Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Poisoned Pen Press: That Night in the Library by Eva Jurczyk

From My Shelf

Susan Hill: No Brooding

Susan Hill's novels and short stories have won many awards, and she's been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The play adapted from her famous ghost story, The Woman in Black, has been running in the West End in London since 1989; it was made into a film in 2012, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Ciarán Hinds. Her crime novels featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler are being adapted for TV--good news for the many Serrailler fans. We recently spoke to her about the latest in the series, The Soul of Discretion (Overlook Books).

Susan Hill (photo: Andrew Fox)

We've always wondered why some authors choose real places, while others construct a fictional town. Hill created Lafferton, England, because she didn't want to be tied to a real location. Serrailler lives in the cathedral close, in a flat where he guards his privacy. But now he has started a new relationship, which he's not very good at. We asked Hill if, when she started writing about Serrailler, she envisioned him as shy, perhaps even "on the spectrum," but evolving. She said, "Everything comes over time, nothing is very planned. Yes, he emerged as I went on writing. Though he isn't socially awkward in a general way, he's very engaging, personable and easy--it's the intimate stuff he can't cope with well."

The Soul of Discretion is sometimes difficult to read, due to the nature of the case, in which Serrailler infiltrates a ring of child pornographers. How did Hill handle writing about such dark matters? "I just do it.... I try not to think about it deeply, just go on. I certainly don't brood about it. I think I couldn't have written it if I had done that."

While Hill has the most fun writing ghost stories, she is also a small publisher and has just launched a children's book imprint, Little Barn Books. "I'm writing the first three books. Two are done, onto the third. After that....??"

We're hoping for another Simon Serrailler mystery. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

The Writer's Life

Dave Goulson: A Natural Obsession

Dave Goulson is a British biologist, conservationist and professor of biology at the University of Sussex. His book A Sting in the Tale, like a "dumbledore" (the old English name for bumblebee), touched on history and language and human nature. His new book is A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm (our review is below).

There's a dose of medicine in this book, much like your last book, that agribusiness finds hard to swallow. The chapter on bumblebees discusses Colony Collapse Disorder, and some of the factors contributing to the problem. Short of overturning the entire agribusiness/pesticide/food management system worldwide, what steps can we take to prevent further damage?

Actually, I think that we really should try to overturn the entire system. The current model is enormously inefficient, with about 40% of the food we grow going to waste. It is causing wildlife to disappear, with extinctions occurring at 1,000 times the historic rate. It is also causing somewhere in the region of 100 billion tonnes of soil to be lost every year--about 15 tonnes per person on the planet. It contributes substantially to climate change. None of this is sustainable. If we don't want our grandchildren to starve, then we need a new approach. This need not be difficult; there are plenty of techniques for growing food that are sustainable. Just as an example, gardeners and allotment holders can get between three and 11 times as much food from their land as does an intensive farmer, while using only a fraction of the chemicals, and while supporting a diversity of wildlife. I think it is clear that we should be trying to move towards small scale, local, healthy food production.

On a lighter note, there's a lot of joy to be found in your books. You clearly have a love for the natural world. How did this awareness and appreciation develop?

I honestly don't know where my obsession with wildlife came from. It is almost as if it was my calling--from as early as I can remember, I've never been much interested in anything else. My parents weren't especially keen on natural history, but they were happy enough to encourage me, buying me identification books, butterfly nets, cages, pots and so on, and they didn't mind me keeping a menagerie of creatures in my bedroom. I'm exceedingly lucky to have managed to make a living from pursuing my childhood hobby.

In writing your books, whom did you look to for inspiration?

I was a great Gerald Durrell fan from an early age, loving to read about his early life growing up on Corfu, and as a young boy I desperately wanted to be him. I was also fascinated by his books describing his exotic expeditions as an adult to catch animals, from which his warmth, humour and passion for wildlife shine through--Two Singles to Adventure was a particular favourite. I was also influenced by Jean-Henri Fabre's Book of Insects from 1879--when I was quite young my father gave me a battered copy that he found in a secondhand bookshop, which I have to this day. I was immediately hooked by the beautiful watercolour illustrations of beetles rolling dung, crickets singing to a mate and potter wasps building their nests. Fabre was, in a sense, the father of modern entomology--he spent his long life studying the fascinating lives of the insects that lived in his native southern France, discovering much that was new to science, and he describes some of his favourites in this wonderful, affectionate tome. I was envious of both Durrell and Fabre, for they encountered creatures that seemed very exotic to me; mantises, cicadas, snakes and terrapins, animals that were not to be found in my native Shropshire in England. I desperately wanted to travel to see these and other fabulous beasts, and have since been very fortunate in having had the chance to visit many corners of the Earth in search of wildlife. However, one thing that this has taught me is that there is a great deal of wonder to be had, and much to be discovered, by watching the more commonplace creatures that live all around us. There is so much that we don't know about the lives of bumblebees, earwigs, ants, hoverflies and so on, even though they live their lives right under our noses, in our gardens, parks, sometimes even inside out houses. These marvellous little creatures are the real inspiration for my writing, and for my academic research. I do not think that I will ever lose the sense of excitement one gets when making new discoveries about the lives of these small but important creatures. --Matthew Tiffany, LCPC, writer for Condalmo and psychotherapist

Book Candy

Books About Women in the '50s; Stephen King's Most Evil Antagonists

Virginia Nicholson, author of Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes--the Story of Women in the 1950s, chose her "top 10 books about women in the 1950s" for the Guardian.


"Climb trees" and "stick your head in staircase balustrade" are among the 10 things kids shouldn't do, according to The Accidents of Youth, an 1819 book of cautionary tales.


Movie night: "Suddenly, every movie romance involves first-edition books, and it's getting kinda weird, Vulture observed, and Word & Film confronted "Stephen King's 8 most evil antagonists."


"I just sold my book for one million billion dollars, so consider this my two weeks' notice." Buzzfeed imagined "18 things all writers wish they could say."


A question for the ages: "What are the best cakes based on children's books?"

Book Review


Voices in the Night: Stories

by Steven Millhauser

Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser (Martin Dressler) is a captivating group of 16 stories, whose decidedly fantastic perspective on ordinary life infuses mundane existence with a persistent sense of mystery and wonder.

A characteristic Millhauser story starts off in an unnamed, nondescript town where an odd event or series of them quickly alters everyday life. That's the essential plot device in "Phantoms," where people start seeing night visions, and "Elsewhere," where a collective wanderlust emerges over the course of one summer. "A Report on Our Recent Troubles" describes a wave of suicides that devastate one town, while "Mermaid Fever" is the account of what happens when a dead mermaid washes up on the beach and is put on display by the town's historical society. Millhauser's gift lies in his ability to maintain the plausibility of these stories while at the same time allowing their surreal qualities to flourish.

One of the most striking aspects of Millhauser's style is the near absence of anything that looks like conventional dialogue. Only "Miracle Polish" (the tale of a product whose magical glass-cleaning properties permanently alter one romantic relationship) and "Sons and Mothers" (a frightening story of the encounter between an adult son and his mother on one of his infrequent visits) contain any meaningful number of scenes in which characters talk to each other. Because Millhauser excels at exposition and pacing, this unusual feature of his work doesn't diminish its appeal.

In these enchanting, unsettling stories, Steven Millhauser bursts the boundaries of the world we think we know to help us see it anew. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: Sixteen stories that transcend the boundary between fantasy and reality.

Knopf , $25.95, hardcover, 9780385351591

The Fishermen

by Chigozie Obioma

When the four brothers who are the focus of Chigozie Obioma's debut novel, The Fishermen, decide to go down to their village river to fish, they have no way of knowing that their lives will be changed forever. But their encounter with the town madman on the riverbank--who prophesies that the oldest brother will be killed by one of his fellow fishermen--proves to be a turning point.

Told from the point of view of nine-year-old Benjamin, the youngest of the brothers, the story of Ikenna's descent into fear and paranoia, driven by the prophecy, is heartbreaking in its inevitability. "I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent," Ben reflects, "and what becomes permanent can be indestructible."

This is certainly the case with Ikenna, whose unraveling begins with his belief in the madman's words and ends in tragedy, taking his family along with him. The brothers' family saga is set against the background of a tumultuous and politically charged 1990s Nigeria, which, combined with Obioma's stunning prose and twisting narrative style, succeeds in grounding the tale in the reality of history and emotion while exploring ideas of fate and destiny that feel mythical in their scope. The Fishermen is a story with intent and purpose, slim but powerful, with not a word out of place--and one not to be missed. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A powerful story of four brothers in 1990s Nigeria whose decision to go fishing takes their lives in unexpected directions.

Little, Brown, $26, hardcover, 9780316338370

The Turner House

by Angela Flournoy

The childhood summers she spent with her grandparents, and stories of their many children, inspired Angela Flournoy's first novel, The Turner House.

Francis and Viola Turner raised 13 children in their house on Yarrow Street. Viola has remained in the changing, crumbling Detroit neighborhood long after Francis died and the family dispersed, but age and illness have finally forced her out, too, into the home of her eldest son, Charles ("Cha-Cha"). Knowing that Viola is unlikely to live on her own again, Cha-Cha calls his siblings together to discuss their mother's house. It's worth far less than its mortgage; even collectively they can't afford to pay it off, but they can't agree on how--or whether--to keep it.

This debate is especially unsettling for Lelah, the youngest Turner, who has secretly moved back into the house after being evicted from her apartment and suspended from her job. For his part, Cha-Cha is juggling personal problems alongside the family ones. On leave from his job as a truck driver after an accident, Cha-Cha has been sent to counseling, but he's finding his therapist more confusing than helpful.

Flournoy could have structured The Turner House as a sprawling multi-generational saga or a reflection on urban decay; instead, she opts for a more intimate scale. She concentrates on selected members of the large cast of characters. At times the plot threads become difficult to wrangle, but the conversations between the Turner siblings ring true, and so do the family's tension and affection. One hopes Flournoy has more stories to tell about them. --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

Discover: How the troubles of some members of a large Detroit family are linked to the house where they grew up.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23, hardcover, 9780544303164

Biography & Memoir

Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret's Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines

by Eric Blehm

In Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret's Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines, journalist Eric Blehm (Fearless) details the stirring account of Master Sergeant Raul "Roy" Benavidez's rescue of a hopelessly surrounded small Green Beret squad on a covert mission near the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia.

In May 1968, Special Forces Detachment B-56 was ambushed and surrounded by hundreds of North Vietnamese Army soldiers. The first choppers sent to extract them were shot down or couldn't make it through the heavy fire. Roy Benavidez--a never-say-die soldier whose perseverance and tenacity allowed him to regain the use of his back and legs after being severely injured during a previous tour--volunteered to fly on the rescue mission. In an adrenaline rush, he endured a half a dozen serious wounds while dragging survivors and the bodies of downed soldiers to the choppers. Then he collapsed. Back at the base, medics mistakenly piled him with the corpses and nearly zipped his body bag shut before recognizing him.

With access to recently declassified documents and first-hand accounts from soldiers, Blehm asserts that the sometimes small stories of men at risk deserve to find a larger place in the history of the war. Benavidez was a man who "from the moment he jumped out of the chopper until his last recovery run... was in complete control." Not a bad definition of a hero, no matter the circumstances. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A story of exceptional heroism in the face of horrific danger during the Vietnam War.

Crown, $27, hardcover, 9780804139519

How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Lessons of a Racist Childhood

by Jim Grimsley

In his beautifully introspective memoir, How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Lessons of a Racist Childhood, novelist Jim Grimsley (Winter Birds) says, "No one ever pointed out a black person to me and said, 'You cannot drink water out of the same glass as that person, or call him "sir," or sit next to him in a public place.' Yet the knowledge of those truths had come into me in spite of the silence." When he returns to his North Carolina public school in the fall of 1966, these truths are sliced wide open: school desegregation is now law and three African American students are joining his sixth grade class.

While many of his classmates avoid integration by attending all-white private institutions, Grimsley's family is poor; paying tuition isn't an option. So he's exposed to a race of people he's never noticed before--they had never been important enough to acknowledge--and he discovers, "The differences were not what I had been led to expect... and they did not add up to superiority for me or for my skin color." The mere recognition of this fact doesn't erase the racism ingrained in him from birth, but seeing these classmates is his first step in overcoming a long-held tradition of hate.

Grimsley examines his intimate thoughts and experiences in order gracefully to retrace his odyssey through a world turned on its head. His adult reflections on his child self are often humorous and always brutally honest. In a world that continues to struggle with race relations, How I Shed My Skin is a stunning beacon of hope. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: The metamorphosis of a racist child viewed through the lens of his adult self.

Algonquin, $23.95, hardcover, 9781616203764


The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong: The Untold Story of My Struggle for Tibet

by Gyalo Thondup, Anne F. Thurston

While Gyalo Thondup attended a local fair, his brother was born to his peasant parents. Little did anyone know that this infant would become the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. As Thondup writes in The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong: The Untold Story of My Struggle for Tibet, "Our lives were changed forever. One day we were an ordinary farm family in Amdo, and then we became the family of the Dalai Lama, living in a huge 50-room house looking up at the Potala Palace where my little brother lived in the highest room atop the tallest building in Tibet."

Instead of becoming a monk like his other brothers, Thondup was groomed to become the Dalai Lama's closest political adviser. This book details Tibet's history as seen through Thondup's eyes, as he traveled abroad to negotiate deals with China, India and the United States, attempting to procure aid for a Tibet overrun by the Communist Chinese. He lived in the semi-spotlight as the older brother of the most revered person in his country. He details the building tension in Tibet from the late 1940s to 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped under cover of darkness to India--to begin his life-long exile from Tibet--and the intense difficulties Thondup experienced after that. In 1999, Thondup retired to Kalimpong, where he and his wife had started a noodle factory in 1968. Although the pacing is slow at times due to the dense amount of history packed into this story, Thondup's perspective is valuable to readers attuned to the tragic history of the Tibetan people. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: A history of Tibet after the birth of the 14th Dalai Lama, from the viewpoint of the Dalai Lama's older brother.

PublicAffairs, $27.99, hardcover, 9781610392891

A Good Place to Hide: How One French Village Saved Thousands of Lives During World War II

by Peter Grose

In A Good Place to Hide: How One French Village Saved Thousands of Lives During World War II, journalist Peter Grose describes how a population with its own experience of religious persecution and two charismatic pastors with unlikely international connections turned an isolated community in the upper reaches of the Loire Valley into a haven for Jews and other refugees during World War II.

A Good Place to Hide combines solid historical research with the tension of a spy novel. Grose recounts the story of Le Chambon and its neighboring villages, which were primarily Huguenot in Catholic France, the relationship between the Vichy government and Nazi Germany, and the growth of French Resistance. He traces the community's gradual shift from hiding refugees to helping them escape into Switzerland. But the heart of the book lies in the stories of individual people, often told in their words with use of journals, letters, memoirs and interviews. Among them: a 17-year-old Jewish office-machine repairman who became a master forger of identity papers; a teen girl who carried money from one Resistance cell to another, right under German noses; a mother of five who scoured the countryside for safe houses; middle-aged refugees who disguised themselves as Boy Scouts and hiked toward freedom; the activist pastor who inspired the community to offer sanctuary with a literal reading of one Old Testament verse.

In the vein of Schindler's List, A Good Place to Hide is an inspiring account of the extraordinary courage of ordinary people. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: An entire community of everyday heroes in World War II rural France.

Pegasus Books, $26.95, hardcover, 9781605986920


A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm

by Dave Goulson

Dave Goulson follows A Sting in the Tale, about his years studying bumblebees, with A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm. In 2003, Goulson purchased a 33-acre property with a decaying farmhouse and barn, and turned it into a private nature reserve; here he describes the multitude of wildlife he shares those acres with. His goal is to celebrate the wonder of the natural world--especially insects, which make up roughly two-thirds of known life on Earth.

Goulson charmingly depicts the mating practices of dance flies and the many butterfly species he sees on his daily run, and elucidates the habits of the famously cannibalistic female mantis, with added knowledge gained through his own studies. A Buzz in the Meadow is both a descriptive work and a call to arms, a reminder that all species are precious and necessary, even the tiny ones. Goulson repeatedly states that conservationists should look beyond large and charismatic creatures like whales and tigers; he perhaps overstates that "the extinction of the giant panda... would not have any knock-on consequences. There would perhaps be a tiny bit more bamboo in a forest in China," but his point is well taken--that insects make up the majority of life and play an outsized role in the interconnectivity of biological systems worldwide. Goulson's tone is personal, even humorously self-effacing, but clearly expert. A Buzz in the Meadow accessibly presents natural science and gracefully offers an earnest wake-up call to conservation. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A celebration of biology and the joy of discovery--and a reminder to tread lightly.

Picador, $25, hardcover, 9781250065889


What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford

by Frank Stanford

Frank Stanford's What About This is a monumental achievement. So much of Stanford's work was unpublished, scattered about in limited-edition, hard-to-find volumes, but now it has been collected, and readers will rejoice to discover (or rediscover) a distinct poetic voice.

Stanford was born in Mississippi in 1948, and 29 years later, in Fayetteville, Ark., he shot himself three times in the heart. One of the last poems he wrote was "Memory Is Like a Shotgun Kicking You Near the Heart," with these lines:

I think of the hair growing on the dead,
Any motion without sound,
The stars, the seed ticks
Already past my knees,
The moon beating its dark bush.

He was a voracious reader and heavily influenced by Thomas Merton and the Surrealists. His poetry is wildly imagistic, imbued with Southern folklore and culture, and it's--to use Stanford's own word--"strange." "If a person is quiet enough inside he might be able to catch on to what I'm trying to do in my poetry." In "Belladonna," from Stanford's first published collection, The Singing Knives (1971), he writes about "A song that comes apart/ Like a rosary/ In the back of a church."

This collection, more than 700 pages, is filled with amazing, forceful, words-on-fire poems that will have readers shaking their heads in amazement. Here indeed is lightning in one's hands. In an unpublished fragment Stanford tells us: "This poem is asleep. I/ don't want you yelling at it,/ waking it up. Let it dream." --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: The collected poems of the Ozarks Surrealist Frank Stanford, a seminal work.

Copper Canyon, $40, hardcover, 9781556594687


by Parneshia Jones

Parneshia Jones begins her debut poetry collection, Vessel, with the important subject of her name. "Parneshia [par: knee: she a] n/ i. 1980--daughter of high school sweethearts," she explains in the poem "Definition," after first defining "Parnassus," the Greek mountain symbol of poetry. From there she makes clear the inextricable nature of poetry to her life.

Vessel is a book of family, history, storytelling, the South, romance, Chicago, music and tradition. Each entry opens like a delectable advent calendar of Jones's heritage; each a surprise, each a treat. There are warm memories she offers tenderly, like the moment her grandmother welcomes her in the middle of the night: "I slide into the pocket of the quilt,/ letting my grandmother's hands/ cradle me back to child" ("Dream Catcher"). There are sultry moments shared with a comely companion: "Our fingers, licked slow, tuck themselves/ between full bodies feasting on the night's heat." ("Two Lovers and a Pot of Collard Greens"). And there are somber elegies written in anguish: "Children become ancestors/ in the Georgia night" ("Georgia on My Mind").

Together, the moments Jones writes swell into a tremendous epic, of not just one life but the lives of each person touched by the first. Vessel is a satisfying, lyrical chorus of both black struggle and personal revelation, swirling with regional sights and sounds, and sizzling with the burn of whiskey. "You/ Rare/ Reserve," Jones writes for her father in "O.W. Starling"--"Live to be savored." Savor these words. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Tender, candid poems soaked in Southern flavor and filled with Midwestern hospitality.

Milkweed Editions, $16, paperback, 9781571314673

Children's & Young Adult

The Truth Commission

by Susan Juby

When they observe the healing powers of truth-telling, Susan Juby's (Alice, I Think) funny, smart 16-year-old narrator and her two best friends decide to form a Truth Commission.

Normandy Pale is writing this book as a work of creative nonfiction for her spring project junior year. Her author's note describes her anticipation of writing her acknowledgments: "It's going to be like writing an Academy Awards speech for an award that I gave to myself!" By footnote number 11, Norm admits that she and her friends would have been better off sticking to the time-honored concept of the "truth and reconciliation commission."

Her statement foreshadows many situations that at first seem like successful truth-seeking but have unintended consequences. Norm nearly loses Dusk and Neil's friendship because she has not yet sought truth from anyone. But she's withholding from them her graphic novel artist sister's confession to Norm: that she crossed a line with a teacher at college. When Norm finally does approach her first "subject," he turns the questions back to her: "You might want to start a little closer to home." A standout exchange occurs when Norm tells Mr. Thomas, "Asking people the truth is a spiritual practice." He responds, "I thought that spiritual practice involved asking yourself the truth."

Juby beautifully frames the questions at the heart of adolescence. When do you want to know the truth and when is it too much? How much do you present to the world and how much do you keep for yourself? --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A smart, savvy YA novel about what constitutes the truth; its ideas will linger long after the last page.

Viking, $18.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 14-up, 9780451468772

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl's Courage Changed Music

by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafael López

The rhythm of a drumbeat infuses Margarita Engle's (Silver People) picture book based on the life of Chinese-African-Cuban jazz musician Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, set against Rafael López's (The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred) warm-toned acrylics with a hint of magical realism.

Author and artist paint a picture of a child who can't sit still. She dreams of "pounding tall conga drums/ tapping small bongó drums/ and boom boom booming/ with long, loud sticks/ on big, round, silvery/ moon-bright timbales." López's turquoise and deep violet backdrops summon the night, while his tangerine skies drip with sunlight. Boys and men happily parade the streets with their drums, while the heroine can only dream of them by moonlight: "Her hands seemed to fly/ as they rippled/ rapped/ and pounded/ all the rhythms/ of her drum dreams." In López's illustration, the heroine hovers like a hummingbird, her wings keeping her aloft to play on a drum held up by a flower. Her father finds her a teacher who "taught her more/ and more/ and more/ and she practiced/ and she practiced/ and she practiced." In the artwork, the rhythms leave her teacher's fingertips in bands of color and seem to stroke the drum skins of his eager pupil. When her teacher says she's ready to play at a café, "everyone who heard/ her dream-bright music/ sang/ and danced/ and decided/ that girls should always/ be allowed to play/ drums."

Young people will be inspired by this heroine's defiance of the gender lines and her rise as a drummer. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: The inspiring childhood of a Chinese-African-Cuban drummer who broke the gender lines in pursuit of her passion.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, hardcover, 48p., ages 4-8, 9780544102293

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