Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, August 7, 2015


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

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 70 Years Later

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atomic and plutonium bombs killed 129,000-246,000 people, mostly civilians. A year later, John Hersey's classic Hiroshima was published in the New Yorker; subsequently brought out in book form by Knopf, it has never been out of print and has sold more than three million copies.

Hersey relates the experiences of six people in the city, beginning: "At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6th, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department at the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk." Hersey's prose technique suited the story well; as he wrote in a letter to historian Paul Boyer, "The flat style was deliberate, and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator; I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader's experience would be as direct as possible."

The coastal town of Nagasaki was bombed three days after Hiroshima. In Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War (reviewed below), Susan Southard has written an intense, devastating account of August 9, when the plutonium bomb blasted a circular area of five miles, shattering windows as far away as 11 miles. Southard interviewed five hibakusha (bomb-affected people), and tells their stories from beginning to the present. She also talked to other survivors, historians, physicians, psychologists--surviving the blast was only the beginning; injuries, radiation effects, mental trauma and discrimination followed.

Two horrifying chronicles written 70 years apart, bookends to unfathomable destruction. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers


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


Book Candy

Calculating the To-Be-Read Pile

"How long will it take to finish your TBR pile?" Read It Forward offered a helpful (or terrifying, depending upon your point of view) To Be Read Calculator.

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For Brightly, Devon Corneal shared tips on "how to get back on the reading wagon" that she discovered after becoming "determined to reclaim our traditions and turn my child's mind back into a working body part, instead of a pile of mush."

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Mark Blacklock, author of I'm Jack, chose his "top 10 literary hoaxes" for the Guardian.

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Buzzfeed shared "27 seriously underrated books every book lover should read."

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The Cat-Library bookcase, from Corentin Dombrecht, offers a "clever modular bookshelf design [that] includes an irresistible cat basket, which draws the cat up the stair-like shelves to the top of the bookshelf. You can add to and configure the box-like components as you desire," WroteTrips noted.


Goodbye Stranger

by Rebecca Stead

Newbery Medal–winning author Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me) has a rare gift. She can see into the souls of young people as they begin to grow conscious of how others view them from the outside and how they feel on the inside, and she has the skill to illuminate how they grapple with these gaps and overlaps in perception.

For Bridget ("Bridge") Barsamian, that quest to understanding begins early, at age eight, after she suffers an accident that results in 13 broken bones and a punctured lung. A nurse tells her, "You must have been put on this earth for a reason," and Bridge makes it her mission to discover what that reason is. Now, in seventh grade, one of Bridge's two best friends, Emily, develops "curvy new curves," as Tab's older sister puts it. Tab is the third member of their trio, and dates back the longest as Bridge's friend. Emily suddenly gains attention from boys, Patrick in particular. Emily is also athletic, and even eighth-graders start to say hello to her. Tab, bossy and a bit of a know-it-all, just wants things to stay the same.

Tab wants Bridge to join Human Rights Club with her, but Bridge signs up for Tech Crew. That's where Bridge meets Sherm. The trio's disparate interests could pull the friends apart. But Stead takes the more challenging route as a writer: she explores the work it takes to keep and nurture a friendship when the individuals involved are changing.

The situation grows further complicated when Emily and Patrick begin an innocent text exchange of photos of knees and elbows, and gradually more revealing images enter the mix. Tab becomes convinced that Patrick has let it go too far when a photo of Emily in her bra goes viral and, in a fit of loyalty, she takes matters into her own hands. Emily assures Tab that Patrick is telling the truth--that someone else got hold of his phone and sent the revealing photos to a larger group. Stead carefully keeps the situation contained; the subplot involving the texted photos never dominates the novel. Instead, she mines the situation to explore the nuances of friendship: loyalty and petty jealousy, independence and coercion, and where platonic love spills over into romance.

While Emily and Patrick are getting to know each other, Bridge and Sherm are cementing their friendship. Sherm becomes nearly as close a confidant to Bridge as Tab and Emily. And as friends tease Sherm about Bridge, he thinks, "She was definitely not his girlfriend. But she might be his best friend." So when the texted images go viral, Sherm takes a stand--adding to the author's profound exploration of the intricacies of human relationships.

Stead keeps a balance of levity and gravity through three alternating points of view. The main story arc unfolds through Bridge's third-person perspective; Sherm's story unfolds through a third-person narrative, and through unsent letters to his grandfather, who left his wife (and Sherm's family); and a third perspective comes  via the second-person narrative of a mysterious high-schooler told in a single day, Valentine's Day.

The themes of the other two narratives resonate and reverberate with Bridge's thoughts. After Tab and Emily argue about the texted images, Bridge thinks,  "Suddenly the air felt different. Tab wasn't here with them, on purpose. That had never happened before." Sherm tries to make sense of the departure of his grandfather, Nonno Gio, and remembers his father urging Nonno Gio to return to his native Italy for a visit, to remind him who he was, "Because you've turned into a stranger!" And Sherm recalls his grandfather's reply, "You said that, in a way, you were a stranger to yourself. It scared me." The high-schooler, trying to make sense of the rift she feels between herself and her best girlfriend, Vinny, realizes that although Vinny "made you feel as if you were exactly where you wanted to be, if not exactly who.... Maybe Vinny, your Vinny, was gone."

Stead raises questions about whether a relationship can survive change. If someone makes a mistake, can you forgive the person, if not the act? Can two people reconcile, if they are both willing to process what happened? Or is the change more systemic--has one of you become a stranger? The thing that scares Sherm about his grandfather's observation, that Nonno Gio is a stranger to himself, is that "Sometimes I felt like a stranger to myself too," especially when he holds Bridge's hand. "Is the new you the stranger?" Sherm wonders, "Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?"

It's a question all of the characters ask themselves at some point in Stead's perfectly synchronized novel. The book begins on the third Monday in September of Bridge's seventh-grade year and drives inexorably toward Valentine's Day--the complete day recounted in the high-schooler's narrative, and also Nonno Gio's birthday.

The novel threads together the separate journeys of the seventh-graders, the high-schoolers who orbit around Vinny, and even Nonno Gio. What do you do if you want to stay true to the person inside and the person perceived by outsiders? This is the central human dilemma. To Rebecca Stead's credit, she circles the question in such a way that readers of any age can examine it from a variety of perspectives. She looks at life in funny and profound ways that will allow young readers to come to these questions from multiple entry points, no matter where they are on their own journeys. --Jennifer M. Brown

Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, $16.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 10-up, 9780385743174

Rebecca Stead: 'Who Is Your True Self?'

In Newbery Medalist Rebecca Stead's new novel, Goodbye Stranger (Wendy Lamb Books), Bridget Barsamian suffered a life-threatening accident at age eight that changed not only her, but the lives of those around her. Something a nurse said stayed with her: "You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived." Bridge wonders, "What is the reason?" At the same time, two other stories intertwine with hers--that of Bridge's classmate Sherm, and an unnamed high-schooler's, told in a second-person narrative. Here Stead discusses how these three tales interlock and diverge, and the question to which she seems always to return.

What inspired you to tell this story about someone who gets a second chance at life?

Something that interests me is this time of life where you're seeing the world outside in a broader way. That also includes seeing yourself from the outside. That's a complicated thought, at an interesting, exciting, fun, scary time of life. It's another way to explore identity.

Who is your true self? Is it the person inside or the person other people know? At this stage, at age 11, 12, 13, 14--depending on who you are--half the time you're seeing yourself from the outside. Maybe from a boy's point of view, also a girl's point of view, your mother's, your friend's. It's the agony of feeling alone in your consciousness: Does anyone really know who you are inside?

A lot is the internal experience versus the external, how you're putting yourself out there and comparing that to what's inside. Liar & Spy was about an attempt to protect yourself--too much, possibly. In this story, they're not protecting themselves; I think Bridge's body knows her fear more than her brain does. She manifests her remaining fear physically more than emotionally or intellectually. But she has a lot of questions. I don't think she's afraid of them. They preoccupy her.

Tell us about the mysterious high-schooler, the one revealed through the second-person narrative, and her bond to Vinny.

Between that character and Vinny, there was a real emotional connection, which was broken. Sometimes at the root of those friendships, there's something real. That's another incredibly painful thing about childhood--and adult--friendship. Sometimes you have to recognize that a friendship is over. The answer is not always to fix it. Sometimes the answer is: the person you had a friendship with is gone, or the person you were in the friendship is gone. I think that's a lot of what that struggle turns out to be in the story.

Many of the complications in the friendships in this book involve triangles, when two team up and the third stands on the outside.

The three main characters, Bridge, Tab and Emily, are three strong girls with a strong friendship. I knew from the beginning--and there are few things that I know at the very beginning-- they'd support each other through the story, and there wouldn't be that kind of torture or pain that can go around when you have a friendship or a trio.

In the high school story, it wasn't going to be that way at all. That's a less detailed view of a situation where things fall apart. There's the relationship between Vinny and Zoe, Vinny's sidekick. The way she's remained Vinny's friend is by becoming a shadow. For the high-schooler, whose story we're learning throughout the book, that's not the way she wants to go. Realizing that brings her a lot of pain. It means she has to leave the relationship. Hopefully both feel familiar. I've had friendships that feel like Bridge's friendships, and then others more like the high schooler-Vinny relationship.

What happened to Bridge has a ripple effect on so many others. That's a theme that Goodbye Stranger shares with When You Reach Me--the idea of one action leading to a chain of other events.

That was something that developed as I wrote the story. I do remember having a more heavy-handed connection between Sherm's story and Bridget's accident in an early draft. I don't like to point too hard or put in too many aha moments. I prefer if my aha moments are emotional beats--something internal. My own responses are strongest when I'm reading about an inner realization or an emotional pivot of some kind.

The New York setting in your novels--When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy, and now Goodbye Stranger--is so real. There's a sense of timelessness to the city, almost like a Woody Allen film. How do you do that?

I think that stuff is mostly subconscious. I do myself the big favor of setting my novels in places where I've spent a lot of time. That's because it's much easier to write a story set in a place where you've internalized the setting already. You don't have to ask yourself about authenticity because you know it on an instinctual level. What I'm trying to do usually is build a story with a lot of tiny little fragments that I spend a lot of time picking up and arranging. I can see everything more clearly against a backdrop I know really well.

How does a new project begin for you? Does an idea hit you like a lightning bolt? Does a character introduce him- or herself to you?

This at the very very very beginning was a book I planned to write about Candy, Safer's sister in my last book [Liar & Spy], three years later. But the person who was being realized on the page was just not Candy. I had to switch gears and discover who the person was I was actually writing about, and what her history was.

I figured out fairly quickly that Bridge was going to be Bridge. I never plan stories; I might have a fragment in my mind or something that happened in my parenting community long ago, or someone else's parenting community. It went very slowly, just writing scenes about the characters and watching them talk to a lot of people. It's the best way to figure out who they are and how they talk. I abandoned the computer and wrote it mostly longhand. It was the best way to keep moving forward.

A lot of writing is tolerating the feeling of not knowing. There's a temptation to go back and reread instead of pushing forward into story. I sat away from my computer and away from the temptations of the Internet and wrote every day until I discovered something I didn't know.

And then there's self-confident Adrienne. Where did she come from?

It's always really fun to have a character who is not struggling at all. It's a nice place to rest as a writer. Adrienne's my person who's not struggling. She's a bit older than all the other young women in the story. She's a nice counterpoint and an interesting character for me.

She's sort of a model of a person who is living the life she wants. That's a big part of the struggle that some of the other characters are having. How do you go about building the life you want so you can live as the person you want to be? Hopefully that includes acting in a moral or decent way toward other people, making choices that respect who you are as a person.

There are times in life where that feels like a real juggling act. I think middle school is often where you're first attempting that in a complex way. Kids today also have these virtual selves that they create--an online self consisting of a collection of friends, a collection of photos, a collection of things you've done that you lay out for people to see. That's also challenging.

You explore different kinds of love--platonic love among friends, self-love and budding romantic love.

I wanted this to be a serious book about love. Not dramatic love, but significant, meaningful love. I was absolutely aware that I was painting a lot of different kinds of love--everything you mentioned plus Bridge and her brother, and Emily and Patrick. There's so much happening at this time of life. There are some who are ready for a little more, and others who are nowhere near any kind of physical relationships. I wanted to show a lot of different ideas.

I get very suspicious when I feel like one character represents a point of view and that character is right about everything, and another is unmitigated evil. That's not really how we encounter people most of the time. So I really tried to show everyone making mistakes. We probably wouldn't agree about what all the mistakes are. If we asked seventh-graders about what mistakes these characters make, I don't think they'd all come up with the same list.

That's the kind of story I try to tell. I was mostly trying to find a lot of pleasure in the way people love each other in this book but also acknowledge the ways we can get hurt.

When you explore a world and bring up a lot of questions, and everyone is making mistakes, that's the kind of book I like to read. --Jennifer M. Brown


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


Book Review

Fiction

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

by J. Ryan Stradal


Food lays the framework for J. Ryan Stradal's Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a debut novel reflecting his Minnesotan roots and featuring a collection of characters who exhibit the stalwart natures, deep traditions and lovable quirks native to the American Midwest.

Who is the elusive, near-mystical chef Eva Thorvald? The answer lies in every restaurant, recipe box and loving heart of the Midwestern family and friends who touched her life. The minute Eva arrived in the world, she became the greatest passion of her father, Lars Thorvald. He immediately wanted to share with her his second greatest passion--for great food and fresh ingredients--but soon learned the appalling truth: toothless babies should not eat braised pork shoulder, even if pureed. Following a family tragedy, Eva grows into a bullied child who raises hellishly hot habanero peppers in her closet, a self-possessed teenager already gaining notice for her "once-in-a-lifetime palate" and, finally, an ingénue chef with bold new ideas.

Although a novel in terms of plot chronology and character intersection, the structure of the work is closer to a short story collection. The protagonist of only one chapter, Eva dances in and out of the narrative like a will-o'-the-wisp, seen mainly through the eyes of others. Stradal uses this tactic of distance to make Eva seem larger than life, enough of a celebrity that she need only make cameo appearances in her own story. Complete with recipes for wild rice casserole and peanut butter bars, Stradal cooks up a boisterous yet authentic story of America's Heartland. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Promising young chef Eva Thorvald and her family and friends find strength in good and bad times through Midwestern cuisine.

Pamela Dorman/Penguin, $25, hardcover, 9780525429142

Ingram: Books Make Great Gifts - Take a Look!


The Vienna Melody

by Ernst Lothar, trans. by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood


Europa Editions has a staggeringly good track record of reprinting older European works that deserve a second chance, and Ernst Lothar's The Vienna Melody is no exception. Originally published in the United States in 1944 as The Angel with the Trumpet, Lothar's hefty novel is a sweeping historical account, covering multiple generations of a single family forced to live together due to the strict will of a revered ancestor. Lothar's novel is defiantly old school, even for a book published in 1944; it more closely resembles mid-19th century epics like War and Peace than the fiction of Lothar's contemporaries. The Vienna Melody therefore wows less on a sentence-by-sentence level than as a complete, hugely ambitious work. Lothar's aims are clear: to examine the seismic changes brought about by war and unrest in the earlier 20th century and to determine the existence of a true Austrian national identity.

"Do you know what you are suffering from?" a character asks Hans, one of the novel's haunted, fatally idealistic protagonists. "An Austria complex. You are a typical case of a man disappointed in love. Except that your unfortunate passion is for a country." Lothar depicts this soul-sick nationalism in painful psychological detail, using his sprawling cast of characters to explore the human cost of international events. While his characters are swept along by the tide of history, Lothar himself observes them with both compassion and philosophical rigor. The Vienna Melody is an old-school epic with the old-school ambition of saying something meaningful about humanity. Miraculously, it succeeds. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

Discover: An under-appreciated gem that reads like Tolstoy for the early 20th century.

Europa Editions, $18, paperback, 9781609452728

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


Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper

by Hilary Liftin


Ghostwriter to the stars, Hilary Liftin (Spelling It Like It Is with Tori Spelling) steps out with a solo effort, a first novel that peeks inside the private lives of the rich and famous.

Lizzie Pepper thinks she knows what life in the spotlight is like. Her stardom started with a prime-time teen drama and escalated into movie deals. Now in her mid-20s, and despite her success, Lizzie is surprised when superstar actor Rob Mars wants to meet with her about a movie part and then asks her on a date. After a whirlwind courtship and engagement, Lizzie and Rob's marriage turns them into America's favorite couple. Inside the fairy tale, Lizzie finds marriage to the industry's most sought-after leading man isn't all wine and roses. Because of paparazzi and potential fan mobs, the newlyweds are virtual prisoners in their admittedly incredible estates. Still more troubling is Rob's membership in One Cell, a lifestyle organization the outside world views as a cult. When Rob credits his success to One Cell, Lizzie decides to join, but after she learns their relationship isn't what she or the American people thought, she finds that getting out will take much more than star power.

Though readers will quickly spot that the book owes a debt to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Liftin has plenty of imaginative aces up her sleeve and a solidly likable heroine in Lizzie. Kick back with this light read and enjoy wondering just how much is fiction. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A juicy beach read about how a starlet's relationship with an A-list actor goes from ideal to surreal.

Viking, $27.95, hardcover, 9780670016419

Mystery & Thriller

The Tournament

by Matthew Reilly


In an imaginative thriller by Matthew Reilly (The Great Zoo of China), young Elizabeth Tudor (still many years away from becoming Queen Elizabeth I) is on the trip of a lifetime with her tutor, Roger Ascham.

Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, has called together a chess tournament for the ages: challenging each nation invited to send a chess champion to Constantinople, to determine which kingdom has the best chess player in the world. King Henry VIII agreed to send a delegation, including Ascham and Elizabeth. As the rich and famous--including Michelangelo and a young Ivan the Terrible--converge on Constantinople, a murderer uses the cover of the tournament to commit a terrible crime.

The sultan, having heard of Ascham's formidable intelligence, commands him to find the killer. The ever-curious Elizabeth tags along, discovering shocking secrets hidden by the glamorous surface of the Ottoman court--including the sexual extravagances rampant among the younger members of the sultan's extensive family and harem.

As the bodies pile up, Ascham and Elizabeth must race to solve a very devious crime, before the Sultan loses patience and their own heads roll.

With some shocking violence and graphic sex, The Tournament may not be for the faint of heart; however, for those who love fast-paced thrillers and surprising endings, The Tournament will be irresistible. And historically savvy readers will enjoy some tongue-in-cheek references to kings and popes and other leaders of the era. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: A teenaged Elizabeth I and her tutor must solve a series of grisly murders in Constantinople.

Gallery Books, $26, hardcover, 9781476749549

The Flicker Men

by Ted Kosmatka


Physicist Eric Argus has a drinking problem and sometimes questions his sanity. Stumped by a mathematical equation, he's searching for answers in the bottom of a bottle when an old friend offers him a new job in a large research facility. Argus has a probationary period of four months to produce some kind of work, anything that has scientific merit. When Argus replicates another physicist's experiment, however, he doesn't realize until it's too late that the results prove humans are the only beings with souls, and not everyone has one.

In The Flicker Men, Ted Kosmatka (The Games) has combined solid scientific research with a highly inventive imagination to create a sci-fi thriller full of chase scenes, murder, kidnappings and mayhem, as some well-placed rich people react to Argus's rediscovery. Kosmatka ponders the religious and scientific implications of the results through Argus and the other well-formulated characters, including a pastor who begins to have second thoughts about his faith. For those at ease with quantum mechanics, the references to prominent experiments will be familiar; those who have no knowledge will want to pay particular attention to Kostmatka's valuable explanations, as understanding how Argus's replicated experiment works is key to understanding the rest of the story. Comprehending this mind-bending process is well worth the effort, though. Kosmatka has taken a complex scientific paradox and turned it into a rapid race against time, in which Argus attempts to elude those who wish he had never tampered with what had already been discovered. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: The scientific and religious ramifications when a physicist proves that humans--but not all of them--are the only creatures that have souls.

Holt, $27, hardcover, 9780805096194

The Redeemers

by Ace Atkins


Former Army Ranger and now the former sheriff of Tibbehah County, Miss., Quinn Colson just can't escape the ugliness the world has to offer. His sister, Caddy, has fallen off the wagon--abusing drugs--and a deputy was shot and left for dead during a burglary on Quinn's last night as sheriff. Leaving Tibbehah looks like a better option every minute.

In the fifth book of Ace Atkins's Quinn Colson series, his protagonist is again faced with dark and difficult decisions to make. Quinn has rekindled his relationship with his high school girlfriend, Anna Lee, and his rambling father, Jason, is back living on Quinn's property, urging his son to give farming a go. But Quinn doesn't see himself as a farmer; without his role as sheriff, he doesn't know where he fits. For the time being, Mississippi isn't quite ready to let its native son go. Quinn is tangentially pulled into the burglary investigation as it snowballs out of control and changes the landscape of Quinn's hometown.

Atkins (The Forsaken) has created another suspenseful installment of this series. Despite the novel's nearly 400 pages, the plot is tight and is sure to grip readers with plenty of action and twists.

But The Redeemers, like the previous books in this series, goes beyond a thrilling story. Atkins delves into the darkest and messiest depths of his wonderfully complex characters in order to pull out rays of hope for humanity. Readers unfamiliar with this series don't need to start at the beginning, but they should definitely start. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: Voted out as sheriff, Quinn Colson tries to find a new direction while the investigation of a bizarre burglary gone bad wreaks havoc in Tibbehah County.

Putnam, $26.95, hardcover, 9780399173943

History

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War

by Susan Southard


Despite the devastation and immediate loss of life caused by dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, three days later, on April 9, 1945, the United States dropped a second nuclear bomb, on the Japanese fishing town of Nagasaki. Susan Southard has written a forceful, almost minute-by-minute account of the day that bomb exploded, and the days, months and years that followed as seen and experienced by five residents of Nagasaki who were teenagers at the time. Southard vividly describes the wasteland that immediately appeared in the hypocenter, the area directly underneath the explosion. "Inside the city, the bomb's deadly gale quieted, leaving Nagasaki enveloped in a dark, dust-filled haze. Nearest the explosion, almost everyone lay incinerated, and those still alive were burned so badly they could not move."

Readers learn the stories of the five interviewees, and Southard does an excellent job of portraying the emotional pain, angst and shame they feel for having survived the blast, of being hibakusha ("explosion-affected people"). She follows these five through their adult lives, chronicling their achievements and their continuing medical problems due to radiation poisoning--all of which highlight their extreme resilience and desire to live despite horrible odds.

Nagasaki is explicit and penetrating, a haunting and humane look at one of the most contentious acts of war in world history. Southard provides a voice to the thousands who died and for those who have suffered for the past 70 years. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: A vivid and horrifying narrative of the impact the atomic bomb had on the people of Nagasaki, Japan, as experienced by five who survived the blast.

Viking, $28.95, hardcover, 9780670025626

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink

by Juliana Barbassa


In 2010, when Brazilian-born journalist Juliana Barbassa joined the Associated Press Brazil desk, Rio de Janeiro had just been awarded the 2016 Olympics, to follow the 2014 World Cup. The economy was booming, President Lula da Silva was at the height of his popularity and the feeling among Rio's Cariocas was that their time had come. Then the Brazil soccer team was crushed by Germany in the Cup semifinals; Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, was under fire for corruption; and executives of Petrobras were caught stealing millions of dollars from the state-owned oil company. What was going on down there? Dancing with the Devil in the City of God is Barbassa's story about the city of her birth and its many contradictions, celebrations and tribulations.

Moving from one neighborhood and urban problem to another, Barbassa stumbles into a convoluted bureaucratic nightmare renting an apartment. She visits the gigantic Gramacho landfill that holds 60 million tons of trash, which will be closed for the Olympics with no replacement plan in place. Guided by a biologist and crocodile expert, she sees where the area's native caimans are being run off by new high-rise condos near the proposed Olympic Villages. Although Rio is her hometown, Barbassa doesn't shy from the many problems hidden behind its glittering facade. Nevertheless, one can see her smiling in agreement with a comment she overhears from a British visitor to the World Cup: "I'm here in the sun, right, up to my waist in water, drinking a beer, and watching football. What's not to like?" --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A Brazilian journalist looks at the wonders and problems of Rio de Janeiro, host of both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Touchstone, $27, hardcover, 9781476756257

Social Science

Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word

by Matthew Battles


Matthew Battles (Library: An Unquiet History) undertakes a mammoth topic with Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word. Rather than an exhaustive chronicle, however, he has composed an extended meditation, a roaming through the centuries. The result is a collection of narrative examinations of writing as a technology, as a means of wielding power, as artistry and as communication. As Battles quotes it, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a palimpsest as a "writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another." His imagination is captured by this concept in fact and as metaphor, and Palimpsest is in part a drawn-out consideration of "mind as page" and "page as mind" (the titles of its opening and closing chapters).

Among other revelations, Palimpsest elucidates the original meaning of "pirated" literature: "not... the unauthorized reproduction of someone else's work but the use of a printing press without proper license," and Allen Ginsberg's modern redefinition of "graffiti," which originally referred in the Italian to words or ornaments carved in clay forms. How we learn to write changes as our cultural expectations of writing change; thus what Battles calls a "feedback loop" of change in writing technologies perpetuates. In other words, in an increasingly digital age, Battles argues that writing is in flux--as it has been since its beginnings.

The meandering structure of this expansive essay on writing in history, as well as its formal and academic tone, may pose challenges for some readers. However, the reader and writing fan absorbed by writing's miscellany will find much to love and sink into in Palimpsest. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: An enthusiastic, detailed account of writing throughout history.

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780393058857

Reference & Writing

On Writing

by Charles Bukowski, Abel Debritto, editor


Abel Debritto (Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground) pored over 2,000 pages of poet Charles Bukowski's highly opinionated letters in order to assemble On Writing. Bukowski was a prolific letter writer (doodles and all), with many notably wry missives accompanying submissions and many others regarding those submissions after they were rejected. This admirable and revealing collection begins in 1945 with a letter he wrote regarding his rejections by Story magazine and asking if Story needs readers--"I can't find a job anywhere."

He wrote as much as he drank (beer mostly). His writing philosophy was to "stay loose, work wild and easy and fail any way you want to." In a letter to Henry Miller, Bukowski wrote: "I write a lot of stuff drunk... and the next morning I am too sick to read it." The letters show that he craved acceptance and publication--along with ink and a good woman. When "women who have read my poetry knock on my door... I ask them in and pour them a drink." He disdained university poets ("their writing is 4 flat tires and no spare") and considered himself an "isolationist and an enigma."

Though in 1963, he said the poet Robert Creeley couldn't write--"I have no doubt he thinks the same of me"--by 1973, he'd changed his mind: "I no longer hate Creeley... he has put his energy and his life into [writing]." As had Bukowski, in his many, small Los Angeles apartments; the craft meant everything to him. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: An inside look at Charles Bukowski's career, via his funny, sarcastic and hopeful letters.

Ecco, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062396006

Children's & Young Adult

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans

by Phil Bildner, illus. by John Parra


Phil Bildner (Shoeless Joe & Black Betsy) and John Parra (Green Is a Chile Pepper) pay tribute to a real-life hero in this tall tale treatment of a man who came to be known as "a wizard of trash cans" and kept the streets sparkling, come what may.

Bildner uses the structure of a folktale to introduce his protagonist: "In the Quarter,/ there worked a man/ known in New Orleans as Marvelous Cornelius." Parra depicts the man in the foreground with the iconic wrought iron balconies of the Big Easy as his backdrop. Cornelius greets a silver-haired man, a couple with a baby and a woman shaking rugs. When he calls out "My young'uns!" the children cheer, "Marvelous Cornelius!" Author and artist scrupulously tie each double-page spread to New Orleans ("not a single praline wrapper ever stayed on the streets"). Cornelius transforms the act of loading garbage bags into "showtime," launching them so "they landed in a perfect pyramid inside the hopper's metal mouth." But then Katrina hits, drowning the city in "a gumbo of mush and mud." Staring at ruins "as high as the steeple atop St. Louis Cathedral," Cornelius weeps, "It would take thousands of me to clean this." Now, when Cornelius goes by the young'uns, they pitch in. As do the silver-haired man, the couple with the baby, plus "barbers, bead twirlers, and beignet bakers."

This inspiring story trumpets the power of one person's efforts in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds to inspire an entire community. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A tall-tale treatment of a real-life hero in the face of Hurricane Katrina.

Chronicle, $16.99, hardcover, 44p., ages 4-8, 9781452125787

I'm New Here

by Anne Sibley O'Brien


This well-conceived, thoughtful picture book traces the first day at a new school for three children with very different experiences of adjusting, linguistically and culturally.

"Back home I knew the language," says Maria, remembering her days of playing fútbol (American soccer) with her friends. "Here there are new words. I can't understand them." Anne Sibley O'Brien (The Legend of Hong Kil Dong) shows Maria on the sidelines of her new school hearing alien sounds while watching others play ("wun too"; "Mai tern," say the thought balloons).

Jin is confronted with an entirely new alphabet: "Back home I could read and write," he says. "I shaped the letters and stacked them like blocks into words." As with Maria's example, Sibley O'Brien depicts Jin's experience in his homeland (Korea) on the left, and the scene in his new school on the right, with letters that "lie on the page like scribbles and scratches." Fatimah, wearing a hijab, says, "Here there are new ways.... I cannot find my place." But when her teacher asks the students to make drawings of life in their community, Fatimah volunteers to show her picture and connects with a classmate. Jin also makes a friend, and Maria finds her way through soccer.

Because Sibley O'Brien spotlights three examples, no child will feel singled out. She paves the way for teachers and parents to share this with children both as a way of preparing a new student, and as a way to welcome a classmate who may share this trio's predicament. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: An ideal conversation-starter for children in a new school or about to welcome a new classmate.

Charlesbridge, $16.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9781580896122

8: An Animal Alphabet

by Elisha Cooper


Elisha Cooper's (Homer; Train) favorite number is eight. To celebrate, he collects animals that begin with each letter of the alphabet, A to Z, one letter per page. And on each page, he selects one creature to appear eight times.

Each letter appears in both upper and lower case in classic Century Gothic typeface. Children just learning their ABCs will take pleasure in finding, on the first page, the aardvark, abalone, albatross, alligator, alpaca, ant (eight of them), anteater (watch out or there'll be seven!), antelope and armadillo. Adults, do not fret if you know not what an abalone looks like: Cooper supplies a legend at the back with a picture and a key fact about each creature (e.g., "Abalone eat algae"). The author-artist mixes familiar and lesser-known animals (such as gerbil and gibbon), and sometimes an adult and offspring complete the eight. Do you know what a xerus is? It is the only animal that appears eight times, by itself, on a page (though urchin dominates the "U" page, alongside uakari, umbrella bird and upupa). Cooper occasionally throws in a red herring--make that a trout, among the eight tuna for "T," and the eight lions on the "L" page appear as the king of the forest as well as several lionesses and some cubs. The compositions on each page allow children to distinguish easily between the different animals featured.

Youngsters will want to return to these pages over and over again. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: An author-artist's love for the numeral 8 informs his clever abecedarian look at animal life.

Orchard/Scholastic, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 3-7, 9780545470834

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