Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, April 4, 2017


St. Martin's Press: No Easy Target by Iris Johansen

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Diaper Dude by Chris Pegula with Frank Meyer / The Unmumsy Mum by Sarah Turner

Mira Books: Any Day Now (Sullivan's Crossing #2) by Robyn Carr

Happy Poetry Month

Welcome to National Poetry Month! Whether through events, social media campaigns, bookstore displays or individual excitement, April is a great time--but certainly not the only time--to appreciate the poetic form. Indeed, Rupi Kaur's collection milk and honey--a favorite in the Shelf office--was published in October of 2015, and has since sold more than a million copies! This year we've already seen some excellent collections published, and our reviewers have been raving:

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier: "In this searching, plaintive poetry collection, Native American poet Layli Long Soldier digs deep into the often unseen strata of language, history and identity. Whereas beautifully upends poetic forms to summon a powerful voice hidden in the interstices." --Scott Neuffer

Love's Last Number by Christopher Howell: "A former war journalist's elegant and profound poems use awe-inspiring imagery to answer some of the greatest questions of human existence. Love's Last Number showcases a visionary mind and serves as a testament to the power of imagination in connecting human beings to each other." --Scott Neuffer

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker: "Morgan Parker tackles weighty issues with deft wit and powerful candor in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Her insightful and irreverent collection turns a sharp eye toward a broad collage of subjects, including her muse Beyoncé, the Obamas and historical figures like the so-called Hottentot Venus." --Katie Weed

Madwoman by Shara McCallum: "Memory, fable and family history feature strongly in Shara McCallum's fifth collection of poetry. Sprinkled throughout with poems written in Jamaican patois, McCallum uses changes in language and structure--traditional poetic forms, lists, question-and-answer dialogues--expertly to reveal and question limits in the knowledge of self." --Richael Best


Doubleday Books: Unreliable by Lee Irby


Book Candy

Nine Places That Inspired Classic Novels

Bustle explored "9 real life places that inspired famous classic novels."

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"Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt." Buzzfeed showcased "37 of the most heartbreakingly beautiful lines in literature."

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Andy of Green Gables, for example. Quirk Books considered "mistitled books and the pitches we imagined for them."

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Flavorwire explored "20 honest and magical life lessons from Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales."

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Author Sara Flannery Murphy chose her "top 10 stories of obsession" for the Guardian.

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In Transylvania, "you can get chocolate eggs from the Easter Bunny at Dracula's castle," Food & Wine reported.


Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions

by Richard Harris

Richard Harris, a science reporter for National Public Radio (NPR), presents a fascinating, thoroughly researched exploration of the advances, traps and pitfalls of biomedical science in Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions. Harris pairs statistics, contemporary and historical facts, interviews and personal stories from influential scientists in academia and private labs with accounts of patients facing illnesses and the rigmarole of medical trials to add a human dimension to the scientific aspects. This all works together to shine a bright light on the limitations and politics of modern biomedical research, which largely boils down to problems with investments and pressures of time, professional reputation and money.

The book begins by extolling some of the astounding strides made in medicine. This includes the deciphering of the human genome, our genetic blueprint, and how it has afforded greater insights and technology for research labs, which can now readily access information relating to diagnoses, treatments and cures of illness and disease. Antibiotics, drugs designed for specific infirmities, vaccines and heart surgery have increased life expectancy while also deepening the pool of finances allotted to scientific research. Harris notes that "the average American household spends $900 a year to support biomedical studies." Some of that is money baked into the price of costly prescription drugs and medical treatments, as pursuing biomedical goals is expensive, and federal funding is actually shrinking.

The rate of new drug development and approval has been falling since the 1950s. Yet, each year, more than a million biomedical studies are published in scientific literature. Research, however, has proven that "many of them are simply wrong." It's this hypothesis that sets up Harris's well-constructed narrative that demonstrates how, when an "exciting scientific discovery is reported, scientists are often quick to jump on the bandwagon without considering whether the original finding is in fact true."

In 10 well-drawn chapters, Harris documents flaws in the medical research process and how it has "gone astray, as perverse incentives discourage scientists from following the rigorous path of top-quality science." The culture has become such that scientists are often forced to choose between doing what is right and what is necessary to keep their labs and their careers afloat.

The work of C. Glenn Begley emerges as a cornerstone of Harris's reporting. Begley, an Australian-born scientist, left academia after 25 years to work for Amgen, a Southern California cancer research biotech company. Begley and his staff set out to find hopeful preclinical research that might spark new cancer drugs. After combing through a trove of experiments and data that could lead to groundbreaking new medicines, Begley asked Amgen scientists to repeat documented experiments to ensure they would come up with the same results put forth in the literature. He soon discovered that most of the time, Amgen labs could not replicate those successes.

Every dead-end report was filed away by Begley. And before he left the company, he resurrected the most promising leads, selecting 53 papers. This time, he asked the scientists who first published the reports to provide more information. Amgen then set out to reproduce the data with that exact material. If they failed, Amgen went one step further, and sent its own scientists to labs to witness how the original experiments were executed. Alarmingly, only six labs--or one out of 10--could reproduce the results.

This sobering discovery was published by Begley and an associate in 2012. The report spelled out the problem in stark terms, indicating a reproducibility crisis in biomedicine and warning that widely cited work and preclinical data, often marred with errors, missteps and red herrings, was published anyway due to pressure on scientists who feared that funding might be pulled from long-term projects.

Begley expected the report to serve as a "shot across the bow" that would change biomedical culture and open a healthy discussion. Instead, it was met with fierce opposition and skepticism from within the biomedical community. The report itself--and the aftermath of bringing such glaring shortcomings public--sets the foundation for all that follows in Rigor Mortis. Harris utilizes Begley's findings as a launchpad to dissect the scope of faulty methods, dubious technology, perverse incentives and the reasons why scientists don't always dig deep enough to ensure that studies are actually true.

Harris offers detailed supporting data and examples surrounding problems in the areas of funding, grants, publication and fame. He expounds upon the politics and intellectual tug-of-wars of biomedical science in academia and in the pharmaceutical industry, along with the many problems inherent in scientific training, integrity and the challenge of practicing "precision medicine." He explains the role of the F.D.A., federal guidelines and data sharing, along with the ways in which the biomedical industry manages failure and misconduct, algorithms and statistics on the road to forming conclusions. Harris concludes by aiming his focus on the efforts of the scientific community to seriously weigh and consider Begley's report. He emphasizes a need to raise standards of biomedical practice to improve the reliability of clinical research and data.

Embedded throughout this scientific exposé are patient case studies. Harris paints clear portraits that demonstrate how biomedical science filters down to the ill and infirm and those who love them. The personal stories about people caught in healthcare quagmires and the defects of the clinical trial industry add an emotional subtext that fleshes out the well-presented scientific analysis. These case histories will hold appeal for readers who are scientists, as well as laypeople searching to better understand the far-reaching consequences of biomedicine and its effect on humanity.

The plethora of information Harris presents is well-supported and makes a strong case, emphasizing the flaws embedded in the culture of biomedicine and the lack of transparency in the industry. Harris states, "The overarching goal of biomedical research is to understand the basic processes that lead to disease so that medical science can intervene to ease human suffering and improve health." Reading Rigor Mortis will help the biomedical community--and those affected by biomedical science--assess the state of the industry and make much-needed improvements that can benefit all. --Kathleen Gerard

Basic Books, $28, hardcover, 288p., 9780465097906

Richard Harris: The Lack of Rigor in Biomedical Research

 photo: Meredith Rizzo

Richard Harris has served as a science journalist with National Public Radio (NPR) for the past 30 years. He's covered a wide range of topics from medicine to the environment, and he's traveled to all seven continents. His favorite places include the South Pole and Greenland. "Ice is simply beautiful," he says. Harris lives in Washington, D.C., and is a three-time winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award. Rigor Mortis (Basic Books) is his first book.

Tell us about your science background.

I have an undergraduate degree in biology, which is how I first learned about biology, genetics, biochemistry and--most importantly--the scientific method. As a college student, I discovered that I loved learning about science, but I didn't particularly enjoy life in the lab.

Therefore, writing?

Science journalism was the perfect career for me. I started it right out of college with a fellowship, then a job at a small newspaper. I never looked back. My perch in journalism provides me the perfect vantage point to keep learning and watching as scientific knowledge evolves. Of course, the world has changed a lot since my degree more than 30 years ago.

Why a book about biomedical research?

In 2014, my beat at NPR shifted to biomedical research. In the course of orienting myself to the lay of the land since I'd last reported on these topics, I discovered some unfortunate trends--especially a push toward hyper-competitiveness as more scientists found themselves vying for a shrinking pool of resources. I started to explore the impact of that on research and realized there was a book's worth of material. At the same time, scientists were increasingly becoming concerned that many research results couldn't be reproduced in other laboratories. The two issues are deeply connected.

The book offers a plethora of information.

I had an outline going into the project, but of course it morphed as I did the reporting for the book. I knew from the outset that I wanted to explore the various reasons behind the lack of rigor in biomedical research, starting with dubious ingredients, and including unconscious bias, poor use of statistics and the perverse incentives in biomedicine right now (driven by the struggle for funding). I also wanted to take time to explain how science really works, and why failure is an inevitable--even beneficial--part of it. I also kept my eye out for scientists who were exploring ways to address these problems.

Did you learn anything surprising in writing the book?

Going into the project, I thought scientists might be reluctant to talk to me about the less-than-flattering issues confronting their profession. I was surprised that was not the case--almost everyone was eager to talk, not only about what's wrong, but why. As a reporter, I had been aware of the power dynamics within science, but those issues were generally peripheral to whatever specific topic I was covering, not the focus of my reports. The book gave me an opportunity to look at these issues directly--and to talk about them with some of the nation's most talented and influential scientists.

Would you say that money is the driving force in the biomedical industry?

Money plays an important role, but it's not the only driving force. I think far too often scientists become enamored with their own ideas and look for ways to bolster their theories instead of looking for ways to challenge them. That's absolutely human nature; we all do that, often unconsciously. But science, when done properly, is supposed to be a system that prevents people from fooling themselves. It works in the long run, but not so well in the short run.

You state that the "rate of new-drug approval has been falling since the 1950s." Is this a result of the biomedical community or the FDA?

This is not at all a problem of bureaucracy. The FDA drug approval process has never been faster. Part of the reason for the slow pace is that drug companies solved some of the easy problems early on, and now they're working on harder ones. You know the cliché about low-hanging fruit--well, it applies here. Another problem is drug companies largely stopped doing their own basic research and have come to rely heavily on academic science for leads. When academic scientists produce results that drug companies can't reproduce, that leads to false starts and wasted effort. That phenomenon contributes to the downward trend in new-drug development as well.

How could biomedical science be improved?

It could be much improved if researchers spent more time questioning their own beliefs. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of science and science funding often provides a disincentive for scientists to say, "maybe I'm wrong."

Rigor Mortis underscores the fierce competition and politics (on all levels) prevalent in the biomedical research field.

Competition has become fiercer--and for good reason. A decade ago, about 30% of NIH (National Institutes of Health) grants got funded; today it's about half that, due to an increase in scientists seeking money and a 20% decrease (adjusting for inflation) in the amount of funding available. Scientists are locked in an unhealthy struggle. Unfortunately, young scientists who may have the freshest ideas are often the ones edged out in this competition. They leave the world of research to the senior investigators who are able to draw funding because of their reputations. At this point, there's little hope of infusing enough new money into science to right this imbalance. These deep structural problems have no obvious solutions. It's going to get worse before it gets better.

Does that mean you're pessimistic about the future of biomedical research?

Despite the lugubrious title of my book, I'm optimistic about the problems I write about. No scientist wants to waste his or her time, and the community as a whole is becoming aware of its flaws. There were similar problems with medical studies involving human volunteers in earlier times. During the 1990s, scientists and funders turned their attention toward those issues and have made significant improvements (of course, there's always room for more) in the conduct of clinical research. The same can easily happen in biomedical research if the right incentives are put in place.

Who is the ideal reader for this book?

Rigor Mortis is written for the same audience that listens to NPR's science reporting--people who are curious about the world around them and who want a deeper understanding of how the scientific enterprise works. Science has been a driving force in our lives, helping us to understand the remarkable world we live in, while providing us technologies that make our lives better. This book is for people who want to understand the very human process behind all that wonder. I also hope that scientists who are trying to figure out how to make their enterprise more productive and less error-prone will find insights in reading Rigor Mortis.

Did any books inspire you in writing Rigor Mortis?

One of the greatest joys about writing a book was having the time to read other books along the way. I drew inspiration from The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton; Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty by Herbert Weisberg; Failure: Why Science Is So Successful by Stuart Firestein; A Conspiracy of Cells by Michael Gold; The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine by James Le Fanu; and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by E.O. Wilson. --Kathleen Gerard


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


Book Review

Fiction

The Underworld

by Kevin Canty


Kevin Canty's novel is an emotionally blistering look at a small American town in the throes of grief, thwarted hope and fragile healing. The Underworld draws on the history of a tragic fire that ripped through a North Idaho mine in the 1970s, killing 91 men. Almost everyone in town loses a family member, lover or friend in the disaster and must learn to forge ahead in its aftermath. This includes Ann, a disenfranchised housewife; Lyle, a retired miner living off Social Security and savings; and David, a Montana college student who attempts to escape his past but is sucked back into it.

Canty (Winslow in Love; Everything) tracks the rituals that bind working-class Americans: troubled marriages and indifferent parents, church services and bar-hopping, sex and longing. These forces help hold the town together before the disaster, but serve as bare recompense and unworthy edifices in the tsunami of grief that engulfs the town after the fire. Some characters buckle under the grief; others make halting, tentative lurches toward new lives. Some adhere to bits and pieces of morality while others make bad and dangerous choices. The underworld of the title isn't just the mine; it is also about the threshold of death and the hell of daily life that good people face in times of unbearable grief and incomprehensible events. Canty's compassionate yet unsentimental eye never judges. He is a master of understatement and the slow burn. Every epiphany is earned and the details he paints this landscape with are as ripe with memory and emotion as a faded Polaroid. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: A devastating tragedy in a 1970s mining town becomes a stunning and engrossing meditation on grief and survival.

W.W. Norton, $24.95, hardcover, 256p., 9780393293050

The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger


Temporary People

by Deepak Unnikrishnan


Temporary People is a triumph of language and allegory. This collection of stories about euphemistically named "guest workers" in the United Arab Emirates shines a light on a little-known and largely invisible group. Foreigners working in the Gulf constitute more than 80% of the population, yet they have no rights as citizens. They toil in harsh conditions for decades, at which point they are "retired" and immediately deported to a home country they may barely remember. Deepak Unnikrishnan treats his characters with understanding born of experience; he is the child of Indian workers in the Gulf who will be deported when their work is no longer needed.

Unnikrishnan's characters persevere, often in anonymity (some never have names) and with an understanding of their disposability. In "Birds," Anna spends her nights searching for men who jump off buildings, "then puts them back together with duct tape or some good glue." A group of entrepreneurs repurpose a greenhouse to supply the ever-expanding need for compliant labor in "In Mussafah Grew People." An immigrant teen in "Glossary" can no longer bear to be silent. His tongue escapes his head, "causing all the nouns the now deceased tongue had accumulated in its time in the boy's mouth to be released into the air like shrapnel."

Temporary People is the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, founded to "discover urgent, culture-straddling writing from first-time, first-generation writers." In Unnikrishnan they have found an exhilarating new voice. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: The surreal sensibility of Temporary People makes a universal statement about invisible and displaced people everywhere.

Restless Books, $17.99, paperback, 272p., 9781632061423

Counterpoint: Grace by Natashia Deón


Eggshells

by Caitriona Lally


Caitriona Lally's first novel, Eggshells, portrays an unbalanced but charming narrator stuck in an overwhelmingly complex Dublin, searching clumsily for home. In the opening pages, Vivian settles into the house she's recently inherited from her great-aunt Maud, who "kept chairs the way some people keep cats." This dusty, cluttered house suits the eccentric heiress, who avoids mirrors and hygiene, preferring to cultivate her own "earthy tang." Vivian believes that she is a changeling, fallen out of a world of fairies and elves and into this one by accident. Her daily chore is to find a magical door through which to reenter her rightful place in that other world.

Vivian walks the city and takes buses and cabs, exploring streets with promising names (Ferrymans Crossing, All Hallows Lane) and performing tricks and charms--circling a particular pole three times, whispering to herself, and otherwise alarming passersby. She makes lists in her notebook--names of birds, favorite sweets, museum artifacts--anywhere she might find weird words and possible anagrams. Her fascination with wordplay echoes Lally's knack for language, and this emphasis is one of the great charms of Eggshells, a sweetly off-kilter novel about loneliness, communication and finding one's place in the world.

Vivian stumbles, and may never find the portal to the place she yearns for. But she makes shaky progress: acquiring a pet goldfish, throwing a dinner party of sorts, finding a new friend with traumas and eccentricities of her own. Eggshells is ultimately a funny, occasionally grim story with a sympathetic character who is either disturbed or a changeling from a fanciful world: it is for the reader to decide. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A narrator who belongs in a fairy tale becomes lost among the indifferent streets of Dublin in this quirky, imaginative debut novel.

Melville House, $16.99, paperback, 288p., 9781612195971

Knopf Publishing Group: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve


The Weight of This World

by David Joy


David Joy's second novel is set in the same Appalachian nooks and crannies of Jackson County, N.C., as his Edgar-finalist debut, Where All Light Tends to Go--and it teems with a similar cast of characters saddled with a legacy of poverty, violence, addiction and hopelessness. The Weight of This World begins with the suicide/murder of 12-year-old Aiden McCall's parents, and makes its way through more mayhem and death as it unwinds toward its grim conclusion. In between are all manner of tweakers, shake-and-bake meth cookers and hillbilly nimrods trying to survive.

A lifelong Jackson County resident, Joy knows every crossroad, fishing hole, church and corner store where "most folks came in for Zebra Cakes and SunDrops, a box of Copenhagen or a carton of Dorals." His novel reeks of authenticity; this world is grisly and bleak--a place where "hard led to harder" and "small arrest led to small arrest... rap sheets became résumés." When his drug dealer accidentally blows off the top of his own head, Aiden and his lifelong running buddy, haunted Afghan vet Thad, steal the dealer's guns, cash and dope. Despite their big score, matters only get worse. Violence marches through The Weight of This World, but underneath it, Aiden and Thad are two beat-down human beings who still maintain a loyal friendship and muster as much hope as they can find. As Aiden tells Thad, "I ain't all right with just getting by." There may not be much joy in Joy's mountain world, but he tells a hell of a story. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Joy's second novel of "Appalachian noir" may be even better than his Edgar-finalist first--albeit more grisly and violent.

Putnam, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9780399173110

Shelf Awareness Sign-up Giveaway: Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire


Biography & Memoir

Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time

by Andrew Forsthoefel


Following college graduation, most young people look for a job. Instead, Andrew Forsthoefel went searching for individuals who would talk to him. Inspired by the writings of Walt Whitman, Khalil Gibran and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as the teachings of Dr. John Francis (Planetwalker), the 23-year-old filled a backpack, much the way someone attempting to walk the Appalachian Trail might. Included with his camping gear and provisions were his tape recorder, journal and a mandolin. Attached to the outside of his pack was a hand-printed sign that read, "Walking to Listen." Forsthoefel was going to trek across the United States to hear people's stories.

He started near Philadelphia with a set of rules: stick to the roads in order to meet a diverse cross-section of people, view everyone as a teacher and walk "until it felt like I should stop; until I broke four thousand dollars; or until I hit the Pacific Ocean. Whichever came first." Forsthoefel found incredible insights, compassion and generosity, in addition to the stories that connected him with those he met.

Forsthoefel opens each chapter of Walking to Listen with a transcribed story and then weaves additional anecdotes, conversations and experiences into the narrative of his journey. His observations are frank, sometimes humorous and always thoughtful. The metaphors he employs to illuminate his experiences are vivid and powerful. And the lessons he takes away from his interactions with people of all walks of life are extraordinary, reshaping his very existence. Reading about it will undoubtedly transform his audience as well. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: A college graduate comes of age as he walks across the United States intent on listening to the stories of strangers.

Bloomsbury, $28, hardcover, 400p., 9781632867001

Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home

by Amy Dickinson


Amy Dickinson is best known as the author of "Ask Amy," a popular syndicated newspaper advice column. In her memoir The Mighty Queens of Freeville, she shared the journey that led her from Freeville--a tiny village (pop. 520) in New York State--to Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., London and Chicago, with forays back to her hometown. In Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, Dickinson continues her story, rooting her narrative more fully in Freeville, a town with "one stop sign marking the end of tree-lined Main Street." It has been home to her ancestors for generations.

Dickinson--a divorced, single mother, her only daughter off to college--"chose to move home permanently," living in a house down the street from her aging and increasingly infirm mother. She unpacks an adventurous story that winds through her upbringing and recounts how, when her often menacing father abandoned the family, their dairy farm failed. Her stoic mother, Jane, was then left to find ways of keeping the family afloat and of reinventing herself when she, too, was middle-aged.

This shared history launches into details about Dickinson's marriage and her husband's infidelity, their divorce, raising a child as a single mother, dating hazards and career shifts, and how she ultimately longed for "home." "Real life doesn't always reveal itself as neatly as a question sent in to an advice columnist," Dickinson admits. But the heartfelt honesty of her entertaining narrative--rife with contemporary dramas to which many readers will relate--makes for a compelling, hopeful portrait of a woman coming-of-middle-age with wit, aplomb and authenticity. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: This memoir of self-discovery is by a divorced, middle-aged writer who resettles into the small town where she was raised.

Hachette, $27, hardcover, 240p., 9780316352642

Essays & Criticism

Printer's Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History

by Rebecca Romney, J.P. Romney


The printed word comes to life--warts and all--in J.P. Romney and Rebecca Romney's rollicking history, Printer's Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History.

J.P. Romney (The Monster on the Road) is a historical researcher and YA novelist, and Rebecca Romney is a rare-book dealer famous for her appearances on the History Channel's Pawn Stars. Together they make a whip-smart team, offering a fun, dynamic exercise in literary myth busting. Eleven chapters unfold episodically to reveal little-known facts about famous authors and print innovators who made the book what it is today. Johannes Gutenberg, William Shakespeare and Benjamin Franklin are a few prominent figures subjected to the authors' prying, ribald treatment. The overall result portrays a publishing legacy that's rife with whimsy, error, human folly and, from one century to the next, a degree of self-interest belying literature's noble image. With sharp, detailed prose--and a persistently uproarious sense of humor--the authors revel in the historical ironies of the book business, such as when Charles Dickens, trying to secure foreign copyright protections, was excoriated by capitalist Americans for being greedy. They adroitly draw parallels between 19th-century pirated books and the profusion of pirated material in the digital age.

As much fun as Printer's Error is to read, it uncovers darker aspects of society that shouldn't be forgotten. A chapter devoted to Mary Wollstonecraft serves as a reminder that the brilliant "mother of feminism" was vilified in her own time for perceived promiscuity. Complex, illuminating, yet always entertaining, Printer's Error is a treasure trove for bibliophiles. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author.

Discover: A renowned rare-book dealer teams up with a researcher to unveil the wacky and fascinating history of print.

Harper, $26.99, hardcover, 384p., 9780062412317

Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing

by Ben Blatt


Do writers take their own writing advice? Are -ly adverbs truly the enemy of fiction? Has fiction gotten "dumber" over the years? These are some of the questions statistician and journalist Ben Blatt (I Don't Care if We Never Get Back) seeks to answer in Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing.

One might think it easy to tell whether a book was written by a man or a woman from the use of such words as "boyfriend" or "league," but what about seemingly neutral words like "everything," "something" or even "the?" Turns out, they're just as revealing, and Blatt has done the hard work for us. He also discovers--among other factoids you never knew you needed to know--that Ray Bradbury has an unusual affinity for spearmint.

Blatt looks at an astonishing number of words. Breaking fiction into literary classics, modern popular fiction and modern literary fiction--and occasionally dipping into vast stores of Internet fan fiction--he uses text analysis to tell us more about what we already read. Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve may be all about numbers, but it's far from dry. There's an incredible amount of data available, and Blatt uses that data to ask good questions about our favorite books. His conclusions are helpfully illustrated with charts and peppered with anecdotes from authors--which he, of course, fact checks. The result is a lighthearted numerical examination of words that is informative, surprising and funny. --Richael Best, bookseller, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: A statistician uses curiosity and big data to uncover answers to persistent literary questions.

Simon & Schuster, $25, hardcover, 288p., 9781501105388

Nature & Environment

Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future

by Rob Dunn


Modern food-growing techniques have transformed the global diet: instead of eating hundreds of different foods, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, human beings are increasingly dependent on a small number of hardy crop varieties, grown on a massive scale. While this method of producing food has its benefits (including greater yields), it has raised the alarm among nutritionists and ecologists. Rob Dunn is the latter, and in his fourth book, Never Out of Season, he explores the pros and cons of crop monocultures and suggests a few strategies for diversifying the world's food supply before it's too late.

Dunn (The Man Who Touched His Own Heart) explores the complex relationship among people, their food and the planet, noting that "our hunger has shaped the earth in much the way that the hunger of a caterpillar remakes a leaf." He recounts the stories of vital crops such as coffee, cacao, wheat and cassava, as well as the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, to demonstrate the potential risks of monocultures. But he also highlights a few unsung heroes: farmers, biologists and other researchers who are studying pathogens, saving seeds and experimenting with new, disease-resistant varieties of vital foods in response to climate change and other factors.

While Dunn's narrative occasionally staggers under the weight of detail, his message is clear and timely: scientists, governments and consumers must work together to preserve and improve a diverse, resilient food supply in a rapidly changing world. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Ecologist Rob Dunn explores the need to diversify the global food supply in response to climate change, pathogens and other factors.

Little, Brown, $27, hardcover, 336p., 9780316260725

Health & Medicine

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs

by Michael T. Osterholm, Mark Olshaker


"Infectious disease is the deadliest enemy faced by all of humankind," according to Michael Osterholm, an internationally known epidemiologist. In Deadliest Enemy, he gathers scientific research, case studies and analysis of current health policies into a thorough consideration of various microbes, bacteria and viruses that have the potential to be the world's next pandemic.

He begins with HIV/AIDS, an infectious disease unidentified prior to the early 1980s, which now infects an estimated 40 million people worldwide, with millions of new cases each year. Malaria and TB still kill thousands, while other illnesses, such as toxic shock syndrome, Ebola, Zika, MERS and SARS, have found their way into worldwide news as outbreaks have cropped up. Osterholm shows how easy it is for diseases to be transmitted from one continent to another, and he points out how unprepared the world is to fight most of these diseases on a global scale, with vaccines in short supply or nonexistent. He amply discusses the threat of bioterrorism, along with the probability that antibiotics will no longer be effective against certain diseases in the near future. His intent is not to create alarm with his findings, but rather to open the doorway to discussion. Osterholm hopes such conversation will lead to new policies so that when, not if, the next pandemic strikes, the world can respond rapidly, as a cohesive unit, to a potentially devastating threat. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: Pandemics are the biggest threat to human life, and this eye-opening account addresses what needs to be done to prevent a future global catastrophe.

Little, Brown, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9780316343695

Children's & Young Adult

Thunder Underground

by Jane Yolen, illus. by Josée Masse


Anyone who has ever marveled at the intricate tunnels of an ant farm or dreamed of archeological adventure will revel in this wondrous, thunderous picture book of 21 poems by Jane Yolen (Owl Moon; the How Do Dinosaurs series; Birds of a Feather; Bug Off! Creepy, Crawly Poems). Thunder Underground mines the Earth for its riches, from tree roots to rabbit warrens, subways to lost cities.

There's a whole world underneath our feet, and in the wonder of that discovery lies the magma-hot core of this fine collection. Here, a curious young black girl with a treasure map and her shovel-toting white friend put their ears to the ground, rummage in the basement, dig for pirate gold and crawl through caves--all in happy pursuit of what is "under." (The first poem, "Under," examines the root word in "underground" and "understand.") In poems like "Seeds," Yolen's words flow like an underground river and beg to be read aloud: "This dot,/ this spot,/ this period at the end/ of winter's sentence/ writes its way up/ through the dull slate of soil/ into the paragraph of spring."

"Scientific and personal" notes contain gems: corn roots emit sounds that can be recorded; moles keep larders of earthworms for snacking purposes. Josée Masse (the illustrator of Marilyn Singer's Mirror Mirror and Echo Echo) artfully reflects the grand scope of Earth from the inside out in colorful mixed-media compositions, while zeroing in on kid-friendly details. The eye-opening, ear-opening Thunder Underground echoes the power of the rumbling, ever-changing Earth beneath ground level. --Karin Snelson, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Jane Yolen and Josée Masse delve beneath the surface of the Earth in this delightful picture book of 21 poems examining ants, moles, subways, forgotten cities, magma and more.

Wordsong/Highlights, $17.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 5-10, 9781590789360

Braced

by Alyson Gerber


Rachel Brooks is excited about being in seventh grade, in spite of the scoliosis she's keeping hidden from her friends. Playing on the school soccer team with her best friends, Hazel and Franniem, is even better now that she has a shot at playing offense, and everyone agrees her crush Tate might be interested in her. But when a doctor visit shows the curve in her spine has worsened, there's only one way to avoid surgery: "We have to brace her," the doctor tells her mother in his "robotic" voice. Rachel must wear a hard plastic back brace that reminds her of "a turtle shell, only it goes all the way around" for 23 hours a day--including at school--until she stops growing. Her new clothes won't hide the lumpy shape. Even worse, she'll have to wear the brace to soccer practice. When her friends start to act differently around her and soccer proves to be more of a challenge than expected and her mother--who also had scoliosis as a teen--doesn't seem to understand her struggles, Rachel wonders if it's possible to continue her old life.

Debut author Alyson Gerber's Braced confronts readers with the awkward and painful realities of scoliosis, back braces and being different. Gerber herself spent three years in a back brace in her early teens, and her firsthand experience is well used. Casual remarks about Rachel's appearance sting the reader as much as Rachel, while her moments of bravery and decisiveness are inspiring. Gerber's cast of characters are wonderfully flawed and believable. Beautifully emotional, Braced will help readers recognize and celebrate their differences. --Kyla Paterno, former children's and YA book buyer

Discover: When her doctor finds her scoliosis is worsening, Rachel must learn to navigate seventh grade while wearing a back brace.

Scholastic Press, $16.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 8-12, 9780545902144

The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger
The Red Hunter
by Lisa Unger
ISBN-13: 978-1501101670
Touchstone
04/25/2017


an exclusive interview with bestselling author Lisa Unger
The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger
 

To develop the characters in The Red Hunter, you studied a book about cases of children very different from their parents. How hard was it to write that relationship?

“Claudia’s relationship with her daughter evolved naturally for me,” Unger says, admitting she drew from her own experiences to authenticate the mother/child bond. While her daughter, Ocean, is younger than Raven, the bond is forged by a deep understanding. “So much of the person you are as a parent has to do with the child. With Ocean, I trust her. She’s honest and smart and spunky. Which makes it easier for me to be less the over-protective, semi-paranoid parent I thought I would be. She’s fully aware of the darkness in the world . . . The part of my brain I use for writing is not the same part that helps my daughter with homework. I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing. My husband likes to joke that he’s number four—after Ocean, the dog, and the writer, but that’s not quite true. As a writer, I’m engaged, always striving to do better and be authentic as I can be. And I have those same goals as a wife and a mom.”

Read the rest of the interview here.

 

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THE DAY I DIED by LORI RADER-DAY: The award-winning author of PRETTY LITTLE THINGS tells the story of a handwriting expert who, when called to use her expertise on a note left behind at a murder scene in the small town she and her son recently moved to, finds her life ripped open. Find out more here.

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ELEMENTARY SHE READ by VICKI DELANY:  In the first in a delightful new series, Gemma Doyle is the owner of a bookstore in Cape Cod that specializes in all things Sherlock Holmes. Like the great fictional detective, Gemma, a transplanted Englishwoman, uses heightened powers of deduction to root out evil intentions and solve murders. Visit The Big Thrill for more. 

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