Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, August 23, 2013

William Morrow & Company: Southern Man (Penn Cage #7) by Greg Iles

From My Shelf

Elmore Leonard: Matchless

How terribly sad to learn about Elmore Leonard's death this week. He is an icon. Short sentences. Punchy dialogue. Razor-sharp vernacular. Twisted plots. How many writers have imitated him? How many directors owe their success to his screenplays and adaptations, like 3:10 to Yuma, Out of Sight and Get Shorty? Impossible for me to list my book favorites--he wrote 45, after all.

This week Johns Hopkins University Press published Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard ($29.95) by Charles J. Rzepka, professor of English at Boston University. Rzepka sent out a fine eulogy, which we would like to quote in part:

"The people of Detroit are again in mourning. Just a month ago they mourned their city. Today, they mourn the death of their best-known citizen.

"On July 18th, Detroit declared bankruptcy. Less than two weeks later, in the middle of working on his forty-sixth novel, Blue Dreams, Elmore Leonard suffered a stroke. He died... August 20th, at the age of 87. The fate of the metropolis and of the man may seem uncannily coincident, but the arcs of their respective histories and future prospects could not be more different.

"As of this writing, the morning of Elmore Leonard's death, the city's long-term future and that of its most famous author remain as divergent as their coincident histories.... Detroit is down for the count, and the loss of its most knowledgeable, and affectionate, chronicler will only add the burden of mourning to its pile of troubles as it comes to. Elmore Leonard remains, and will remain, standing, his place in American letters and in the hearts of his fellow Detroiters secure. When the city where he grew up is just a memory fading generation by generation, people will still be reading Swag and Killshot. Troy lies in ruins, but Homer's song lives on." --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

The Writer's Life

James McBride: The Combustion Process That Creates Story

photo: Chia Messina

The verdict is in: James McBride's new novel, The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead), has been praised to the stars. Of course, its author should be accustomed to this. The Color of Water, McBride's 1996 memoir of being raised by his morally compelling mother, stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for years.

McBride--also a gifted saxophonist, composer and screenwriter--followed up his memoir with two powerful fictional explorations of love, possession and betrayal: Miracle at St. Anna (2002) and Song Yet Sung (2008).

An inspired blend of history and imagination, irreverence and idealism, The Good Lord Bird explores John Brown's mission to free the South's slaves, a quest that ended with the disastrous 1859 insurrection at the federal armory in Harpers Ferry and the abolitionist's hanging later that year. The novel's genius lies in its riffing, knowing narrator, Henry "Onion" Shackleford. Ten when the book begins, he undergoes an immediate sea-change when Brown rescues (or kidnaps, as Onion sees it) him, since Brown thinks him a girl.

Over the course of four years, the boy follows the abolitionist from Kansas to the Harpers Ferry standoff, with stops along the way in free and slave states and even Canada. While we witness history through Onion's eyes, the novel is far from a monologue. McBride excels at debate and drama and has created and re-created a rich cast of characters, notably a mind-blowing Frederick Douglass. But the author also gives voice to many other men and women who have been lost to history--searing individuals like the rebellious Sibonia, whose bravery dazzles Onion, and two men involved in the Underground Railway, the Coachman and the Rail Man.

How long had you been wanting to explore John Brown and how did doing so through Onion's eyes come about?

I stopped at Harpers Ferry one afternoon about 10 years ago after a trip to Maryland to research Song Yet Sung. I was fascinated. I knew there was book, but there were already at least 30 of them, and some were well done. It took a while to figure out how to explore Brown's life in a way that was fresh. I decided on an old black man reflecting on his life using the black southern vernacular because I love that voice and thought it would be effective. I grew up hearing the adults in my life, most of whom were from the South, talking that way--though some were more colorful than others.

Presenting Onion as a girl helps push the inner story--that of identity and self-realization--forward. You have to charge your outer story with inner conflict, otherwise the thing lacks muscle. Anyone can make physical things happen on the page. But the muscle comes from inside, from some kind of conflict or spark that moves people around. In this case it's identity. It's like real life, is what it is. Indeed, it is real to me, or I would not be able to lay it onto the page. The voice of a kid laying raw truth to John Brown's story seemed to be effective.

As you explored John Brown's life--and life and death in both free and slave states--how did you keep from being overwhelmed by vast number of texts and testimony?

I drown myself in them. I let the story cover me. After I'm done, I lay all the books, interviews, research, notes, etc., aside where they can be easily accessed and forget about them more or less. That absorption process is painful and I hate it. Once that's done, I sit at my desk at 5:00 every morning, hoping the characters will leap out the desk drawer and allow me to join them. Once I'm in their world, it's usually a relief from my own life.

Onion goes from a cynical, shrewd child to a 14-year-old who sees the world through a more faceted prism, having lived in slavery and freedom, as a boy and a girl, as an opportunist and an idealist. His disguise allows him to realize a great deal about gender roles and stereotypes (not that he'd use such terms). Would you say that's a key layer of this very textured novel?

If it is, it's unintentional. I just wanted the characters to evolve. If they don't evolve, then some connective tissue is missing somewhere and you have to go back and see where the break is. Everything must connect. I work from the premise that all characters are the same. A 1950s hillbilly gets just as thirsty and wants love just as much as a Roman emperor. How they go about fetching it is where plot and character begin the combustion process that creates story.

There's a great deal of wit in The Good Lord Bird, not least in Onion's initial collisions with the slave Bob and then with the Coachman and the Rail Man, both of whom are involved in the Underground Railway. You allow us to see and sense far more than the boy does. How do you pull off such levels of dramatic irony?

I honestly don't know. I kept it all within Onion's view, and simply let him tell it.

As in your earlier novels, women steal any number of scenes. There's Sibonia--an older woman in a slave pen in Missouri who Onion realizes plays the fool even better than him. There's Harriet Tubman. There's John Brown's daughter Annie, whom Onion falls in love with. Her kindness and decency, he realizes, come from strength and courage. Such subtle conclusions emerge naturally from the narrative, but you must be hoping that the reader will take them to heart.

I was raised by a strong woman who could make her 12 children march to their bedrooms and do their homework simply by raising an eyebrow. My mother was powerful, but she ruled from the inner emotional power, not outer physical power. In the world of fiction, where inner power is often crucial in terms of driving story and plot, strong women are essential.

Tell us about Onion's far-from-warm assessment of Frederick Douglass.

I had fun making fun of Mr. Douglass and felt a little guilty about it, because I admire him in real life. But it was just too delicious to pass up, particularly since he actually did--wisely I might add--pass up joining Brown's suicide mission at Harpers Ferry. He was just available, so I hit it. I hope I didn't get myself into too much trouble. It ought to be said that Onion pokes fun at everybody.

Onion is an excellent judge of human nature and hypocrisy, and has some trenchant things to say about abolitionists. At one Free Staters' feel-good meeting, he realizes that "there weren't hardly ever any Negroes present at most of them gatherings, and them that was there was doodied up and quiet as a mouse. It seemed to me the whole business of the Negro's life out there weren't no different than it was out west, to my mind. It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro."

The abolitionists meant well, and many were courageous and gave their lives to the cause of abolitionism. But that doesn't mean that they were absolved of the kind of racist feelings that exist in us all, black, white, and other.

The book is packed with eloquent and unforgettable unforced phrases and swings easily between comedy and deep sadness. You make it all look so effortless. Was it?

No. I sweated it. I rewrote phrases five, sometimes 10 different ways, before settling on one that had just the right amount of pop.

Onion keeps telling himself that he's waiting for the right moment to escape to freedom--"Until I figured out the lay of the land," I couldn't run off noplace."--yet he never seems to find it.

It's worth mentioning that most slaves who ran off never got far. Most got caught within a few miles from "home." Many didn't know exactly where they were running to and what they'd find when they got there. You had to be more than extremely motivated to dash for freedom. You had to be centered enough to take the loneliness, agony and poverty that awaited you once you got past the freedom line.

In your acknowledgments, you write that you are "deeply grateful to all those who, over the years, have kept the memory of John Brown alive." In Onion's telling, he's a man of infinite variety and abiding strangeness. Did your impressions of this icon change over the course of the novel?

I admire John Brown now more than I did when I first started the book. I admire his sense of moral courage, his religiosity, his sense of purpose, his lack of fear, and his overall decency. People thought he was crazy. Some of the early accounts pretty much present him that way. But he was not crazed. He was simply driven by morality and religion. A deeply flawed man with a true purpose. --Kerry Fried

Book Candy

Fiction for Nonfiction Fans; Miniature Books

The "top 10 fiction books for nonfiction addicts" were recommended by Thought Catalog.


Mental Floss revealed "10 miniature books we covet."


Flavorwire shared "20 vintage diet and beauty book covers," noting that current books in the popular category offer "the usual assortment of good, bad, and confusing advice... and really, not much has changed."


How well do you know Roald Dahl's characters? The Guardian featured a quiz to test your knowledge of all things Dahlish. And Buzzfeed noted "17 magical lessons learned from Roald Dahl books," including "the snozzberries taste like snozzberries!"


James Davies, author of Cracked, chose his "top 10 psychiatry critiques."


Books under glass: Squar Estate featured a selection of "impressive bookcase designs with glass doors."

Book Review


Happiness, Like Water

by Chinelo Okparanta

Chinelo Okparanta, a young Nigerian graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop named one of Granta's six New Voices for 2012, confirms her place as a writer to watch with the remarkable debut collection Happiness, Like Water.

Okparanta combines tight narrative control with lyrical language in stories that explore such complicated themes as the ties and restrictions of family and religion, domestic abuse, sexuality and the legacies of colonialism. Her stories are usually narrated by mothers and daughters in Nigeria or transplanted to the U.S., often helpless at resisting the despotism of tradition or family. In "Runs Girl," a student tries to decide if she can justify prostitution to raise money to provide for her dying mother; the protagonist of "Story, Story!" battles her conscience in an effort to create a family of her own.

In the struggle with personal happiness, duty might win, but it can sometimes usher in an almost spiritual acceptance without diminishing the cost. Occasionally, as in "On Ohaeto Street," it is contentment's catalyst. And Okparanta stops short of making her characters victims. She's more interested in exploring their confused motives and hopes; the stories startle with their compassion and acceptance of human weakness. In Okparanta's hands, the larger-than-life choices her characters face become the size of the human heart.

Okparanta's Nigeria is visceral and specific, but her themes are not. Like Jhumpa Lahiri or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she writes about human relationships from her own cultural background, where the exotic settings remind us of what binds us all together. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: A clear-eyed, sensitive debut collection of stories by a talented young Nigerian writer exploring themes of family, religion, longing and duty.

Mariner, $14.95, paperback, 9780544003453

The Infatuations

by Javier Marias

Possibilities and ideas abound in the latest offering from the Spanish literary giant Javier Marias. Narrated by a woman named Maria, this intellectual pretzel of a novel is an exercise in ambiguity. As the story begins, a woman who breakfasts in the same café every morning, who has watched Miguel and Luisa dining together for years, enjoying the spectacle of their perfect love, discovers in the newspaper that Miguel has been viciously and repeatedly stabbed to death in the middle of the street on his birthday--and he wasn't the intended victim.

The pleasure of the novel lies in its embroidery on that simple narrative, its homages and tributes, riffs and satires, and baroquely illustrated projections: what could have happened, what should have happened, what might have happened, now that the grieving widow is in the care of his very attentive best friend, the handsome and charismatic Javier Diaz-Varela. Maria meets the widow, begins a casual affair with Diaz-Varela and finds herself falling in love.

Marias is irresistibly compelled to explore every potential development, as his characters weigh all the options available to them, considering all the permutations of human motivation and behavior. The turning points come as surprises, with the casual unpredictability of real life. In elegant language, bursting with a tantalizing array of observations on the way we live our lives, Marias is a world-class performer juggling the dilemmas of mortality, the deceptions of chance and the unbearable difficulty of believing anyone is telling the truth. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: Javier Marias (author of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy) spins a love story in modern Madrid of secret loves and ambiguous motivations revolving around the murder of the wrong man.

Knopf, $26.95, hardcover, 9780307960726

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

by Emily Croy Barker

Nora Fischer is having a bad day: her boyfriend has just announced his engagement to another woman, her Ph.D. thesis advisor expresses doubts about her academic career and her cat's been hit by a car. So when Nora wanders into the garden of an heiress, Ilissa, who invites her to a series of splendid parties, it seems the perfect opportunity to take time for herself. Then she meets Ilissa's handsome son, Raclin, who initiates a whirlwind courtship. By the time Ilissa and Raclin are revealed to be magical beings with unsavory intentions, Nora is sunk too deep in the enchantment to escape.

Soon Nora finds herself in a world where the milieu is medieval, magic takes the place of technology and an amoral Faerie-like race called Faitoren--the same people who seduced Nora into their world--are perpetually at war with the human population. As Nora struggles to find her place in this world where her academic skills, and even the English language, are suddenly useless, she is alternately aided and thwarted by the magician Aruendiel.

In The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic, Emily Croy Barker presents an intelligent, no-nonsense heroine who never compromises on her dignity. Through persistence, Nora learns the use of magic, a talent that will eventually be useful during the inevitable showdown between Aruendiel and the Faitoren.

Barker's lovingly developed main characters are the engine of the novel, and their prickly relationship comprises its center. By the end, readers will feel at home in the alternate universe Barker has created, and her protagonists will come to seem like old friends. --Ilana Teitelbaum, book reviewer at the Huffington Post

Discover: A debut novel about a smart young woman whose life is in shambles when she accidentally enters a different world--where magic, romance and battles await her.

Pamela Dorman, $27.95, hardcover, 9780670023660

The Truth

by Michael Palin

Michael Palin--yes, the Monty Python Michael Palin--returns to fiction with The Truth, his first novel since 1994's Hemingway's Chair.

Once an idealistic and award-winning journalist, Keith Mabbut now writes histories about (and for) oil companies to pay his bills. He's estranged from his son, a wannabe actor, and his daughter has fallen for an Iranian refugee. His almost-ex-wife is inviting him to meet her rich, handsome new gentleman friend. In an attempt to make a fresh start, Mabbut decides to try novel writing, but before he can fully commit to his dawn of man/interstellar visitor storyline--"It's not science fiction, it's historical re-creation"--his agent approaches him with a deal: six figures to write a biography of an environmental activist.

The catch? Hamish Melville, the activist in question, leads a life of fanatical privacy. Mabbut ultimately finds the project too enticing to pass up, and embarks on a journey into some of India's most beautiful and environmentally embattled areas. At first mistrusted and even bullied by Melville, who believes him a spy, Mabbut slowly comes to appreciate Melville's passion for protecting the villagers in rural India, threatened by the prospect of strip mining. But even if Mabbut does get the story of a lifetime, what exactly is his publishers' motive for commissioning it? More importantly, is Melville the ultimate hero--or the ultimate lie?

Palin's experience in travel writing shows in his descriptions of Indian landscape and culture. Secrets within secrets lurk around every corner in this sharp, wistfully funny journey from a man's cynical exterior to his inner idealist. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Latah County Library District and blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A once-decorated journalist turned corporate sellout gets a chance to redeem himself when he's asked to write the biography of an elusive environmental activist.

Thomas Dunne, $24.99, hardcover, 9781250028242

Biography & Memoir

The Handoff: A Powerful Memoir of Two Guys, Sports, and Friendship

by John Tournour

After a fun-filled, full-speed youth as president of his fraternity and, later, working as a professional cold-calling stockbroker, John Tournour finds his true calling: sports talk radio. He starts out as a listener calling in, then gets his own show but has to pay for airtime, gradually working his way up until one day he gets a fateful call. Andrew Ashwood mentors John, now known on the air as "JT the Brick," through an ascending career, and they become the closest of friends. When Andrew is diagnosed with cancer, JT naturally gets the call to be his chemo buddy and "main go-to guy."

Though The Handoff begins with JT's childhood, we know from the beginning that Andrew will be its focal point. JT failed to take notes on Andrew's every word in those final months, realizing only in hindsight that he was not only modeling how to live--and how to die--but also sharing all his life lessons, on and off the air.

JT may be macho and manly--this is smack-talk sports radio, after all--but he is heartfelt and emotional in relating his love for Andrew and his appreciation of everything his friend had to offer. Although sports radio is JT's passion and the background for his friendship with Andrew, his readers need not know or even much care about sports (or radio) to empathize. The Handoff is a memoir of life and loss, but foremost of friendship. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: An earnest remembrance of a friend and the wisdom he passed on to a sports talk radio anchor.

Center Street, $25, hardcover, 9781455527908


Jane Austen's England

by Lesley Adkins, Roy Adkins

In Jane Austen's England, Roy and Leslie Adkins present a detailed picture of the early 19th-century world in which Austen wrote her novels.

It was a tumultuous period, marked by almost constant war and the economic and social upheaval of the earlier Industrial Revolution. Like Austen herself, the Adkinses do not focus on the larger events of the period, except to note their impact on daily life. (Mechanized textile mills, for instance, transformed people's wardrobes, but also created a new class of urban poor.)

The structure of Jane Austen's England loosely follows the course of life from birth to death, stopping along the way to consider education, fashion, filth, illness and belief. In addition to Austen's novels and letters, the authors use sources such as newspapers, diaries, letters from more ordinary folk, reports by foreign visitors and accounts of criminal trials to create an intimate picture of daily life. They consider not only the middle and upper classes that Austen portrayed so brilliantly, but the full range of a highly stratified society: from clergymen and governesses to farmers, mid-wives, barbers and chimney sweeps.

Fans of Austen, Georgette Heyer or Regency romance novels will find explanations of familiar tropes, including a detailed account of the marriage laws that led eloping couples to head for Gretna Green, the first town over the Scottish border. At the same time, the world the Adkinses portray is darker, dirtier and colder than it appears in the novels or their movie adaptations. Keeping those white muslin dresses white was hard work. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: The things Jane Austen didn't tell you about her characters' lives.

Viking, $27.95, hardcover, 9780670785841

Essays & Criticism

What Poets Are Like: Up and Down with the Writing Life

by Gary Soto

Gary Soto's What Poets Are Like is a commonplace book filled with proverbial wisdom. The prolific Mexican-American poet and children's author describes these prose pieces as having "the mystery of poetry--brief, imagistic, true, reflective, and individually mine."

Soto's was a hardscrabble youth, his education hard-won, and these pieces frequently refer to his past. Some deal with migrant workers and Cesar Chavez, a "flag in my heart." Many deal with his poetry and his struggle for success, even though he has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. There's a group of "At Home With" pieces, featuring Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Pepys (whom Soto loves), Harold Bloom (whom he hates) and George W. Bush. Soto recounts an invitation to the National Book Festival where he sits at a card table in the Smithsonian Institution to sign with other authors--only his publisher didn't send books; next to him sits David McCullough, swamped by people and sales. The piece on the rise and fall of Cody's Books in Berkeley, Calif., is prophetic. A scheduled author reads at the now-shuttered store anyway, holding court on the sidewalk.

What Poets Are Like is best thumbed through, stopping at titles that intrigue (Here's What I Think, Book Titles, Book Signings, Flat Tire, The FBI, Aging Poet). It's easy-going, episodic and--at a mass market size bound in hardcover--a pleasure to hold. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: An aging poet's commonplace book filled with witty asides, humorous anecdotes, snide digressions--insights and reflections on an up-and-down writing life.

Sasquatch, $15, hardcover, 9781570618741

Psychology & Self-Help

The Trauma of Everyday Life

by Mark Epstein

In The Trauma of Everyday Life, psychiatrist Mark Epstein (Thoughts Without a Thinker) offers two main theses: trauma is inevitable but, when handled properly, it connects us to ourselves as more complete individuals.

Trauma, Epstein argues, is indivisible from human experience: "It takes many forms, but spares no one." While events we tend to consider "traumatic"--such as deaths, abuse, or major accidents--do not happen to everyone, we all experience some part of human life as traumatic.

Some schools of thought teach that we ought to move past trauma; others say we ought to rise above it. Epstein finds in Buddhist teachings a method of integrating trauma into our experience of ourselves, generating both a richer inner "self" and a capacity for greater compassion and empathy for others.

The Trauma of Everyday Life explores several Buddhist stories, including those that discuss the death of the Buddha's mother--the first trauma in the Buddha's young life (and one many of us will face as well). Although this episode is often glossed over by many commentators, Epstein interprets it as a key moment in Buddhist thought: the moment at which the Buddha himself is introduced to the trauma that is part and parcel of human existence, and thus the moment from which he must extricate himself to reach peace within himself. From this and other tales, Epstein draws the lesson that trauma needn't be rejected to be conquered; it can instead be integrated, bringing us greater peace with ourselves and each other. --Dani Alexis Ryskamp, blogger at The Book Cricket

Discover: A "middle path" through the traumas of human existence that leads to integration rather than renouncement.

Penguin Press, $25.95, hardcover, 9781594205132

Parenting & Family

To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care

by Cris Beam

The foster care system in the United States is broken. Nearly half a million children under 18 are currently in foster care, and the statistics for drug abuse, homelessness, poverty and mental illness among former foster kids are staggering. Cris Beam (Transparent; I Am J), a former foster parent, explores the cobbled-together child welfare system and asks hard questions: What is the goal of foster care? Why is the system failing these kids? How can we do a better job of protecting and nurturing them?

Each state's foster-care system is a patchwork of government, religious and other nonprofit organizations--often operating at cross purposes. Beam focuses on New York, following several youths (ranging from infants to teenagers) and their foster families over a few years. She touches on many aspects of foster care: financial motivations for foster parents; issues pertaining to race, class, gender and children with special needs; and conflicts between parents, their biological children and their foster children.

Most heartbreaking is Beam's sensitive exploration of the rights of biological parents. Although the system allows for returning children to their parents if they can prove they are responsible, children are often left in limbo for years as their parents struggle with addictions and other issues.

To the End of June is more descriptive than proscriptive, a layered portrait of foster children and the families who care deeply about them. Beam offers no simple answers, but her thoughtfully written narrative makes one thing clear: the system needs to change. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: A well-researched, heartbreaking look at the beleaguered foster care system in the United States.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, hardcover, 9780151014125


The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

by Amanda Ripley

Government-led education reform initiatives like "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" are part of a long line of attempts to increase the school performance of children. The United States spends more per student than almost any other country, on moves toward "common core" standards that homogenize educational content across states, "accountability" for teachers and "measurability" for testing--along with other initiatives that generally result in lackluster change. In The Smartest Kids in the World, journalist Amanda Ripley examines what other countries are doing, especially nations with remarkable success rates throughout their entire student populations.

Ripley (The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why) followed three American students on their studies abroad to find out what the "education superpowers" are doing that the U.S. isn't. There's Kim, who raises $15,000 to move to Finland; Eric, an 18-year-old who chooses to study in South Korea; and Tom, a 17-year-old who trades Pennsylvanian education for studies in Poland. The parental and student buy-in to education in these countries was revelatory. What Ripley discovers could fill two or three books, but she does an admirable job of condensing it all into narratives that could go a long way toward inspiring the kinds of academic rigor government programs haven't been able to generate. --Matthew Tiffany, counselor, writer for Condalmo

Discover: What Americans can learn from educational programs in other countries.

Simon & Schuster, $28, hardcover, 9781451654424

Children's & Young Adult

Eight Dolphins of Katrina: A True Tale of Survival

by Janet Wyman Coleman, illus. by Yan Nascimbene

The page-turning action of this true story begins the morning before Hurricane Katrina hits, and tells of the heroic efforts of the team at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Miss., to save the eight dolphins of the title.

Together, the trainers find temporary refuge for six of the dolphins--three in a pool at one hotel, and three in another hotel pool. Eight would have to remain in the Oceanarium. The cover photograph plays up the reality of the dolphins' situation, but Yan Nascimbene's interior watercolors capture the extent of the damage in a way that won't terrify young children. His image of Katrina's arrival--a forceful white splash crashing through a black backdrop and sending toys, books and furniture flying--allows the audience to see the destruction without the terrifying effect that a photograph of the 40-foot tidal wave's impact might have. When the trainers return to the Oceanarium the next day, the dolphins are gone. How do they make a case to search for their missing dolphins when so many people need saving? Unaccustomed to getting their own food, the dolphins could survive a week at most in the sea, the trainers estimate. Twelve days later, they get a boat and helicopter for their mission. How they find, corral and return the dolphins to safety makes for a harrowing tale.   

The last half of the book offers more about dolphins in general and feels a bit anticlimactic. But children will savor the scrapbook section, with photos of the dolphins and their trainers. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: The harrowing true tale of eight dolphins at risk after Hurricane Katrina destroys their oceanarium.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 6-9, 9780547719238

Kylie Jean, Pirate Queen

by Marci Peschke, illus. by Tuesday Mourning

The star of Kylie Jean, Drama Queen returns in another early chapter book adventure, this time inspired by her biography report on Grace O'Malley to don a pirate's hat and call out "Ahoy, mateys."

When the boys in her class--despite her gold-star report--insist to Kylie Jean that there's no such thing as a pirate queen, she sets out to prove otherwise. She challenges her biggest naysayer, Cory, to a series of pirate-like competitions: a sword fight (their sticks fall apart on contact), walking the plank (a teeter-totter) and swinging swashbuckler-style from a rope. No matter how well Kylie Jean competes, she can't seem to convince the boys. So she comes up with a plan, and enlists the help of her girlfriends to roll it out. In the process, readers learn a great deal about pirates, such as, that pirates lived by a code, and each mate gets one vote. (Kylie Jean's bulldog acts as their parrot.) They establish their headquarters in a place they know the boys won't look: the haunted house on Kylie Jean's street. When it turns out that the haunted house is inhabited (by a nice man named Bart Black), Kylie Jean enlists his help in convincing Cory that girls can be pirates.

Peschke peppers the narrative with lots of pirate-speak, and Mourning liberally illustrates the mateys' adventures--the Jolly Roger flag and treasure map are standouts. One of many nice twists results in Kylie Jean and her brother doing a good deed for Mr. Black. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Kylie Jean as she gently confronts gender stereotypes, asserting her right to be pirate queen.

Capstone, $8.95, hardcover, 112p., ages 6-8, 9781404881037

Captain Awesome vs. the Spooky, Scary House

by Stan Kirby, illus. by George O'Connor

Eugene McGillicudy (aka Captain Awesome) and his best friend, Charlie Thomas Jones (who doubles as Nacho Cheese Man), return for a goosepimply adventure just right for long autumn nights and Halloween.

Their town, Sunnyview, goes all out as the holiday approaches; neighbors cover their houses in fake spider webs and place Frankensteins in porch rocking chairs. As the book opens, the buddies tour the neighborhood on "monster patrol!" Together with their pet hamster, Turbo, they make up the Sunnyview Superhero Squad, and they're on the lookout for real monsters who could sabotage their Halloween fun. They spy an abandoned three-story house, and O'Connor cleverly renders how it would appear to a passerby, versus (with a page turn) how it looks to the Superhero Squad, with windows that look like eyes, and a door that resembles "a crooked mouth laughing at them." Eugene enters the house in the dark of night--in a nightmare--then decides he and Charlie should investigate it together. Little do they know that someone has overheard their plans.

Kirby's sound effects ("Creak!" "Groan!" "Stomp! Stomp! Stomp!") coupled with O'Connor's (the Olympians series) generous use of jet-black backdrops add to the scare factor, but always with enough humor to keep independent readers from abandoning the story. A ghostly presence and a mysterious hero help the friends face their fears. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A spooky-funny entry in the top-notch early chapter book series, just right for Halloween.

Simon & Schuster, $15.99, hardcover, 128p., ages 5-7, 9781442472556


Kids Buzz

The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow

by Elaine Dimopoulos, illus. by Doug Salati

Dear Reader,

Butternut, the brave storytelling rabbit, is back--and this time her home is on fire!

In my family read-aloud THE PERILOUS PERFORMANCE AT MILKWEED MEADOW, a merry troupe of turkeys organizes a summer show in the meadow, but a fire burns their playhouse to the ground. Who started the fire and why? Called "witty, whimsical, wise" in a Kirkus starred review, this middle-grade animal adventure sequel about trust and forgiveness features show-stopping illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Doug Salati.

Enjoy the show!

Elaine Dimopoulos

KidsBuzz: Charlesbridge: The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow by Elaine Dimopoulos, illus. by Doug Salati

Charlesbridge Publishing

Pub Date: 
May 21, 2024


Type of Book:
Middle Grade Fiction

Age Range: 

List Price: 
$17.99 Hardcover

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