Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, August 16, 2011

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

From My Shelf

My Favorites: Summer 2011 Nonfiction

Last week I published a list of my favorite fiction picks for summer 2011. Now I want to give equal time to nonfiction--and there's ample reason to do so this summer. From what may be the oddest yet most useful self-help guide you’ve ever read (The Chairs Are Where the People Go) to a "stunt memoir" about a 20th-century icon (My Year with Eleanor) and a dishy history of Winston Churchill’s family tree (The Churchills), there's plenty of factual fodder for your summer reading stack.

As with the fiction list, this one is organized alphabetically by last name. This is not a ranking; it's simply the 10 best nonfiction books I've read out of all that I've received so far this season. I hope you'll find something intriguing here.

Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum: A would-be chef attempts to regain her nose.

Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train by Ina Caro: Makes history fun, and can be used as a travel guide, too.

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard: A brave woman's testament.

The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti: Nearly undescribable, but incredibly delightful.

My Year with Eleanor: A Memoir by Noelle Hancock: A young woman eschews modern advice and follows in the steps of a remarkable First Lady.

Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex by Erica Jong: Some of these essays are even about not having sex....

The Churchills: In Love and War by Mary Lovell: Chatty, gossipy history of England's noblest public servant.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch: A sister's death ignites a remarkable sort of mourning.

Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future by Tom Scocca: One journalist's in-country view of the 2008 Chinese Olympics.

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden: Two early 20th-century Smith College graduates conquer their futures.

The Writer's Life

Portrait of the Artist: Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman hit rock bottom when he was 35 years old. "I was stuck professionally, my marriage was breaking up--it was a miserable, miserable time," said the novelist and critic, whose The Magician King (the sequel to The Magicians, which is now out in paperback) was just published by Viking. "I thought, I'm going to find one fu*king thing I enjoy. I'm too old not to be honest with myself."

Grossman, speaking from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y, continued: "There are some moments in your life when things have gone so wrong that you're up against the wall, you're cornered, you've hit rock bottom." It was 2004, and while he normally would have sought solace in the latest Harry Potter book, "we were between Harry Potter books, and so I picked up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke."

Just like the curriculum at Brakebills (the fictional school for, yes, wizards, in Grossman's The Magicians), Clarke's effect on Grossman was magical. "While reading Jonathan Strange, I realized that I could write fantasy, and do so as an adult, writing about adult emotions, with adult complexity. I could be true to myself, but also be true to my mother tongue as a writer."

Grossman's "mother tongue as a writer" has a great deal to do with his mother, who is a British-born, Oxford-educated English professor. She raised her sons (Grossman's twin, Austin, is a writer and game designer whose novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, came out in 2008) on a steady diet of... non-British books.

Grossman explained: "I have this extremely old-world name, and people can invite me to as many Jewish book festivals as they want to--but I wasn't raised Jewish. My mother was raised Anglican, and the thing about her is that she grew up very, very poor in a bad part of London, and she knew her accent was going to doom her if she stayed there. She left, and almost never went back. But although she carefully maintains her English accent, literary England was something I had to discover on my own."

The author said he became "obsessed" with C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles. "I feel this has something to do with my real emotions, because I don't write fantasy in the epic tradition at all. I only feel able to write in this wardrobe-y, secondary world, about a young person discovering the magic part of himself. I wanted to transplant an English tradition onto American soil and see if it could grow there."

Writing fantasy, Grossman noted, also means you're part of a tradition, including the modern fantasy tradition that began... in England. "T.H. White, C.S. Lewis, Hope Mirlees, all those writers," Grossman said. "Fantasy has conventions, and they aren't constraining--they're the code with which you signify. If there are no rules, there's no game. Rules create tension, and they also cry out to be broken."

The first chapter of what would become The Magicians was written in 1996. "I had just read a sequence in an Ursula K. LeGuin book where the hero discovers his talent as a magician and goes to a school for wizards on an island." Grossman paused. "Then, of course, came J.K. Rowling." When Grossman came back to his own fantasy novel, he said, "It was transporting. There's no non-clichéed word for it. It wasn't like anything else I'd ever done. I spent a week writing and put down 25,000 words. It was a career high; the words had never come like that before. I'd hit an artery."

Grossman noted that The Magicians was "such a big thing for me, such a voice-finding moment, that I thought I was writing this new novel in its shadow." So how does he explain the reviewers and readers who have deemed The Magician King a better book? "That's not the reaction I expected," he admitted. "However, I do think I learned a lot writing The Magicians, so perhaps this book is more assured."

Although the initial part of his first book came very quickly, Grossman insisted that he's a very slow writer. "This new novel was done in two years, which is lightning speed for me, so I'm not sure when the next one will be finished. I am thinking in terms of one more book about Quentin, Brakebills and the world of Fillory," he said. "It would be foolish of me to say 'no more,' and I also simply like being at the school and think there's some more action that needs to take place there."

Is he worried about eventually losing access to the magical world he's created? Not at all, Grossman said. "There are some things you can't lose, because they're part of who you are. I've finally figured out what kinds of books I want to write--and I want to write as many of them as I can." --Bethanne Patrick

Great Reads

Further Reading: Girls in White Dresses

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close (Knopf) is a debut novel in stories. What is a "novel in stories?" To paraphrase Justice Holmes, I'm not sure, but I know it when I see it....

Seriously, though, this form has gained popularity among writers and readers in the past decade, and while it may be hard to define, it can be wonderful to read. Other collections of linked stories:


But Come Ye Back by Beth Lordan tells the tale of an Irish-American couple who retire to Galway and find their long marriage re-tested there.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is the portrait of the difficult title character, seen through the eyes of her friends and family in Maine.

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita gathers all sorts of (fictional) sources to delineate a year in the life of a San Francisco Asian-American community.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin shows how corruption in the Pakistani city of Lahore affects all of its residents.

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon reveals the inside dramas at Fort Hood, Tex., before, during and after deployments.


The Ideal Book Café

"It's the living room one aspires for but never has," said a customer of Bikya Book Café in Cairo, Egypt. The bookstore, which is owned by five women, opened last January and "has now become a cultural hub in the middle of Nasr City, a neighborhood deficient in cultural venues. In Bikya, people come to read, meet with friends or work quietly in a corner. Few places in Cairo offer a truly quiet environment such as Bikya," the Daily News Egypt reported.

Poetic License in a Calendar

More than souls were bared last weekend during a poetic photo shoot in England's Lake District for a charity calendar. The Guardian reported that after her two-year-old son was diagnosed with type one diabetes, Wild Women Press co-founder and poet Victoria Bennett came up with the idea of a calendar that "saw a male poet paired with a female photographer for each month of the year (plus one extra month 'for all the things you never have time to do'). The duo were then asked to interpret a poem donated for the calendar by a female poet, from Wendy Cope to Penelope Shuttle, Moniza Alvi and Pascale Petite."

Bennett added that they "shot on the ledge where Coleridge used to write, on the opium bed in his study, by Southey's desk. We figured Coleridge would have approved. Once upon a time Wordsworth, Byron and others used to gather there. Now we have a different group." Proceeds from calendar sales will go to diabetes research.

Cool New Websites for Bookworms

"Cool new websites every bookworm should bookmark" were showcased by Flavorwire, which noted that these destinations will "keep you sharp and informed while you are at work, at school, or as you sit in a café for hours and scowl at the patrons without laptops. (Please stop doing that, by the way.)"

Boogie Down with the Wife of Bath

Flavorwire featured a literary mixtape for the Wife of Bath, noting that she "is one of the most developed characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which is somewhat unusual, since she is--gasp!--a woman. Also going by Alyson, the character is a strong proponent of female independence, and even dominance over men.... The Wife of Bath can get down with the best of them, so she'd definitely be into some deliciously crude fare, as well as some of your typical feminist empowerment rock. And of course, she'd only listen to lady singers. Who else? Here's what we think the Wife of Bath would gossip, spin her tale, and lay down the law to, but be warned: there is some parsing of Middle English ahead." 

Book Candy: Spine-Tingling Dress, Dickensian Clutch

This dress, found on the Little Augury blog, shows that orderly rows of books can achieve sinuous fluidity when draped on a model. Your editor plans to contact designer Zero Maria Cornejo to ask if they'd consider using the same fabric to fashion a custom-made muu-muu for reading.


The latest edition in the Kate Spade line of book clutch bags is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Previous titles include The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Romeo & Juliet and Emma--so the great 19th-century novelist is in stylish company.

Book Review


The Lantern

by Deborah Lawrenson

Eve meets Dom in a maze on the shores of Lake Geneva, where she is working as a translator and Dom is enjoying the fruits of having sold his successful business. The maze is the perfect symbol for what follows. They fall in love instantly and move to Provence to buy a property named Les Genévriers, or the junipers. The house is in terrible condition and they make plans to improve it.

Meanwhile, they live with insect husks, dust, dirty walls and a particularly nasty and mysterious stain on the kitchen floor. They drift through the days enjoying each other, Dom writing music and playing the piano, Eve reading and wandering the property. Sabine, a local businesswoman, insinuates herself into Eve's life, questioning her about Rachel, Dom's wife: is she his late wife or his ex-wife?

Sabine causes Eve to doubt Dom, and he doesn't help matters as he becomes more withdrawn, almost cold. Eve wonders if the love affair is at an end. In alternating chapters, Eve's story and that of Bénédicte, an old woman who grew up on the property, unfold but don't intersect--until the pool at Les Genévriers is excavated and a dreadful discovery made.

This haunting novel is rife with brutal acts, lies, secrets and characters with murky motivations. Lawrenson is at her best writing about Provence: the lavender-filled fields; "mirabelles--the tart orange plums like incandescent bulbs strung in forest green leaves; the budding grapes; tomatoes ribbed and plump as harem cushions; lemon sun in the morning pouring through open windows." She evokes a sense of place that is irresistible. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: A young woman falls in love with an older man, they move into a house in Provence and there follows a little Rebecca, a little Suspicion and a generous helping of lavender-drenched countryside.

Harper, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062049698

Girls in White Dresses

by Jennifer Close

Though the title of Close's novel nods at The Sound of Music, the white dresses she's talking about are those worn down the aisle. So is this just another fluffy piece of chick lit about 20-somethings finally finding love? Not with Close's wry wit and deadpan delivery, which make this debut a treat to read.

The brides and bridesmaids, all recent college grads in Manhattan, are trying to make their way through the labyrinth of business and romance, pets and take-out, that modern life offers. This is not Our Hearts Were Young and Gay; it's is an original confection with echoes of The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing and a dollop of Sex and the City.

Isabella, Mary and Lauren are the centerpieces of these 17 interrelated stories, with friends on the periphery, who include Ellen, who "dates ugly boys," and Abby, who has hippie parents who embarrass her.

Lauren, after long internal debates about sleeping with her sleazy bartender boss, meets Mark, who "never" wants to live with another person. Isabella has a penchant for picking losers, until she meets Harrison, who is definitely a keeper (their moving story, "Until the Worm Turns," is the funniest of all). Studious Mary is a lawyer who marries and quickly produces two children, but must cope with a horror of a mother-in-law named "Button," because her daddy thought she was cute as a button. What more do you need to know?

There is much alcohol consumed in these stories; many, many tears over men, weddings, showers, white dresses, bosses, pets, jobs and downsizing. In fact, just about any occasion calls for booze and tears--or both. Through it all, you just know that somehow these thoroughly modern Millies are going to come out right where they want to be. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: A humorous take on 20-somethings in Manhattan coping with the rigors of dating, careers and all their friends' weddings.

Knopf, $24.95, hardcover, 9780307596857

Mystery & Thriller

The Woodcutter

by Reginald Hill

After some 40 books, most written after he retired from teaching in the 1980s, Reginald Hill continues to amaze with his writing. In 2010, the London Times picked him as one of the 50 Greatest Crime Writers; among his many awards is Britain's prestigious Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for his Andrew Dalziel & Peter Pascoe mystery series. Hill could easily rest on his laurels, but his latest novel proves him to be at the top of his form--inventive, creative and literary to the bone.

The Woodcutter is an elaborate and complex thriller told in many parts, over a number of years, and through many voices. Many epigraphs (Heine, Dumas, Lord Dunsany) point to the two love stories at the heart of the book, which is set in Hill's beloved Cumbria, England.

Hill tells the story of the "Woodcutter"--Sir Wilfred (Wolf) Hadda--his wife, Imogen, and the successful man's fall from grace. He's arrested for crimes--fraud, child pornography--he didn't commit and is seriously injured in an accident. Psychiatrist Alva Ozigbo tries to help him deal with his past and his "crime." He's eventually freed and then, a la Dumas' Count, it's now a tale of revenge.

Hill must have had a lot of fun weaving this elaborate tale. Despite some over-the-top characters and a plot that at times seems unnecessarily complex, he delivers another engrossing novel, proving he doesn't need to do another Dalziel/Pascoe romp to earn his stripes. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: Discover: A standalone thriller by a master of the mystery genre.

Harper, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062060747

Where the Shadows Lie

by Michael Ridpath

Detective Magnus Jonson, a tough Boston cop, turned in his crooked partner. Unfortunately for Magnus, his crooked partner then had Dominican drug contacts put a bounty on him. After two attempts on his life, Magnus's supervisors decide to send him away to assist police in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Back in the land of his birth, Magnus is immediately thrown into a murder investigation. Professor Agnar Haraldsson has been found dead at his summer cottage. It turns out that just before someone smashed his head with a rock, Agnar had been working on an English translation of a secret, 1,000-year-old Icelandic saga that may have been Tolkien's inspiration for The Lord of the Rings, and it hints at the presence of an actual ring of power.

Ingileif, the beautiful artist whose family has been hiding the saga for centuries, is convinced that the ring is real and has cursed her family. Magnus is not so sure, and the other detectives on the case are downright skeptics. While Magnus is busy trying to brush up on his Icelandic and convince the rest of the team that the saga may have played a role in death, the Dominicans are working hard to track Magnus down.

The vivid descriptions of the modern city of Reykjavik contrast sharply with the eerie landscape of the Icelandic countryside, where the clues to Haraldsson's death lead the investigation. Michael Ridpath has created a mystery whose eccentric characters seem like they might have come from Middle Earth. The only question is whether or not Magnus will be able to separate truth from myth and find the killer before the Dominicans find him. --Jessica Howard, bookseller, Bookmans Entertainment Exchange

Discover: An Icelandic-American detective trying to find a killer who may possess an ancient and powerful secret.

Minotaur Books, $24.99, hardcover, 9780312675035

The Glitter Scene

by Monika Fagerholm, trans. by Katarina E Tucker

Finnish writer Monika Fagerholm's followup to The American Girl evokes the sunless settings of other contemporary Scandinavian thrillers, but this enigmatic trove of disjointed scenes and images is more about creating a huge, eerie mind painting than it is about entertaining weekend readers at the beach. There is a murder mystery set in an unnamed Finnish coastal region at the center of The Glitter Scene, but it is  background color to the brushstrokes of assaulting, affecting prose poetry that Fagerholm paints with here.

The story unfolds glacially, non sequiturs repeated over and over amid stream-of-consciousness dialogue from multiple characters until it all falls into surprising coherence hundreds of pages later. The central mystery: What happened in 1969 to Bjorn and the American girl? Did he became jealous of her friendship with his "cousin" Bengt, and push her to her death in Bule Marsh, then kill himself out of horror afterward? In 2006, Bengt's daughter, Johanna, is intrigued and horrified by her family's role in the local romantic death legend, but her flamboyant classmate, Ulla, taunts her with the tale. Each of these and other characters has ugly, violent secrets, and what is assumed at the beginning of the book becomes very different by the end.

Paired with the bleak, cold beauty of its setting, The Glitter Scene's misanthropy and convoluted narrative style make for challenging reading. But the artistry of so many words spinning like random snowflakes until they finally assemble themselves into a frightening snow sculpture is undeniable. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic

Discover: A dreamy, creepy, swirling of prose that eventually uncovers a story of love and violence in a coastal Finnish community.

Other Press, $17.95, trade paper, 9781590513057

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline has a thing for 1980s pop culture the way James Joyce had a thing for the Dublin of June 16, 1904. But you can't re-create a cultural landscape in fictional prose the way you can an actual city, so Cline has come up with a clever workaround: he's created an imaginary online universe programmed by an equally obsessive '80s fan, and then gives his characters (and readers) a compelling reason to explore it.

It's 2044, and teenager Wade Watts is one of millions scouring the virtual reality of the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS, for short) for clues left by late creator James Halliday that will lead to the "Easter egg" representing his multibillion-dollar fortune. Wade has an intuitive flash that helps him discover the first puzzle, which combines a classic Dungeons & Dragons module with one of the more unusual '80s arcade games, near his high school, but he also crosses paths with Art3mis, a semi-famous egg hunter he's had a crush on for years.

Romance will have to wait, though: Wade faces a threat from a technology corporation that's pouring its resources into making sure Halliday's fortune, and control of the OASIS, will wind up in its hands. The ensuing adventure will take him to a slew of imaginary worlds, drop him into the starring role of cult movies, and even provoke a daring act of real-world industrial sabotage. Fortunately for readers, who might not be pulled along on clever '80s pop-culture references alone, Wade's online successes are matched by a gradual maturation offline.

There's a lot of the '80s crammed in here, and chances are that if you were born between, let's say, 1965 and 1975, you'll be giving the author virtual high-fives for including one or more of your more obscure favorites. --Ron Hogan, founder of

Discover: Cline has concocted an alluring, immersive environment: imagine a novel about playing the iconic 1990s computer game Myst, but with major real-world consequences for the player.

Crown, $24, hardcover, 9780307887436

The Moon Maze Game

by Larry Niven, Steven Barnes

The Moon Maze Game takes place in a near-future Earth in which Live Action Role Playing Games (LARPs) are a popular entertainment, much like sports or reality television is now. In this fourth book in Larry Niven and Stephen Barnes's Dream Park series, we meet professional bodyguard Scotty Griffin, who is given the job of escorting Ali Kikaya (heir to the throne of a small African nation) to the first-ever LARP on the moon. Griffin is struggling with his return to the moon, having left it and his marriage many years before because of an accident.

On the moon, a diverse team of gamers make their way through scripted gaming environments--until a group of revolutionaries takes things in a new and dangerous direction. The team of gamers must now cooperate to survive rather than compete to win.

With a briskly moving plot and engaging characters, The Moon Maze Game could be more satisfying than it is. There's no real sense of danger, and some of the gaming details seemed forced. That said, there are plenty of callbacks to an earlier style of science fiction, with Lunar independence and gorgeous, smart and brave red-headed women à la Heinlein. Fans will enjoy this throwback to old-school sci-fi. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A quick and enjoyable read for fans of old-school sci-fi.

Tor, $25.99, hardcover, 9780765326669

Food & Wine

Kitchen Simple: Essential Recipes for Everyday Cooking

by James Peterson

Award-winning cookbook writer James Peterson (Sauces) imparts the collected wisdom of more than 30 years' experience with the culinary arts in Kitchen Simple. Peterson's principle in this collection is, as the title suggests, simple: to provide busy people with easy recipes, most of which can be prepared in 30 minutes or less, using the simplest of ingredients.

This guide begins, as most basic cookbooks do and all basic cookbooks should, with a few pages noting basic ingredients and equipment, specifically outlining what to look for in each instance. Following this is a short section on cooking techniques, in which Peterson explains each with clear detail in unpretentious and reassuring language: "Baking is simply cooking in the oven. Most recipes call for preheating the oven... but if you're baking something like potatoes... just stick the potatoes in the oven and turn the oven on." Each and every recipe includes a short introduction detailing helpful information about the origin of the dish or tricks to make it even more effortless or tastier.

With a solid background in culinary instruction, Peterson easily articulates the basics of cooking and baking the selected recipes for even the most adventurous cook. This diverse assortment of 200 recipes strikes a perfect balance between fundamental and more advanced dishes, making it a useful source for cooks at every level of expertise. The straightforward language and full-color photographs, taken by Peterson himself, combine to create an accessible, well-organized guide to cooking for any occasion. --Sarah Borders, librarian, Houston Public Library

Discover: New recipes, using uncomplicated (and inexpensive) ingredients, to stir your senses and stimulate your palate in 30 minutes or less.

Ten Speed Press, $30, hardcover, 9781580083188


The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies

by Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker (Panama Fever; Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II) uses the rise and fall of the sugar dynasties of the West Indies to tell the intertwined histories of sugar, slavery, the industrial revolution and Britain's American colonies. The story is occasionally horrifying and never dull.

Parker begins with James Drax's first experiments in growing sugar cane as an alternative to tobacco on Barbados in the early 1640s. He ends with the decline of the West Indian sugar industry following Britain's abolition of slavery in 1838. In between he tells the story of how West Indian "white gold" transformed the British economy, not to mention the British diet, and introduces the reader to pirates, Dutch financiers, dissolute planters, Quaker reformers--and the thousands of African slaves on whose backs the Sugar Revolution was built.

The most fascinating aspect of The Sugar Barons concerns the relationship between the West Indies and Britain's North American colonies. In the world of British colonialism, the 13 colonies on the Atlantic seaboard were the West Indies' poor cousins. By the late 18th century, the West Indies were responsible for 80% of Britain's colonial income. Not surprisingly, Parliament was quick to pass laws that sacrificed the interests of the northern colonies to those of the West Indies, ending with the Sugar Act of 1764 and the first step on the road to the American Revolution. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: How West Indian sugar plantations transformed the British economy, created the North American slave trade and laid the foundation for the American Revolution.

Walker & Co., $30, hardcover, 9780802717443

The Persistence of the Color Line

by Randall Kennedy

The presidential election of 2008 was widely held to be a watershed moment in the long, grim history of American race relations, a unifying event built on a crumbling foundation of polarizing anger.

Randall Kennedy, highly regarded Harvard law professor and author of the controversially titled 2002 book Nigger, asks us to reconsider this "post-racial America" euphoria. In his new analysis of the politics and racial implications of Obama's election, he painstakingly illustrates that we have not moved as far as we think. Although he admits that he, too, was caught up in the moment (even attending his first inauguration), his book takes a more sober look at the Obama presidency and the election process.

If politics really matter, and Kennedy clearly believes they do (he all but ignores the 50% of the eligible voters who haven't voted over the last 50 years), then his new book is a telling look at how racial considerations played out in the 2008 election and how they might affect elections to come in the post-Obama years.

He concludes that we not only have not attained a "post-racial" America, but we don't even agree on what that is. Obama's presidency is important, but his "principal contribution to American race relations will derive not from any policies he initiates or decisions he makes but from the symbolic power of his example as a black man who became president." –-Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A well-researched, thoughtful analysis of the impact of race on the 2008 Obama election, his presidency and America's future.

Pantheon, $26.95, hardcover, 9780307377890

Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller

by Tracy Daugherty

It is the rare biographer who can craft a cinematic narrative out of uncooperative real life without filling in the gaps with imagined details. Tracy Daugherty, author of the Donald Barthelme biography Hiding Man, proves again in Just One Catch that he is that rare biographer, one who possesses journalistic integrity and appeals to readers of fiction and nonfiction alike.

This biography of Joseph Heller, whose classic novel Catch-22 has informed critical discourse, transformed war literature and become a staple of college reading lists, is masterfully written and comprehensive. Every detail--the kooky Coney Island of Heller's childhood, flight training in Texas, the way a martini tasted before he was diagnosed with a paralyzing disease--is documented in Heller's writings, military records, magazine profiles, the census and numerous interviews, e-mails and letters. And while this book is packed with information, one feels immersed in the story rather than inundated with facts.

Daugherty thoughtfully probes Heller's work and interior, his relationships and reputations, the paradoxes in his life that allowed him to observe and realize "the possibility to be both humorous and mordantly serious," as Heller once wrote in a letter. But the author also swivels the camera past his subject at the world around him. What emerges is not simply a portrait of an artist, though it is a brilliant one, but also a literary history of post-World War II America and a deeper rumination on the state of literature and writing in an absurd world. --Claire Fuqua Anderson, fiction writer

Discover: A masterful biography of the famed satirist and author of Catch-22.

St. Martin's Press, $35, hardcover, 9780312596859

Children's & Young Adult

Big Nate on a Roll

by Lincoln Peirce

The third installment in Lincoln Peirce's Big Nate series finds Nate in detention, though he swears it's not his fault. Detention, unfortunately, means Nate doesn't get his attendance badge for his Timber Scout troop, since he's missing half of the meeting. On his way to the meeting, he loses his skateboard. When he finally arrives, Nate learns the troop has a new member: irritatingly perfect Artur. The day turns around when Nate hears that the troop is participating in a fund-raising competition; first prize is a customized skateboard. Nate tries to prove he's the best salesman--not an easy task when compared to the utterly charming and business-savvy Artur. Never one to shrink from a challenge, Nate uses various tactics and schemes to make sure he comes out on top. He tries everything from old-fashioned door-to-door sales to distracting Artur with a girl, Nate's archenemy Gina. Readers will laugh and cheer Nate on as his schemes bring him closer to his goal.

This latest book from Peirce is a gem: funny, relatable and highly engaging. Nate is an ordinary boy with extraordinary ambition. His voice draws in the reader, as though Nate is talking just to you, his old friend. Nate's comics appear throughout and often show flashbacks or imagined scenarios. Though third in a series, Big Nate on a Roll stands on its own as a perfect pick for reluctant and avid readers. --Kyla Paterno, retail coordinator, Garfield Book Company

Discover: A hilarious new adventure with Nate as he struggles to prove he can be the top salesman in his scout troop.

HarperCollins, $12.99, hardcover, 24p., ages 8-12, 9780061944383

The Lunatic's Curse

by F.E. Higgins

In her latest spine-tingler, F.E. Higgins (The Black Book of Secrets) continues to explore the gray area where the underbelly and upper echelons of society meet. Here she adds another tantalizing element: the fine line that divides sanity from insanity.

Twelve-year-old Rex Grammaticus lost his mother before he ever knew her. But he gets everything he needs from his brilliant engineer-inventor father, Ambrose, a hero in their town of Opum Oppidulum. Together they make blueprints and create models for larger inventions. But then attractive Acantha arrives on the scene and enchants Rex's father. The two marry and within two months she gets Ambrose committed to the Droprock Asylum, on a nearby island surrounded by sheer cliffs. Acantha cooks strange-smelling stews for secret guests and before long inherits all of Ambrose's money under a special 100-day law pertaining to "incurable insanity." However, the lunatics break out of the asylum, and Rex's father is able to convey a cryptic message to his son before he dies--to uncover its meaning, Rex must go to Droprock Island and find the evidence his father left him.

Higgins layers in spooky presences, including a new superintendent for the asylum (with mysterious links to Opum Oppidulum), a tattoo artist with a forked tongue, and a monster inhabiting the waters off of Droprock Island. She also introduces a charming contortionist around Rex's age named Hildred Buttonquail, who becomes an asset to the young hero. Higgins conducts a symphonic blending of all of these characters' subplots, which build to a white-knuckle climax. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A spine-tingling tale in which 12-year-old Rex must navigate the gray area between sanity and insanity, the underbelly and upper reaches of society.

Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, $16.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 10-14, 9780312566821

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