Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Magination Press: Snitchy Witch by Frank J Sileo, illustrated by MacKenzie Haley

From My Shelf

Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Antoni in the Kitchen By Antoni Porowki and Mindy Fox

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Choosing a Book

How do we choose a book to read, besides a review or recommendation? When I'm in a bookstore, I start with an arresting title or cover, read the jacket copy, then turn to the first page. If it hooks me, I'm sold, banking on the assumption that a good first page will carry through. A few recent books have snagged me that way, even a book that I never thought I'd choose--Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo (Basic Books): "Late one night in 1996, just as I had dozed off in bed, my phone rang. The caller was Matthias Krings, a graduate student in my laboratory at the Zoological Institute of the University of Munich. All he said was 'It's not human.' " A great line to hook a mystery lover, and from Egyptian mummy DNA to sequencing the Neanderthal genome, the book is fascinating.

Timothy Schaffert's new novel, The Swan Gondola (Riverhead Books), set against the 1898 Omaha World's Fair, has this intriguing opener: "Emmaline and Hester, known in the county as the Old Sisters Egan, took their coffee cowboy-style, the grounds fried-up in a pan to a bitter sludge, then stirred into china teacups of hot water. They had their afternoon 'shot,' as they called it, at the kitchen table, sharing a slice of a wet and heavy rum cake that gave them each a dizzy spell. The sisters were sixty-eight and seventy-two."

Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home by Catherine Reid (Beacon Press), essays about family and community, caught me on a bright, cold day with "Ice unfurls from the window in the steam of morning sun, and we move into the day with coffee, with dreams, with whatever scenes we can remember from the night." That line, coupled with the scent of the store's espresso--kismet. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers


Sterling Children's Books: Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus (Life of a Cactus #2) by Dusti Bowling


Book Candy

Olympic Reading; Books and Cats

Noting "the surprisingly long and fruitful relationship between literature and winter sports," the Guardian had suggestions for "reading the Winter Olympics in fiction." Andrew D. Kaufman, author of Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, offered "an Olympic preview, from the Canon of Russian literature" at NPR Books. Flavorwire suggested "doing something wholly un-sports-related and not the least bit outdoorsy" by opening "10 wonderful Russian novels you probably haven't read."

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"Little Kids Read Books to Shelter Cats, Adorableness Ensues." As headlines go, that one is pretty irresistible. The Huffington Post showcased the "Book Buddies" program organized by the Animal Rescue League in Berks County, Pa. The initiative "allows children to read to cats who are waiting to be adopted."

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In celebration of National Storytelling Week, Buzzfeed showcased "famous books recreated by babies [that] are incredibly sweet."

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Jack Kerouac's On the Road has been converted into an e-book of Google Maps directions by German college student Gregor Weichbrodt, Boing Boing reported.

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"How much do you know about these fictional felonies and the storybook sleuths attempting to sniff them out?" Test yourself with the Guardian's crime in fiction quiz.


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra

Widely reviewed and praised, long-listed for the National Book Awards, this amazing novel deserves every accolade and more. By turns graceful, shocking, sorrowful and tender, it was one of the best books of 2013. It's now available in paperback.

"It was of this death that I was reminded by the crushed thistle in the midst of the plowed field." The last line of Hadji Murad, Tolstoy's near-perfect novella and his final work about an Avar rebel commander among Muslim Chechans and their Russian occupiers, is also the epigraph to Anthony Marra's stunning, dazzlingly good first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

It's set in Eldar, Chechnya, in 2004. Eldar, the "type of village one would only stumble upon when lost," is suffering horribly under the vicious rule of the Russians. The novel begins: "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father [Dokka], Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones." Dokka's close friend and neighbor, Akhmed, found the eight-year-old girl hiding nearby in the forest, sitting on the already packed suitcase her father had told her to always keep by her door. "He held her like a bundle of loose sticks in his arms, carried her to his house and with a damp towel wiped the ash from her forehead." They must leave before the Feds return; they step out into the cold and snow and begin walking, careful to avoid mines. To Akhmed, "she seemed an immense and overwhelming creature whom he was destined to fail."

He takes her to the hospital in Volchansk where he was born; the city looked like it was "made of shoeboxes and stamped into the ground by a petulant child." Here he meets Sonja Andreyevna Rabina, an ethnic Russian and an accomplished surgeon, the last of a staff of 500; she has amputated 1,643 legs. Living on pills, she's "engulfed by the burden of care," as devastated as her hospital, worried about her missing sister, Natasha. She takes pity on them and lets them stay. Akhmed, a barely capable doctor in his village, can help her.

The novel takes place over five days, but the telling weaves in and out of the previous eight years. In those chapters we learn Sonja was educated overseas and returned to help her country's wounded. She cares for her sister who is an addict. She works a deal with a smuggler to get badly needed supplies, as well as books on psychology that might help her "treat" Natasha. We also learn about Khassan, who for years has been writing a 44,388-page history of his country, and his son, traitorous Ramzan, who turns in townspeople--they "disappear." The day Dokka was taken by the Feds the first time and later returned from the Landfill with all of his fingers gone (removed with a bolt cutter), while "Ramzan was only missing his hat," was the last day Khassan spoke to his son. Akhmed cauterized the ends with a heated butcher's blade; he felt like a man "asked to put out a forest fire with only the water he could carry in his mouth."

Marra's recounting of Khassan leaving a prison camp in 1956 after Stalin fell and going to retrieve the bodies of his parents from a nearby cemetery is almost unbearable: "They were lighter than he expected.... He packed them tenderly within the discolored suitcase lining" and took them home for burial. Hundreds more were there to "return their dead, and the dust reddened the night." The book is filled with such closely observed, beautifully told incidents. Evil returns to Chechnya in the '90s. A friend of Sonja's tells her that Stalin has been resurrected. "I know," Sonja replied, "He's the prime minister of Russia."

Marra takes us on an extraordinary journey into a world little known to many of us, into the intersecting lives and minds of its wretched people. Like Tolstoy's thistle, he tells us of little things that carry great significance: a chess set, a kinzhal knife, a portrait attached to a tree, a Makarov pistol. He slowly unfolds his story's past and present with a balanced sureness and a subtlety rare in a first novel, with a rhythm that is graceful and welcoming. Comparisons will be made to The Tiger's Wife, The Orphan Master's Son and Lost City Radio--all debut novels, all set in foreign lands, each one powerful and affecting--and rightfully so. The best novels take you into a world so full and realized, so gratifying and satisfying, that you don't want to leave and are saddened when, with the novel's end, you are banished from it. But you take that world with you and can revisit it in memory whenever you want.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena creates such a world. Although it's sometimes horrific in its painful telling, it's also beautiful, heartbreaking and filled to the brim with the vital "human matter" of life. It may be the best new novel you'll read this year. --Tom Lavoie

Hogarth, $15, paperback, 9780770436421

Scribner Book Company: Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah


Anthony Marra: Showing the Scope of Lives

photo: Smeeta Mahanti

Anthony Marra is the author of the novel A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaHe has won a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Atlantic's Student Writing Contest and the Narrative Prize and his work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading. He is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Where did the idea for the novel come from? Were all your characters there from the beginning?

I've been fascinated with Chechnya ever since I was a college student in Russia. But the novel really began for me with the image of a surgeon waking up in a hospital room and walking into the corridor where two strangers waited for her. I followed the surgeon into the corridor and then into the novel, and over time I met the other characters populating it.

Did you have to do quite a bit of research on the history of Chechnya before starting the novel?

I began researching a few years before I even thought of writing the novel, and I continued as I wrote, culminating with a trip to Chechnya as I finished the book. The politics of the Chechen wars were less relevant than the day-to-day existence of civilians, and so I found memoirs, testimony and on-the-ground reportage by people like Khassan Baiev, Anna Politkovskaya, Andrew Meier, Sebastian Smith and Åsne Seierstad to be the most useful.

The novel has an unusual title. How did that come about?

The title, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, comes from the medical dictionary definition of life. Life is structured as a constellation of six vital phenomena--organization, irritability, growth, movement, reproduction and adaptation--much as the novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.

The book is so well written, filled with lyrical and gorgeous prose. Did you work hard on the novel's style? Did you see the style as a counter to the often brutal and harsh subject matter?

Absolutely. Language is the blueprint a reader relies on to reconstruct the novel's physical and emotional world, and so I tend to think that the power of fiction begins with the power of sentences. So yes, many rewrites went into honing the tone and style, and building out an omniscient voice that is flexible enough to jump between characters and years. By showing the larger scope of their lives, the way their individual stories are woven together into something larger, I hoped to suffuse even the novel's darker moments with its characters' humanity.

Were there any parts of the novel that were especially difficult to write?

Having only been on the patient side of the doctor's desk, I struggled with the finer points of a surgeon's day-to-day life. I slogged through a few dense medical papers, and eventually relied on a surgeon and a physician who each read a draft and kindly pointed out where I missed the mark.

How did you decide on the novel's structure?

I've always been drawn to tapestry-like novels that entwine characters and stories in wonderful and unforeseen ways, such as The Known World and The English Patient. In Constellation, I wanted to write a novel with arms wide enough to gather together its many characters, to explore how their lives are enmeshed in ways they might not individually understand. While the main action of the novel unfolds over the course of five days, it moves back through time over a 10-year period (and occasionally jumps years into the future), as it shifts between characters who search for, flee from, collide with, and find one another. In that sense I hope the novel mirrors at a structural level the process of recovery and reclamation that many of its characters seek.

Were you influenced by other books? By Russian or Chechen literature?

Tolstoy's final novel, Hadji Murad, set during the Caucasian Wars of the mid-19th century, casts a broad shadow over just about everything that has been written about Chechnya since. With good reason. The novel is beautiful and no less powerful for its brevity. In it Tolstoy writes across lines of ethnicity, gender and class with a generosity I've tried to draw from in writing of the more recent Russo-Chechen conflict.

Your characters are so vivid. Who's your favorite and why?

If I had to choose, I'd probably say Sonja, who has from the beginning been my guide. She's brilliant, tough, unsentimental, ambitious, and adamantly defies the expectations of her patriarchal society. Also, the narrative style allows for minor characters to have richer lives then their role in the novel would otherwise suggest. Some of my favorites include an exuberantly apocalyptic bus driver, a blind father and his deaf son who together find a way to prosper, and a hallucinatory Bee Gees fan.

Did your work at Stanford University as a Stegner Fellow help shape the novel in any way?

The Stegner Fellowship provided time to work on the novel and feedback from generous, sharp readers.

You're off to a good start. What's next for Anthony Marra?

I'm currently working on linked stories that look at the legacy of the Soviet Union (and the Chechen Wars) from the Russian perspective. --Tom Lavoie


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


Book Review

Fiction

Marshlands

by Matthew Olshan


Matthew Olshan's Marshlands opens with an aging prisoner being released from an unnamed jail. Beaten down by his jailers, the man is returned to "the capital," a city once familiar to him but now entirely unrecognizable. He scrounges for food, sleeps on benches on the mall and seeks refuge in the warmth of the free museums when he can--until he is unexpectedly caught in the midst of a protest, injured and rescued by a kindly museum worker.

Restored to a semblance of his previous self, the man is offered a job in a hospital for refugees from the marshlands. This, it turns out, is his calling, as he once spent years as a military doctor in the marshlands. From there, Olshan's brief but poignant novel moves backwards in time, exploring this man's history with the occupying army of the marshlands--and revealing the startling crime that put him in jail.

Marshlands is not a novel of specifics: "the capital" is never named as Washington, D.C., the "marshlands" never explicitly identified. Even the main character is not named until well into the story. The lack of detail can be jarring at first but ultimately is what makes the novel so powerful. The political and emotional struggles that plague the army and the people of the marshlands are specific to one time, one place and one waning culture, but their lessons can be applied to the struggles between the occupiers and the occupied that have plagued our history for centuries--and continue to do so today. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: Matthew Olshan's first fiction for adults (after the YA novel Finn) gives insight into the complex politics and emotions of occupied nations.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, hardcover, 9780374199395

Shadow Mountain:  Master of the Phantom Isle (Dragonwatch #3) by Brandon Mull


The Secret of Raven Point

by Jennifer Vanderbes


Jennifer Vanderbes (Easter Island; Strangers at the Feast) takes on the ravages of war in The Secret of Raven Point. It is 1943 when 17-year-old Juliet Dufresne graduates from high school. She and her brother, Tuck, are exceptionally close. When he's declared missing in action, she takes a nursing course, lies about her age and sets off for Europe as an army nurse, determined to find him.

Juliet is thrown into the blood and chaos of a field hospital. In a sprawling encampment north of Rome, she finds hard work, camaraderie with new friends and exposure to the worst war has to offer. The great cast of nurses, doctors and patients brings occasional moments of levity to a grim scenario.

Christopher Barnaby, a deserter awaiting court-martial because it appears he tried to kill himself, may hold the answer to her brother's whereabouts--but what he suffered in the field has left him catatonic. A young psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Willard, takes Juliet on as his assistant as they try to access the deepest recesses of Barnaby's mind.

Some of Vanderbes's best writing comes from Christopher's description of what happened to him in the field. Henry puts him under with sodium pentothal to plumb the horrifying depths of his memories of combat. The experience brings Juliet and Henry closer together--and they ultimately make a dangerous decision that puts their careers and their lives on the line. Part history, part coming of age novel, The Secret of Raven Point is a moving tale of what war does to all of us. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: During World War II, 17-year-old girl lies about her age so she can be shipped overseas as an army nurse to search for her brother.

Scribner, $26, hardcover, 9781439167007

Book Lovers Con 2020 - The Ultimate Reader Experience


The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris

by Jenny Colgan


Anna Trent likes her position as a chocolate taster in a factory--until a freak accident lands her in the hospital and out of a job. Coincidentally, the cancer patient sharing her hospital room is Anna's former French teacher, and as Anna convalesces, Claire makes her practice French to help them pass the time. Then Claire goes one step further: she gets Anna a job at the famous Thierry Girard chocolate shop in Paris.

Lovers of Paris, connoisseurs of chocolate and fans of chick lit will all enjoy Jenny Colgan's The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris, as Anna discovers a new world of chocolate--not factory produced, but lovingly created by hand--and ends up meeting a handsome Frenchman with whom she begins to fall in love. But things go awry when tragedy befalls the Girard family and Anna must try to save the future of the chocolate shop.

Anna's story is told in alternating chapters with that of Claire, who met a handsome Frenchman of her own some 30 years before. As in Meet Me at the Cupcake Café, Colgan has created a story where love and baked goods are central to the story and sweet endings are a must. Her characters are both believable and funny, while the Parisian setting makes this story practically irresistible. The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris is a quick, enjoyable read, chock full of both romance and chocolate. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: In time for Valentine's Day, this is a sweet story of two couples finding love and enjoying chocolate in Paris.

Sourcebooks Landmark, $14.99, paperback, 9781402284403

Harper: The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton


Mystery & Thriller

Cold Storage, Alaska

by John Straley


Just as Richard Russo has made the fictional small towns of upstate New York and Maine his own, John Straley has made his mark in the desolation of southeastern coastal Alaska--creating a sympathetically cockeyed universe of characters whose language and idiosyncrasies define them. Cold Storage, Alaska tells the story of Clive McCahon, who had abandoned the coastal fishing town to become a drug dealer in Seattle, but is returning home after seven years in prison. His younger brother, Miles, stayed behind and, having become something of the town's caretaker, is unsettled by Clive's return. They are cut from different wood; as their cancer-stricken mother puts it: "Clive would lift her off her feet and swing her around the kitchen while Miles fretted about what might get broken."

Straley is best known for his mystery series set in nearby Sitka, but Cold Storage is only a crime novel in that it's got knee-capping crooks, soft-hearted cons and a ramrod cop. Mostly, it's a story of a town with nothing much to offer but rain, salmon fishing, drink and gossip--but that's plenty for Straley to work with. Cold Storage may be "a town that gloried in [its] bad habits... clinging to the side of the mountains with no roads, no cars, and virtually no sense of the outer world," but in Straley's hands, it is rich in character, music, humor and compassion. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Shamus Award-winning mystery writer John Straley returns to the idiosyncratic coastal Alaskan fishing town he introduced in 2008's The Big Both Ways.

Soho Press, $26.95, hardcover, 9781616953065

Tor Books: The Ruin of Kings (Chorus of Dragons #1) by Jenn Lyons


Science Fiction & Fantasy

RedDevil 4

by Eric C. Leuthardt


Detectives Edwin Krantz and Tara Dezner need to solve three bizarre murders that have the same modus operandi and three suspects from different walks of life. Throw a self-aware artificial intelligence into the mix and what begins as a police procedural turns into a speculative tour de force full of neuroscience and neuroscience fiction.

Eric C. Leuthardt's RedDevil 4 is set in a near-future high-tech St. Louis, when the mind has been fully mapped and digitized. At the center of the strange crimes is Dr. Hagan Maerici; his marriage may be falling apart, but his brilliance when it comes to neuroscience is unmatched. He has created an artificial intelligence from the neural patterns of human subjects and is teaching the machine--supplied with the physical avatar of a young boy--how to think like a person.

The murder suspects--a titan of industry, a gentle man on a virtual vacation and a drug dealer with dreams of the big time--all show up in Maerici's hospital laboratory exhibiting odd neural behaviors, unable to move or communicate. It's up to the detectives and the doctor to figure out why... and what, exactly, is going on.

RedDevil 4 mixes standard murder mystery tropes and a hard-edged, plausible future into a fast-paced, highly enjoyable tale filled with character, intelligence and commentary on the very nature of human consciousness. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A thrilling story of murder, neuroscience and artificial intelligence set in a plausible near future.

Forge, $25.99, hardcover, 9780765332561

Rebel Girls: ADA Lovelace Cracks the Code by Marina Muun and Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business by Salini Perera


Broken Homes

by Ben Aaronovitch


Constable and apprentice magician Peter Grant returns in Broken Homes, the fourth volume of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series. A twisted murder starts things off with a mutilated body, the clues pointing to a serial killer... or an incredibly powerful wizard known as the Faceless Man. It's up to Grant to find out which while he navigates the murky waters of his relationship with fellow apprentice Lesley Mai, who wears a mask most of the time to cover her ruined face. In addition to the body, Grant picks up a case involving a town planner's suicide and a third involving a stolen magical book. Also, weird tales are coming out of a massive residential high-rise tower built decades before, currently home to the more desperate of Londoners--and a focal point for various magical energies and entities, from a wood nymph named Sky to King Oberon himself.

Broken Homes is a darkly comedic urban fantasy with plenty of London on display (though the tower that the story revolves around is utterly fictitious). Peter Grant is a thoroughly modern man, and his youthful perspective plays well against the classic British style of the aged yet powerful Nightingale, Grant's mentor--and the last surviving member of England's governmental magical forces. Some strikingly poignant scenes enrich the humor, and there is plenty of commentary on police work and modern England. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This delightful police procedural and urban fantasy mashup raises the stakes for fans of both genres.

DAW, $7.99, mass market paperbound, 9780756409609

Johns Hopkins University Press:  Killing for the Republic: Citizen-Soldiers and the Roman Way of War by Steele Brand


Annihilation

by Jeff VanderMeer


In City of Saints and Madmen and its sequels, science fiction and fantasy writer Jeff VanderMeer created one memorable world, Ambergris. He's now well on his way to creating another in Annihilation, the mesmerizing first novel in what he calls the Southern Reach trilogy.

In this dream-like world, our narrator, a biologist (no names here), and three other women--a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist--have been ordered by a clandestine government agency to investigate and bring back information from an abandoned, mysterious coastline called Area X, where something happened 30 years ago. All the previous expeditions have failed; this is the 12th. "Looking out over that untroubled landscape," the biologist says, "I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat."

In flashbacks, we learn about our narrator: she's married (her husband went on the 11th expedition), obsessive, anxious to classify everything. The group comes upon a circular concrete tower with a small rectangular opening that reveals a staircase going down. Inside, they discover words on the wall, raised letters that somehow contain a growing fungus. Breathing in its spores affects you. Could the border be growing, moving ever closer to the Southern Reach? Our narrator believes the psychologist has hypnotized them. Members start dying off. The tower now has a "heartbeat."

This enigmatic and eerie novel repeatedly answers our questions with more questions as it spirals into a vast unknown, leaving us begging for more answers which the next novel in the trilogy, Authority, may or may not provide. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: This unsettling speculative fiction--reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky's spooky film Stalker--could be Jeff VanderMeer's breakout novel.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13, paperback, 9780374104092

Biography & Memoir

I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia

by Su Meck, Daniel De Visé


Our memories define us and shape us. So what happens when we lose not just a few, but all our memories? When 22-year-old Su Meck was struck on the head by a ceiling fan, her life vanished; everything she had ever done, everyone she had ever met and everything she knew how to do, including read, write and tie her own shoes, disappeared. In I Forgot to Remember, a brave and honest account of her recovery, Meck gives voice to the overwhelming confusion following her traumatic brain injury.

Pieced together from hospital records and conversations with her husband, children, relatives and friends, Meck struggled to reconnect with the person she saw, but didn't really know, in the mirror. "I died, in a way, and was reborn, with the same physical form, but not the same mind," she writes. "The two Sus have lived separate lives. She never knew me, and I know nothing of her except what people have told me." Meck navigated the scary world of raising toddlers, then relearned to read, write and do simple math with her kids. She held down jobs in fitness clubs and made multiple moves for her husband's work, including to Egypt and back to the United States. She also continued to trust and rely on her abusive husband, who spent more and more time away from home, all while searching for her identity. Meck's chronicle is a brave testament of willpower and perseverance against almost insurmountable odds--and a plea to the world to reassess the gravity of traumatic brain injuries. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: One woman's powerful story of rediscovering her identity after her life is stripped away by a traumatic brain injury.

Simon & Schuster, $25, hardcover, 9781451685817

The Antelope in the Living Room: The Real Story of Two People Sharing One Life

by Melanie Shankle


Melanie Shankle (blogger and author of Sparkly Green Earrings) puts a comic spin on the joys, challenges and irritations of marriage in The Antelope in the Living Room, a memoir detailing 16 years of the eventful--and sometimes uneventful--union of a Texas couple. Their life together includes a near-attack by a shark, home improvements and pest control gone awry, dieting, the perils of surgery, miscarriage, childbirth, in-laws and even the challenges of reconciling a joint checking account.

This opposites-attract love story, Shankle tells us, is "not like in the movies." Melanie first met her husband Perry at a college Bible study when she was nursing a broken heart. Friends first, the couple later married in the mid-1990s, when they were both in their 20s. She had spent years dreaming about wedding gowns and white picket fences, while he was always more focused on his Ford pickup truck and hunting. The implications of "for better or worse" are tested, and Shankle doesn't sugarcoat life after "I do." She employs witty, self-deprecating humor that elevates the mundane and shows how time deepens love and lends perspective, including an interesting riff on "young love" versus "old love."

The Christian values of the couple and subtle references to God and Biblical passages pepper some of these playful anecdotes of two ordinary people "deeply committed to the same thing" as they grow and change, recognizing the blessings of sharing the ups and downs of life in a good, solid marriage. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A funny, entertaining memoir about a devoutly Christian Texas couple bound together in marriage despite their differences.

Tyndale, $14.99, paperback, 9781414385549

The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia

by David Stuart MacLean


In the opening scene of The Answer to the Riddle Is Me, David Stuart Maclean "wakes up" in a standing position, in a train station, in a place where English is clearly not the first language. He doesn't know who he is, where he is or where he was going. A friendly policeman tells him that many tourists there do too many drugs and end up confused; Maclean concludes that he is a drug user and follows as he is told.

This scene is only the beginning of the enormous world of what Maclean can't remember, and assumptions he'll be led to make that will often turn out to be false. He was living alone in India on a government grant to aid his work as a novelist when an antimalarial drug he was taking overcame the blood-brain barrier and wreaked havoc. The Answer to the Riddle Is Me is Maclean's story of amnesia and recovery, with all the false starts, depression, despair and small victories that come with such a trauma. Maclean often wishes himself back in a hospital where he'll be spoon-fed and his decisions will be made for him, but he slowly, eventually resurfaces.

This heartfelt and painfully candid memoir tracks Maclean in real time, in fractured scenes and then in measured, purposeful steps, and comes with research into the medical issues involved. Readers will be mesmerized by the effort, and perhaps feel as rejuvenated in the end as Maclean does. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A memoir from within the mind of an amnesiac, in full terrifying color.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, hardcover, 9780547519272

Children's & Young Adult

Grasshopper Jungle

by Andrew Smith


Andrew Smith's (Winger) contemporary novel about the compulsion of humans to repeat history veers into the sci-fi realm, and it all hangs together thanks to his magnetic narrator, 16-year-old Austin Szerba.

Austin loves his best friend, Robby Brees--and his girlfriend, Shann Collins. The rhythm of Austin's narrative takes on almost a musical beat. Favorite refrains punctuate his recording of events. He records everything so humans will not be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

On a Friday night, Grant Wallace and his friends from Hoover High beat up Austin and Robby and throw their victims' shoes and skateboards on top of the Ealing Mall in Ealing, Iowa. Later, Robby and Austin go up on the roof to retrieve them; they "experiment" with a kiss, and sneak into owner Johnny McKeon's office. Inside, they find jars of two-headed boys, a penis and a blue, glowing glass globe marked "Contained MI Plague Strain 412E." The globe winds up broken, and the plague (that turns humans into six-foot praying mantises) is on the rampage.

Smith threads together a complex web of themes: generations that connect through patterns of behavior, the fallout from Monsanto-like tampering with nature, love, war, economic downturn, the gray area of budding sexuality, and free will versus fate. Sex and violence proliferate, but Austin's matter-of-fact historian's style creates the aura of a James Bond or Godzilla movie. Readers will care deeply for Austin, Robby, Shann and their fates. There's much to ponder in this many-layered novel. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: An ambitious novel in which a magnetic narrator grapples with life's central questions with humor and sensitivity.

Dutton, $18.99, hardcover, 464p., ages 14-up, 9780525426035

Odd, Weird & Little

by Patrick Jennings


This compact novel narrated by 10-year-old Woodman takes place over three days, but so much happens in those three days. Patrick Jennings (Guinea Dog) taps into the emotional truth of discovering a potential friend and wanting to know more about him while also not wanting to scare him off.

Toulouse Hulot is a new kid, just arrived from Quebec. He wears a suit and tie to school, "an old-man hat" and black leather gloves. He's ripe for ridicule from Garrett Howell and his henchman, Hubcap Ostwinkle (whose real name is Vitus). Toulouse carries a quill and inkwell in his briefcase, along with an easel on which he paints a still life that the kids compare with Matisse. Woody is intrigued. Partly, Woody is relieved that someone weirder than he is takes some of the pressure off. But Woody also is genuinely drawn to quietly self-assured Toulouse, and his kindness toward the new student opens the way to a friendship. Jennings plants clues about who (or what) Toulouse is--his wide eyes, the way he twists his head all the way around without moving his body, the ease with which Toulouse can perch in high places and cross the creek, his "hooty, breathy voice" (plus the table of contents)--but mostly this endearing story centers on the building of a friendship.

Woody knows what it's like to be odd man out, and he welcomes Toulouse into his world. Jennings demonstrates that one friend can open up a host of possibilities. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A friendship in which two misfits find a sense of belonging.

Egmont, $15.99, hardcover, 160p., ages 8-12, 9781606843741

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