Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, January 26, 2016


ReedPop: BookCon Tickets & Information

From My Shelf

St. Martin's Press: Come Sundown by Nora Roberts

Yen Press: Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

A First-Class Crime Novel

When we received the review of The Drifter (below), which calls it "a first-class crime novel set in a second-tier city with plenty of third-rate lowlifes," I read it immediately. Now a Nicholas Petrie fan, I was happy to be able to ask him a few questions.

Nicholas Petrie

His protagonist, former Marine Lieutenant Peter Ash, came home from multiple deployments with PTSD. Petrie is not a veteran, but "in the course of my work as a home inspector, I've had the opportunity to work for a number of returning veterans. I'm a curious guy, very interested in people, and I talk to everyone. Conversations with veterans really sparked something in me. I began to appreciate what they had done in a way I never had before. So I started reading more about veterans, trying to understand the challenges of life after war, and began to imagine this book."

Ash owes a lot to Jack Reacher, so what's not to like? But my favorite character may be Lewis: "I'm glad you liked Lewis and his guys, they were so much fun to write. I've known a fair number of guys like Lewis over the years. Not career criminals, but guys who built themselves from the ground up with only their restless intelligence and a ruthless willpower. Lewis is absolutely amoral when it comes to the wider world, but has a deep moral core of loyalty to the people he cares about. Writing Lewis was about finding that part of myself--the part that might emerge during a zombie apocalypse, for example. And if you can find the heart of a character, you can tell a more compelling story.

Mingus, the dog under the porch that desperately needs bath, is a fine creation, too. Petrie says that he was a complete surprise. "Mingus ended up having so much personality, and the connection between Mingus and Peter was so strong, that he ended up being a really important character. He's a big piece of the puzzle that Peter has to solve." --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers


Weinstein Books: A Speck in the Sea: A Story of Survival and Rescue by John Aldridge and Anthony Sosinski


Book Candy

Signs of Born Readers

Bustle uncovered "14 signs you were born to be a reader."

---

Paleofuture found "7 real products that get their names from dystopian fiction."
 
---

Mental Floss collected "20 Virginia Woolf quotes to celebrate her birthday," which was yesterday.

---

Author Amy Tan will be honored for her longstanding support of the American Museum of Natural History by having a new species of leech, Chtonobdella tanae, named after her, the Guardian reported.

---

Architectural Digest showcased "25 stunning home libraries that are a book lover's dream."


Anna and the Swallow Man

by Gavriel Savit

Even the title of debut author Gavriel Savit's Anna and the Swallow Man sounds like a fairy tale, and from this mesmerizing novel's very first pages readers will know they are in the capable hands of a gifted storyteller.

The story opens in Kraków, Poland, in November 1939, when Anna Lania, a "tender, kind, good-hearted girl," is seven years old. Anna and her gregarious Papa are as thick as thieves, at home with many languages and with many friends, but "Of all people, she was certain that he liked talking to her best." A linguistics professor at the Jagiellonian University, her father taught his beloved daughter all the languages she knows--German, Russian, French, English and Yiddish, to name a few. He only wishes he could spare her the word war, "a heavy word in every language."

One day, Papa leaves her at Herr Docktor Fuchsmann's pharmacy, just for a few hours, he says. Anna is used to spending lots of time by herself or with other adults, so she doesn't think anything of it. It never even occurs to her that he may never come back. (Readers learn, but Anna never finds out, that her father was taken by Germans in Kraków's 1939 purge of intellectuals, imprisoned in a concentration camp, and eventually killed.)

Papa doesn't come back that evening, but Herr Doktor Fuchsmann won't take Anna home with him. The next morning, after she spends a chilly night under his pharmacy counter, he apologetically asks her to leave his shop. She waits outside the locked door of her father's apartment for hours, then goes back to the street where the pharmacy is, because she doesn't know where else to go. It's there on the cobblestone street that Anna meets a curious, "more than a little frightening" gentleman--a tall, bespectacled, "exceedingly thin" man in a three-piece brown wool suit--who seems to speak all the languages of the world, even bird. When he speaks a "chirping, bright whistle of a phrase up in the direction of the sky," a swallow dives straight to him, landing at his feet. Anna knows instinctively that she has found another person in her "rare tribe," and she decides then and there that he, the mysterious character she later names the "Swallow Man," will be her new guardian.

In the growing darkness, Anna and the Swallow Man walk out of Kraków--he in his city finest, she in her shiny red shoes and pretty red-and-white dress--on what will become a years-long, epic journey across Poland and beyond. Germans are killing Jews and in battle against the Russians, and the country has become dangerous. Anna quickly learns the lesson of the Swallow Man that keeps them on the move: "To be found is to be gone forever." He tells her only that her father has been found, and she knows that the two of them absolutely must not be.

Seasons pass. "Why must you grow?" the Swallow Man asks. He teaches Anna many more lessons, among them that humans are dangerous, but also that humans need other humans to survive. Their tight bond frays when the now nine-year-old Anna, waiting for him to return from a trip to the city for supplies, sees a bearded young man crashing through the forest. The joyful, apple-cheeked, drunken young Reb Hirschl with his broken clarinet laughs easily, and seems to be opposite in every way from her tall, stern Swallow Man. She likes him instantly.

The Swallow Man is not enchanted with Reb Hirschl. He and Anna leave the musician behind, but Anna can't stop thinking about him. She knows Reb Hirschl with his bumbling ways and lack of proper provisions won't last on his own in the Polish countryside. Seeing Anna's obvious distress, Swallow Man goes back for him, despite the increased risk of traveling with an obviously Jewish man--a man who, unlike them, cannot disguise his identity even if he wanted to. The examined contrast between these two very different, equally principled men--and Anna's reaction to them--is fascinating, and the change in dynamic from duo to trio adds yet another intriguing dimension to the story as they continue on their perilous journey through the war zone.

Savit's novel, with its wise, philosophical narrator, has the classic feel and elegant, precise language of a book that's been around forever. Amidst a riveting survival story of brutal cold, hunger and chilling narrow escapes are musings on the power of words and the power of silence, the value of truth and the necessity of lies, the horrors of war, the resilience of people, love, death, the keen intuition of children, living with uncertainty. Alongside the purposeful detachment that comes with the storyteller's voice, though, is real, edge-of-seat suspense and powerful emotion. The details of Swallow Man's true identity--Is he the Polish bogeyman Boruta? Is he really a magical being? Is he a "brilliant, beautiful deception?"--don't ultimately matter because, as the Swallow Man tells Anna, "questions are far more valuable than answers."

Anna did not understand. "Why?"
The Swallow Man smiled. "Well done."

Knopf Books for Young Readers, $17.99, hardcover, 12-upp., ages 240, 9780553513349

Gavriel Savit: The Seed Spark of Swallow Man

photo: Arthur Cohen

Gavriel Savit is not only an author, he is a New York actor, fresh off of a Broadway production of Amazing Grace. Anna and the Swallow Man, his debut novel, is set in World War II Poland. As Savit says, his book, if it's "about" anything, is about "living in the space of not knowing." It's also about a girl named Anna Lania, whose father, a linguistics professor, is taken away by Germans when she is seven years old, leaving her on her own in Kraków. A tall, mysterious--possibly even magical--gentleman she comes to call the Swallow Man takes her under his wing and together, for years, they traipse across war-ravaged Poland. From a Brooklyn rooftop at sunset, Savit talks to Shelf Awareness about his love of theater, Stephen Sondheim, the unreliable nature of memory and the existence of Peter Pan.

You're an actor in New York, and a busy one--even debuting on Broadway this year in Amazing Grace. What first attracted you to the theater?

The first time I remember being aware of the theater was when I went with my father up to Stratford, Ontario--there's a wonderful theater festival there. I grew up in Michigan, so Stratford was only a few hours' drive. My mother was out of town that weekend, so it was just my father and me. We saw West Side Story, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream. We were having such a great time that we stayed an extra afternoon.

Funnily enough, I first started thinking of acting professionally because of a book. I remember specifically, I was in high school, sitting and reading Kenneth Branagh's autobiography Beginning [W.W. Norton]. I was thinking, "Wow, this acting professionally thing seems pretty neat! Maybe I could do that!" And, as a typical teenager, I just sort of put the pedal to metal.

Is there a dream role you've always wanted to play?

Oh, there are so many. Sweeney Todd is obviously very high on the list. Sunday in the Park with George, playing the part of George. Basically I could just recite all the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, the living treasure! That's the wonder of theater. Every conceivable kind of twisted, messed-up, interesting, enlightened, beautiful human being is represented in the canon. It's fun to be able to skip around.

So how did Anna and the Swallow Man come into the picture?

The first idea I had was this image of an old European forest... and a small village in the middle of it. I was thinking about a tall man in a three-piece suit walking into this village in the middle of a rainstorm, and he was completely dry and he had no umbrella. And I was thinking of what a weirdly, perhaps titillatingly, perhaps disturbingly magical kind of presence he would be and how it would be more likely that a child would recognize that kind of subtle magic. Could that be achieved by a metaphysical magic or through more of a carefully constructed trickery? Or might those two things be complementary? That was the seed spark of the whole thing.

It had sat in my brain for a year or two, when I started thinking about putting together a one-man show that would explore questions of how reliable memory is and how we tell ourselves stories. It was going to be about an individual who had discovered an old, unpublished manuscript, a Holocaust memoir that had little hints of magic around the corners. The first thing I had to do to create this performance piece was write this memoir. So I did. And there's shockingly little difference between that and the book you see now. When I came back to look at it, I thought, hey, this is pretty good on its own. I brushed it off, and that's how we got Anna and the Swallow Man.

Interesting. So you didn't necessarily write it with a young audience in mind.

No, I didn't write it with any audience in mind. It's its own story, unselfconscious.

It seems like you have a lot of respect for children--their complexity and capacity and intuition. You philosophize a fair amount about the difference between adults and children, too. Where does that perspective come from?

It primarily comes from watching my nieces and nephews. I value a child's mindset. It's pretty undeniably great. I think it's more often an adult mindset that shuts off possibility. There's something really beautiful about the open, accepting, explorative, questioning mode of childlike thought.

There's one story that translates the whole thing very well. My niece Bella asked her father, "Daddy, can Peter Pan really fly?" My brother-in-law is a scientist, by profession and by temperament, and his response was, "No, he can't." And that's really not true! So far as there is a Peter Pan, part of Peter Pan's identity is that he can fly. You could question whether Peter Pan really exists, and I would argue that as well, because Peter Pan as a character exists in the popular psyche as much as, say, Barack Obama does. So I reject refutations of the existence of Peter Pan.

 

The Swallow Man tells Anna that the world is a dangerous place, and he does not reassure her that she will be safe.

When you are a tiny body in a gigantic world you know very implicitly that everything is threatening. The Swallow Man knows what kind of lie to tell and when, and it wouldn't have served anyone to tell her that particular lie.

Whenever something really tragic occurs in the public sphere, people respond that it is "senseless" or "inhuman." The fact is, human beings are dangerous animals sometimes. And the history of human warfare is endemic in the history of humanity.

I love the fable-like quality of the book. Part of that seems to come from the careful structure of it, such as when you write, "This was the first of three times that Anna heard the Swallow Man laugh." Did it feel fable-like to you?

Yes, it's an aesthetic that really appeals to me. I like it when narrators in fiction have a personality.

 

Erin Clarke, executive editor at Knopf, says your book sits at the intersection of magic realism and fairy tale. Do you like that assessment?

I completely agree with it. If I can manage to toe that line in all of my writing, I will be very happy.

Anna and the Swallow Man are both from the "rare tribe" that speaks multiple languages. It's the key to their survival as they navigate wartime borders. Are you in that rare tribe of polyglots?

I was privileged to learn Hebrew at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor when I was growing up. I think languages enrich my understanding of my own brain and other people's brains. I think it's a key to the way we live our lives, using different words for different concepts. One of my favorite foreign words is Waldeinsamkeit, which is a German word for "the feeling of being alone in the forest."

What?!

Right? I mean there just needs to be that word.

Did you have an unusual upbringing? I don't necessarily mean wandering the meadows of Poland like Anna does.

Ann Arbor was a wonderful university town to grow up in. There was always an unlimited trove of potential knowledge nearby, which encouraged my curiosity. My father is a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Michigan, my mother teaches cello lessons out of her sunroom. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community. I played the violin when I was very young. It was certainly a priority of my parents to expose me and my siblings to all the intellectual and cultural pursuits the world had to offer. I am grateful. It's the kind of childhood I hope I can offer to my own children someday.

How would you describe the Swallow Man to people who haven't read the book?

He's very tall, he has long fingers, he doesn't talk very much unless he wants to. Beyond that, I think there's a degree to which the Swallow Man is, in and of himself, sort of a magic trick. Which is to say there are certainly true, boots-on-the-ground details about him. He has a name, he was born in a place. But his existence in the world of the story is predicated on not knowing exactly how he works. That's the thing about a magic trick, right? As soon as you see the guy is just holding the coin in his hand the whole time, well, that's not so impressive, that's not so interesting. There are certain things about the Swallow Man that it's better not to know. --Karin Snelson

Interior images by Laura Carlin from Anna and the Swallow Man.


Anna and the Swallow Man is the First In Line December Monthly Pick. First In Line, presented by Random House, is an exclusive YA experience that lets members be the first to read the last line of the next big thing and features bonus book and author content, giveaways, videos and more. Click here to secure your place in line and access Gavriel Savit's Members Only Content, including a q&a with James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner and the Mortality Doctrine series; photos from his day (and night!) job as a Broadway actor; his favorite taco recipes; and the playlist he listened to while writing Anna and the Swallow Man.


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


Great Reads

Rediscover: Working

Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was an actor, author and radio host best know for his oral histories of everyday Americans. The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (1984) won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Terkel's Chicago radio show, The Studs Terkel Program, aired every weekday between 1952 and 1997. Studs' Place, an unscripted TV show in which Terkel played the owner of a cheap diner, ran during the late '40s and early '50s. He also appeared in the 1988 movie Eight Men Out, about the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.

In addition to The Good War, Terkel collected oral histories of the Great Depression in Hard Times (1970) and, in 1974, Pantheon published Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. In nine books organized by theme, Terkel interviewd everyday Americans from all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder about how they experience employment. The first chapter, subtitled "Working the Land," contains accounts from farmers and miners, among others. The rest of the book ranges through professions from grave digger to supermarket clerk to business executive, creating a nuanced view of working life as often difficult but potentially meaningful.

Working inspired a Broadway musical of the same name in 1977 and a 2009 graphic novel adaptation by Harvey Pekar. Working was reprinted in 1997 (The New Press, $18.95, 9781565843424), and, despite being written before rampant automation, outsourcing and other drastic workplace changes, still holds relevant lessons. --Tobias Mutter


Thomas Nelson: A Stranger at Fellsworth (Treasures of Surrey) by Sarah E. Ladd


Book Review

Fiction

Triangle Ray

by John Holman


Much as there's a place for novels about the extraordinary and fantastical, some of the most rewarding stories mirror reality directly. This is the case for John Holman's Triangle Ray, a collection of short stories that trace the life of the titular character through his days as an African American caterer, paramour and aspiring writer in Durham, N.C., over the course of decades.

Holman's tightly focused stories reflect Ray's existence through the phases of his life like shards of a broken mirror--small snippets that, pieced together, form an arc. He chooses quiet moments that are both poignant and illustrative about Ray's character--the luncheon in which he discovers that his first wife will ultimately leave him, the professional breaks that give him the highest hopes, and the subtle, racially charged interactions that taint his workaday existence. The collection shares common ground with Richard Linklater's film Boyhood, whose focus on a young man in a different era carries the same melancholy sense of time's passage. Through Holman's wry, observant prose, we see more than just a highlight reel of births, deaths and loves gained and lost. We see, instead, the multi-faceted nature of a man's persona, and how that changes in the face of dreams thwarted and rearranged.

The beauty of Triangle Ray is its attention to the details that inform Ray's life, the same details by which any of us measure the passage of time. Experiences shape, erode and transform Ray, and it's the reader's privilege to witness his myriad transformations. --Linnie Greene, freelance writer

Discover: The stories in Triangle Ray chronicle in telling detail how the ambitions and the life of an African American man in the South are shaped.

Dzanc, $15.95, paperback, 9781938103377

New Press: Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn


My Name Is Lucy Barton

by Elizabeth Strout


In My Name Is Lucy Barton, an introspective and largely independent writer looks back on a pivotal time in her life, the 1980s, when she was a patient in a New York City hospital for nine weeks. A bacterial infection after a "simple" appendectomy kept then-30-year-old Lucy Barton away from her husband, two daughters and their home in the West Village. While the writer lay hospitalized, her mother--whom she hadn't spoken to in many years--came to visit from Amgash, Ill., Lucy's rural hometown. With mother sitting vigil at her daughter's bedside--the Chrysler Building gleaming through the hospital window like a beckoning lighthouse--Lucy mentally navigates her way through the darkness of her illness, her New York City existence and her estrangement from her Illinois upbringing. Mother and daughter pass the time by reminiscing and telling stories, painful remembrances that gradually reveal their strained, emotionally distant relationship and the difficult childhood Lucy endured amid poverty, loneliness and ostracism.

In short, stream-of-consciousness flashbacks, Lucy reconstructs experiences from her past in a seamless narrative. She recalls people who made impressions on her as she grapples with her identity, her place in the world and choices that ultimately shaped her destiny. As in her other novels (The Burgess Boys, Olive Kitteridge), Strout probes the imperfect nature--and limits--of love, memory and forgiveness. The idea of how little we really know about people, and often even ourselves, is a central theme of this expertly crafted and deeply thought-provoking short novel. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A writer looks back on pivotal experiences that ultimately shaped her sense of self and her destiny.

Random House, $26, hardcover, 9781400067695

HarperCollins: Celebrating 200 Years of Great Books


Fallen Land

by Taylor Brown


Fallen Land, Taylor Brown's debut novel, takes readers back to the final year of the Civil War--a year of cruelty and violence set against the hard, barren landscape of the soon-to-be defeated South. In this harsh new reality, Callum, a 15-year-old orphan, has teamed up with a band of brigands to roam the countryside in search of food and riches. "They had long ago forsaken the war of newspapers for the one they carried everywhere with them, and which had no colors, no sides, and which could be fit neatly into any opportunity that presented itself: ambush, pillage, torture."

Against his better nature, Callum forces himself to accept the violence of his new crew--his survival depends on it, and he relishes feeling a part of a group. He continues with the band until he meets Ava, a young girl left alone on her family's farm, whose honor he intends to defend at any cost against the cruelty of the men. As Callum and Ava flee their bleak and lonely pasts together, an unexpected romance blossoms between the two.

Brown writes with a strong, clear voice, conveying the difficulties of the broken countryside of the South in the wake of Sherman's "total war." Fallen Land moves seamlessly between the broad history of the Civil War and the very personal, individual struggles of Callum and Ava, resulting in a historical novel that is astounding in its depth, rooted deeply in its time while proving timeless. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: Taylor Brown's stunning debut sweeps readers back to the final, harsh year of the Civil War.

St. Martin's Press, $25.99, hardcover, 9781250077974

Harper: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton


Mystery & Thriller

The Shut Eye

by Belinda Bauer


Detective Chief Inspector John Marvel is obsessed with the disappearance of 12-year-old Edie Evans, who went missing more than a year earlier while riding her bike, but Marvel's boss, the superintendent, wants the detective to look for a poodle belonging to the superintendent's wife.

James and Anna Buck's son, four-year-old Daniel, is also missing, and Anna's grip on reality has been slipping in the months since he disappeared. She seeks out a so-called psychic named Richard Latham, but soon after, Anna thinks she's having visions herself.

Though chapters in The Shut Eye (a term meaning psychic) are from different points of view and at first seem to be telling separate stories, Belinda Bauer eventually weaves the threads together while keeping readers guessing all the way. As with her previous U.S. release, Rubbernecker, Bauer excels in developing her characters, giving each a distinct and believable voice, whether it's a grieving mother with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a gruff detective, a black lesbian female police officer (the "Holy Grail of Equal Opportunities") or a Hmong immigrant.

Bauer can also write from a child's view as convincingly as an adult's. Her prose is tight, conveying wonder and heart-gripping emotions without verbosity. In barely 300 pages, she manages to pack in social commentary, cultural insight and dry humor along with the suspense of a police procedural and perhaps even the supernatural, depending on how readers interpret certain revelations. Crime-fiction fans can expect little shut-eye after picking up this thriller. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: Children are disappearing in southeast London, and a mother starts having psychic visions about them that may or may not be true.

Grove Press, $14, paperback, 9780802124852

Shelf Awareness Sign-up Giveaway: Deadly Game  (Robert Finlay #2) by Matt Johnson


Even the Dead

by Benjamin Black


Even the Dead, the seventh novel in the Quirke series by Benjamin Black (Holy Orders), quickly draws readers in--even readers new to the series. Quirke has been on leave from his pathology duties for two months, as he recuperates from a psychological semi-breakdown. Dublin is sweltering in the summer heat when a young man named Leon Corless dies in a fiery car crash. At first glance it seems like suicide, but Quirke's assistant pathologist is doubtful, and calls the big man back in to examine Corless's body.

After getting a glimpse, Quirke is drawn inexorably into the investigation. He and Inspector Hackett quickly discover that Corless had both a Communist father and a mysteriously vanished (and possibly pregnant) girlfriend. In looking into the death, Quirke is unwittingly bringing himself back into the orbit of an old foe, and potentially endangering those he loves most.

Reminiscent of the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear or Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge series, Even the Dead is a slow-paced, psychologically introspective mystery. Set in the close-minded, very Catholic milieu of 1950s Dublin, it's a glimpse into an era difficult to imagine now. Benjamin Black (a pseudonym of John Banville) has a gift for finely drawn characters and small details. And Quirke's undeniable eccentricity lends him an irresistible charm that will keep the reader engaged until the very end. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: This thoughtful mystery features Irish pathologist Quirke.

Holt, $27, hardcover, 9781627790666

The Drifter

by Nicholas Petrie


Many of the main characters in Nicholas Petrie's debut crime novel are veterans. Cops, criminals, shelter workers, the unhinged homeless--they were trained to kill in the military. The Drifter is set in Milwaukee, Wis., in the weeks before Veteran's Day, when the weather is turning cold. Former Marine Lieutenant Peter Ash is "living in his truck and [doing] his personal grooming at a car wash.... Operational necessity." Ash is an itinerant carpenter with a bad case of what he calls "the white static" (a claustrophobic reaction to confined spaces), brought back from multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan along with a battle-hardened knack for thinking on his feet and for lethal violence--useful in door-knocking war missions maybe, but a problem for living a "normal" civilian life.

Guilty that he wasn't there when his closest friend and platoon sergeant Jimmy committed suicide, Ash comes to Milwaukee to provide Jimmy's wife with home repairs and moral support. Under her falling-down front porch, he finds a huge ugly dog ("Like a timber wolf run through the wash with a pit bull, a Great Dane, and a fuzzy orange sweatshirt"), a suitcase with $400,000 in cash and four slabs of C-4 explosives. He soon uncovers a bombing plot cooked up by angry vets, crooked cops and a ruthless hedge fund manager. Backed by a sympathetic local gang criminal with an Army Ranger background, Ash fights his personal white static paralysis to do what's right by Jimmy. A page-turner with a shout-out to vets everywhere, The Drifter is a first-class crime novel set in a second-tier city with plenty of third-rate lowlifes. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: This first novel is both a thrilling crime novel and a compassionate story of war veterans.

Putnam, $27, hardcover, 9780399174568

Biography & Memoir

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi


In May 2013, Paul Kalanithi was an ambitious sixth-year resident in neurosurgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Twenty-two months later, he was dead at age 37 of lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is the frank and moving account of this young doctor's striving to excel in one of medicine's most demanding specialties while his life was shadowed by the terror of a terminal illness.

Kalanithi's memoir divides into two distinct narratives: first, about the road to early success in the medical profession, a journey that included a detour to obtain a master's degree in English literature from Stanford; the second is the tragic tale of his losing battle against cancer. His account of the "black hole that is neurosurgical residency" features familiar stories of 100-hour workweeks and the emotional stress brought on by the feeling of inadequacy at dealing with life-and-death decisions on a daily basis. One especially striking aspect of When Breath Becomes Air is the speed at which Kalanithi moves from the mental outlook of being a doctor to that of being a patient when he must face "the same existential quandaries my patients faced."

It's impossible to reach the end of this all-too-brief memoir, which includes a moving epilogue by Kalanithi's physician wife, Lucy, without mourning the loss of a brilliant, compassionate doctor, and wondering what contributions he might have made to medical science had he lived. Failing that, we can only be grateful that at least he's left behind the inestimable gift of this book. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: Paul Kalanithi's memoir is an insightful, moving account of his medical training and his losing battle with lung cancer.

Random House, $25, hardcover, 9780812988406

History

The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

by Robert S. Boynton


They vanished from beaches, from their European universities and vacations, and walking home after school. In his second book, The Invitation-Only Zone, Robert S. Boynton (The New New Journalism) pieces together the disturbing and still-unfolding story of North Korea's abductions of Japanese, South Koreans and other foreign citizens, from the 1950s to the present day.

In 1991, a Japanese TV producer investigated the stories of Korean-Japanese whose relatives were among the 93,000 who accepted Kim Il-sung's offer of "repatriation" in 1956. Those interviews led him to the story of the abduction of a Japanese chef. He produced a documentary on the chef's abduction that was met with disbelief; he investigated further and wrote a book. The arrest and confession of a North Korean terrorist finally motivated the Japanese government to confront the question of the abductions project, and in 2002 five abductees were allowed to return to Japan.

Japanese public opinion turned from denial to outrage and panic. Why did the North Koreans make these abductions? A variety of reasons seem to have existed at different times: to train or breed Japanese spies, to obtain skilled professionals or find wives for terrorists. Boynton writes that "ultimately, there was no single explanation or motivation. The most plausible explanation is that the abductions were part of a bold plan to unify the two Koreas, spread Kim Il-sung's ideology throughout Asia, and humiliate Japan." Anyone with an interest in the history and politics of these nations will find this a fascinating read. --Sara Catterall

Discover: This is the most thoroughly researched and complete telling so far of the still-unfolding story of North Korea's abduction projects.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, hardcover, 9780374175849

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship

by Anjan Sundaram


In Stringer: A Reporter's Journey into the Congo, Anjan Sundaram covered the Democratic Republic of the Congo's descent into civil war and near-anarchy. In Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, he documents Rwanda's transition from the horrors of genocide into an Orwellian dictatorship. The memoir ostensibly covers Sundaram's time running a training program for journalists in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. However, the author takes a backseat in the narrative to his students, some of whom channel their training and idealism into a heroic last stand for free, independent journalism in Rwanda.

Early on in the book, one of Sundaram's most talented students explains the cruel deceit at the heart of Rwandan society by pointing to the street lights: "You would think from the street lights that Rwanda is a resource-rich country. But only four percent of Rwanda's people have electricity in their houses.... But this is the first thing visitors see. And this is impressive, they are stunned by the small country in Africa that has come through a genocide, and now has such roads, such lights." Sundaram notes again and again the vast amount of financial aid given to Rwanda's government by well-meaning but ignorant foreign countries and organizations, money that President Kagame uses to throttle dissenting voices. Bad News is an attempt to shed light on a side of Rwanda hidden to most foreigners, but also a memorial to those who give their lives, well-being and even their sanity to the cause of free speech. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

Discover: Heroes and victims in Rwanda fight a dictatorial government in a country still traumatized by the 1994 genocide.

Doubleday, $25.95, hardcover, 9780385539562

All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea

by Magnus Bärtås, Fredrik Ekman, trans. by Saskia Vogel


All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea is a strange, discursive book. Originally published in Sweden in 2011, the book is ostensibly an account of Magnus Bärtås and Fredrik Ekman's tour of North Korea in 2008. However, the book turns out to be more of a companionable sprawl than a simple travelogue, weaving in chapters about the notorious abductions of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok, the making of a North Korean Godzilla rip-off film called Pulgasari, the devastating mid-'90s famine known to North Koreans as the "Arduous March," the strangely close relationship between the ruling Kim clan and the incredibly wealthy South Korean cult leader Pastor Moon Sun-myung, and much, much more.

The book benefits from the authors' distinctly Scandinavian perspective, in part because it diverges from the Cold War-era narrative that persists in the West. When writing about the Korean War, for example, the authors note that to many Koreans at the time, "the North seemed like the true Korea" and refer to the American bombing campaign in North Korea as an "inexorable, drawn-out war crime." The authors always return to their own heavily guided, carefully choreographed tour of the "Hermit Kingdom" before the many tangents become distracting.

While the authors write about their frustration over North Korea's impenetrability, they still manage to carve a few human moments out of the rigid experience. Whether musing about Kim Il-sung's cult of personality or relating a particularly North Korean response to food poisoning, Bärtås and Ekman are wonderfully entertaining and frequently insightful. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

Discover: This account of a trip to North Korea covers a range of topics, including the film industry and the plight of political prisoners.

House of Anansi Press, $16.95, paperback, 9781770898806

Children's & Young Adult

Some Kind of Courage

by Dan Gemeinhart


Joseph Johnson may be only 12 years old, but he "ain't no boy." He's lost his mother and sister to typhoid fever, his father to a wagon accident, and his beloved pony, Sarah, to a conniving "old cuss" who sold her to a horse dealer. Indeed, "sadness can be a storm that's easy to get lost in." But Sarah is all Joseph has left in the world, and Joseph is determined to get his pony back, even if he has to take on a raging grizzly, white-water rapids and a cold-blooded murderer to do it. Dan Gemeinhart (The Honest Truth) packs nonstop thrills, chills and spills into Some Kind of Courage. Set in 1890, in the post-Gold Rush American West, the novel captures a real and dramatic era, a time of horse thieves and gunslingers, and a time when Chinese laborers were often despised and persecuted.

Joseph joins forces with a Chinese boy named Ah-Kee who is on his own mysterious odyssey--he speaks no English, so can't tell Joseph what, or whom, he's looking for, but their wordless, surprisingly effective communication makes for one of the finest and most unusual friendships in middle-grade literature. The two boys set out on what seems at times like a wild goose chase, tracking down Joseph's pony from Wenatchee to Yakima, Wash. Joseph's courage and cowboy spirit--and his rhythmic, nice-and-easy first-person voice--will keep pages turning, and fans of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet and Dogsong or Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain will love the suspenseful survival aspects of the boys' perilous journey. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: In this stunning, poignant Wild West adventure, a 12-year-old orphaned boy battles bears, river rapids and frontier outlaws to retrieve his stolen pony.

Scholastic Press, $16.99, hardcover, 240p., ages 8-12, 9780545665773

The Dark Days Club

by Alison Goodman


Preparing for one's society debut is stressful for any young Englishwoman of the Regency era, but 18-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall is more nervous than most. Her late mother, Lady Catherine, was a notorious traitor to King George III; her dreadful, misogynistic uncle is eager to marry off his tainted niece quickly; and her body has been flooded by an "unseemly vigor" and other disturbingly unnatural powers that make it even harder than usual to concentrate on the work of finding a husband.

It is the Earl of Carlston, her disgraced distant cousin, a "handsome but repellent" man with "dark shark eyes," who tells her the truth about who and what she is. She is a Reclaimer, just as her mother was, one of eight in England who has the talents to identify and destroy Deceivers, the thousands of supernatural, tentacled creatures who disguise themselves, colonize human bodies "at all levels of society" and harvest the life-force of humans to survive. This revelation is terrifying for Helen, but soon enough, she is pulled into the work of the Dark Days Club (a shadow group to the city detectives called the Bow Street Runners) that fights Deceivers.

With The Dark Days Club, Australian author Alison Goodman (Eon; Eona) brings her usual meticulous world-building craft to her exploration of the historical and the supernatural. Her vivid descriptions of the clothing, society and conversation of 1812 London would perfectly recall Georgette Heyer, if Heyer had written dark fantasy, and the romance, though tamer than Sarah MacLean's books, absolutely smolders. Fortunately, Lady Helen's adventure has just begun--it's the first of a trilogy. --Stephanie Anderson, assistant director for public services, Darien Library (Conn.)

Discover: Alison Goodman's spectacular young adult novel set in the court of King George III will delight fantasy readers and fans of Regency romance alike.

Viking, $18.99, hardcover, 496p., ages 14-up, 9780670785476

Powered by: Xtenit