Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mariner Books: The Blue Hour by Paula Hawkins

From My Shelf

Oscar's Book Winners: Who Are You Reading?

Although red carpet interviewers never ask the question we really want answered (Who are you reading?), the Academy Awards do remind us of the important role books play in the film business. This year, five of the eight best picture Oscar nominees were based on books or were book-related. Birdman turned out to be the big winner, but several bookish films garnered a share of the golden statue spoils. Movies (and books) honored included:

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which centers on a Broadway stage adaptation of Raymond Carver's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love": best picture, director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), original screenplay (Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo), cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki)

Still Alice, adapted from the novel by Lisa Genova: actress (Julianne Moore)

The Theory of Everything, based on Jane Hawking's memoir, Traveling to Infinity: actor (Eddie Redmayne)

The Imitation Game, based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges: adapted screenplay (Graham Moore)

The Grand Budapest Hotel, inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig: original score (Alexandre Desplat), production design, costume design, makeup & hairstyling

American Sniper, based on American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Kyle & Scott McEwen: sound editing

And don't forget the movies that were, as the saying goes, just glad to be nominated: Foxcatcher, inspired by events depicted in Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother's Murder, John du Pont's Madness & the Quest for Olympic Gold by Mark Schultz & David Thomas; Gone Girl, adapted from Gillian Flynn's novel; Wild, based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed; Unbroken, adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's book; and Inherent Vice, based on Thomas Pynchon's novel.

Since lame jokes are also part of Oscar's tradition, let's just say the 2015 Academy Awards ceremony was definitely one for the books. --Robert Gray, contributing editor

Book Candy

Books Women Think Men Should Read

Calling this "the era of the book round-up," the Huffington Post suggested "22 books women think men should read."


Bustle highlighted "9 novels about writers inspired by real-life events, because our fascination with the literary life knows no bounds."


Flavorwire featured "25 writers on fashion, clothing and style."


The Guardian celebrated Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's 50th anniversary--in pictures.


Bookmark of the day: The Bookshelf "recently roadtested this lovely stainless steel 'feather' bookmark from Kosha and enjoyed the experience very much."

Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy

by Irvin D. Yalom

There is no preface or foreword to Creatures of a Day, the latest book by Irvin D. Yalom detailing psychoanalysis sessions between Dr. Yalom and 10 of his patients. An introduction isn't really needed; after all, Irvin Yalom is an accomplished, gifted and celebrated existential psychoanalyst who has been treating patients for more than 50 years. A wise and empathic listener and counselor, Yalom has also written extensively, both fiction and nonfiction, about the personal relationship between therapists and patients. His popular 1989 book, Love's Executioner, solidified his literary reputation as a first-class storyteller by offering 10 absorbing, true stories that document what goes on in therapy sessions.

Creatures of a Day serves as something of a companion volume to Love's Executioner, again offering 10 revealing and creatively crafted clinical case studies about real people. This time, however, Yalom focuses less on the entire trajectory of a patient's work and more on incidents and exchanges specific to short-term therapy engagements. What emerges are vignettes where patients examine and question their lives for meaning, value and purpose, which often lead to "aha" moments of epiphany, while also offering a fascinating glimpse into the mind and heart of a mature psychoanalyst at work.

The patients presented are diverse; their problems include anxieties about the struggle to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, coping with the aging process, sustaining losses--including the loss of self--reconciling choices and facing aspects of human isolation. But it is death and its inevitability (in literal and metaphorical incarnations) that emerge as the central unifying theme of these case studies as a whole. This bears out Yalom's fervent belief that it is only when we acknowledge death that human existence can become not just bearable, but also joyful and meaningful.

Two of the stories detail intellectual and philosophical debate between therapist and patient. In "The Crooked Cure," an 84 year-old man, an intellectual obsessed with words, requests a single session with Dr. Yalom in order to address his writer's block. Over the course of a challenging, rather cryptic meeting, Yalom must solve the riddle of why this man has sought him out, why the patient stopped working on his dissertation 60 years earlier and why he wants to address this dilemma now. In the title story, "Creatures of a Day," two of Yalom's male patients--one a bright, clever, commitment-phobe in relationships with two women who both believe he will marry them, and the other a man grossly disenchanted with his career--have their personal states of affairs suddenly shift into focus via the study (and lively discussion) of the work of Marcus Aurelius.

Accomplished and high-functioning individuals with problems rooted so deep as to evade articulation are inherent in "On Being Real," where a well-educated and materially successful 37-year-old business executive, who seems to have it all, is choked by secret self-doubt, insecurity and free-floating guilt. "Don't Fence Me In" deals with a spry, spontaneous, fiercely independent 77-year-old, a former CEO, who staunchly resists the regimented structure of his new living arrangement in a retirement home he feels is confining and prison-like.

The past plays an active role in the present as some patients willingly reveal pivotal and unforgettable moments from their lives. In "Arabesque," Yalom is perplexed and intrigued when a 70-year-old Russian woman shows up at her first session cradling a photograph of herself when she was a prima ballerina at La Scala 40 years before. And in "You Must Give Up the Hope for a Better Past," a restless, 60-year-old physics technician seeks out Yalom for help in overhauling her life and reconnecting with a dream she gave up long ago.

Diagnostic labeling is viewed via its limitations in "Three Cries," a story about a female patient who must come to terms with the death of a lifelong friend who was plagued by psychological troubles. In their work together, Yalom and the woman face the truth about what place this friend actually held in her life, the truth of who he really was and how that truth affected the patient's life--for better or worse.

The intersection of life and death--and eerie coincidences of how closely people are interconnected--underscore "Thank You, Molly," where Yalom attends the funeral of his former assistant, and in the process, meets a patient he once counseled who is now a successful radiologist. Yalom pieces together the surprising connection the radiologist holds to the deceased. A similar theme plays out in "Show Some Class for Your Children," about a nurse who tended to a dying patient, one of Yalom's former therapists-in-training. The nurse seeks out Yalom in order to help heal her own damaged self-image--along with issues of anger, bitterness and rage. In her sessions with Dr. Yalom, she uncovers the impact she made upon his former student.

Throughout, Yalom is wise and well-read, citing passages from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marcus Aurelius, Yeats and Greek mythology. But nowhere is he portrayed as more human and vulnerable than when he counsels the patient in "Get Your Own Damn Fatal Illness: An Homage to Ellie." Here, an introverted, childless, single woman experiences an array of feelings while battling the ravages of cancer and her impending death. In written correspondence she shares with Yalom, the doctor finds himself emotionally distancing himself from the angst of the dying woman. He offers his presence as best he can, but he ultimately admits his own limitations, how his own death anxiety "never really disappears, especially for those... who continue to poke around in their unconscious."

In each case, patients search for their identities--their true authentic selves--while looking for validation that their lives have had meaning and purpose. Through Yalom's gentle wisdom, expertise and leading--coupled with dream recognition and patients taking him through the minutiae of a day in their lives--bonding and healing occurs. The insights Yalom ultimately shares with his patients are often not anything they did not already know. "It's just easier," he states, "to fend off something told to you from the outside than it is something rising from the depths of yourself."

At the time of writing this book, Yalom was approaching his 82nd birthday, and it is clear that his passion for psychoanalysis and helping people in emotional crises and conflict has not waned. He continues to be receptive as he seeks answers to questions of how to help people and serve as a guide for their personal self-exploration and growth. He welcomes each new case and patient dilemma with an analytical mind, personal empathy and an innate curiosity that drives and shapes the two-person narrative dramas that fill this book.

In the end, no two patients or their dilemmas are alike, nor do they reach conclusions and/or self-discovery in the same way or time frame. And while the themes explored may be largely universal, the resolutions certainly are not. Yalom believes that each patient must dive into "a great-souled man's sea of wisdom" in order to emerge on the other side, often in a way that Yalom--and readers--could never predict or anticipate. --Kathleen Gerard

Basic Books, $24.99, hardcover, 9780465029648

Irvin D. Yalom: Unafraid of the Dark

photo: Reid Yalom

Irvin D. Yalom is a psychotherapist, writer and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University. Yalom has spent more than 50 years studying human behavior and the mysteries of life. He has said, "A good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination," and his analytic quest has been borne on the pages of more than a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction. Yalom claims that his books are written primarily as teaching tools for therapists, students of psychotherapy and for those who have "a keen interest in the human psyche and personal growth."

"Creatures of a Day" is a phrase attributed to Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius. What drew you to the quote, and why did you select it as the title of the book?

The title story is a complex story about my suggesting to two patients that they read Marcus Aurelius' confessions. It deals with several issues, among them how the two patients saw very different things in their readings. One of the patients was very fixated upon my having a particular image of him in my mind. This was so important to him that he withheld important information from our therapy. One particular quotation referred to our tendency to use the phrase that we are but "creatures of a day." That turned out to be a very important concept for this patient, and we discussed that phrase several times together in our work. I liked the ring of it and immediately thought of it for the title.

Why and how did you select the stories featured in Creatures of a Day?

My method was to read and reread case notes from a lot of my patients' therapy sessions until some particular incident seemed to thump with energy, and I built the story around that incident. It's quite a different approach from my first book of stories, Love's Executioner, in which I took the case notes of the entire course of therapy and turned them into a story.

Was the writing process difficult?

This book took a long time to write. The major problem was finding each story: once I located and identified that, the writing came fairly quickly. But the intervals between writing the stories were longer and longer, and I assume that has something to do with my aging. I kept reading my notes over and over again, and then as I took bicycle rides, things started to take shape in my mind.

Do you have a favorite story from this book?

I have a special relationship with each story, and of course when I read them, I have a visual image of the patient involved in that story. Some stories I know much better than others, especially because I've been able to read them aloud to audiences. The shorter pieces that lend themselves well to public readings, such as "Three Cries," are the ones that are most familiar to me.

How do you go about counseling patients?

I still continue to practice, but I am seeing only about two or three patients a day. I am very careful about my selection of patients. Since I see patients for only one year, I try to choose patients that I think I can really offer something to during that time.

How do you decide between writing stories as fiction or nonfiction?

I feel on much more comfortable ground when I write about patients that I've worked with. It's true that I've written four novels that are fictional (though there is nonfiction in them since I've written about the lives of philosophers), but I feel much more at home writing stories that are nonfiction. In my collection called Momma and the Meaning of Life, I have about three totally fictional stories. One of them involves a talking cat. Out of all the things I've written, "The Hungarian Cat Curse" was the most fun. Someone has written recently stating his intention to adapt that story into a musical.

Do you have a favorite book you've written?

My novels were a great kick to write. Many of them were written while on sabbatical in various places like Bali, the Seychelles, Paris and London. Above all, I loved writing When Nietzsche Wept, Lying on the Couch and The Schopenhauer Cure. I really lived those books and was completely immersed in the writing.

Why is death such a prevalent theme in all your work?

I'm an existentialist. I believe that the terror of death haunts all of us and plays a role in the discomfort of the great majority of patients. I've written about this extensively in a book called Staring at the Sun. There's also a great deal of it in a textbook called Existential Psychotherapy.

What are your own feelings about death? Do you believe in any sort of a hereafter?

I agree with Epicurus that we were in a "state" of non-being for eons of time before we were born and that we will pass to that same state after we die. No, I don't believe in any sort of hereafter. I agree with Stephen Hawking, who said that the hereafter is a fairytale for those who are afraid of the dark.

If you could meet the psychologist or writer of your choice, who would it be and why?

The psychologist I would like to meet would be Freud--he is the great genius of our field. As for writers, I think I would like to meet Dickens or Dostoyevsky.

If you weren't a psychologist or a writer, what would you have done with your life?

I enjoyed my medical training and would've been happy as an old-fashioned doctor.

Tell us about Yalom's Cure: A Guide to Happiness, the documentary about your life.

A few years ago, Swiss filmmaker Sabine Gisiger approached me; I was honored that she would have this kind of interest in my work. At the same time, I was threatened by the amount of exposure. Even now, after the film has been released, I still have these two major emotions. She and her film crew spent a great deal of time on this project over the years, visiting us in California and then accompanying me when I was on family vacations in Hawaii and France. I had no editorial control over the film and recently flew to see the premiere in Switzerland. I was very pleased by the finished product. She's an extraordinarily good filmmaker, and she has made a beautiful film. It's a good and true view of me. I wish, perhaps, it would've focused more on my writing work.

What's left for you to accomplish?

I'm working on a memoir--that, I think, is an age-appropriate task. I had a colorful, deprived and somewhat traumatic first 14 years; the memories of that time seem to be returning to me more and more vividly. --Kathleen Gerard

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Review


I Am Radar

by Reif Larsen

In his second novel, Reif Larsen (The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet) has woven a story of Homeric proportions. I Am Radar is about electricity. From New Jersey to Cambodia and throughout the 20th century, Larsen recounts the lives of people connected by a secret Norwegian organization formed during World War II and known as Kirkenesferda. It's a wild ride with an unconventional structure and enormous cast of unforgettable characters.

A white couple living in New Jersey gives birth to a black son. Not just a boy darker than his parents, but a child with skin and hair black as night. When a letter arrives from Norway offering a possible "cure," his mother insists on responding, and soon the family finds themselves on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Arctic Circle, where the members of Kirkenesferda await them. The mad scientists charm both parents, who allow Radar to undergo a procedure intended to change his skin color.

The novel shifts to 1975 Bosnia, where three-year-old Miroslav has just swallowed a key. That boy and his brother grow up to play very different roles in the civil war that tears their country to pieces. Later, Larsen takes the reader south to Cambodia in 1953, where a tiny baby becomes the subject of an experiment in scientific child-rearing. These historical digressions alternate with the continuing saga of Radar's life.

Larsen's prose is straightforward and bold, full of sparkling phrases. Wise yet unpretentious, both broad and deep, I Am Radar will slake the most unquenchable thirst for storytelling and open the reader's eyes to new possibilities in fiction. --Emma Page, bookseller at Wellesley Books, Wellesley, Mass.

Discover: A heavy-hitting philosophical and emotional exploration of families, colonialism, languages and war.

Penguin Press, $29.95, hardcover, 9781594206160

Welcome to Braggsville

by T. Geronimo Johnson

T. Geronimo Johnson (Hold It 'Til It Hurts) turns his satiric eye on race, class and so much more in a dark comedy set in the halls of academia and the heart of the Deep South.

Georgia native D'aron Davenport has a tough time fitting in during his freshman year at UC Berkeley until he's wrongfully accused of ridiculing Indian culture at a party. Three other freshman make the same faux pas, and they become an inseparable group nicknamed the Four Little Indians: D'aron, would-be social justice warrior Candice, "kung fu comedian" Louis Chang, and Charlie, scion of a black upper-crust Chicago family. When D'aron innocently mentions the Civil War battle reenactment his hometown celebrates every year, he horrifies Candice, who talks the boys into going home with D'aron and staging a satiric drama in the middle of the reenactment. D'aron, madly in love with Candice, agrees; perhaps his friends will understand his town isn't backward once they see it, and besides, no one will get hurt. However, laughs abruptly turn to horror at the project's tragic result.

Johnson spares no faction in his biting indictment of American society, a sprawling tapestry of different styles as complex as the issues he explores. If tragic elements sneak up on the reader without warning, perhaps Johnson is only making his point: when it comes to societal tensions, no one foresees the explosions until they detonate. Funny and wrenching, this coming-of-age story leaves one reeling but satisfied. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A dark comedy about race and class relations in which four UC Berkeley students attempt a "performative intervention" at a Civil War reenactment--with disastrous consequences.

Morrow, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062302120

A Touch of Stardust

by Kate Alcott

Last year was the 75th anniversary of the movie Gone with the Wind; Kate Alcott's novel A Touch of Stardust takes place behind the scenes during the filming of that landmark production.

In 1938, bright-eyed Julie Crawford from Fort Wayne, Ind., comes to Los Angeles with dreams of writing for the silver screen, inspired after hearing trailblazing screenwriter Frances Marion speak at Smith College, her alma mater. Julie gets a job in the publicity office at Selznick International Pictures, the production company of famed producer David O. Selznick, who has just started filming the movie adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's novel.

Julie quickly gets fired by the mercurial Selznick, but not before meeting the actress Carole Lombard, who is also from Fort Wayne and makes Julie her personal assistant. Julie gets an intimate glimpse of the love affair between her employer and Clark Gable, as she tries to juggle her own romance with Selznick's assistant producer and navigate the treacherous terrains of Tinseltown.

Fans of old-Hollywood glamour will be captivated by the shimmery details Alcott serves up about life on movie sets and in movie stars' homes, in a blend of fact and fiction. The most entrancing character is the sassy, blunt-spoken Lombard, whom the author brings so vividly to life that the actress's tragic death at a young age (mentioned only in the epilogue) feels like a huge loss all over again. Julie and her boyfriend, Andy, are a bit flat compared to Lombard and Gable, but Alcott's novel should be a breezy read for those with stardust in their eyes. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: A glittery behind-the-scenes look at the making of Gone with the Wind and the romance between one of its stars, Clark Gable, and Carole Lombard.

Doubleday, $25, hardcover, 9780385539043

Luigi's Freedom Ride

by Alan Murray

Alan Murray (The Wealth of Choices; Showdown at Gucci Gulch) tries his hand at fiction with Luigi's Freedom Ride, and achieves a rare blend of humor, solemnity and grace in this sweeping tale. Luigi Ferraro was born in 1921, in a small Tuscan village where he learned metalworking and a love of bicycles from his Uncle Cesare. Under Mussolini, Luigi is conscripted into the Italian army with his two best friends and trains in the cycling corps; he escapes and joins a group of partisans resisting fascism, and experiences both love and loss. The heartbroken young man then sets out on an international tour via bicycle and train, visiting Jerusalem and Sri Lanka and circumnavigating Australia, that "furthest place" he'd been seeking. Finally, Luigi dismounts in Sydney, where unexpected good fortune awaits him. With friends, family, love and pain spread around the globe, will he ever make it back to Tuscany?

Murray's quirky tone is absolutely charming, managing to express both the brutality and ugliness of war as well as the sweetly naive foibles of a young man learning about the wider world. Luigi is deeply endearing: he is well-intentioned but inexperienced, confounded by the English dialects of the Scots, Australians and Americans he meets, loyal and quick to love. Employing the bicycle as a symbol of freedom, fun, adventure and forward movement, Luigi's Freedom Ride is a novel about hope, self-determination and fresh starts, both heartfelt and surprisingly optimistic. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A novel of love and bicycles, both funny and poignant, beginning in Mussolini's Italy and traveling around the world.

HarperCollins, $15.99, paperback, 9780732298920

Green on Blue

by Elliot Ackerman

In Green on Blue (a military expression describing a "friendly" attack), a debut novel, former Marine Elliot Ackerman tells the story of the ongoing war in Afghanistan from a point of view Americans aren't accustomed to. Aziz Iqtbal is a young Afghan whose parents are killed in a Haqqani raid on their village and who, five years later, watches his brother lose his legs in a Taliban mortar attack. Without money or family, Aziz is recruited by notorious warlord Commander Sabir with the promise that by joining his regiment Aziz can fulfill the Pashtunwali code of nang and badal (honor and revenge--Ackerman effectively uses these and other Pashto words without direct translation). The U.S. invasion is no surprise to Sabir. He understands the need for U.S. badal and is happy to take all the money and weapons that pour in.

For young Aziz, however, the "war on terror" means nothing. He wants only to avenge his brother's suffering, maintain family honor and sleep each night with a full stomach. But he soon learns that retribution and satisfaction are not so simple. The United States' money goes to Sabir, who shares it with his Taliban opponent. As Sabir reminds Aziz, the fighting can never stop, for then the money would stop: "What happens if our war ends?... The Americans will no longer need us. How do we survive then?"

Ackerman doesn't take sides. Rather, with Hemingway-like restraint, he describes how one young Afghan's struggle to live an honorable life succumbs to historical forces that turn him into a lifelong soldier. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A poignant first novel about a war-orphaned young Afghan soldier.

Scribner, $25, hardcover, 9781476778556

Find Me

by Laura Van Den Berg

Laura Van Den Berg's debut novel, Find Me, boasts an impressive, multi-part story that dives deep into the life of Joy, a young woman who was abandoned as an infant and raised in a series of foster care and group homes. The first part of the novel centers on Joy's life during an inexplicable plague sweeping across the United States: as victims lose their memories and then their lives, Joy realizes she is immune and goes to live in the Hospital, where she and dozens of others are studied in hopes of finding a cure. As the regimented order of the Hospital breaks down, however, Joy finds herself longing for freedom and to find the mother who abandoned her. The second part of the novel follows Joy as she escapes the confinement of experimentation and attempts to cross the country searching for a woman she's never known--and to find herself along the way.

The disease in Find Me is not the focus of Van Den Berg's imagination: it disappears as suddenly and inexplicably as it appeared in the first place. But it is the catalyst that sends Joy out into the world, that ultimately pushes her to find her whole self by remembering that which she has forgotten or perhaps never known. Joy asks, "What is the memory but the telling of a story?" Van Den Berg answers with just that story, told in such elegant prose that the last sentences will leave readers reeling long past the final page. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A short story writer's debut novel features a young woman trying to find the mother who abandoned her.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, hardcover, 9780374154714

Mystery & Thriller

The Whites

by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt

Billy Graves is a Manhattan Night Watch sergeant. He and a small band of misfit detectives tend to the city's crime in the wee hours. It's not glorious, but on a good shift, Graves makes it home in time to take his two young sons to school. Billy Graves doubts he'll be making that school run the morning after St. Patrick's Day, however, when he's called to Penn Station at four a.m.

The blood-streaked tableau is a cop's nightmare. Drunken revelers heading for their trains home have trampled through the crime scene where a young man was stabbed to death. "It looked to Billy as if the guy had been trying to jump the turnstile, bled out mid-vault, then froze like that, dying in midair before dropping like a rock."

The real sucker punch sneaks in when Billy recognizes the victim, Jeffrey Bannion--a haunting memory from his days as a member of the South Bronx anti-crime unit Wild Geese. His life was forever altered as a WG when he inadvertently killed a young boy. While Billy doesn't know it yet, the reemergence of Bannion means his world is about to be turned upside down again.

With The Whites, Richard Price (Lush Life), writing as Harry Brandt, delves into the psychological conflict of his battered and scarred protagonist with a honed scalpel, cutting and prodding and poking, leaving cop and reader painfully uncomfortable with ugly truths. Brandt's style is vivid and succinct, creating strong atmosphere that seamlessly melds with the plot. Cop corruption is an intractable theme, but wow, did Brandt forge an extraordinary story with it. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: A disgraced New York City cop is unwittingly pulled back into the circle of lies and deceit that destroyed his life two decades earlier.

Holt, $28, hardcover, 9780805093995

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Half the World

by Joe Abercrombie

Half the World, the second fantasy novel in Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea series, brings all the goods his readers long for: visceral, violent action scenes, realistic political alliances and backstabbing, subtle character development and plot twists galore.

Yarvi, the deeply cunning main character of the first novel, returns as the minister of Gettland. He is charged with sailing the seas and employing his considerable powers of persuasion to bring allies to Gettland's side as war threatens. He takes two young ones under his wing: Thorn, a girl "touched by mother war" and a natural-born killing machine thwarted by society's view of gender, and Brand, a huge house of a young warrior with a heart of gold.

As is common in an Abercrombie book, nothing is as it seems and it's hard to trust anyone. The settings are vast, varied and alive with color, stink and substance. One action sequence is as brutal and heartbreaking as anything Abercrombie has accomplished in previous novels. Meanwhile he handles Brand's and Thorn's coming-of-age journeys with emotionally satisfying tenderness. Few fantasy writers have the capacity to jar readers with intense violence and then pluck at their heartstrings a few sentences later, some that Abercrombie does repeatedly.

Half the World remains true to the standard Abercrombie has set for himself, an entertaining read that stands firmly on its own, despite being the second in a series. It's a thoroughgoing blast, a violent, beautiful rabbit hole of craft that is well worth disappearing into for a few hours or days. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: Another entertaining burst of battle, magic and political machinations from the always reliable Joe Abercrombie.

Del Rey, $26, hardcover, 9780804178426


In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China

by Michael Meyer

Michael Meyer's In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China is a beautifully written blend of memoir, travel account, history and social commentary.

In 2011, Meyer moved to his Chinese wife's hometown--a Manchurian village with what proved to be the inappropriate name of Wasteland. He had lived in Beijing for several years and written about change in urban China (The Last Days of Old Beijing). Now he was interested in rural China, which was slowly disappearing as a result of forces familiar to anyone who knows the blighted farm towns of the American Midwest.

In his account of his months in Wasteland, Meyer walks the fine and often funny line between being both insider and outsider, telling a story that is at once intensely personal and broadly political. He explores the unexpected agricultural richness of Wasteland, learning the fine points of rice cultivation in the process. He searches for the surprisingly illusory traces of Manchuria's history as China's frontier. (Few remnants exist of the Manchu dynasty's Willow Palisade, Japanese and Russian colonial cities, and a POW camp where survivors from the Bataan Death March were held.) And to his surprise, having expected to find the remains of China's past in Manchuria, he instead finds China's future in the form of Eastern Fortune--a privately owned rice company that is in the process of transforming Wasteland from a commune to a company town.

In Manchuria is an engaging account of rural China poised on the brink of change. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: What "socialism with Chinese characteristics" looks like in rural Manchuria.

Bloomsbury, $28, hardcover, 9781620402863


From the New World: Poems 1976-2014

by Jorie Graham

In 1996, Jorie Graham published The Dream of a Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the Pulitzer Prize. From the New World: Poems 1976-2014 gathers together poetry from her 11 collections, as well as some previously unpublished pieces. It's the perfect place to start for readers new to her, since her poetic growth over these nearly 40 years can be (literally) seen.

A Graham poem on the page is an art work in itself. Form and format are important to her. Her poems use long and short lines, indentations and various spacing techniques to great effect. Words spread out all over, this way and that. As such, the form provides instructions on how a given poem could be read. Watching her read her own work helps, too. She is intent, her voice going up and down with the lines, the stops, the gaps and pauses, the repetitions, creating something of a séance-like experience.

Graham cares deeply about philosophy and the connection between the writer and reader, and so can be a challenging read. An early poem, "On Difficulty," admits as much. One of the new poems, "Honeycomb," deals with U.S. and British clandestine electronic surveillance. It begins: "Ode to Prism. Aria. Untitled. Wait. I wait. Have you found me yet. Here at my screen,/ can you make me/ out. Make me out. All other exits have been sealed. See me or we will both vanish." This book is an ideal way to experience Graham's poetic world. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: Nearly 40 years of challenging and demanding work by a Pulitzer-winning poet are gathered in this one volume.

Ecco, $29.99, hardcover, 9780062315403

Children's & Young Adult


by Pam Muñoz Ryan

In this remarkable novel, Pam Muñoz Ryan (The Dreamer; Esperanza Rising) braids together three stories in which an unusual harmonica plays a part. She begins with a fairy tale and a prophecy: "Your fate is not yet sealed./ Even in the darkest night, a star will shine,/ a bell will chime, a path will be revealed."

Readers will move swiftly through the novel's nearly 600 pages to find out how the prophecy comes to pass. The surprising twists and turns ratchet up the suspense within the individual stories and in how the author will ultimately bring them together. The first tale takes readers to 1933 Germany. Friedrich Schmidt, a 12-year-old with a wine-stain birthmark on his face that pegs him as an imperfection on Hitler's superior race, possesses a gift for conducting music that only he hears. Next, two brothers in an orphanage in 1935 Philadelphia insist upon leaving together or not at all. When Mrs. Sturbridge attempts to undo their adoption, Mike Flannery says if she'll keep his younger brother, he'll depart with a traveling harmonica troupe. Lastly, in 1942 California, Ivy Maria Lopez's father gets a job tending the land of an interned Japanese-American family, and readers learn along with Ivy about their white neighbors' racist treatment of Mexican-Americans.

Ryan gives readers room to piece together the parallels and contrasts between the societies central to these three stories. Her fairy-tale frame tacitly lets readers believe they will survive--despite the cliffhangers--until the author completes her extraordinary epic tale. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Pam Muñoz Ryan's epic novel braids together three individuals' stories, in which music sustains them through war, conspiracies and atrocities.

Scholastic, $19.99, hardcover, 592p., ages 10-14, 9780439874021

Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise

by Sean Taylor, illus. by Jean Jullien

In an impressive picture book debut, Jean Jullien uses the wide eyes of the Hoot Owl hero to feign innocence, show determination and register surprise.

"Watch out! I am Hoot Owl! I am hungry. And here I come!" proclaims Sean Taylor's (The World Champion of Staying Awake) protagonist. Hoot Owl pokes his head up from the lower right-hand corner, his eyes like two fried eggs with black pupils in place of yolks. His burnt-orange feathers stand out against the jet-black skies. Words and pictures play against each other for maximum humor. Hoot Owl claims to fly "as quick as a shooting star," yet the art shows a curlicue trail that betrays a bumpy takeoff. A single owl eye peeks out from behind a tree and spies "a tasty rabbit." The resourceful feathered fellow sews his camouflage: "As well as/ being wise,/ I am a master/ of disguise" ("a delicious carrot"). But the bunny high-tails it out of there. Taylor tucks in jokes for the older crowd ("The night has/ a thousand eyes,/ and two of them/ are mine") and Jullien makes them literal. Pairs of eyes in different shapes and shades look out of the dark wood. The hero poses as an owl in sheep's clothing (his potential woolly prey sports spectacles), a bird bath (for a pigeon), and finally finds success as a waiter.

Jullien's thick black outlines and saturated colors make the night come alive, and Taylor's wordplay is as satisfying as a pepperoni pizza. The finale opens the door for a sequel... please. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: An enchanting hero of the night with a flair for words, decked out in feathered finery.

Candlewick, $15.99, hardcover, 48p., ages 3-7, 9780763675783

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