Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, July 1, 2016


Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust #1) by Philip Pullman

From My Shelf

William Morrow & Company: Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams / The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Mira Books: Lie to Me by J.T. Ellison

Garrison Keillor: First Encounter

Garrison Keillor will be leaving A Prairie Home Companion on July 1, and while legions of fans mourn, they know there will no doubt be more books to come from the beloved raconteur. Neil Nyren, executive v-p, associate publisher, and editor-in-chief at Putnam, remembers his first encounter with Keillor.

It was 1979. I was paging through the New Yorker when a faux-noir story set me laughing, and I flipped to the end of the piece to see its author (that's where the magazine stuck the names then). In tiny type, it said "Garrison Keillor." I wrote, asked if he had more, and he replied that, actually, he'd been writing them for a while (blame that tiny type for my not noticing, I guess) and he had a contract to write a novel. But he thanked me.

Garrison Keillor (photo: Erik Hageness)

Several months later, his agent called. Garrison hadn't finished the novel and she'd offered the publisher (I won't say who) a collection of his pieces instead--but they weren't interested. Was I? Oh, yes. I persuaded my boss to let me buy it for a princely four figures, and we got to work.

Eventually, Garrison came to town and we met for the first time, and at lunch he casually mentioned that he had a radio show back in Minnesota. "You have a what?" Nobody had said a thing. It was a local show, Garrison said, on public radio, but it was going national soon--he thought I'd be interested.

I was, of course--but had no idea what was about to happen. By the time we published Happy to Be Here, bearing a picture of a heavily bearded Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion had become a sensation, with profiles and articles everywhere. Pub date was scheduled for early 1982, but there was such a demand in Minnesota, we rushed out an early printing there for Christmas, which immediately sold out, and when we did distribute the book nationally, it went immediately onto the Times bestseller list.

So, I'm kind of glad he mentioned that show to me. Thanks, Garrison--and congratulations on a brilliant 42 years.


Akashic Books: Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino


Book Candy

Literary Gardens

Observing that "in literature, there's something both magical and symbolic about gardens," the Huffington Post explored "8 literary gardens to escape to this summer."

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Children's book author and illustrator Elisha Cooper shared "an illustrated guide to the best places to read with children" with Brightly.

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Tatts of the day: Buzzfeed displayed "30 beautiful tattoos inspired by The Little Prince."

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Bustle offered "11 reasons to date a writer, because you won't find a sexier partner."

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Noting that "actions speak louder than words, but quotes are without a doubt more repeatable," the Readers.com blog shared "15 thought-provoking quotes from literature."

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There will always be an England dept.: "All we need of Hell: 9 quotes on parting in the wake of Brexit" were featured by Signature.


Fabled Films: The Nocturnals by Tracey Hecht - 11 Fun summer boredom buster activities!


Great Reads

Rediscover: Barbara Goldsmith

Journalist, editor and author Barbara Goldsmith died last Sunday at age 85. In her 20s, Goldsmith worked as a journalist in the art world. She profiled contemporary cultural icons like Audrey Hepburn and Pablo Picasso, creating award-winning work that would help her become a founding editor of New York magazine. She continued writing profiles and editing the magazine until the mid-'70s, when she "got tired of making other writers look good through my re-writing."

So Goldsmith turned to writing books. Her first, The Straw Man (1975), is a novel about the New York art world, in which an heir mounts a legal challenge over control of his wealthy father's massive art collection. The book was a bestseller. So too was her next, Little Gloria... Happy at Last (1980), a narrative nonfiction look at the bitter battle over custody of Gloria Vanderbilt (and her $2.5 million trust fund) in the 1930s. In 1982, Little Gloria became an NBC miniseries starring Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Plummer and Maureen Stapleton. Goldsmith's last book was Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie, a biography of the luminary scientist and part of W.W. Norton's Great Discoveries series. It was last published in 2005 ($14.95, 9780739453056). --Tobias Mutter


Akashic Books: Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo Cortes


The Writer's Life

Askold Melnyczuk: 'Speak Up, or Play Dead'

Askold Melnyczuk's latest novel, Smedley's Secret Guide to World Literature (PFP Publishing), has an intriguing subtitle: "By Jonathan Levy Wainwright, age 15." Jill McCorkle praised the young narrator as someone who "immediately charms the reader with his brilliant literary observations and insights, but what really steals the heart is that it comes on a wave of adolescent angst we all recognize--hormones and family problems and pop culture fuel this difficult journey while great and sometimes forgotten literary voices educate and shine light on his young and vulnerable heart." I agreed and had a few questions for the author behind that narrator. Melnyczuk's previous novels include What Is Told, The Ambassador of the Dead and The House of Widows. He was the founding editor of Agni magazine and Arrowsmith Press. An associate professor in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Melnyczuk also teaches at the Bennington College Writing Seminars.

Where did Smedley (Jonathan) come from, as character as well as novel?

I'd been doing a lot of family-care, but one day I found myself in the Cambridge Public Library reading Aubrey's Brief Lives. You know, that 17th century gossipfest in the form of biographical sketches of Aubrey's literary friends and acquaintances, including poets Milton, Andrew Marvell, and Richard Lovelace. And suddenly I heard a voice making wisecracks about all the secret stuff Aubrey couldn't tell us about his pals--the sort of thing his peers could not have approved of openly: adultery, stealing from the till, radical doubt. I laughed out loud. I needed laughter more than anything at the time, so I decided to tune into that voice, see what else it had to say. Turned out to belong to a randy 15-year-old Cambridge kid who'd just been bounced out of school. And I had to find out why.

"I'm lucky to be alive," he writes to begin his punishment essay assignment. Although not the "official" first line of the novel, it's still an essential portal. How did those words find you?

As I said, it was a time in my life when I wanted some of what Jonathan had: irreverence, fearlessness, no thought for tomorrow. In short, the joyful and necessary obliviousness of extreme youth. Seeing the world through Jonathan's eyes let me see the 21st century in an entirely different way. What has it been like to grow up in a country permanently at war, with much of the world aflame? 

On the other hand, it was a joy to recreate some of my own first memories and impressions of the seismic event that is Manhattan: to enter that city for the first time, again. And then to re-experience a kid's initiation into love, to watch him struggle to distinguish between it and lust, to try to find the words for that: delicious. Some of my favorite scenes, which were among the hardest to write, are the ones surrounding his meeting with his unexpected crush, Beyah. I wanted to get across the electricity of desire rippling under the skin, flaring up, burning us. That we rise from love's ashes is a miracle, no?

We learn early in the novel that Smedley has gotten in trouble for initiating a horrid "prank" on one of his friends. It's all the more shocking because he runs with a pretty diverse group. How did you conceive this?

Without giving too much away, Jonathan and a friend pull a "prank" on a bandmate who happens to be African-American. It was something the characters did on their own--as characters will, when you set them in motion and step back. The boys were not aware of the racial overtones of their actions, but I was. What they did mirrors some of the insanity rippling through our culture these last several decades. Almost inevitably, kids act out the zeitgeist.

Smedley refutes all claims that his is "a coming of age story," but I think every novel is to some degree, regardless of the calendar age of the narrator/protagonist. We are forever coming of age. Would you agree or disagree?

"Identity" is always a fragile construct. In our age, however, it's become startlingly fluid almost overnight. Of course, it hasn't happened overnight. The truth of who we are has been working its way to the surface for a long time. Transparency has been a big word this last decade. There's a way in which all reality is becoming more transparent, gradually revealing what is, where we come from, what we're made of. Consider not only our maneuverability across genders, or the crazy discoveries of science. In our time, the animals themselves are trying to speak to us--or maybe it's that we are, for the first time in a long time, learning to listen again. I don't know, of course, but I think they're saying: watch out!

What's constant in the desire realm is desire. What's less locked down than people expected are aspects of ourselves some thought immutable: gender, religious faith, even our genes are spliceable.

Discoveries in quantum mechanics, loop quantum gravity, thermodynamics, and so on show us that space isn't empty and that matter, at the very tiniest level, can't decide what it is: wave or particle? Its identity is determined by the particles to which it relates.

I know a lot of gifted adult readers who were also precocious readers in their youth. As someone whose adolescent reading tended to lean heavily on comic books, I'm curious about your youthful reading life. 

It was all over the place. I too was an avid reader of comic books, had the earliest Spidermans, as well as the Fantastic Four. I loved Mad Magazine and subscribed to Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by Forrest J. Ackerman--remember that? How I wished I had an allowance which would have enabled me to buy a Wolfman mask.

On the other hand, my mother, a voracious reader, not only had me memorizing poems in Ukrainian, she also gave me books by some great writers few people read anymore, including Selma Lagerloff, Knut Hamsun, Rabindranath Tagore, and so on. I wanted to salute a few ancestors, say thanks.

Smedley is able to shut out digital intrusions when he wants to, but he also has (and I'm being slightly facetious) a kind of 140-characters-or-less approach to lit crit in writing the punishment essay. To what extent is Smedley an outlier as a child of the digital age?

I didn't see him as an outlier. He's equipped with all the technology a kid could want: an iPhone, an iPad. But in the last quarter of the novel, as he's pursuing his Beatrice, he either forgets or loses them. Pushed squarely back into his body, without the escape hatches or wormholes technology offers, he's forced to look at and interact with the world around him in a different way.

Again, this just happened as a matter of course. I didn't set out to show Jonathan online and off. But when he lost his iPhone I realized it changed him. Without our devices filtering encounters, we interact differently. In Jonathan's case, because he was born with all these toys always at hand, the experience is revelatory. He's naked to the elements. He sees and feels things he's missed before. And he's missed a lot.

In what ways is this novel different from your previous work? Similarities?

My first three novels all dealt with some aspect of the refugee/immigrant experience. My parents fled Ukraine during World War II. They spent five years in a refugee camp before getting permission to come to the United States. The trauma of the war was passed on to the children of everyone involved in it. Much of the world came to in 1945 suffering from PTSD, which was never treated. The American soldiers who came back from the war were victims as surely as the millions in Europe who endured bombings and the destruction of cities and communities. That offered a lot of material. But one day I decided I was through with it.

Making a privileged WASP my main character gave me the freedom of the mask--I've said before that this is my most personal book. Maybe because I'm still a randy 15-year-old at heart.

In considering what the unusual band of writers he chooses to explore might have in common, Smedley realizes they "had to deal with whatever world they woke up in. They had two choices: speak up, or play dead." Words to live by?

Why not? 

--Robert Gray, contributing editor, Shelf Awareness

Silver Dolphin Books: Kisses for Kindergarten by Livingstone Crouse, illustrated by Macky Pamintuan


Book Review

Fiction

The Natural Way of Things

by Charlotte Wood


With echoes of Kafka and The Lord of the Flies, Charlotte Wood tells a bleakly disturbing yet empowering story about a group of women initially connected only by the presence of public scandal in their lives. Kidnapped, the women awaken from drug-induced states in the Australian Outback, far from civilization, where they are subjected to a horrific experience that forces them to be more primitive in order to break the bonds of their servitude.

With no idea how they arrived, the women discover their clothes are gone, replaced with canvas smocks, calico blouses and hard leather boots. Their male incarcerators, Boncer and Teddy, have taken their personal possessions and line the disoriented captives up to shave their heads. When the women have been deprived of everything, including their dignity and freedom, they are put to work building a road. At night, they sleep locked in cells reminiscent of dog kennels. But the supplies begin to dwindle and the electricity goes out on the compound. Soon the tide of power starts to shift. Women once concerned with social schedules and finery are fighting for survival, unearthing a feral strength no one ever expected.

Wood's raw and complex story delves into themes of friendship as two of the imprisoned form a strong yet unconventional bond through their survival efforts. It also depicts the tyranny of misogyny with the same coarse grit and degradation that scours women around the globe, while simultaneously spotlighting their courage and fortitude. Uncomfortably bold, The Natural Way of Things is an everywoman's hero tale. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: A group of women kidnapped and taken into the wilds of the Australian Outback must rely on their base instincts to survive.

Europa Editions, $17, paperback, 9781609453626

Crown Publishing Group: The Little French Bistro by Nina George


The Life of the World to Come

by Dan Cluchey


The Life of the World to Come pivots on one significant moment, which the main character explores from many angles. In Dan Cluchey's debut novel, Leo Brice has just finished the bar exam when his spirited and enigmatic girlfriend ups and leaves in the middle of the night. Being the lawyer--junior advocate for death row inmates--that he is, Brice analyzes and studies that event in the context of his life, and comes to some uncomfortable conclusions. When he meets a spiritual guide--in the form of an inmate he is trying to save--he begins to understand his own life and heartbreak in the larger context of the infinite universe. Brice learns that one person's loss means nothing to the entirety of human experience.

If this sounds like an ambitious interpretation of something as simple as a breakup, it's only because Cluchey manages to attack the subject with broad but beautiful strokes. Brice can be a bit melodramatic, but his suffering becomes a vehicle for the reader's deeper understanding of the workings of the heart and the mind. In a rare moment of clarity, Brice says, "Given two hundred thousand years of humanity, it was wildly unlikely that something so gauzy as romantic sadness would ever come close to registering as my chief hurdle."

A former speech- and op-ed writer, Cluchey crafts his novel as both a love letter to love itself and as a guide to healing when it's gone. --Josh Potter

Discover: An ex-political speechwriter applies his skill to the philosophical to explore the depths of the human well of love and sadness.

St. Martin's Press, $24.99, hardcover, 9781250077165

Shelf Awareness Sign-up Giveaway: The Lake House by Kate Morton


Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt

by Yasmine El Rashidi


Chronicle of a Last Summer is a nuanced coming-of-age story set in politically charged Cairo. Opening in 1984, Yasmine El Rashidi's novel focuses on a young girl whose father has just left. Her Baba's disappearance sparks the first of her many questions: Why did he leave, where did he go, will he come back?

This insistent curiosity moves Chronicle of a Last Summer across three decades of Cairo's history, as the girl's questioning continues through her college studies and then her work as a writer. As she grows up, so, too, does the city, moving toward a new kind of revolution in the 21st century even as the memories of 1919 and 1952 uprisings still press upon its population. "It was the legacy my generation would inherit, one of destruction and loss." But revolution is also what ties the Egypt the girl knows to the Egypt of history: "revolution has connected us to a past that preceded us."

El Rashidi (The Battle for Egypt) writes without concern for detail: the girl of Chronicle of a Last Summer is never named, for instance, and much of her story is told in roundabout ways. But that ultimately makes the novel all the more powerful; because of the lack of concrete detail, its observations feel universal, even as they are rooted in the particular time and place of this period in Egyptian history. Ultimately, Chronicle of a Last Summer is a potent and moving novel of growing up in riptides of political revolution. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A nuanced story of one girl's coming of age set against decades of political ferment in Cairo, Egypt.

Tim Duggan Books, $22, hardcover, 9780770437299

Mystery & Thriller

Collecting the Dead

by Spencer Kope


Spencer Kope's Collecting the Dead introduces Magnus "Steps" Craig, who works in the FBI Special Tracking Unit as the "human bloodhound." Steps has the synesthetic ability to see touch, i.e., he can spot the traces people leave behind on surfaces they've walked over and touched. "Shine" is what he calls these tracks, and each person's shine has a distinctive color and texture, identifiers as specific as DNA.

Steps and his partner, Special Agent Jimmy Donovan, are on the trail of a serial killer of young women. Even with Steps in pursuit, the killer remains elusive--he has cunning ways of covering his tracks, leading Steps and Jimmy to fight against time and hostile terrains to find the murderer before more women die.

Steps is a welcome new series protagonist, not only because of his unusual talent but also his sense of humor and personality. He hates forests--"They're like nightmares with leaves"--but often ends up in one while tracking criminals. Refreshingly, he's far from being a hardened hero haunted by his past. Steps had a happy childhood with a loving family--he still lives with his brother--and thus it's particularly upsetting for him to witness so much darkness in his work. Jimmy constantly reminds him, however, that they need his ability to save who they can.

Kope, a crime analyst, gives readers insight into a world in which good people, as he says in the acknowledgments, "confront fear so that others don't have to." He praises these defenders of justice, and readers will do the same to Kope for creating a humane and captivating character. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: An FBI operations specialist with extraordinary human tracking skills hunts a serial killer.

Minotaur Books, $25.99, hardcover, 9781250072870

Missing, Presumed

by Susie Steiner


Beautiful Cambridge grad student Edith Hind goes missing, leaving behind her belongings, including her passport and phone. There's also blood at her home, and the door wide is open.

Investigating Edith's disappearance, Cambridgeshire Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw and Detective Constable Davy Walker are dismayed to discover Edith's father has ties to the royal family, which means extra media coverage and pressure to find Edith quickly. But as days and weeks pass without credible clues, and the police uncover surprising details about Edith's life, they wonder if the "high-risk misper" case is actually one of murder.

It's not hard to guess the outcome of the mystery, and the pacing lags in chapters from the point of view of Edith's mother, Miriam. She's sympathetic but her grief is static.

The strengths of Susie Steiner's Missing, Presumed lie in getting to know the detectives. Thirty-nine-year-old Manon is juggling her career with Internet dating, and her experiences with the men she goes out with are amusing. Some of Manon's behavior toward potential love matches is cringe-worthy, but it's understandable because underlying it all is her longing to connect with someone and have a child. Kindhearted, unflappable Davy seems content with his girlfriend, whom everyone dislikes, but as the story progresses, Davy ponders whether or not being nice all the time truly makes him happy. These characters feel like old friends, which is good because readers will get to see them again in future series installments. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: Two English police detectives juggle the search for a missing girl in a high-profile case with their home lives.

Random House, $27, hardcover, 9780812998320

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Nightmare Stacks

by Charles Stross


Dr. Alex Schwartz is a socially awkward young mathematical genius with a background in high-end financial algorithms. He's also a vampire with no stomach for killing but a strong talent for magic, which happens in his case to be a function of mathematical reasoning.

Alex works for the Laundry, a hush-hush secret agency in Britain that deals with the supernatural. The organization has just begun a relocation process to Leeds, where Alex first encounters Cassie, an advance scout for a long-slumbering host of dangerous elf-like beings.

She has stolen the identity of a young university co-ed to get close to Alex, and what an adorable couple they make! Cassie may be First of Spies of the invading enemy, but she's also able to do one thing her malevolent father and stepmother cannot: feel empathy.

Soon Cassie is torn between her allegiance to her god-emperor father and her love for Alex. As the evil invaders prepares to destroy humanity and conquer Earth, Alex and Cassie must find a way to subvert the spells that hold her in check to her father's will--and save the world.

Even though this is a direct sequel to Stross's previous volume in the Laundry series, The Nightmare Stacks leads off in a new direction, one less about previous protagonist Bob Howard and more about this younger generation. The plot races along to a tremendous cliffhanger, one that will make readers look forward to yet another fantastic volume in this already delightful series of novels. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This fun, intelligent, engaging novel continues and expands upon Charles Stross's Laundry Files.

Ace, $27, hardcover, 9780425281192

The Dark Side

by Anthony O'Neill


In the not-too-distant future, mining operations, scientific equipment and human habitats litter the Moon's Earth-facing Nearside. The Farside is dominated by a private colony called Purgatory, a den of hedonism and lawlessness ruled by aerospace mogul Fletcher Brass. Purgatory is a haven for drugs, questionable surgery and wanted men, like Brass himself, whose personal fiefdom gives him refuge from legal troubles on Earth.

Lieutenant Damien Justus (pronounced like "Eustace") is yet another man escaping a troubled past on Earth for Purgatory. He takes a job with the Purgatory Police Department just as his new home is hit by a series of high-profile assassinations. Damien, despite being a newcomer to the colony, is put in charge of the investigation. His instincts honed as a cop on Earth tell him something is very wrong in Purgatory, that a dangerous game is unfolding between powerful players and he is caught in the middle.

Elsewhere on Farside, an immaculately dressed android appears outside the airlock of a lunar prison cell. The android, programmed with Fletcher Brass's semi-psychopathic business rules called the Brass Code, begins a rampage across Farside that eventually intersects with Damien's troubles in Purgatory.

The Dark Side by Anthony O'Neill (The Lamplighter) is a winning mix of hard science fiction and detective noir, like Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress meets Raymond Chandler. The mysterious rampaging android and Damien's investigation play out separately until the end of the novel, when both stories merge into a satisfying climax. The Dark Side has plenty to love for both sci-fi and mystery fans. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer

Discover: The Dark Side is a hybrid of hard science fiction and detective noir set on the far side of the Moon.

Simon & Schuster, $16, paperback, 9781501119569

Biography & Memoir

Look at You Now: My Journey from Shame to Strength

by Liz Pryor


Liz Pryor, Good Morning America's life advice guru and author of What Did I Do Wrong?, says, "Sometimes stories are just a bunch of words until you actually bring the words alive in your mind." Because Pryor's parents demanded her pregnancy at 17 be kept a secret from the world, her words lived only in her mind. Now she is sharing the journey that helped shape the woman she is today, the journey she can finally express with confidence and strength.
 
In 1979, during a boating trip, Pryor's stepmother suspects the high school senior is pregnant. When her suspicions are confirmed, Pryor's parents decide to send her away to have the baby. Pryor, under the impression she's going to a Catholic home for unwed mothers, instead arrives at a locked facility for pregnant girls who are poor or delinquent. The scared young woman from a privileged family, advised by her parents to keep her identity secret, forms incredible and inspiring relationships with her underprivileged companions.

Look at You Now is more than just Liz Pryor's story. It's a powerful account of the girls she shared her life with during those months. Pryor compares them to soldiers fighting a war of survival, "People who'd grown to know and depend on each other, who'd built a shelter for existence together." This is also a heartbreaking narrative of the shameful way unwed mothers were often treated in the U.S. Acceptance has become more common since, and Pryor's compassion is an encouraging reminder of the power of empathy. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: Sent away in shame as a pregnant teen, a woman speaks out decades later about the experience that helped make her the strong, confident person she is today.

Random House, $28, hardcover, 9780812998009

History

Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America

by Calvin Trillin


Calvin Trillin's 50 years of writing about race in the U.S. is as historic as a lunch counter sit-in and as current as today's tweets. In 16 pieces, published from 1964 to 2008 in the New Yorker, Trillin writes from experience, recalling Montgomery in 1961, "when men with clubs attacked first the press and then the Freedom Riders"; he started at Time's Atlanta bureau on the "seg beat," when journalists debated observing versus participating in the civil rights movement. Each piece ends with a brief update on the participants or the issue.

Trillin, the Nation's "deadline poet" and author of 30 books, is "a connoisseur of the smaller stories" that bring the specter of injustice into the reader's experience. He writes about Louisiana's "black blood law" that attempted a mathematical definition of race through Susie Phipps's long legal battle to be declared white on her birth certificate. In 1968 Houston, Otis Lee Johnson, a black man, gave away a marijuana cigarette and got 30 years in the penitentiary--"not super-outrageous" at the time. Charlayne Hunter, one of the first two black people enrolled at the University of Georgia in 1961, was later suspended "for her own safety," and fraternity boys raised a Confederate flag in celebration.

Parallels between the civil rights era and today's news are chilling, and Trillin takes the opportunity in his introduction to contextualize the stories. He compares Johnson's prison sentence to the mass incarceration of black males, and quotes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's observations on current "second generation barriers"--laws that suppress the non-white vote.

He notes that it has long been apparent that "racism was not simply a regrettable regional peculiarity"; these stories were posted from Seattle, Wisconsin, Denver, Utah and Long Island, as well as the South. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: Fifty years of race reporting by journalist Calvin Trillin spans the country and invites speculation as to how much progress has been achieved.

Random House, $27, hardcover, 9780399588242

Social Science

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J.D. Vance


J.D. Vance is a graduate of Yale Law School with a promising career and a happy marriage, and roots "in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember." Vance's people were among the many poor who migrated along the "hillbilly highway" from the hills of southeastern Kentucky into the Rust Belt but always considered Kentucky home.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance tells of a poverty-stricken community distrustful of outsiders and plagued by addiction, self-defeating attitudes and chaotic home lives. He credits his Mamaw and Papaw with giving him the tools to move beyond that community. Vance graduated from college and law school and achieved a healthy relationship by the slimmest of margins, but not without paying a price: social mobility implies movement "to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something." In Vance's case, moving toward financial security and calm meant alienating himself from those he still identifies with: "I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart."

Mamaw and Papaw are not saints. Vance's gun-toting grandmother was given to off-color language and threats of violence. Such vivid characters and an eye for nuance are among the strengths of this sincere memoir, an elegy for both the hillbillies Vance has loved, and a large population of struggling, working-class poor. He offers ideas for improving his people's lot: cultural change from within rather than policy. But the bulk of Hillbilly Elegy is just that: a loving remembrance of imperfect but dearly beloved individuals, who did their best with what they had. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: In this memoir, a young man with a Yale law degree and a promising career remembers the hillbillies he grew up with and makes a plea for improving their conditions.

Harper, $27.99, hardcover, 9780062300546

A Day in May: Real Lives, True Stories

by Charlie Bird


On May 23, 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Two months earlier, Charlie Bird, veteran Irish journalist and chief news correspondent with RTÉ News radio and television, became the chair of the National Yes Equality campaign for civil marriage; he traveled around the country interviewing people about why they were voting for the referendum. A Day in May: Real Lives, True Stories collects 52 of Bird's interviews, which have been edited into compelling and moving individual first-person narratives with members of the LGBT community, their friends, family and straight allies.

The ordinary men and women who tell their remarkably eloquent stories create a fascinating tapestry of voices and experiences that epitomizes the phrase "the personal is political." The bite-size chapters introduce readers to Kathryn O'Riordan, who discusses the difficulty of adopting her baby daughter in 1997, and straight 16-year-old Brandon, who talks about his two foster fathers: "They are like family now. Not like blood, but by heart." Colin O'Mahony's partner tells him, "Your mother wears her gay son like a badge of honour." Arthur Leahy, who was one of the first people in Ireland to go on TV to discuss being gay in the 1970s, remembers, "The reaction was very favourable. It had quite an impact." 

The personal stories here also have quite an impact. As Colm Tóibín writes in his introduction, each gay testimony "moves our lives from shadow into substance." A Day in May is an uplifting, enlightening and powerful collection. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: A Day in May celebrates Ireland's legalization of same-sex marriage with 52 uplifting and powerful oral histories.

Merrion Press, $25, hardcover, 9781785370762

Children's & Young Adult

School's First Day of School

by Adam Rex, illus. by Christian Robinson


"One very small girl with freckles didn't want to come inside the school at all. Her mother had to carry her.

" 'I must be awful,' the school whispered to himself."

Children will be intrigued by the notion that the looming "first day of school" might also be nerve-wracking for the school building itself. This is the fresh premise for the wonderful School's First Day of School by Adam Rex (Cold Cereal; The True Meaning of Smekday), illustrated by Caldecott Honor artist Christian Robinson (Leo: A Ghost Story; Last Stop on Market Street).

When the school is first built, "brick on top of brick," and named Frederick Douglass Elementary, the school doesn't know exactly what he is, but he likes that it's just him and "a man named Janitor" in the world. " 'Won't be just us for long' said Janitor. 'Soon the teachers will come, and then you'll be filled with children.' " This idea makes the school very nervous.

With his expressive, appealingly textured acrylic paint and collage artwork, Robinson manages to give the school just enough personality to be convincingly sentient. Two windows on the front door look like eyes, and the curved front stoop resembles a smile. The school sags a little when one kid says he hates school, and he gives that kid a squirt with the drinking fountain to get even. At day's end, Janitor says, " 'You had a big day.' " It was a big day, and the school wants to invite the children back... especially that little freckled girl. A delightful, perspective-tweaking back-to-school picture book. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: In this charming picture book by Adam Rex and Caldecott Honor artist Christian Robinson, the first day of elementary school is viewed through the eyes of the school building itself.

Roaring Brook/Macmillan, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9781596439641

Little Home Bird

by Jo Empson


"Home tweet home," is carved into a branch next to Little Bird's daisy-chained nest... that's how much Little Bird loves it there. After all, he has his favorite branch, food, music and view right within reach. But when the wind blows cold, his big brother has some rough news for him: it's time to fly south for the winter.

Home can be "here or there," his brother explains: "[N]ear or far, big or small, and even hot or cold." Little Bird feels sad, but decides he'll just take all his favorite things with him--nest, branch, food, the whole works--on the flight south. Not surprisingly, he's overloaded and must drop things. His favorite branch finds a new home--"with a splish and a splash"--in a stream, much to a dog's delight. Little Bird drops his wind chimes--"with a whoosh and a swoosh"--in some mountains, much to a shepherd's delight. His favorite berries become impaled on a happy porcupine's quills. But in the sun-drenched new home, where "the wind's breath was warm," Little Bird starts finding new favorite things... and some crazily plumed new birds to share his nest with, too.

British author-illustrator Jo Empson (Chimpanzees for Tea!; Rabbityness) wows readers with fun read-aloud repetition and spectacular watercolor illustrations of the gigantic-eyed yellow bird, in delicious textures and kinetic brushstrokes. Children confronted with a move, unexpected trip or any new circumstances will relate to Little Bird's initial resistance to the unknown adventure. Empson both honors the joy of a cozy home and celebrates the idea that "home" can be more a feeling than a place. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Little Bird loves his cozy nest but when he's forced to migrate south for the winter, he learns that home really is where the heart is.

Child's Play, $16.99, hardcover, 36p., ages 3-8, 9781846438899

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