Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Shadow Mountain: Christmas Jars Collector's Edition by Jason F. Wright

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Holiday Must-Haves!

Thunder Bay Press: The Greatest Brick Builds: Amazing Creations in Lego by Nathan Sawaya

Arresting Covers

In a bookstore, an arresting cover or title lures the reader into picking up a book and checking out the jacket copy and, hopefully, the first few pages.

Johns Hopkins Press has just published a book called Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels by Valerie Weaver-Zercher. The cover is the clichéd image of a young woman from the back, in Amish clothes; what makes the cover snap is the punny title (voted best of the year by our office) and the words "of the" running down the ribbon on the back of the bonnet. The promise of the cover is borne out by the content: an engaging analysis of "bonnet rippers" and their audience.

"Forget the cud, they want blood..." is the headline on the pre-pub edition of Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan (St. Martin's Griffin, May 21). A Holstein stares out with red eyes, a "sneezing, flesh-craving four-legged zombie," and the fate of the world rests on an abattoir worker, a teenage vegan and an inept journalist. "Three losers. Overwhelming odds. One outcome... Yup, we're screwed." Logan's novel is a winner of the Terry Pratchett Prize, which should guarantee the prose is as funny as the cover text.

On a completely different plane is the cover of Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge (Gallery Books). Water and memory are two driving elements in her story of an amnesiac and her fiancé. The word "water" drips into "memory" in a simply beautiful jacket. The back-cover illustration is lush--the same colors in a floral image that is carried over inside the front flap. It's a gorgeous design that does a lovely novel justice. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers


Da Capo Lifelong Books: Veganomicon, 10th Anniversary Edition: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero


Book Candy

Twain's Tax Wisdom; Great Gatsby 3D; 25 Kids' Books

A little morning-after Income Tax Day wisdom from Mark Twain: "The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin." Flavorwire featured a collection of "great literary quotes for tax day."

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Decisions about how good Baz Luhrmann's 3D version of The Great Gatsby is must be left to filmgoers and critics, but Vogue has weighed in with a photo shoot of Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Architectural Digest explored the lavish sets and noted that the director's "take on the classic novel promises to be a captivating fusion of dashing period style and 21st-century sensibility."

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"Always looking for a good story, Hollywood has often turned to literature to inspire some of its most successful films," the Huffington Post noted in showcasing "11 biggest book-to-big screen adaptations of the last 25 years."

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"The 25 books every kid should have on their bookshelf " were suggested by Flavorwire.

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Moscow artist and poet Svetlana Kolosova composes charming fairy tale paintings on the palm of her hand.


Bonhomie Press: The Murderer's Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel by Erika Mallman


Great Reads

Now in Paper: April

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (Mariner, $15.95)
Are You My Mother? confirms what anyone who has read Fun Home already knows: Alison Bechdel is the premier master of graphic comic narrative. Having explored her father's secret gayness and suicide in her first memoir, here she takes on her sometimes chilly, smart and ambiguous mother--a poet who gave up her art for love, an actress and a housewife with three children. She taps into the universality of mother and child with extraordinary revelations, engaging the reader with her insights, using comic book tools to take one to terrifying places.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (Harper Perennial, $15.99)
Jess Walter gets better and better with each novel, and Beautiful Ruins has hit the trifecta: irresistible story, rich characters, captivating Italian and Hollywood settings. It segues between years and characters and its entirety is sweetly and slowly revealed through an American actress, Dee Moray, the men who are captivated by her, and Liz and Dick while filming Cleopatra--squabbling, drunk, breaking up two marriages. This is a ripping great story filled with moments of hilarity, poignancy, dreams and invention.

The Ionia Sanction by Gary Corby (Soho Crime, $14.95)
Nicolaos, the only private investigator in ancient Athens, has a problem. The Ephesian ambassador is dead, Nicolaos let the murderer get away, and Pericles, the ruler of Athens, has threatened to fire him unless he can fix things. The sole clue lies with his former slave, Asia, so Nicolaos buys her, whereupon she reveals to him that she is the daughter of Themistocles, now a powerful diplomat within the Persian Empire. Full of real historical figures and fascinating insights into Greek and Persian culture, The Ionia Sanction is a delightful romp.

Joe Golem and the Drowning City by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (St. Martin's Grifin, $17.95)
Molly McHugh is a bright young girl in the drowning city of lower Manhattan. She's Felix Orlove's assistant and witness to his true talent in contacting the dead, until a being from another dimension connects through Felix, killing him. Thus begins this wild, weird romp as Molly flees from the strange gas-masked creatures sent by Dr. Cocteau to capture her. She's rescued by Joe, a hulking, super-strong man with a mysterious past who takes Molly in as the last great hope in saving the universe from the mind-boggling Lovecraftian horror from beyond.

Last Call for the Living by Peter Farris (Forge, $7.99)
Peter Farris's debut novel is an in-your-face crime thriller that starts out with a simple heist: Hobe Hicklin, a violent ex-con, hits up an isolated bank branch in rural Georgia. For reasons that Hicklin can't quite explain, though, he takes one teller hostage, and the life of Charlie Colquitt, a quiet and nerdy college student, will never be the same. Gritty and real, the dark side of rural Georgia's sketchy bars, trailers and snake-handling charismatic churches are a backdrop as the cops and the Aryan Brotherhood work equally hard to find Hicklin, and now Charlie.

Robert B. Parker's Lullaby by Ace Atkins (Berkley, $9.99)
Fourteen-year-old Mattie Sullivan walks into private investigator Spenser's office looking to set the record straight on her mother's murder four years earlier. Spenser listens, takes the case and soon finds himself embroiled in a dark element of Boston no one's willing to talk about. Taking on the challenge of continuing the much-loved Spenser series after Parker's death is a daunting task. Ace Atkins responds with a knock-out punch in round one. Parker would most definitely approve. 

The Watchers by Jon Steele (Signet, $9.99)
A sweet, simple bellringer--le guet, "the watchman,"--a call girl on retainer to some of the world's wealthiest men, and a British detective who--for some reason--can't remember much about his life, come together in Lausanne. Steele's take on the alternative theological thriller blends the legends of a suppressed ancient text with pulp noir archetypes and a sweet but simple man on the side of the angels. He teases his answers out, but once he's got everything lined up the way he wants it, the final act is pure blockbuster.

Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team by Rob Fleder (Ecco, $15.99)
The New York Yankees have come to symbolize "everything good and strong and true about baseball and America and the human race in general. Either that, or avarice and unrepentant evil." Damn Yankees is a collection of original essays that reflect those diverging views, as an all-star lineup of writers from the fields of sports (Tom Verducci, Sally Jenkins), literature (Nathaniel Rich) and even finance (James Surowiecki) share their thoughts on this quintessential sports dynasty.

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller (W.W. Norton, $16.95)
The first oil wars--the battle for resource supremacy in the West--took place in the Mediterranean climes of ancient Greece and Rome. Olive oil, not crude, served as the source of life and sustenance, a salve and aphrodisiac that also cemented peace and provoked war between nations and linked the earthly to the divine. And now, it's often tampered with or rendered tasteless by inferior fruits and by-products in watered down, cleverly disguised vintages lining today's supermarket shelves.

God's Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet (Riverhead, $16)
When Dr. Victoria Sweet began working at Laguna Honda, she knew the hospital's monastic turrets and arches, peeling paint and lively aviary distinguished it from its gleaming modern counterparts. But it wasn't just a hospital: it was an almshouse, with its roots in the medieval French "Hôtel-Dieu"--God's hotel. Populated with the poor and homeless, the ill and addicted, Laguna Honda was hospital, shelter, rehabilitation clinic and halfway house. Sweet's book is a philosophical, compassionate reflection on 20 years at America's last almshouse.

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano (Scribner, $16)
Gustavo Arellano is the author of the nationally syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican! (and a 2008 book with the same title). Fans will recognize his voice in Taco USA: wise and knowledgeable, conversational--and very, very funny. Arellano capably handles the history of Mexican people and their cuisine, and its interpretations in the United States. Even the experienced border-dweller or Mexican food aficionado is likely to learn a lot, and giggle while doing so. Just beware a growing desire to run out and get a burrito.

When I Left Home: My Story by Buddy Guy with David Rich (Da Capo Press, $15.99)
Buddy Guy defined the sound of the Chicago blues and influenced a generation of rock guitarists: Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, to name just a few. In Guy's life story, from growing up the son of Louisiana sharecroppers to becoming a legend, he discusses his own failings and mistakes along the way with the candor and humility of a genuinely nice human being who sees his extraordinary success as a gift not to be squandered.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (Vintage, $15.95)
Wild is a poignant, no-holds barred, kick-ass memoir that will grab you by the throat and shake you to your core. For many readers, Strayed's book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail--running from the Mexican border to Washington State--to save her life, needs little introduction. Now, this powerful and raw, deeply felt, often humorous, beautifully written story that turns hiking into an act of redemption and salvation will get even more exposure in paperback.


Lion Forge: Generations by Flavia Biondi


The Writer's Life

Gary May: The Long Arc

Gary May is a professor of history at the University of Delaware. Winner of the Society of American Historians' Allan Nevins Prize and author of four books, his previous books include The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan and The Murder of Viola Liuzzo. His new book is Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy (Basic Books). The Supreme Court has heard oral arguments challenging Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the "preclearance" provision that requires states with a history of racial discrimination to receive federal permission before making any changes to their voting laws. This provision was crucial during this year's presidential election and prevented the passage of voter identification laws in Texas and South Carolina. The ruling is expected in June. Attorney General Eric Holder recently vowed to enforce federal voting rights laws aggressively no matter what the Supreme Court decides this year.

Your book is a study of the history of the Voting Rights Act, and also ventures into consideration of the Act's role in today's democracy. In what ways do you think we can look to the past as a predictor of the future?

It is always risky to use the past as a predictor of the future because historical events rarely repeat themselves precisely. Nevertheless, if one sees the past as part of a continuum from which the present and the future flow, there are lessons that can help us avoid a darker future if we do not repeat past mistakes.

For example, there is the lesson derived from the struggle to create the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For the first 65 years of the 20th century, African-Americans fought for the right to vote, which the Constitution had guaranteed them in its 14th and 15th amendments. Unwilling to accept racial equality, Southern state governments ignored these legal protections, blocking black efforts to vote with a variety of devices--literacy tests and poll taxes, as well as intimidation and violence. And yet African-Americans persevered. They marched on county courthouses, protested nonviolently, received beatings from local police and went to jail.

In Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965--a day remembered as Bloody Sunday--they endured a brutal attack from state troopers and vigilantes. That event touched the conscience of the nation, forcing President Lyndon B. Johnson to place a voting rights bill at the forefront of his political agenda. Its passage permitted millions of African- Americans to vote in Alabama and elsewhere in the South. The Voting Rights Act transformed American democracy and was the last act of emancipation, a process Abraham Lincoln began in 1863.

Today, the Voting Rights Act, whose temporary provisions have been renewed four times since its original passage and endorsed by recent Republican presidents, is facing its greatest challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawyers for Shelby County, Ala., told the Court on February 27, 2013, that the Act's most potent provision--Section 5, which requires states with the worst records of voter suppression to submit any future changes to the Justice Department--is no longer necessary in an age when African-Americans vote freely in the 16 states covered in whole or in part by the Act. Given a court sharply divided between liberal supporters and conservative critics of the Act, we may soon see the Act so weakened that it will no longer provide the protection minority votes have long needed and still require.

America is quickly evolving into a new, multiracial and multi-ethnic society. Since 2000, the African-American population has grown 12%, while Asian-Americans and Hispanics increased their numbers by an extraordinary 43%. 96% of African-American voters joined 70% of Latinos and 73% of Asian-Americans to support the reelection of America's first African-American president in 2012, despite new efforts to suppress that vote. Those efforts--voter IDs, fewer voting hours, restrictions on registering new voters--are likely to continue, indeed, even intensify. At the same time, following the election, media spokesmen for the predominately Caucasian "old America" expressed their strong opposition to what was happening to the country. While it is unlikely that unhappy Southern students will march on Washington, expressions of disrespect directed at the president, an increase in hostility toward African-Americans in general and, most important, efforts at voter suppression to dilute the political power recently displayed by minority voters will likely continue.

Where did the title of this book come from?

Choosing the right title is often a difficult task. You want something that captures the essence of the story you've told but is also interesting enough to attract a reader's attention as they wander through a bookstore. Bending Toward Justice was the original working title of the manuscript. A dozen others were later suggested by the editorial and sales team at Basic Books, but eventually everyone agreed that the original choice worked best.

The words "bending toward justice" originated in a speech delivered to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Convention in 1858 by Theodore Parker, a noted clergyman and abolitionist: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe," Parker declared; "The arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience and from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice."

Martin Luther King, Jr. revised the quotation and often used it in speeches and sermons, most famously in Montgomery, Ala., at the conclusion of the historic Voting Rights March on March 25, 1965: "How long must justice be crucified and truth buried?" King asked the crowd of 20,000 supporters. "How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long, not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

The King-Parker phrase is also said to be Barack Obama's "favorite quotation" and became a much-used refrain during the 2008 presidential campaign. But Obama altered it to reflect his experience as a community organizer, making it even more relevant for our time: "Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.... [B]ut here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice...." And when President Obama moved into the White House, that quotation, along with others from FDR and JFK, was woven into a large rug that now adorns the Oval Office.

It therefore seemed to me fitting that the words of a 19th-century abolitionist, a 20th-century preacher and a 21st-century African-American president should become the title of a history of the greatest achievement of the modern civil rights movement--the Voting Rights Act. --Matthew Tiffany, counselor, writer for Condalmo


Storey Publishing: Baking Class: 50 Fun Recipes Kids Will Love to Bake! by Deanna F. Cook


Book Review

Fiction

Last Friends

by Jane Gardam


Jane Gardam's Old Filth introduced readers to the formidable barrister Sir Edward Feathers, along with his wife, Betty, and his archrival Terry Veneering. The Man in the Wooden Hat revealed Betty's internal life to be far more complicated than her placid facade in the earlier novel indicated, and now this enigmatic trio's relationships reach a complex coda in Last Friends--a novel that is slimmer than its predecessors and also more dependent on a prior knowledge of those books. Gardam explores in all three books the ways in which stereotypical English respectability can function as a smokescreen of deception.

The story begins with Veneering's funeral, with Feathers's following shortly, but even after death, the lives of these three characters remain a mystery to those around them. In Veneering's case, only the dour and eccentric Fiscal-Smith knows the truth--he knew Veneering as Venetski, the child of a Russian immigrant rumored to be a spy.

Last Friends is about the limits of intimacy, with Gardam subtly insisting that everyone is alone even when they are together. Consequently, no one knows the whole truth about anyone, least of all those closest to them. Gardam's dialogue is disjointed in a way that is keenly realistic--often, her characters hear only themselves. Yet hope still remains for some bridging of the distance, even between deadly rivals--and very old friends in the last phase of life. --Ilana Teitelbaum, book reviewer at the Huffington Post

Discover: The trilogy Jane Gardam began in Old Filth, depicting the lives of three members of a British generation transformed by the Second World War, reaches its conclusion.

Europa Editions, $16, paperback, 9781609450939

The Smart One

by Jennifer Close


Jennifer Close's debut, Girls in White Dresses, was a bestseller with a devoted following. The Smart One is every bit as good; Close has a fluent, conversational style and writes pitch-perfect dialogue, no matter the gender or age of her character.

The Coffey family--Will and Weezy and their children, Martha, Claire and Max--all love each other, but they are a family, after all, so it gets tricky at times. When the story opens, Claire, almost 30, is breaking her engagement to Doug, or he's breaking up with her--it doesn't really matter. Claire is living way beyond her means, on the verge of eviction, her credit cards maxed out. She decides to move home and pay her bills.

At 31, Martha is a needy worrywart, socially inept, in love with crisis and disaster. After her nursing career flames out, she goes to work at J. Crew and glories in the perfectly folded sweaters and khakis--until she can't look at them for another minute. She is back at home, living in her old bedroom and taking temporary caregiving jobs, promising herself that she will become re-certified as a nurse. To round out the cast, Max, a senior in college, suddenly learns his girlfriend, Cleo, is pregnant; upon their graduation, they move in, too. It's high school all over again: slammed doors, fights over the bathroom and sniping.

Claire is the smart one who sees everything clearly even though it takes her some time to sort herself out. Martha takes smaller steps than Claire, while Max and Cleo and baby Nina Grace stay with Will and Weezy. Still, great changes take place--even some growing up--in Jennifer Close's great portrayal of family life. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: An eminently readable, thoroughly enjoyable novel about the people next door, warts and all--but even their warts are endearing.

Knopf, $24.95, hardcover, 9780307596864

Heart of Palm

by Laura Lee Smith


A hot, sweltering Florida summer is the setting for Heart of Palm, a debut novel by Laura Lee Smith. The story centers on three months in the lives of the Bravo family of Utina, a sleepy little town near St. Augustine, where Palm Sunday palms and moonshine once offered a prosperous economic existence--but that was years ago. Times have changed for the town and for the Bravos, whose long-held properties on the Intracoastal Waterway are of great interest to enthusiastic developers. What will it take for the Bravos to sell?

The prospect dredges up repressed emotions for the family's matriarch, Arla, and her adult children: Carson, a philandering investment manager with secrets; Frank, the dutiful son and proprietor of Uncle Henry's, the family's waterfront restaurant; and Sofia, an emotionally wounded woman with hair as red as her mother's used to be and a fiery temper to match. But it is their father, Dean, whose absence casts a long shadow over the family's past, as old wounds, secrets, heartbreaks and missed opportunities have woven themselves into the fabric of the present--and maybe the future, too.

Well-developed characters confronted by an undercurrent of change propel this unhurried family saga. Smith is a careful, detailed writer who assembles big, bold, well-drawn scenes--moments from the everyday lives of the Bravos that resonate with deeper insights into how personal regrets and longings shape the fates of all involved. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A land deal forces members of one Florida family to make peace with the past--and face the future.

Grove Press, $25, hardcover, 9780802121028

The Flamethrowers

by Rachel Kushner


In The Flamethrowers, a novel dense with stories and storytellers, Rachel Kushner (her debut was the National Book Award-nominated Telex from Cuba) visits 1977 as it plays out in New York City's downtown art scene and Italy's violent workers' rebellions. At the nexus of these disparate worlds are the young narrator, Reno and her lover Sandro Valera, an artist and estranged heir to the wealthy founding family of an Italian tire and motorcycle manufacturer.

Hoping to become a filmmaker, Reno moves to New York and stumbles into a job as a "skin tone model," her anonymous face clipped into films for editors to set their color spectrum--an apt metaphor for Kushner's view of the artist's role. She drifts among artists, Mulberry Street mafia and disillusioned '60s radicals. Her waifish innocence attracts Sandro, with his paternal attention, money and connected friends.

Reno's youthful fantasy ends when she visits Italy and the Red Brigade calls a violent strike at the factory. Confronted with the Valeras' petty profligacy and Sandro's philandering, she runs off to Rome with the family's politically radical chauffeur. When Reno returns to New York, she gets caught in the 1977 blackout, when the city erupts in looting and violence.

In this pivotal year of global discontent, Kushner sees the seeds of the future; in Reno, she has created the memorable voice of an unfocused young woman who creates art from the pieces of her own life. As Reno reflects, "It was half art and half life, and from there, I felt something would emerge." In Kushner's case, what has emerged is a remarkable novel, rich in detail and broad in scope. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Following the National Book Award-nominated Telex from Cuba, Kushner's mesmerizing second novel is a sharply observed portrait of a young artist navigating her craft, her emotions and her politics.

Scribner, $26.99, hardcover, 9781439142004

Woke Up Lonely

by Fiona Maazel


The social network of Fiona Maazel's l Woke Up Lonely isn't a virtual thumbs up/thumbs down world of "friends," "followers" and "shares." Instead, it's a tangible contemporary organization of regional "packs" where the isolated gather to hear inspirational talks, meet forlorn fellows and get practical pointers on overcoming loneliness.

The Helix is a social organization led by the charismatic Thurlow Dan, himself a victim of solitude after his wife and daughter left him. Counseling failed him: "A shrink at SUNY told me I should believe in myself. And I did. I believed I was stupid and evil and without hope." So he haphazardly built a cult-like empire by seeking out companionship and building relationships a few people at a time, a fictional composite of organizations as diverse as AA, Scientology, Promise Keepers and even the Sweet Potato Queens. When Kim Jong-Il makes a North Korean financial contribution to Helix to help win him "friends" in the West, the already suspicious feds go DEFCON and set up a high-priority covert infiltration operation to unseat Dan and break up the Helix.

It's not just Maazel's off-the-wall plot that makes this novel special; there's also her on-the-money descriptions of the Helix members, its leadership sycophants and the reluctant federal undercover agents assigned to monitor them. Maazel's imaginative sense of the absurd is well-balanced by her sensitivity to the real isolation that characterizes so many in 21st-century America. Social media's got nothing on an ambitious novel like this. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: An ambitious novel that both skewers our bottomless need for companionship... and understands it.

Graywolf Press, $26, hardcover, 9781555976385

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Stepping Stone/Love Machine: Crosstown to Oblivion

by Walter Mosley


Walter Mosley, best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries (Devil with a Blue Dress et al.) has described the theme of his Crosstown to Oblivion series as "a black man destroys the world." Following the first two volumes, Merge/Disciple and The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin, in 2012, Mosley's third and final pair of short novels, Stepping Stone/Love Machine, makes the theme literal.

The two stories are printed "back to back"; choose either story and, once you've finished reading it, flip the book over and start again. Love Machine tells the story of Lois Kim and her involvement with Dr. Marchant Lewis, a heaving bulk of a man who has created a way to share consciousness with other creatures, both human and animal. What follows is a roller-coaster ride of speculative fiction, ending in a final battle with another life form. Stepping Stone takes an archetypal Mosley loser with no prospects, mailroom manager Truman Pope, and makes him the key to humanity's future--a transformative process that will reveal the ultimate direction of Pope's moral compass.

Mosley tells deep, smart allegorical tales with an equal mix of poetry and social commentary, encouraging more than a single close read. His characters breathe with life, and the alien in the stories is most frequently our own deep, hidden desires and fears. The monsters, meanwhile, are the ones who think they run the show. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer & editor

Discover: Mosley continues his series of science fiction stories with two allegorical tales of great power and insight on what it means to be human.

Tor, $24.99, hardcover, 9780765330109

History

The Borgias: The Hidden History

by G.J. Meyer


G.J. Meyer's The Borgias is a fascinating look into the lives of the notorious Italian Renaissance family and its reputation for womanizing, murder and corruption. Meyer (The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty) turns centuries of accepted wisdom about the Borgias on its head, probing deep into contemporary documents and neglected histories to reveal some surprising truths.

The story begins with Alonso de Borja, a rather unassuming Spanish cardinal who moved to Italy, and started going by the Italian version of his name: Borgia. In 1455, a series of political maneuverings between the other cardinals in conclave to select the next Roman Catholic pope--most of whom were Italian and had grudges against each others' families--meant that the quiet outsider won the vote. After his election, relatives of Pope Calixtus III flocked to Italy hoping to capitalize upon his new status. Over the next 60 years, the Borgias would achieve great wealth, a second papacy and a notoriety that would expand over the centuries.

Meyer delves deeply into Italian politics and the history of the papacy, and he clearly demonstrates why the clever, ambitious and sometimes ruthless Borgias--especially the best known, Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia--were the perfect family on which to cast aspersions, and who gained by making up outlandish stories about these non-Italian outsiders and their crimes. The Borgias: The Hidden History is a gripping history of a tempestuous time and an infamous family. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: The surprising true history of the notorious Borgia family.

Bantam, $30, hardcover, 9780345526915

Current Events & Issues

Outside the Wire

by Christine Dumaine Leche, editor


In addition to the 60,000 American casualties, both dead and wounded, of the first 11 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been hundreds of thousands of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. No one knows how many more may be undiagnosed victims of these latter disabilities, but clearly the work of treating our veterans is an enormous undertaking that will last for many decades. One small but successful approach is exemplified in the work of Christine Dumaine Leche, a creative writing professor who left her husband and family for the war zone in Afghanistan, where she teaches active military personnel to overcome the stress of war by writing about it.

In Outside the Wire, Leche collects the stories of 32 soldiers whose first-hand accounts not only describe their personal experiences and frequent ambivalence but also illustrate the therapeutic powers of storytelling. We see a soldier's life from enlistment ("The 'hood don't give a damn about you! There's no future for you out here! The Army can open a whole new world to you!") to combat ("War has its rules... if you pass a fallen enemy, it is illegal to turn around and shoot him, so be sure to shoot him twice before you step over him") to coming home ("I feel like I let everyone down. Life is not good for me right now. But maybe someday it will change").

This is powerful stuff. We can only hope the power of written self-reflection can somewhat mitigate the pain so many soldiers are suffering. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A collection of sometimes raw, sometimes tender first-hand writing from U.S. soldiers coming to grips with the trauma of war.

University of Virginia Press, $23.95, hardcover, 9780813934112

The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis

by Steven J. Harper


The Lawyer Bubble is a cogent critique of the legal profession by Steven J. Harper, who for 25 years was a partner at the Chicago megafirm of Kirkland & Ellis, after which he became an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and its law school. The two types of institutions at which he's spent his professional career--a large law firm and a law school--are at the heart of what he believes are the profession's most serious ills.

In 2011, some 44,000 students graduated from American law schools. Nine months later, only about half had obtained full-time jobs requiring a law degree. Employed or not, many stagger under debt. Instead of responding to their plight, Harper argues, law schools pay focus on their annual U.S. News & World Report rankings, willing to resort to unethical tactics to move up the list.

Big law firms are engaged in similarly fierce competition for a place in the Am Law 100, the ranking of the nation's top 100 firms compiled by American Lawyer. These massive firms (the largest exceeding 4,000 lawyers worldwide) are driven by an obsession with short-term profits at the expense of traditional values of collegiality and mentoring young lawyers.

Harper offers some useful prescriptions--from curbing law school admissions to reducing reliance on the billable hour--which he believes may help restore the law to its former status as a learned profession. As someone who has spent 37 years in that profession, I can only observe that change, if it comes at all, will come slowly. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: Harper, a 25-year partner at a large Chicago firm and a Northwestern law professor, offers a cogent diagnosis of some of the legal profession's major ills.

Basic, $26.99, hardcover, 9780465058778

Children's & Young Adult

Inside Outside

by Lizi Boyd


Lizi Boyd's wordless book chronicles one child's exploration of the four seasons, and presents views of nature's cycle from inside and outside the boy's home.

The action begins in wintertime. Through die-cut holes, which serve as windows, snowmen peek inside to where the boy hero prepares seeds for planting. With a turn of the page, the die-cut windows shift the focus from the interior to the outside, where the child builds snowfolk. Over the next few page turns, the colors of spring appear outside the windows. The boy spreads out books, pencils, paints and paper inside the house to document his findings. The artwork the child creates--indoors--reflects the growing season coming to life outdoors: the birds singing in the trees, rain falling, sprouts popping. Then turtle, fish, a pond and boats signal summer. His works of art reveal his own unusual interpretation of each season's joy. Finally, he rakes the leaves, then moves back inside to a puppet theater, as hints of winter bring readers full circle.

Boyd's book is a celebration of imagination and creativity throughout the year, providing ideas for play and creation at home (and beyond). Gouache painting on kraft paper gives the proceedings a natural, understated feel. A variety of characters appear throughout the book, providing a subtle seek-and-find for readers as they look for the child, the dog, the cat and the mice. Inside Outside is a book to return to again and again, with new discoveries to be made with each rereading. --Mollie Welsh Kruger, graduate faculty, Bank Street College of Education

Discover: A whimsical, wordless celebration of the four seasons from a boy artist's perspective.

Chronicle, $15.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-6, 9781452106441

Rapture Practice

by Aaron Hartzler


Aaron Hartzler's memoir will captivate teens looking for a solid coming-of-age story grounded in strange truths about growing up in a religious family. 

Aaron's parents believe in heaven and hell, and that Jesus will one day return to transport believers to heaven. At six years old, Aaron isn't concerned about being left behind when the Rapture happens, because he's already accepted Jesus into his heart--just as his conservative parents expect of him. Aaron's youthful faith comes alive under his mother's tutelage and constant recitation of Bible verses, and his father keeps Aaron safe from temptation by forbidding distractions such as TV, movies and rock music. But when Aaron gets older and grows curious about the life he's not living due to a salvation he begins to doubt, he rebels against his parents' belief that right and wrong are absolute and that the Rapture is written in stone.

Aaron is not only afraid of disappointing his parents, but also of the omnipresent God who may or may not care about what his parents consider rebellion. ("Do I really believe if I walk into this theater, God is going in with me?") Hartzler's ear for teenage dialogue is spot-on, and his queries on faith are refreshing without being sacrilegious. The final revelations encompass the freedoms and uncertainties of taking a leap of faith, and they're sure to win Hartzler fans who will eagerly await a second book from him. --Adam Silvera, Paper Lantern Lit intern and former bookseller

Discover: An insightful memoir of being raised under strict rules in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ.

Little, Brown, $17.99, hardcover, 400p., ages 15-up, 9780316094658

Art & Photography

Porch Dogs

by Nell Dickerson


A first glance at the cover of Nell Dickerson's photography collection Porch Dogs suggests another ho-hum House Beautiful‑style review of elegant Southern mansions. But look again: the proud spaniel is indeed claiming the top step of an expansive entryway, but those flowerpots could use some pruning--and are those strands of twinkle lights dangling from the post railings? Yes, this a real porch, and the rest of Dickerson's 100 canine portraits are just as down-home, kitschy, yet sometimes elegant, too.

Lamenting the demise of porch-sitting precipitated by the invention of air conditioning, Dickerson credits dogs with keeping the tradition alive, and separates her collection by favorite dog-sitting spots, including swing and bench dogs, shop dogs and yard dogs. Her spare sentences anthropomorphize her subjects, ascribing porch-sitting perspectives to each, and her photography is technically careful and evocative.

Dickerson's Gone: A Photographic Plea for Preservation established her passion for architectural preservation, and she obviously loves both structures and canines. She poses the pups perfectly, as in "Maggie and BB discuss what to do with the caged bird," where a terrier/cattle dog mix and lab/beagle relax on wicker rockers with an antique birdcage between them. With details including palmetto trees, big white columns and rusted barbecue drums, the settings all say "southern," none more so than the 1834 antebellum porch where poodle/Jack Russell/Maltese Stella receives callers, noting that "strangers are always so kind."

All a reader needs to fully enjoy this charming book is a pitcher of sweet tea, and maybe a folding fan. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: A collection of Southern dogs enjoying Southern porches, grand and common, keeping the spirit of neighborliness alive.

John F. Blair, $29.95, hardcover, 9780895875976

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