Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, September 6, 2013

Chronicle Books: Digestion! the Musical by Adam Rex, illustrated by Laura Park

From My Shelf

Telling Stories: 'Books Are What Drew Me to Haiti'

"I keep saying that Haiti is neither a postcard nor a nightmare." --Yanick Lahens 

My "direct" connection to Haiti is very limited--a view from the air and an hour spent at the airport in Port-au-Prince 25 years ago during a flight from Guadeloupe to Miami. But I've been reading about the country for a long time, beginning with Graham Greene's The Comedians. The truth is I don't know anything about Haiti except what I have learned from novels by authors like Jean-Euphèle Milcé, Madison Smartt Bell, Dany Laferrière and Brian Moore.

I keep reading, though, following the advice ("Books are what drew me to Haiti") of Amy Wilentz, author most recently of the memoir Farewell, Fred Voodoo. Last January, Words Without Borders featured a brilliant "Writing from Haiti" issue and my mid-summer read was Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat.

Now there is Claire of the Sea Light, in which Danticat weaves stories that evoke a country where people live ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances; where tragedy and routine, love and hate, grace and violence must coexist. I've loved her work since the mid-1990s, when I read Krik? Krak! (with its epigraph from poet Sal Scalora: "We tell the stories so that the young ones/ will know what came before them./ They ask Krik? we say Krak!/ Our stories are kept in our hearts.").

Haiti also plays a central role in The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, a brilliant, intense and mesmerizing new book by Bob Shacochis. The Washington Post described it as "a spy novel the way Moby-Dick is a fishing tale." The stories and history of this country haunt Shacochis, too (see The Immaculate Invasion). "Once again in Haiti there was no glory and too little honor and too much of God's indifferent truth," he writes.

In The Alphabet of the Night, Milcé observes: "Haiti has the knack of embedding itself in the souls of those who come here." And, it would seem, those of us who read Haiti's stories. --Robert Gray, contributing editor

4u2b Books & Media: Pairs of People by Mark K. Shriver and Jeanne Shriver, illustrated by Laura Watson

The Writer's Life

Tad Williams: The Longest-standing Cold War of All Time

photo: Deborah Beale

Tad Williams is a prolific fantasy author. His first novel, Tailchaser's Song, was published in 1985, and he's continued to write series and stand-alone novels since then. He worked a variety of jobs--including shoe salesman and radio host--before his move to writing full time. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family, which includes a wife, children, cats, dogs, turtles, pet ants and banana slugs.

His latest novel, Happy Hour in Hell (DAW), reviewed below, is the second (following The Dirty Streets of Heaven), in a planned trilogy about the war between Heaven and Hell, written in a noir style and starring Doloriel--Bobby Dollar--an angel who has fallen hopelessly in love with his demon lover. Bobby must literally travel to Hell and back to rescue her.

Tell us about the Bobby Dollar series. Why did you want to write about an angel? Why did you write in noir style?

Having grown up on Cold War espionage and film, the initial attraction for me was the idea of the mythology of Heaven and Hell as the longest-standing Cold War of all time because they can't, or don't, outright go to war with each other in a larger sense. That's supposedly being saved for the end of days or something. So it's basically like the Cold War, and I thought it would be cool to write sort of an espionage thing where the main character doesn't trust his own side and certainly doesn't trust the other side.

When I started to play with the idea seriously, though, I really wanted the main character to be the narrator and as soon as I started messing with that, I realized it had much more kind of a noir feeling. Once I wrote a little bit in the character's voice, it began to feel even more and more noir. And while I didn't want to write a standard noir, I did want to use that kind of feeling, not only for the immediacy of the character talking to the audience, but also the kind of urban, modern environment that could bring in all of that Cold War stuff.

Where does Doloriel's human name, Bobby Dollar, come from?

I wrote a series of short stories about a '70s stoner named Pogo Cashman who gets involved with famous fantasy adventures. Pogo comes from my name, Tad, because in the comic strip Pogo, which my mom read when I was little, they called the little animals "Tads." That was my nickname since I was small and that just stuck. There's some connection between the name William and money that I found once years ago and I can't remember what it was.

Later on, I wrote another character in a book called War of the Flowers, who was a much less happy version of myself. He was a failed musician with no real life. His name was Theo Vilmos--Theo is short for Theodore, and that's what a lot of people used to think Tad was short for. Vilmos is the Hungarian version of William. So that was kind of a Tad Williams substitute.

Bobby, then, comes from my real name, Robert, which I never use. Dollar ties back to the money equivalency, which I'll have to go back and look up someday because people are now asking about it again. I think somewhere along the line, when I was thinking about this angel character, I was thinking of him as being sort of a Tad-surrogate. I also like the fact it sounds kind of Ring Lardner, kind of Damon Runyon. It has that kind of 1930s-1940s raffishness, like Guys and Dolls, and so I very much modeled all the angels' nicknames in that kind of way.

Where do some of those exquisite tortures and scenes come from? Did you do research?

Yeah, absolutely! I don't think you can write a good, fantastic novel without grounding yourself very thoroughly in reality, because the audience has to feel that you know what you're talking about and they're being smoothly, professionally conveyed along. Every time you force them to drop out of the narrative to consider something from an outside perspective, then you've lost whatever emotional buildup you've got. So I researched like crazy.

You know, it's a little harder to research things like heaven and hell, because interestingly enough, especially with heaven, there's very, very little literature. Heaven is mentioned incessantly, but the number of people who have claimed to have actually seen heaven are mostly pretty obscure saints or prophets or crazy people from the first millennium. They're not world-building fantasy writers. They weren't describing these things, but saying, "I saw it in a vision, the holy city," and so on. That doesn't exactly tell you how the holy city works.

The rest of it is pretty much science fiction and fantasy world-building, trying to turn an idea into something that feels like it makes structural sense. It's weird to say that about something like Hell, but I'm trying to imagine that if Hell really existed and it served this more or less same purpose as humans believe that it does, how would it work? What would the function of it be? How do you prevent something like torture from becoming ho-hum after a while?

The scene in which a female socialite demon has Bobby tied down to the bed for sexual torture had me gasping.

Yeah, you know, there are certainly elements of folklore in that in terms of succubus and things like that, but that character was based on a real person who lived in 1920s Romania. Her name was Vera Rensey who did, in fact, kill her lovers and kept them in zinc coffins down in her basement.

I wanted Bobby to be in this really horrible position. And there's also a part of me, at a political level, that wanted to write something that would make men understand rape. I feel like that's a journey a lot of men really don't understand. Since we're dealing with Hell and torment, I thought, well, that's a thing that most men kind of either dismiss, or only think about being raped by males in prison. I was trying to come up with something a little more sophisticated but also play on the deep social, human fears that we all have.

Happy Hour in Hell is the second of a three-book series. What's next for Bobby Dollar?

I've actually finished the third book, called Sleeping Late on Judgment Day, at least in first draft. So I know what happens in the third volume. And it's kind of a little odd for me, because this is not a trilogy in the normal sense that I usually write these things.

What I usually do with a multi-volume book is it's really one big story. It has an arc, and it just happens to be distributed over several volumes cause they're so goddamned long.

What I wanted to do with this was to have some cohesion for the first three books so that people would get a chance to follow this all the way through and hopefully get caught up in the continuing mysteries from book to book. Then, by the end of the third book, what I intend to do is to set up a new square one for Bobby as a character and then do single, stand-alone books, more like standard crime fiction.

So you could pick up any one of the books and read it as a single story, which is a little more difficult with these first three. That's my plan in the long run--I write Bobby Dollar books because I really enjoy them. They're really fast to write; I knock them off in a few months, compared to a year and a half or two years. That way, I'll be able to write other books as well. I intend to keep doing Bobby Dollar, just not exclusively.

The fourth one, which is not written or even started, is tentatively called Forever O'Clock, and it will be a stand-alone novel. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Red Comet Press: If You Believe in Me by Rosemary Wells

Book Candy

Booklovers' Wedding Planner; Bookshelfie Cats

Buzzfeed offered tips on "how to have the best literary wedding ever."


"Pack Your Bags: 3 Books About Coming to America" were featured on NPR's Three Books series.


Lisa Tuttle, author most recently of The Silver Bough, chose her "top 10 mold-breaking fantasy novels" for the Guardian, highlighting "the best fantasy books for people who don't like dragons or sexy vampires."


Alison MacLeod, author of Unexploded, chose her "top 10 stories about infidelity" for the Guardian, calling them "the best books about the beginning, middle and end of the affair."


"24 photos that prove cats take better bookshelfies than humans." Flavorwire contends that cats "just have greater posing talents. They are discerning about the kinds of shelves they will perch on."

Libra Press: Anticipation (The ABCs of Romance #1) by Rue Harlow

Book Review


Man Alive!

by Mary Kay Zuravleff

When we meet Owen Lerner and his family, we learn a great deal simply from observing Owen, a pediatric psychopharmacologist, reaching into his pocket for a quarter to put in a parking meter. As he moves to slip the coin in, Owen reflects on his marriage, his children, his work. Life is good even if peppered with small anxieties. But then Owen feeds the meter and everything changes in one elongated electrified moment: he is literally struck by lightning and hurled to the pavement. In one of the novel's most elegantly crafted passages (among many equally lovely passages), Owen's body hovers near death as his life unreels--all of life's mysteries revealed in a flash of ecstatic enlightenment and accompanied, improbably, by the smell of the world's best barbecue.

Though badly burned, Owen survives his injuries, but his recovery is slow and hampered by his desire to revisit that fleeting moment of ecstasy, which leads him to act erratically--all he wants to do is barbecue. In the months following the accident, the entire Lerner family undergoes a sometimes humorous but often very painful transformation as roles are redefined and notions of reality are challenged and recalibrated.

The subtlety and intimacy with which Zuravleff portrays the Lerners would be enough to make Man Alive! a compelling novel but her understanding of and ability to convey the slippery nature of reality and by extension, what is "normal," lifts it to another level. This is a wonderful and in many ways magical novel by an exceptional author. --Debra Ginsberg, author

Discover: A compelling story, beautifully written, about a family faced with a crisis, given a strikingly original spin by a gifted novelist.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, hardcover, 9780374202316

The Maid's Version

by Daniel Woodrell

Daniel Woodrell's The Maid's Version is as rich in mountain vernacular as it is in the history and character of a region steeped in rural Americana. Drawing on a locally famous 1929 West Plains, Mo., explosion and fire that killed 39 mostly young ballroom dancers, Woodrell tells a story of tragedy and economic inequality in a small Ozark town. The fictional Arbor Dance Hall disaster "spared no class or faith, cut into every neighborhood and congregation, spread sadness with indifferent aim," but its cause or perpetrators were never identified--except in the settled mind of Alma DeGeer Dunahew.

Alma is the roughhewn grandmother of Woodrell's narrator, Alek, who learns of the tragic explosion and its suspicious origins when he's sent from St. Louis by his father to spend a summer with her in little West Table, Mo. His grandfather was an alcoholic ne'er-do-well who left Alma and their three sons to live off stolen table scraps from the wealthy Glencross banking family, whom she served for half a century as a maid. She entertains him with her version of the "colossal accident, an ongoing mystery she thought she'd solved."

A wonderfully diverse cast plays key roles in The Maid's Version. Alma's promiscuous sister, Ruby, captures Arthur Glencross's heart but dies in the fire; Sheriff Shot Adderly runs the investigation; Preacher Isaiah Willard rails against the eternally damned dancers ("God's wrath will find you even as you jerk about to pagan sounds").

Woodrell doesn't miss a lick in capturing the language of the Ozark hills and the details of its historically hand-to-mouth life. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Rich in character and Ozark history, Daniel Woodrell's new novel continues the masterful mountain storytelling that made Winter's Bone such a hit.

Little, Brown, $25, hardcover, 9780316205856

The Story of a New Name

by Elena Ferrante, trans. by Ann Goldstein

With The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante picks up where she left off in My Brilliant Friend, following her two protagonists, Lila and Elena, from adolescence into their 20s. The novel, the second volume in a trilogy, is a treatise on life in Naples, a part of Italy that has nothing in common with Rome, Florence or Milan.

The two girls have a complex, intense relationship, with Lila leading the way and Elena trying to accommodate--at least at first. Lila has pulled herself out of poverty with an early marriage to a grocer's son, whom she hates. Elena has continued studying, graduating from high school and going to university in Pisa.

Elena has been in love with Nino for what seems like her whole life. She orchestrates visits to the beach where he will be and, in a heart-rending scene, allows herself to be deflowered by his father. In a cruel twist, Lila becomes sexually obsessed with Nino, and he with her. Their affair causes scandal, results in the birth of a child and drives a wedge between Lila and Elena.

So far, this sounds like the stuff of soap opera, but the situations feel strongly autobiographical, and Ferrante's writing is convincingly real. By the end, Lila is living in poverty again and Elena has just had a book published--a recollection of her childhood, her friendship with Lila, her school experiences and the people they know. A story within a story? What surprises will the next volume in Ferrante's trilogy bring? --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: Volume two in Ferrante's clearly rendered, psychologically dense trilogy about two women coming of age in Naples.

Europa Editions, $18, paperback, 9781609451349


by Cassandra King

Cassandra King's Moonrise is an homage to Daphne du Maurier's gothic classic Rebecca, using the same atmospheric tension, presences that may or may not be there and characters whose motivations are not what they seem. But King has modernized the tale, adding characters both complex and intense.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Highlands, N.C., Moonrise is a dreamy Victorian estate, its beautiful garden filled with white flowers that bloom at night. At least, that is what it used to be. Now, a year after the death of Rosalyn, mistress of the mansion, the garden is neglected and forlorn. But Rosalyn's widower, Emmet, has returned with his new wife, Helen, and his oldest friends are gathering.

Tansy and Kit, mean and waspish, set about to make life miserable for Helen. Myna, a prize-winning poet, believes the whole Highlands scene is beneath her and views it with contempt. Rounding out the cast is Annie, Emmet's daughter. She and Kit are very close, which works against Annie and her new stepmother making a connection.

King (The Sunday Wife) tells the story in three voices: Helen, Tansy and Willa, a local girl working as a housekeeper for the rich folks. Since this is a Southern gothic novel, of course there is the suggestion of Moonrise being haunted. It is haunted, in a very real sense, by the mysterious death of Rosalyn in an car accident on the mountain road. Why did she travel to Moonrise alone and why did she leave the same night? That enigmatic behavior forms the crux of this rousing good story, with no apologies to du Maurier. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: A mansion in the mountains whose mistress dies mysteriously and a widower who remarries too soon for his disapproving friends are the foundation of a Southern gothic inspired by the classic Rebecca.

Maiden Lane Press, $26.95, hardcover, 9781940210001

Mystery & Thriller

The Return

by Michael Gruber

New York book editor Richard Marder has no idea when he will die, but has a pressing reason to fixate on the timeline: an inoperable anomaly in his brain could burst at any time. Others in the same position might take early retirement, but Marder, a widower, has plans that will require him to draw strength from a side of himself he thought he had buried, to use skills he never expected to need again. Instead of going gently into that good night, Marder sets his affairs in order, buys a beach house in Playa Diamante in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, and bids goodbye to his old Vietnam buddy Patrick Skelly, keeping the details of his journey and destination as cryptic as possible.

As Marder expected, the secrecy proves irresistible to Skelly, who shows up unannounced at a rest stop in Virginia. Marder's plans will take him deep into areas of Mexico controlled by drug lords, and a man with Skelly's skills and somewhat warped moral code will come in handy. To Skelly, however, he maintains the pretense that he intends only to fulfill his wife's last wishes and scatter her ashes in her hometown.

Gruber knows how to hook readers. An appealing protagonist with a wild card sidekick, skillful pacing, smart one-liners and plenty of artillery tilt this thriller in the blockbuster-style direction, while also giving readers food for thought about relations between Mexico and the United States. This meaty but never maudlin thriller is smart, inventive, and sure to leave readers with pounding pulses and soaring imaginations. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager, Latah County Library District; blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A heady mix of military action, vigilante justice and modern-day Mexican life underscored by the question, "How would you choose to finish your life?"

Holt, $28, hardcover, 9780805091298

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Happy Hour in Hell

by Tad Williams

Happy Hour in Hell is the second novel in a three-book supernatural noir series from fantasy author Tad Williams (of Otherland and Shadowmarch fame). Heaven and Hell are the ultimate Cold War opponents, and each side has its own set of agents and advocates pursuing their own agendas, as well as those of their higher-ups (or lower-downs).

Bobby Dollar--Doloriel the angel, more formally--has secretly fallen for a demon woman, but she's been taken back to hell by her master, who already hates Bobby (see the first book, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, for the details). Dollar knows an angel in Hell is a bad idea, but he loves Casimira and will do anything to get her back.

Bobby has to consult several shady characters to find out how to get into Hell, all while being pursued by an unhinged serial killer who looks like a warped giant spider. Dollar doesn't know whom to trust, but heads to Hell anyway, finding his way through a variety of laugh- and gasp-out-loud moments of sheer, hellish torture and insanity.

The atrocious, vile imagery of Happy Hour in Hell alone makes the story appealing; Williams has created a flawed angelic hero worth rooting for. The noir-style first-person narrative adds to an already delicious read, one fans of Raymond Chandler and Damon Runyon will appreciate. There are also plenty of hints regarding a larger overarching plot line involving the machinations between Heaven and Hell to keep readers engaged throughout. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: The middle volume of Williams's latest trilogy is a quick, sharply written tale with memorable characters and delightfully horrendous scenery.

DAW, $25.95, hardcover, 9780756408152


by Ramez Naam

It's the year 2040, and the illegal drug known as "Nexus," which lets users program their brain like they would a computer, is everywhere. People from all walks of life are drawn to its illicit power, from terrorists and prostitutes to politicians and wealthy parents of autistic children. Internet access allows Nexus users to engage in telepathic communication, while the programmable interface makes it easy for them to control their neurological environment. Panic and fear can be quelled with a surge of serotonin; pain dulled with naturally produced opiates.

Ramez Naam weaves a complex web of political intrigue and personal drama around this central premise--introduced in his 2012 novel Nexus--following a large cast of characters whose paths occasionally intersect as they struggle with the practical and moral implications of a Nexus-driven world. Though Crux seems at first glance to be a science fiction novel with niche appeal, it is compelling enough to deserve the attention of readers who otherwise avoid the genre--and though it is a sequel, it is also able to stand on its own. The conceit is convincing and the writing is deceptively simple, allowing Naam's talent for high-paced action and complex characters to shine through.

Like the best science fiction, Crux uses an imagined future to turn a critical eye on the present day--and Naam does so with a readable appeal that many works of literary fiction struggle to achieve. --Emma Page, intern at Shelf Awareness, bookseller at Mercer Island Books

Discover: A fast-paced novel built on challenging moral questions and a high-tech premise.

Angry Robot, $14.99, paperback, 9780857662965

Biography & Memoir

Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis

by Stephen Klaidman

As Stephen Klaidman (Saving the Heart) points out in the entertaining Sydney and Violet, Sydney and Violet Schiff's claim to fame was that they knew people--important people. Wealthy, charming and magnanimous (attributes most of their famous acquaintances did not have), "their lives were tightly entwined with many of the defining figures of literary modernism."

Between London and Paris, you were either in one camp or another; the Schiffs, though, were in all. Their friends in Bayswater included Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Katherine Mansfield; they were equally well acquainted with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and others in the Bloomsbury circle. They knew D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce--and, in his final years, Marcel Proust. (Sydney even translated Time Regained, the final volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, after the death of his original translator.) They were the hosts of the famous dinner in 1922 where Proust and Joyce met for the first and only time--other guests that night included Picasso, Stravinsky and Diaghilev. Joyce was tipsy; night-hawk Proust, fashionably late. Neither read the other, neither knew the other's friends.

Sydney and Violet is a goldmine of literary trivia, filled with comments from one writer about another writer to another writer. Most satirized each other, especially the irascible Lewis, who cruelly mocked the Schiffs in The Apes of God. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: Klaidman exposes the loving yet bitterly sarcastic literary incestuousness that ran rampant among the Moderns, as seen by a husband and wife who knew virtually all of them.

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $27.95, hardcover, 9780385534093

Weeds: A Farm Daughter's Lament

by Evelyn I. Funda

Evelyn Funda's mother escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in a wine barrel, eventually landing in the United States. Her father was the son of Czech immigrants, early homesteaders who sought to make farmland of the Idaho desert. The family farm never felt like it would be Evelyn's: this "farm daughter," unwelcome among the tractors and irrigation pipes, would leave to become a college professor. Her musing memoir opens in the fall of 2001 with a triple tragedy: the sale of the family farm; her father's cancer diagnosis; and her mother's death, closely followed by her father's.

Weeds is an elegy, an academic's personal tale of research and disillusionment, and Evelyn's own story--with hints of a botanist's or social historian's study. (The chapters are named for weeds, beginning with dodder, which she long misheard as "daughter," when her father cursed the unwelcome growth.) The pursuit of her mother's joyful youth in a series of cities and countries, of the truth of her grandfather's apocryphal tales, of her parents' romance and of the history of her own hometown takes Evelyn to dusty library stacks and to small Czech villages, where she meets dozens of cousins and examines old bones.

Meditative and lyrical, Weeds smoothly braids weeds with family. Funda is sometimes frustrated along the way, but finally satisfied with the personal history she builds for herself--and the conclusion that, even in exile, one can find a sense of place and of belonging. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A memoir about the loss of the family farm, and everything it means to the child of immigrant farmers--and to us all.

Bison Books, $21.95, paperback, 9780803244962


Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood

by Greg Merritt

In Room 1219, Greg Merritt (Celluloid Mavericks) brings one of Hollywood's most infamous scandals to life.

In 1921, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, the silent screen comedian, was at the apex of his career. He had just signed a three-year contract with Paramount for $1 million, an unheard-of amount for the time.

Arbuckle was known for his opulent, drunken parties, and his Labor Day celebration at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco was no exception. Fatty and his friends checked into three adjacent rooms; despite Prohibition, liquor flowed freely. Mid-festivities, Arbuckle went into Room 1219 to change clothes; a young actress named Virginia Rappe was also in the room. What happened in the next 10 minutes has never been conclusively settled, but four days later, Rappe was dead. Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter; though he was ultimately acquitted, the damage to his career was done.

The media loved the scandal. The graphic reportage included speculation that Arbuckle crushed Rappe under his weight--between 250 and 300 pounds--and that he raped her with a bottle. Autopsies determined she died of a ruptured bladder. She had undergone several abortions under questionable care--perhaps even shortly before the party. Nevertheless, Fatty was portrayed as a drunken predator.

Merritt looks beyond the scandal, showing how it became a defining moment for the film industry. In response to nationwide furor over Rappe's death, the studios appointed former Republican party chairman Will H. Hays to restore Hollywood's image. Within a decade, his office created a code outlining the moral standards for all film content, which over time morphed into today's rating system. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: Greg Merritt brings one of Hollywood's most infamous scandals to life and shows the effect it had on Hollywood, then and now.

Chicago Review Press, $29.95, hardcover, 9781613747926

Children's & Young Adult


by Brian Floca, illus. by Brian Floca

After his paeans to the sea (Lightship) and space travel (Moonshot), Brian Floca here pays soaring tribute to the iron horse that rides the rails.

The author-artist opens with a verbal and visual lyricism that evokes the awe of those who first traveled the Transcontinental Railroad: "Here is a road/ made for crossing the country,/ a new road of rails/ made for people to ride." He connects past to present with the universal experience of a boy and girl who wait on the platform with their mother. As the train moves closer, the images and typeface grow in size and clarity ("CLANG-CLANG-CLANG"; "Whoo-oooo").

Floca labels the parts inside the cab, then leads into a close-up of the train rolling out of the station. He lays out the paradox introduced by train travel: a serene view of the Great Plains with nary a sign of civilization ("smell the switchgrass and the bluestem, hot beneath the sun"), as well as the sacrifices the railroad wrought ("Here the Cheyenne lived and the Pawnee and Arapaho.... The railroad and the men who built it--they have changed it all"). As the family travels along the tracks, Floca offers tantalizing details: toilets drain onto the tracks; a boy selling newspapers, food and soap is a "butch." At the end of the journey, the boy and girl's father waits with open arms.

With maps and milestones in the front, and a cutaway diagram of the engine at the back, readers will want to board this locomotive again and again. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A tribute to the rails to rival Brian Floca's award-winning paeans to sea (Lightship) and sky (Moonshot).

Atheneum, $17.99, hardcover, 64p., ages 5-10, 9781416994152

Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II

by Martin W. Sandler

Pulitzer Prize nominee Martin Sandler (The Impossible Rescue; the Through the Lens series) does a masterful job of tackling a complex topic, as he puts it, "one of the darkest periods in American history": the treatment of Japanese-Americans living in the United States during World War II. 

Sandler makes the case that the decision to intern more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor was not based on any potential or realized threat, but rather on perception. Text and photographs illuminate the history of Japanese-Americans in the U.S., the hysteria after Pearl Harbor, their loss of property and dignity, the condition of the relocation camps, the dedication and success of Japanese-Americans in war efforts, and the government response to those who were imprisoned during the war. The author sharply contrasts the treatment of Japanese-Americans as disloyal with the fact that they were some of the greatest contributors to the country, in business and in war, including the role of Nisei (or American-born Japanese) in the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and, later, the 522nd Field Artillery, a special unit that helped liberate Jews and also parts of Europe from Hitler.

Despite the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and President Obama's honoring of the Nisei with the Congressional Gold Medal, the impact of the relocation is still felt today. Sandler seamlessly weaves together the historical landscape and the impact that these Japanese-American felt then and now. --Susannah Richards, associate professor, Eastern Connecticut State University

Discover: A multi-dimensional and thoughtful examination of the U.S. decision to intern Japanese-American citizens by a Pulitzer Prize nominee.

Walker/Bloomsbury, $22.99, hardcover, 176p., ages 10-14, 9780802722775

Here I Am

by Patti Kim, illus. by Sonia Snchez

In this wordless graphic-format picture book, a boy discovers a world where everything is different.

Striking cartoon color panels tell the story of a family who leave their homeland and encounter foreign sites and sounds in a new country. In one early frame in the busy airport, the boy halts and spreads out his arms; readers can almost hear him screaming, "No! Stop!" But people and events continue to move onward. He carries a token in his pocket, a round red seed that brings him comfort and unleashes memories of his old home while he adjusts to his new one. His facial expressions and body language convey his moods as he observes activities in his neighborhood, travels underground (a subway map indicates he's in New York City) and sits alone on the steps at school. When the boy accidentally drops his special red seed out the window, he runs out to find it and, in doing so, begins to open up to the world around him. He and a new friend plant the seed together.

In the end, all the challenges he faces give way to positive experiences. On the final two-page spread, we see a peaceful scene, with his smiling face reflected in the water, and the book's only words: "Here I am." The universal themes in the story speak to a wide audience. Creative use of color, cartoon panels and graphic design make this story of adjusting to a new home a knockout. --JoAnn Jonas, children's librarian, freelance book reviewer

Discover: A wordless graphic novel journey of a child and family adjusting to their new home in a new country.

Capstone, $14.95, board books, 40p., ages 5-10, 9781623700362

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