Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, July 30, 2013


From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children by Emma Johnson

Tarcherperigee: Elements of Taste: Understanding What We Like and Why by Benjamin Errett

Fall Books: Lightning Strikes and Con Men

Even more fall books (part 1, part 2, part 3) we're looking forward to:

Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff (FSG, September 3). Dr. Owen Lerner's life changes when the coin he's feeding into a parking meter is struck by lightning. He survives, but now all he wants to do is barbecue. What will happen to his patients, his family? Dazzling prose, sentences and phrases you want to underline, if not actually memorize.

Mirages, the Unexpurgated Diaries of Anaïs Nin, 1939-1947, edited by Paul Herron (Swallow, October 15). The story that was cut from all of Nin's other published diaries. She describes this period as "hell"--heartbreak, despair, courage and persistence. You'll find out, among other things, what led to the demise of her affair with Henry Miller.

The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America by Langdon Cook (Ballantine, September 10). Uncultivated mushrooms are one of our last truly wild food; it often takes truly wild and rough mushroom hunters to bring them to our table. Cook travels and hunts with them in a riveting, crazy undertaking, told in often-poetic prose.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, October 1). A narrative featuring Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Herbert Hoover and Al Capone. Bryson can write about anything and make it fascinating, as he digresses from one interesting thing to another.

Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (Scribner, October 15). A compelling tale set in 1931 Chicago based on a real multiple murder by a con man who preyed on widows. The disappearance of a woman and her two children is investigated by reporter Emily Thornhill and a city banker who blames himself for not saving the family.

A Reader's Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year by Tom Nissley (Norton, November 4). Charming, funny, beguiling, this literary miscellany combines true events in writers' lives and fictional events in their books. The perfect gift for any reader.


University of California Press: A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore


Book Candy

Harry Potter Tattoos; A List of Listed Books

"Because some people want to show their affection for 'the boy who lived' by showing it on their skin," Buzzfeed showcased "20 awesome minimalist Harry Potter tattoos."

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Pop quiz: The Guardian wondered whether readers can tell when authors--including James Joyce, Jeanette Winterson and Salman Rushdie--are writing for children.

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Action! "10 highbrow authors who gave acting a try" were highlighted by Flavorwire.

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An extremely dedicated reader "created a massive chart collecting and comparing the top 100 books mentioned across 11 different top 100 lists," Galley Cat noted.

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Artist Alexis Arnold "created a series of crystallized books as a commentary on materiality and text," Buzzfeed reported.

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The Nettlestone Library Ensemble: "What initially appears to be a bookshelf slides apart to reveal a library table with two tone-on-tone cushioned barrel chairs on casters and hidden compartments for your coveted first editions."


Andrews McMeel Publishing: Phoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm (Phoebe and Her Unicorn #6) by Dana Simpson


The Writer's Life

David Gilbert: Ampersands & Adolescence

photo: Susie Gilbert

David Gilbert's 1998 debut, a collection of short fiction titled Remote Feed, includes his early offbeat stories from the New Yorker and Harper's, among other sources. The Normals (2004), Gilbert's first novel, follows an underachieving Harvard grad whose escape from a threatening student loan collector becomes a lesson in surreal side effects. In his ambitious second novel, & Sons (see our review below), Gilbert uses a broad array of literary devices--unreliable narration, multigenerational character strands, epistolary insertions, mutating plotlines and novel-within-the-novel excerpts--to examine the centrifugal effect of ego on an aging novelist's attempt to unify his far-flung progeny. Gilbert lives in New York with his wife and three children.

When you started writing & Sons, did you intend to showcase so many characters in detail?

I always had five main characters in mind. I sort of "borrowed" the structure from Richard Powers, where you alternate chapters between a connected group of people. Not only does this make for a more enjoyable writing process--if bored or stuck, simply move on to the next person--but it also hopefully hooks the reader with at least one storyline he or she might find intriguing. It's a wonderful device, sort of like Three-card Monte. The only character who popped up in unexpected places was Philip Topping, which was appropriate, considering his role as the narrator.

Although it's a novel of substantial length, & Sons really clips along. How many years and drafts did it take you to write? What tools did you use to keep the character through-lines in balance?

It took me about five years to write, three of those years totally dedicated to the book. Though I am a big believer in multiple drafts, of writing quickly and recklessly, without worrying too much about quality, writing in order to re-write, which is the real business of writing, I am unfortunately not a follower of this particular creed. I am an insecure writer. I write slowly and laboriously. I cannot move forward until I feel the paragraph above is in the best shape possible. Every page is a game of Jenga: a precarious exercise in physical and emotional balance, often ending in a mess on my desk. That said, when I'm finished, I'm pretty much finished. Kaput, too.

Before starting the book, I diagramed a very rough outline on a single sheet of paper--the order of appearance for the characters, the plot points, the various destinations. Epilogue, prologue, eight chapters, three parts per chapter. It was detailed enough so that I knew where I was going without having any idea of how I was going to get there, sort of like the way I drive.

How did you arrive at the title & Sons, and did you or your publisher have any concerns about its search-engine impracticality?

I like the ghostly remains of a family business that the title conveys, the lingering effects of paternal incorporation. And I always wanted the ampersand. I love a good ampersand, and I crafted the book around its many meanings and incarnations, from a rough correspondence to the shape of a double helix, of a pretzel, a knot, etc., to the etymology of that particular ligature, to A.N. Dyer and his many acts of ego, beginning with his first novel [Ampersand]. I never considered how it would come up on an online search. Oops. I believe there was a debate within the publishing house--"Um, how about And Sons?" for instance--but at the end of the day everyone agreed that the ampersand itself was too important to untie for the sake of the almighty Internet.

Not to be impertinent, but why no daughters?

Not impertinent at all. It all came from the title, which emerged early on in my thoughts about the book, and for lack of imagination I stuck to the notion of this being primarily about fathers and sons (and the wives and mothers who buoy them). I myself have three children, a boy and two girls, and the relationship I have with my son is so very different from the relationship I have with my daughters. I see my son and I feel my own youthful injuries, my own insecurities, my own fraught feelings for Dad. It is both a mirror and a door. And the emotional baggage involved. Yikes. My son is a repatriation to a war-torn country, while my daughters are a trip to an exotic, if vaguely confusing, island.

Philip Topping, the narrator of & Sons, combines the bystander perspective of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby with the voyeuristic intimacy of the unnamed narrator of James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime, only distributed across many more characters. How did you arrive at this hybrid voyeur-omniscience?

I wanted to challenge myself and this seemed a big challenge: how to write a third person narrative under the guise of a single perspective, aka Philip Topping. I was greatly inspired by Philip Roth and how he, via Zuckerman, accesses his particular stories. & Sons is about a writer--A.N. Dyer--who uses his friends and family to fill his fiction, so the narrator is in a sense a turning of those tables, a story about the writer and his sons told by one of his real-life characters. It also allowed me to explore the question of reliability and voice and perspective. Who is telling what? And how? It added layers of meaning to the project. It often seems to me that words are the least interesting part of writing.

If you count Philip, there are four significant sons in & Sons. Who is your favorite son in the novel and why? (Please avoid spoilers.)

No spoilers. I sort of like them all and can relate to each for different reasons, but Andy was the most fun to write, since he's only 17 and his age and attitude allowed me to riff a bit more. He also has the most basic of motivations: losing his virginity.

What particular challenges face the sons of a famous father, both as siblings and as offspring, and how did you get insight into those challenges?

I had only my imagination to go on. My father was successful in the realm of investment banking, but this was a while back and his "fame" never extended beyond the then clubby world of finance, a world I had zero desire to enter. But I think the biggest challenge for the offspring of the rich and famous (to steal from Robin Leach) is to find an autonomous identity. If your father is this well-known figure, it can tank your own sense of self and leave you adrift, floating from persona to persona, hoping you might land on a place that is truly home. Embracing your famous father (or famous mother) means embracing their fame and losing your independence, so maybe you fight against that instinct and deny their celebrity, and then suddenly, ugh, you're just like everyone else.

Ampersand, the fictional prep school novel excerpted within & Sons, dramatizes an important incident in the paternal generation, and the book's success affects all the sons in the novel. What's your favorite prep school novel and why?

I'm going to say A Good School, because it is little known and Richard Yates is so fabulous and it's such a real, honest, human book.

Adolescent experiences seem to influence the present disproportionately for many of the characters in & Sons, but this also seems to be a common human tendency. Why do you think this is?

I wish I knew. And I wonder if it's more a male thing than a female thing or are we all stuck staring back, wincing at our younger selves? I do think we exist in a constant coming of age, right up to the end, the repercussions of adolescence, of trying to figure how we fit in this world, echoing across our skin until the day we grow cold. I cannot access my five-year-old self, or my 10-year-old self, but I can dip into my 17-year-old self with an ease that seems frightening. And the thing about those years, if you were a success, is the nostalgia is almost crushing, and if you were a failure, the injury is still raw. There seems no winning. Puberty is a nuclear event, and we adults live in its fallout.

At what point in the composition of & Sons did you write the letters and postcards that preface the novel's sections? How did you choose the handwriting for the facsimiles, and who wrote them?

I wrote them as I went along, though I knew the general content and spread of years before I began. I initially used a lame font that replicated cursive, but it was Simon M. Sullivan, the book designer at Random House, who made them look like absolute magic. It's his handwriting on that long Charlie Topping letter, and he had a friend, Laurel Bestock, write all of the A.N. Dyer letters. When I saw what they had done, I was floored. These letters now feel like objects, relics of the past. It pushes the reality even farther forward.

Given the recent brouhaha over character likability, do you consider this issue when you write?

Not really. Everyone is both likable and unlikable, depending on timing and mood. To me, what's most important is whether a character is knowable--maybe understandable is the better word. How about human? Trying their best? I don't really trust likable. If someone said, that Dave Gilbert, what a likable guy, I would find that someone instantly unlikeable. Now lovable, that's a different story. But love includes flaws, the blind spots of character. Like is too weak to include anything but a passing regard. A likable book is a failure in my mind.

The writer-patriarch of & Sons is obsessed with last words--the last words of novels, the last words spoken in parting, and the last words of a person's life. What are your favorite last words?

A tie between Thoreau--"Moose. Indian."--and Walt Disney: "Kurt Russell."
--Holloway McCandless, blogger at Litagogo: A Guide to Free Literary Podcasts


Southern Independent Bookstore Alliance (SIBA): Lady Banks' Commonplace Books


Book Review

Fiction

Byzantium: Stories

by Ben Stroud


Byzantium: the word conjures up exoticism and complexity, something out of the ordinary. The 10 stories in Ben Stroud's debut collection touch on all these areas.

The title story is about a poor young man, Eusebios Lekapenos, who suffers from a withered hand. His deformity leads to the emperor's request that he geld a mysterious holy man he fears is about to overthrow him--and thereby destroy his magical powers. He accepts the task and his life (and hand) changes because of it. Two nifty historical stories deal with a 19th-century black detective, Jackson Hieronymous Burke. His first case is set in Havana, where he solves the mystery of the disappearance of the Don's love, the cinnamon-colored Marcita. Next, he is in Germany, and we are told of his life and successes, his many-roomed house--all the things legends are made of. These three exotic stories make for fun reading.

Stroud's contemporary pieces are no less satisfying. "East Texas Lumber" is a solid, almost-coming-of age piece about working in a lumberyard and failing at work (shingles are heavy) and love. "Eraser" is on the odd side--a young boy envisions his own death and how his parents will react. Stroud can switch hit with ease, going deep with detailed and understated Steven Millhauser pastiches--or just hitting away and moving us with tales of youth, love and the everyday. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: Dazzling, inventive takes on the short story mark this Bakeless Prize-winning collection from a very promising young writer.

Graywolf Press, $15, paperback, 9781555976460

Diversion Publishing: The Skeleton Paints a Picture (Family Skeleton Mystery #4) by Leigh Perry


& Sons

by David Gilbert


David Gilbert's novel & Sons explores the existential tension between literary fame and family legacy for A.N. Dyer, an elderly writer whose double-initial moniker and early success are reminiscent of J.D. Salinger's, but whose seclusion is provided by a doorman-guarded duplex with views of Central Park rather than a house in the New Hampshire woods. Now in poor health, 79-year-old Dyer has mounted a late campaign to connect his semi-estranged adult sons Richard and Jamie with their half-brother Andy, the extramarital progeny whose surprise existence impelled their mother to divorce Dyer 17 years earlier. As the title promises, & Sons is as much about the exploits of this second-and-a-half generation as the preoccupations of its pater.

Several sleights of narrative advance & Sons beyond dysfunctional prepster family realism. Gilbert (The Normals; Remote Feed) filters the story through Philip Topping, the son of A.N.'s recently deceased childhood buddy and a Dyer-son wannabe from way back. Topping's omniscient perspective on the Dyers and their interior lives, permeated with covetousness and bile yet occasionally pathetic, creates a fluctuating schism in the reader's sympathies. Gilbert also embeds clue-filled excerpts from Dyer's megaselling novel Ampersand and scatters a trail of facsimile correspondence and sly literary references. Most daringly, the novel's biggest narrative mischief reveals itself at the halfway point, when a seminal plot point reconfigures & Sons both backward and forward.

Gilbert's & Sons is the kind of book that generates that magic reading tension between impatience to know what happens next and the desire to prolong immersion as long as possible. --Holloway McCandless, blogger at Litagogo: A Guide to Free Literary Podcasts

Discover: David Gilbert (The Normals, Remote Feed) presents a posh-WASP Manhattan novel about literary fame and paternal legacy--with a twist.

Random House, $27, hardcover, 9780812993967

Spiderline/House of Anansi Press:  The Couturier of Milan (Triad Years #3) by Ian Hamilton


The Age of Ice

by J.M. Sidorova


The Age of Ice, an epic debut novel by a research professor in Seattle, is quite the accomplishment. Born in Russia, J.M. Sidorova turns to her homeland's great tradition of "big" fictional stages--think War and Peace, with a little Tom Jonesian road novel mixed in--and a dash of science fiction. Her story spans nearly three centuries across a worldwide stage--Russia, Afghanistan, Paris, India, America, the Arctic--with a list of characters three pages long.

The narrator, Prince Alexander Velitzyn, and his brother Alexi, are conceived in 1740 on a cold bed in a literal ice palace, when the Empress commands a humpbacked woman and a jester to have sex. (The mother will die in childbirth.) Alexander was a "colorless runt," his brother robust. He grows up, joins Catherine the Great's elite guards and gradually becomes aware of his immunity to cold, no matter how severe. And, as time passes, he has to accept the fact that, "half ice, half human," he won't die.

He carries these burdens with him through his many adventures, marriage and friendships. We're captivated as he tells us about meeting Mary Shelley, serving on an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, fighting Napoleon, spying in Iran and, in 2007, traveling to the Arctic.

Sidorova beautifully convinces us of Alexander's wonderful, stirring quest for who he is--"I am becoming a story"--as it subtly begins to corresponds with climate change and the world's melting ice. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: A fascinating, touching novel that spans the world and the centuries, starring a man of ice who cannot die.

Scribner, $26, hardcover, 9781451692716

Shelf Awareness Sign-up Giveaway: Lilac Lane by Sheryl Woods


Mystery & Thriller

Light of the World

by James Lee Burke


Light of the World, James Lee Burke's 20th novel starring Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, returns to the Montana hill setting of 2008's Swan Peak. Fans will be thrilled to find Robicheaux and Clete Purcel joined by their respective adult daughters in a hard-hitting, intense battle between good and evil. Burke's writing is poetic--reverential in praise of natural beauty, contemplative of human nature--and invokes a strong sense of place. Clete, the rough-and-ready, hard-drinking, softhearted private investigator, is lovable as ever; Robicheaux is the flawed hero who has charmed us from the first, fighting his demons and protecting his clan.

Years ago, Dave's daughter, Alafair, visited serial killer Asa Surette in prison to interview him for a book she never wrote. Instead, she published a condemning series of articles advocating the death penalty. Later, Surette was killed in a collision with a gasoline tanker. So why is he now lurking around the cabins in Big Sky Country where Robicheaux, Clete and their families are trying to relax? The evil in this powerful story of suspense has supernatural undertones, as wolves skulk in the woods above the ranch and planes fall out of the sky. Alafair teams up with Clete's daughter, the reforming New Orleans hitwoman Gretchen Horowitz, and they make as remarkable a pair as their fathers. As the story unfolds, a rodeo cowboy who speaks in tongues, a serial killer who should be dead, ex-cons, rapists, bear traps and evil that dwells in caves in the hills all come together in perhaps the greatest showdown of Burke's career. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel are joined by their daughters as they battle evil in the hills and valleys of Montana.

Simon & Schuster, $27.99, hardcover, 9781476710761

The Never List

by Koethi Zan


The title of Koethi Zan's The Never List refers to a list that Sarah and her best friend, Jennifer, who survived a car crash at an early age, kept of things they should always avoid doing. The young girls became vigilant about their safety, obsessing over the statistics about being injured or killed in different ways.

Numbers couldn't save them from being kidnapped and imprisoned in a sadist's basement for years with two other women, though. Sarah eventually helped organize an escape, but Jennifer never made it out and her body was never found. Zan starts her story 10 years later, when their tormentor is up for parole. Sarah, now agoraphobic, is determined to keep him locked up and to reclaim her own life by confronting her fears and finding out what happened to Jennifer.

The novel's eerily prescient echoes of the Ariel Castro case add to the gut-wrenching effect of the victims' ordeal. Thankfully, Zan doesn't focus on the torture, but more on the women's spirit, survival instincts and different methods of coping after reentering society.

The novel's weakest aspect is its dialogue. Characters address each other by name too much in conversation and talk in long monologues to reveal all their secrets as the story progresses. But Zan's pacing is tight and her plot both horrific and compassionate toward the women. The Never List might warrant a place on readers' summer reading lists. --Elyse Dinh-McCrilllis, freelance writer and editor, blogging at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: An eerily timely story about unspeakable violence done to a group of women focuses on the victims' strength and how they fight back.

Pamela Dorman/Viking, $27.95, hardcover, 9780670026517

A Dangerous Fiction

by Barbara Rogan


Jo Donovan, widow of a famous author and now a successful literary agent, is living her dream in New York City, far from her hardscrabble Appalachian childhood. But when an overeager client styling himself "Sam Spade" begins stalking Jo and a dozen of her clients fall victim to a hacker's scam, her meticulously ordered life starts to crumble. After a friend and client is murdered, Jo finally goes to the police--where the officer assigned to her case is her former love, Tommy Cullen.

Barbara Rogan (Hindsight; Suspicion) provides a fascinating glimpse into the New York publishing world, though readers interested in the industry may wish for more details. A cast of likable supporting characters rallies to support Jo, though Rogan keeps readers guessing by giving several of them motive for murder. (Jo gets her best advice from Max, a six-foot FBI profiler turned thriller writer, and her best protection from Mingus, a retired SWAT team German shepherd that becomes her bodyguard.)

Gradually, Rogan reveals details of Jo's past, highlighting the disparity between her polished public image and the harsher, messier reality. As the killer closes in, Jo must confront not only her stalker and his obsession, but the complicated truth of her own quest for security and love--and the people she may have hurt in the process.

Fast-paced and witty, full of deftly drawn characters, Rogan's literary mystery introduces a tough but compassionate heroine and an entertaining new series. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: The first mystery in a new series set in New York's publishing world, featuring tough, compassionate literary agent Jo Donovan.

Viking, $26.95, hardcover, 9780670026500

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Carniepunk

by Jennifer Estep, Kelly Gay, Rachel Caine, Kevin Hearne et al.


A star-studded roster of urban fantasy authors is the main attraction in Carniepunk, a collection of short stories set against the eerie and often horrifying backdrop of a slew of paranormal carnivals.

In "Painted Love" by Rob Thurman, a mystical drifter tags along with a sociopath in order to catch the lesser-known thrills of a traveling carnival but finds himself driven by love to break his code of not getting involved with the humans he observes. Rachel Caine delivers a sad and chilling tale of violence in "Cold Girl," in which a teenaged girl falls victim to depraved betrayal by her first love and must decide whether to take revenge at great cost to her soul. And in "A Duet with Darkness" by Allison Pang, an arrogant young fiddler discovers her music has the power not only to attract the Other Folk, but the ultimate evil as well. Of course, no carnival-themed anthology would be complete without at least one vaguely creepy clown, such as the one in Jennifer Estep's "Parlor Tricks," which finds Gin Blanco, aka the Spider, searching for the connection between a missing girl and an Air Elemental who stars in a knife-throwing act.

Fans of horror and dark fantasy will savor this combination of exotic and macabre from their favorite writers, but anyone who has ever felt that their reflection in the funhouse mirror kept watching them after they turned around will find this collection creepy yet satisfying. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Latah County Library District and blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A collection of dark fantasy stories set in a variety of paranormal carnivals, written by more than a dozen leading contemporary urban fantasy writers.

Gallery, $16, paperback, 9781476714158

Current Events & Issues

Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: "No Retreat, No Surrender!"

by Rafe Esquith


While Real Talk for Real Teachers would be a great gift for inexperienced teachers, Rafe Esquith's wisdom gained from 25 years teaching Los Angeles fifth graders will be just as beneficial for veteran educators: Esquith clearly understands the challenges that teachers in the first, middle and last years of their career must overcome. He begins by inspiring brand-new teachers, moves on to the challenges that emerge after surviving a few school years ("fodder for dedicated teachers who need answers to questions that time did not permit to be asked during the early years of struggle") and concludes with advice for "master teachers."

In his advice for newbies, Esquith covers topics like classroom management, standardized testing and jealous colleagues. However, his optimism and practical suggestions will be especially inspirational to seasoned veterans--and can serve as a reminder of why they entered the classroom in the first place. Even the most inspired, most talented teachers have bad days, he reminds us, and explains how to recover quickly. He then walks through guidelines to create a "working classroom" where Day One is just as productive as Day 1,001.

Real Talk for Real Teachers avoids lofty platitudes and "chicken soup" nuggets of wisdom. Instead, Esquith's examples are grounded in the complex reality of teaching in the 21st century. He motivates by demonstrating that concrete challenges can be overcome day by day and inspires teachers at every level to engage even the most disconnected students. --Kristen Galles, blogger at Book Club Classics

Discover: As any teacher knows, effective teaching is both a science and an art; Esquith addresses both with motivational advice.

Viking, $26.95, hardcover, 9780670014644

Science

A Very Short Tour of the Mind: 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain

by Michael Corballis


A Very Short Tour of the Mind is a breezy but intellectually stimulating jaunt through the labyrinthine ways of the mind-brain connection. Michael Corballis tackles an amazing array of subjects in a collection of essays originally published in New Zealand Geographic, including neuroscience, evolutionary theory, left versus right brain thinking and the old adage "we only use 10% of our brain" (a claim that arouses his skepticism).

Amazingly enough, within just a few pages, each essay is able to present theories and counter-theories, as well as Corballis's own elegantly stated opinions. He is particularly adept at discussions involving the theories of language formation. His take on how our spoken language evolved from an elaborate sign language seems to be a gem of evolutionary design--it's a heck of a lot easier to throw spears when your hands aren't busy signing where your prey is. Other standout essays revolve around facial recognition, the relationship between brain size and intelligence levels (which is not always consistent) and the social implications of swearing and other decreasingly taboo activities.

Admittedly, some of Corballis mini-essays tend to drift and they don't fully cohere as a collection. Still, A Very Short Tour of the Mind is never less than engaging. Simultaneously breezy and intellectually stimulating, these short walks are well worth taking. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: An Auckland psychology professor and science journalist presents a series of brilliant short tours of mind/brain theories.

Overlook Duckworth, $17.95, hardcover, 9781468306620

Children's & Young Adult

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

by Kathi Appelt, illus. by Jennifer Bricking


As with her Newbery Honor book The Underneath, Kathi Appelt sets this captivating web of interconnected stories in the ancient forests of piney trees and integrates the alluring lore of the bayou. But she adopts a lighter voice, just right for a storyteller with a Southern drawl to read aloud.

Deep in the Sugar Man Swamp, raccoons Bingo and J'miah serve as Information Officers from the safety of a 1949 DeSoto. Whenever lightning strikes nearby, it triggers "the Voice of Intelligence" (children will quickly realize it's a radio) that often gives them orders. Chap, the 12-year-old grandson of Audie Brayburn, makes it his mission to find his grandfather's DeSoto and complete his quest of locating the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Ever since Audie's recent death, Sonny Boy Beaucoup, "the official owner" of the swamp, has threatened to run Chap and his mother out of their Paradise Pies Café, so that he can set up a theme park. The local radio announcer's daily sign-off bids "all you swamp critters to have a good day and a good idea," and each character gets at least one.

Appelt weaves the rich language of legends passed down through generations. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is as mythical as the Sugar Man. She carries weighty themes lightly, and spins a story that reminds us that kin extends beyond the prescribed family tree. By the end of the story, we understand that that includes "all the swamp critter." As Audie told Chap, they are paisanos, fellow countrymen. They come from the same soil. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Newbery Honor author Appelt's return to the bayou setting of The Underneath, with a lighter touch and an environmental theme.

Atheneum, $16.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 8-12, 9781442421059

Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great

by Bob Shea, illus. by Bob Shea


A glitter-dispensing unicorn causes the goat's expression of consternation on the sparkly cover of Bob Shea's latest humorous picture book.

The title page, too, emphasizes the goat's emotions, which children will quickly recognize as envy: the goat (whose mood is as blue as his hair) stands in the rain while a pocket of sunlight emanates from the unicorn. Thinking he's "pretty cool" as the goat rides his bike to school, he's shown up by "show-off" Unicorn, who literally flies above him. The goat makes marshmallow squares for his friends, while Unicorn causes it to rain cupcakes. Unicorn tops the goat's dance moves with some "serious prancing" that takes first prize. The goat takes out his frustrations by aping the unicorn. He places a plunger on his forehead and, in a series of vignettes, hops on one leg and sticks out his tongue, chanting, "Look at me! I'm Unicorn! I think I'm so-o-o cool!"

But while the unicorn must count on magic to manufacture his greatness, the goat's natural gifts attract the unicorn. The goat can make cheese--the key ingredient to a "fan-tas-tic" pizza that wows the unicorn ("I can only eat glitter and rainbows," confesses Unicorn). The goat finds himself in the unlikely position of buoying the unicorn's spirits. And in the end, it's the goat who hatches a plan to put both of their talents to good use. A universal tale of envy turned to admiration and, ultimately, friendship. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A blue goat, repeatedly one-upped by a magical unicorn, who comes to appreciate his own natural gifts.

Disney Press, $15.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 2-6, 9781423159520

Pets

The Secrets of Lost Cats: One Woman, 20 Posters and a New Understanding of Love

by Nancy Davidson


When therapist Nancy Davidson's beloved cat, Zak, went missing, she placed posters in her neighborhood; after many anxiety-filled days, cat and owner were happily reunited. During her search, however, Davidson developed an acute awareness of other lost cat posters, which seemed to be everywhere. Then, as she recounts in The Secrets of Lost Cats, she began more than seven years of research into the stories connected to these cries for help.

If a poster contained emotional phrases or descriptions such as "afraid of loud noises," she learned, the cat's owner was probably female. Male cat owners tended to fill their posters with declarative statements: Missing! Reward! Call! Furthermore, "in my role as cat sleuth," she writes, "I was learning that when you talk to people about their animals, they'll often reveal personal and profound statements about their life." Davidson was fascinated by the stories of the owners; she writes with sensitivity and respect about the roles cats and their human companions play with each other and the extent to which a person would go to get their beloved feline back--including breaking and entering and hiring psychics and pet detectives.

Some cats were found, others returned on their own--and some never came back, leaving owners depressed and guilty. But the overall feelings Davidson sensed were ones of love and compassion, and these threads run strong throughout The Secrets of Lost Cats. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: A therapist goes behind the scenes to discover the stories of missing felines and their human friends.

St. Martin's Press, $24.99, hardcover, 9781250006264

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