Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, March 12, 2013
From My Shelf
Further Reading: Small-Town Postmistresses
Post offices in small towns hold many secrets, even in today's digital age. Employees who receive and deliver the mail often learn a lot about their friends and neighbors. This brings a dilemma: Should a postmistress use her knowledge to protect and help her neighbors, or remain discreet, bound by the rules?
Straitlaced spinster Iris James runs the post office in 1940s Franklin, Mass., in Sarah Blake's novel The Postmistress. As the U.S. struggles to stay out of the war in Europe, Iris makes a fateful decision: she chooses not to deliver a letter. When the town's doctor travels to London to lend a hand during the Blitz, he meets American radio gal Frankie Bard. That chance encounter sends Frankie back to Massachusetts with another letter, whose delivery holds profound consequences for her, for Iris and for Emma, the doctor's young wife.
Dorcas Lane, postmistress of Candleford, reigns supreme over her small domain in rural 1890s Oxfordshire. In Candleford Green, the third volume in Flora Thompson's trilogy of autobiographical novels, Lark Rise to Candleford. Laura Timmins comes from the neighboring hamlet of Lark Rise to work for Dorcas and becomes Dorcas's co-conspirator and fellow keeper of secrets. Kind and honorable (if mischievous), they sometimes meddle in their neighbors' lives, with amusing (if occasionally disastrous) results.
In Cathy Kelly's The House on Willow Street , Danae Rahill, postmistress of the small Irish town of Avalon, knows more about her neighbors than most people realize. But Danae is more than willing to protect others' secrets, partly because she's guarding one of her own. When Danae's exuberant visiting niece Mara threatens to breach the walls Danae has kept for 18 years, Danae quails at the thought of being exposed, but begins to wonder if some burdens aren't meant to be shared. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
George R.R. Martin Recommends; Literary Cakes
George R.R. Martin knows fans are waiting impatiently for the next entry in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. To keep them occupied while he writes, on his blog he offers 32 recommendations, which Huffington Post Books has assembled into a slide show.
Wordlovers will deliciate in this list of "20 obsolete English words that should make a comeback."
Mental Floss discovered "7 book dedications that basically say "Screw You.' "
Nicholas Royle, whose seventh book is titled First Novel, chose his "top 10 first novels" for the Guardian, noting: "What makes first novels special has something to do with the relationship between reader and writer. Often, a first novel may not actually be a first novel."
Flavorwire served up "30 gorgeous and delicious literary cakes."
The Writer's Life
Brian Switek: His Beloved Dinosaurs
On a sunny afternoon in February, Brian Switek sits in a closet-sized room in midtown Manhattan, reading aloud from his forthcoming book, My Beloved Brontosaurus (co-published by Scientific American and Farrar, Straus & Giroux in April). It's the second day of recording, and he's just getting to the bit where he discusses theories about what killed off the dinosaurs. In the adjacent room, watching Switek through a window, audiobook producer Bob Van Kolken monitors his progress, as engineer Iris McElroy occasionally asks him to repeat a line more slowly.
"Brian's doing great for a first time reader," Van Kolken said, and McElroy concurred, noting that Switek's background as a science journalist specializing in dinosaur studies makes him an ideal reader for the book. "If we were using an actor," she noted, "we'd probably be spending another two days looking up pronunciations of all these names."
During a break in the proceedings, Switek steps out into the production room. He admitted that he didn't think he was going to be asked to do his own audiobook, and he's happily surprised by the opportunity. "But if it wasn't me," he joked, "I'd want it to be Samuel L. Jackson."
Another facet of My Beloved Brontosaurus that virtually requires Switek in the recording booth is its highly personal perspective--dinosaurs have been a lifelong passion for him. "My mother tells me that I loved trucks and elephants before moving on to dinosaurs," he recalled in an e-mail shortly after the recording session, "but the dinosaur phase kicked in relatively early.... I already adored dinosaurs during my first visit to the American Museum of Natural History, when I was about five years old, but that day trip amplified their prehistoric inspiration. I've been chasing them ever since, in one way or another."
That pursuit has led to a career as a freelance science writer and blogger for National Geographic, focused on paleontology and natural history. He spent about a year working on My Beloved Brontosaurus, with a good portion of the summer devoted to field research, including a two-week visit to fossil sites and museums in Utah, Montana and Wyoming. He's especially fond of Dinosaur National Monument; his first trips there were a contributing factor to his decision to live in the West. "It's a stunning park," Switek said. "There's the famous quarry wall, studded with bones of Jurassic dinosaurs, but the national park also contains vast exposures of other time periods, covering over 300 million years of history! You can stand in some spots and look back in time, watching ancient seas come in and out, only to be replaced by a succession of sandy deserts, floodplains and swamps."
This isn't just ancient history for Switek. He takes particular relish in discussing the recent scientific proposition that birds aren't just descended from the dinosaurs--they're dinosaurs that have survived into the present era. "Many of the features we associate with birds evolved among non-avian dinosaurs first," he explained, citing protofeathers and fuzz-like body coverings as examples that can also teach us about early dinosaur biology. "But it's still hard to think of a pigeon, penguin or hummingbird as a dinosaur," he conceded. "A chickadee is not an Apatosaurus. Still, when you get down into bone and other tissues, such disparate creatures share a lot in common. And it's pretty wonderful to realize that dinosaurs truly did escape extinction and are thriving among us today."
Back in the studio, I commented on the pillow that Switek was clutching around his midsection while he was sitting in the recording booth. "We started doing that the first day," he said, explaining that he was so eager to start recording that he skipped breakfast that morning. Eventually, his stomach grumbling got so loud it was being picked up on the microphone. And though he remembered to eat breakfast this morning, he said, he found the setup so comfortable he kept on doing it. "Plus, it keeps my arms occupied," he said, smiling. --Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com
Cities of Refuge
by Michael Helm
The complex plot of Michael Helm's Cities of Refuge grows out of a single event: a brutal assault on 28-year-old refugee advocate Kim Lystrander as she walks to work one night. Helm describes the attack, and the moments and days leading up to it, in riveting, almost clinical detail, but he also gives the moment heart-stopping poetic gravity. "There's a sound the earth makes in its transit," he writes as Kim lies broken, alone and un-rescued, "a streaming without music or echo, not colored or pleasing or solemn or one thing so much like another. If god speaks to us in murmurs, she heard them."
This potent tension between the rigorously specific and the lyrical is characteristic of the rest of the novel. Kim survives, but the crime has devastating repercussions. While she writes her way through her trauma by recounting the night over and over, mining her memory for clues to her attacker's identity and searching for traces of fate, her beloved mother is dying of cancer and her sometimes-estranged father, Harold, gropes for answers by launching an investigation of his own.
Harold's quest ensnares new victims of the crime, particularly Rodrigo, a young Colombian who has fled to Canada. He is being illegally harbored by Rosemary, whose clash with Harold reveals insurmountable rifts between the faithful and the cynical, the innocent and guilty and the disenfranchised and the privileged.
Helm's story has a Canadian setting but is urgently relevant to contemporary Western culture, and he tells it with an exceptional talent for detail and powerful insight. --Hannah Calkins
Discover: Already published to great acclaim in Canada, this is a provocative, political and astonishingly well-written novel about a young woman's brutal assault and its profound implications.
by Nancy Bilyeau
Joanna Stafford, ex-novice, is attempting to put her life together after her convent at Dartford was dismantled on Henry VIII's orders. (See Bilyeau's previous novel, The Crown, for the full story there.) Convinced Catholicism is the one true faith, Joanna is in despair over the continuing Reformation; on the practical side, raising her young cousin Arthur after his mother was executed at Henry's command, she's trying to get a tapestry business up and running. Then her cousin the Marquis of Exeter, and his wife, Gertrude, offer Joanna and Arthur a place to stay.
Joanna gratefully heads to London, leaving behind two men to whom she is strangely attracted (despite her vow of chastity). In the city, she discovers Gertrude knows the guilty secret Joanna has tried to squelch for a decade. Three separate prophecies suggest Joanna has a vital role to play in the Catholic cause. She resists, but Gertrude presses the point, and Joanna comes to accept that the fate of Henry VIII--perhaps of all England--is in her hands.
The Chalice is an engrossing mix of the complicated politics of the Reformation with the magical elements of the Dominican order, and Joanna--fiery, passionate, determined to honor what she thinks God wants her to do--is a fascinating character. Fans of historical mysteries, Tudor politics and supernatural fiction will all be pleased by the broad scope, quick-moving plot and historical integrity of Bilyeau's second novel. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm
Discover: The second novel in a saga of murder, mystery and prophecy during the reign of Henry VIII.
The End of the Point
by Elizabeth Graver
Those lucky enough to grow up with a regular "summer place"--be it a lake cabin, a beach house or, in Elizabeth Graver's The End of the Point, a compound on Massachusetts's Buzzards Bay--know how memories of indolent days spent amid nature take on a mythic quality later in adulthood. Spanning three generations of the WASP-y Porter family, Graver mines that vein of longing in a novel redolent of wild blackberries and keenly aware of the entitlements of privilege.
Through the innermost feelings and experiences of Helen, a rebellious teen who over time becomes a demanding mother to the fragile Charlie, and Bea, the family's Scottish maid, Graver makes the Porters' summer residence a stage on which her characters act out the cultural shifts of the second half of the 20th century. By the time Charlie enters adulthood--during the drugged uncertainty of the Vietnam era--the idyllic getaway spot has degenerated to a place where, after dropping out of college, he can hole up in a rustic cabin with a stockpile of books and Valium.
As Graver points out in her introduction, the land that provides Charlie with succor was, of course, chiseled away from Native Americans centuries earlier. But the potential loss to Charlie when real estate development threatens to alter his childhood touchstones is palpable, regardless of his ultimate claim on the place. This sprawling, wise novel is a reminder that summer memories can pull on the heart like no others. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic
Discover: Graver's fourth novel is a luminous portrait of a wealthy family's evolution, playing out at their summer getaway in Massachusetts.
Food & Wine
The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France
by John Baxter
There is something quite delicious about reading books by literary food lovers who aren't afraid to embark on an adventure to find what they're seeking, whether for reading or for eating. John Baxter (The Most Beautiful Walk in the World) has a particular knack for such writing, and The Perfect Meal is a wonderful culinary travel memoir.
A native Australian, Baxter has lived in France for more than 20 years, and has become disturbed by the trend in restaurants to serve plats en kit--precooked meals bought canned, frozen or as boil-in-a-bag portions--as well as the steady loss of authentic cheese sellers and fishmongers in the markets. He imagines an ideal menu of traditional French cuisine, then determinedly sets out to research and taste it for himself. As might be expected, Baxter begins with a quest for the perfect starters: kir, a white wine usually sweetened with a shot of crème de cassis (made from blackcurrants), and caviar with blinis and crème fraîche. Moving on to subsequent courses, Baxter travels throughout France. At Marcel Proust's hometown, he considers the madeleine as an amuse guile (a nibble); then it's off to Bordeaux to sample lampreys in blood sauce, the Riviera for bouillabaisse, the 14th arrondissement of Paris for beef tartare and Nord-Pas-de-Calais for roasted ox.
Baxter provides a final menu at the end of his book. Thankfully, he also includes a collection of recipes--The Perfect Meal will leave most readers hungry for more. --Roni K. Devlin, owner, Literary Life Bookstore
Discover: A wonderful mix of travel memoir and French culinary history, as John Baxter strives to create a perfect menu.
The Little Paris Kitchen: 120 Simple but Classic French Recipes
by Rachel Khoo
Like hundreds of chefs, London native Rachel Khoo moved to Paris to study pâtisserie at Le Cordon Bleu. After finishing her course, she didn't want to leave. Working at a culinary bookshop and catering for the store's salon de thé, Khoo forged a career as a self-styled "food creative." She develops recipes, caters for events large and small and hosts pop-up restaurants in her apartment, which provides the title to The Little Paris Kitchen--a fresh, simplified take on traditional French dishes with a few original inventions.
The first section, "Everyday Cooking," is a collection of simple, nourishing recipes to whip up for lunch or brunch. Classics like ratatouille and steak tartare appear alongside dishes spiked with a touch of whimsy, such as eggs baked in teacups or a tricolored shepherd's pie. The next section, "Snack Time," provides sweet and savory ideas for the French tradition of le goȗter (the afternoon treat); from savory cheese puffs to Proustian madeleines, Khoo's menu has something for everyone.
Gorgeous full-color photo spreads accompany the recipes: Khoo exploring farmer's markets, visiting cafes, testing recipes in her petite cuisine. Sections on summer picnics, aperitifs, hearty dinners and dessert round out the collection, and she finishes with a handy section on French basics (stocks, sauces and crème pâtissière) at the back. The photos may make readers long for Paris, but the recipes will have them tying on an apron to try their hand at une petite cuisine française. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: A delicious collection of fresh, sometimes whimsical takes on classic French recipes.
Pati's Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking
by Pati Jinich
Pati Jinich, readily recognizable from her cooking programs on PBS, is also the official chef at Washington, D.C.'s Mexican Cultural Institute--and a very busy wife and mother of three boys. She understands what it means to be able to cook well for your family when time is precious and has put her expertise on the page in Pati's Mexican Table.
"Mexican home cooking is beautiful in its simplicity, tremendously convenient, and wholesome," she writes, and it's these qualities that make her cookbook universally appealing, while her energetic and honest writing keep the reader engaged. The recipes in Pati's Mexican Table are arranged in a traditional format with chapter headings such as Soups, Seafood and Sides--including a special chapter of vegetarian dishes inspired by requests from friends, family and fans. There's even a "Drinks" chapter that is no afterthought (be sure to try the creamy peanut and vanilla apéritif).
Jinich's recipes are nicely presented with detailed introductions, bolded ingredient lists and numbered steps. Many are accompanied by an additional "Mexican Cook's Trick," and readers won't want to ignore these helpful hints. Other sidebars provide more information about Mexican ingredients and cooking techniques; these are also always worth reading. Most everyone will find a traditional Mexican recipe to enjoy in Pati's Mexican Table, as well as new renditions of old favorites, like the Mexican Thanksgiving turkey with chorizo, pecan, apple and cornbread stuffing. --Roni K. Devlin, owner of Literary Life Bookstore
Discover: A new cookbook from the star of public television's Pati's Mexican Table, perfect for home cooks with little time to spare.
Biography & Memoir
Her: A Memoir
by Christa Parravani
"People think having a twin means never being lonely," Christa Parravani writes in Her, a moving memoir about losing her identical twin sister, Cara. "Nothing is lonelier than being separated." Identical twins share more than genetic DNA, Parravani explains. They share the same thoughts, aspirations and ways of dealing with life. They each want to become the other half of themselves. When one twin dies, she says, "50 percent of twins follow their identical twins into death within two years."
Parravani eloquently details life with Cara as they move from an impoverished childhood, raised by their mother, into young adulthood, college and early marriages. Then Cara is brutally raped, and her traumatized life spirals downward into drugs and a fatal overdose. In turn, Parravani embarks on her own path of self-destruction as she struggles with the loss of her other half. Gripping in its intensity, Her displays Parravani's raw emotions as she abandons her photography career and tries to replace the irreplaceable with drugs, alcohol and extramarital affairs. She finally comes to realize she's been given the greatest gift, the will to live and a reason to hope: "I had something before me that Cara would never have: years." Her is a rich memorial to sisterhood, love and the will to survive. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: A moving account of love and anguish, by a twin who survived her sister's death.
The Black Russian
by Vladimir Alexandrov
The Black Russian is the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, the son of former slaves in Mississippi who left the South after his father's murder. Possessed of a steely work ethic and determined to make something of his life, Thomas worked in hotels in restaurants, became a successful entrepreneur and eventually spent more than a decade in Europe, where he found acceptance, wealth and love. Though he presented a humble, hospitable demeanor, he was in fact a canny businessman, a financial risk taker and a persuasive talker who smoothly omitted the unpleasant facts of his life.
Vladimir Alexandrov sets Thomas against the volatile political backdrop of late 19th- and early 20th-century U.S. and Europe, emphasizing his unusual position as an owner of several popular restaurants and entertainment gardens in Moscow. When Thomas arrived in 1899, the city was a cosmopolitan place where East met West, but by the time the Bolshevik revolution forced him to flee to Odessa, both Moscow's and Thomas's fates had changed drastically.
Thomas left behind few diaries or letters; many contemporary accounts, taken from the writings of American tourists, are tinged with racism. The political upheaval of the times and Thomas's penchant for glossing over inconvenient details also create a few factual gaps. Despite these obstacles, Alexandrov pieces together a compelling narrative of this powerful and complex man. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: A compelling biography of the son of former slaves who left America and made his fortune in early 20th-century Moscow.
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
by Matthew Goodman
On November 14, 1889, Nelly Bly, a reporter for the popular newspaper the World, sailed from New York on a trip that would make her famous: an attempt to travel around the world in less than 80 days (inspired, of course, by Jules Verne). Eight and a half hours later, Elizabeth Bisland, the literary editor of the Cosmopolitan, boarded a westbound train in a reluctant--and largely forgotten--attempt to outrace Bly. Matthew Goodman tells their story in Eighty Days.
Goodman emphasizes both the differences and the surprising similarities between the brash investigative reporter from a Pennsylvania coal town and the Southern lady who educated herself in a ruined plantation's library. Alternating between their experiences, he contrasts their reactions to publicity, their fellow travelers (especially the British) and the new cultures they encounter. Even if you know in advance Bly will win, the race is suspenseful, complete with storms at sea, damaged ships, nearly missed connections, the kindness of strangers and a hair-raising train ride through western mountains.
Although the race between Bly and Bisland is engaging in its own right, Eighty Days is more than an adventure story. Goodman does not limit himself to a step-by-step narrative of his heroines' travels. Instead, he uses the race to illustrate the social impact of new modes of transportation, a growing popular press and new opportunities for women. The result is a social history of the U.S. on the verge of modernity. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins
Discover: Nelly Bly wasn't the only American woman journalist who circumnavigated the globe in 1889; Goodman tells the suspenseful story of both attempts to beat Phineas Fogg's time.
Current Events & Issues
The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power
by Kim Ghattas
"Just as they had expected her to be a prima donna in the Senate," Kim Ghattas writes of Hillary Rodham Clinton in The Secretary, "so too people at the State Department were bracing for a diva. Instead, she was the one pouring the coffee."
Ghattas, who spent her youth in war-torn Beirut waiting for the United States to swoop in and save the day, understands that sentiment held by others around the world today. Her experiences traveling the world with Clinton as a BBC political correspondent have also shown her the tightrope the Secretary of State and the President must walk when it comes to diplomatic relations--and which Clinton traversed with confidence and determination.
From Middle East peace talks to the sinking of the Cheonan to WikiLeaks, Ghattas recounts Clinton's successes and disappointments, providing succinct background information that allows readers a full understanding without overwhelming detail. She shows how, despite exhausting days, unexpected events and a world with a tarnished view of the U.S., Clinton believed in the good her country could do and worked tirelessly to make change happen.
Visiting more countries than any Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton made the world her stage. "It was hard to imagine," Ghattas writes, "any other secretary of state responding to an audience's expectations with such passion." --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts
Discover: A BBC political correspondent's empathetic and respectful portrait of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Children's & Young Adult
by Sharon M. Draper
Sharon Draper (Out of My Mind) takes us into the heart of a closely knit dance troupe that bands together when two of their members face a crisis. The author balances a suspenseful plot and the emotional growth of her characters with ease and grace.
Four high school students in the troupe narrate: Justin, the lead male dancer; Layla, his crush, and the leading female dancer, who's dating Cadillac-driving Donovan; sophomore Diamond; and Diamond's best friend, Mercedes. Diamond and Mercedes make an afternoon run to the mall, but when the two separate, Diamond meets a handsome 40-something man in the food court who tells her he's holding auditions for a film. Draper never shows explicitly what goes on during Diamond's ensuing captivity, but readers discover what kind of film the man had in mind. By alternating among the narrators, Draper allows readers to see the progress of the investigation, and gives us a break from the intensity of Diamond's situation. A chilling parallel emerges with the relationship between Layla and Donovan, whose abuse turns into revenge when he e-mails topless pictures of Layla that go viral on the Web. The author creates a counterpoint with examples of healthy relationships, such as Mercedes and Steven (who brings candy to the studio for his "favorite chocolate bunny").
Draper's tale leaves room for hope that Diamond and Layla can repair their lives, but with the understanding that they are forever changed. Her book may well prompt teens to be more circumspect about their own responsibility in the decisions they make. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A suspenseful tale of how one bad choice can go horribly wrong.
Also Known As
by Robin Benway
Sixteen-year-old Maggie cracked her first lock at age three. All her life, Maggie and her parents have been moving around the world on spy missions. They are part of the Collective, and while its members hack into computers and forge documents, Maggie explains, "the whole point is to right wrongs, not create them." Their next location is New York City, where Maggie will embark on her first solo mission. She must attend a Greenwich Village high school in order to befriend the target's son. High school is hard enough without worrying about being a spy, but Maggie is determined to show her parents that she can handle a job on her own without blowing her cover.
Maggie's wit will instantly charm readers, as evidenced when she first finds out about her solo mission: "I raised my bagel in the air like an award, then pretended to wipe away tears. 'This just means so much to me! I'd like to thank all the little people that I crushed on my way to the top.' " Her parents are equally likable, filling a parental role but still holding an air of mystery as we find out about their spy specialties and their successes.
Robin Benway (Audrey, Wait!) perfectly balances descriptions of spy activities with the normal life of a teenage girl, making this a truly enjoyable read. Especially great for fans of Ally Carter's Gallagher Girl series. --Shanyn Day, blogger at Chick Loves Lit
Discover: A 16-year-old on her first solo spy mission, as she attempts to balance romance and getting the job done right.