Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Forge: Project Namahana by John Teschner

From My Shelf

The Story that Lived

Pottermore was less than I'd expected. Somewhere deep within my own personal Horcrux (you mean you don't have one?), I was convinced that we were going to see "extras": a lost Harry Potter manuscript, special outtakes and/or stories, perhaps even prequel character sketches and such. Instead, as we all learned last Thursday, Pottermore "is a free website that builds an exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books.”

I was disappointed. So disappointed that all Potterish references and gags left me. Is that all there is, I thought, with Peggy Lee-like despair.

However, once I recovered from my snit and started thinking about Pottermore rather than simply sulking that it isn't as I wished, the possibilities gathered like so many owls. While it seems from various news reports that a big part of will be about selling the heretofore-unavailable e-editions of the Harry Potter oeuvre, surely an "exciting online experience around... reading" means more than mere commerce--and as author J.K. Rowling revealed in her video (if you haven't watched, it's worth doing so simply for the delightful paper art), readers will shape this experience, and Rowling herself will release some parts of the story she's held on to for years.

In other words, everything I’d hoped for--and maybe even more. Perhaps my initial disappointment has more to do with delayed gratification than anything else: the Pottermore "experience" won't launch until October. All you can accomplish there for the moment is registration, with a promise that "a few" will be granted earlier access. Hmmmm. I wonder if there's a charm to unlock that.... --Bethanne Patrick


Book Industry Charitable Foundation: Donate to BINC now!

The Writer's Life

Literati on the Beach

We love Flavorwire's gallery of Literary Greats in Their Bathing Suits, but can't decide which is sexier: Sylvia Plath's two-piece or Truman Capote's Speedo.... You, on the other hand, may be transfixed by Virginia Woolf's ankle-length striped swim jammies or Papa Hemingway's manly trunks. Too bad there isn't a comparable gallery of contemporary authors; we'd love to see the beachwear choices of Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion and Jennifer Egan, among many others.

Tundra Books (NY): Professor Goose Debunks Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Paulette Bourgeois, illustrated by Alex G. Griffiths

Portrait of the Artist: Josh Ritter

In this author interview, I talk with Josh Ritter, whose debut novel, Bright's Passage, is out today from Dial Press. Ritter has already made a name for himself as an indie folk musician--but his book isn't at all about music. Instead, it charts the unlikely flight of West Virginian Henry Bright, a World War I veteran whose inner demons are matched by evil in-laws, and whose horse speaks to him in an angel's voice. Ritter spoke to me more prosaically, by telephone, from his brother's New York apartment:

Josh Ritter and I are talking about King Lear. "It's a pretty good tragedy, right? But when I went back to it, I was amazed that I found myself laughing in spots, and not just the deliberately humorous ones, just laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, these kinds of entanglements that we get ourselves into." Like what, Josh? "Think of Gloucester. He's been blinded and he's looking to die and he will let himself be led to what he thinks is a cliff when there's no cliff there. That humor of no cliff is so pure. It's what it means to be human."Ritter and I agree that the real power of any comedy or any tragedy lies in how close it comes to the other side of things--and the popular folk singer-songwriter is learning more about that as he prepares for the release of his debut novel, Bright's Passage (Dial Press), which tells the story of Henry Bright, a World War I vet whose homecoming to West Virginia results in his fleeing a menacing group of in-laws with nothing but a horse and a goat, and his infant son strapped to his chest. It sounds rather frightening, but Ritter describes it as "comedy."

Interestingly, when Ritter explained how he found himself writing fiction, he talked about jumping off of something--but not a cliff: "I just ran off of the diving board," he said. "It was sort of like Dumbo following the magic feather! I had an idea of a character and an idea of this angel, or whatever it was, and this tension I was really excited about."

He'd toured through West Virginia. "It's a mythic place, still removed a little bit from the rest of the world, I think," he said. "I felt like this guy, my character, had seen a lot, but we really have no idea what happened to him. War is always so absurd. I mean, trying to make a life make sense after what Bright went through? That's why I wanted to leave the angel's voice open to interpretation. Is it Bright experiencing shell shock? Is it magical realism? It doesn't matter."

As for the horse that speaks in the angel's voice, "The horse came on the second page--it was just there--it just came along and was so real I didn't question it. I've always thought that the images I tend to work with are sort of tarot, basically stark, I could see them printed--the falling tower, the hanged man, the horse....

Ritter said his fascination with the First World War was "one of those great, pure curiosities, like when a book just jumps off of the shelf at you." The book in question was Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914. Once he started reading, and then writing, Ritter said, it took him only two and a half months to get a draft finished. "It was such a rush and made the rest of my day so rich," he added. "But then it took a year of editing and 10 subsequent drafts. I'm in awe of writers who get it right the first time. If I were a sculptor, there would be a lot of disembodied arms lying around my place."

Bright's flashbacks to his wartime experiences in France are an important part of the novel; Ritter noted that he likes the old phrase for shell shock, "soldier's heart." "That's so beautiful, because underneath this steel helmet, there's so much going on, yet that steel helmet didn't protect anybody. Of course, once you put the helmet on, the damage is already done. I was inspired by the work Ann Holes has done with her reporting on the situation at Walter Reed Hospital. One of the questions that is asked of veterans now is, 'Were you part of or did you witness violence?' Aside from the irony of someone actually drafting that question, there's the thing that Bright knows: by the time you are part of it or have witnessed it, you've already experienced it a hundred times in your head. It's heartbreaking how little we seem to care about or feel empathy for that kind of nightmare."

If he could choose anybody as his role model, Ritter said, it would be Mark Twain. "His love of his country was so complete, but he was willing to see ambiguity in things, and to see that sometimes ambiguity was the most precious part of being American--that we're allowed to think whatever we want, no matter how messy.  I'm proud that part of that is holding ourselves to account and talking about it. One of the things we need to do is give our veterans better support."

Henry Bright's briefly happy marriage and his widower's grief were at least partly inspired by his creator's own 2009-2011 marriage to fellow musician Dawn Landes. "It was one of the worst times in my life," Ritter said of his marriage's dissolution. "But I know that my ideas of pain are those of a fortunate, first-world, modern American. But I also knew that the questions Bright has about life and marriage are valid, about the vagaries of suddenly having someone in your life that you love unconditionally. It felt so innocent and naïve to me, to be in love like that, so the things I learned are some of the best that came out of that period in my life. This novel came about because of Dawn, because of the safety and comfort I felt in that situation, but it's only looking back now that I can recognize that."

Ritter now also recognizes that he has an alternate career as a writer of fiction, and he's working on some new prose. "I'm not done with anything, but I learned a lot from this book and I'm spending a little bit of time on it every day. I'm not sure if writing will take over, or not. I'm used to having a lot of collaboration with bandmates, and I missed that while writing alone." Ritter added, "The richness that I've gotten out of writing a novel has been something really indescribable. I'm a junkie for it now." --Bethanne Patrick

Tyndale House Publishers: Long Way Home by Lynn Austin

Great Reads

Further Reading

Untold Story: A Novel by Monica Ali (Scribner) is a surprising book from a literary writer who never repeats herself (Brick Lane, Alentejo Blue, In the Kitchen--could there be three books more different?). Ali has chosen to imagine what might have happened to an unhappy British princess who, divorced and untethered, did not die in an accident, but escaped to a new life in the United States. Yes, there are similarities to the story of a woman named Diana who was killed in 1997---but there are also interesting differences. It's a deceptively congruent and simple idea that Ali uses to bring up questions any woman will recognize: What is peace? Would you leave your children behind for it? What makes up an identity?


If you read Untold Story and want:

Another imagined outcome: Read American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, in which a thinly veiled version of Laura Bush tells her entire life story--and you have to read to the very last word to understand Sittenfeld's creative genius. You may be surprised by how much you wind up believing that this is nonfiction, too.


Another troubled British mum: Read The Bolter by Frances Osborne. A "bolter" is a veddy upperclass term for a wife and mother who runs away, and five-time divorcee Lady Idina Sackville (her lapdog was named Satan) is a prime example. Her true story (for the fictional version, read or see White Mischief) is told her by her great-great-granddaughter Osborne.


Another unhappy wife: Read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a classic literary inversion, this one of Jane Eyre. Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway is married off to an Englishman (Mr. Rochester) and slowly becomes "the madwoman in the attic" in an unfamiliar and lonely place. If you've never encountered this book, you're in for--well, not exactly a treat, but an amazing experience.



Scout's Dishonored: Harper Who?

Two-thirds of respondents to the latest 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll couldn't identify or misidentified Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The poll asked questions on a range of subjects, including current events, politics and cultural issues.

Some 53% of respondents didn't know Harper Lee while 5% thought she was a "martial-arts expert" (shades of Bruce Lee!); "a famous pastry chef" (5%); or a "female comic book hero" (2%).

Younger people tended to know who Lee was more than other age groups: 41% of respondents aged 18 to 44 correctly identified her. Only 18% of people over 65 identified her correctly.

More Summer Reading, from Great to Worst

On NPR's Weekend Edition on Saturday, Laura Miller, reviewer for, Ron Charles, fiction critic for the Washington Post, and freelance reviewer Rigoberto Gonzalez recommended the following titles for summer reading:

The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal (Viking)
State of Wonder by Ann Pachett (Harper)
Doc by Mary Doria Russell (Random House)
West of Here by Jonathan Evison (Algonquin Books)
Orientation: And Other Stories by Daniel Orozco (Faber & Faber)
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (Algonquin)

In addition, Charles unofficially recommended A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (Bantam Spectra), the first part of the Song of Ice and Fire series and the basis for the recent--and excellent--HBO series.


The Hollywood Reporter featured "5 beach blanket must reads."


These titles not cleared for takeoff: The 15 worst books to read on a plane were showcased by the Huffington Post.

Great Books, Young Minds and Summer Days

The summer of 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the Great Books Summer Program (GBSP), a three-week course held on the campuses of Amherst College and Stanford University in sessions from one to four weeks for more than 600 students in grades six through 12. 

While GBSP aims "to help students recognize their own best thoughts, to develop their ideas with care, and practice reflective reading and critical thinking," it also provides plenty of time for them to write, chat, swim and have ice-cream parties (hey, it's summer!). That sounds like many an educationally advanced summer program. However, what makes GBSP different is its all-star faculty of authors and academicians, from historian Joseph J. Ellis to novelist Dennis Lehane to movie director Chris Columbus. No wonder the GBSP fosters "a community of precocious thinkers," as the Wall Street Journal said.

No Crying Over This 'Spilt Milk'

The folks at Foodily have a delightful new feature focusing on cookbook authors. "Spilt Milk" mimics the famous "Proust Questionnaire" (the same one that inspired Vanity Fair magazine's back page and Shelf Awareness Pro's own Book Brahmin), except that the questions here are centered on food, cooking and eating. In its inaugural run, "Spilt Milk" showcases Laurie David and her new cookbook, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time (Grand Central).

Book Candy

If you've been in the market for a bookstand and like clean, modern design, the "Livroche" by Umbra might be just the ticket for your dictionary, dayplanner or even fave cookbook.


Smells Like (New York) Times Spirit: According to its late creator, Tobias Wong, this Times of New York candle's scent has "hints of guaiacwood, cedar, musk, spice, with a powdery note and velvet nuance," meant to evoke the iconic newsroom black ink. At $65, its price supports a note of pretension, as well.


How to make a bedside lamp in a hollow book. Boing Boing noted that the "book's cover is the switch, and the book's designer says he wanted to prove that literature is illuminating." 

Book Review


Bright's Passage

by Josh Ritter

Forget Josh Ritter as singer-songwriter for a minute, and forget recent books by other singer-songwriters (Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Steve Earle et al.)--Ritter's first novel is a standalone work in a style all his own. Bright's Passage is a fable of sorts, with echoes of the Old Testament, All Quiet on the Western Front, Shakespeare and even dashes of Flannery O'Connor, A Passage to India and Cold Mountain thrown in.

Henry Bright is a West Virginia coal miner's son who brings his horrific memories of World War I home to a young wife who dies in childbirth, leaving him with nothing but his uniform, an infant son, a goat and a horse. At the insistence of the mysterious voice of an angel, he buries his bride, burns down his house and takes off, pursued by her father. That self-declared "Colonel" (a veteran of the Philippines) and his two cruel sons are driven by an old family grudge to kill Henry and take his child. Oh, and Henry's house burning accidently sets off a forest fire that chases all of the characters through their passage toward redemption and retribution.

Somehow Ritter holds all this together with a seamless lyricism that blends alternating scenes of the war trenches of France with the wooded ridges of West Virginia, all rendered with surprising verisimilitude and telling metaphor. "The War, the fire, the Colonel, and the angel: It felt as if some gigantic stone had somehow dislodged itself and begun rolling toward him down the long, slow curve of the world." You can't put all that in a five-minute song with a guitar hook. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kans.

Discover: A fable that makes the voices of angels as real and palpable as the choking mustard gas of WWI battlefields.

Dial Press, $22, hardcover, 9781400069507

Mystery & Thriller

Revenger: A Novel of Tudor Intrigue

by Rory Clements

John Shakespeare, brother of Will, former Intelligencer for Walsingham, finds himself drafted back into the spy business in this sequel to Martyr. Approached first by the malevolent McGunn, agent of Lord Essex, John is determined to refuse until contacted by Secretary Robert Cecil, who asks him to take Essex's commission and become a double agent. Reluctantly, John agrees, his skills creaky after five years' absence from the spy game.

There are many plotlines in this novel, each essential and intriguing and connected in some way, and Clements has succeeded in resolving them with style and a sure touch. There's the Catholic arc, as important politically as personally since John's wife, Catherine, adheres to the old religion, the danger of which drives a wedge between them; there's the Lost Colony of Roanoke; there's the question of Essex poisoning his wife to marry Arabella Stuart, the lady next in line of succession; there's the hold that McGunn has over Essex.

Clements gives his readers ground-level experience of Elizabethan England--detailed, fascinating and often appalling--as these various storylines arc towards their conclusions. In the process, the reader meets some extraordinary characters: loyal and resourceful Boltfoot Cooper, John's man; priest-hunter Richard Topcliffe, who'd dance a jig at the idea of feeding the whole Shakespeare clan to dogs--if he weren't such a Puritan; Joshua Peace, Searcher of the Dead (think Tudor M.E.), calm among his bodies. This work is the second in the John Shakespeare, Intelligencer series, and is reminiscent of C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series--not quite as grim, but just as superbly entertaining. --Judith Hawkins-Tillirson, proprietress, Wyrdhoard books, and blogger at Still Working for Books

Discover: A delicious tangle of Tudor politics, intrigue and murder.

Bantam Books, $25, hardcover, 9780385342841

Long Gone

by Alafair Burke

In her first standalone novel, Alafair Burke (author of 212 and Angel's Tip), moves out of the law enforcement realm and into the experiences of a privileged young woman trying to make a name for herself without her family's money or influence. When Alice Humphrey lands the job of her dreams, she quickly and painfully learns that appearances can be deceiving... and deadly.

Burke took a huge risk leaving the safety of an institution she knows intimately and a subgenre she's well versed in for a psychological thriller in the world of the arts. But her risk has paid off in spades. Burke has expanded her skills with each novel, and Long Gone is an exceptional exhibit of her writing prowess.

Long Gone deftly navigates between alternating points of view: male/female, teen/adult, detective/civilian, privileged/middle class. Every character has a dimension and richness befitting his/her role. The novel also shows off one of Burke's strengths--regardless of what book she's writing, she brings New York City to life on the page.

Plot plays a vital role in the thriller genre, of course; Burke doesn't neglect action. She creates a series of events containing social issues wrapped in well-timed plot twists that keeps readers on their toes and quickly turning pages to get to the resolution.

Combine crisp dialogue, Burke's signature wit, lean prose infused with pop culture references and a pace that could earn Burke a citation for excessive speed and the result is Long Gone. Whether you've experienced Burke's work before, Long Gone is a book you won't want to miss. --Jen Forbus, blogger at Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: An exciting, layered thriller perfect for the beach bag, the front porch or a rainy-day reading marathon.

Harper, $24.99, hardcover, 9780061999185

Jersey Law

by Ron Liebman

Accomplished D.C. lawyer Ron Liebman evokes a sharply realistic and very funny New Jersey underworld in his second novel, Jersey Law (following Death to Rodrigo). Fans of Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer will enjoy the well-meaning but mildly rule-bending team of Mickie and Junne, criminal defense attorneys for inner-city Camden's drug dealers and lowlifes. They defend drug kingpin Slippery Williams; they spar with the DA; and they carefully balance the letter of the law with watching their backs. Junne (short for Junior), our narrator, places us firmly in the Camden streets with his conversational style, what he would call "street jive." Don't mind the sentence fragments; they make the book breathe in Junne's terse Jersey voice.

Mickie and Junne have been friends since middle school, and have their practice down to a fine art. When one of their clients decides to testify against another, however, their loyalties are tested. If they warn the client, who is an old friend, men will certainly die, and they will have broken client confidentiality; if they don't, it may mean their own demise. And then there's their new secretary to worry about: Tamara is working hard to keep her nephew off the streets and out of the gang life. Tamara is an excellent example of one of Liebman's strengths as a novelist: he creates funny, sympathetic characters we care about in spite of their flaws.

Junne's large Italian family, Mickie's womanizing and their shady lawyer-landlord fit perfectly in with the scenery. By turns poignant and suspenseful, Jersey Law is consistently funny, ending on just the right note for a sequel. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A hard-boiled legal thriller with lots of laughs and an accent that's all Jersey, but with a sensitive side as well.

Simon & Schuster, $25, hardcover, 9781416569770

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Plain Man

by Steve Englehart

Steve Englehart was one of the most widely recognized comic book writers of the 1970s, with memorable runs on books ranging from Batman to The Avengers. In 1981, he published his first novel: The Point Man was the story of Max August, a Vietnam veteran turned rock 'n' roll DJ who unwittingly stumbled into a Cold War occult conspiracy and was recruited to fight for the good guys--after which the character disappeared for nearly three decades. When Englehart finally returned to the series with The Long Man (2010), he fixed things so that Max had acquired so much magical knowledge that he'd become functionally immortal back in 1985--a man in his late 50s with the body of a 35-year-old.

The Plain Man picks up the story of Max's battle against a right-wing cabal called the FRC in the summer of 2009. He's tracked two of its leaders, who are conducting an illicit romance, to a Burning Man-like festival in the Nevada desert, and is determined to turn at least one of them into a double agent. A conspiracy with nine co-directors, however, is bound to have competing agendas, and the novel's perspective constantly shifts, following up on hints dropped in The Long Man and adding a few more narrative threads for good measure.

The basic setup is easy enough to keep track of, and Englehart never takes his hand off the throttle, essentially turning Max's war with the FRC into the mystical equivalent of James Bond vs. SMERSH, complete with a plot to set off a nuclear bomb in the Yucca Mountains. --Ron Hogan, founder of

Discover: An occult thriller with more verve than Dan Brown’s books--plus a willingness to go beyond theory with genuine supernatural action.

Tor, $25.99, hardcover, 9780765324993

Current Events & Issues

The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers

by James O'Shea

If there's one book I'd have to select as "least likely to get widespread, major newspaper coverage," I would go with James O'Shea's The Deal from Hell. He recounts a story about 23-year-old Charles Kuralt just getting started with CBS News. A call comes in, middle of the night--a plane had jumped the runway at LaGuardia and was sinking in the river. Kuralt gets the nod and runs to flag a cab, only to be stymied by traffic. He waves down a motorcycle, explains the situation, and the driver ("Get on!") weaves and swerves dangerously between cars and trucks to get Kuralt to the scene, to the scoop, vaulting him into the role of youngest correspondent ever. If it seems apocryphal, it's because it's a story from a lost era when the most important thing was nailing the story to the wall.

O'Shea came of age when newspaper management wasn't consolidated, when papers weren't owned by corporations disinterested in quality reportage or maintaining the role of newspaper as watchdog. O'Shea charts that change, when he left the Los Angeles Times after management had fallen victim to consolidation. Sent to Los Angeles by the Chicago Tribune to quell discord over corporate mandates, he began to unravel a tangle of deception, immorally motivated management and a shifting journalism culture. The facts detailed here, combined with a fast-paced narrative, present a damning look at the machinations of newspaper management, but O'Shea shows that there are still journalists eager to climb aboard that weaving motorcycle. --Matthew Tiffany, writer for Condalmo

Discover: What pushed newspaper management down the dark alley of disinterest and corporate mandates. Names are named and facts presented in this damning indictment.

PublicAffairs, $28.99, hardcover, 9781586487911


The Wild Life of Our Bodies

by Rob R. Dunn

Biologist Dunn has produced a fascinating, wide-ranging, frightening and ultimately hopeful book about our human species. Dunn has drawn precise connections between the world 4.4 million years ago, the many similarities we share with other species evolving along with us and the overwhelming onslaught of contemporary diseases of the body and mind.

Agriculture, he suggests, was "a desperate act of post-apocalyptic sustainment" and not the continual improvement as we usually view it. The move from individual hunting/gathering to intensive dedicated farming, over time reduced our variety of foodstuffs to the current alarming 75% deriving from just six plants and one animal. Potato famine, anyone?

More puzzle pieces: as humans have "improved" health, we have opened the door to an array of devastating illnesses. Indoor plumbing removes our intestinal worms, and the ancient balance between whipworm and gut immune response flounders, producing Crohn's (first diagnosed in the 1930s). Leaf-cutter ants, diabetes, sickle-cell anemia, snakes, predators, hairlessness, xenophobia--all these and more are pieces of Dunn's argument.

Dickson Despommier's graduate students, spurred to action by the thought of a hungry, hot, arid, treeless Earth of 2050, began intense research into the requirements of urban farming and proposed dedicated 30-story buildings integrating organic agriculture and wildlife into city life. They found that just 150 such "farms" could sustain New York City, saving many millions of dollars in energy costs as well. If humanity is to have a future that is living and not just surviving, surely it is to be found in the rewilding of our cities, our lives and, yes, our guts. An excellent book and unexpectedly wry! --Judith Hawkins-Tillirson, proprietress, Wyrdhoard Books, and blogger at Still Working for Books

Discover: Among many other fascinating things in this fascinating book, how leaf-cutter ants can save the world and restore life worth living to our species.

Harper, $26.99, hardcover, 9780061806483

Travel Literature

Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train

by Ina Caro

Ina Caro and her husband, biographer Robert Caro, have lived and traveled in France several months each year for the past 20 years. Caro's moment of inspiration for this book is twofold: first, she decides to visit monuments chronologically, rather than geographically, and she decides to write only about places that can be day trips from Paris by train. By visiting sites chronologically, she is able to observe the historical development of architectural style. By limiting herself to day trips, she is able to choose one place that particularly represents each era.

Paris to the Past is divided into five sections ("The Middle Ages: Cathedrals and Fortresses"; "The Age of Louis XIV: Seventeenth-Century France," etc.). Within those, chapters focus on a particular place, like Blois or Versailles. Some people are mentioned multiple times across different chapters, especially Louis XIV, because he and his mistresses apparently went everywhere. This is slightly repetitive when reading the book straight through, but helpful when using it chapter by chapter as a travel guide and reference.

Caro has obviously done much research. From document-forging Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis to the transvestite Henry III to fiery Napoléon Bonaparte, Caro provides fascinating insights into the lives and the motivations for creating these glorious monuments. She also gives detailed instructions on which trains to take, while offering pithy opinions on restaurants and tourist attractions. Whether you're reading it as a history book or as a travel guide, you're bound to like Paris to the Past. --Jessica Howard, bookseller, Bookmans Entertainment Exchange

Discover: Explore 800 years of tumultuous French history by train.

W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95, hardcover, 9780393078947


Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants

by Richard Mabey

There's a distinct satisfaction in reading a book that is a pure extension of the writer's lifelong interest, the subject seemingly embracing all of the writer's career endeavors and personal interests in one densely populated and deeply felt book. Think of it as a really perfect lemon pound cake--all the best ingredients coming together in just the right proportions, in the hands of someone skilled. Richard Mabey's book is an outstanding lemon pound cake.

Early on in Weeds, Mabey relates the seeds (sorry) of his interest in the maligned plants and his mystification at the categorization of plants beautiful and tenacious (and, at times, relentlessly destructive) as pests to be eradicated. He brings a wealth of knowledge to a narrative that wanders like a walk in a spring meadow, taking in whatever the meadow has to offer. In this case, we learn of how invasive plants have spread from country to country, how they've changed from being valued medicinal and edible rarities to obnoxious, farmer-detested scourges and the motivations and politics behind how we view one plant as a salad and another as a pest. At just over 300 pages, this isn't the most comprehensive survey of weeds, but it's likely the most engrossing. --Matthew Tiffany, writer for Condalmo

Discover: An engrossing and captivating exploration of the tenacious, often beautiful, sometimes destructive, plants we designate as weeds.

Ecco, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062065452


Dhaka Dust

by Dilruba Ahmed

Though I have become more enamored of poetry as of late, it is rare that I read a book of poetry cover to cover, preferring instead to sample bits and pieces of verse as time and attention allow. Dhaka Dust is an exception to that. Dilruba Ahmed is an American-born Bangladeshi woman; Dhaka Dust, winner of the 2010 Bakeless Prize for Poetry, is her first full-length book of lyrical and narrative poems--and it is completely engaging and worthy of full focus.

The poems are remarkably clear in purpose, yet both rich and textured in content and voice. Ahmed's work interweaves a grounded Stateside presence with the ghosts of her cultural homeland, all under the influence of a personal, yet holistic, sense of place and language. The image of dust recurs throughout the book, but is not a limiting theme; in her poems, it can remind us of the absolute dirtiness of life, the taste of a finely powdered spice or the particular haziness of memory. The subject matter is varied, keenly observed and originally handled. Ahmed's poems that include family recollections are particularly striking:

My sandals gather dung in the fields--
my heels caked with dirt, collecting
a wildness. But my cousins' laughter
is milky, sweet, and rich, a gift
I can't refuse--like their cha--nor drink

Dhaka Dust will garner much praise and attention, especially since it is the first book of a poet you'll want to watch. --Roni K. Devlin, owner of Literary Life Bookstore & More

Discover: An award-winning debut collection of poems by an American-born Bangladeshi woman, who observes small moments with a global yet grounded sense of purpose.

Graywolf Press, $15, trade paper, 9781555975890

Children's & Young Adult

How I Stole Johnny Depp's Alien Girlfriend

by Gary Ghislain

The taunting title gets at both the book's improbability and insanity. In this comical debut novel, narrator 14-year-old David Gershwin is spending the summer with his "famous therapist" father (his parents are divorced) in a village 100 miles from Paris. He becomes intrigued with a patient named Zelda, who was caught stealing food. It took four policemen to immobilize her. Zelda insists she's from Vahalal and has come to Earth to find her "chosen one" and bring him back to her planet. After Zelda knocks out David's father and escapes, Dr. Gershwin sends David back to his mother's in Paris. But Zelda stows away in the trunk of the car.

Gary Ghislain makes the premise plausible enough to believe that Zelda truly is from another planet. Others besides David witness examples of her superhuman strength and her talent for Space Splashing ("the ability to be at two points in space at the same time"). Zelda shows David on the Internet that her chosen one is none other than Johnny Depp. But the only way she can find out for sure is to "sample" his DNA. She demonstrates on David--a French kiss. He's a goner. Once a bond forms between David and Zelda, the narrator's stakes are high. So we believe (at the very least) that he believes these things are happening to him. This book should be in the hands of every teen male reader, regardless of whether or not he likes to read. And female readers will find a superhero champion in Zelda. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor

Discover: A funny, touching exploration of summer love at its best--the geeky guy gets the irresistible object of his dreams who's completely out of his league.

Chronicle Books, $16.99, hardcover, ages 12-up, 9780811874601

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

by James Patterson, Chris Tebbetts, illus. by Laura Park

"Rules Aren't For Everyone" (aka R.A.F.E.), and they certainly aren't for Rafe Khatchadorian, the star of James Patterson's newest novel. Rafe's unusual name inspires the motto of his plan for mayhem, in which he is awarded points for breaking every rule in his middle school's Code of Conduct--and there are lots of rules to break. Spurred on by his pal Leo, who provides the Captain Underpants-style doodle illustrations throughout the book, Rafe channels his unhappiness at starting middle school and his less than ideal home situation into disruptive pranks and an active fantasy life. His lack of study time spirals him into academic decline. Ultimately, a caring teacher helps guide his behavior in a more acceptable direction, and we discover Leo's mysterious background.

James Patterson (the Maximum Ride and Daniel X series), who has expressed the need for enjoyable children's literature, does his part to attempt to fill that void. However, this title does not totally live up to Patterson's other young adult books. There are similarities to his other works in the staccato-length chapters that propel the book's plot forward. Yet Rafe's middle school status muddies the target age, since the book's jacket art and plot arc skew slightly younger by today's standards. It would best suit middle-school-age children who are reluctant readers daunted by the genre's current two-inch-thick books. --Jessica Bushore, public librarian

Discover: A tale of mayhem for Patterson's younger following, accented with graphic novel doodles to grab the reluctant and not-so-reluctant reader's attention.

Little, Brown, $15.99, hardcover, ages 12-up, 9780316101875

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