Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, February 8, 2013

Poisoned Pen Press: That Night in the Library by Eva Jurczyk

From My Shelf

The Real Abraham Lincoln

The figure of Abraham Lincoln towers in our imagination. Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal in Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln brought a fresh voice and personality to the man we think we know. A range of books, including the one the movie is based on, provide further depth and understanding of the 16th president.

The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower (reviewed below) recounts Lincoln's train journey from Illinois to Washington for his inauguration. Surrounded by advisers and bodyguards, he professed not to fear for his own safety even when greeted by mobs. But when Chicago detective Allan Pinkerton uncovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore, it took all the skill and ingenuity of Pinkerton, his agents and Lincoln's own men to ensure the president-elect's safety.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's tour de force Team of Rivals provided the inspiration for Spielberg's film. She details how Lincoln selected his team of advisers, including his three rivals for the 1860 presidential nomination. Though they often argued among themselves, they stood by Lincoln as he struggled to hold the nation together, fight a war and push the 13th Amendment through a recalcitrant Congress. Goodwin's book showcases Lincoln's unusual capacity for empathy, and how it helped shape his political career.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln begins with the question: What if Lincoln had survived Booth's bullet? Yale law professor Stephen Carter begins his novel in 1867, as Lincoln faces impeachment for offenses against the nation committed during the war. At the same time, Abigail Canner, a black woman newly graduated from Oberlin, begins clerking at the law firm hired by Lincoln to defend him. When one of the firm's partners is found murdered, Abigail and her colleagues suspect a conspiracy. Part thriller, part historical novel, Carter's tale is full of colorful characters and intriguing questions.

Lincoln may always remain a mythical figure, but these three books help shed light on his talents and character. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

The Writer's Life

Teddy Wayne: Imagining Child Celebrity

photo: Christine Mladic

Journalist Teddy Wayne made a splash with his debut novel, Kapitoil, earning a 2011 Whiting Writers' Award and a New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. He was also a runner-up for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, a Dayton Literary Peace Prize recipient and a New York Foundation for the Arts finalist. With his newest book, just out from Free Press, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (see our review below), Wayne will likely make another splash. The story of a child music phenomenon, the book is told from the 11-year-old superstar's perspective and is sure to have readers looking at the music industry in a new light.

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine has a strong basis in our current popular culture. You've mentioned that you noticed Justin Bieber seemed designed for the rigors and demands of fame, but that you wondered what would happen if someone with your mental makeup was placed in the same position. Do you think anyone has that mental makeup at 11?

There are several examples of children who have successfully transitioned to adults within the entertainment industry: Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Neil Patrick Harris, to name just a few. And I'm sure there are far more who have made their peace with celebrity, ducked out, and been happier for it. In Jane O'Connor's study of the phenomenon, The Cultural Significance of the Child Star, she posits that child stars occupy a nether region between child and adult. Jonny refines this idea: he believes you either need to be truly a child in a child's body, or an adult in a child's body, to make it out alive.

If we compare Jonny to someone like Michael Jackson, do you think this phenomenon has changed?

Michael Jackson was as warped as anyone in history by his celebrity, though much of that can be attributed to his family dynamics. I think it's absolutely gotten worse for celebrities overall the last 15 years, and children more so: the media is far more intrusive, entertainers are expected to sell and brand themselves as much as their work (as on Twitter), and the public is crueler than it used to be, in part because of the previous two paradigm shifts. Technology--social media, digital cameras, the 24-hour Internet-aided news cycle--amplifies all the conditions of celebrity through constant media surveillance, because without media, celebrity almost doesn't exist (or at least not the way we understand it now).

Looking at Jane, Jonny's mother, readers may wonder how a mother who cares about her child would ever subject him to such things. And yet many of the parents who will criticize Jane (or her real-life counterparts) are the same parents who buy the tickets to the concerts and the music for their children, thereby perpetuating the cycle. Why can't we see the irony in this?

Not to mention the parents who are loving and protective but also push their children to fill their schedules with activities, ostensibly to enrich their lives, but often to promote future success. Jane is an extreme example of a parent who fiercely loves her child, but whose love is also, at times, a selfish act. Either it enables her to feel some love in this world, or, more callously, she uses Jonny to get what she can't on her own--money, power, attention. While most parents don't exploit their children's labor so egregiously, I do think most of us are guilty of occasionally "training" them instead of simply raising them.

There are several characters in Jonny's life who remind him he can walk away from fame. One is his bodyguard, Walter. Another is his tutor, Nadine. How do you feel their love for Jonny compares to Jane's?

They are more selfless caretakers of him, it's true, though he has some other hangers-on whose solicitousness is ambiguous. But the novel needed some emotional ballast to prevent it from being a screed about how everyone preys on this young boy. Walter and Nadine serve as surrogate father and mother figures for Jonny, employees who care more about his well-being than their own financial security.

Was your prep for the book strictly book/magazine/Internet research or do you have "hands-on" experience with this?

I do know a couple of people who were child stars, so I suppose that was somewhat hands-on. Otherwise, although it's not nearly the same ballpark as global-celebrity fame, I experienced the same slew of emotions I think most first-time writers do when my debut novel came out: excitement, but also anxiety over its emergence into the public. I started thinking about how actual celebrities negotiate the stresses of their much higher-stakes jobs--and then wondered how an adolescent might handle it.

Your first novel, Kapitoil, dealt with a character, Karim, "coming of age." He was acclimating to a new culture while quite proficient in his business jargon. Jonny isn't coming of age literally, but in many ways he's forced to do so figuratively. What similarities and differences did you note when writing these two characters?

They certainly share some similarities: a naïveté tempered by savvy understanding of their professions, although Jonny is much more cynical about the music industry than Karim is about finance. Both are steeped in the language of their fields: Karim speaks like a techno-financial manual, and half of Jonny's thoughts and dialogue could issue from the mouth of a marketing executive. But Karim is far more of an outsider, new to America and ignorant of its customs, and marked as a foreigner by his appearance, background, and manner. Jonny seems to be the ultimate insider--a celebrity, the trendsetter we all look to for our own self-definitions--but he feels like he doesn't belong, as well. I've always been attracted to alienated protagonists, as a reader and a writer.

In an interview you mentioned one of the themes of Kapitoil is how culturally empty the late '90s were, especially musically. And in The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, one of Jonny's opening acts is a group called the Latchkeys. Jonny recognizes the talent in this group, but they are quickly dropped by their "big label" when a scandal occurs. Is Jonny Valentine an indication that the "cultural emptiness" is still true today?

I was referring specifically to a short time period before 9/11, when I would say that not much was happening that was groundbreaking in popular culture in TV, movies, and music. The Sopranos heralded the start of the kind of complicated, sprawling TV shows we're now accustomed to, but that was about it; the independent film movement of the '90s was slowing down and hadn't yet benefited from the digital-film revolution, and popular music was boy bands and Britney Spears. While there's still plenty of trash out there--the rise of reality TV, a blockbuster-only mentality for film, and, um, boy bands and reincarnations of Britney Spears--I do think that the last, arduous decade for the U.S., with our renewed awareness of geopolitics and financial hardship, has produced more lasting mainstream art than the 1995-2001 period.

Jonny isn't given a chance to develop his own identity... his weight is constantly monitored, what he says is scripted, what he sings is dictated to him, who he associates with is closely controlled. Is this unique to Jonny or is this something we as a culture impress on our young people?

I'd say the culture impresses it on all of us, young and old--myself, too, even in this interview! While few of us have our parents check our weight on the scale each morning, the media constantly reminds us that looking good is paramount. Though we're not being fed lines like an entertainer, we know that if we say something untoward, it may imperil our public standing. Most of us have to do work we don't really want to do, assigned to us by someone else. And unwritten social rules generally steer us away from associating with people unlike us. One of the purposes of childhood is to have some time before these conditions take root, where you can make mistakes and experiment. Jonny doesn't have that luxury.

In our pop-culture society, who do you think will be the long-lasting stars? Who will be remembered as great musicians, actors, writers, etc., 50 or 100 years from now? And what about them will make them timeless?

That's difficult to say; it's hard to know whether someone is popular because of real talent or because that's how the winds are blowing right now. Whom do we remember from 1963 or 1913? A lot from '63, in all of those categories, but from '13--which, granted, didn't have mass media yet the way it operates now--most people would be hard-pressed to name more than a couple of popular musicians or actors. Check out the list of Pulitzer Prize winners 1918-1947. Only a handful of these novels are still remembered, let alone read. Few of us will outlast our lifetimes--including, I suspect, Justin Bieber and Teddy Wayne.

If you had the power to personally ban one pop culture fad today, what would it be?

The lazy deployment of clichés masquerading as wit or heightened emotion has always irked me. Various slang words and phrases that fall under this jurisdiction, as used in the novel, include "Really?" (when articulated sarcastically); "I'm obsessed [with something]"; and "just sayin' " (as a concluding remark after pointing out an obnoxious observation).

Finally, what's next for Teddy Wayne?

Other than scribbling notes for a nonfiction book, Really?: A Compilation of Irksome Slang of the 21st Century That I'm Totally Obsessed With--Just Sayin', I'm collaborating with Amber Dermont (author of The Starboard Sea and the forthcoming story collection Damage Control) on a screenplay, and with both her and director/screenwriter Yaniv Raz on a TV series. We're trying to suck more air out of the cultural vacuum of the early 2010s in hopes of creating something that no one will remember in 2113. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Book Candy

Something Borrowed, Something Not Overdue

Something borrowed department: Recently, wedding bells rang quietly in the Northwest History Room at Washington's Everett Public Library for Barbara Morrow and David Kurland, who "share a life-long love of libraries. So when they decided to get married, they knew just where to do it," the Huffington Post reported.


Show us your papers, please. Flavorwire examined "the intriguing passports of 20 famous artists and writers."


For NPR's Three Books series, Ruben Martinez, author of Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West, suggested a trio "Desert Flowers: Three Books That Are Anything But Dry."


You may disagree, but the Guardian dared to offer a slide show featuring its choices for the "10 best Jane Austen characters."


Cramped book quarters? Remodelista found "5 favorites: bookshelves for small space living" and Flavorwire showcased some "extraordinary multifunctional furniture for small spaces."

Book Review


Autobiography of Us

by Aria Beth Sloss

When they first meet in high school, Rebecca and Alex could hardly be more different: Rebecca is reticent and plain, hiding in a world of books, while Alex is beautiful, brash and determined to become an actress in New York. These two women and their tragically limited choices in 1960s California are the focus of Aria Beth Sloss's debut, Autobiography of Us. The intense connection they form in high school will endure, albeit unsteadily, through romantic betrayal, marriages and a distance of thousands of miles.

Though Alex is wealthy and upper class and Rebecca is barely middle-class, the women's struggles are similar. Alex finds that no one will take her seriously as an actress. Rebecca aspires to become a doctor, taking every opportunity to study biology in secret. It's a dream that is not only contrary to societal expectations, but to those of her parents: Rebecca's mother dreams of her daughter attending debutante balls and becoming a bride. But her hopes are dashed--and the friendship between Alex and Rebecca imperiled--when Rebecca's life takes a disastrous turn.

Autobiography of Us is unflinching in its confrontation of the consequences of a world without choices for women. Even the ravages of the Vietnam War are depicted as a backdrop to the more subtle catastrophes unfolding for the women left at home. Using elegantly wrought turns of phrase, Sloss delves into a wide range of difficult topics, from illegal abortions to closeted homosexuality. At its heart, the novel is a elegy to spirited women in decades past who were forced to silence their dreams and desires. --Ilana Teitelbaum, book reviewer at the Huffington Post

Discover: A debut novel focusing on an intense and complicated friendship that begins in 1960s California, and the agonizing challenges of an era that offered few choices for women.

Holt, $25, hardcover, 9780805094558

See Now Then

by Jamaica Kincaid

Deeply rooted in Jamaica Kincaid's quarter-century marriage to composer Allen Shawn, See Now Then is a chilling portrait of a failed relationship.

Mr. and Mrs. Sweet and their children live in a small Vermont village. From the opening pages we learn that Mrs. Sweet's husband, "the dear Mr. Sweet, hated her very much," comparing her appearance with "Charles Laughton as he portrayed Captain Bligh" and composing a nocturne called This Marriage Is Dead. In Mrs. Sweet's telling, her agoraphobic spouse is a "rodent" who "had not grown a half inch since he turned twelve." She takes refuge in her writing and her gardening, striving to preserve something resembling a normal family life. It's no surprise that at the climax of this brief novel, Mr. Sweet declares, "I love someone else and I will not give her up."

As its title suggests, See Now Then is best read as an extended reflection on the passage of time and the insistent tug of memory. The novel's long, looping sentences have a rhythmic, almost hypnotic, character, their images often arresting, as in the way Mrs. Sweet describes how she has been "unraveling various parts of the garment that had been her own life" or Mr. Sweet's claim that his wife is "like walking into barbed wire in the dark."

Despite its grim subject matter and raw, stream-of-consciousness style, See Now Then does have moments of beauty and pathos. It's most definitely not a novel for the casual or impatient, and those who've encountered and appreciated Kincaid's work will want to read it. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: In a heavily autobiographical novel, Jamaica Kincaid portrays the demise of a long-term marriage.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, hardcover, 9780374180560

The Promise of Stardust

by Priscille Sibley

In Priscille Sibley's debut novel, The Promise of Stardust, ethical gray areas collide with matters of the heart as a husband fights for the life of his unborn baby while his wife slowly fades away.

Matt and Elle's marriage has survived four miscarriages, but Matt is unwilling to put Elle's health at risk by trying for a baby again. Elle argues that life is about risk, but Matt knows he could never live without his childhood friend, his high school sweetheart, his beloved wife. When a drastic fall leaves Elle brain dead and dependent on life support, however, Matt prepares to let her go, knowing that Elle's greatest fear is a slow, lingering death like the one her mother endured. Then the hospital staff tells Matt Elle is eight weeks pregnant. As a doctor, he knows the baby has next to no chance of survival, but as the husband of a woman who wanted a child more than anything in the world, he knows he has to give the fetus every chance to thrive.

Unfortunately for Matt, he's not the only person who loves Elle. While Elle's father supports Matt's decision to continue her life support, her younger brother and Matt's own mother side against him. The families quickly become embroiled in a vicious lawsuit while Matt's life begins to disintegrate without Elle.

While flashbacks to Matt and Elle's love story occasionally grow maudlin, Sibley still provides a tender and thoughtful probing of a sensitive and difficult issue. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Latah County Library District and blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A family is divided as a husband fights to keep his brain-dead wife on life support long enough for their unborn baby to survive.

Morrow, $15.99, paperback, 9780062194176

Mystery & Thriller

The Rage

by Gene Kerrigan

The Rage by Gene Kerrigan (The Midnight Choir) is a multifaceted, character-driven story of crime and remorse. Vincent Naylor, freshly out of prison, is back to planning a robbery with his old accomplices, most notably his beloved big brother, Noel. Bob Tidey is an experienced and jaded police detective, still devoted to doing good but with the growing feeling that his employers limit his best efforts. Maura Coady is a retired nun living with her guilt and regrets. When Maura witnesses something out the front window of her apartment that doesn't look quite right, she calls Tidey to report it, setting in motion a string of events that run counter to the Naylor brothers' movements toward the next big score. The reader watches each player's trajectory on this collision course, but still won't guess the big finish until it crashes into place.

The Rage will please readers of crime thrillers and literary fiction alike. The atmosphere effectively evokes contemporary Ireland, with all its discontent and economic frustration, and in this way brings to mind Tana French's lyrical Dublin Murder Squad mystery series. Bob Tidey's cynicism and gruff efforts at romance recall Michael Connelly's hero Detective Harry Bosch. The intersecting story lines and crescendo of action create a cinematic effect. Kerrigan's compelling characters carry this thriller breathlessly through to its climax, but it is the engaging dialogue, thoughtful and absorbing prose and social conscience that make The Rage memorable. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A noir crime novel featuring the collision of a motley group of characters in modern Ireland.

Europa Editions, $17, paperback, 9781609450922



by L. Marie Adeline

In S.E.C.R.E.T., a daring exploration of female sexuality, L. Marie Adeline opens a promising new erotic series with a far more feminist bent than many of its genre peers.

Cassie Robichaud, a 35-year-old widow and former domestic violence victim, has sunk into a deep rut. Her life consists entirely of her waitressing job, her cat and a string of lackluster dates that have left her celibate for five years. When a glamorous woman accidentally leaves a journal in the cafe, Cassie can't help sneaking a peek at her sexual exploits. Before she knows it, the journal has led Cassie to an organization called S.E.C.R.E.T., a council of women that funds the ultimate journey of sexual discovery for one woman each year--this year, they offer the opportunity to Cassie. Once she chooses 10 fantasies, the council makes them come true, one after another, from a rendezvous with a famous man to a daring rescue at sea. Each scenario teaches Cassie a valuable lesson about confidence, self-worth and independence--but even as her body and spirit revel in her new-found liberation, Cassie's heart yearns for her handsome boss, Will. Can her S.E.C.R.E.T. assignations give her the courage to reach for the one man she really wants?

Throughout her experience, Cassie's safety and wishes remain the highest priority to S.E.C.R.E.T. and her sexual partners. In the end, readers will applaud the inner strength Cassie discovers, allowing her to make the right choice for her future. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Latah County Library District and blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A young widow's adventures with a secret society dedicated to empowering women through sexual encounters.

Broadway, $15, paperback, 9780385346436

Food & Wine

From Mama's Table to Mine: Everybody's Favorite Comfort Foods at 350 Calories or Less

by Bobby Deen, Melissa Clark

Like any good Southern boy, Paula Deen's youngest son, Bobby, loves his mama's cooking. But after years of eating rich food, he found himself sluggish, overweight and in need of a change. The premise of his Cooking Channel show Not My Mama's Meals finds further expression in From Mama's Table to Mine, a collection of more than 100 classic "comfort foods" in lower-calorie but still flavorful versions.

Deen uses an arsenal of standard tricks to slim down his recipes, such as swapping low-fat Greek yogurt for sour cream and ground turkey in place of beef. He provides helpful tips on a variety of kitchen topics, urging readers to sub in their favorite veggies, amp up a dish's flavor with fresh herbs and refrain from overdoing the butter and cream. Each recipe features a before-and-after nutrition listing, including the total calories and fat grams, plus information on fiber, protein, carbs and sodium. Dieters can feel virtuous about the calories they're saving, while devotees of Southern food can enjoy down-home favorites like shepherd's pie, creamed spinach, mac 'n' cheese and even red velvet cake--without the guilt.

Readers looking for new twists on Southern recipes won't find them here: Deen admits even his mama often can't tell the difference between his dishes and her own. But for the health-conscious eater who craves comfort food and welcomes all things in moderation, Bobby's recipes strike a balance between familiar flavors and a newer, healthier approach to cooking. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: The recipes in Bobby Deen's collection of Southern classics have less fat, fewer calories and just as much flavor as Paula's originals.

Ballantine, $22, paperback, 9780345536631


The Lady and Her Monsters

by Roseanne Montillo

On its surface, Roseanne Montillo's The Lady and Her Monsters is an exploration of the genesis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But Montillo clearly rejoices in meandering through the volatile times that gave life to Shelley's gothic classic, and her multifaceted literary study expands to include discussions of anatomy and alchemy, suicides, ghoulish dissections of men not quite dead and the dramatic death of Percy Shelley at sea.

In the early 19th century, Europe grew increasingly fascinated with life, death and man's ability to control nature. Grave robbers known as "resurrectionists" provided subjects for human dissections that were conducted both in medical schools and for the general public's entertainment. Scientists and imposters experimented with the capacity of electricity to restore life. Into this environment, Mary Shelley was born to Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin, a famous reformer of the day. Percy Bysshe Shelley was her lover and eventual husband; her sister was lover to Lord Byron. The foursome were traveling in Italy, telling the ghost stories with which Percy Shelley was obsessed, when--as Mary Shelley and legend have it--a human monster appeared to Mary in a waking dream. It was also in Italy that she may have first heard the surname Frankenstein, tied to the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula, as well as to Sir George (he who killed the dragon). In Montillo's enthusiastic prose, such diverse and macabre subjects make for a lively survey, not only of Shelley's masterpiece, but of an odd and colorful time in European history. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A spirited investigation of the bizarre times that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Morrow, $26.99, hardcover, 9780062025814

The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War

by Daniel Stashower

In April 1865, John Wilkes Booth shocked the fragile Union when he leaped onto the stage at Ford's Theatre and shot Abraham Lincoln. Less well known is the plot to assassinate Lincoln even before his inauguration as president, which Daniel Stashower recounts in The Hour of Peril. In February 1861, as Lincoln traveled from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., on a special train, a group of Baltimore secessionists devised an elaborate scheme to murder him as he passed through their city.

Allan Pinkerton, founder of the detective agency that bore his name, was originally hired to help protect the railroads during Lincoln's inaugural tour. When Pinkerton and his agents (including Kate Warne, the first female American private eye) arrived in Baltimore, they heard rumors of a murder conspiracy. For two tense weeks, the agents used any means necessary--including bribery, alcohol and coded telegraph messages--to ensure the president-elect's safe passage to Washington.

Stashower (The Beautiful Cigar Girl) builds his tale slowly, beginning with Pinkerton's origins in Scotland and his early career as a cooper. He emphasizes the volatile political climate in a nation on the brink of fracture, and showcases the bravery of Pinkerton's undercover agents and the growing strain on Lincoln's inner circle of advisers and bodyguards. Extracts from contemporary letters, memoirs and newspapers provide fascinating context.

Although readers know the end of this story (and its sad coda four years later), Stashower's expertly plotted recounting of Lincoln's journey will keep readers spellbound to the last page. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: A tightly plotted recounting of Abraham Lincoln's inaugural journey to Washington and the thwarted plan to murder him in Baltimore.

Minotaur, $26.99, hardcover, 9780312600228


Pukka's Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs

by Ted Kerasote

Every dog lover will be grateful to Ted Kerasote for writing Pukka's Promise, his follow-up to the much beloved Merle's Door, and for his exhaustive research into answering the questions: Why do dogs die so young? What can we do to prevent this?

Once Kerasote knew he was ready to find his next dog after Merle, he embarked on a journey to learn about the healthiest ways to raise dogs. He interviewed many veterinarians, dog breeders, researchers and shelter workers who identified six factors that affect a dog's longevity: inbreeding, nutrition, environmental pollutants, vaccination, spaying and neutering and the shelter system. To these, Kerasote added his own factor--freedom.

Kerasote seamlessly integrates his findings with the story of the search for his next dog, including his experiences raising Pukka (pronounced PUCK-uh, meaning "genuine" or "first-class" in Hindi) from puppyhood. Every decision Kerasote makes is deliberate--from the elk he shoots to nourish himself and his dog to leaving Pukka intact sexually to resorting to e-collar training to preserve Pukka's freedom. He is definitive and opinionated, but his decisions are never made lightly or without scrupulous research and consideration.

Pukka's Promise is a wealth of information any dog lover would appreciate and is truly a love letter to this beloved species. It is not only a fast-paced and engrossing read, but a significant testament to how the decisions we make every day affect the dogs we love so much. --Kristen Galles, blogger at Book Club Classics

Discover: As Ted Kerasote raises his new puppy into young adulthood, he provides dog lovers with concrete ways to extend their own pets' lives.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, hardcover, 9780547236261

Reference & Writing

How to Not Write Bad

by Ben Yagoda

Most people are never going to write well, argues Ben Yagoda (When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It), and that's okay. But they need advice on how to avoid writing badly: how to produce prose that makes its point and doesn't confuse or annoy the reader. The average e-mail, cover letter or annual report doesn't need to be a masterpiece of literature--but it does need to be organized, concise and free of bothersome spelling, formatting, grammar and word choice errors. With How to Not Write Bad, Yagoda heads straight for the errors that native users of American English are most likely to make and the easiest ways to correct or prevent them, focusing on producing the not-bad and letting the good take care of itself.

Skipping many of the technical subjects common to writing handbooks, Yagoda concentrates on providing guidelines for formatting (stick to house style), punctuation (less is often more), spelling (use your dictionary) and word choice (ditto). He recognizes that, for most high school and college writing students, writing well is neither necessary nor of interest; they just need to know how to communicate in sentences that aren't confusing, nonsensical or woefully misspelled. His advice is short, well-organized and fun to read. This, of course, increases the chances that students of writing will actually use it--and readers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. --Dani Alexis Ryskamp, blogger at The Book Cricket

Discover: A refreshing change from the average writing handbook that focuses on killing mistakes rather than producing highfalutin prose.

Riverhead, $15, paperback, 9781594488481

Children's & Young Adult

Lucky Ducklings

by Eva Moore, illus. by Nancy Carpenter

Eva Moore (The Story of George Washington Carver) and Nancy Carpenter (Emma Dilemma) tell the suspenseful true story of Mama Duck and a rescue mission to save her five ducklings.

Out for a walk, Mama Duck leads her ducklings--Pippin, Bippin, Tippin, Dippin and Little Joe--through the town of Montauk one June day in 2000. One by one, the little ducklings follow their Mama and fall through a storm drain. "Oh dear! That could have been the end of the story. But it wasn't, because..." goes the refrain. Nancy Carpenter's charcoal and digital media illustrations depict the woman at the tollbooth, who observes the parade of feathery family members, sees the ducklings tumble and calls for help. Mama Duck scares off the bystanders, until firemen Joe, Paul and Dennis arrive on the scene. However, they can't budge the grate. ("Oh dear! That could have been the end of the story....") Moore and Carpenter show that it takes a village to save the ducklings. Perry and his pickup attach a cable and haul away the grate cover so the firemen can finish the job.

Fans of Robert McCloskey's classic Make Way for Ducklings will be heartened to know that townsfolk still stop traffic to let nature run its course. Carpenter's illustrations of the fluffy ducklings endow them with personality, while Moore's refrain will invite children to participate in this happy-ending tale. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A modern-day tale, based on true events, in which a town stops traffic to let nature run its course.

Orchard/Scholastic, $16.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 5-up, 9780439448611


by Patricia Reilly Giff

In Gingersnap, a redheaded girl, cast emotionally adrift by World War II, searches for security, love and family. Nine-year-old orphaned Jayna, recently reunited with her brother, Rob--plus a backyard turtle named Louise--have assembled a ragtag family that makes Jayna feel secure and loved. But 1945 is a crucial year in the war, and Rob is drafted. "Rob would leave, and I'd be alone," says Jayna, crushed to lose her newfound security and to live with her landlady until Rob's return.

Rob reassures Jayna that all will work out, and gives her a special rock out of Louise's pond to remember him by. He also gives Jayna an antique recipe book that hints at a heretofore unknown grandmother. So when Rob's ship is reported sunk during the Battle of Okinawa, Jayna feels compelled to locate her long-lost grandmother. Accompanied by Louise the turtle and the mysterious urgings of a ghostly presence, Jayna makes an extensive journey from upstate New York to Brooklyn in search of the reported cookbook-grandmother and a new home.

Patricia Reilly Giff (Lily's Crossing), twice awarded a Newbery Honor citation, again captures the innocence and vulnerability of childhood in this gentle historical novel. Although the ghostly plot element feels a little tangential, the writing style is charming and further enriched by the inclusion of Jayna's favorite soup recipes, and a dash of humor. --Jessica Bushore, former public librarian and freelance writer

Discover: A wartime tale that suggests hardship can create new families and love where none existed before.

Wendy Lamb/Random House, $15.99, hardcover, 147p., ages 9-12, 9780375838910

Better Nate Than Ever

by Tim Federle

Former Broadway performer and debut author Tim Federle takes readers behind the curtains of a boy's journey to make a name for himself in the big city.

Thirteen-year-old Nate Foster is fleeing Jankburg, Pa., for New York City so he can audition for the role of Elliot in E.T: The Broadway Musical Version. Nate's parents are away, celebrating their 17th wedding anniversary, and his "girl-addicted" 16-year-old brother, Anthony, encourages him to stay over at his best friend Libby's house. Instead, Nate leaves for New York City with $50, his brother's fake I.D, knowledge from the Internet on "things that annoy New Yorkers" and a big dream to chase.

It's a joy watching Nate marvel at Manhattan for the first time, such as the rush of Port Authority, but it's not nearly as dreamy as Nate finding hope in the audition process when all the odds seem to be stacked against him. Federle admirably rolls out themes of adolescent sexuality onto the stage to tie into Nate's dreams of escaping to a place where he doesn't have to change anything about himself to fit in. (Nate says of his sexuality, "I am undecided... and frankly don't want to declare anything other than 'Hey, jerks. I'm thirteen. Leave me alone.' ")

Better Nate Than Ever is an open call for any reader looking for a little book with big star quality. --Adam Silvera, former bookseller, Paper Lantern Lit intern

Discover: Thirteen-year-old Nate's overnight journey to New York City to audition forE.T: The Musical.

Simon & Schuster, $16.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 8-12, 9781442446892

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