Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, December 2, 2016

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

From My Shelf

Making Comedy Look Easy

There's a famous saying, often attributed to actor Edmund Gwenn, that goes: "Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult." A handful of female comedic actors have managed to make it look easy, however, and they share funny stories about their travails in recently released books.

Carol Burnett's In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun (Crown Archetype, $28) tells behind-the-scenes anecdotes about her eponymous show: "Put me in a fat suit or a fright wig or black out my two front teeth and I'm in hog heaven." Her antics with costars Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, along with guests like Jimmy Stewart and Ray Charles, will evoke smiles and nostalgia for readers who remember a time when TV comedy relied more on physical shtick than dirty jokes.

Someone who's known for profane humor is Amy Schumer, whose The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo (Gallery Books, $28) topped the New York Times bestseller list. Her trademark wisecracks about her lady parts are included, but Schumer also reveals that her strength and success were forged by self-doubt and rejection: "[T]here is a gift in being... heckled, or even booed off the stage. When your fears come true, you realize they weren't as bad as you thought."

Anna Kendrick doesn't do stand-up but she can write her own funny material. In Scrappy Little Nobody (Touchstone, $26.99; reviewed below), her breezy tone and accounts of social awkwardness make her seem like a friend you'd love to hang with... if she weren't too lazy to clean her house and invite you over.

Carrie Fisher is also well versed in awkwardness. In The Princess Diarist (Blue Rider, $26), she shares a 40-year-old secret: she had an affair with costar Harrison Ford while filming the original Star Wars. Her 1976 journal entries convey a 19-year-old struggling with angst and insecurity as she dealt with her older, married lover, but in the retelling, the actress shows that with time and distance, humor can heal all wounds. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Sleeping Bear Press: When You Go Into Nature by Sheri M Bestor, Illustrated by Sydney Hanson

Book Candy

The Literary Landscape of Westworld

"These violent delights: Parsing Westworld's literary references." Signature explores the bookish side of the HBO series.


Bustle shared "8 things every book-lover does in the winter, because it's the perfect season for reading."


The Literary Man Hotel in Obidos, Portugal, "is a bookstore. At every turn, there's a wall stacked with titles," Travel + Leisure reported.


Headline of the week: "Prayer book that may have been Henry VIII's could fetch £2.5 million [about $3.15 million] at auction," the Guardian reports.


Mental Floss examined "why Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter might become a saint."


The book light bookshelf is a "lamp specially made for when you sit in your favorite armchair, reading a book."

To Capture What We Cannot Keep

by Beatrice Colin

Since its construction for the 1889 world's fair, la tour Eiffel has become the universal symbol of Paris: slender, elegant, iconic--both a feat of engineering and a distinctive silhouette rising 324 meters above the Seine. It is difficult for visitors--or anyone who has ever seen a photo of the city--to imagine the Parisian skyline without it. But the tower, originally intended to stand for only 20 years, sparked criticism and controversy among the artistic and engineering elite of Paris. In her second novel to be published in the U.S., To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin weaves together the story of the tower's daring construction with the personal life of Eiffel's right-hand man, Émile Nouguier, and the Scotswoman with whom he falls in love.

Widowed, penniless and growing rather desperate, Caitriona "Cait" Wallace gratefully accepts a position as a paid companion to two young people, Alice Arrol and her brother, Jamie, who are heading to Paris on their Grand Tour in 1887. Eager and bright but rather provincial, Alice hopes to find a husband among the dashing French messieurs, while Jamie is more interested in the delights of the city's gambling houses and brothels. On a cold February day, Cait meets Émile Nouguier on a hot-air balloon ride while steeling herself against her fear of heights, and her destiny, along with that of her young charges, becomes increasingly entangled with his.

Colin (The Glimmer Palace) builds her Paris with clear, lyrical descriptions: the trees in the Bois de Boulogne are "a haze of new green" in springtime, the tower is "a black iron scribble against the pale stone and dull golden glint of Les Invalides." The city has gradually adjusted to Baron Haussmann's wide boulevards and planned buildings, but refuses to be entirely tamed: there is always a hint of smoke and disorder hanging around the edges. Colin's characters attend the occasional artistic salon and spend Sunday afternoons strolling the Louvre, but they also visit down-at-heel neighborhoods and houses of ill repute.

Like her version of Paris, Colin's characters refuse to fit into neat and tidy categories. Alice is at once cunning and maddeningly naïve; Cait has strong opinions, but lets herself be trapped by social convention. The Arrols linger on the fringes of Parisian society without quite knowing how to gain entrée, and Cait can see their plight but is powerless to change it. Drawn to Émile, Cait arranges to see him in secret several times, but then urges him to court Alice, whose beauty and wealth would make her a more acceptable match. Meanwhile, Émile's attention is divided between his work on the tower and his complicated relationships--with his aging mother, with Cait, and with his devious (married) mistress, Gabrielle. All of them act in opposition to their own self-interest at times; the exception is Gustave Eiffel, who may be reckless and impulsive, but who always knows what he wants and how he plans to acquire it.

Despite the novel's backdrop of artistic and technological change, its characters are often constrained by traditional social mores: Alice is obsessed with finding a husband, while Jamie falls in love with a young prostitute but knows he cannot marry her. Cait is burdened by the dark secrets of her marriage, though she was not responsible for her husband's death, and spends much of the book dreading a lonely, colorless existence as a lifelong widow. Because of his passion for his engineering work, Émile draws more satisfaction from his life, but he is still bound by his mother's expectations (for him to marry and take over the family factory) and his attachment to the ruthless Gabrielle. Though each character wants something, it is often unclear what exactly that is--with Eiffel again being the exception.

Building the tower seemed like an impossible task at the time: Eiffel's previous experience lay mainly in bridge building, and his plans for the tower were roundly condemned for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Émile muses that "to construct something so high, higher than anything ever built before, seemed like trying to articulate a dream." Colin's moody, atmospheric novel captures both the idealism and the frustration of trying to chase one's dreams, trying to fashion a more compelling life or simply realize an artistic vision. For those who have visited Paris or enjoy traveling to the City of Light on the page, To Capture What We Cannot Keep provides a captivating glimpse into the origin story of a cherished Parisian icon. --Katie Noah Gibson
Flatiron Books, $25.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781250071446

Beatrice Colin: Balancing Fiction and History

photo: Swordfish Photography

Beatrice Colin is a novelist based in Glasgow, and is the author of, among others, The Glimmer Palace and The Songwriter. The Glimmer Palace, set in Berlin in the early 20th century, was translated into eight languages, was a Richard and Judy pick, and was shortlisted for several major awards. Colin also writes radio plays and adaptations for BBC Radio 4 and is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. Her latest novel, To Capture What We Cannot Keep, was just published by Flatiron Books.

In an interview in The Scotsman, you said, "As a writer I just love going back to places where I think I know the history, and discovering a completely different past to the one I expected." What drew you to your latest story, set around the construction of the Eiffel Tower?

I know Paris well--I had an elderly great aunt who lived there until she died and I used to be a fashion editor for a newspaper and would cover the shows. I love the city and together with my husband would head over for the weekend once or twice a year. The Eiffel Tower was something we'd always avoid--too many tourists--but on one trip, where the flat we had rented looked towards the tower--I wondered who had built it and why; it is so different from the other buildings in Paris. I came home, looked it up and found a fascinating story.

To research The Songwriter, set in 1916 New York, you used a 1914 Baedeker guide. What did you do for Belle Époque Paris? What did you discover that was unexpected?

I used a Baedecker for Paris, too! The guides are very useful in terms of getting the names and prices right. I also read a lot of books, went to see a lot of paintings in art galleries and spent many hours in the city in the Bois de Bolougne, the Parc de Monceau, the grand houses such as one that used to belong to the Camondo family (now a museum) on the Boulevard de Courcelles and, of course, in the cafes and bars. I bought a print of an etching of an ice rink in the Bois de Boulogne, where one scene is set, that now hangs above my desk. One of the best sources, however, was photography. Eiffel documented the construction and there are many stills of the process of building the tower as well as the workers and engineers.

What did surprise me was the fact that people who built the iconic Eiffel Tower, the Forth Rail Bridge and London Bridge, for example, are virtually forgotten. William Arrol was a Glaswegian engineer who built dozens of structures, including the Forth Rail Bridge, but nobody has ever heard of him.

The first sketch of the 300-meter metallic pylon, made by Maurice Koechlin, June 1884.

In your story, Émile Nouguier, the engineer (with Maurice Koechlin) of the Eiffel Tower, remarks, "The tower wouldn't stand for long: twenty years." Did he actually say that?

I can't guarantee that he actually said it, but know that this was the intention. The tower was a temporary structure built as part of the World Fair which took place in 1889. It was only meant to stand for 20 years, although it was, at that point, the tallest structure in the world. In 1910 or thereabouts the French started erecting radio transmitters from its highest point and the decision was made to keep it.

I was struck by Nouguier telling Eiffel, "as long as each rivet hole is accurate to one-tenth of a millimeter then all will be well." There were 2.5 million rivets. What an amazing feat.

It was! In the course of my research I discovered just how amazing. Iron was quite a new building material and Eiffel was a bridge builder. He used bridge-building technology for the tower--it was fashioned at the workshop and then riveted together on site. This was not only quicker, it was far safer. What is incredible too is that they had no calculators, computers or CAD. Although at the time many people were skeptical that it would stay upright, it has stood for over 100 years.

Caitriona Wallace has a difficult job as a chaperone: her charges, Alice and Jamie, are willful, arrogant and parochial. They are also innocents in an urbane city.

Being very rich can be as damaging to a child or young person as being very poor and I wanted to explore that. Also I wanted to show how vulnerable they were. Paris, like any big city, draws you in and if you're not careful it can ruin you in more ways than one. They also act as foils to Cait--they have everything going for them and she has nothing--and yet they don't realise it.

Cait longs to escape her constricted life in Scotland ("Behind her were eight years of rain"), and is the least likely of the characters to break rules. But the era seems made for that--the Impressionists, Eiffel's tower (a building without walls), opium use....

It was a time of huge change and great optimism. Although there were still many throwbacks to the past, such as duels and a rigid class system, new materials and new industries were transforming the way the city and the countryside looked and how people lived. The art world reflected changing attitudes in Europe to lots of things such as sex, the human body, entertainment, and Paris and the tower were at the epicenter of this.

Émile Nouguier

How do you balance fiction and reality when writing about a historical character?

Cait and the Arrol siblings are fictional but Émile was based on a real person. There is, however, very little written about him. A single photograph captures a rather beautiful man with collar-length hair and a slightly wistful expression. He looks like an artist, or a man who has had his heart broken. The photograph, more than anything, informed my writing of the character. Like Cait, I wanted him to be something of a misfit, too "modern" in attitude to fit into the rigid frame of his social position. I have no idea, in reality, about what kind of man he was. I just liked his face. All my characters, however, are based on the people I know, have seen, have read about. I hope I've done him justice in what, in essence, is a tribute to an incredible achievement. --Marilyn Dahl

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Review


This House Is Mine

by Dörte Hansen, trans. by Anne Stokes

In German novelist Dörte Hansen's wry, tender debut, two women take shelter from their wounds in their family's tumbledown farmhouse.

Vera's connection to the old house in northern Germany begins in 1945, when she and her mother, Hildegard von Kamcke, arrive as refugees from East Prussia. Five-year-old Vera is destined to follow their stingy, resentful hostess, Ida Eckhoff, in calling the house her own; Hildegard marries Ida's shell-shocked son, only to abandon husband and daughter for another man after a tempestuous period of family life that culminates in Ida's suicide. Left to fend for herself and her damaged stepfather, Vera perseveres and becomes a dentist as well as a farmer, but her irascible temperament and immodest habits don't lend themselves to fitting in or finding a spouse.

In the present day, Vera's niece Anne, daughter of her half-sister, Marlene, needs a refuge when she catches the father of her preschool son naked in their kitchen with another woman. She turns to the aunt she barely knows for a place to grieve and rebuild.

Frequently humorous, This House Is Mine nevertheless strikes deep chords of isolation and abandonment. Hildegard leaves Vera a legacy of never feeling welcome or wanted; Anne inherits the same from Marlene. Overall, its message that outsiders sometimes have the power to reach out and defeat their own loneliness is hopeful, and readers who enjoyed Frederik Backman's A Man Called Ove or Monica Wood's The One-in-a-Million Boy will take eccentric, caustic Vera to their hearts. Hansen's first novel is as challenging and comforting as rural life itself. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Two women tend to emotional wounds while sharing a deteriorating farmhouse in the German countryside.

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781250100856

The Bob Watson

by Greg Bardsley

For those who have resented sitting through drawn-out, tedious work meetings, Greg Bardsley's second novel will immediately strike a chord. Both a searing corporate satire and absurdist comedy, The Bob Watson follows the adventures of Rick Blanco, a mid-level employee working in bottom-tier data collection at a company for which he feels no affinity. Inspired by former employee Bob Watson, Blanco survives his job by mastering the art of escape. He dodges meetings, whole afternoons, even corporate retreats in such a smooth and subtle way that no one notices.

Most days, Blanco's motives are almost pathetically innocent--to get back to his desk to get actual work done, maybe run across the street to grab a coffee. That changes when the woman of his dreams issues him a challenge he can't turn down: pull the ultimate Bob Watson and help his nephew duck school, Mandarin lessons and SAT prep so he can unwind for a day. The goal seems attainable until an odd turn of events leads Blanco to Mama, an elderly woman with a questionable grasp on reality. Mama mistakes Blanco for her ex-husband, an HR executive notorious for replacing employees with convicted felons. She leads Blanco down a rabbit hole involving drunken ex-convicts, break-ins and some repressed personal issues he was unprepared to face.

The fine line between despair and humor is familiar territory for Bardsley, a former Silicon Valley speechwriter and ghostwriter whose debut novel, Cash Out, also satirized corporate culture. Through his colorful, cinematic lens, even the most mundane settings contain hilarity and humanity. --Annie Atherton, freelance reviewer

Discover: A bored tech employee escapes work to woo the woman he desires, but unwittingly becomes the center of an absurd action-packed adventure.

Harper Perennial, $15.99, paperback, 336p., 9780062304797

Mystery & Thriller

Return to Umbria

by David P. Wagner

Rick Montoya wears cowboys boots in espresso bars, speaks nearly flawless Italian and is as comfortable dodging bullets in an Etruscan necropolis as he is hiking outside his native Santa Fe, N.Mex. Rick is the likable and inventive amateur sleuth in David P. Wagner's thoroughly enjoyable Return to Umbria, the fourth installment in a series (following 2015's Murder Most Unfortunate). Return to Umbria finds Rick in the medieval hill town of Orvieto. His uncle has sent him there to track down his young cousin, who is having an affair with a married woman. What Rick hopes will double as a mini-vacation with his girlfriend quickly turns deadly when an American tourist is found murdered. Rick teams up with an old friend, Inspector Paolo LoGuercio, and delves into a crime whose solution could disrupt the social fabric of Orvieto.

Wagner spent nine years in Italy as a foreign service officer and writes with a fluency and love of Italy, transforming what could be a staid travelogue cum cozy mystery into an engrossing and intelligent novel. The reader learns about the origin of "red tape" (thank the Vatican for that) and the architectural history of Orvieto's famed cathedral and receives a primer on the Red Brigades, while vicariously enjoying a true Margherita pizza and dodging stray bullets. With taut pacing and enough credible suspects to keep the reader guessing until the end, Return to Umbria makes for an engaging read. --David Martin, freelance writer

Discover: This charming, fun and diverting mystery will appeal to longtime fans as well as those new to the Rick Montoya series.

Poisoned Pen Press, $15.95, paperback, 222p., 9781464206115


Miracle on 5th Avenue

by Sarah Morgan

Eva Jordan is a hopeless romantic, despite several years of lackluster dating experiences. She's thrilled when she is asked to stock the freezer and decorate the penthouse apartment belonging to Lucas Blade, the grandson of Eva's new concierge service client. A huge blizzard is headed for Manhattan, but Eva plans to stay out of the storm, cooking, stringing up Christmas garland and admiring the views of Central Park.

Lucas, a famous mystery author, has hated the holidays since the death of his wife, and told his grandmother that he would be holed up in Vermont to work on his new book. But really, he's hiding in his city apartment, struggling with writer's block. When he ends up snowbound with a beautiful blonde, bags of groceries and an enormous Christmas tree, however, Lucas finds his hermit-like plans changing.

The third in the From Manhattan with Love series by Sarah Morgan, Miracle on 5th Avenue's charmingly happy story can easily be read as a standalone. With funny repartee between the gloomy, crime-obsessed Lucas and the cheerful, can't-sleep-without-a-nightlight Eva, and featuring lots of luscious descriptions of the food Eva prepares, the novel will leave readers laughing and quite hungry. An unsurprisingly sweet denouement and the brisk Manhattan setting make Miracle on 5th Avenue the perfect antidote for winter gloom. It is a lovely romance to curl up with in front of a Christmas tree. Romance readers and Christmas lovers will enjoy this cute story. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: Romantic Eva meets melancholy Lucas just in time for a Christmas miracle in Manhattan.

Harlequin, $7.99, paperback, 384p., 9780373789344

Biography & Memoir

Scrappy Little Nobody

by Anna Kendrick

Anyone who follows actress Anna Kendrick on Twitter or has seen her on talk shows knows she doesn't need scripted lines to be entertaining. Now fans can get more of Kendrick in her own words with Scrappy Little Nobody, an amusing collection of personal essays.

The title refers to the version of her former self Kendrick sometimes misses--a "single-minded and pugnacious" kid who used to take the bus into New York City from Portland, Maine, to audition for Broadway shows, the girl who was nominated for a Tony Award at the age of 12. By the time Kendrick was twice that age, she'd moved to Los Angeles by herself and been nominated for an Oscar. After paying her dues in independent films, including some cult favorites, Kendrick sang her way to mainstream stardom as the sarcastic leader of a ragtag bunch of a cappella singers in Pitch Perfect.

But with fame and privileged Hollywood life comes a fear of getting too comfortable: "Lazy is something I've always been, but complacent and entitled I want to avoid." So Kendrick fights to remain grounded even in glamorous situations. On red carpets, she wants to be asked: "McDonald's All-Day Breakfast--blessing or curse?" She avoids cocaine because it "makes you feel like the most important... person in the room. Why on EARTH would anyone do this drug...? Self-doubt keeps me in check!" The self-deprecation, sharp wit and conversational tone give the impression Kendrick is still scrappy, just no longer a nobody. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: Actress Anna Kendrick shares entertaining anecdotes about her experiences on Broadway and in Hollywood.

Touchstone, $26.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781501117206

I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood's Legendary Actresses

by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman

Robert Wagner (Pieces of My Heart) made his film debut in 1950 at the age of 20 and has continued to work nonstop in films and television ever since. In I Loved Her in the Movies, Wagner looks back at actresses he's worked with or known socially and offers first-hand tales of their temperaments and talents. He also examines Hollywood's treatment of actresses, why the younger ones are cast opposite older actors, and why women fared better on screen in specific decades.

I Loved Her in the Movies is a treat for movie buffs. Wagner is not only a devoted film historian but also a very social lifelong participant. Most of his assessments are positive, but he's not blind to many who had troubled lives or difficulties behind the scenes. He adored his Madame Sin co-star Bette Davis, but she saw life and work "as a battle to be won" and "if there weren't any obstacles, Bette was quite capable of creating them." His Harper co-star Shelley Winters was "a difficult woman on the best of days, and a massive pain in the ass on the worst of them." Wagner's friendship with Marilyn Monroe gave him a relaxed view of the star, but he notes that producers grew leery of her because "schedules and budgets were kindling for her wavering temperament."

Wagner and co-author Scott Eyman arrange the book chronologically, so actresses and careers are seen within the context of specific decades. This is a chatty, relaxed but well-researched memoir, filled with zingy comments and juicy backstage tales. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Film buffs will be delighted by film historian and veteran actor Robert Wagner's appreciative and candid first-hand appraisals of Hollywood's greatest actresses.

Viking, $27, hardcover, 256p., 9780525429111

Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III

by Robert Greenfield

Augustus Owsley Stanley III, soundman for the Grateful Dead, joined up with the band in 1965. A self-taught electronics wiz, he mixed and taped more than a thousand Dead concerts and designed their unwieldy, 40-foot-tall, 70-foot-wide touring Wall of Sound system. The music may have sustained the Grateful Dead as the most popular live band in rock history, but it was amateur chemist Owsley's branded pure tabs of Blue Cheer, White Lightning or Monterey Purple that first elevated the audiences (and the band) into that "long, strange trip."

Robert Greenfield's Bear is the first full biography of the man whose obsessive drive for perfection gave the Dead their dedication to quality in their performances and recordings. The former Rolling Stone associate editor includes archival photos of the justifiably paranoid, camera-shy Owsley, interviews with the man himself and conversations with the surviving Dead and members of their global posse.

If Bear slows a bit in the second half, it's because Owsley also trimmed his sails. Busted many times, he quit the acid business and worked his last gig with the Dead in 1978. In 2011, his body wracked by chemo treatments for cancer, Bear died in a car wreck in Australia. In memory, his son placed some of his ashes on the soundboard for the Grateful Dead's 50th-anniversary Fare Thee Well concert in Chicago in 2015. Drummer Mickey Hart commented on his death: "At least now Jerry and Pigpen will have someone to talk to." Greenfield's anecdotal Bear feeds a Deadhead's jones--those who were there during that Summer of Love or their children and grandchildren. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Robert Greenfield's gossipy Bear captures the genius and craziness of the man who turned a generation on and made the Grateful Dead into a rock powerhouse.

Thomas Dunne, $25.99, hardcover, 288p., 9781250081216

Business & Economics

The Fish Market: Inside the Big Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate

by Lee van der Voo

Is there such a thing as an interesting fish story? Lee van der Voo, managing director of the nonprofit journalism studio InvestigateWest, lost a bet on that question and ended up on a four-year investigation of a story with far-reaching consequences: the privatization of fishing in the United States.

Far from being as dry as the concept might sound, The Fish Market is a scintillating and often chilling look at the strange partnership between the environmental lobby and conservative big money. "Catch shares" are licenses to harvest specific quotas based on catch history. On the plus side, catch shares result in sustainable fishing without the derby-style competition that frequently had tragic consequences for fishermen and for species killed by accident.

The other side of the coin isn't as shiny. Fishing is a giant industry ($5.5 billion in seafood sits off U.S. coasts alone), and licenses are transferable, leading to the creation of powerful water landlords. Rights-based fishing locks fishermen off the sea entirely when they can't afford to sustain their businesses. As a result, small towns with centuries of cultural fishing history are disappearing (44 Alaskan villages have lost 82% of their catch). Sadly, safety often still suffers because of the impersonal connection between corporate license-holders and crews.

Van der Voo presents the many-sided tug-of-war with an even-handed reporter's approach and acknowledges there is no easy answer. The Fish Market does answer the question about the existence of an interesting fish story, and it's a resounding yes. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: A fast-paced, journalistic look at how efforts to sustain our oceans and avoid overfishing have led to privitization of the industry and destruction of communities.

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 288p., 9781250079107

Nature & Environment

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees

by Mike Shanahan

Mike Shanahan's Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees is a deceptively brief account of the Ficus genus of trees in history, emphasizing but not limited to their relationship with humans. Shanahan brings the expertise of decades of ecological fieldwork and a bubbling enthusiasm to a topic clearly close to his heart. He makes a strong argument that his readers should be attuned to and excited about fig trees, too.

The plant figures into the origin stories of cultures all over the world. Fig trees have provided food, shelter, medicine and materials to humans for as long as humans have existed: figs predate us by nearly 80 million years. Because of their contributions as keystone species in ecosystems around the world, figs offer distinctive services in reforestation efforts and the mitigation of climate change. They have contributed to the theory of evolution, the birth of agriculture and possibly humans' development of opposable thumbs. The story of the fig is inseparable from that of fig wasps, numerous tiny insect species that have evolved to pair respectively in symbiosis with individual species of fig. Shanahan relates all this and more in a joyous voice with occasional lyricism, as when "the Buddhist monk's robe sang out loud saffron over the rainforest's muffled tones of brown and green and grey."

Mythology, biology and hope for the future combine in this highly accessible story of the family of fig trees, with its profound ecological relevance. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A joyful, celebratory world history of the fig tree and its ecological impact.

Chelsea Green, $22.50, hardcover, 208p., 9781603587143


Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems

by Christian Wiman

A selection from his half-dozen poetry collections is perhaps the best way to savor the breadth, wit and uncanny ear of Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry and a professor of literature and theology at Yale. Hammer Is the Prayer ranges from the early, more formal poems of his 1998 The Long Home to those of the 2014 Once in the West, where his poems are less inhibited by structure, even playful, despite their more sober themes of loss, grief and metaphysics. Raised a strict West Texas Baptist, Wiman developed an early uncomfortable relationship with the spiritual, and his poems reflect this personal struggle. He quit writing during a spell of mild depression, then fell in love with his wife in his late 30s, before being diagnosed a year later with a rare, deadly blood cancer with no predictable life expectancy despite aggressive treatment.

Probably reminiscent of the poet's personal medical condition, "Darkcharms" paints a chemotherapy waiting room of patients "alive together, alone together..../ Radiated, palliated, sheened gray like infected meat." With an easy shift of tone, Wiman moves from poems of heavy ecclesiastical meditation to the clever monologue of "The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians," in which the somewhat churlish narrator rants about a church service: "Here it comes, brothers and sisters, the confession of sins,/ hominy hominy, dipstick doxology, one more churchcurdled hymn/ we don't so much sing as haunt."

Wiman's poetry is filled with the sounds of wonder, despair, fond memory, and, not infrequently, laughter. Hammer Is the Prayer is a welcome overview of this fine poet's best work. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Metaphysical, witty and meditative, former Poetry editor Christian Wiman covers a large canvas with poems reaching out to both heaven and earth.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, hardcover, 224p., 9780374167745

Children's & Young Adult


by Neal Shusterman

Powerhouse YA author Neal Shusterman (Challenger Deep; Unwind series) returns to futuristic dystopia with an eye-popping series debut set in a time when humans have conquered death. The "Age of Mortality" is long gone.

To prevent world overpopulation, an independent society of robe-wearing men and women known as scythes--"no more supernatural than tax collectors"--selectively "glean" human lives, bringing true death to a chosen few. Feared and revered in equal measure, scythes may also grant immunity from death. When highly respected Scythe Faraday of MidMerica chooses 16-year-olds Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch to compete for the role of his apprentice, the unwilling teens enter a secretive world of poisons and power, killing and compassion. Though warned against developing a relationship, ambitious Citra and warmhearted Rowan strike up an uneasy rapport. When shocking circumstances see the teens transferred to new masters, Citra lands with wise and venerable Scythe Curie, while Rowan finds himself under the sadistic thumb of Scythe Goddard, who shatters the 10 Scythe Commandments at every turn and leads his minions on killing sprees. Pulled into different spheres, Citra and Rowan must battle corrupt influences threatening to tear apart the scythehood.

Fast-paced and provocative, this plot-driven dystopian thriller will capture the imaginations of readers 12 and older. The action scenes deliver, and the gallows humor--a group of scythes is called an "elegy"--strikes the perfect minor chord. Where Scythe truly sets itself apart, however, is with its deeply felt moral quandaries and meditations on life and death that are sure to spark fascinating conversations. --Jaclyn Fulwood, lead librarian at Del City Public Library, Okla.

Discover: This intriguing YA novel by Neal Shusterman delves into a closed society of "scythes" responsible for dispensing death in a post-mortality future.

Simon & Schuster, $18.99, hardcover, 448p., ages 12-18, 9781442472426

Elefantitos/Little Elephants

by Susie Jaramillo

Joining Los Pollitos/Little Chickies in Susie Jaramillo's endearing Canticos series of Latino nursery-rhyme board books, Elefantitos/Little Elephants is a delightful and energetic read-aloud or sing-along, especially during bilingual story times.

"One little elephant
balanced oh so elegant
right on the web of a spider..."
"Un elefante
se balanceaba
sobre la tela
de una araña..."

A second elephant joins the first on the precarious tightrope of a spider's thread, and then a third and a fourth. In this cleverly designed "reversible" board book, a traditional Mexican counting song comes alive in two languages; the book's accordion design features the verses in Spanish on one side and English on the flip side. (A sturdy cardboard case keeps those accordion pages contained.) The growing parade of pachyderms, each identifiable by subtle differences in her ears, is increasingly desperate to hold on to the spider web. Will the thread support three elephants? Four? Five? As the suspense builds, preschoolers can break the tension by pulling tabs to make the elephants' trunks and ears wag. The rhythmic, rollicking tune (as heard on the app) is as catchy as can be. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This absolutely charming, accordion-style bilingual board book joyfully shares a Latino nursery rhyme about elephants balancing on a spider web.

Encantos, $14.99, board book, 10p., ages 1-4, 9780996995917

A Sea Voyage: A Pop-Up Story About All Sorts of Boats

by Gérard Lo Monaco

Celebrated Argentinian paper engineer Gérard Lo Monaco (The Little Prince; Moby-Dick; The Small World of Paper Toys) outdoes himself in A Sea Voyage, a pop-up book that is both a cheerful rhyming maritime adventure about two sailors and their dog and a marvelous pop-up gallery of boats of all shapes and sizes.

The story begins "Our little ship bobs on the sea,/ There's room for two and Dog makes three./ A pilot boat passes as we set sail,/ It drives on bravely through the gale." The lovely and dramatic pop-up scene shows a three-dimensional "little ship" bobbing in the foreground of a tempestuous ocean. Peer inside it to see a wee man with a striped shirt and tall hat, a woman in a blue gown, and a shaggy dog's head. In the background, cut-out waves toss a big pilot boat, described in the caption as "The Madeleine-Jeanne, the last Dundee pilot boat to serve the Île de Groix, France, built in Lorient in 1922." And then: oh no! A storm! And "Dog overboard! Our ship's in trouble,/ Call a lifeboat on the double!" (An actual elastic string connects a red-sailed late 19th-century English lifeboat to the life preserver that's tossed to the poor pup.) The jolly adventure rolls along: the dog is rescued, the skies clear, a big black whale breaches, the little ship chases an ocean liner for fun, and a lightship guides the trio safely to land.

Anyone would appreciate Lo Monaco's masterful paper engineering, but fans of all things nautical and nice will be over the moon for A Sea Voyage. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: This jaunty, rhyming maritime adventure about two sailors and a dog showcases an eclectic fleet of spectacularly crafted pop-up boats.

Thames & Hudson, $29.95, hardcover, 12p., ages 5-adult, 9780500650882


Author Buzz

Dragon Kiss
(A Dragon Kings Novella)

by Donna Grant

Dear Reader,

Welcome back to the Dragon Kings! I'm thrilled to bring you DRAGON KISS. The world of the Dragon Kings keeps expanding, and this story brings us Alasdair and Lotti, a powerful couple who have overcome all odds to find love. But a deadly enemy intends to rip them apart.

I can't wait for you to fall in love with Alasdair and Lotti as I have.


Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: Dragon Kiss (A Dragon Kings Novella) by Donna Grant

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
January 9, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book

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