Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, March 10, 2017


From My Shelf

Little Brown and Company: The Store by James Patterson

Vintage Books & Anchor Books: Reading Group Center Book Club Giveaway

Hester Young: Setting, Shaping Story and Self

photo: Francine Daveta Photography

The eerie Southern Gothic style of Hester Young's debut, The Gates of Evangeline, earned her rave reviews and many fans. And while her second novel, The Shimmering Road, moves away from that Louisiana environment, the setting still plays a major role in the effectiveness of the book. Protagonist Charlie Cates is summoned to Arizona by both her premonitory dreams and the death of her estranged mother.

Young explains, "The settings came to me in very different ways. The Gates of Evangeline began with a dream. I always feel like the Louisiana swamps chose me, instead of vice versa. My writing challenge was to anchor the story with vivid details about that setting. With The Shimmering Road, the southern Arizona setting was a much more deliberate choice. I've lived there, and I wanted to share the complexities of living on the border. The challenge was approaching the setting from Charlie's perspective, and not my own."

From Arizona, Charlie travels to another powerful setting--a garbage dump in Nogales, Mexico. "While doing research on Nogales, I found an article about Tirabichi with some very moving photos of its inhabitants. Although I'd read about these recycling communities that sometimes spring up around landfills, I associated it more with Mexico City. It was a little startling to realize a community like this existed just a few miles from the U.S. border.

"Charlie, like many New Yorkers I know, is a bit insulated in her world. In both The Gates of Evangeline and The Shimmering Road, she is entering new spaces as an outsider and coming to understand the things we all have in common as human beings. I felt like Tirabichi was the perfect place for her to continue absorbing that lesson." --Jen Forbus, freelancer


Doubleday Books: Pieces of Happiness by Anne Ostby


Book Candy

Nine Poets to Remember During Women's History Month

My Poetic Side featured "9 poets to remember during Women's History Month."

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Reading the book before the movie, for example. Bustle examined "15 things all book-lovers can't stop fighting about."

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"From George R.R. Martin's vast, warlike realms to Neil Gaiman's London Below," the Guardian explored the "top 10 fantasy fiction universes."

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Henry David Thoreau's Walden "has been adapted into a video game, and you can play it right now," the Verge reported.

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"What's the saddest sentence in the history of literature?" Buzzfeed asked.

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"Stepped bookshelves help to divide and characterize" Andrea Mosca's Bookshelf House, located just outside of Paris."


Nation Books: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi


Great Reads

Rediscover: Daddy Was a Number Runner

Last year, the Feminist Press and TAYO Literary Magazine launched the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, which honors "the best debut fiction by women and nonbinary writers of color." Malaysian author YZ Chin is the prize's first recipient. Her debut short story collection, Though I Get Home, will be published by the Feminist Press in 2018. The prize is named after pioneering African-American author Louise Meriwether (born in 1923), whose first novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner (1970), was a landmark achievement in black literature. Louise Meriwether has been cited as an influence by writers like Jacqueline Woodson and Bridgett M. Davis, among many others.

Daddy Was a Number Runner tells the partially autobiographical story of 12-year-old Francie Coffin and her family in Depression-era Harlem. Francie must rely on her own fortitude and cleverness to survive a harsh environment defined by racism, extreme poverty, sexism and violence. She grows from a good-natured, naive girl into a young woman jaded by her experiences, though she retains a core tenderness and sense of humor. James Baldwin wrote an introduction for the original edition of Daddy Was a Number Runner. The book was last published by the Feminist Press in 2002 ($16.95, 9781558614420). --Tobias Mutter


Matchup by Gayle Lynds


The Writer's Life

Paul La Farge: Looking at Lovecraft

photo: Carol Shadford

Paul La Farge is the author of the novels The Artist of the Missing and Luminous Airplanes, as well as The Facts of Winter, a "book of imaginary dreams." La Farge's newest novel is The Night Ocean (reviewed below), which follows the early 20th-century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and his fans, especially his real-life contemporary Robert Barlow, and the fictional modern-day characters Charlie and Marina. La Farge delves into the controversial subjects of Lovecraft's racism, his potential homosexuality and the relationship between creators and their fans.

What's your personal history with Lovecraft? Did you ever, like many of your characters, reach a breaking point where you had trouble reconciling the man's odious beliefs with his unforgettable stories?

I first read H.P. Lovecraft's stories when I was 10 or 11--I'd seen Cthulhu in a rulebook for the game Dungeons & Dragons, and he (it!) seemed so intriguingly awful that I bought every Lovecraft book I could find. Something in his work rhymed with my experience of growing up in New York City in the 1970s and early '80s: the world was terrible. We were doomed. And because I was a nerdy kid, the idea that the universe had forbidden secrets, and that they were to be found in books, was enormously appealing to me. But actually, I wanted to be one of Lovecraft's insane cultists, not one of his bookish protagonists--the cultists were clearly the ones who were having all the fun. I'd like to say that the story which appears in The Night Ocean about a couple of kids going out at night in homemade black robes, carrying signs that read THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH--GIVE TO THE CULT OF CTHULHU, is fictional, but, alas, it happened.

Many years passed before I learned anything about Lovecraft's beliefs, and I'm grateful for the interval. By the time I read L. Sprague de Camp's biography, which was the first place where I learned much about Lovecraft the human being, my cultish admiration for his stories had already waned. So there wasn't really a breaking point, for me; my thinking about Lovecraft just became more complicated. Which is fine with me--the world is complicated. People are complicated, and their capabilities and contradictions are interesting, certainly to a fiction writer.

To this day, I re-read Lovecraft's stories with pleasure. I can do that in large part because I believe that fiction has a separate life from that of its creator: once you write a story, it becomes its own thing, which may be reprehensible, but only on its own terms. And when I'm deep in Lovecraft's biography, and the autonomy of his fiction impresses itself on me less strongly, I retain some tolerance for the stories by recalling that Lovecraft's odious beliefs did not lead him (so far as I know) to odious actions. In his dealings with actual, living human beings, he was at worst harmless, and often generous and kind.

While researching Lovecraft, Barlow and the other real-life characters in the book, did you ever find yourself immersed in the project in a way that threatened your health or personal relationships? I'm curious how much of your own tendencies and experiences made it into the book.

You should see my notes! I had the great good fortune to do most of the research for The Night Ocean over the course of a nine-month fellowship at the New York Public Library, which gave me access to a huge quantity of possibly relevant material, and to a staff of librarians whose job it is to help people like me track things down. I gave myself over as fully as I could to that space, and that experience, and yes, there were times when it seemed to me that no sane person would be trying to find out all the things I was trying to find out. (I have copies of the FBI files on several of my characters, to give you just one example.) I'm not sure my health was ever at risk, but I did sneak into Robert Barlow's house in Florida, which was abandoned at the time, and while I was taking pictures of Barlow's childhood bedroom I was sure I heard someone coming up the stairs....

That kind of thing doesn't happen to novelists very often. The more frequent and, in some ways, more serious peril of research is that, having amassed those heaps of shiny facts, a writer will feel obliged to put them all on display in his or her work. I was glad to run that risk here, because the historical material from which The Night Ocean derives its existence is so rich and weird that it beggared anything I could have invented, except in a few cases. That said, not everything I learned from the library, or from the world--after a certain point they started to seem like the same thing--found its way into the novel. But the many things I left out served as a kind of atmosphere, I think, in which The Night Ocean could be written.

To this day, the idea that Lovecraft might have been gay is controversial among his fans and the horror community. Why was homosexuality such an important thread for you to emphasize throughout the book?

To answer this question, I should say something about how The Night Ocean came to be. I got the idea for the book from the poet Robert Kelly, who told me the story of Lovecraft and Barlow at dinner one night in the winter of 2005: the question of what had happened, of what might have happened between the two of them in Florida was a blank spot, in which I thought there might be room to write a novel. So Barlow's homosexuality, and Lovecraft's mysterious and mostly absent sexuality, were at the root of the project. Then, as I learned more about Barlow and about Lovecraft's circle of friends and fans, the thread of homosexual desire was just insistently there: Barlow really did teach William S. Burroughs, and Lovecraft's friend Samuel Loveman was gay, and Loveman was friends with Hart Crane....

I can't speak to the attitude of fandom as a whole with respect to homosexuality; in my experience, present-day fans are pretty tolerant of all kinds of queerness. The fans of the 1930s and '40s were certainly less tolerant, and their intolerance is an important part of my book: a lot of what happens in The Night Ocean is a kind of human equivalent or counterpart to Lovecraft's cosmic horror, and the prejudice against homosexuality pushes Lovecraft and Barlow's relationship into the very Lovecraftian territory of the unspeakable, the forbidden.

Which brings me back to the first part of your question, about Lovecraft's sexuality. From where I sit, the question of whether he was really gay or not isn't that important. In Lovecraft's letters, he abhorred homosexuality; but on the other hand, he doesn't seem to have been tremendously capable of heterosexual love, either. So for me, for my narrative, the vital question was, is this person capable of love at all? Under what circumstances? And what would it do to him, if he was? That's what Barlow--the Barlow character in The Night Ocean, I mean--is trying to figure out: "I love you. Can you love me back?" To me, that question is the most urgent thing in the novel, though neither you nor anyone else is under any obligation to agree with me.

Many of the characters in your novel have confused relationships with their own bodies, especially Lovecraft, who could seem almost inhumanly divorced from physical pleasure. How much of your characters' unhappiness do you think derives from this mind-body disconnect?

That's an excellent question, by which I mean that I'm not sure how to answer it. I don't think of Marina and Charlie as having confused relationships with their bodies, and neither does Spinks, really--he's handsome and knows it. Lovecraft does, of course, and surely his unhappiness is connected to his experience of his physical self. How could it be otherwise, when his mother told her friends that he was too ugly to go outdoors in the daytime? But in a way, I think Lovecraft's unhappiness comes less from the particulars of his physical self than from the simple fact that he had a physical self. A remarkable number of his stories are about minds which move from one body to another: even The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is kind of about that, in that Joseph Curwen takes the place of young Charles Dexter Ward. These are horror stories, of course, but I can't help wondering if there was some wish-fulfillment in them, too: if Lovecraft wouldn't have delighted in being a consciousness that could roam from body to body, from era to era. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books


Melville House Publishing: The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer


Book Review

Fiction

The Keeper of Lost Things

by Ruth Hogan


The mysteries behind unclaimed treasures, those who have lost them and the man determined to reunite possession and owner are the carefully tended threads of The Keeper of Lost Things, a rich and heartfelt first novel by Ruth Hogan.

Seventy-four-year-old Anthony Peardew, an unmarried British writer, resides in a charming mansion. Forty years earlier his beloved fiancée, Therese, as a token of her love, gave him her Communion medallion embossed with a tiny picture of St. Therese of the Roses. Soon thereafter, Peardew lost the medallion on the same day that Therese died unexpectedly. As atonement for the eerie timing of the lost medal, he made it his purpose in life to gather, meticulously label and give a loving home to a "sad salmagundi" of lost objects--jigsaw puzzle pieces, hair bobbles, gemstones and even a biscuit tin containing cremation remains--which he stored in his large study.

But objects aren't the only things in life that can get lost. People, too, often lose their way and need someone to rescue them. Laura, Peardew's devoted housekeeper and a childless divorcee, finds asylum in his home. And after he dies, she teams up with his neighbor Sunshine and Freddy the gardener to carry on Peardew's legacy.

Hogan's prose is thoughtful and elegant. She richly portrays a cast of likable characters, wounded souls in search of love, peace and a sense of belonging. Readers are bound to discover joy and hope in this quietly moving, tender story that examines how serendipity often plays a pivotal role in human interconnectedness. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A heartwarming, enchanting novel about how lost things--and the lost souls of people--can often be found via serendipity and fate.

Morrow, $26.99, hardcover, 288p., 9780062473530

Counterpoint Press: A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton


Like Death

by Guy de Maupassant, trans. by Richard Howard


Richard Howard's elegant translation of Like Death has the cool exactitude and passionate interplay of characters that readers expect from Guy de Maupassant, whose 1889 novel tells with ironic detachment and killing specificity the story of a portrait painter's great love.

Olivier Bertin is still handsome, though white-haired, and for 12 years has been the lover of Anne, the Countess of Guilleroy. But Anne's daughter comes home from school as a ravishing reincarnation of her mother, and the Countess is painfully aware that her own beauty is fading. What begins as a happy trio quickly goes sour when she begins to suspect that Bertin has fallen in love with her daughter, whether he knows it or not.

Maupassant is exacting when it comes to emotional misery--he examines every corner of the pain. His well-wrought sentences objectively probe the meaning of desire as he records the details of Bertin's fascination with these two women. Whether he's describing the skylight in the artist's studio, or re-creating the chatter in the club fencing hall, or psychologically probing the Countess's increasing melancholy over growing older, the author's meticulous, excruciating details are exactly right.

No character has protection from Maupassant's penetrating, merciless dissection. His exposure of their motives in love, their true feelings and secret weaknesses, is surgically precise, a psychological analysis predating Proust's longer, more famous analysis of love by a couple decades. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: Maupassant dissects the psychological ploys of a man smitten by his mistress's daughter.

New York Review Books, $15.95, paperback, 240p., 9781681370323

Shelf Awareness Sign-up Giveaway: In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan


On Turpentine Lane

by Elinor Lipman


Prescription coverage should include Elinor Lipman (The View from Penthouse B), surely an antidote to gloomy times. Laughing is therapeutic, and the chuckles keep coming in On Turpentine Lane, Lipman's 12th novel. Also an essayist and dedicated political tweeter (her 2012 election tweets were collected as Tweet Land of Liberty), Lipman writes with the comedic grace of Jane Austen and an ear for up-to-date dialogue and predicaments.

Faith Frankel, like Lipman's previous protagonists, has a sunny disposition, excusing her fiancé Stuart's walk across America (sponsored by Faith's credit card) in search of himself. She opts to overlook the many flaws in the "doll house" at 10 Turpentine Lane, a cozy fixer-upper she can swing on her salary as an assistant in a private school development office. Just as her suspicions about Stuart's on-the-road escapades are confirmed, a donor inadvertently casts doubt on Faith's honesty. Home-sweet-home is not a refuge, either: a photo album found in the attic suggests her bungalow has an unsavory history. Among a supporting cast are handsome co-worker Nick, Faith's very involved mother, a legally art-forging dad, and Stuart's multiple moms (it's complicated). Madcap developments include Stuart's self-serving return "without a scintilla of Faith-based anything," and Nick's adding housemate to office-mate status. Turmoil reigns when the photo album leads to a murder investigation and the (presumed deceased) original homeowner shows up in Faith's charming linoleum kitchen. Harrowing segues to hilarious, and Faith perseveres to a happily-ever-after. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: This witty, fast-paced novel of a young woman's perseverance through romantic and professional snafus is a sophisticated comedy of errors.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, hardcover, 305p., 9780544808249

The Schooldays of Jesus

by J.M. Coetzee


Having won the Nobel Prize, two Booker Prizes and cemented himself in the literary canon, one might expect J.M. Coetzee (The Childhood of Jesus) to slow down at the age of 76. Instead, he seems to be embarking upon one of his grandest projects. The Schooldays of Jesus is the second novel in a world that is best described as Kafka-esque, full of strange bureaucracy and even stranger mysticism.

David and his two caretakers, Simon and Ines, have fled the city of Novilla for the provincial town of Estrella. A nominal family, the bonds among the three become quickly frayed as David starts school at a prestigious academy of dance, becoming enamored with his beautiful teacher and her strange philosophy, which Simon and Ines can make neither heads nor tails of. David is headstrong, and while not exactly fitting the picture of Jesus with which the title saddles him, he swimmingly takes to the academy's transcendental concepts, chiding Simon's lack of understanding without ever really explaining what is going on. There's a murder and a trial, but the plot is ancillary to the conversations between Simon and the rest of the cast. The Schooldays of Jesus is less about what happens to David and Simon and more about Simon's concerns as to how to raise the boy.

It's odd to say The Schooldays of Jesus argues that parenthood is much like a Kafka story. But, like Kafka's work, the novel illustrates the struggle of logic against the ineffable. In this case, what cannot be described is the internal life of the little creatures raised into adults. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.

Discover: The sequel to The Childhood of Jesus is another bold look at humanity from a Nobel Prize winner for Literature.

Viking, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9780735222663

The Night Ocean

by Paul La Farge


Paul La Farge, author of novels such as Haussmann, or the Distinction and Luminous Airplanes, has, with The Night Ocean, crafted yet another that defies categorization. La Farge frequently mixes fact and fiction with wild abandon, and The Night Ocean is no exception: its characters, real and fictional, orbit around the life of H.P. Lovecraft, the genre-defining horror writer from the early 20th century.

Marina Willett is a psychiatrist forced into the role of amateur sleuth in order to discover the whereabouts of her husband, Charlie, who recently disappeared after escaping from a psychiatric hospital. The police believe that he drowned in a nearby lake, but Marina isn't so sure. Her investigation delves into Charlie's notes and his obsessive, unhealthy research concerning the relationship between H.P. Lovecraft and the real-life fan and fellow writer Robert Barlow.

La Farge reveals his nesting-doll narrative structure gradually, leading readers to feel as if they're participating in the investigation into Lovecraft's life and the lives of his enemies and devotees. Along the way, La Farge delves into controversial subjects such as Lovecraft's rumored homosexuality, his racism and the merit of evaluating works of art using the lives of their creators as context. La Farge rarely delivers neat conclusions--his method somehow produces insights while muddying the historical waters even further. Instead, the fact of what may have happened becomes less important--maybe even less fun--than the many imaginative possibilities La Farge provides. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Discover: The Night Ocean mixes history with fiction in telling the interlocked stories of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, his fans and his foes over the years.

Penguin Press, $27, hardcover, 400p., 9781101981085

Mystery & Thriller

Shining City

by Tom Rosenstiel


The United States capital has long been home to ambitious egos and an army of sycophants and influence peddlers. Debut novelist Tom Rosenstiel's Shining City, like a mashup of The West Wing and House of Cards, captures the high stakes political maneuvering behind pushing an iconoclastic Supreme Court nominee through a divisive Senate confirmation hearing.

Conservative Peter Rena ("ex-military, Special Forces, one of those crazy guys who swim across alligator-infested waters to slit your throat") and his liberal partner, Randi Brooks, run a nonpartisan "problem-solver" consulting firm. Charged with thoroughly scrubbing the background of Edmund Roland Madison, they must prep the blunt independent jurist for the inevitable high-profile committee grilling. Meanwhile, the psychopathic brother of a man convicted of murder and rape in Madison's California courtroom is systematically killing the cop, public defender and prosecutor in the case--and his ultimate target is Madison himself.

A former journalist with the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek, Rosenstiel (Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload with Bill Kovach) salts his Washington political thriller with contemporary issues and D.C. characters--like the leader of a look-alike Tea Party caucus who wears a Heritage Foundation T-shirt and takes his coffee in a Cato Institute mug, and "Craggy" Aggie Tucker, "the feral boy senator of Texas." Shining City is a diverting look behind the capital's political curtain with enough barbarity to give it plenty of propulsive juice. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: This political thriller abounds in Washington power jockeying and unsettling violence.

Ecco, $26.99, hardcover, 368p., 9780062475367

The Book of Mirrors

by E.O. Chirovici


Romanian E.O. Chirovici's first novel written in English is a psychological thriller about a murder investigation reopened years after it happened. The Book of Mirrors uses varying points of view to demonstrate, as Chirovici says on his website, "the human mind's capacity to cosmeticize and even falsify its recollections."

Literary agent Peter Katz receives a partial manuscript for Richard Flynn's firsthand account of events leading up to--but ending just before--the murder of charismatic professor Joseph Wieder. Katz tries to contact Flynn but discovers that he died weeks earlier. Frank Spoel was convicted of Wieder's murder, but the partial manuscript seems like a confession, or perhaps a revelation of the true murderer. Katz is compelled to learn how the story ends, and hires investigative journalist John Keller, who ferrets out those closest to the case--finding out that while they may have been involved in the same event, everyone's perceptions are quite different "The boundaries between fiction and reality don't exist, or else they're very slender." He tracks down Spoel (still in prison), as well as Derek Summers (handyman for the murdered professor) and Lauren Baines (the professor's mysterious protégée and Flynn's love interest). He recruits the original police investigator, Roy Freeman, to examine the case anew, but what Keller and Freeman piece together leads to a surprising and sorrowful conclusion.

With language both direct and fresh, and a plot full of unexpected twists, Chirovici illustrates the rash consequences of taking action when memories are so deceiving. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: A mysterious manuscript leads to the re-examination of a decades-old murder.

Atria, $26, hardcover, 288p., 9781501141546

A Cast of Vultures

by Judith Flanders


London book editor Samantha Clair is used to juggling cranky colleagues, needy authors and epic hangovers from launch parties. But on a morning when she's dealing with all three, Sam gets drawn into a neighborhood mystery on her market run: a missing man, a burned-out building (possibly a case of arson) and a possible drug-dealing network. Never able to leave well enough alone--much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, police inspector Jake Field--Sam begins investigating. Judith Flanders delivers another whip-smart plot in her third mystery featuring Sam, A Cast of Vultures.

Readers of Flanders's previous novels (starting with A Murder of Magpies) will recognize Sam's supporting cast: her irritatingly competent mother, Helena; agoraphobic neighbor Mr. Rudiger; and multitalented assistant, Miranda. (Despite his professional interest in the case, Jake fades into the background for much of this installment.) Sam's wry first-person narration and her compulsive nosiness drive the story--landing her in a few sticky situations, but drawing her ever closer to the mystery's solution. Flanders, a social historian, also uses the plot to explore several facets of modern urban living: knowing one's neighbors (or not), the ins and outs of property and tenants' rights, the problems caused by gentrification and the issues facing at-risk youth. (Sam's friend Sam, a local unemployed teenager, comes through for her in surprising ways.)

Witty and thoughtful, with a twisty plot and engaging characters, A Cast of Vultures is Sam's most entertaining adventure yet. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Editor Samantha Clair is drawn into a neighborhood mystery involving arson and a missing man.

Minotaur Books, $25.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250087829

Biography & Memoir

Cravings: How I Conquered Food

by Judy Collins


Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Judy Collins is a breathtakingly forthright and uncompromising writer. Cravings uses the same adroit prose and relentless soul searching found in her best songs and her six previous books (especially The Seven T's, about surviving her son's suicide). She begins by labeling herself "an active, working alcoholic with an eating disorder" and admits, "I am not a medical doctor, just a survivor who has learned more in my lifetime about eating disorders than most doctors."

Cravings is an unsparingly frank autobiography of Collins's multiple addictions (food, drugs, alcohol, prescription pills), multiple hospitalizations, bulimia and even a teenage suicide attempt. It is also a self-help guide with chapter-length profiles of "the gurus of dieting," including Robert Atkins, Andrew Weil, Jean Nidetch, Herman Tarnower, Linus Pauling and Adelle Davis, and the origins of both Alcoholics Anonymous and GreySheeters Anonymous (an organization helping people recover from compulsive overeating). Collins's knowledgeable and concise history of decades' worth of diet plans and medical theories elevates the book with first-hand evaluations of each one's strengths and weaknesses. By the time she finds a life plan (rather than diet) that works for her, readers who have been on similar quests will appreciate her exhaustive and useful search for a solution.

"We must each find our own way," Collins acknowledges. But readers who have struggled with their own addictions will feel less alone after reading Collins's eloquent, carefully researched and blazingly honest account of her potentially deadly 60-year struggle with food disorders. Cravings is a roadmap toward solutions that could save lives. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Judy Collins's Cravings is two books in one: a memoir about her alcohol, food and drug addictions and a well-researched self-help guide.

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26, hardcover, 272p., 9780385541312

Social Science

The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America's Courtrooms

by Kevin Davis


To some, the increasing role of neuroscience in the courtroom is the modern equivalent of 1970s comedian Flip Wilson's plea of innocence: "The devil made me do it." However, as Kevin Davis shows in The Brain Defense, technological advances in the scanning of brain activity are providing defense attorneys with ever more sophisticated tools to build a case. A former crime reporter and professor of journalism and writing, Davis (Defending the Damned) builds his study from one of the first instances where a brain scan entered the courtroom--the lurid case of Herbert Weinstein, who in 1991 confessed to strangling his wife and throwing her body out the 12th-story window of his Upper East Side apartment. An MRI of Weinstein's brain showed a cyst "the size of an orange" over his temporal lobe, or, according to one specialist who evaluated the scan: "he is not rowing with all his oars in the water."

It would be easy for a subject as steeped in scientific jargon and legalese as "neurolaw" to lead to a big yawn, but Davis smoothly guides his narrative through the quagmire of acronyms and precedents with arresting participant interviews. He demonstrates that "broken brains" apply not just to violent criminal behavior, but also to the "abnormal" acts of athletes who play contact sports, juveniles, addicts and military veterans. The Brain Defense concludes that the role of neuroscience in the courtroom is still evolving. Its most prevalent application today is not in establishing guilt but in mitigating death penalty judgments. As one attorney active in the field summarizes: "The real issue is what the hell do we do with people when it comes to sentencing." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Cutting through scientific jargon and legalese, The Brain Defense is an engaging overview of the history and future of neuroscience in the courtroom.

Penguin Press, $28, hardcover, 336p., 9781594206337

Children's & Young Adult

The Bone Witch

by Rin Chupeco


Tea learns she is a "bone witch" on the day of her brother Fox's funeral, when she accidentally raises him from his grave. While witches are fairly commonplace in the Eight Kingdoms, bone witches, or Dark asha, are feared and reviled for their ability to control the dead. Nevertheless, they wield their "complicated and exclusive and implacable" death magic to keep people safe from the daeva--"strange and terrible monsters" commanded by servants of the traitorous False Prince. Twelve-year-old Tea discovers she commands her new-found magic with ease.

Along with Fox, now serving as her familiar, Tea is hustled to the capital city by Lady Mykaela, another Dark asha, to be trained to manage her power. The headstrong Tea takes her place in House Valerian, where she learns to dance, fight and navigate political intrigue in the district's teahouses. Tea's growing awareness of the price Dark asha pay to control the daeva makes her increasingly wary of dedicating her life to the endeavor. But when a particularly fierce daeva wreaks havoc during a ceremony, Tea steps in to save Lady Mykaela and takes her own craft to a much more dangerous place.

The Bone Witch is fantasy world-building at its best, and Rin Chupeco (The Girl from the Well; The Suffering) has created a strong and colorful cast of characters to inhabit that realm. Interspersed with Tea's narrative are short chapters describing her future exile "at the end of the world." Readers will feel the impending doom in this enticing, highly original fantasy, but must wait until the sequel for answers. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI

Discover: In this strikingly original fantasy, 12-year-old Tea learns she is a powerful "bone witch" who can control the dead.

Sourcebooks Fire, $17.99, hardcover, 432p., ages 12-up, 9781492635826

Priscilla Gorilla

by Barbara Bottner, illus. by Michael Emberley


At age six, Priscilla falls in love with gorillas after reading a book about them with her dad "a million skillion times."

She draws pictures of their habitats, learns about Dian Fossey and writes in her "private GORILLA GAZETTE." She tells her mother what she loves most about gorillas: "They always get their way." But Priscilla's obsession with gorillas starts getting her in trouble at school. She tries to teach a friend her gorilla dance during nap time. She's rude to her teacher. She refuses to take off her gorilla costume for the class picture. Mr. Todd, her rumpled, harried teacher, invites her to the Thinking Corner whenever she misbehaves. It's not until Priscilla's wise dad re-reads aloud the part of the beloved gorilla book about how these great apes are known for cooperating with each other that she grudgingly recognizes the error of her ways. She tells Mr. Todd, "My ALL ABOUT GORILLAS book says even gorillas don't always get their way." Ever gracious, Mr. Todd responds: "If that is an apology, I accept it, Priscilla."

In Priscilla Gorilla, Barbara Bottner and Irish illustrator Michael Emberley, who also "cooperated" on Miss Brooks' Story Nook, have created a perfect gem of a picture book, complete with a troublemaker, canny adults, droll humor and a gently proffered lesson. Priscilla's home is a comfortably cluttered haven, filled with books, laptops, art supplies and love. Strong-nosed, slightly potbellied Mr. Todd is like one of those memorable teachers from just about everyone's childhood: firm, grumpy and goodhearted. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: In this terrific picture book, six-year-old Priscilla's passion for gorillas gets her into trouble until she learns that they are known more for cooperation than for getting their own way.

Simon & Schuster, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-7, 9781481458979

My Valley

by Claude Ponti, trans. by Alyson Waters


Claude Ponti's gorgeous, deliciously oversized French picture book My Valley may feel to adults like one of those childhood favorites whose illustrations are forever etched in their minds.

In fact, it's difficult to imagine anyone, young or old, able to resist the charms of this inventively imagined valley world and its tiny bear-beaver-monkey hybrids called Twims. Narrated with heart and humor by young Poochie-Blue Twims, the book begins: "This is my valley. I was born in the House Tree on the Blue Cliffs. I'm a Twims. All the Twims live in my valley. It's the most beautiful valley in the world." Lush paintings reveal mountains, a winding river, wildflowers, craggy trees and exposed boulders, and the intricate details invite close scrutiny. My Valley is firstly elaborate world-building; its real storytelling lies in distinct vignettes illuminating aspects of Twims life, such as "The House Tree," a place where every child on Earth would wish to live (big library! trapeze room! swinging bench room! star room!). Then there are the rules, such as "Whenever a Twims makes a wish, he or she goes and sticks a gold leaf on the Singing Stone. When the wind blows in a certain way, the stone sings and the wishes come true. It has been this way since the Goochnies' time. The Goochnies are shy and they look like mushrooms."

Poochie-Blue goes on to matter-of-factly spin fantastical stories about the "Tree of Secrets," how the Blue Cliffs turn blue when it's foggy, "The Very Sad Giant" and "The Theater of Hissy Fits" (where you can shout and stamp your feet). A wonder. --Karin Snelson, freelance writer and editor

Discover: With this charming, quirky, oversized French picture book, readers will revel in the elaborately described world of the bushy-tailed, valley-dwelling Twims.

Elsewhere Editions/Archipelago, $24, hardcover, 42p., ages 5-9, 9780914671626

Poetry

Incendiary Art

by Patricia Smith


If there were any question whether Patricia Smith (Blood Dazzler) is one of the best poets working in the United States today, her powerful collection Incendiary Art answers with the full force of veritable genius.

Rooted in the contemporary African American experience and revolving around historical incidents of violence against black men and black children, Incendiary Art sets the conscience on fire. Smith employs a dazzling array of poetic forms--from the formal sonnet to the free-flowing prose poem--and an arsenal of stark and sublime images to convey the perspectives of countless victims of police brutality and racial violence. Victims and their family members get a voice in these poems--and at one point, in a brilliant twist, the gun used in a crime does, too. Smith leaves no angle overlooked, no point of view forgotten, in what becomes a thoroughly moving, multifaceted reckoning of recent history.

Yet as much as physical violence plays a central role in this collection, Smith explores the cold spaces of loss to discover warmth, human affection and some recognizable form of grace. In "Elegy," a 10-page prose poem, she searches the legacy of her murdered father and finds an almost irrational, abiding love, one that "breaks and breaks and rearranges," born of little more than "your sweet inability to put me down." Even in this most personal of poems, Smith has a way of imbuing lines with historical significance. She imagines her own infant body as "holding/ the whole promise of north in your grasp." --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist and fiction author

Discover: This bold, provocative and cathartic collection produces a vital poetics of social conscience.

TriQuarterly/Northwestern Univ. Press, $18.95, paperback, 144p., 9780810134331

The Boy Who Saw
by Simon Toyne
ISBN-13: 978-0062329752
William Morrow
07/04/2017


an exclusive interview with bestselling author Simon Toyne
 

In THE BOY WHO SAW and your other thrillers, there is a richness to the atmosphere, to your descriptive passages. Is that a priority in your writing? 

“I do work very hard on the language because I think it’s as much part of the enjoyment of reading as following the story and a key part of the storytelling. Writing for TV, which I did for nearly 20 years, is all about structure and dialogue so you never get to exercise your descriptive muscles as far as languages goes, which was one of the reasons I wanted to try writing novels. But whenever I describe things in my books, I always try and do it in the most efficient way possible so as not to get in the way of the story or the pace, which are paramount in thrillers. For setting, I normally make a place up so that I can have free license with it.  For this book though I felt I needed to anchor it in reality as much as possible because of the theme of learning the lessons of history, so I used a town in France called Cordes-sur-Ciel, which I know very well as I live there for some of the year.”

Read the rest of the interview here.

 

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