Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Mariner Books: Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real about the End by Alua Arthur

From My Shelf

Who (or What) Are We Talking to Now?

"This is real," writes Jenny Odell in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House). "Your eyes reading this text, your hands, your breath, the time of day, the place where you are reading this--these things are real. I'm real too. I am not an avatar, a set of preferences, or some smooth cognitive force; I'm lumpy and porous, I'm an animal."

I read Odell's book shortly before encountering Klara, the AF (Artificial Friend) in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Klara and the Sun (Knopf). Set in a not-so distant future, the novel depicts a world where genetic editing is normalized, workers are "substituted," children are "lifted" (or not) and "interaction meetings" teach kids how to... interact. "Everyone's had to find new ways to live their lives," says one parent. Though not human, Klara must adapt too, and a key question ("Do you believe in the human heart?") shows just how close she gets to the answer, which is oddly scary and heartening. 

"She opened the portal." Patricia Lockwood's narrative voice is cautionary (and sharp, and funny, and heartwrenching... all the words) in her novel No One Is Talking About This (Riverhead). As readers, we are lured by the protagonist down a rabbit hole as she navigates virtual landscapes where she has achieved global fame for a single post: "Can a dog be twins?" Then lives--and a death--outside the portal pose hard, unanswerable questions of their own (" 'Can ghosts learn new technology?' her sister asked, thinking of what must come next....").

My final stop on this recent reading journey seems logical in retrospect. I found sanctuary in Laura Imai Messina's The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World (Overlook Press), a beautiful novel inspired by an actual disconnected "Wind Phone" in Japan, on which people can talk to lost loved ones. The "function of the telephone, rather than to channel and guide voices into a single ear, was to broadcast them out onto this wind."

Maybe it's all real. --Robert Gray, editor, Shelf Awareness

Sleeping Bear Press: A Kurta to Remember by Gauri Dalvi Pandya, Illustrated by Avani Dwivedi

Book Candy

Goodnight Moon, the Immersive Art Exhibit

"Enter the world of Goodnight Moon in new immersive art exhibit," Untapped New York advised.


Open Culture examined a "4,000-year-old student 'writing board' from ancient Egypt (with teacher's corrections in red)."


Mashable noted that "25 Stephen King short films are being shown at this virtual festival."


CrimeReads investigated "the Voynich manuscript, the most indecipherable coded text ever discovered."


Author Claire Fuller picked her top 10 novels set in villages for the Guardian.

The Rock from the Sky

by Jon Klassen, illus. by Jon Klassen

In his fourth solo picture book, Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen (This Is Not My Hat) offers readers a collection of five bite-size, hilariously deadpan stories centered around a massive, mysterious rock that falls from the sky. Enacted by his trademark dot-eyed animals in hats, each brief comedy hews to the sly, cheeky sense of humor and precise timing readers have come to recognize as a hallmark of Klassen's work.

The titular stone looms into view even before the title page, an ominous, archetypal boulder mottled black and gray like a storm cloud. The first, longest story, "The Rock," opens on a lone pink flower standing on flat land against a softly lit horizon. A turtle in a black bowler hat walks onto the page and stands by the flower, both animal and plant made tiny by the massive dusky blue-gray sky. The turtle proclaims the spot its favorite, adding, "I don't ever want to stand anywhere else." With the page turn, readers realize the rock seen earlier is hurtling through the sky toward an unknown target. The turtle is joined by a long-snouted, banded animal. This creature from Klassen's imagination--not quite an armadillo, not quite a mole--also wears a black bowler. The armoledillo agrees to share the turtle's spot but soon gets a bad feeling about it and finds another spot, all the way across the double-page spread, next to a green shoot. The turtle, now a significant distance away from its friend, yells, "HOW DOES THAT SPOT FEEL?" Unable to hear across the expanse, the armoledillo walks back to the turtle, who asks, "Does this spot still feel bad?" The armoledillo, the whites of its eyes huge around the black dot pupil, responds, "Yes. It feels even worse than before. I am going back to the other spot." By this time, readers will likely realize the rock--which continues its descent--is plummeting toward one of the spots. But which one? A brown snake with triangular markings and a black beret arrives on the scene. "Oh, hello. I am standing in this spot by myself," the armoledillo says. "Come. Stand in it with me." The turtle, perhaps jealous, shouts, "MY SPOT IS BETTER." Again, the armoledillo cannot hear. Klassen uses the suspense of the page turn to demonstrate the turtle's slow pace--"I AM COMING CLOSER"--by giving it two page turns to walk to its companions: "I said my spot is better." The next page turn shows the massive egg-shaped rock crashing to earth and obliterating the pink flower. Klassen, with his keen sense of how to make the greatest impact, ends the story there. The animals stare at the rock in pop-eyed, silent horror, a laugh-out-loud hilarious tension breaker punctuating a near-tragedy.

The four stories that follow "The Rock" build on it and each other, using the boulder as a set piece. In "The Fall," the reader sees the turtle fall from the rock and land on its shell. When offered help by the armoledillo, it insists, "I never need help." Tables turn when the turtle suggests a nap and the armoledillo claims, "I am never tired." While children may not recognize themselves in these refusals, caregivers will likely see the parallels and chuckle. In the surrealist outing "The Future," the turtle and armoledillo get more than they bargained for when they lose control of their own imagined scenario and summon a terrifying creature. This story might speak to a small child's capacity for boundless imagination and how that couples with an incomplete comprehension of the scope of reality. "The Sunset" finds the turtle unwittingly racing the sun to find out why the snake and armoledillo are sitting under the rock.

"No More Room," the final entry, ties the collection together in side-splitting fashion. In a fit of jealous pique, the turtle storms to the second spot after finding the snake and armoledillo snoozing together in the spot with the rock. The resolution remixes the recurring gags of not hearing each other across the distance and the turtle's slow pace with a cameo from "The Future" monster and a deus ex machina resolution far too funny to spoil.

Klassen's signature minimalist sensibilities rule each episode, his muted palette and deceptively understated character design lending sophistication while also supporting young readers who are still developing visual literacy skills. With so little visual noise, actions come through clearly. The same philosophy of restraint applies to body language and expression; characters communicate their entire range of emotion through the position of their dot pupils and how widely they open their eyes. The two-dimensional setting, with its flat ground and vast sky, suggests readers are watching the action unfold on a stage with the proscenium arch removed. Klassen seems to relish getting big laughs through small nudges, and much of the humor relies simply on blocking. Absent a narrator, each episode takes context solely from dialogue between the turtle and armoledillo, their lines differentiated by black and gray text respectively. Its simple sentence structure offers emerging readers a foothold for enjoying it independently.

Safe scares, sight gags and a healthy respect for readers' abilities to read between the lines make The Rock from the Sky a rare treat. Since Klassen tends to work collaboratively more often than alone, the release of five of his stories in a single volume feels like an embarrassment of riches. Adults will want to make a point of sharing this savvy and creative assortment with their young readers, or perhaps with other grownups who appreciate a masterpiece of well-executed dry humor. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Candlewick Press, $18.99, hardcover, 96p., ages 4-8, 9781536215625

Jon Klassen: Laughs Between the Lines

(photo: Moranne Keeler)

Jon Klassen is a Canadian-born author/illustrator. His books include I Want My Hat Back, Caldecott winner This Is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat. He is a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his contributions to children's literature. He lives and works in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons. His new book is The Rock from the Sky (available now from Candlewick).

Your work is known for its dark, humorous edge.

I think storytelling, especially for kids, is about balance. I like my books to be fairly quiet and almost boring-looking, but to get permission to do that I need a story that has a lot of emotion behind it. The same applies to darkness and humor: if you strike the right humorous tone, you're allowed to get darker with it. Darkness and humor are closely related. It's actually hard to be funny without being at least a little dark, because humor is a release valve for things that bother you. It reframes something that actually is just plain dark without solving it or making it better, but at least it helps you look at it.

What inspired you to structure The Rock from the Sky as five stories?

I had tried chapters in my last book, and I really liked how it changed the writing. A big inspiration was James Marshall's George and Martha stories. I always felt like some of the biggest laughs in those books were when you turned the page and saw the title for the next story and realized that was how he'd ended the last one. I also had the first story done but felt it was too short on its own to justify a book and I had a few characters I knew and enjoyed, so I wanted to see where it went.

What does your background as an animator contribute to your work in picture books?

You learn that you can't just have a character do something; you need to prepare the audience for it. Every action has a few frames of prologue and epilogue, and consequences of those actions have to be exaggerated to look real. A ball hitting the ground has a frame where it's almost flat when it lands, but anything less than that doesn't look right when you play it. I think my stories are kind of like that: the consequences for everything are way outsized, but that's the only way they feel right.

As you did in previous stories, The Rock from the Sky has no narrator, only dialogue.

Having no narrator does a lot of the stylistic work for me. Removing it adds this weird silence between the lines that I love, and I write to those silent pauses as much as anything. Initially that came from my not knowing what to do with a narrator. I had the pictures and I had the voices--a narrator seemed like one too many ways to get information to the audience. It also reminds me of how a play sounds. Characters in plays don't often talk naturally; they declare things out loud and have asides to the audience and often don't say what they mean to one another. All these great dramatic tricks suit picture books because they are about clarity and trusting your audience at the same time.

The stories play out against a sort of dreamy, perpetual twilight.

Now that we're talking about plays, the basic idea for this book was kind of a cheap show that maybe got put on after the main event by some bit players who found some hats in the costume box. I wanted them to feel small on a big stage, like they maybe weren't supposed to be there. The lighting is meant to sort of be like how a stage is lit upward. The clouds are hit from the bottom and move along like they're on strings, and when the sun does show up it doesn't cast any light directly. Twilight kind of works for the after-show idea, too. The main thing is over. People are sneaking out and going home to bed.

While hats don't act as plot drivers in this book, they are strongly featured.

In this book they act as a symbol for how I thought about these guys, as kind of broad, campy comedy actors. The little bowler hats cover a surprising amount of ground, referentially. They bring up Laurel and Hardy, Samuel Beckett, Magritte. I don't expect kids to get that, but it helped me write them, weirdly. The snake is wearing a beret for reasons I haven't quite explained to myself. I didn't want him to have a bowler; he's not really one of the gang but he had to have something. His job is to indirectly tempt one of the characters away from his friend, so maybe I thought it should look romantic?

Be brutally honest: What's the ratio of stolen to legitimately owned hats in this book?

As I say, I think the hats are all borrowed from backstage and will probably be forcibly taken back once the stage manager hears about this dumb show going on without his permission.

I get the sense that the animals in the story have known each other a while.

I think that's right, that the idea was to suggest a long time spent with each other. The depth of their relationship kind of came out of necessity--I couldn't figure out how to get that turtle to move out of the way of the rock until I thought of him being jealous of his friend's new friend, and then it was like, "Well well well, look who's secretly invested." I don't think their relationship problems are resolved by the end of the book, but I think the turtle might not try to leave in a huff--or move at all--for a while.

How did you develop the cyclopean monster in the third story?

He had to be simple and scary, but not angry-scary. Almost robotic, but he couldn't be a robot because he's also emotional and flies off the handle for reasons we're not privy to. I think he's supposed to be an alien, or at least the result of something inexplicable that happens in the future, an experiment gone wrong, I don't know. I was thinking about the drawings you see of The War of the Worlds, but a cheap stage-show version.

How does your creative process change when you have a collaborator?

I love collaborating. So much of working by yourself involves trying to get out of your own way and collaboration does that automatically. It's very freeing. I find I'm up for stuff collaboratively that I would overthink on my own.

What should readers expect from you in the future?

I'm looking to adapt some older folk tales maybe! Maybe scary stuff. Again, trying to get it out of my control completely, but if it's older or more obscure in its origins, I also get to do what I want to it, so it's another nice mix. We shall see. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: John Naisbitt

John Naisbitt, the business guru and author of the megabestseller Megatrends and other futuristic titles, died on April 8 at age 92, the Washington Post reported. In Megatrends, published in 1982, Naisbitt focused, the Post wrote, "on 10 major trends he believed were reshaping American commerce and society. His first observation, long before personal computers had become commonplace, was that the country was moving from an industrial and manufacturing society to an information society." He also predicted that technology companies would "foster a new industrial model, with ideas rising up from workers rather than being imposed by executives at the top of the corporate ladder." The Post noted that some of the ideas in Megatrends "didn't quite hit the mark, including the suggestion that businesses and individuals would come to value long-term planning over short-term gain. Still, the cheery optimism of Megatrends, in which technology would benignly break down social and financial barriers, had such widespread appeal that the book sold more than 8 million copies around the world and stayed on bestseller lists for years."

His other books include Re-inventing the Corporation, co-written with his then-wife Patricia Aburdene (1985); Megatrends 2000: Ten New Directions for the 1990s (1990); High Tech/High Touch, co-written with his daughter Nana Naisbitt and Doug Phillips (1999); and most recently, Mastering Megatrends, co-written with his wife, Doris Naisbitt (2019).

Book Review


The Dictionary of Lost Words

by Pip Williams

In her intriguing first historical novel, Pip Williams (One Italian Summer) follows an unconventional woman who makes the Oxford English Dictionary her life's work while secretly collecting working class and women's words deemed unworthy of its pages.

In late 19th-century England, Esme Nicoll spends her childhood hiding under tables in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where a team of lexicographers, including her widowed father, work diligently at collecting and editing definitions on paper slips for the first Oxford English Dictionary. At age five, she swipes a slip bearing the word "bondmaid." Years later, the realization that this word applies to Lizzie, a maid and her close companion, as easily as to a Roman slave girl angers Esme. She questions why the OED leaves words out, often the language of working-class people and women. "All words are not equal," or not considered so, explains family friend and female intellectual Ditte. While remaining devoted to the OED, Esme begins using oral history techniques combined with lexicography to collect the words of market vendors, actresses and servants. As British suffragists protest and World War I draws near, writing The Dictionary of Lost Words becomes Esme's guiding purpose.

Told in Esme's gentle, inquisitive voice and spanning four decades, The Dictionary of Lost Words is a searching, feminist exploration of how class and gender affect the boundaries of language. This sweeping coming-of-age story, set against a tumultuous time in British history, is a historical fiction fan's dream. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A young British woman quietly creates a compendium of words from women and the lower classes in this sweeping feminist bildungsroman set against the writing of the first Oxford English Dictionary.

Ballantine, $28, hardcover, 400p., 9780593160190

Paradise, Nevada

by Dario Diofebi

In Paradise, Nevada, his staggering debut novel, Dario Diofebi has created a comic epic with the complexity and sweeping emotion to suit its singular setting, Las Vegas.

On a spring night in 2015, a bomb detonates inside the Positano Luxury Resort and Casino, a place built on the same paradoxes as Las Vegas itself, at once "both fiction and reality, both paradise and home." Months before the fateful event, four strangers converge on the Positano seeking salvation from their own personal crises: a digital poker wizard looks to make a living playing the tables after his faith in mathematics is shaken; an existentially adrift cocktail waitress finds purpose in organized labor's struggle against predatory capital; an Italian immigrant with an expired visa confronts the fear and loneliness that govern his life; and a determined Mormon journalist pursues a story with profound implications for her career and her family.

Diofebi takes a patchwork approach to his intricate plot, patiently weaving each narrative thread toward an explosive finale. Along the way, he deftly and playfully steers readers down side roads of noir and western, road novel and heist thriller. Perhaps the greatest of Diofebi's many gifts as a novelist is the psychological acuity with which he draws his characters. Even with the novel's grand staging, Diofebi keeps a keen eye on the anxieties and aspirations that animate each of his protagonists. With an abundance of warmth and humor, Paradise, Nevada establishes Dario Diofebi as an eminently thoughtful and ambitious novelist. --Theo Henderson, bookseller at Ravenna Third Place Books, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: This ambitious debut novel takes readers on a heady, humorous journey through high-stakes cardrooms and darkened corridors of power in contemporary Las Vegas.

Bloomsbury, $28, hardcover, 512p., 9781635576207

In a Book Club Far Away

by Tif Marcelo

Military spouses, even former ones, don't send an SOS for just anything. So, when captain's wife Adelaide Wilson-Chang summons her two dearest friends, nurse Sophie Walden and Army veteran-turned-caterer Regina Castro, to help her out after a surgical procedure, they know it's serious. The problem? Sophie and Regina have been estranged from each other for years, since the heartbreaking end to the posting in upstate New York where they all met. Former army nurse Tif Marcelo (Once Upon a Sunset) unfolds the complicated story of the trio's friendship in her third contemporary novel, In a Book Club Far Away.

Marcelo tells her story in all three characters' voices, shifting between Adelaide's present-day medical crisis and the year the women met and formed a book club with their fellow army spouses. The plot's tension ratchets up as readers learn more about what transpired back then, and the women edge closer to confronting one another about their past betrayals and their far-reaching effects. Meanwhile, Marcelo relates, with compassion and realism, each character's present struggles: Adelaide's emergency surgery, Sophie's twin teenage girls and Regina's tentative new romance all stand alongside professional challenges for each woman. Sharing a house for two weeks, the women are forced to work through their longstanding conflict, confront long-held assumptions about one another and even squeeze in a little reading. Marcelo's warmhearted, juicy novel is a compelling portrayal of the fierce bond among military spouses and a sensitive exploration of friends trying their best to right old wrongs. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Tif Marcelo's juicy, warmhearted third contemporary novel follows three former army wives struggling to reconcile a past betrayal.

Gallery Books, $16, paperback, 400p., 9781982148096

Mystery & Thriller

Northern Heist

by Richard O'Rawe

Belfast, Northern Ireland, 2004. Five days before Christmas. Two officials from the Northern Bank are relaxing at home with their families when their houses are invaded, kicking off one of the biggest unsolved heists in U.K. history. Former Irish Republican Army bank robber Richard O'Rawe gives a brilliant account of how it might have happened in the engrossing historical thriller Northern Heist.

James "Ructions" O'Hare and his uncle Panzer O'Hare are bank-robbing partners, but the aging Panzer's health has begun to compromise his judgment when it comes to family. Panzer's cocaine-addicted pedophile son, Finbarr, knows his dad and Ructions are planning one last big steal and thinks he's entitled to a percentage of the take. Finbarr tries to ensure a share of the money by enlisting the help of IRA bigshot Tiny Murdoch, but Tiny aims to let the robbery happen, get rid of Finbarr and keep all the money. The IRA gets a cut of any stolen bank money. They suspect what Tiny is doing. The police scramble to stop the robbery and blame it all on the IRA no matter what. Ructions must outsmart all the backstabbing, kneecapping thugs standing between him and the biggest cash grab of his life.

It's unclear which banks Richard O'Rawe targeted or how big a role he played in those heists, but his dialogue and pacing certainly imply he was there. The brutal men in his world do just as much damage with a hard look as they can with a bullet, all while sticking to a kind of honor among thieves that metes out swift justice to those who don't. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: One of the biggest bank heists in U.K. memory gets a gritty makeover in ex-IRA bank robber Richard O'Rawe's historical thriller.

Melville House, $26.99, hardcover, 272p., 9781612199030

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hummingbird Salamander

by Jeff VanderMeer

Hummingbird Salamander by the prolific Jeff VanderMeer (Annihilation; The Strange Bird) is a gripping and uncanny eco-thriller that refuses to keep readers on stable ground. The novel jets into action when its protagonist, who insists readers think of her as "Jane Smith," is handed a mysterious safe deposit key by a barista. Driven by curiosity, Jane tracks down the box, only to find an invitation to an unsettling scavenger hunt inside. With only a taxidermied hummingbird and a note signed by Silvina, a dead eco-terrorist, as guides, Jane begins what ultimately becomes a years-long quest that costs her her job, separates her from her family and threatens her life.

VanderMeer is no stranger to genre bending, but in Hummingbird Salamander he finds his perfect fit: a surreal, noirish, post-apocalyptic story with an unexpected hardboiled detective at its heart. Jane and the novel's genre cut through any attempts at melodrama or sentimentality, and yet both instill a sense of inevitable world-ending that carries its own inherent pathos. As Jane's obsession with finding the "end" of this deepens, readers, too, begin to feel both the futility and yet life-giving importance of her endeavor. The more her quest to find the treasures of a lost world threatens her existence, the more desperate she becomes to sacrifice everything to take one last look at the past. While the reality of Jane's near-extinction world might be suggested to be in the future, the harrowing crisis of her near-extinction mindset remains all too present and haunting. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A curious and entertaining eco-thriller, Hummingbird Salamander serves up a heavy dose of chaotic fun and fast-paced action to balance out its existential dread.

MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, hardcover, 368p., 9780374173548

I'm Waiting for You: And Other Stories

by Bo-Young Kim, trans. by Sophie Bowman, Sung Ryu

As impressive as Kim Bo-Young's intriguing stories are, their literary provenance is equally entertaining. "I wrote 'I'm Waiting for You' for one person to read and one person to hear, with no ambitions of it ever being published," Kim reveals in her author's note. An old friend reached out via "polite email" and, although Kim had never written a romance, requested "a story he could use to propose"! The highly successful result--both as aphrodisiac and literature--appears as the eponymous opener to Kim's four-title collection of two interlinked pairs, the first and last translated by Sophie Bowman, the middle two by Sung Ryu.

Lucky readers are wise to lean in and get ready to sigh and soar. The bracketing stories, "I'm Waiting for You" and "On My Way to You," are a he-said/she-said duet about timeless love. In between exploring such everlasting commitment, Kim includes "The Prophet of Corruption" and "That One Life"--the latter she calls "a light spinoff" of the former--in which the immortal world of connected-yet-conflicting creators observe and evaluate the machinations and manipulations they control on Earth below.

Kim, lauded as one of Korea's most influential and award-winning sci-fi writers, served as a script adviser to an earlier film by Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho of Parasite fame. Her short story "Between Zero and One" was a highlight in the 2019 anthology Readymade Bodhisattva, which introduced her work to Anglophone audiences. Kim appears poised to enjoy well-earned international acclaim. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Kim Bo-Young, one of Korea's most influential sci-fi literary stars, transforms a friend's request for assistance with a marriage proposal into a compelling four-story collection.

Harper Voyager, $26.99, hardcover, 336p., 9780062951465


To Love and to Loathe

by Martha Waters

Following To Have and to Hoax, Martha Waters's To Love and to Loathe returns to Regency-era England with a witty enemies-to-lovers romance that sparkles with banter and tension. Young widow Diana, Lady Templeton, is looking for an affair but doesn't have the reputation to let eligible gentlemen know she might be interested. Her brother's longtime friend Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham, is known in society for his many liaisons. Isn't it convenient that they're both available at the same time, that he's holding a two-week house party and that they've been carrying a torch for each other for years?

The plot is a bit more complicated, however. Diana bets Jeremy that he'll be married within a year and enlists the help of his grandmother in her matchmaking scheme. So even as she's attempting to set him up with an eligible young woman during the house party, Diana negotiates a short-term fling with Jeremy--a practical arrangement that of course won't involve their hearts at all. "His intention had been to remind her of the strange, potent connection between them, to leave her wanting more. He had no idea... if he'd accomplished that aim--but he'd undoubtedly succeeded at reminding himself."

To Love and to Loathe is told in alternating points of view, illustrating two similarly delusional perspectives. Diana and Jeremy express their attraction through good-natured bickering as funny as it is obvious (to everyone but them). While they attempt to lie to themselves and each other, readers know the delicious truth: they've been meant for each other since the day they met. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels

Discover: Martha Waters's second historical romance is a delightful enemies-to-lovers escape filled with banter and humor.

Atria Books, $16.99, paperback, 352p., 9781982160876

Biography & Memoir

Broken Horses

by Brandi Carlile

Cross-genre musical artist Brandi Carlile seemed to burst on the scene following a multiple Grammy-winning evening in 2019. The most nominated woman at the 61st annual awards (six), Carlile blew audiences away with her Song of the Year performance, "The Joke," an anthem for those who struggle to fit into the world's divisive molds. Thanks to Carlile's intimate memoir, Broken Horses, the story of how the "overnight sensation" struggled and strived for years can be known beyond the fans who have followed her religiously even prior to her first studio album in 2005.

Carlile's childhood in Washington State was marked by alcoholism, poverty, religion, health problems, instability (14 different homes) and, as the first-born grandchild, her own "inflated sense of self-importance and burden of perceived responsibility." That said, her family was warm, close, musical and filled with characters that lay a good storytelling foundation. But it is Carlile's sense of self and her ability to be deeply vulnerable and introspective before an audience that allow her to plumb the depths of her upbringing and forge her trail to center stage.

A brilliant lyricist, Carlile adapts her gift to the long form without missing a beat. Her style is conversational, whether the topic is music, charity work, motherhood (Carlile and her wife have two daughters), LGBTQ+ rights, Barack Obama or Carlile's beloved "gay pen pal father figure," Elton John. Overflowing with thoughtfulness, wicked humor, photographs and song lyrics, Broken Horses is an epic sit around the campfire. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: In her superb memoir, singer-songwriter and producer Brandi Carlile tells her captivating story, from hardscrabble beginnings to award-winning success. 

Crown, $28, hardcover, 336p., 9780593237243

Essays & Criticism

The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020

by Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner's The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020 starts with a bang: an account of her participation in the 1992 Cabo 1000, a perilous motorcycle race from San Ysidro, Calif., to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. But in this collection, featuring 19 pieces of edgy memoir, eclectic journalism and diverse criticism, Kushner consistently delivers on the promise of that exciting opener.

Among the most entertaining entries are Kushner's reminiscences about growing up in San Francisco. "Not with the Band" describes the series of bartending jobs that brought her into the heart of the city's rock music scene in the 1990s, and features a memorable encounter with Keith Richards. In the titular essay, a video clip shot from a vehicle driving down Market Street in 1966 sparks memories of her time working in the notorious Tenderloin and living in Haight-Ashbury. But Kushner doesn't draw only on recollections of her home turf. "In the Company of Truckers" is a brief, disarming piece about a random act of kindness received while on a cross-country drive in the late 1990s.

Admirers of Kushner's novel The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, will delight in the essay "Made to Burn," which, in addition to Kushner's prose, features arresting images that provided some of her inspiration for the novel. Not every one of Kushner's pieces will enchant every reader, but The Hard Crowd consistently showcases the work of a conscientious, engaged journalist. Her talent for writing fiction is already well-recognized, but this introduction to her nonfiction showcases the breadth of her talent. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: Rachel Kushner displays a wide-ranging and occasionally idiosyncratic set of interests in her first nonfiction collection.

Scribner, $26, hardcover, 272p., 9781982157692

Children's & Young Adult

I Sang You Down from the Stars

by Tasha Spillett-Sumner, illus. by Michaela Goade

A young Indigenous woman joyously awaits the birth of her child in this celebration of family and tradition by Cree and Trinidadian writer Tasha Spillett-Sumner (Surviving the City), with dazzling illustrations by Tlingit artist and Caldecott Medalist Michaela Goade (We Are Water Protectors).

"I loved you before I met you," the mother says. "Before I held you in my arms,/ I sang you down from the stars." Readers see her gazing up into an amethyst sky at sunset, longing for a child. The swirling white plume of a falling star's trail mingles with chimney smoke from her nearby home. Following the sweeps of stardust, she finds a white eagle feather in a strawberry patch, "the first gift in a bundle/ that will be yours." After becoming pregnant, she continues to gather items to add to the baby's bundle; after the birth, the mother sees stars reflected in her daughter's eyes. During a celebration of family and friends--most of whom share her brown skin tone while a few appear white--she realizes the baby is like a bundle filled with love and hope for the future.

While the assembling of medicine bundles is practiced primarily by Indigenous cultures, Spillet-Sumner's tender free-verse tribute to the joy of welcoming a new baby should resonate with any caregiver who has excitedly awaited a child's arrival. Her spare, uplifting lines sing with gratitude, reverence and elation. Goade's ethereal watercolor and mixed-media illustrations soar across the page, overflowing with gorgeous touches. The stardust swooshes recur, sometimes framing insets that show traditional dances, sacred images from the natural world and allusions to both Cree and Tlingit stories. I Sang You Down from the Stars will make a beautiful gift for an expecting family as well as a read-aloud to assure children they are loved. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Main Branch, Dayton Metro Library

Discover: An Indigenous mother-to-be gathers significant items for her child's medicine bundle in this joyful picture book about welcoming a new baby.

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $18.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9780316493161

The Great Peach Experiment 1: When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Peach Pie

by Erin Soderberg Downing

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Peach Pie is populated by quirky children, a distracted but loving parent and enough adventures and crises to pack more than one middle-grade book. Luckily, this is only Book 1 of the Great Peach Experiment series.

Two years after the death of her mother, 12-year-old Lucy Peach has settled into a new normal. Lucy is the "fixer," tending to her younger brothers, Freddy and Herb, and managing their expectations of their father, who never quite follows through with his promises. So when Dad announces that they've unexpectedly come into $1 million--thanks to the success of an invention their mother was working on before she died--and that he has purchased a food truck so that they can travel the country, Peach family feelings are... mixed. Be that as it may, in a matter of days, the Minnesota family hits the road with a plan to sell Great-Aunt Lucinda's peach pie out of their truck--and to win first prize at the Delaware, Ohio, Food Truck Festival.

Erin Soderberg Downing (Moon Shadow; the Quirk series) is exquisitely tuned in to her middle-grade readers. In addition to her sometimes poignant, often comical scenes, she includes Freddy's drawings and commentary, Lucy's droll letters to Great-Aunt Lucinda, an excellent seventh-grade book list and maps of the Peach family's progress through the Midwest. In When Life Gives You Lemons, Downing gently but candidly takes on the diverse ways a family grieves, allowing Lucy and the others to come to a bittersweet conclusion: "The time had come to let go of what was, and accept what is." And don't fret: a certain kind of reader will be satisfied to know that yes, someone does eventually get a pie in the face. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: In an enjoyable and accessible middle-grade novel, a grieving family travels the Midwest in a food truck--though they have zero experience--on a journey back to wholeness.

Pixel + Ink/Holiday House, $17.99, hardcover, 256p., ages 8-12, 9781645950349


Author Buzz

The Wild Card
(A Rivers Wilde Novella)

by Dylan Allen

Dear Reader,

"What if…?" is my favorite question to ask myself when I start writing a book. The answers that Cassie and Leo's story delivered were unexpected and heartwarming. Adding a heist and serendipitous reunion into the mix took my tried and true favorite trope, second chance, to a whole new level. Theirs is a classic case of right person/wrong time. Whether you're a Rivers Wilde newbie or expert, watching them overcome some pretty steep hurdles is a wild, thrilling, feel good ride.

I hope you love every word. xo,

Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: The Wild Card (A Rivers Wilde Novella) by Dylan Allen

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
January 16, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book


Kids Buzz

Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night

by Steven J. Simmons and Clifford R. Simmons
illus. by Ruth E. Harper

Dear Reader,

My newest and latest in a three-book series, Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night?, came from seeing the fascination so many kids have with the ocean and ocean creatures. How do a whale, octopus, dolphin, clownfish, great white shark and so many other undersea animals get their rest?

After all, they need to get their rest and sleep, just like all of us. So dive into this rhyming STEM picture book to encourage a love of nature and the environment--and under the covers for a great bedtime story.

"What do animals do when children are sleeping? Featuring creatures young children are likely to know, this book has the answers....[and] unusual nighttime facts are a plus." --Kirkus

Steve Simmons

KidsBuzz: Charlesbridge: Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night? by Steven J. Simmons and Clifford R. Simmons, illus. by Ruth E. Harper


Pub Date: 
April 16, 2024


Type of Book:
Picture Book

Age Range: 

List Price: 
$17.99 Hardcover

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