Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, June 27, 2014

Workman Publishing: The ABCs of Queer History by Seema Yasmin, Illustrated by Lucy Kirk

From My Shelf

John Duvernoy: Bookseller/Poet

Being a book lover comes with the territory for booksellers. This may explain why so many booksellers are also writers. Of course, there's Ann Patchett (Parnassus Books) and Garrison Keillor (Common Good Books) as well as Emma Straub (BookCourt) and Catherine Linka (Flintridge Book Store). And you can also count John Duvernoy, a bookseller at the Elliott Bay Book Co., among them. June marks the publication of Duvernoy's debut poetry collection, Something in the Way // Obstruction Blues ($15, Horse Less Press).

The poems in Blues are rhythmic and sharp yet magnificently oblique incantations to places and persons lost in the cascade of time. From the very beginning, Duvernoy takes us somewhere new, bizarre, dazzling and disorienting: "It was my first six months in Heaven and I hadn't really settled in yet," he writes in the opening poem, "As Is." Each subsequent verse gathers into a storm of earnest desire, intimacy transposed into a near-telepathic music, but this seemingly boundless craving is smartly hemmed in by his solid sense of diction. In "from 'Wisteria, Magnolia' " he commands, "Hand me my writing blindfold/ Now necklace/ Of incipient tongues." Sight and voice obstructed, he can then cultivate extrasensory desire--to know and be known in spite of obstacles inherent to body, time, space, language and other common, faulty vehicles.

On the sales floor, you get a different John Duvernoy, though. His approach is far more humble than the renegade on the pages of Blues. Still, it's clear to those of us who have sold books alongside him, or anyone who ever receives his recommendations, that he strives to understand a person's needs and wants for their next book. Booksellers everywhere will tell you they're preoccupied with desire: loving books will do that to a person. And Duvernoy has managed to shape the many faces of desire into one outstanding collection of poetry. --Dave Wheeler, publishing assistant, Shelf Awareness

Frog & Toad: Now Streaming on Apple TV+

Book Candy

Writers Inspired by Soccer; Most Famous Books Set in Each State

For World Cup fans, the Guardian offered "14 quotes from writers inspired by football," including Sir Walter Scott's "Life is a game of football."


A map showing "the most famous book set in each state" was featured by Mental Floss.


All aboard! NPR Books offered a "reading list for riding the rails."


Bustle deciphered "what your favorite Baby-Sitters Club member says about you."


"These Medieval-style Tolkien illustrations are like nothing we've seen," io9 noted.


Summer reading season continues with NPR's "go-to librarian" Nancy Pearl sharing "some of the titles she picked out for the summer reading season--several of which will make you reconsider the way you think about maps. The Huffington Post recommended "10 super fun teen summer novels that adults will love too," and Mental Floss uncovered "6 beach reads from 100 years ago."

Everything I Never Told You

by Celeste Ng

In a quietly shattering debut, Celeste Ng pulls readers into an American family whose lives are shaped not by a tremendous skeleton lurking in the closet, but by the smothered dreams and fears of inadequacy lurking in their own hearts. When their carefully constructed illusions are fractured, the strength of willing vulnerability may be their only way back to life and to each other.

"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." One ordinary morning in 1977, 16-year-old Lydia Lee doesn't come to the breakfast table. Although the police assure the Lee family that most missing teen girls come home on their own, they find Lydia's body in the nearby lake two days later. While no evidence points to foul play and police immediately suspect suicide, each member of the Lee family has a separate theory. Her father, James, believes Lydia killed herself because she had no friends. Her mother, Marilyn, is sure someone murdered her favorite child. Her brother, Nathan, suspects their neighbor, the school bad boy, of complicity. Only her little sister, quiet, insightful Hannah, knows that none of their theories can be correct, but her youth prevents her from articulating that her parents and brother will never find Lydia's truth as long they continue to see her motivations and fears as identical to their own.

After opening with the tragedy, Ng catapults the reader back to the beginning, before Lydia's birth. "How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers.... Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in." Ostracized and treated as a curiosity in the Midwest because of his Chinese ancestry, James originally found himself drawn to blonde, pretty Marilyn because she represented the Caucasian societal norm he could not achieve, her love a tacit legitimization of his worth. But Marilyn herself never fit society's narrow view of normalcy, either. As a young woman in the late 1950s, Marilyn's gender alone made her an outcast at college as she worked toward a medical degree, and while her mother encouraged her to leave school with a husband rather than a degree, Marilyn's choice to marry a Chinese-American man led to estrangement from her only family.

Ng delves into the human tendency to mask and bandage our insecurities, and the damage we inflict on ourselves and our relationships by not admitting our fears and dreams aloud. James and Marilyn create an environment for their children in which seeming outweighs being, simply out of their best efforts to shelter their children from the struggles and disappointments they themselves had faced. When Lydia dies, the structure of their family dynamic not only crumbles but causes monumental miscommunication rooted in the secret interior spaces James and Marilyn have created to hold their private hurts. At one point, James lashes out at Marilyn, "You have no idea what it's like, being different.'" Marilyn, however, is living in "the hypothetical past perfect, the tense of missed chances." She never told James how deeply the loss of her opportunity to become a doctor hurt her, not even upon the death of her estranged mother, a home economics teacher "who had planned on a golden, vanilla-scented life but ended up alone," pushing Marilyn to find the doting husband she herself never had, despite Marilyn's own dreams.

At one time, when Lydia and her brother, Nathan, were small, meditating on her mother's failure at her personal goals sparked a decision in Marilyn that left Lydia wondering for a time "how everything had changed in just one day, how someone she loved so dearly could be there one minute, and the next minute: gone." The impossibility of rectifying her own failure leaves Marilyn repeating her mother's mistakes in controlling Lydia's choices, and in a way also leads to Marilyn wondering in her turn how Lydia could so quickly vanish. Both parents put so much stock in Lydia--Marilyn because Lydia represents her younger self, James because Lydia takes after her Caucasian side more than her two siblings--that Nath and Hannah are marginalized. Bright Nath toils away unsupported in his dream of becoming an astronaut, torn between jealousy of his parent's favoritism toward Lydia and his bond with her, the sister who has shared his life. Much younger Hannah becomes the forgotten child, living as an observer in her own family, and even though "she knew that something had shifted inside her sister, that she was balanced on a dangerous, high-up ledge," Hannah cannot break the cocoon of her silence.

Ng dissects the dynamics of the Lee family and presents the details with the same precision James finds in Lydia's autopsy report, but with considerably less finality. While Lydia met a dire fate, the Lee family's self-repression is balanced by resilience. Readers will ache as the characters break away from each other, but Ng's gentle voice keeps alive the hope that lessons may be learned, rifts mended. Ultimately filled with the promise of renewal, this delicately crafted drama destroys, only to heal. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Penguin Press, $26.95, hardcover, 9781594205712

Celeste Ng: Everyday Secrets

Kevin Day Photography

Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. She attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, Kenyon Review Online and elsewhere, and she is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband and son.

Tell us about the inspiration for Everything I Never Told You.

Long ago, my husband told me about a school friend who'd pushed his own younger sister into a lake. She was okay, but I couldn't get that picture of a young girl, underwater, out of my head. I started thinking about family dynamics and jealousy--and, of course, I wondered what it would have been like to be that girl. As a writer does, I started to tweak the situation. What if the girl had drowned? What if she had been the family favorite? The novel evolved to be quite different from the original story, but that image--a girl falling into water--was the seed.

You've published short stories and essays previously. How is writing a novel different?

The short story is so elegant and taut and self-contained; it's like a little pearl, rounded and satiny and seamless. The novel is a bigger, baggier thing, like a giant tapestry, and there are always parts that are less tightly woven, where the snags or loose ends show. But there's also more scope to explore, more space for risks and nuance.

One of my professors at Michigan, Nancy Reisman, told us she knew she was writing a novel when she couldn't hold the whole thing in her head at once, and that felt extremely apt to me. In writing short stories, I often have one lightning-flash of clarity where I know how to connect all the parts. But I couldn't "see" the whole novel at once. I had to slowly weave the strands together, draft by draft, with a lot of unraveling and re-weaving along the way.

One of the book's mysteries is whether Lydia's death is foul play, suicide or an accident. How did you decide which it would be, or did you always know?

I did know from the beginning what had happened to Lydia, though I had to write the rest of the novel to truly understand her history, her family's history, and how things came to this point. The bigger process was finding the best way to tell the story. In early drafts, I didn't even reveal that Lydia was dead until a few chapters in, and other information that helps you piece together what happened wasn't revealed until much later. I had to trust the story and the reader, and make the main question of the book not "Where is Lydia?" but "How did this happen to her?"

Does being a parent make writing about someone losing a child emotionally difficult?

It absolutely does. When I started the novel, I wasn't yet a parent, but after my son was born--between the third and final drafts--revisiting the scenes of loss, especially the ones from Marilyn's and James's perspectives, became incredibly difficult on a visceral level. Sometimes I'd stay up late writing and then need to sneak into my son's room to hold him while he was sleeping.

I often wonder why I was drawn to write something that terrifies me so much. Actually, I often find myself imagining in great detail the things that scare me most--like, if I think my way through them, I'll be less frightened by them. (As if you could practice devastation enough for it to lose its power.) Like many writers, I write about terrifying things as a way of... well, if not taming, at least grappling with those fears.

Did you find growing up Asian-American to have its drawbacks, or were you in a community that accepted diversity?

Growing up anything probably has its drawbacks. I grew up in areas with virtually no other Asians--outside Pittsburgh, then outside Cleveland. In my first elementary school, I was the only Asian (and one of two non-whites). Teachers always hesitated during roll when they got to my last name. And you can spot me instantly in every class photo. It can be very bizarre to be visibly different from everyone around you, as my husband learned when we visited Hong Kong and he, a tall white guy, was surrounded by Asians.

My family celebrated Chinese holidays and ate Chinese food, but we also went to Wendy's (my dad's favorite), watched Disney movies and had cookouts on July 4th. Straddling two cultures is strange. I was often acutely conscious of being Chinese--but when I went to San Francisco or Hong Kong, I was acutely conscious of how un-Chinese I was. That's partly why I'm interested in writing about outsiders. I drew on that for Everything I Never Told You--all the characters feel they don't belong in some way.

The Lee family is torn apart by everyday secrets about their inner selves kept from one another. Why do people hide their thoughts and dreams even from their loved ones?

I constantly ask myself that. That's one reason I started writing the novel: to explore how well we ever really know others, even the ones we love most.

I read this fascinating article on pointing (bear with me; I swear this is relevant)--scientists were thrilled to learn that elephants understand pointing, because besides humans, almost no other animals get it. It turns out pointing is really complicated: you have to understand that you have thoughts, that others don't know those thoughts, and that you can share those thoughts with others. When you think about it that way, all communication starts to feel like a giant game of telephone: Can you ever be certain the other person understands exactly what you mean? All we have to transmit everything in our minds is language--and at times, language can feel really inadequate, like trying to funnel the ocean through a straw. It's kind of amazing that we're ever able to share even the most basic information, let alone our most complicated dreams and fears.

In that sense, sharing a thought with another person is a leap of faith: you have to trust that they'll hear what you're saying. The bigger the dream or the more pressing the fear, the higher the stakes. Maybe that fear is what makes us hide things from those we love: trying to say something, and having them (of all people) not understand, can be more painful than staying silent. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Review


Irregular Verbs and Other Stories

by Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson, little-known despite having been published in a variety of anthologies, here collects some of his deeply original short stories for the first time. In the brilliant Irregular Verbs, Johnson proves that short, well-executed speculative fiction has all the heart-wrenching power of any epic historical novel or contemporary literary fiction. In her introduction, author Helen Marshall describes Johnson as "one of the very best science-fiction and fantasy writers that you've never heard of," and just a story or two from Irregular Verbs proves her point.

This collection, which includes a variety of previously published stories as well as several new pieces, spans most sci-fi and fantasy subgenres--everything from superheroes and zombies to alternative histories, time travel and dragons. The title story takes place in a community so linguistically gifted that the residents are constantly inventing new dialects and whole languages in which they are able to share common experiences. When the protagonist's wife dies, he finds himself stranded, searching desperately for a way to preserve the language that the two of them shared. "The Dragon's Lesson" is a fable about greed, inflation and the dangers of being worth more dead than alive. In "Another Country," a Canadian immigration official deals with the issue of refugees arriving straight from the war-torn shores of ancient Rome.

Certain themes recur: what Johnson considers the quiet, endless tragedy of capitalism, the pain of a partner's death. Whatever the subject, Johnson's treatment is elegant and wise, and his stories are treasures to be savored. --Emma Page, bookseller at Wellesley Books in Wellesley, Mass.

Discover: A masterful collection of poignant, clever science-fiction and fantasy stories.

Chizine Publications, $16.99, paperback, 9781771481779

Green Girl

by Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno (O Fallen Angel) imagines the way immaturity peels away with experience when she introduces Ruth, an American ingénue in London. She is "cast in the likeness of her creator," calling into question the novel's true protagonist. Described as some half-formed blur, Ruth is a shop girl trying to make sense of the duplicitous world around her. But even Ruth is not her own ally and must learn to negotiate her desires, appetites and will.

Green Girl is an ambulatory coming-of-age novel: Inexperienced Ruth, green and fumbling, wanders London in search of belonging, relationships or satisfaction while Zambreno burdens her with myriad foils. Epigraphs instead of chapter breaks help parse the threads of Ruth's story. Just as aptly, Ruth learns to perform adulthood by emulating someone new on every page: Jean Seberg, then Millais's Ophelia; Katharine Hepburn, then Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet. With every pose, Ruth strives to steady herself as her emotions shift, her friends' loyalty wavers, her job fails to keep her interest, her boyfriend Rhys cleaves, her existence whirls around her.

A deeply character-driven book, Green Girl allows its narrator to insert herself with pity, scorn or deliberate self-recognition, as though a god watching her creation crawl fitfully through the city streets. It's this beautiful erosion of perspective and identity that truly illuminates the empathetic specimen of humanity at stake: Ruth, green girl extraordinaire, becomes the narrator, becomes Zambreno, maybe even becomes the reader, as if threatening to swallow the world with her reckless naïveté. --Dave Wheeler, publishing assistant, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A young woman's tragicomic journey through unfamiliar landscapes: London and adulthood.

Harper Perennial, $14.99, paperback, 9780062322838

Mystery & Thriller

Someone Else's Skin

by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary introduces Marnie Rome, a new detective and heroine of a planned series, in her debut novel, Someone Else's Skin. DI Rome is a detective with a past; five years ago, her parents were brutally stabbed to death by their foster son, who has yet to reveal his motives for the murders. This past comes barreling into the present when Rome makes a routine stop at a safe haven for domestic-abuse victims in London, only to walk in on the aftermath of an attempted murder: a shaken woman stands over the fallen body of her husband, holding a knife.

What seems like a simple case of self-defense is rapidly complicated by a series of unexplained questions: How did the woman's husband know where to find her? Why was the shelter's front door unlocked? Why would he bring a knife to a women's refuge? And, perhaps most importantly, why do none of the eyewitness accounts match when so many people saw what happened?

As Someone Else's Skin unfolds, it becomes clear that in this case, nothing is what it seems; every time Rome thinks she has a handle on the situation, something shifts and leaves her team searching for explanations yet again. The constant setbacks never feel contrived, however, as Hilary pushes the story toward a believably tidy, if somewhat disturbing, conclusion. If this first entry is anything to go by, Hilary's sense of plot and subtle character building will make the DI Marnie Rome series one to watch. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A detective investigates what should be a simple case of self-defense that turns out to be anything but simple.

Penguin Books, $16, paperback, 9780143126188

Food & Wine

Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered

by Tod Davies

In Jam Today Too, Tod Davies picks up where she left off in Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking with What You've Got, using her intimate, warm, conversational tone to share wisdom on cooking in the best and worst of times. Not only does Davies dish on her favorite foods and recipes, but she meditates on the role food plays in relationships and in nature; she believes cooking reinforces autonomy by joining together the sides of life that get artificially separated, allowing individuals to engage directly with their environments.

Though Davies has advanced kitchen skills, her infectious enthusiasm and cheerleading make even the most difficult New American recipes accessible to the average cook. Her culinary repertoire is vast: barbecued sausage sandwiches stand alongside duck soup with wild mushrooms and sweet onions, braised oxtail and paella. In addition, she offers practical advice on setting up a home kitchen after natural disasters strike (based on her experiences cooking in vacation rentals and an RV after the flooding of her home), adapting existing recipes to suit personal tastes and maximizing pantry ingredients to create delicious meals for groups of all sizes.

"What we do in our everyday lives reflects the structure around us," writes Davies. "What we choose to eat, how we choose to source it, cook it, serve it, enjoy is, is more than a statement about our individual lives." Jam Today Too, a delicious bite to be savored over and over again, teaches us how to live and enjoy life one day at a time. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: A warm and conversational meditation of how cooking feeds the mind, body and soul.

Exterminating Angel Press, $15.95, paperback, 9781935259251

Honey & Oats: Everyday Favorites Baked with Whole Grains and Natural Sweeteners

by Jennifer Katzinger

Inspired by a conversation with her editor about wanting to create baked goods with her daughter without an "exorbitant amount of refined sugar," Jennifer Katzinger (owner of Seattle's Flying Apron bakery and author of Flying Apron's Gluten-Free & Vegan Baking Book) immediately "envisioned amber maple syrup, golden honey, earthy brown coconut-palm crystals, and tan Sucanat [an unrefined brown cane sugar]... [with] mounds of soft whole-grain flours in varying hues." When developing Honey & Oats, Katzinger felt like "a seamstress altering a dress, finding just the right whole-grain flour and sweetener... in the hopes of enticing a wide audience to engage in the nurturing art of baking." She gathered friends, family and neighbors to taste-test recipes "not only beloved, but approachable and straightforward."

The recipe list identifies gluten-free and vegan selections--for example, the apple-spice muffins use teff and tapioca flours, olive oil and pureed pumpkin in place of wheat flours and dairy products. A helpful ingredients section provides a brief description of the flours and grains, including substitutions for the more obscure (like einkorn or Kamut) as well as health benefits of sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, coconut-palm sugar and Sucanat.

If some of the ingredients are unfamiliar, most of the treats are not. Old favorites like banana bread, peanut butter cookies, buttermilk biscuits and carrot cake are all here. In addition, bakers looking for new inspiration will appreciate recipes like sweet-potato skillet corn bread, honey Kamut bread and nectarine-berry buttermilk cobbler. Healthy bakers of all stripes will find something to love in Honey & Oats. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics

Discover: An exploration of delicious, healthier alternatives to the refined flours and sugars in popular baked goods.

Sasquatch Books, $29.95, hardcover, 9781570618918

Psychology & Self-Help

Rock Breaks Scissors: A Practical Guide to Outguessing and Outwitting Almost Everybody

by William Poundstone

William Poundstone (Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?) describes outguessing others as "easy, fun, and often profitable" in this handbook for "mind reading for real life." His methods are based on two main ideas: "random" selections that humans make typically fall into certain patterns and our perceptions of randomness can be easily skewed (unless we increase our awareness of these patterns). As an example, he points to the playground game from which the book's title is derived. Cultural predilections will often lead males to throw "rock" in the first round, so if you're up against a man, throw "paper." Very few average players will select the same object more than twice in a row, so if your opponent throws "rock" twice, they likely won't do it a third time, in which case you can throw "scissors" and either win (they throw "paper") or tie (they throw "scissors").

Many of Poundstone's chapters follow a similar line of thinking. You can increase your odds of winning a bigger portion of a lottery prize by playing numbers that are statistically shown to be played less frequently. A good student of eye movements can tell by watching your pupils whether you pulled a card your hand needs in a high-stakes card game.

Poundstone offers some more classically practical tips as well. He devotes a chapter to creating a difficult-to-crack password; in another, he discusses sniffing out a Ponzi scheme. Despite the hyperbole about mind-reading and heavy deep number-crunching in the financial chapters, Poundstone provides a sound blueprint for seeing the patterns in everyday life. --Matthew Tiffany, LCPC, writer for Condalmo and psychotherapist

Discover: A hands-on guide to overcoming long odds.

Little, Brown, $26, hardcover, 9780316228060

Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction

by Noah Levine

Noah Levine (Dharma Punx; Against the Stream) applies his Buddhist perspective to the field of addiction recovery in Refuge Recovery. The title refers to one of the central tenets of the religion: take refuge in the Buddha. Levine takes the classic 12-step program (centered on a "higher power") and ungirds it with a healthy layer of pragmatism. He uses mindfulness, meditation and the cornerstones of Buddhist thought--such as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path--to lay the foundation for his process. Levine notes how addiction and craving create suffering: "We wander through life constantly craving more of the pleasant stuff and less of the unpleasant." This search for pleasure and avoidance of pain undermines real maturity, destroys relationships and even kills.

In addition to chapters on "The Process," the causes of addiction and its possible cessation through the application Buddhist principles, Levine includes a section of first-person "Reflections" from men and women who have tried his method, achieving lasting sobriety and a measure of sanity. The stories, which are both harrowing and healing, are a wonderful testament to the power of Buddhist-based recovery. Refuge Recovery wraps up with a generous appendix of meditations, breathing techniques and sections on group sharing. The appendix alone is a worthwhile primer on Buddhism basics.

With Refuge Recovery, Levine aims for a path that is workable for even those who have never picked up a book on the Buddha or sat down and counted breaths. The wisdom, lucidity and generous spirit of Refuge Recovery are a valuable first step on the lifelong journey of sobriety. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: A new take on addiction and recovery that's wise, humane and well-written.

HarperOne, $16.99, paperback, 9780062122841


Zoom: How Everything Moves: From Atoms and Galaxies to Blizzards and Bees

by Bob Berman

The natural world is shaped by motion, from the vibration of atoms to the expansion of the universe. In Zoom, Bob Berman (The Sun's Heartbeat; Secrets of the Night Sky) explores both the grandest of moving forces and those more detectable in our daily lives, like weather patterns or the speed of living creatures. He moves from slow to fast, layering fascinating facts with episodes of science history and travelogue in each chapter.

Berman begins with the most explosive and least understood motion in the universe, that of the cosmos itself. He travels to an observatory in the Andes, on the edge of the Atacama Desert, to interview astronomers investigating the universe's enigmatic expansion. From this high point, he plunges into the almost imperceptibly slow world of tectonic plates, mountain formation and shifting poles. Zoom quickens into the realm of perceivable motion (liquid dynamics, wind speed, animal locomotion), and then reaches the other extreme of unseen motion: ultra-fast particles and the inevitable barrier of light speed.

Berman has a knack for clearly explaining potentially difficult scientific concepts in layman-friendly terms and applying these concepts to natural phenomena with engaging anecdotes. In discussing the Coriolis effect (a property of moving objects on a rotating surface), for example, Berman breezes through the history of its discovery and applications in meteorology, all in the context of an amusing encounter at an Ecuadorian tourist trap. Zoom is an entertaining journey through a variety of scientific fields, accessible even to readers with light science knowledge. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer

Discover: An entertaining journey through the science behind motion.

Little, Brown, $27, hardcover, 9780316217408

Travel Literature

Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation

by Elizabeth Pisani

There is a reason for Westerners' vague geographical understanding of Indonesia--this archipelago, home to 250 million people, was cobbled together in 1945 after 150 years of Dutch colonization, followed by Japanese occupation in World War II. Spread over 3,000 land miles if arranged tip to tip (with its waters included, much longer) and encompassing countless islands, languages and customs, Indonesia is a smorgasbord of a country best tasted a bite at a time. This is exactly what London journalist and epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani (The Wisdom of Whores) does in Indonesia, Etc.

When Indonesia became independent, its brief declaration officially addressed its plan for unification as follows: "Matters relating to the transfer of power, etc. will be executed carefully as soon as possible." It is the etc. of that statement that drives Pisani's fascination with the country in which she lived twice. Indonesia, Etc. is the chronicle of her 2011 trip, when she packed up a duffel and traversed much of the country, island by island, dialect by dialect, meal by meal, checking out the more remote islands. Her story is as close as many of us may come to understanding the fourth-largest-populated country in the world.

Because of Pisani's willingness to immerse herself in a local habitat, we're treated to a full portrait of Indonesian culture, politics, language and commerce. One could ask for no better guide to this sprawling country where "farmers go to their rice field on a motorbike, and villagers film a ritual sacrifice on their mobile phones." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Journalist Elizabeth Pisani explores the diverse population of the world's fourth-largest country.

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780393088588


Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers

by Mike Sacks

In Mike Sacks's collection of interviews and essays, Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, advises, "I'd avoid reading interviews with writers. None us know what we're doing." And yet, Poking a Dead Frog is a fascinating look at humorists working in television, movies, books, magazines, comics, clubs and more.

Sacks's well-researched questions are geared to each interviewee and his or her work, and he asks for their advice to aspiring comedy writers. There's a disparity in answers, and author George Saunders points out, "The weird thing about writing, is, whatever the question, there's no 'one size fits all' answer." From a limitless combination of influences, backgrounds and training, no two writers have come to their success the same way. Peg Lynch started her Ethel and Albert show writing three- or four-minute fillers for radio in the '30s, while Megan Amram, a writer for Parks and Recreation, was discovered via Twitter. The common instruction in all the responses, however, is to find your own voice. Hollywood script doctor Alan Spencer summed it up well: "You have to pursue your own projects that no one else could write."

Poking a Dead Frog spans decades, dissecting subjects from collaboration to technology. Ironically, most of the interviews won't have readers laughing hysterically; these writers take their craft seriously. But the intimate discussions of comedy in all its forms are engaging, and Sacks's obvious passion is contagious. Whether writers themselves or just fans of funny, humor-loving readers will relish Poking a Dead Frog. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: Comedy writers from all facets of the industry give insightful interviews and hardcore advice to the author of And Here's the Kicker.

Penguin Books, $18, paperback, 9780143123781

Children's & Young Adult

The Hula-Hoopin' Queen

by Thelma Lynne Godin, illus. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Debut author Thelma Lynne Godin introduces irrepressible Kameeka Hayes, who feels "the itch" coming on and knows that this is the day she will defeat Jamara Johnson to become "the Hula-Hoopin' Queen of 139th Street."

Vanessa Brantley-Newton (We Shall Overcome) sets the scene with an inviting urban skyline and a heroine whose kinetic energy oozes from the pages. The trouble is, Mama wants Kameeka to help prepare for Miz Adeline's birthday party. Miz Adeline is more than their next-door neighbor: "She's like my very own grandmamma," according to Kameeka. But when the double-fudge chocolate cake falls flat (the preoccupied heroine set the oven for the wrong temperature), and she has to buy sugar for another cake, Kameeka gets caught up with Jamara, and it's too late to make cake. Author and artist depict a neighborly city block where everyone knows everyone, and plant a clue to the dilemma's solution. Best of all, Kameeka's confession about the reason there's no cake sparks Miz Adeline's own "itch" to demonstrate her prowess with a hula hoop. It's contagious: soon the whole block is on the street, swirling his or her hoop. Even Miss Evelyn in "her Sunday best" takes a twirl.

This story of a tightly knit community attests to the power of tradition and the treasures to be discovered among the generations that came before. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: An aspiring "Hula-Hoopin' Queen" gets out of a tight spot and simultaneously brings to light a former champ.

Lee & Low, $18.95, hardcover, 40p., ages 6-10, 9781600608469


by Tory Gordon-Harris, Penelope Arlon

Part of the Discover More series, Birds uses breathtaking photographs and simple text to bring readers up close to a great number of birds, some of which they might not otherwise get to see.

Children will spy feathered familiar friends such as the great horned owl among the more exotic, such as the secretary bird, with head feathers that stick out like rays of sun. Authors Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris explain the functions of different kinds of feathers (to fly, to change course, to keep birds warm) as well as the hollow bones that keep their bodies light. A comical photo of an ostrich that looks like it's pouting illustrates a two-page spread entitled "We can't fly!" (along with a kiwi, cassowary and penguins, among others); another spread depicts what they can do, better than humans ("Super senses"), such as the keen hearing of an owl and a kingfisher's ability to see underwater. A blue-footed booby serves as "poster child" for the section "Fantastic feet," and a blue tit bird demonstrates a bird's life cycle. Trivia collectors will appreciate the final two-page spread, with "Record breakers" from "weirdest beak" (the sword-billed hummingbird with a beak longer than its body) to "stinkiest bird" (the hoatzin, which "smells like cow poop").

A glossary and index plus a free online guide to bird-watching round out this nature experience for young birders. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: The ultimate guide for budding birdwatchers, with stunning photographs.

Scholastic, $7.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 6-8, 9780545667739

Planet Kindergarten

by Sue Ganz-Schmitt, illus. by Shane Prigmore

Sue Ganz-Schmitt's clever picture book about a brave boy about to start kindergarten will put children in a similar predicament immediately at ease.

Shane Prigmore (illustrator of the Spaceheadz series) uses comics-style panels to build suspense, with strips showing a spaceship "countdown" and the boy's athletic preparations as "day one" draws near. The artist reveals the child's passion for space through his wall calendar and knowledge of all things NASA. The car's taillights double as "boosters" on a rocket ship, and a full-page "Blast-off!" indicates the time has arrived. The author pulls out all the stops, with the boy's teacher as "commander," the classroom as his "capsule" and his fellow students as "crewmates." Prigmore uses a deep space–black backdrop and a brightly lit school and playground to underscore the "planet" allusions, and Mom gives a Vulcan sign as she and Dad deposit their son at the classroom door. The analogy works well for fidgety five-year-olds who defy gravity in an attempt to stay in their seats and who find rest time challenging ("In the quiet and the dark, I get really homesick," says the boy narrator). Yet he stays the course ("Failure is not an option," he quotes, remembering what they say at NASA). Before he knows it, the intrepid kindergartner is splashing down in the tub on his "home planet."

The inventive approach of both author and artist will give anxious children a creative way of looking at their new experiences, as explorers of a new frontier. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A brave boy about to start kindergarten imagines himself an explorer of a new frontier.

Chronicle, $16.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 3-5, 9781452118932


Author Buzz

My Royal Showmance
(A Park Avenue Promise Novel, Book 2)

by Lexi Blake

Dear Reader,

The reality TV setting made writing My Royal Showmance so much fun. Anika is expecting a boring time on her latest job but things turn when she has to step in for one of the contestants. It's supposed to be one night, but Luca has other ideas. He's looking to bring tourism back to his small country, but when he sees Anika he realizes he might do something remarkable--find love on the set of a TV show.

Lexie Blake

Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: Blue Box Press: My Royal Showmance (The Park Avenue Promise #2) by Lexi Blake

Blue Box Press

Pub Date: 
June 4, 2024


List Price: 
$5.99 e-book

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