Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Other Press (NY): Nvk by Temple Drake

From My Shelf

Avid Reader Press: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Magination Press: Red Yellow Blue by Lysa Mullady, illustrated by Laurent Simon

Veterans Day Reading

To commemorate Veterans Day, we recommend some stellar books that may give readers a deeper understanding of the men and women who serve.

Karl Marlantes raised the bar for war novels high with Matterhorn in 2010; he knows the "mad monkey" inside combat veterans. In his next book, What It Is Like to Go to War, he presents ways to preserve the humanity (and sanity) of our military while honoring the humanity of those they kill--both are essential reading.

In Fives and Twenty-Fives, our reviewer wrote that Michael Pitre limns "the quiet pathos of war, its aftermath... and the inability of a tone-deaf society to relate to [our veterans]." His characters--three Iraqi vets--are authentic and mesmerizing; the story "is sometimes difficult to abide, but is also necessary; we are lucky to have such a fine voice as Pitre's to tell it."

Ben Fountain's debut novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, also touches on the theme of a society unprepared (or unwilling) to understand the military. In it, the eight remaining men of Bravo Company are brought to a Dallas Cowboys game to be trotted out for spectacle, while knowing they are facing a return to war. Our review called this a "sad, true story about what adventure wars do to us, all of us.... If it doesn't bring you to your knees, read it again."

We applaud our men and women in uniform at sports events, we allow them to board first on planes but, as Howard Schulz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran say in For Love of Country (Knopf), "we hardly know their true measure." They aim to change that with accounts of heroics both on the battlefield and at home.

Three woman forged bonds in Afghanistan and Iraq, bonds that they continued for support after returning home; their story is movingly told by Helen Thorpe in Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers


Rp Minis: Cats on Catnip: A Grow-Your-Own Catnip Kit by Andrew Marttila


Book Candy

Top Civil War Novels; English Majors' Essential Reads

Robert Wilton, author of Traitor's Field, shared his picks for the "top 10 civil war novels" with the Guardian, which noted that "from Roman legions to medieval mayhem, Cavaliers and Roundheads to the crushing of ideals in the 20th century, there is fertile ground for drama in civil war."

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Buzzfeed highlighted "14 books every English major has definitely, totally finished."
 
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For music and literary fans, Biographile offered a "book lover's guide to Spotify."

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Pop quiz: Mental Floss challenged readers to "name the top 50 Lord of the Rings characters by number of mentions."


Ingram: Books Make Great Gifts - Take a Look!


Great Reads

Rediscover: All Quiet on the Western Front

Today it's appropriate to remember a classic war novel, whose title refers to the last day of World War I, originally commemorated in the U.S. as Armistice Day, and now Veterans Day. Published in 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, translated by Arthur Wesley Wheen (Ballantine), tells the story of Paul Bäumer, who enthusiastically enlists with classmates in the German Army shortly after the outbreak of war 100 years ago and is sent to the front line in France. In plain, straight-forward prose, Remarque details the day-to-day routines of Bäumer and his comrades, whose lives quickly become brutal and hellish as they try to survive in the trenches. This is a timely reminder of the horrors of war, the frequent pointlessness of war and war's terrible effects on soldiers.


Justice Studios: Ultrasquad Novels by Julia Devillers and Ronald Raymond Wells Jr, illustrated by Rafael Rosado


The Writer's Life

Elizabeth Samet: Exploring the Military's 'No Man's Land'

A professor of English at West Point, Elizabeth D. Samet is the author of Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, which was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by the New York Times. Her essays and reviews have been published in the New York Times Book Review and the New Republic. Her most recent book, No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (reviewed below) is, in part, an attempt to grapple with the mythologies that have spread since 9/11 and reveal the actual experience of soldiers on the ground. [Editor's note: The opinions Samet expresses in this interview are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.]

"No man's land" is the popular name for the area between opposing trenches in World War I. How has the meaning evolved for you?

The World War I centennial loomed as I wrote this book, and the geography of the Western Front preoccupied me. "No man's land" became my governing trope because, vastly different though that war may have been, it worked a profound dislocation in combatants and attentive spectators alike. Dislocation aptly describes the sensation produced today by the vicissitudes of a 13-year campaign, and no man's land thus represents in the book a largely psychological space inhabited by many returning veterans (commuters shuttling back and forth to war); by me, as I imaginatively follow them; and, to a certain extent, by the country as a whole, which has never really come to grips with the violent upheavals that launched the 21st century.

Soldier's Heart was about your experience teaching literature at West Point. What has changed?

Many of the cadets who once sat in my classes are now army officers who have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldier's Heart chronicled the story of the transition from peace to war and captured my feelings about all the changes worked by war on people and institutions. However, the clarity of the narrative arc from peace to war began to dissolve as our military engagements wore on. I began to feel, as the title of No Man's Land is meant to suggest, that we are neither here nor there, neither fully at war nor fully at peace, but somewhere in between.

The letters from former students are a remarkable addition to the book.

I consider my ongoing correspondence with former students the least anticipated and most wonderful aspect of my experience as a teacher. The e-mails and letters I included were those that illuminated the experiences of war--and the challenges of coming home--in all their inherent ambiguity. They seem to me to express the sensibility of John Keats's chameleon poet: a capacity to contemplate the light and dark of human experience both together.

One of the book's underlying themes is the United States' poor care of veterans. Is sentimentality part of the problem? What needs to change?

I think we are infatuated as a nation with sentimental celebrations of heroism and sacrifice. But once those celebrations--at ballparks or in political speeches--have ended, we become distracted rather quickly. Long-term solutions to the complex challenges of fighting wars and of caring for returning veterans aren't generated by sentiment alone. I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln's warning about the role of passion in the political process: "Passion has helped us, but can do so no more," he noted in 1838. The passion that worked in the American Revolution "will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence." I think we would do well to remember Lincoln's admonition. Life after war--for veterans and for the rest of us--can be a messy business that carries on long after the initial excitement of homecoming dissipates. Our reluctance to grapple with what we owe to veterans beyond a rote expression of thanks or a fleeting celebration is nothing new, but it is something we ought to have learned how to overcome after all these years and all these wars.

No Man's Land seems very much in the tradition of Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and Jay Winter's Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. What books have influenced you?

Reading does perhaps its most important work by awakening the imagination through discomfort, incongruity and contradiction. Among those books about what we might call the culture of war that I've found most valuable are Plutarch's Lives, Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War, Studs Terkel's The Good War, A.J. Liebling's World War II Writings, Joan Didion's The White Album, Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army, David Finkel's The Good Soldiers and Rory Stewart's The Places in Between.

How do Shakespeare's works help veterans--and those who interact with them--understand their experiences?

I believe Shakespeare speaks to veterans today for the same reason he has spoken to so many readers--soldier and civilian--in the centuries since his death. Shakespeare strikes a chord because he so honestly explores fundamental states of mind, most signally perhaps the state of not knowing one's mind and of having to muddle through with imperfect information, contradictory emotions or, as the deposed Richard II comes to understand in his prison cell, the confusion of "still-breeding thoughts." An account of life and thought as dynamic--serially revised rather than static and conclusive--is what Shakespeare has to offer us.

You share stories of grief in your Coda over students you've lost to combat. How much did personal loss shape this book?

The Coda's elegiac mood certainly derives from personal loss, but the book is also meant to record a larger communal one--a loss of connection on the part of America with the act of making war and with the women and men who fight our wars. That loss of connection has real repercussions for decision makers and private citizens as we imagine the potential uses of force we might exercise in the coming years.

What would you most like readers to understand about American combat vets?

I think it is vital in the era of the all-volunteer force to remind ourselves repeatedly that members of the military are, for all of the seeming remoteness of their sphere of action, possessed of the same aspirations, doubts, ambivalences and inconsistencies that mark the rest of us out as human: strength and vulnerability, generosity and selfishness, sympathy and coldness, attachment and fickleness. Recognizing and exercising that fundamental kinship with veterans, rather than holding them at arm's length as symbols of some vague heroism with which we'd rather not fully engage, seems to me by far the most appropriate way to honor their commitments and experiences. --Donald Powell, freelance writer


Book Review

Fiction

Limbo

by Melania G. Mazzucco, trans. by Virginia Jewiss


In a sensitive, absorbing story of life and love after war translated by Virginia Jewiss, Melania G. Mazzucco (Vita) examines the challenges and new beginnings a female officer finds upon returning home from service in Afghanistan.

In her 27 years of life, all Manuela Paris ever wanted to be was a soldier in the Italian army, but after finally achieving her dream, the young sergeant may see it slip away. Home from Afghanistan on disability leave after barely surviving a suicide bombing, Manuela waits in limbo for the physical and psychological exam that will tell her superiors whether she is fit to return to duty, and she suffers from the symptoms of severe PTSD.

The story is told in "Live" chapters, which offer a third-person view of Manuela's present, and "Homework" segments, journal entries she writes about her time in the army and Afghanistan because her therapist believes the process may help her heal. Through her homework, readers see Manuela fight to qualify as officer material, fall in love with Afghanistan despite the camel spiders and insurgents, and display a combination of sincerity and grit that makes the male soldiers under her command accept her into their brotherhood.

Mazzucco isn't out to reboot G.I. Jane or create a female super-soldier. Instead, she gives us a wholly human protagonist who must and does prove herself, whose heroism is of a quiet and stern variety. For those reasons, we must agree with Manuela's younger brother that this heroine "is better than Lara Croft." --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A young, female veteran struggles to overcome PTSD and return to her duty in the Italian army.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28, hardcover, 9780374191986

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go

by Judy Chicurel


The only thing long-winded about If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go is the title. Judy Chicurel's prose in this debut collection of linked short stories is perfectly sparse: blunt and cynical at times, sharp and witty at others.

If I Knew is set in the summer of 1972 in Elephant Beach, N.Y., a working-class Long Island town on the cusp of gentrification. Chicurel centers her stories on Katie, just turned 18 and not quite ready to leave Elephant Beach behind. Bit by bit, glimpses into Katie's life reveal a multilayered cast of colorful characters, painting a vivid and detailed portrait of Elephant Beach and the climate of 1972. Katie is in love with a Vietnam vet who is so lost in his experiences in the war that he barely knows she exists. Her girlfriends have their ups and down, but that doesn't stop them from supporting each other in trying times. The town drunk scares the pearl-clutching mothers in town, but Katie recognizes that he has a good heart beneath his wrecked exterior.

Chicurel has almost created a photo album rather than a series of linked stories; these snapshots of a moment or series of moments in Katie's life combine to describe a particular time and place but nothing more. Readers are often left to fill in the blanks, so those hoping for a clear narrative arc will be disappointed, but anyone interested in exploring the power of prose to evoke an era, a town and group of people will delight in Chicurel's way with words. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: The conflicts within a small Long Island beach town in 1972.

Putnam, $25.95, hardcover, 9780399167072

A Map of Betrayal

by Ha Jin


One of the two interwoven plotlines in A Map of Betrayal, the seventh novel from National Book Award winner Ha Jin (Waiting; War Trash), is narrator Lilian's reconstruction of the life of her father, Gary Shang, the most important Chinese spy ever caught in North America. In the other plotline, Lilian's Caucasian mother has died, freeing Lilian, a 50-ish professor, to contact her father's Chinese mistress, who gives her his six-volume diary. Lilian discovers that her father had a previous wife whom he was forced to leave behind.

A mole for three decades in the CIA, highly valued by Chairman Mao, Gary-- forced to move to the U.S. at age 31 and remarry--is revealed to have been homesick during his entire "protracted mission." Convinced that the government is looking after his Chinese wife, he grows to love the America he needs to betray and tries to benefit both countries--until he makes one mistake, out of love for his American wife.

When Lilian is granted a Fulbright lectureship in Beijing in 2010, she seizes the opportunity to contact his first wife and children, in spite of Chinese government prohibitions. Though she's too late to find them alive, she does find her half-niece, and then discovers her charming, handsome half-nephew, who runs a small business outside Boston and begins to entangle Lilian's husband in unusual microchip purchases, acting more and more like his grandfather the spy.

Written a cool, factual, unadorned style, A Map of Betrayal is a quietly humane, painstakingly detailed portrait of an idealistic man who tries to set himself morally apart. Ever present in this dense, compelling tale are provocative questions about the nature of patriotism: When do you betray your country? When does your country betray you? --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: In this compassionate study of a man caught between two wives and two countries, a lonely Chinese spy is forced to leave his young wife and remarry in the U.S.

Pantheon, $26.95, hardcover, 9780307911605

The Sleepworker

by Cyrille Martinez, trans. by Joseph Patrick Stancil


In 1963, Andy Warhol filmed his close friend John Giorno sleeping, and made it into a 321-minute film titled Sleep. The Sleepworker, Cyrille Martinez's second novel (and first to be translated into English), explores the story behind this art project. He creates a humorous fictional account of how two men, called simply Andy and John, met through mutual friends and came to create an experimental film in the great fictional city "New York New York."

A satire of the real New York City, The Sleepworker opens with an examination of this mythos-drenched metropolis, alive with possibility. In a narrative voice that is both playful and snarky, Martinez introduces the city as a place where people seek acceptance into high society. Unemployed and uninterested in having a job, Andy and John do not fit into a culture that values work and business success. Readers are invited to share in the narrator's amusement as the protagonists pursue creative paths and try to establish themselves in a city that doesn't want them. Constricted by the expectations of New York New York, John and Andy struggle to strike a balance between being authentic artists and finding recognition for their art.

The Sleepworker is a tribute to a place and time that bred great people and events, as well as a humorous critique of a city that dreams of its past from a stagnating present. Whether readers know the relationship between Andy Warhol and John Giorno or are completely new to this piece of history, Martinez's book will enthrall. --Justus Joseph, bookseller, Elliott Bay Book Company

Discover: A story of two young artists struggling to make it in the fictional city of New York New York.

Coach House Books, $17.95, paperback, 9781552453025

Biography & Memoir

Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China

by Val Wang


Val Wang's quirky memoir, Beijing Bastard, takes a candid look at the ties that bind people together despite cultural, generational and familial divides as well as shows a changing superpower at the beginning of the 21st century. As Wang turns exile and escape into her own heartwarming reality, her emotional journey parallels the insecurities of an emergent China, whose march toward global acceptance has changed the lives of its citizens forever.

Wang came from an overachieving Chinese family; her parents were eager to see the next generation through Ivy League colleges into careers in law or medicine. As an exchange student living in Sweden, Wang took a mutinous turn from her parents' wishes when she saw Beijing Bastards, an idealistic Chinese documentary that spoke to her alienation and restlessness and kindled her interest in film. She took a job as editor of an English-language Beijing weekly and moved into an old courtyard home with her father's relatives, where she endured the same familial battles and philosophical struggles that haunted her in the U.S. Even as she found her niche in journalism and filmmaking, Wang's linguistic and cultural misunderstandings led to countless humorous conflicts. "The very thing I had resisted learning as a child was whipping around and delivering a roadhouse kick to my head," she writes of her stumbles with the language.

Beijing Bastard is a modern comedy of manners and a fresh take on the Lost in Translation theme of an American abroad, learning about herself in ways she doesn't expect, all with a Chinese twist. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: A college graduate hoping to find connection and her place in the world explores a rapidly changing Beijing.

Gotham Books, $27, hardcover, 9781592408207

There Was and There Was Not

by Meline Toumani


In 2005, Armenian-American journalist Meline Toumani traveled to Turkey--a place she had previously known only as "a terrifying idea"--with the intention of studying Armenia-Turkey relations for a month or two, three at the most. She stayed for two years. The result is There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia and Beyond, an engaging and deeply personal exploration of ethnicity, nationalism, history and identity.

The conflicting Armenian and Turkish narratives regarding the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 defined the Armenian diaspora community of Toumani's childhood; Turkey has historically denied that the massacre occurred or minimized the scale of the deaths. The Armenian community focuses substantial energy on campaigns designed to pressure the Turkish government to recognize the massacre as genocide. Toumani had reached the point where the dominance of the genocide narrative felt like an artistic and emotional chokehold. She set out to Turkey in an attempt to answer two questions: How could she honor her history without being suffocated by it, and why do Turks cling to their version of the events of 1915?

Over the course of the book, the clear-cut oppositions with which Toumani begins her project become more nuanced. Even the unity of the Armenian community itself becomes more complex as she examines the different concerns of the diaspora. There Was and There Was Not is neither a history of the genocide nor an examination of its political ramifications for the modern world. It is the story of one woman's attempt to understand her community, its fundamental assumptions, and herself. --Pamela Toler

Discover: An Armenian-American woman's voyage of discovery begins with doubts about the costs of the Armenian diaspora's focus on Turkish recognition of the 1915 genocide.

Metropolitan Books/Holt, $28, hardcover, 9780805097627

History

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

by Jill Lepore


Every superhero has an origin story, a secret past that influences his or her present. As Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore (Book of Ages; New York Burning) discovers, Wonder Woman's history is rooted in the feminist ideals of the early 1900s. This Golden Age icon was created in 1941 to combat Superman's masculinity; she fought for equality, but her stories' underlying themes of shackling, bondage and unrepentant sexuality as metaphors for women's repression unleashed cries for censorship.

Wonder Woman embodied the philosophical beliefs of her creator, William Moulton Marston. A lawyer, a psychologist, the inventor of an early lie-detector test and a comic-book writer, he led a double life in more than one respect. He was a champion of matriarchal progress, but behind the scenes he lived with two brilliant, accomplished women at the same time--Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, who each bore him two children--and relegated them to roles of patriarchal service, spinning and promoting his philosophical beliefs. His story intersects with those of birth-control activists Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger (the mother and aunt of Olive Byrne, respectively), whose own political careers relied on maintaining the secrecy of Olive's domestic situation.

"Feminism made Wonder Woman... and then Wonder Woman remade feminism, which hasn't always been good for feminism," writes Lepore. Though critical of Marston's excesses and the costs they incurred for the women in his life, she handles all the salacious details and character quirks of the man and his entourage with the deft hand of a novelist, creating a balanced narrative of this heroine's controversial history. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: The unexpected secret life of the man who created Wonder Woman, one of the most important comic superheroes to emerge during the Golden Age of comics.

Knopf, $29.95, hardcover, 9780385354042

Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii

by James L. Haley


Hawaii: land of hula and lei, Pearl Harbor, surfing, Kona coffee and pineapples. In Captive Paradise, noted historian James L. Haley (Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas) aims to replace these stereotypes with a somewhat revisionist history of our only state that was once a kingdom. Haley digs deep into the early years of the Hawaiian monarchy before there were written records to chronicle its many chiefs and often savage wars.

While acknowledging and making no excuses for the many injustices, diseases and indignities brought to the islands by the mostly Japanese, British and American arrivals, Haley presents early Hawaii as equally cruel and violent. Before the appearance of British explorer Captain James Cook and even after the first King Kamehameha united the string of island tribes, the kanakas (native Hawaiian commoners) suffered infanticide, war, slavery, sodomy, disease, incest and human sacrifice. The Sandwich Islands could only be called paradise in so much as tropical weather and unbridled promiscuity are bliss--which to weathered seamen, they certainly were.

After the first explorers returned home with stories of the ideally located lush islands, a stream of missionaries followed. Haley attributes the rapid Westernization of Hawaii to these perseverant Christians who often left their evangelism for more lucrative opportunities to create businesses and craft a new government. United States politicians and ambassadors soon followed to cajole and pressure the strategic islands into the annexation of 1898--the final capture of paradise. Haley's story goes beyond surfboards and orchids; it is a dramatic history of the U.S.'s most recent and complex state. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A dramatic, retelling of the history of Hawaii.

St. Martin's Press, $29.99, hardcover, 9780312600655

Current Events & Issues

No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America

by Elizabeth D. Samet


How does one prepare the future leaders of the U.S. Army when the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down and their "BOG:Dwell ratios" ("boots on the ground" vs. home station time) will lean more toward garrison than combat deployment? What skills will they need to lead soldiers facing the challenges of home-front assimilation instead of the dangers of war-zone battle? These questions led West Point English professor Elizabeth D. Samet (Soldier's Heart) to shift her focus from The Iliad's battle-hardened Achilles to The Odyssey's long-suffering returning hero, Odysseus. After a decade teaching plebes a war-centric syllabus of poetry, fiction and history, Samet assessed the future military landscape and revised her course selections to prepare her students for a "scenario in which they will end up fighting different wars in new places or in no place at all." She likens this future to World War I's "no man's land"--that stretch of emptiness between the combatants' front-line trenches. It is a place of neither war nor peace, yet one that neither side can ignore. The victor is the one who can prevail in no man's land.

Using personal insight and communications with her former students (both while stationed in war zones and when back in the U.S.), in No Man's Land Samet provides a thoughtful, work-in-progress look at the practice of presenting the broad wisdom of the humanities to technology-driven, mission-focused soldiers. No Man's Land is a sensitive, thoughtful look at the education of America's future military leaders by a savvy, invested professor. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A West Point English professor's reflections on how best to educate military leaders for a future of neither war nor peace.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, hardcover, 9780374222772

Essays & Criticism

Bomb: The Author Interviews

by Bomb Magazine, Betsy Sussler, editor


Who better to ask a writer about writing than another writer? For more than 30 years, BOMB, a magazine of essays, literature and visual portfolios, has been publishing in-depth interviews with artists conducted by artists of all disciplines. In BOMB: The Author Interviews, publisher and editor Betsy Sussler collects 35 of the best conversations between influential and intellectual authors of world literature.

The q&as delve into aspects of the writer's craft, including the importance of sentences, rhythm and pacing, creating characters, narrative shaping, literary influences, editing and revision, the publishing industry and the demands of the writer's life amid more mundane concerns. They are intimate and give rare insight into the creative processes, feelings and work habits of contemporary prose writers and poets such as Sam Lipsyte, Steven Millhauser, Courtney Eldridge, Amy Hempel, Tobias Wolff and Jeffrey Eugenides. Each conversation differs in topic and tone. Clipped, clever banter infuses the exchange between Kathy Acker and Mark Magill, while a host of the q&as convey mutual admiration, as evidenced when Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat discuss their ancestry and what it's like to be "book obsessed."

Articulating the complexity of the craft, the challenges of the writing life and the impetus behind certain works sometimes proves difficult, but each dialogue sheds light onto the act of writing itself and the profound satisfaction in having created something lasting on the page. Such revelations are bound to be helpful and insightful to readers and other writers intrigued and mystified by the process. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: These fascinating, in-depth and intimate conversations between notable writers delve into writing as a craft and as a calling.

Soho Press, $40, hardcover, 9781616953799

Children's & Young Adult

The Red Pencil

by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illus. by Shane W. Evans


Around the world, 12-year-olds have the same urgent desire: to grow up. Amira, a girl in a small farming village in Darfur in 2003, is no different. Andrea Davis Pinkney (Hand in Hand) gives her heroine a strong voice full of love for family and for Darfur, as in this verse: "Goz is my place to be./ I'm at home in so much sand./ Ya, goz./ Where my new twig/ and I/ wander, wander, wander."

Amira's day is filled with chores and family, punctuated by moments to sketch in the goz (sand) with her "turning-twelve twig." Her life is happy and full, except for how badly she wants to go to school. Her mother won't allow it. At first, Amira's biggest concern is finding a way to change her mother's mind. But then the Janjaweed, a violent militia, attacks her village, killing her father and driving her remaining family to a refugee camp. There Amira receives the titular red pencil, and dreams about how she might find a different life.

Pinkey's elegant and simple free verse allows readers to identify first with Amira's frustration with her parents and, later, her fear in the camp. Though the book is not overly violent, younger children might be scared by the raid scene and by the life Amira and her family are forced to live thereafter. However, Pinkney handles these issues skillfully, making the book a good one for discussion. Evans's drawings are in perfect sync with Pinkney's words, making the book appropriate for readers at many levels. --Stephanie Anderson, head of readers' advisory at the Darien Library and blogger

Discover: Amira's story, told through lyrical writing and gentle illustrations, of surviving the unimaginable horror of Darfur.

Little, Brown, $17, hardcover, 324p., ages 10-14, 9780316247801

A Letter for Leo

by Sergio Ruzzier


"Leo is the mailman of a little old town," begins this charming tale of old-fashioned friendship.

Sergio Ruzzier (Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?) pictures a rural village of rolling hills and red-tile rooftops that hints at Italy. Leo, a ferret-like fellow, sports a dapper blue cap and leather satchel as he carries "big boxes, small packets, envelopes of every size," including a bone-size package that brings a pooch running and a box that lures a fish to the stream's edge. Leo removes his cap for the occasional game of bocce or conversation. If only Leo would get a letter himself! One morning during a postal pick-up, Leo finds a small blue bird he names Cheep. He feeds the bird and gives him shelter. Ruzzier indicates the passage of time with changing leaves and falling snow. One of the most charming scenes depicts Leo and Cheep ("now a little family") building a snowman (Cheep affixes bird leg–shaped twigs at the base).

When spring arrives, the look on Leo's face indicates that he knows before Cheep does what comes next: "Cheep is a big little bird now, and he is ready to go." The walls of Leo's kitchen seem bluer now. Cheep only ever says one word ("Cheep"), yet Ruzzier's expressive watercolors convey the connection between these two friends. Leo holds his cap as Cheep waves goodbye from the sky; the blue of his cap matches Cheep's feathers and underscores their unspoken bond--a bond that the closing images attest will last. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A touching story of friendship between a postman tethered to his town and a rescued bird who must join his flock.

Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9780544223608

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