

Jerzy

by Jerome Charyn


Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991) was the secretive yet celebrated author of Being There and The Painted Bird, an oeuvre as contradictory as the man himself. While the former was a lighthearted tale about a hapless gardener turned political pundit, the latter was a dark allegory about the moral destruction of World War II that drew on his experience as a Jew hiding from the Nazis in Poland. Kosinski was an author weighed down by accusations of plagiarism who nevertheless enjoyed fame, befriending movie stars and appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

In Jerzy, Jerome Charyn (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson) offers a fictionalized biography of Kosinski told through the voices of people who knew him over the course of his career, revealing the many shades of his persona. It is a minimalist and unsentimental story of an elusive, larger-than-life character.

Charyn takes poetic liberties with some of the holes in Kosinski's real life. In the novel's first vignette, Kosinski resists Peter Sellers's attempts to play the main character in the film adaptation of Being There, until finally he relents and sees his character taken from him. In another, he dates Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Joseph Stalin, slowly turning her into a character he can use in a story about his liberation at the hands of the Red Army. 

In Jerzy, Kosinski can't seem to forgive himself for using true events as inspiration for his greatest work of fiction. But, in Charyn's hands, Kosinski the man is vindicated, proving that life is itself a work of art. --Josh Potter

Discover: Jerzy is a fast-paced, minimalist exploration of one of 20th century's most elusive literary figures.

Bellevue Literary Press, $16.99, paperback, 240p., 9781942658146

Himself

by Jess Kidd


Himself, Jess Kidd's debut novel, has an intricate, twisting, turning plot that weaves Irish mythology, magical realism and ghosts into a whodunit that is anything but typical of its genre. In 1970s Ireland, 26-year-old, bell-bottom-wearing Mahony, raised in a Dublin orphanage, pursues a life of petty theft. When he receives an anonymous letter suggesting that his mother did not give him up willingly, however, Mahony sets aside his roguish ways and heads to her small hometown of Mulderrig to find out what really happened all those years ago.

As Mahony's search for the truth unfolds, Himself draws on elements of Irish folklore in ways that make Kidd's novel feel both whimsical and ominous. "There's a lot of truth in folklore," insists Mahony--and given his ability to both see and speak with the dead, this assertion comes as no surprise. Though he's had the ability since he was young, he's avoided interacting with ghosts in Dublin. But no such thing is possible in Mulderrig, where the spirits of the town's dead flock to his side and whisper secrets to him--secrets the living would prefer to be left in the past. With the assistance of the apparitions and Mrs. Cauley, an aging stage actress self-described as "Miss Marple.... With balls," Mahony starts to piece together the secrets of this darkness in ways that lead him to his mother.

Kidd combines these elements of magic and mystery with moments of wry humor and heartfelt emotion. A tribute to the classic Irish art of storytelling, Himself is a delight from start to finish. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A young man searches for the truth about his mother's past in a mystery that marvelously combines mysticism and Irish folklore.

Atria, $26, hardcover, 384p., 9781501145179

My Last Lament

by James William Brown


Aliki, one of the last lamenters in Greece, is dragging the weight of her life behind her in the opening pages of My Last Lament, James William Brown's brilliant work of historical fiction. "There is this about the dead: they're so light. They slip in and out of our world with no effort whatsoever. By contrast, we seem heavy, dragging our lives along behind us like an old sack of stones."

To lessen this burden, Aliki begins to tell the story of her life, speaking into a tape recorder left by a sociologist studying the art of Greek laments. As her memories unfold and unpack themselves, her recounting evolves into a lament itself, for all that she has loved and lost in her long life.

By framing the story as a kind of oral memoir, Brown (Blood Dance) has crafted a novel that is at once epic in its scope and yet remains grounded in the confines of one woman's life. Aliki shines through every page of My Last Lament, a strong and consistent voice that proves a near-perfect vessel for Brown's lyrical prose and centers a story that moves backward and forward through time to recount both Aliki's past and her present.

Brown's ability thoughtfully to address meaningful reflections while examining the very essence of what it means to be alive--in any time, any place--is what makes My Last Lament exemplary of the historical fiction genre. "How does any story end? It just turns into the beginning of another one, the one about us all." --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: This ambitious novel about grief and tragedy is dense but never dull, complex but never confusing.

Berkley, $26, hardcover, 352p., 9780399583407

The River of Kings

by Taylor Brown


In a rich, atmospheric novel, brothers Hunter and Lawton Loggins paddle down Georgia's Altamaha River in kayaks, carrying their father's ashes to his final resting place. Taylor Brown (Fallen Land) also transports his audience to the 16th century to discover a French expedition on the same river that included Jacques le Moyne, the first European artist to travel to North America. As the mystery and mystique of the ancient waterway washes up on the shores of both time periods, the long-hidden secrets of a father and those of an early explorer weave together to create a beautifully layered story of love and regret, fidelity and honor, courage and cowardice. Brown tests the limits of humanity along the River of Kings, and the result is a gripping novel.

The Altamaha demands to be treated as a character. Brown willingly complies with exquisite imagery and a deference befitting royalty, writing: "Bald cypress rise round and gray from the banks on roots splayed like the feet of elephants, their gnarled toes marked by dark lines of old flood. Their limbs spread horizontally, edged high over the water like rotors, each draped with long beards of moss."

Readers are sure to experience the journey through all of their senses. The inclusion of maps and illustrations to coordinate with le Moyne's story enhances this effect, making The River of Kings a dynamic reading experience that fully engages its audience. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: As two brothers take their father's remains to his final resting place, the mysteries of an ancient waterway help them answer questions about their enigmatic parent.

St. Martin's Press, $25.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781250111753

If Not for You

by Debbie Macomber


Beth Prudhomme, a 20-something Chicago native, decides to break free of her controlling, judgmental mother. She sets off for Portland, Ore., where she lands a job teaching high school music and reconnects with her mother's estranged sister, Aunt Sunshine, an avant-garde, successful artist. Beth seems on her way to liberation until a dear friend sets her up with Jim, a scruffy, beer-drinking, tattooed auto mechanic with a big heart. En route home after a disastrous first meeting, Beth is involved in a devastating car crash; Jim witnesses it and instinctively rallies to help at the scene.

The accident unites the pair, with Jim checking on Beth at the hospital during her recovery and rehabilitation. The two soon learn they share a love of music--Jim brings his guitar to the rehab center, and he and Beth, who plays keyboard, begin to serenade the patients, workers and each other, ultimately sparking a friendship that leads to romance. Complications ensue, including the arrival of Beth's mother and her disapproval of Jim. Beyond Beth's many challenges, she soon discovers that others also carry heavy burdens. Believing she can ease the pain of those she cares about, she meddles, but despite her good intentions, she's often more of a detriment than a help.

Macomber (Starry Night) explores familial and romantic entanglements--along with forgiveness and reconciliation--in this heart-tugging story about how the pain of love often gives way to joy. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A horrifying car accident unites an unlikely couple who face serious obstacles to their opposites-attract romance.

Ballantine Books, $27, hardcover, 384p., 9780553391961

The Idiot

by Elif Batuman


When Selin Karada, the slightly off-plumb narrator of Elif Batuman's first novel, The Idiot, enters Harvard in the mid-'90s, e-mail is a curious new way to communicate and Facebook is just a Zuckerberg dream. The daughter of ambitious Turkish immigrants, Selin was an academic star in her New Jersey high school, but at Harvard "you were now a little fish in a big sea." She nurtures a romance by e-mail with Ivan, the older Hungarian from her Russian class, yet she knows herself well enough to recognize that "I was just an American teenager--the world's least interesting and dignified kind of person." Nonetheless, she soldiers on, taking a job teaching ESL to immigrants in Boston, reading classics like "Bleak House, which was as simultaneously absorbing and off-putting as someone else's incredibly long dream," and signing up for a summer travel program providing English skills to children in Hungarian villages--with the vague plan to see Ivan there and meet his family and friends.

Batuman first explored some of the themes of The Idiot in her well-regarded first book, The Possessed. While the titles of both clearly reflect her fascination with Dostoevsky, they are nonetheless rooted in the language and optimism of the United States. Describing a year of discovering oneself, The Idiot is half The Education of Henry Adams and half Innocents Abroad. Twain would have savored Selin's first international trip, and Adams surely would have applauded Selin's frustration with traditional learning. First footsteps into adulthood are often memorable. Taking them in Selin's shoes is an entertaining, intellectual journey not to be missed. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: The astute Selin embarks on her first year at Harvard and a summer abroad with wit, humility and an offbeat take on life in the mid-'90s.

Penguin Press, $27, hardcover, 432p., 9781594205613

The Underworld

by Kevin Canty


Kevin Canty's novel is an emotionally blistering look at a small American town in the throes of grief, thwarted hope and fragile healing. The Underworld draws on the history of a tragic fire that ripped through a North Idaho mine in the 1970s, killing 91 men. Almost everyone in town loses a family member, lover or friend in the disaster and must learn to forge ahead in its aftermath. This includes Ann, a disenfranchised housewife; Lyle, a retired miner living off Social Security and savings; and David, a Montana college student who attempts to escape his past but is sucked back into it.

Canty (Winslow in Love; Everything) tracks the rituals that bind working-class Americans: troubled marriages and indifferent parents, church services and bar-hopping, sex and longing. These forces help hold the town together before the disaster, but serve as bare recompense and unworthy edifices in the tsunami of grief that engulfs the town after the fire. Some characters buckle under the grief; others make halting, tentative lurches toward new lives. Some adhere to bits and pieces of morality while others make bad and dangerous choices. The underworld of the title isn't just the mine; it is also about the threshold of death and the hell of daily life that good people face in times of unbearable grief and incomprehensible events. Canty's compassionate yet unsentimental eye never judges. He is a master of understatement and the slow burn. Every epiphany is earned and the details he paints this landscape with are as ripe with memory and emotion as a faded Polaroid. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: A devastating tragedy in a 1970s mining town becomes a stunning and engrossing meditation on grief and survival.

W.W. Norton, $24.95, hardcover, 256p., 9780393293050

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson

by Brian Doyle


In a novel with layers of authors, Brian Doyle (The Mighty Currawongs) honors the art of storytelling. The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World is firmly based in fact: Robert Louis Stevenson boarded for some months at the home of Mrs. Carson in San Francisco while waiting to marry his love, Fanny. He conceived of a novel based on the tales of his landlady's husband, but never wrote it.

In Doyle's imagination, Stevenson sits by the fire with Mr. Carson as the latter recounts his voyages around the world as a seaman and his experience as a Union solider in the Civil War. This talented storyteller takes Stevenson (and Doyle's reader) through the jungles of Borneo, over the rocky hills of Irish islands, from coast to coast of Canada in winter, to Australia's Sydney Harbor and to the battlefield at Gettysburg. Mrs. Carson turns out to be as fine a narrator as her husband, and both have a knack for ending on a cliffhanger just as dinner is ready.

Doyle's characteristic prose style is effusive, wry, highly descriptive and always passionate about his subjects. Throughout this story of stories runs a thread of commentary on the value and nuances of the storytelling art. Readers hungry for more stories-upon-stories will delight in Doyle's "Afterword" and "Thanks & Notes," which are filled with recommendations for further reading (what he calls "homework").

Stevenson's rollicking zest for adventure blends happily and seamlessly with Doyle's unrestrained love of words and life. Adventures offers daring exploits, romance and emotional highs and lows, and Doyle's signature style expresses it all perfectly. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: With enthusiasm and verve, in the style his fans love, Brian Doyle re-creates a novel Robert Louis Stevenson intended to write.

Thomas Dunne, $25.99, hardcover, 240p., 9781250100528

Border Child

by Michel Stone


In The Iguana Tree, Michel Stone told the harrowing story of a border crossing that resulted in the loss of a child, betrayal by loved ones and exploitation by law enforcement on both sides. Border Child addresses the aftermath of that journey and the emotional and economic consequences that have ensued.

Nearly three years after their deportation, Hector and Lilia Santos are back in their remote village of Puerto Isadore. Despite adding a son to their family, both harbor guilt over the disappearance of Alejandra, their infant daughter: Lilia for leaving her daughter in the hands of an unknown female coyote, and Hector for his naiveté and for abandoning his family in his pursuit of the dream in el Norte. When Hector spots Emmanuel--Lilia's former boyfriend and the man responsible for connecting her to the treacherous coyote--in a nearby town, he decides to follow him. Hector once again must leave a very pregnant Lilia and their son under tenuous circumstances to discover the fate of their daughter.

Stone poetically considers the marital pressures and emotional toll that comes with the trauma of losing a child: "Our marriage is like a shattered clay pot whose shards have been glued back in place. The thing is not what it once was, but it's been salvaged." She also puts an authentic face to the problem of immigration and the price paid for daring to live a dream: the loss of innocence, the tearing apart of families, and the devastation and desperation of dashed hopes. Gripping, visceral and beautifully written, Border Child carries the potential to stir awareness and trigger debate about an increasingly controversial issue. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: The loss of a child in a treacherous border crossing devastates a young couple after their repatriation in Mexico.

Nan A. Talese, $26.95, hardcover, 272p., 9780385541640

The Arrangement

by Sarah Dunn


The Waldmans' hot tub parties were the most scandalous thing to ever happen in Beekman, N.Y., an idyllic Hudson River town, as Lucy has learned via "the communal mommy-memory of the town, passed down from woman to woman on park benches." So when she and her husband, Owen, decide, on a slightly drunken whim, that their relationship needs some variety, they decree that the first rule is their experiment must remain a secret. They also decide their marriage will be open for only six months, they can't sext in the house, there will be no snooping into each other's affairs--and no falling in love.

At first, the arrangement seems perfect--bringing new liveliness to both Owen and Lucy, and making the mundanity of their suburban life with their son, Wyatt (who has autism), seem more exciting. But can such a pact ever work in the long run? Or will the rules (and their hearts) get broken?

Sarah Dunn (The Big Love; Secrets to Happiness) has perfectly captured middle-aged marriage, with its mix of the boring quotidian and moments of deep happiness. The new relationships that Lucy and Owen embark on shed light on their own marriage and those of their neighbors. Readers will be laughing helplessly as circumstances grow ever more fraught, but will also muse about what makes a truly happy marriage possible. Fans of Kristan Higgins and Meg Wolitzer are sure to love The Arrangement. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: A couple decides to try an open marriage for six months, with hilarious and devastating consequences.

Little, Brown, $26, hardcover, 368p., 9780316013598

Double Dutch

by Laura Trunkey


The nine stories in Canadian author Laura Trunkey's debut collection, Double Dutch, are fantastical and eerie, filled with sentiments and descriptions that will haunt the reader. While the tales are fiction, some are based on facts, as in "Electrocuting the Elephant," which depicts the execution of Topsy the elephant at the hands of Thomas Edison. Trunkey expertly takes readers into the mindset of several of the men involved in the decision, as well as that of the pachyderm preparing for death in front of a crowd.

Death, miracles, a debilitating disease and dread of the unknown are some of the themes Trunkey explores in her unusual stories. In "Night Terror," a mother fears her son is the reincarnation of a Muslim terrorist when she hears him muttering Arabic in his sleep. In "Double Dutch," a man ponders the meaning of his life after spending so much of it as the double for former president Ronald Reagan. A grizzly bear attack changes the course of a couple's life together in "Ursus Arctos Horribilis." Ordinary people enter extraordinary circumstances, and their reactions betray the prejudices, beliefs and suspicions that they carry deep inside.

Trunkey's writing is raw. She approaches subjects obliquely, sending readers on unexpected tangents, but the effect leaves a deep impression of wonder and fascination, touched with a longing for the next collection from this talented writer. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: These short stories peer from an angle at otherwise normal circumstances.

Astoria/House of Anansi, $15.95, paperback, 280p., 9781770898776

Temporary People

by Deepak Unnikrishnan


Temporary People is a triumph of language and allegory. This collection of stories about euphemistically named "guest workers" in the United Arab Emirates shines a light on a little-known and largely invisible group. Foreigners working in the Gulf constitute more than 80% of the population, yet they have no rights as citizens. They toil in harsh conditions for decades, at which point they are "retired" and immediately deported to a home country they may barely remember. Deepak Unnikrishnan treats his characters with understanding born of experience; he is the child of Indian workers in the Gulf who will be deported when their work is no longer needed.

Unnikrishnan's characters persevere, often in anonymity (some never have names) and with an understanding of their disposability. In "Birds," Anna spends her nights searching for men who jump off buildings, "then puts them back together with duct tape or some good glue." A group of entrepreneurs repurpose a greenhouse to supply the ever-expanding need for compliant labor in "In Mussafah Grew People." An immigrant teen in "Glossary" can no longer bear to be silent. His tongue escapes his head, "causing all the nouns the now deceased tongue had accumulated in its time in the boy's mouth to be released into the air like shrapnel."

Temporary People is the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, founded to "discover urgent, culture-straddling writing from first-time, first-generation writers." In Unnikrishnan they have found an exhilarating new voice. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: The surreal sensibility of Temporary People makes a universal statement about invisible and displaced people everywhere.

Restless Books, $17.99, paperback, 272p., 9781632061423

The Devil and Webster

by Jean Hanff Korelitz


In The Devil and Webster, Jean Hanff Korelitz (You Should Have Known) chronicles a year in the life of a small college destabilized by a long-running student protest.

Naomi Roth's handling of a residence hall demonstration that involved a transgender student elevated her to the presidency of Webster College. Her tenure has been largely peaceful and productive ever since, but as a former dissenting student herself, Naomi respects activism among Webster's undergraduates. When she learns that a group of students has occupied the quad to protest the denial of tenure to a popular professor, she's initially unfazed.

But as Naomi discovers that Webster's students are more inclined to air their grievances on social media than in dialogue with the college president, she grows frustrated. While the college administration defends the confidentiality of tenure decisions, the protesters read sinister motives into the lack of transparency. The conflict begins to overshadow everything else at Webster, prompting critical reconsideration of the college's centuries of history and of the performance of its first female president.

The Devil and Webster can be read as a suspense novel seasoned with social commentary or as a plot-driven academic satire. Korelitz excels in both directions. Her writing has an almost old-fashioned formality that fits the college setting, but her story is very much of the moment. Webster College is a small world where hot-button issues--representation, discrimination and free speech, among others--loom large. The political climate at the time of this novel's publication lends it a striking immediacy. --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

Discover: A prestigious small college is undermined and redefined by a year of student unrest.

Grand Central Publishing, $27, hardcover, 368p., 9781455592388

Mad Richard

by Lesley Krueger


Once a rising painter in Victorian England, Richard Dadd succumbed to madness, murdered his father and spent the rest of his days in asylums painting works that are now considered masterpieces. The main focus of Mad Richard by Canadian author Lesley Krueger (The Corner Garden) is Dadd's life before his break with reality. But Krueger ingeniously attaches Dadd's story to two of the most important writers of his age, Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens.

It's unclear how well Dickens and Dadd knew one another. They grew up in the same area of England for a short time (Dickens was older), and had similar social circles before Dadd's psychotic break. As for Brontë, Krueger arranges what is most likely a fictional meeting when Brontë visits Bedlam, where Dadd was incarcerated. Krueger uses this meeting to tie Brontë's and Dadd's lives together, running the story of Dadd's youth parallel to that of Brontë's final years. By portraying artists before and after their most significant achievements, Krueger is able to tease out a moving narrative of fame, beauty and what an artist owes his or her craft.

Dickens, of course, pops in and out of the story, mentioned here and there in both Brontë and Dadd's lives. But Krueger is also smart to give the man his due, showing how fame as England's greatest author came with the same struggles that Brontë and Dadd faced. Ultimately, Mad Richard is about how artists position themselves in relation to their work, and what they must give up to do so. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.

Discover: Lesley Krueger explores the lives of Victorian-era creative titans in a meditative novel about art and the people who make it.

ECW Press, $15.95, paperback, 344p., 9781770413566

Eggshells

by Caitriona Lally


Caitriona Lally's first novel, Eggshells, portrays an unbalanced but charming narrator stuck in an overwhelmingly complex Dublin, searching clumsily for home. In the opening pages, Vivian settles into the house she's recently inherited from her great-aunt Maud, who "kept chairs the way some people keep cats." This dusty, cluttered house suits the eccentric heiress, who avoids mirrors and hygiene, preferring to cultivate her own "earthy tang." Vivian believes that she is a changeling, fallen out of a world of fairies and elves and into this one by accident. Her daily chore is to find a magical door through which to reenter her rightful place in that other world.

Vivian walks the city and takes buses and cabs, exploring streets with promising names (Ferrymans Crossing, All Hallows Lane) and performing tricks and charms--circling a particular pole three times, whispering to herself, and otherwise alarming passersby. She makes lists in her notebook--names of birds, favorite sweets, museum artifacts--anywhere she might find weird words and possible anagrams. Her fascination with wordplay echoes Lally's knack for language, and this emphasis is one of the great charms of Eggshells, a sweetly off-kilter novel about loneliness, communication and finding one's place in the world.

Vivian stumbles, and may never find the portal to the place she yearns for. But she makes shaky progress: acquiring a pet goldfish, throwing a dinner party of sorts, finding a new friend with traumas and eccentricities of her own. Eggshells is ultimately a funny, occasionally grim story with a sympathetic character who is either disturbed or a changeling from a fanciful world: it is for the reader to decide. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A narrator who belongs in a fairy tale becomes lost among the indifferent streets of Dublin in this quirky, imaginative debut novel.

Melville House, $16.99, paperback, 288p., 9781612195971

The Book of Polly

by Kathy Hepinstall


The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall (Blue Asylum) is a family drama that strikes a perfect balance between sorrow and rib-tickling hilarity, thanks to an unforgettable mother-daughter pair.

Willow Havens worries about her mother, Polly, almost as fiercely as she loves the margarita-swilling, chain-smoking, varmint-shooting steel magnolia. A surprise baby in Polly's late 50s, Willow was born shortly after her father died and long after her siblings, Shel and Lisa, left the nest. At 10, Willow is the only girl in her Texas school with a senior citizen for a mom, and also the only one with a mother willing to walk into said school carrying a borrowed falcon to get her daughter out of trouble for telling tall tales. School smoking prevention campaigns leave Willow terrified that Polly will get lung "Bear" (the word her mother uses to replace cancer), and the girl obsesses over her mother's past in Louisiana. Unfortunately, Willow's attempts to hide Polly's smokes fail even more spectacularly than her snooping, which leaves her with nothing but an old prison address and the name Garland. When the Bear does come for Polly, Willow is determined to save her mother and put the past to rest once and for all.

Filled with sass and vigor, Hepinstall's coming-of-age story is loosely based on life with her own mother. With a memorable supporting cast of quirky souls, including Shel's old high school buddy who worships Polly; demonic Montessori-schooled neighbor children; and a squirrel named Elmer, The Book of Polly is tailor made for mothers and daughters to enjoy together. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Polly is a strong, eccentric 68-year-old Southern woman, and her 10-year-old daughter, Willow, is determined to save her from herself.

Pamela Dorman Books, $26, hardcover, 336p., 9780399562099

The Weight of This World

by David Joy


David Joy's second novel is set in the same Appalachian nooks and crannies of Jackson County, N.C., as his Edgar-finalist debut, Where All Light Tends to Go--and it teems with a similar cast of characters saddled with a legacy of poverty, violence, addiction and hopelessness. The Weight of This World begins with the suicide/murder of 12-year-old Aiden McCall's parents, and makes its way through more mayhem and death as it unwinds toward its grim conclusion. In between are all manner of tweakers, shake-and-bake meth cookers and hillbilly nimrods trying to survive.

A lifelong Jackson County resident, Joy knows every crossroad, fishing hole, church and corner store where "most folks came in for Zebra Cakes and SunDrops, a box of Copenhagen or a carton of Dorals." His novel reeks of authenticity; this world is grisly and bleak--a place where "hard led to harder" and "small arrest led to small arrest... rap sheets became résumés." When his drug dealer accidentally blows off the top of his own head, Aiden and his lifelong running buddy, haunted Afghan vet Thad, steal the dealer's guns, cash and dope. Despite their big score, matters only get worse. Violence marches through The Weight of This World, but underneath it, Aiden and Thad are two beat-down human beings who still maintain a loyal friendship and muster as much hope as they can find. As Aiden tells Thad, "I ain't all right with just getting by." There may not be much joy in Joy's mountain world, but he tells a hell of a story. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Joy's second novel of "Appalachian noir" may be even better than his Edgar-finalist first--albeit more grisly and violent.

Putnam, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9780399173110

Mystery & Thriller

Follow Me Down

by Sherri Smith


Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) has said having a happy home life is probably why she can explore such dark places in her novels. After reading Sherri Smith's twisted Follow Me Down, one might think Smith's home life is full of joy, too.

Mia Haas gets a call from the police chief of her North Dakota hometown, asking if she's heard from her twin brother, Lucas; he's suspected of murdering one of his high school students and has disappeared. Reeling, Mia rushes home from Chicago to look for him.

From childhood, Lucas had been beloved by everyone in Wayoata, but Mia finds the town has developed a lynch-mob mentality against him, demanding his arrest without any evidence. But there's plenty of vicious gossip, labeling him murderer and rapist and molester of underage girls--including the one who ended up dead. When Mia keeps insisting he's innocent, Wayoata's residents turn against her, too--violently. This doesn't stop her from rooting out the truth, but saving her brother might cost Mia her life.

Smith's first thriller--her previous titles are historical fiction--is deliciously creepy, full of nasty characters and wry observations such as: "They fancied themselves Sex and the City type gals, without the city," and "It said something about the town that the welcome sign was always in some state of defacement while the antiabortion sign remained unscathed." Mia may be flawed, but she's fierce and loyal to Lucas. Smith will likely gain some loyalty, too, from readers who will follow her down whatever dark path she travels next. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: A woman returns to her hometown to help locate her twin brother, the missing suspect in a girl's murder.

Forge, $24.99, hardcover, 352p., 9780765386700

A Twist of the Knife

by Becky Masterman


Edgar Award nominee Becky Masterman (Fear the Darkness) knows how to open a novel. In the prologue of A Twist of the Knife, FBI rookie Brigid Quinn witnesses her first live execution by electric chair. It's a ghastly scene, but Brigid isn't against the death penalty--she believes some people "simply need to be put down."

Thirty-five years later, when Brigid--now retired--receives news that her elderly father has been hospitalized in Florida, she returns to her hometown after many years away. While there, she reconnects with former colleague Laura Coleman, who saved Brigid's life on a case they worked together.

Laura is now working as an investigator for a criminal defense lawyer who handles appeals. Her current case involves Marcus Creighton, a man on death row for killing his wife and three children. Laura is certain Creighton is innocent, and though Brigid isn't so sure, she agrees to help Laura dig up info that could stay Creighton's execution. But with five days to go, can they do it in time?

In her third outing, Brigid remains an arresting character. She promises "to tell the truth in these stories... even if it makes me look bad." Au contraire--her bluntness and dry sense of humor make her riveting. Her time spent with family allows readers to learn more about her past, with Brigid discovering painful truths that challenge what she thought she knew about her kin. Twist also examines, without judgment, the limitations of the justice system, and how even when good people do what they believe is right, their actions can bring devastating consequences. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: Brigid Quinn and former FBI colleague Laura Coleman attempt to prevent an inmate's execution, while Brigid deals with her ailing father and family secrets.

Minotaur Books, $25.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250074515

Vicious Circle

by C.J. Box


C.J. Box's Vicious Circle brings back the Saddlestring rodeo star Dallas Cates, who in an earlier Joe Pickett thriller dumped Joe's rodeo-loving daughter April in harm's way, forcing Joe to "go western" on the whole sleazy Cates family. Now Dallas is hell-bent on revenge. Joe, his wife, Marybeth, and their three daughters are in Dallas's crosshairs as he gathers two low-life ex-cons and an axe-wielding tweaker to torment the Picketts. Box's Wyoming is full of shoot-first individualists with little love for Washington (or the local game warden), but Joe is a lousy shot, a careful man and a champion of fair play. His loyal wingman, ex-special forces rifleman Nate, keeps Joe's contact number filed under Dudley Do-Right. But when it comes to kin, Joe holds nothing back.

What sets Box's Pickett series apart is the heavy load of family dynamics. The only guy in a houseful of women, Joe gets his macho posturing knocked down all the time. His attempts to balance nurturing his family while corralling the violent and the corrupt engender a compassionate heart in the not-quite-social Joe. The remote mountain landscape and natural bounty of Twelve Sleep County make for a stunning backdrop to Box's swiftly tangling plots and his sharp eye for little character tells--like the governor's heiress wife who'd "had enough face-tightening medical procedures to appear perpetually astonished." Vicious Circle brings us the comfort of old friends, old enemies and a tasty bunch of new oddballs and losers. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Joe Pickett and his loyal wingman, Nate, protect the Picketts from the vengeful torment of a sleazy rodeo star newly released from jail.

Putnam, $27, hardcover, 384p., 9780399176616

The Satanic Mechanic

by Sally Andrew


Sally Andrew (Recipes for Love and Murder) stirs up another engaging mystery in her second Tannie Maria novel, The Satanic Mechanic. Although South African journalist Maria van Harten  (affectionately called "Tannie" or "Auntie" by her younger colleagues) relishes her role in helping others with cooking and relationship advice, her own love life is more complicated. Still haunted by memories of her abusive husband (now deceased), Tannie Maria is hesitant to open herself up to her still-new boyfriend, Detective Henk Kannemeyer. When Tannie Maria sees a man poisoned at an arts festival and witnesses another murder days later, her relationship with Henk (who is investigating both cases) becomes much more fraught.

"I was maybe too hungry for love and ended up with murder on my plate," Tannie Maria admits as the novel opens. Determined to move past the dark memories of her marriage, she starts attending a local counseling group run by a gentle former Satanist named Ricus, the titular mechanic. But as Maria begins to confide in her fellow group members, Ricus's shadowy past comes back to haunt them.

Tannie Maria's first-person narration is studded with Afrikaans words, most of them related to food, and features a sheaf of recipes at the end. Andrew weaves together the two murders with issues of land rights and discrimination against indigenous peoples, while gently nudging her protagonist forward--not minimizing her past wounds but helping her deal with her pain in new ways.

In short, Tannie Maria's second adventure is like the meals that come from her kitchen: a bit eclectic, with many different influences, but ultimately a satisfying feast for readers. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Sally Andrew's second Tannie Maria mystery focuses on a double murder while serving up mouthwatering recipes and dealing with matters of the heart.

Ecco, $26.99, hardcover, 384p., 9780062397690

The Devil's Feast

by M.J. Carter


Jeremiah Blake and Captain William Avery most recently investigated the gruesome murders of several Victorian London prostitutes in M.J. Carter's The Infidel Stain. As The Devil's Feast begins, Avery is forced to initiate an investigation on his own, because the recalcitrant Blake has gotten himself incarcerated in debtor's prison.

Avery is initially thrilled to be invited to dinner at the exclusive Reform Club, where the renowned Alexis Soyer, French celebrity chef and toast of British high society, reigns. But when a gentleman expires in agony midway through the elaborate meal, Avery realizes he may be in over his head. Soyer (who's based on the historical figure Alexis Soyer) and the Reform Club owners confide in him that Ibrahim Pasha, heir to the Egyptian throne, will be dining at the Reform Club in mere days, so if a murderer is on the loose, they need him caught quickly.

The chef's quirky brilliance captivates Avery, perhaps a bit too much. He is struggling to get to the bottom of the mysterious death and to look past his own admiration of Soyer, when he's informed that Blake has engineered his escape from prison. At first relieved to have aid from Blake, Avery soon discovers that his troubles have gotten worse.

Beautifully researched and historically mesmerizing, The Devil's Feast will keep history buffs and gourmands equally fascinated. An excellent entry in a great series, it is perfect as a standalone, or as the stepping-stone to reading more of M.J. Carter's novels. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: Historical details in The Devil's Feast add authenticity to an intriguing Victorian mystery.

Putnam, $26, hardcover, 432p., 9780399171697

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Waking Gods

by Sylvain Neuvel


Nine years have passed since the end of Sylvain Neuvel's Sleeping Giants, but the appearance of a new robot causes Canadian linguist Vincent Couture, former army pilot Kara Resnik and the nameless Interviewer to spring back into action. Unlike Themis (whose ancient parts were excavated and reassembled into a towering turquoise-veined female robot in the first story), this robot, male in appearance, appears in Trafalgar Square assembled and fully operational. The people of Earth assume the robot, quickly nicknamed Kronos, shares the same origin point as Themis, its concealed pilots almost certainly the same species as her builders. However, when the authorities decide to send Themis to meet Kronos on a mission of peace, her pilots, Kara and Vincent, worry they may be marching to their own deaths. The newer Kronos robot will have more advanced weapons, and since no one has ever unlocked the secrets of Themis's propulsion system, they can retreat only by literally running away.

This sci-fi thriller's assemblage of transcripts from interviews and radio conversations, memos and letters delivers the same over-the-top action quotient as the first installment, with a dash more soul-searching. Readers new to the series should catch on quickly, and fans will delight in the reunion with their favorite characters, though the body count is not limited to bystanders. Despite a few teary moments, little can beat the sheer escapist fun of giant robot fights, and Waking Gods' cliffhanger finale promises more answers to come in the third book. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Nearly a decade after the events in Sleeping Giants, the pilots of giant alien robot Themis spring back into action when a new alien-piloted robot lands in London.

Del Rey, $28, hardcover, 336p., 9781101886724

The Moon and the Other

by John Kessel


In the 22nd century, humanity has colonized the solar system, including the moon. The Society of Cousins is the most misunderstood lunar colony, a matriarchy where men are given enormous social and sexual liberties, but not the right to vote. The leaders of other colonies--particularly the patriarchal Persepolis--are suspicious of tyranny, and send a delegation to investigate the condition of men.

When the Society of Cousins' biggest male celebrity tries to gain custody of his son, he unwittingly fuels a rebellion led by his volatile lover. In Persepolis, an expat from the Society has married into a wealthy ice-mining family. When he's sent back on a dangerous mission, he must choose between conflicting loyalties.

If the literary zeitgeist has been dominated by dystopias, The Moon and the Other evokes Dickens and H.G. Wells. It's science fiction with heart, romance with idea density. It's utopian and it's savvy. Kessel's droll, sideways humor surfaces periodically, as in "uplifted" dogs and casual allusions to punitive "debtors freezers." He explores gender identity and politics, portraying the complexity of social customs and relationships with neither jaundice nor bullishness. Focused on the lives of his characters, Kessel keeps pace yet makes room for his meticulously thought-out future world.

It's a grownup vision: not because it's serious, but because it's wondrous. It extrapolates not just society and technology, but real-world emotions and human behavior as well. This moon is a place we've never seen before in fiction. --Zak Nelson, writer and bookseller

Discover: This fun, smart science fiction novel contends with gender and romance, with a message of clear-eyed hope.

Saga/Simon & Schuster, $27.99, hardcover, 608p., 9781481481441

Graphic Books

The Damned, Vol. 1: Three Days Dead

by Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, Bill Crabtree


Eddie has a secret power granted by a demonic curse: he can come back to life once he's been killed (so long as someone touches him). This makes him a perfect foil for a powerful gangland demon who's looking for a missing courier in a desperate play for peace between the demon's crew and a rival gang. When mob boss Alphonese "Big Al" Aligheri revives Eddie for one last job, it becomes clear that there's more to the game than just drug running and trading in mortal souls. Complicating matters is the fact that Eddie's still in love with his beautiful yet ethically ambiguous ex-girlfriend, especially when her current mob-boss boyfriend becomes a suspect in Eddie's investigation.

Originally published in 2010, The Damned: Three Days Dead has been newly colored by Bill Crabtree. Every page shows off a muted palette that's perfect for a Prohibition-era story about the supernatural and the mob. Graveyards and city streets share the same gray tones, while bursts of color call out important moments.

More than a mere mob and demon tale, Three Days Dead fills in a compelling story with small bits that will entice close readers. Where does Eddie go to when he's dead? Who is following him in the underworld? The final panel of the volume leaves readers wanting more, without a clichéd cliffhanger. The Damned series gets off to a promising start with this first volume. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A Prohibition-era, demon-led mafia trades in human vice and mortal souls in this freshly colored comic.

Oni Press, $9.99, paperback, 152p., 9781620103852

Food & Wine

A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand

by Jim Harrison


"Owning an expensive car or home and buying cheap groceries is utterly stupid," Jim Harrison wrote for Playboy in 2011. A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand celebrates the acclaimed author of 39 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry--including Legends of the Fall, The Big Seven and Brown Dog. With an introduction by Harrison's longtime friend, chef Mario Batali, the posthumous collection includes 48 sage and succulent essays, some previously published and some unearthed after his death, that span from 1981 to 2015.

Simply to call Harrison salty is to ignore the myriad flavors of Harrison's searing wit and capacious heart. He was a consummate poet with an appetite to match, and his food writing is among his best and most fun. In the titular essay, Harrison delightfully details a 37-course meal he enjoyed in France. A man interested in both morality and morels, his humor permeates even the holy; in "Snake-Eating," he wrote, "Everyone knows that if Adam and Eve had eaten the snake rather than the apple, the world would be a better place." Elsewhere: "Good food is so much more important than the mediocre writing that pervades the Earth."

In this collection, Harrison's wisdom shines throughout. "Whenever life begins to crush me," he declared, "I know I can rely on Bandol, garlic, and Mozart." We can add Harrison's writing to this list of life's pleasures. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: Laugh, cry and get hungry with essays by the late, great writer and food connoisseur Jim Harrison.

Grove Atlantic, $26, hardcover, 272p., 9780802126467

Jack's Wife Freda: Cooking from New York's West Village

by Maya and Dean Jankelowitz, recipes by Julia Jaksic


As they brainstormed names for their New York City restaurant, Maya and Dean Jankelowitz toyed with calling it "Jack's Wife Freda" in honor of Dean's grandparents, and grandmother in particular. According to Maya, people said no one would invest in their restaurant "with that ridiculous name." But they chose it anyway--and had great success. Now, their cookbook, Jack's Wife Freda: Cooking From New York's West Village, offers a chance to re-create some of their most popular dishes at home, with recipes written by the restaurant's chef, Julia Jaksic.

The dishes reflect flavors Maya and Dean grew up with, Jewish cuisine that draws from both Maya's Israeli background and Dean's South African roots. The recipes are succinct and easy to follow. Gorgeous photos accompany each recipe, and pictures throughout depict the joyful bustle of the restaurant itself. Breakfast hits include a fuchsia Eggs Benny--with beet Hollandaise and latkes in lieu of English muffins--and Rose Water Waffles. The lunch menu offers the seasonally adaptable Maya's Grain Bowl as well as a dill-filled Matzo Ball Soup. The dinner menu boasts perennial favorites like Zucchini Chips, Chicken Livers on Toast and Freda's Fishballs.

Vegetarian options are numerous, and a handful of recipes will please vegans and gluten-free eaters, too. But Jack's Wife Freda is at heart an omnivore's delight, a vibrant mix of ingredients, flavors, textures and cultures. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: This cookbook shows how to re-create a popular New York restaurant's beloved Jewish comfort food in your own home.

Blue Rider Press, $30, hardcover, 256p., 9780399574863

Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste

by Bianca Bosker


Bianca Bosker (Original Copies) believes that the reason an average wine drinker can't tell a Merlot from a Meursault is because of Plato. The philosopher argued that the experiences of the nose and mouth were intellectually bankrupt, and generations of thinkers have continued in this tradition, shaping cultural attitudes. But the fanatical sommeliers whom Bosker chronicles in Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste have turned Plato's philosophies on their head. Eschewing toothpaste, deodorant and any warm drinks that could possibly alter their palates, these obsessive wine servers are determined to be able to identify any wine, right down to the vintage year, after a mere sniff or sip.

When Bosker, at the time a tech reporter, first heard about the world of elite sommeliers, she was fascinated, and eventually quit her job to chronicle her entry into their world. Starting as a "cellar rat" earning $10 an hour in a top New York restaurant, Bosker slowly immerses herself into the wine subculture.

Reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, the larger-than-life characters that Bianca encounters in Cork Dork are funny, profane and experts in their chosen field. Along the way, her "original obsession with making sense of their obsessive ways... morphed into an obsession with the things they obsessed over," and Bosker decides to try to pass the Certified Sommelier Exam herself. With a quick wit and keen attention to detail, Bosker will draw readers into her challenge--even those who don't like wine! --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: A former tech reporter explores the fascinating wine-obsessed world of elite sommeliers.

Penguin, $17, paperback, 352p., 9780143128090

Eating Korea: Reports on a Culinary Renaissance

by Graham Holliday


Graham Holliday (Eating Viêt Nam) fell in love with Korean food during the two years in the mid-1990s that he spent as an English teacher in South Korea. In Eating Korea, he details his return 20 years later. Crisscrossing the country, he searches for the dishes that make its food distinctively and quintessentially Korean. What he finds, however, is an altered culinary landscape, gentrified and modernized in response to inevitable global influences.

What used to be considered a mainstay in the diet (kimchi) has largely fallen out of favor with the country's youth because of its fermented smell. Noting the increased availability of cheap food, Koreans' obsession with upward mobility and diminished interest in home cooking, Holliday travels to the farthest reaches to pry secrets from grand masters who uphold culinary traditions. In particular, he is determined to find dak galbi, the mixed chicken dish he ate for much of his initial stay in Korea: "a mess, a mistake that works... where everything Korean that's edible got dumped inside, turned upside down, rattled about, and thrown in your face."

No matter how many people Holliday asks, though, no one can define Korean cuisine to his satisfaction. He is left to rue--through nostalgia and sharp but witty critiques of modern Korean lifestyles--the loss of "the Korean food I had known that was born out of poverty and postwar solutions." Grudgingly, entertainingly, he persists, mulling over the implications of South Korea's culinary rebirth. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: Graham Holliday searches out the foods and ingredients that give Korean cuisine its fiery and rebellious character.

Anthony Bourdain/Ecco, $26.99, hardcover, 320p., 9780062400765

Biography & Memoir

In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer

by Teva Harrison


In 2013, 37-year-old Canadian artist Teva Harrison was diagnosed with stage four metastatic breast cancer that had also spread to her lymph nodes and bones. Her eloquent, moving and inspiring graphic memoir, In-Between Days, offers her space to sort through her past and come to grips with the realities of her present and future. "Living with metastatic cancer is like a game of Whac-a-Mole," Harrison writes. "There's no point trying to cut it out, because it will just keep popping up somewhere else." 

Harrison finds it hard to be optimistic when her doctor's diagnosis ends with, "We are no longer looking for a cure." But she understands that without hope she would not be able to go on. "I need to be careful," she writes. "Hope is delicious, heady stuff, but reality has a way of upsetting the applecart." A simple but expressive full-page illustration precedes each short (one or two pages) chapter/essay. Harrison deals with chemo-induced menopause, the genetic heritage of her disease in other family members, learning to put herself first and trying to find the "sweet spot" in her pain medication.

Harrison captivates with her charming illustrations as she navigates her disease and her uncertain but hopeful life with wry humor and refreshing candor. The journey to sad and dark places is a little less scary with her leading the way. "I understand now, though, the fear of being forgotten, of being erased," she writes. No one reading this gripping and inspiring memoir will forget Teva Harrison. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: In-Between Days navigates Teva Harrison's brave, wry and unforgettable journey after her stage four cancer diagnosis.

House of Anansi Press, $19.95, paperback, 128p., 9781487001087

My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew

by Abigail Pogrebin


Abigail Pogrebin's casual relationship with Judaism never troubled her until she realized that, despite the wonderful people in her family and the accomplishments she attained, she felt spiritually devoid of purpose. Not having paid much attention previously, she decides to observe all 18 Jewish holidays over the course of a year in hopes of understanding what Judaism has to offer her. She tackles the task eagerly, with an earnest commitment to observe the holidays and study the traditions associated with each beforehand. She speaks to fellow Jews, interviews rabbis, reads the Torah and its commentaries, and tries to participate fully.

Pogrebin's exploration takes her down unexpected paths. She encounters things that lead her to feel conflicted about her own practices, traditions and perceptions. When it comes time to celebrate Hanukkah, for example, she is distressed to learn that in its time of origin, the Jewish people were divided according to what constitutes authentic Judaism, and draws parallels to how the ultra-Orthodox see secular and Reform Jews today. Pogrebin also shares humorous stories, like the time she nearly drove her family mad trying to learn to blow the shofar, a ram's horn that is sounded to mark Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Throughout My Jewish Year, Pogrebin engages candidly with the holidays and traditions, confessing when not every part of the practices come alive for her, noting what resonates, what doesn't and why. In reading this memoir, it becomes apparent how many people around Pogrebin share her search for meaning, a journey other seekers will relate to. --Justus Joseph, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: A previously unobservant Jew takes readers through her year of religious observance and finds moving insight and comical disconnections.

Fig Tree Books, $22.95, hardcover, 336p., 9781941493205

The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention

by Meredith Maran


With wit, hard-won insight and wisdom, memoirist Meredith Maran details how her life came apart when she was 60 years old and how, over a period of three years, she attempted to put it back together.

The story starts in California's Bay Area: Maran (Why We Write) packs up and leaves the home where she raised her two sons, wrote nine books, celebrated birthdays and shared 15 years with her wife, the love of her life. Harmony and peace had evaporated from the couple's relationship--along with the balance in Maran's bank account. When offered a copywriting job for a growing fashion company in Los Angeles, Maran took a leap and set off in search of a whole new life.

Change and reinvention are never easy, but Maran's story is told with plenty of comic relief. She laughs through her tears while enduring the culture shock of navigating life alone, and swallows her dread of working alongside "the kids"--svelte, confident, workout-obsessed employees, some of whom are young enough to be her grandchildren. Beyond work woes, she faces the challenge of finding a new home; old friend withdrawal and a creative search for new one; the perils of dating and death; and the sting of Botox and a Brazilian wax. Brisk, succinct prose infuses this entertaining memoir. It delivers a healing, hopeful message that will charm readers--especially women seeking to liberate themselves from the quicksand of aging by letting go of old dreams and insecurities. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A 60-year-old freelance writer from California reinvents her life with panache in this funny, insightful memoir.

Blue Rider, $27, hardcover, 304p., 9780399574139

Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

by Mike Lankford


Many books have been written on the life of Leonardo da Vinci, the great 15th century painter and inventor. But no one has probed his soul and speculated so profoundly about his actions quite the way Mike Lankford does in Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci.

Using copious research, Lankford dives into Leonardo's life, beginning with his birth, which was the result of a possible rape that a notary named Ser Piero committed against Caterina, a house slave. Lankford pushes the envelope of what is known about the man and ponders the true nature of the artist. He was left-handed, but was he also dyslexic, and did this cause him to write backwards? Did he have Asperger syndrome, and would that explain his fascination with new and intriguing ideas, as well as his inability to finish a project? Was he a homosexual, and is that why he was thrown into prison for an unspecified amount of time?

The list of conjectures is long, but Lankford backs his ideas with sound observations and keen analysis. He paints a thorough picture of the man who continually searched for new ways to express himself through his art, using innovative techniques that often failed and stopping long before a project was anywhere near completion. During his lifetime, Leonardo failed far more often than he succeeded but, as Lankford surmises, it was only failure in the eyes of those around him. Leonardo led the life he wanted, full of observation and exploration. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: This exciting new slant on the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci strips away the polish and shows the man with all his peculiarities.

Melville House, $28.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781612195957

Captain Fantastic: Elton John's Stellar Trip Through the '70s

by Tom Doyle


After conducting a series of interviews with Elton John for British music magazine Mojo, Tom Doyle (Man on the Run) realized that he wouldn't have enough space to include some of the best material. Thus, the idea for Captain Fantastic: Elton John's Stellar Trip Through the '70s was born. Based on primary sources, including additional interviews and John's personal diary, this enthralling biography recounts the best and worst of the glam singer's biggest decade.

It opens on Reginald Dwight, the "moon-faced twenty-one-year-old" who would become Elton John, poring over his extensive record collection. Music was a way for the shy but ambitious young man to express his thoughts and feelings to the world. That passion for music led John to team up with Bernie Taupin, a budding lyricist who also felt like an outsider to the hip world of rock 'n' roll. He was "the brother I always wanted," John tells Doyle.

Doyle's biography follows the pair from their first songwriting successes to John's painful engagement to Linda Woodrow and through the singer's late-'70s struggle with drug addiction. Doyle includes anecdotes from friends and family, and fascinating excerpts from John's diary. "Went to the fair with Mick and Pat: I won a coconut and two Goldfish!!" wrote John in 1969. Insights like these help to humanize a celebrity who often seems larger than life.

Well-researched and compassionate, Captain Fantastic is an engaging and moving account of a life lived hard. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor.

Discover: Music writer Tom Doyle offers a fascinating glimpse at Elton John's life in the 1970s.

Ballantine Books, $30, hardcover, 336p., 9781101884188

Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy

by Elizabeth Winder


Dozens of full-length biographies have been written about Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962), and most concentrate on her struggle with drugs, depression and anxiety. What makes Elizabeth Winder's Marilyn in Manhattan so refreshing and eye opening is her focus on the 14-month period when Monroe left Hollywood and moved to New York City. At the height of her career, in late 1954, Monroe moved east to train with Lee Strasberg and free herself from a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox that kept her underpaid and gave her no creative voice in her film projects. "For the first time she felt accepted," writes Winder. "Unlike glassy, judgmental Hollywood, New York embraced her quirks and creativity."

New York centered and revitalized the 28-year-old actress. Winder (Pain, Parties, Work, about Sylvia Plath) uncovers a gifted, intelligent and vulnerable woman who was far more complex than her sultry blonde bombshell image. She left her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, and took control of her life and career, founding her own production company with photographer Milton Greene and moving to Manhattan with Greene and his wife. She made friends with writers and intellectuals, studied with Method actors and refused all film offers. After a year away from Hollywood, she negotiated a new contract, won her dream film role (Bus Stop) and began a relationship with playwright Arthur Miller.

Winder writes with ease, mixing first-hand recollections from numerous biographies to create a vital and upbeat oral history of Monroe's emotional rebirth. Marilyn in Manhattan is an essential missing piece in her life story that enriches her legend. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Elizabeth Winder chronicles how Marilyn Monroe left Hollywood and moved to New York City to regain control of her life.

Flatiron Books, $27.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781250064967

Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time

by Andrew Forsthoefel


Following college graduation, most young people look for a job. Instead, Andrew Forsthoefel went searching for individuals who would talk to him. Inspired by the writings of Walt Whitman, Khalil Gibran and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as the teachings of Dr. John Francis (Planetwalker), the 23-year-old filled a backpack, much the way someone attempting to walk the Appalachian Trail might. Included with his camping gear and provisions were his tape recorder, journal and a mandolin. Attached to the outside of his pack was a hand-printed sign that read, "Walking to Listen." Forsthoefel was going to trek across the United States to hear people's stories.

He started near Philadelphia with a set of rules: stick to the roads in order to meet a diverse cross-section of people, view everyone as a teacher and walk "until it felt like I should stop; until I broke four thousand dollars; or until I hit the Pacific Ocean. Whichever came first." Forsthoefel found incredible insights, compassion and generosity, in addition to the stories that connected him with those he met.

Forsthoefel opens each chapter of Walking to Listen with a transcribed story and then weaves additional anecdotes, conversations and experiences into the narrative of his journey. His observations are frank, sometimes humorous and always thoughtful. The metaphors he employs to illuminate his experiences are vivid and powerful. And the lessons he takes away from his interactions with people of all walks of life are extraordinary, reshaping his very existence. Reading about it will undoubtedly transform his audience as well. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: A college graduate comes of age as he walks across the United States intent on listening to the stories of strangers.

Bloomsbury, $28, hardcover, 400p., 9781632867001

Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary

by Ernie Johnson Jr.


Fans probably know Ernie Johnson Jr. best as the Sports Emmy Award-winning host who sits alongside basketball greats Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal on TNT's Inside the NBA. While Johnson always shows up meticulously prepared to talk sports on-camera, off-camera he's had an unscripted life that has thrown many obstacles his way. Johnson is a man whose Christian faith has been tested, and, in the process, his spirituality has been strengthened. Unscripted, a moving and multifaceted memoir, probes some of Johnson's personal detours while sharing the many joys that have defined who he is and how he has come to lead his life.

Johnson followed in the footsteps of his father, a great major league baseball pitcher who later became a legendary sportscaster. Father and son forged a strong bond that instilled a sense of integrity and character in Ernie Jr. as he built his own 40-year career in broadcasting. Unscripted offers stories from Johnson's childhood, as well as funny and unforgettable on-the-job anecdotes. Details about Johnson's personal life include his marriage to loving wife, Cheryl; their six children, four of whom were adopted; one son's battle with muscular dystrophy; and Johnson's own non-Hodgkins lymphoma, an ordeal that deepened his faith and wisdom. Throughout, he offers positive, inspirational lessons for readers and a hopeful message about learning to appreciate every moment of life. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A sportscaster opens up about his life--on camera and off--giving an inspirational perspective on faith.

Baker Books, $24.99, hardcover, 224p., 9780801074103

Cheech Is Not My Real Name: ...but Don't Call Me Chong

by Cheech Marin


Born in the hippie, sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll '70s, Cheech & Chong was the original stoner comedy and film act that paved the way for Harold & Kumar, Dazed and Confused, even The Big Lebowski. Richard "Cheech" Marin was a South Central L.A. kid who hooked up with the Canadian musician Tommy Chong in Vancouver while on the lam for burning his draft card. Cheech Is Not My Real Name: ...but Don't Call Me Chong is Marin's rambling autobiography that chronicles how this Boy Scout, altar boy, self-described "little wiseass who got straight As" became a voice of the counterculture, a mainstream TV and movie star, and a premier collector of contemporary Chicano art.

His unlikely path took its first turn when his family moved from the gangbanger streets to the San Fernando Valley suburbs. Nurtured by weed, the Beatles, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, his natural stage savvy and love of applause, Marin built a remarkable showbiz career. After the enormous success of their debut movie, Up in Smoke, he and Chong had a good run of albums and movies until the dope thing ran out of gas. Their split was difficult, but Marin found his own groove voice-acting in Disney animated films like The Lion King and Cars; as the strip club barker Chet Pussy in the cult zombie movie From Dusk Till Dawn; and as Kevin Costner's drinking buddy Romeo Posar in Tin Cup. Best known for what Rolling Stone once called "a lot of pee-pee, ca-ca and doo-doo jokes," he justifiably shows that his long career was really built on "comedy that is edgy, controversial, and more than a little antiestablishment." Yes, that--and some timeless dope jokes. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Richard "Cheech" Marin candidly traces his winding path from the streets of L.A. and dope comedy to mainstream films and museum-quality art collecting.

Grand Central Publishing, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9781455592340

Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home

by Amy Dickinson


Amy Dickinson is best known as the author of "Ask Amy," a popular syndicated newspaper advice column. In her memoir The Mighty Queens of Freeville, she shared the journey that led her from Freeville--a tiny village (pop. 520) in New York State--to Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., London and Chicago, with forays back to her hometown. In Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, Dickinson continues her story, rooting her narrative more fully in Freeville, a town with "one stop sign marking the end of tree-lined Main Street." It has been home to her ancestors for generations.

Dickinson--a divorced, single mother, her only daughter off to college--"chose to move home permanently," living in a house down the street from her aging and increasingly infirm mother. She unpacks an adventurous story that winds through her upbringing and recounts how, when her often menacing father abandoned the family, their dairy farm failed. Her stoic mother, Jane, was then left to find ways of keeping the family afloat and of reinventing herself when she, too, was middle-aged.

This shared history launches into details about Dickinson's marriage and her husband's infidelity, their divorce, raising a child as a single mother, dating hazards and career shifts, and how she ultimately longed for "home." "Real life doesn't always reveal itself as neatly as a question sent in to an advice columnist," Dickinson admits. But the heartfelt honesty of her entertaining narrative--rife with contemporary dramas to which many readers will relate--makes for a compelling, hopeful portrait of a woman coming-of-middle-age with wit, aplomb and authenticity. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: This memoir of self-discovery is by a divorced, middle-aged writer who resettles into the small town where she was raised.

Hachette, $27, hardcover, 240p., 9780316352642

Charlton Heston: Hollywood's Last Icon

by Marc Eliot


Although Charlton Heston wrote several excellent autobiographies (including The Actor's Life: Journals 1956-1976 and In the Arena), Marc Eliot's hefty, compelling and intimate biography stands as the definitive portrait of the complicated and controversial Oscar-winning actor and political activist.

Prolific biographer Eliot (Cary Grant) creates a captivating portrait with the help of Heston's son and daughter (who had no editorial control) and new interviews with dozens of Heston's friends and foes. Eliot also uses the actor's files and unpublished journals. Surprisingly blunt about Heston's acting style, Eliot writes, "He played his characters literally, on their and his surface, at least in part because he was never asked to do more." And after Touch of Evil's box office failure in 1958, "he would henceforth seek out the conventional, the mainstream, and the commercial, and resist films that were personal artistic statements."

Charlton Heston offers plenty of juicy, behind-the-scenes tales of the making of some of his classic films, including Planet of the Apes, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments (where Yul Brynner and director Cecil B. DeMille kept their exhausting pace thanks to amphetamine injections and pills). Even more fascinating is Heston's political evolution: from a liberal Kennedy supporter, marching with Martin Luther King in 1963, to a disillusioned independent who eventually--right around the time his film career sputtered out in the 1980s--became a Republican gun rights advocate and NRA spokesperson. Eliot's Charlton Heston: Hollywood's Last Icon is an absorbing, haunting and richly detailed portrait of the iconic actor. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Fascinating and intimate, Charlton Heston follows the enormously popular film star's evolution and offers a complex study in contradictions.

Dey Street Books, $29.99, hardcover, 576p., 9780062420435

History

City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris

by Holly Tucker


In City of Light, City of Poison, Holly Tucker (Blood Work) emphasizes that in the late 17th century, Paris was not an elegant and refined place to live. Violence and danger were found in its overcrowded streets and alleyways, where brass knuckles, knives and pistols were frequently used during brawls that broke out in public areas. So when one official lieutenant was murdered, and another civil magistrate found dead under suspicious circumstances, King Louis XIV went into action, appointing Nicolas de La Reynie as the first police chief and giving him the task of bringing order to the chaos.

Between April 1679 and July 1682, more than 400 people were questioned, 200 imprisoned and 30 executed by beheading, hanging or incineration for events known as the Affair of the Poisons. Tucker shares her four years of meticulous research through hundreds of handwritten documents to expose the truth about one of the more gruesome episodes in French history. Filled with the stories of the men and women involved in murder, attempted murder, Satanic rites and many infidelities among Paris nobility--including the king and his multiple mistresses--Tucker's exposition is a true detective story of the finest kind.

Interrogation scenes feature grisly details, but their intensity is offset by titillating details of Louis XIV's repeated romps with many a younger woman, and of La Reynie's relentless pursuit of the truth. For anyone interested in the darker side of the Sun King's reign, City of Light, City of Poison will not disappoint. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: The vivid true story of numerous murders by poison in Paris is set against the backdrop of Louis XIV's lush and sensual reign.

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 336p., 9780393239782

Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year

by Peter Brooks


Gustave Flaubert's evolving connection with political ideals and disillusionment drives Peter Brooks's fascinating work of literary history, Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year.

Literary critic Brooks (Reading for the Plot) focuses his discerning mind on Flaubert's underappreciated novel, Sentimental Education. He convincingly connects the book Flaubert considered his masterpiece to the violent and tumultuous political history of 19th-century France. Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris explores Flaubert's own assertion that serious reading of Sentimental Education would have prevented the devastation wrought in Paris in 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War, when the French Third Republic bloodily suppressed the Paris Commune.

Sentimental Education, Brooks skillfully argues, was written about the ill-fated revolution in 1848 that led to the French Second Republic, a failed revolution in which Flaubert foresaw the irrationality and violent sectarianism that would later tear his country apart. To make his case, Brooks includes Flaubert's correspondence with friend George Sand as well as passages from the novel, all of which display Flaubert's singular talent for description, characterization and mood. Moreover, Brooks's careful, sophisticated and nuanced scholarship pieces together a larger impression of troubled modernity, and reveals Flaubert's self-consciousness as an author in the face of cataclysmic historical events. Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris is a profound look at the personality and beliefs of a literary giant, a work as entertaining as it is probing. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author

Discover: Literary historian Peter Brooks sheds light on Gustave Flaubert's politics and his great, overlooked novel, Sentimental Education.

Basic Books, $32, hardcover, 288p., 9780465096022

Business & Economics

A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System

by T.R. Reid


Who better than Washington Post journalist T.R. Reid to bring to life and then systematically carve up the particularly byzantine United States tax system? With decades in Washington and assignments as bureau chief in London, Tokyo and Denver, Reid (The Healing of America) has seen enough to explain tax structures in lucid, jargon-free prose that at times seems as amused as it is outraged. A Fine Mess covers the primary categories of federal taxes detailed in the 73,000 pages of IRS regulations, and even includes thoughtful chapters about recent events like the fascinating story of the Panama Papers exposé and Thomas Piketty's surprise bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, with the reminder, "Piketty is French, and France is the world champion at soaking the rich through taxes."

Everybody knows the United States tax structure is in need of reform--even Congress (though Reid advises, "When Congress takes up tax reform, the 'reform' generally makes things worse"). But he argues that to confront myriad vested interest groups--including tax preparers ("Today, barely 10% of Americans do their own tax returns"), lobbyists, realtors, nonprofits, huge international corporations, tax lawyers, M&A consultants and even the 90,000 IRS employees--takes backbone. Methodically, Reid illustrates how dozens of countries collect taxes much more fairly and efficiently--and have happier taxpayers to boot. After his lively discussion of what exists today in the tax world, his concluding multi-point recommendations to fix the mess make eminent sense. But who's going to step up and do it? --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Veteran journalist T.R. Reid takes a lucid, entertaining journey through the labyrinth of the U.S. tax structure and convincingly suggests how to fix it.

Penguin, $27, hardcover, 288p., 9781594205514

Political Science

You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen

by Eric Liu


Political tension and uncertainty can produce feelings of helplessness amid injustice and dramatic change. While such thinking is understandable, Eric Liu (A Chinaman's Chance) presents effective strategies for individuals and groups to harness their potential by amplifying their voices and elevating causes.

Defining power as "the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do," Liu focuses You're More Powerful Than You Think not on personal or professional empowerment but on the political. It's an arena he knows well. A former White House speechwriter, policy adviser and deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton for domestic policy, Liu offers a seasoned perspective regarding the influential impact of global campaigns such as Brexit and movements that include, among others, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Feel the Bern and $15 Now in the United States.

Each of these initiatives represent "a moment of citizen power [and] a deeply optimistic surge" with the same three core concepts that ordinary people have adopted throughout history, with positive results. "Because power creates monopolies and is winner-take-all, you must change the game. Power creates a story of why it's legitimate. You must change the story. Power is assumed to be finite and zero-sum. You must change the equation."

Embracing one's power can feel daunting at the onset but becomes achievable through experience, he writes. "True alienation is deadly silent and sullen. The upheaval and ruckus of our times are hopeful at heart. People still believe change is possible." --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com

Discover: A former White House official explores the psychology of power and how to implement effective strategies to produce meaningful change.

PublicAffairs, $25, hardcover, 256p., 9781610397070

Social Science

The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional

by Agustín Fuentes


In The Creative Spark, primatologist and biological anthropologist Agustín Fuentes challenges previous and current models of evolution. Where Charles Darwin argued for survival of the fittest, Fuentes argues that evolution promotes the survival of the most creative. By synthesizing research from numerous scientific disciplines, including psychology, genetics, biology and even philosophy, he presents a new, compelling model of human development. The jump from our early ancestors' stone tools to modern technology is huge, but in bridging this gap, Fuentes takes readers through a re-creation of our potential evolution and ponders what key moment could illustrate the beginnings of human inspiration. While the details are informed by science and extensive research, Fuentes presents his theories in a captivating narrative that feels like an intriguing mystery.

Though all primates develop creative solutions to address complex social problems, no other group of animals is as ingenious. Creativity and innovation are constantly driving the success of human life, and have been for thousands of years. This includes how early Homo made and used tools--acts that require coordination and skill--to more modern inventions of science, religion and art. Fuentes demonstrates that even the most ordinary of occurrences, such as how people agree to basic rules like standing in line at the grocery store, are a marvel. No other creature queues for food. Behind it is a long evolutionary history that he unravels with delight. To look up from The Creative Spark after finishing the last page is to see the world in new, complex ways. Fuentes's work adds depth to our reality and fosters a deep respect and appreciation for the many forms creativity takes. --Justus Joseph, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: The Creative Spark makes the case that what truly defines and separates humans from any other living creature on Earth is our capacity for creative collaboration.

Dutton, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9781101983942

Essays & Criticism

Printer's Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History

by Rebecca Romney, J.P. Romney


The printed word comes to life--warts and all--in J.P. Romney and Rebecca Romney's rollicking history, Printer's Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History.

J.P. Romney (The Monster on the Road) is a historical researcher and YA novelist, and Rebecca Romney is a rare-book dealer famous for her appearances on the History Channel's Pawn Stars. Together they make a whip-smart team, offering a fun, dynamic exercise in literary myth busting. Eleven chapters unfold episodically to reveal little-known facts about famous authors and print innovators who made the book what it is today. Johannes Gutenberg, William Shakespeare and Benjamin Franklin are a few prominent figures subjected to the authors' prying, ribald treatment. The overall result portrays a publishing legacy that's rife with whimsy, error, human folly and, from one century to the next, a degree of self-interest belying literature's noble image. With sharp, detailed prose--and a persistently uproarious sense of humor--the authors revel in the historical ironies of the book business, such as when Charles Dickens, trying to secure foreign copyright protections, was excoriated by capitalist Americans for being greedy. They adroitly draw parallels between 19th-century pirated books and the profusion of pirated material in the digital age.

As much fun as Printer's Error is to read, it uncovers darker aspects of society that shouldn't be forgotten. A chapter devoted to Mary Wollstonecraft serves as a reminder that the brilliant "mother of feminism" was vilified in her own time for perceived promiscuity. Complex, illuminating, yet always entertaining, Printer's Error is a treasure trove for bibliophiles. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author.

Discover: A renowned rare-book dealer teams up with a researcher to unveil the wacky and fascinating history of print.

Harper, $26.99, hardcover, 384p., 9780062412317

Literature Class, Berkeley 1980

by Julio Cortázar


Literature Class is a transcription of a lecture course given by the brilliant Argentine writer Julio Cortázar (Final Exam) at the University of California at Berkeley when he was 65 years old. Cortázar (1914-1984) was from Buenos Aires, devoted to books since childhood and possessed a strong lifelong bent toward fantasy and experimental fiction. "The fantastic for me... was one aspect of reality, which under certain circumstances could manifest itself... it wasn't some kind of outrage within an established reality." He describes how he gradually evolved from the unworldly aesthetic literary purism of his youth toward a strong sense of political and historical context, and how he approaches a balance between literary merit and sociopolitical content. He discusses his own books and his approach to writing, the writers he admires, story structure, time, fate, musicality and humor, playfulness, eroticism and the problems of translation.

This book is a fairly exact record of an intellectually serious course. Cortázar reads stories to his students, takes their questions and informs them of his office hours. He is frequently funny and charming, with an open casual demeanor, but his discourses also require careful attention and consideration. This is not a popular writing guidebook by any means. But for those who would jump at the opportunity to audit a course with one of the greatest Latin American writers of the 20th century: here is your chance. --Sara Catterall

Discover: This is a nearly verbatim transcription of a lecture course taught by the brilliant 20th-century Argentine novelist and short story writer Julio Cortázar.

New Directions, $18.95, paperback, 320p., 9780811225342

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables

by David Bellos


Since its publication in 1862, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables has been a perennial bestseller, inspiring multiple Hollywood film adaptations and the beloved Broadway musical. Its origins, argues translator and biographer David Bellos, are as compelling as the novel's story of revolution, love and redemption in 19th-century France. In The Novel of the Century, Bellos delves into Hugo's inspiration, his approach to writing and the physical production of Les Mis, while exploring the novel's enduring appeal. As Bellos notes in his introduction, "Most plans to conquer the whole world with a story go awry. Les Misérables is a wonderful exception."

Bellos (Is That a Fish in Your Ear?) divides his book (like Les Mis itself) into five parts, which cover a swath of topics related to the novel: Hugo's personal life; his politics; the historical events that shaped the novel and appear in it (notably the Battle of Waterloo and the uprising of 1832); the novel's evolution over time; and Hugo's monumental effort to get it in shape for publication. Each section ends with an "interlude," a deeper dive into a smaller, quirkier motif: contemporary French systems of coinage and color, the novel's use of "high" and "low" language, even a rumination on the enigmatic inner life of Jean Valjean. This is not a work of textual criticism, but it provides plenty of historical context and cultural insight for readers who love Hugo's story.

Accessible--even breezy--but well researched and informative, The Novel of the Century is a treat for fans of Hugo's masterwork. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Translator and biographer David Bellos explores the origins, historical context and enduring appeal of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27, hardcover, 336p., 9780374223236

Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing

by Ben Blatt


Do writers take their own writing advice? Are -ly adverbs truly the enemy of fiction? Has fiction gotten "dumber" over the years? These are some of the questions statistician and journalist Ben Blatt (I Don't Care if We Never Get Back) seeks to answer in Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing.

One might think it easy to tell whether a book was written by a man or a woman from the use of such words as "boyfriend" or "league," but what about seemingly neutral words like "everything," "something" or even "the?" Turns out, they're just as revealing, and Blatt has done the hard work for us. He also discovers--among other factoids you never knew you needed to know--that Ray Bradbury has an unusual affinity for spearmint.

Blatt looks at an astonishing number of words. Breaking fiction into literary classics, modern popular fiction and modern literary fiction--and occasionally dipping into vast stores of Internet fan fiction--he uses text analysis to tell us more about what we already read. Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve may be all about numbers, but it's far from dry. There's an incredible amount of data available, and Blatt uses that data to ask good questions about our favorite books. His conclusions are helpfully illustrated with charts and peppered with anecdotes from authors--which he, of course, fact checks. The result is a lighthearted numerical examination of words that is informative, surprising and funny. --Richael Best, bookseller, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: A statistician uses curiosity and big data to uncover answers to persistent literary questions.

Simon & Schuster, $25, hardcover, 288p., 9781501105388

Religion

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

by Frances FitzGerald


The Evangelicals is a comprehensive history of white evangelical movements in the United States, geared to provide a deeper understanding of present-day evangelicals and their influence. Journalist and historian Frances FitzGerald (Fire in the Lake) presents nearly 300 years of complex ideologies, schisms, social reforms and energetically creative theology in a well-organized, eye-opening narrative.

FitzGerald locates some of the deepest roots of U.S. culture in the two Protestant revivals of the 18th and early 19th centuries, known as the Great Awakenings. The revivalists of these movements transformed the rigid and hierarchical colonial society into the more democratic and free-thinking one of the 19th century. Their version of Christianity dominated the U.S. for a hundred years and "brought a populist anti-intellectual strain into American Protestantism" that still reverberates in American distrust of expertise and belief in individual freedom and conscience.

Early revivalists lobbied for the separation of church and state, and many fought against social hierarchies and religious organizations. But they eventually split over the abolition of slavery and the civil war. In the South, "the rejection of emancipation led to the rejection of all social reform," as well as a separation of religion from social and political life that mostly held until the Moral Majority and Roe v. Wade.

This book is not only for those with a particular interest in religious history; it is for anyone with a serious interest in American social movements, politics and culture. It is a history that strongly re-emphasizes the evolution of a nation, and those who hope to shape the future are wise to study the past. --Sara Catterall

Discover: The pervasive influence of evangelical movements on U.S. culture and politics is illuminated in this comprehensive history.

Simon & Schuster, $35, hardcover, 752p., 9781439131336

Science

Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

by Susan Ewing


Long before nature writer Susan Ewing (Going Wild in Washington and Oregon) mentions Indiana Jones in Resurrecting the Shark, readers are ensnared in a quest for a 270 million-year-old fish fossil that feels like riding shotgun with Indy. Paleozoic shark Helicoprion ("spiral saw") is the stuff of movie legend. If the thought of a great white doesn't get the blood pumping, imagine a shark with a two-foot-tall whorl of teeth--like a circular saw--sitting midline in its lower jaw.

Meticulously researched and spanning numerous disciplines, along with a "rockin' lot" of evolution, Resurrecting the Shark is the compelling saga of how an ancient ocean oddity became a global passion project. First stumbled upon by an Australian looking for gold under blackbutt trees in the 1880s, Helicoprion fossils were later discovered in Russia and the United States--each find sparking new fervor, doubt and debate.

An astonishing amount of information is shared, but just the right sense of cheeky humor and an enthusiastic writing style keep the facts from becoming overwhelming. By fleshing out theories and arguments spanning more than a century, Ewing treats readers to the culmination of the Helicoprion adventure: what it looked like, where it ranged, and how and what it ate.

From unknown specimen to gallery and museum exhibit, Helicoprion's journey was a labor of love. Geology enthusiasts, taxonomy nerds, paleontology buffs, shark devotees and artisans alike will rejoice in this recounting of how a multitude of people brought the mystery to life. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: A diverse group of scientists and artists undertake a fascinating investigation into a bizarre, ancient shark fossil.

Pegasus Books, $27.95, hardcover, 312p., 9781681773438

Nature & Environment

The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature's Great Connectors

by David George Haskell


The essays in The Songs of Trees by David Haskell are contemplative, lyrical and filled with insights on nature that come from years of dedicated observation. Haskell has a deep understanding of the complexities of nature and the interconnectedness of living things. These relationships can be seen through the interactions of a variety of trees around the globe with the birds, insects, animals, air, water and soil that surround them. His descriptions at times are like eulogies to dying trees that have fallen due to an encroaching sea, and at other times akin to the notes an oenologist might write for a fine wine: "The golden sap between dark plates of ponderosa bark has the vigorous odor of rosin and turpentine: oily, acidic, and bright."

Haskell studies the various microcosmic layers of plants, insects and water among the branches and leaves of a giant ceibo tree deep in the Amazon jungle. He listens to the rain as it falls on orchids, bromeliads, strangler figs and philodendron leaves, and hears hundreds of bats, the croak of frogs, the squawk of scarlet macaws and the call of howler monkeys from upper branches where the energy is vibratory and intense.

Throughout his observations, he deftly interweaves a deeper and broader scope: history, war, climate change, industrialization--the latter of which is threatening not just to these trees, but to all living things that share this planet. If anyone ever doubted that life is dependent on symbiotic relationships, then reading Haskell's The Songs of Trees will change that opinion forever. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: These vibrant and poetic essays are about the complexity of life found in the ecosystems of a dozen species of trees around the world.

Viking, $28, hardcover, 304p., 9780525427520

Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future

by Rob Dunn


Modern food-growing techniques have transformed the global diet: instead of eating hundreds of different foods, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, human beings are increasingly dependent on a small number of hardy crop varieties, grown on a massive scale. While this method of producing food has its benefits (including greater yields), it has raised the alarm among nutritionists and ecologists. Rob Dunn is the latter, and in his fourth book, Never Out of Season, he explores the pros and cons of crop monocultures and suggests a few strategies for diversifying the world's food supply before it's too late.

Dunn (The Man Who Touched His Own Heart) explores the complex relationship among people, their food and the planet, noting that "our hunger has shaped the earth in much the way that the hunger of a caterpillar remakes a leaf." He recounts the stories of vital crops such as coffee, cacao, wheat and cassava, as well as the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, to demonstrate the potential risks of monocultures. But he also highlights a few unsung heroes: farmers, biologists and other researchers who are studying pathogens, saving seeds and experimenting with new, disease-resistant varieties of vital foods in response to climate change and other factors.

While Dunn's narrative occasionally staggers under the weight of detail, his message is clear and timely: scientists, governments and consumers must work together to preserve and improve a diverse, resilient food supply in a rapidly changing world. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Ecologist Rob Dunn explores the need to diversify the global food supply in response to climate change, pathogens and other factors.

Little, Brown, $27, hardcover, 336p., 9780316260725

Health & Medicine

No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America

by Ron Powers


In the opening line of No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America, Ron Powers, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and co-author of nonfiction such as Mark Twain: A Life and Flags of Our Fathers, writes: "This is the book I promised myself I would never write." It is a hybrid, a nontraditional history of mental health care fused to an incredibly personal story about his two sons' struggles with schizophrenia. For his son Kevin, that struggle ended in suicide.

Powers doesn't attempt an encyclopedic history of mental illness and care in the United States, instead focusing on specific factors--trends, innovations, individuals, etc.--that played a role in creating a status quo wherein "too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity." His story is one of repeated moral failings, from the doctors performing transorbital lobotomies to the greed-fueled depredations of Big Pharma. The title of the book is a quote from leaked government e-mails, repurposed into a damning allegation.

For the families of the mentally ill, of course, caring about "crazy people" is a necessity. In roughly alternating chapters, Powers allows us to watch his sons grow up, dealing with the challenges of incipient schizophrenia as well as tragic events that shape their young minds. The boys' interactions with the mental health care system give Powers a first-hand look into its failings, and in turn he shows the reader the devastating human consequences of society's indifference toward the mentally ill. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Discover: No One Cares About Crazy People pairs a history of mental health care with the deeply personal story of the author's two sons.

Hachette, $28, hardcover, 384p., 9780316341172

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs

by Michael T. Osterholm, Mark Olshaker


"Infectious disease is the deadliest enemy faced by all of humankind," according to Michael Osterholm, an internationally known epidemiologist. In Deadliest Enemy, he gathers scientific research, case studies and analysis of current health policies into a thorough consideration of various microbes, bacteria and viruses that have the potential to be the world's next pandemic.

He begins with HIV/AIDS, an infectious disease unidentified prior to the early 1980s, which now infects an estimated 40 million people worldwide, with millions of new cases each year. Malaria and TB still kill thousands, while other illnesses, such as toxic shock syndrome, Ebola, Zika, MERS and SARS, have found their way into worldwide news as outbreaks have cropped up. Osterholm shows how easy it is for diseases to be transmitted from one continent to another, and he points out how unprepared the world is to fight most of these diseases on a global scale, with vaccines in short supply or nonexistent. He amply discusses the threat of bioterrorism, along with the probability that antibiotics will no longer be effective against certain diseases in the near future. His intent is not to create alarm with his findings, but rather to open the doorway to discussion. Osterholm hopes such conversation will lead to new policies so that when, not if, the next pandemic strikes, the world can respond rapidly, as a cohesive unit, to a potentially devastating threat. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: Pandemics are the biggest threat to human life, and this eye-opening account addresses what needs to be done to prevent a future global catastrophe.

Little, Brown, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9780316343695

Children's & Young Adult

Defy the Stars

by Claudia Gray


Seventeen-year-old Noemi is a fighter pilot for the planet Genesis in its war against the Earth. When she stumbles on Abel, the most sophisticated mech (robot) ever built, she realizes that she can use him in a suicide mission that will keep Genesis safe for decades. Abel has been alone since he was abandoned in battle 30 years ago. His sophisticated programming allows him to dream, want and develop complex emotions. But Abel's hard-wiring forces him to obey Noemi even though he knows she will end the life he's only begun to taste.

At first glance, it seems that Defy the Stars will hit the marks of a standard action-buddy story: Hostile combatants forced to work together develop a grudging respect that blossoms into friendship. But author Claudia Gray (A Thousand Pieces of You; Evernight) has a far more interesting and entertaining book up her sleeve. As the two race through the galaxy to carry out Noemi's plan, every slam-bang plot twist brings up a knotty philosophical issue. When Abel realizes that a pursuing mech has been given a mind as advanced as his own, he feels the new danger--but also the pull of not being alone anymore. Noemi, in turn, realizes that trusting Abel "doesn't feel like trusting a bridge to hold you over a river, or an oven to bake your bread. It feels like... trusting a person." Every explosion is balanced with a meditation on what it means to have a soul. Defy the Stars is a marvelous blend of thought, heart and pure adventure. --Ali Davis, freelance writer and playwright

Discover: A tour-de-force whirl of space opera, philosophy and budding affection.

Little, Brown, $17.99, hardcover, 512p., ages 14-up, 9780316394031

Lucky Broken Girl

by Ruth Behar


When Ruthie Mizrahi moves from Cuba to Queens, N.Y., and starts fifth grade, she has two goals: get out of "the dumb class," and get a pair of go-go boots like Nancy Sinatra's. But after a car accident leaves her in a body cast, her new goal is just to be a normal kid again. Ruthie's Jewish Cuban family, financially strapped and still adjusting to life in a new country, is strained by her injury. But the support of family, friends and neighbors buoys Ruthie and the Mizrahis through their challenges. "I've been through a metamorphosis," Ruthie tells a friend at the end of her recovery; for although this is a story of physical confinement, it is also a story of a young mind expanding and finding unexpected freedom.

Cuban-American cultural anthropologist and poet Ruth Behar, who based her first middle-grade novel, Lucky Broken Girl, on her own childhood, vividly outlines 1966 Queens with Ruthie's observations. Peppered with Spanish and Yiddish and the stories of every person she meets, her world is so tangible that readers will feel they're sitting on the stoop of the Mizrahis' apartment building. But even these details pale beside the emotional clarity of Ruthie's voice. In particular, her prayers (first to God, with Shiva and Frida Kahlo added along the way) at the end of most chapters recall the candid petitions of Judy Blume's Margaret. Equal parts heartbroken and hopeful, Ruthie is a middle grade heroine for the ages. --Stephanie Anderson, assistant director for public services, Darien Library (Conn.)

Discover: This emotionally true and unexpectedly funny chapter book about a Jewish Cuban-American fifth grader who spends a year in a body cast has wide appeal.

Nancy Paulsen Books, $16.99, hardcover, 256p., ages 10-up, 9780399546440

Beck

by Mal Peet, Meg Rosoff


Mal Peet--British author of the Carnegie Medal-winning Tamar and The Murdstone Trilogy--died in 2015 before he could finish his YA/adult novel Beck. Printz-winning author Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now) completed Peet's novel, but says, "Beck is Mal's book. Like all his work, it's bold and compassionate, unsparing, moving, and joyously, mordantly funny."

On her deathbed in Liverpool in 1918, Beck's mother squeezes her hazel-eyed, brown-skinned son's hand, unaware of the brutal life he'd face. After years in a "dire and loveless" Catholic orphanage, Beck is shipped to a Christian Brotherhood home in Montreal. There, the mixed-race boy the priests disturbingly nickname "Chocolat" is locked in a room with the lascivious, pink-eyed, naked-in-a-bathtub Brother Robert, then caned--and much worse--for violently resisting him. Beck is sent off to work on a remote Ontario farm as slave labor. Bleak, yes, but young adults are likely to see a gleam of hope in the fierce, brave boy who won't let himself be whipped twice. "I fookin' hate 'em," he tells the Home Boys' Society inspector, before fleeing again.

Heading south to the Detroit River, Beck lands in the home of a Prohibition-era bootlegger and his girlfriend, a black couple who, finally, give the young man "the tiniest inkling of the faintest possibility of a life that wasn't simply one hell followed by another...." Down the road, he encounters a half-Scottish, half Siksika (Blackfoot) woman named Grace McAllister, who also makes him feel that "faint possibility"--and much more. Whether a hardened heart can--or should--leave itself vulnerable to love is brilliantly explored in this powerful, beautifully written coming-of-age odyssey. --Karin Snelson, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Mal Peet began this exquisite YA novel about an English orphan shipped off to Canada in the 1920s; after his death, Printz-winning author Meg Rosoff finished it.

Candlewick, $17.99, hardcover, 272p., ages 14-adult, 9780763678425

Bull

by David Elliott


Broadway's Hamilton meets Edith Hamilton in David Elliott's crackling YA debut, a rapid-fire verse reimagining of the Greek myth of the Minotaur.

The cast members take turns dropping rhymes to tell the story. Minos, the "all ego" monarch of Crete, offends Poseidon--"King of the Sea!.../ Old Earth-Shaker/ And one helluva troublemaker"--by keeping the prime white bull the god sends as a sign of Minos's right to rule, instead of sacrificing it as promised. Cursed by Poseidon, Minos's wife, Pasiphae, falls in love with the bull and gives birth to "my beautiful beautiful monster," who grows into the Minotaur. Sheltered and educated at Pasiphae's command, beloved by his sister Ariadne (who knows "who the monsters are"), the Minotaur is nonetheless stalked by a future that brings imprisonment in Daedalus's labyrinth and a young prince named Theseus who "[B]elieves his own hype."

Elliot, author of the picture books This Orq. (He Cave Boy) and In the Sea, revamps the famous monster as a gentle soul victimized by society and machinations beyond his control. His catchy, occasionally explicit verse begs for dramatic readings, and he imbues female characters in particular with a depth and sense of agency lacking in many retellings, while painting power players Poseidon, Minos and Theseus as the true bullies. Older teens will find this version of Greek mythology darker and edgier than they remember from their Percy Jackson phases but every bit as intense and enjoyable. Razor-sharp rhyme schemes and sly, vicious humor make Bull a bawdy yet sophisticated romp, a literary feast fit for the gods. --Jaclyn Fulwood, lead librarian at Del City Public Library, Okla.

Discover: David Elliott retells the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in a verse novel sure to please rap fans.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99, hardcover, 200p., ages 14-18, 9780544610606

Thunder Underground

by Jane Yolen, illus. by Josée Masse


Anyone who has ever marveled at the intricate tunnels of an ant farm or dreamed of archeological adventure will revel in this wondrous, thunderous picture book of 21 poems by Jane Yolen (Owl Moon; the How Do Dinosaurs series; Birds of a Feather; Bug Off! Creepy, Crawly Poems). Thunder Underground mines the Earth for its riches, from tree roots to rabbit warrens, subways to lost cities.

There's a whole world underneath our feet, and in the wonder of that discovery lies the magma-hot core of this fine collection. Here, a curious young black girl with a treasure map and her shovel-toting white friend put their ears to the ground, rummage in the basement, dig for pirate gold and crawl through caves--all in happy pursuit of what is "under." (The first poem, "Under," examines the root word in "underground" and "understand.") In poems like "Seeds," Yolen's words flow like an underground river and beg to be read aloud: "This dot,/ this spot,/ this period at the end/ of winter's sentence/ writes its way up/ through the dull slate of soil/ into the paragraph of spring."

"Scientific and personal" notes contain gems: corn roots emit sounds that can be recorded; moles keep larders of earthworms for snacking purposes. Josée Masse (the illustrator of Marilyn Singer's Mirror Mirror and Echo Echo) artfully reflects the grand scope of Earth from the inside out in colorful mixed-media compositions, while zeroing in on kid-friendly details. The eye-opening, ear-opening Thunder Underground echoes the power of the rumbling, ever-changing Earth beneath ground level. --Karin Snelson, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Jane Yolen and Josée Masse delve beneath the surface of the Earth in this delightful picture book of 21 poems examining ants, moles, subways, forgotten cities, magma and more.

Wordsong/Highlights, $17.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 5-10, 9781590789360

Town Is by the Sea

by Joanne Schwartz, illus. by Sydney Smith


Town Is by the Sea offers some of the most beautiful paintings of sunshine on water ever painted, and that is more than enough reason to track it down. But Toronto children's librarian Joanne Schwartz's (Our Corner Grocery Store; Pinny in Summer) extraordinary picture book, illustrated by Sydney Smith (Sidewalk Flowers), is also a moving visual portrayal of what it means to send humans deep into the earth, deep under the sea, to dig for coal.

In a 1950s mining town in Nova Scotia, a boy and his family live in a house overlooking the water. The chummy boy narrator describes it in conversational style: "It goes like this--house, road, grassy cliff, sea." When he wakes up, "it goes like this": "first I hear the seagulls, then I hear a dog barking, a car goes by on the shore road, someone slams a door and yells good morning." As cheerful days of baloney sandwiches and sunny shoreline ambling are vividly chronicled, Smith intermittently yanks the reader down into the blackness of the coal miner's subterranean realm, where the boy's father pushes his way forward through a claustrophobic tunnel.

Echoing a longstanding mining tradition, it seems likely that the boy will eventually follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather: "One day, it will be my turn," he says matter-of-factly. Coal is frequently in the headlines these days, and this book puts a human face on the centuries-old practice of coal mining. More abstractly, Town Is by the Sea is a powerful and profound work of art that tweaks our perspective and transcends its subject. --Karin Snelson, freelance writer and editor

Discover: In Canadian author Joanne Schwartz's stunning picture book, illustrated by Sydney Smith of Sidewalk Flowers, a boy lives a sunny life while his father digs in the coal mines deep beneath the sea.

Groundwood/House of Anansi, $19.95, hardcover, 52p., ages 5-9, 9781554988716

Speed of Life

by Carol Weston


Sofia Wolfe isn't depressed, she's sad. And who wouldn't be? Her mom died nine months ago, and by now everyone, even best friend Kiki, expects her to have bounced back. Most people at the private, all-girls school Sofia attends in New York City are kind, but others treat her as though her mom's death "might be contagious."

At 14, Sofia has other changes to cope with, too. Kiki recently turned into a "boy magnet." The girls are all getting their periods. And Sofia worries she may be the only one in her class who has never kissed a boy. She knows she can talk to her gynecologist dad, but these kinds of things were so much easier with her mom. She begins writing to Dear Kate, a popular advice columnist at Fifteen magazine. Sofia needs someone to ask all of her "superpersonal" questions, especially now that her dad is showing signs of moving on. She thinks he may even be dating. When she finds out that Dad's new girlfriend is Dear Kate herself, Sofia is mortified.

Author Carol Weston (Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You; Ava and Pip) has been the voice of "Dear Carol" at Girls' Life magazine since 1994. She draws on her many years of experience to tackle tough issues with honesty and humor. Death and grieving, self-esteem, "bras, periods, cliques, and crushes" are all addressed head-on in this engaging novel. Readers will enjoy spending a pivotal year with Sofia, as she learns to find comfort in life's changes, both big and small. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI

Discover: After her mom dies, 14-year-old Sofia has to cope with many changes, including finding out her dad is dating the advice columnist Sofia has been writing to.

Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $16.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 10-14, 9781492654490

Niko Draws a Feeling

by Bob Raczka, illus. by Simone Shin


Everywhere Niko, a budding artist, looks, he sees something that calls out to be drawn. "It might be a mother bird building her nest. Or the low autumn sun peeking out from behind a cloud. Or the ice cream truck ring-a-linging down the street." Inspired, he draws and draws. But when he shows his pictures--fantastic, abstract scribbles of line and color and shape--to other people, they just don't get it. "What is it?" they ask. "It doesn't look like the ice cream truck." Niko explains: "It's not the ice cream truck.... It's the ring-a-ling." They ask, "Where's the bell?" Patiently, Niko repeats: "It's not the bell. It's the ring-a-ling." Discouraged, Niko seems ready to retreat into himself when he meets the new girl next door, who turns out to be a kindred spirit, one who experiences his art, rather than trying to pigeonhole it.

The creative process is clearly near and dear to the hearts of Bob Raczka (Fall Mixed Up; Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems) and Simone Shin (If I Could Drive, Mama). In Niko Draws a Feeling, Raczka provides possibly the best description of artistic inspiration ever: "[I]t felt like a window opening in his brain. An idea would flit through the open window like a butterfly, flutter down to his stomach, then along his arm and fingers to his pencils, where it would escape onto his paper in a whirlwind of color." Shin's mixed-media, digital and acrylic artwork wonderfully captures the passion and poignance of a misunderstood artist. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: In this sensitive picture book, no one understands the abstract work of a young artist until he meets a new friend.

Carolrhoda Books, $17.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 5-9, 9781467798433

Olivia the Spy

by Ian Falconer


Oh, Olivia, you maddening, marvelous piglet, how we love you.

This time around, Olivia, the everytoddler from Ian Falconer's Olivia series (Olivia and the Fairy Princess, etc.) develops a fascination with eavesdropping. After overhearing her mother talking about her latest mischief, Olivia thinks, "What ELSE is she saying about me? Maybe I should investigate." Of course she should. And when investigating, it's best to be sneaky, to "blend in," even if she's "always stood out." Disguising herself as a lamp, a piece of artwork, a zebra-print rug,     the porcine spy listens in on conversations whenever and wherever she can. But the problem with eavesdropping is that one picks up "[p]artial truths and misinformation," which can make a person feel "[i]nsecure and suspicious," as Olivia learns--the hard way--when she catches her parents discussing an "institution" they'd like her to go to. Her helpful teacher gives her several definitions of this scary-sounding word, including "prison." Readers' hearts will go out to the contrite pig as she prepares for the "SPECIAL" place her mother says she's taking her, unaware that they're actually going to the Lincoln Center--a true New York City "institution"--to see a ballet!

Falconer's incorrigible and independent Olivia, portrayed in his trademark charcoal and gouache artwork, is beloved among a generation whose parents and grandparents were raised on the exploits of another New York scamp, Eloise. Olivia the Spy features the pig, with her propensity for costume changes, at her finest: confidently viewing the world through her own unique eyes. Eavesdropping? "Mommy, I would NEVER do that! I was SPYING!" --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Ian Falconer's lovable, troublemaking pig Olivia is back, learning the pitfalls of eavesdropping.

Atheneum/S&S, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9781481457958

Grendel's Guide to Love and War: A Tale of Rivalry, Romance, and Existential Angst

by A.E. Kaplan


Tom Grendel can divide his 17-year-old life in "exactly three phases: before Mom, after Mom but before Dad/Iraq, and my current post-Dad/Iraq period." Tom's mother died suddenly when he was nine. His father deployed to Iraq, leaving Tom and his sister, Zipora, with their grandmother. Dad returned as the sole limbs-intact survivor of an IED explosion, Zip left for college, father and son moved "to our quiet house by the lake, and all was well... enough, anyway."

Besides doing lawncare for the neighborhood's mostly elderly women, summer vacation was supposed to be spent hanging out with best buddy Ed Park. Then TV journalist Ellen and her two teenagers--intractable Rex and enticing Willow--move in next door, and Ellen promptly disappears to cover an out-of-state story--leaving the house party-ready. The unrelenting thumping music into the wee hours is enough to trigger Tom's father's PTSD, exiling him to a Florida business trip. His absence gives Tom two weeks to stop the madness before Dad can come home. Complications grow--inept, bribable police, Willow's kisses, the enabling appearance of Rex and Willow's cousin Wolf, and the return of prodigal sister Zip.

A.E. Kaplan's debut novel proves raucous and entertaining, but it's also got centuries-old history attached: literary aficionados might recognize enough of the characters' unique names and plot lines as an homage to Beowulf, albeit epically reimagined and reclaimed from Grendel's point of view. Old English lesson aside, Kaplan's witty writing--enhanced with attack dogs, high pigs, long-lost love letters and a (really awful) painting--should do just fine as boisterous, contemporary fun. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Tom Grendel could never have predicted that his summer vacation might involve loud parties, pranks-gone-wrong, missing parents, needy elderly and (of course) the girl next door.

Random House Teens, $17.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 14-up, 9780399555541

CatStronauts: Mission Moon

by Drew Brockington


In the cat-centric world of CatStronauts: Mission Moon, when a global energy crisis threatens lights-out for the planet, the president of the United States--a handsome dark-furred feline--calls the World's Best Scientist for advice. Not to worry, though; the bespectacled scientist has a plan. Four brilliant catstronauts--Major Meowser, Waffles, Pom Pom and Blanket--"will fly to the moon and build a solar power plant on the surface." The president is sold (fantasizing about newspaper headlines: "Moon Power Saves World: Coolest President in History!") and the mission is a go.

At Catsup Headquarters, the catstronauts train and pack for their voyage, while engineers race against time--literally, as huge clocks have been installed all over HQ to "keep us on task"--constructing a new spaceship from a massive carton labeled SATURN VI ROCKET KIT. Will they make it to the moon before the world goes dark? Only time (56 days, 16 hours, 37 minutes and 12 seconds) will tell.

Author and illustrator Drew Brockington rockets to a terrific start with his debut graphic novel series (book 2, Race to Mars, was released simultaneously with Mission Moon). Clever feline gags (Waffles is caught licking his paw during a meeting) mesh with realistic but accessible space lingo and technology. Full-color illustrations make each squarish catstronaut's personality pop: whether it's Major Meowser's raging, tiny-fanged expression when Blanket and Waffles have fallen asleep on the job or the commander-in-chief's bug-eyed face as he "spitooo"s his coffee while reading the paper (where he apparently gets all his intel). Cat fanciers, space enthusiasts, STEM educators and comic book fans alike will purr with delight at Brockington's exciting and funny series. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: In this clever and humorous graphic series debut, an energy crisis will doom the world unless four catstronauts can fly to the moon to establish a new source of power.

Little, Brown, $16.99, hardcover, 160p., ages 6-10, 9780316307475

A Letter to My Teacher

by Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Nancy Carpenter


"Dear Teacher," a former second grader--now an adult--writes to her old teacher, "Whenever I had something to tell you, I tugged on your shirt and whispered in your ear. This time I'm writing a letter." The letter writer reminisces about her "exasperating" behavior--dripping rainwater in the classroom, distracting her classmates when she didn't want to be called on and disappearing on a field trip. All along, her remarkable teacher handles her conduct with aplomb. When our heroine shouts in excitement at the news that the class will plant a garden together in the spring ("Yay! We get to dig in the mud!"), her teacher responds: "True, but first we read about plants... We'll use math to measure our plot, and we'll write our garden plan." The sweet twist in A Letter to My Teacher comes at the conclusion: the former student reveals that she is about to start a new job--as a classroom teacher.

Having previously collaborated on Apples to Oregon, Deborah Hopkinson (Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building) and Nancy Carpenter (Dear Mr. Washington; Lucky Ducklings) join forces again in what amounts to a sweet love letter to an adored teacher. Although this book will make a touching gift to a teacher, it is also a gratifying read-aloud for early elementary children, reminding them that they are not alone in not always knowing how to express worry, fear and even love. Carpenter's pen-and-ink and digital media artwork, in black and white with washes and splashes of color, warmly captures the remembered busy classroom and the spirited little girl. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: An impulsive child is a challenge to her second grade teacher, but in a letter the girl writes to her years later, it's clear the gentle, empathic teacher made a profound impact.

Schwartz & Wade Books, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780375868450

Be Quiet!

by Ryan T. Higgins


Rupert the mouse has a sensitive artistic temperament, so when he decides to create a "visually stimulating" wordless picture book, he is not amused when his pals Thistle and Nibbs try to horn in on the creative process. He remonstrates them repeatedly for speaking: "Shhhh. Be QUIET. This book does not have words." Thistle is unfazed: "Wowee, a wordless book! Can I help?" he asks, then claps his paws over his mouth: "Oops--I'm talking! Eep! I'm TALKING about TALKING." "Every book needs a bear in it!" Nibbs chimes in. (On this page, fans of author Ryan T. Higgins's earlier books, Mother Bruce and Hotel Bruce, will recognize the titular scowling purple bear.) Bespectacled Rupert nearly goes mad with the constant chatter and unwelcome suggestions.

Clever hilarity and downright silliness abound, as when Thistle suggests including a "silent superhero" and Nibbs says, "We'll call him CAPTAIN QUIET and he could fight words!" The opposite page shows a comic book cover featuring a muscle-bound, blue-caped superhero with "SH" on his belt buckle and the words "Vocabulary Vigilante" over his head. By the end, the fussy would-be author is stomping his feet with vexation: "NO! NO! NO! No superheroes and no onomatopoeia, either!"

In the spirit of Michaela Muntean and Pascal Lemaitre's Do Not Open This Book and B.J. Novak's The Book with No Pictures, Higgins's Be Quiet! will delight readers who are beginning to realize that books don't just magically appear; they have authors and illustrators, and occasionally frustrating moments, behind them. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A mouse is desperate to write a book with no words, but his friends keep interrupting, in Ryan T. Higgins's laugh-out-loud picture book about picture books.

Disney Hyperion, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 3-5, 9781484731628

Braced

by Alyson Gerber


Rachel Brooks is excited about being in seventh grade, in spite of the scoliosis she's keeping hidden from her friends. Playing on the school soccer team with her best friends, Hazel and Franniem, is even better now that she has a shot at playing offense, and everyone agrees her crush Tate might be interested in her. But when a doctor visit shows the curve in her spine has worsened, there's only one way to avoid surgery: "We have to brace her," the doctor tells her mother in his "robotic" voice. Rachel must wear a hard plastic back brace that reminds her of "a turtle shell, only it goes all the way around" for 23 hours a day--including at school--until she stops growing. Her new clothes won't hide the lumpy shape. Even worse, she'll have to wear the brace to soccer practice. When her friends start to act differently around her and soccer proves to be more of a challenge than expected and her mother--who also had scoliosis as a teen--doesn't seem to understand her struggles, Rachel wonders if it's possible to continue her old life.

Debut author Alyson Gerber's Braced confronts readers with the awkward and painful realities of scoliosis, back braces and being different. Gerber herself spent three years in a back brace in her early teens, and her firsthand experience is well used. Casual remarks about Rachel's appearance sting the reader as much as Rachel, while her moments of bravery and decisiveness are inspiring. Gerber's cast of characters are wonderfully flawed and believable. Beautifully emotional, Braced will help readers recognize and celebrate their differences. --Kyla Paterno, former children's and YA book buyer

Discover: When her doctor finds her scoliosis is worsening, Rachel must learn to navigate seventh grade while wearing a back brace.

Scholastic Press, $16.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 8-12, 9780545902144

Opposite Surprise

by Agnese Baruzzi


"Small or big?" "Empty or full?" "Straight or curvy?" Appearances can be deceiving in this sturdy square board book about one of the more fun early learning concepts: opposites! Open the book to any page and see, for instance, a bright yellow sun, the heat blazing out its rays. The bold text across from the picture reads simply, "Hot or cold?" Hot, of course, right? But open the gatefold and--surprise!--that wasn't a sun, it was the tops of two icy popsicles! Then, "Thin or wide?" It sure looks like a thin pencil... but no, unfold the page and discover what you were looking at was in fact the edges of a wide bridge. "One or many?" One sweet sheep stands alone... until the double-creased page opens to reveal many sheep--what looked like just one was the front of one and the back of another.

The youngest readers will delight in the unexpected in Italian illustrator Agnese Baruzzi's charming, interactive Opposite Surprise. Baruzzi, who clearly enjoys inspiring readers to shake up their assumptions and explore different perspectives, as evidenced in Look, Look Again and Topsy-Turvy Monsters, knows better than to clutter up the pages of a book designed for children who are just starting to play with words. Minimal but thickly drawn text on brightly colored solid backdrops contrasts appealingly with clean, colorful illustrations on the bright white opposing pages. Tots will not only begin to grasp the concept of opposites; they will have a glimpse into a (friendly) world where what you see might not be what you get. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This bright, cheerful board book will surprise young readers with fold-out illustrations that are the opposite of what they first seemed.

Minedition, $12.99, board book, 30p., ages 2-5, 9789888341375

Reference & Writing

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

by Kory Stamper


Most people use a dictionary with little thought given to the genesis of definitions, or their maintenance. Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper pulls back the curtain in Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, a paean to the craft of lexicography and a sometimes bemused exploration of the "Escher-esque logic of English."

Stamper neatly and wittily covers grammar, defining philosophy (recording language as people use it vs. guarding the purity of the language); "wrong" words, like irregardless and unravel; dialects (where marginalization of same can have dire results, as in the Trayvon Martin trial); the history of dictionaries; adding new words (with the standard resultant carping about the decline of civilization); revising (constant); etymology (many origin stories, like those for "posh," are false); dating ("OMG" can be traced back to 1917); pronunciation; and the sociolinguistic implications of "nude" (whose skin?).

Stamper obviously loves working with words, and has written a smart, sparkling and often hilarious valentine to the content and keepers of dictionaries. Whether describing the editorial table at Merriam-Webster (room for four editors to sit comfortably, or six "in introverted terror") or the reverence lexicographers have for "this gorgeous, lascivious" language, she shares her admiration and appreciation for the invisible craftspeople who not only define the recently added "face-palm," but also revise the verb "ghost" to match the current dating scene. In doing so, she deftly explains why "a living language made by fallible people will not be perfect, but it will be remarkable." --Marilyn Dahl, editor emerita, Shelf Awareness for Readers

Discover: Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper writes a superbly entertaining account of dictionaries' inner workings and creation.

Pantheon, $26.95, hardcover, 320p., 9781101870945

The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger
The Red Hunter
by Lisa Unger
ISBN-13: 978-1501101670
Touchstone
04/25/2017


an exclusive interview with bestselling author Lisa Unger
The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger
 

To develop the characters in The Red Hunter, you studied a book about cases of children very different from their parents. How hard was it to write that relationship?

“Claudia’s relationship with her daughter evolved naturally for me,” Unger says, admitting she drew from her own experiences to authenticate the mother/child bond. While her daughter, Ocean, is younger than Raven, the bond is forged by a deep understanding. “So much of the person you are as a parent has to do with the child. With Ocean, I trust her. She’s honest and smart and spunky. Which makes it easier for me to be less the over-protective, semi-paranoid parent I thought I would be. She’s fully aware of the darkness in the world . . . The part of my brain I use for writing is not the same part that helps my daughter with homework. I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing. My husband likes to joke that he’s number four—after Ocean, the dog, and the writer, but that’s not quite true. As a writer, I’m engaged, always striving to do better and be authentic as I can be. And I have those same goals as a wife and a mom.”

Read the rest of the interview here.

 

ALSO FEATURED ON THE the big THRILL…
 The Lost Order by Steve Berry The Day I Died by Lori Rader-Day Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles Elementary She Read by Vicki Delany

Dangerous Ends by Alex Segura

THE LOST ORDER by STEVE BERRY: In the latest thriller in his New York Times-bestselling series, Berry’s creation, former Justice Department agent Cotton Malone, takes on the Knights of the Golden Circle, a clandestine—and dangerous--organization that amassed billions in gold and silver, little of which has ever been found. Read more at The Big Thrill.

THE DAY I DIED by LORI RADER-DAY: The award-winning author of PRETTY LITTLE THINGS tells the story of a handwriting expert who, when called to use her expertise on a note left behind at a murder scene in the small town she and her son recently moved to, finds her life ripped open. Find out more here.

MISSISSIPPI BLOOD by GREG ILES: In the final installment in the award-winning Natchez Burning trilogy, Penn Cage sees his family and his world collapsing around him when his father, once a paragon of the community that Penn leads as mayor, is about to be tried for the murder of a former lover. Learn more at The Big Thrill.

ELEMENTARY SHE READ by VICKI DELANY:  In the first in a delightful new series, Gemma Doyle is the owner of a bookstore in Cape Cod that specializes in all things Sherlock Holmes. Like the great fictional detective, Gemma, a transplanted Englishwoman, uses heightened powers of deduction to root out evil intentions and solve murders. Visit The Big Thrill for more. 

DANGEROUS ENDS by ALEX SEGURA: When Florida P.I. Pete Fernandez wades into a case that no one wants, exonerating a police officer convicted for murdering his wife, Pete finds himself in the crosshairs of Los Enfermos, a bloodthirsty gang of pro-Castro killers and drug dealers looking to wipe Pete off the Miami map. Read more here.

  

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