Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mariner Books: Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real about the End by Alua Arthur

From My Shelf

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.

I've been celebrating since December by reading Dombey & Son. It was one of his novels I'd somehow missed. I gave myself a present on Mr. Dickens's behalf. I don't think he'd mind; it's probably the kind of gift he would have wanted most.

"That young man was generally required to read out of some book to the Captain, for one hour every evening; and as the Captain implicitly believed that all books were true, he accumulated, by this means, many remarkable facts," Dickens wrote in Dombey.

We have, indeed, been awash in "remarkable facts" about Mr. Dickens during the months leading up to this special day. One of my favorite sources is the Guardian, which launched its "Charles Dickens at 200" Web page months ago. Vintage offers updates on an entertaining Facebook page. I've also loved the myriad book recommendations available, like this one we featured here recently. High on my current must-read list is Claire Tomalin's biography Charles Dickens: A Life.

Today, the British Council's 24-hour Global Dickens Read-a-thon is taking place in 24 countries, beginning with Australia. You can follow updates on Twitter (@BritishCouncil). Dickens 2012 highlights numerous exhibitions, film festivals and other events occurring worldwide during the bicentennial.

The prelude to this holiday has been Dickensian in scope, as, no doubt, will be the ongoing festivities. And yet, I think the best way to honor Mr. Dickens is the simplest: read, or reread, just one of his books this year.

That was my original plan when I started Dombey & Son two months ago, finishing it last week. But guess what? Now, quite unexpectedly, I'm rereading Our Mutual Friend. So I wish you a very Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens, and many happy rereads. --Robert Gray, contributing editor, Shelf Awareness

Sleeping Bear Press: A Kurta to Remember by Gauri Dalvi Pandya, Illustrated by Avani Dwivedi

Book Candy

Bookcase of the Day; Elizabeth Regina in Literature; Dickens Quiz

Bookcase of the day: The Bookshelf blog featured Hanspeter Steiger's Book-harp: "Depending on the angle of the literary instrument it seems once closed, sometimes translucent--and turns to life upon passing."


"Which of the following does the Big Friendly Giant NOT say to the Queen when he meets her in Roald Dahl's The BFG?" For anglophiles, the Guardian offered a Queen Elizabeth II in literature quiz to honor the 60th anniversary of her reign.


How well do you know Charles Dickens? Find out with the Guardian's "Charles Dickens at 200: A fiendishly difficult birthday quiz."

Great Reads

Further Reading: Location, Location, Location

The most satisfying literary works are imbued with their settings, and some settings become part of the plot themselves. One example: Niagara Falls, the most powerful waterfall in North America as well as one of the biggest tourist attractions, which froths with dramatic potential. Several authors have harnessed its might in various ways:

"Niagara Falls, decked out for the holiday weekend, is as much a character in this story as the troubled honeymooners. O'Nan evokes the surge of romantic impulses it inspires, its natural beauty wedded to kitschy attractions," Harvey Freedenberg wrote in his review of The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O'Nan. A Cleveland couple bets their marriage and their savings on a Valentine's weekend at the Falls, as enthusiastic about their casino strategies as their invigorating walking tour behind the thundering water.

Catherine Gildiner's mother admonished her not to go Too Close to the Falls when she went sledding in her home town of Lewiston, N.Y., on the Niagara River. Her memoir of her childhood in a small town in the 1950s is hilarious and poignant, and the Falls is a metaphor for the dangers of coming of age as well as a striking feature of an otherwise nondescript town.

In City of Light, Lauren Belfer writes about the Falls of 1901, as industrialists, conservationists and politicians wage battle over harnessing its power. Narrated by a headmistress whose personal conflicts are amply dramatic, City of Light also offers mystery, political intrigue and historic characters, as Buffalo prepares for the Pan American Exposition and hydroelectric power changes the mighty Falls and the world forever.

Also in 1901, a 62-year-old, financially desperate schoolteacher survived a trip over the falls in a barrel; the inimitable Chris Van Allsburg wrote and illustrated her story, Queen of the Falls. This accurate telling of Annie Edson Taylor's life is, like all the works by the creator of Jumanji and Polar Express, a delight for children and grown-ups both. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller


Ten SF Books for Girls; Books We Wish Were Musicals

Noting that Madeleine L'Engle's "beloved and much-lauded" A Wrinkle in Time turns 50 this year, Flavorwire recommended 10 great science fiction books for girls.


Inspired by last night's premiere of NBC's Smash and Broadway productions like Wicked and The Color Purple, the Huffington Post suggested some "books we wish were musicals."

Book Review


Three Weeks in December

by Audrey Schulman

In 1899, Jeremy, a young engineer, leaves his small town in Maine to oversee construction of a railroad across East Africa. He's left home because of a secret that has alienated him from everyone. The new start in Africa is a rocky one. He is wracked by malaria, afraid, bereft of companionship and, worst of all, his camp is attacked by two lions. Because he is the white man with the gun, he must kill the lions, which he does. As the new century dawns, he makes an unusual connection with another person--one that will resonate through the years.

In 2000, Max, an ethnobotanist, is a high-functioning autistic, unable to make eye contact or to bear being touched by anyone. Her social skills may be lacking, but her credentials are in order--she travels to a gorilla station in Rwanda for a pharmaceutical company in search of a vine that might have lifesaving properties.

The others at the station are unwilling to help Max. If the vine is found, the pharmaceutical company will harvest it, withdraw financial support from the station and remove the hired guards. The gorillas--already driven to a habitat too high for long-term survival--will be hunted as bushmeat.

And no one expects a terrifying invasion by the Kutu from Congo.

The way the two stories come together is unexpected, absolutely original, believable and so beautifully told that the reader leaves the book feeling amazed and completely satisfied. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: Two stories set in East Africa, 100 years apart, come together in a surprising way.

Europa Editions, $16, paperback, 9781609450649

Julia's Child

by Sarah Pinneo

Sarah Pinneo's first novel (after co-authoring The Ski House Cookbook) is enough to make a person want to rub hands together giddily while purring "Ooh... it's delicious!" Julia's Child is for any parent who ever spent more money at Whole Foods (for his or her toddler, no less) than on a handbag--and for non-parents who find that brand of insanity hilarious.

Julia's Child is a lighthearted, lightning-fast read that raises timely questions: How does a parent provide healthy food to picky kids without busting the bank? How do you encourage a nutritious diet when your child's friends are scarfing down Coke and gummy worms? Julia Bailey grapples with these questions as she juggles her effort to raise environmentally conscious children with the launch of a sustainable business creating organic baby food.

This quest takes Julia away from her two adorable little boys as she spends her nights cooking up products and trying to peddle them to Manhattan retailers. Julia is exhausted, but she hopes to become a success before her Irish nanny can give her kids any more potato chips. Witnessing Julia leaping over the pitfalls (confronting pot-smoking organic certification experts or baking 800 veggie muffins overnight) is an unapologetic hoot. Pinneo has crafted a delectable novel that's as fun to digest as the recipes peppered throughout the story. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend

Discover: A yummy novel about one woman's quest to provide organic food to children without losing her mind.

Plume, $15, paperback, 9780452297319

Contents May Have Shifted

by Pam Houston

Pam Houston's first story collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, set the tone for her later work and its recurring themes of high adventure in faraway places, looking for love in all the wrong places, mystical visions and great, enduring friendships (with men, women and dogs). Billed as a novel, Contents May Have Shifted is a strongly autobiographical story of an adventurous woman who has a ranch in Colorado and teaches at the University of California at Davis and at writing workshops, but this time around, it's (just barely) possible that her bad juju with men is fixed.

The story is organized, if you can call it that, in snippets of travel essays that skip around the world, from Tibet, Lhasa and Bhutan to Colorado, Mississippi and Wisconsin (and many other locales). Pam is a girl on the move. What she is moving away from this time is Ethan, a world-class jerk, with whom she has been on and off for four years. When Pam tells him that she is no longer interested in being one among many, he says, in a brief but devastating sketch of character: "Pam, men in third-world countries treat women so badly, those women actually think I'm treating them well."

One of the recurring characters in Contents May Have Shifted is the irresistible Janine, an acupuncturist, masseuse, seer and sage. Janine and Pam's hikes, travels and parties make the reader want to be there enjoying the fun with them. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: Pam Houston takes us on an enjoyable ride around the world--the one we all live in as well as her interior landscape.

W.W. Norton, $25.95, hardcover, 9780393082654

History of a Pleasure Seeker

by Richard Mason

Piet Barol is the eponymous hero of Richard Mason's History of a Pleasure Seeker, a novel set in belle époque Amsterdam. The handsome, sexually adventurous Piet is eager to leave provincial Holland behind; he's well-educated, fluent in several languages and musically gifted, so he becomes tutor to the young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam.

The lady of the house, Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts, is utterly charmed by Piet and his piano playing. Jacobina has two daughters, Louisa and Constance, both of marriageable age, and an agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive eight-year-old son, Egbert. Meanwhile, the patriarch of the family, Maarten, made a vow to God that if He would send him a son, he would never have carnal relations again. It's a set-up made in heaven, or thereabouts, for the randy young tutor.

He courts the family with music and charisma, and does, indeed, get Egbert to leave the house. In the fullness of time, arrangements are made and unmade and Piet leaves Amsterdam in a hurry. Despite the circumstances of his departure, he leaves the household in a happier state than he found it.

He sails to Cape Town. Always the opportunist, he ingratiates himself to a wealthy man seeking his own pleasure, then gravitates toward Stacey, a shipboard chanteuse as self-interested as himself.

The style and vocabulary are perfect for the novel's setting and the time period, and Mason's use of music sets exactly the right mood for what he wants to accomplish. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: A charming young man takes up residence with a wealthy Amsterdam family as a tutor to their son, indulging in erotic adventures before moving on to a bright future.

Knopf, $25.95, hardcover, 9780307599476

Mystery & Thriller


by Alan Glynn

In an attempt to keep journalist Jimmy Gilroy from uncovering a dark secret while writing a book about reality star Susie Monaghan and her untimely death, Phil Sweeney arranges for a sweetheart of a deal--Jimmy can assist Larry Bolger, the former prime minister of Ireland, with writing his memoir. What Phil didn't count on, though, was Bolger falling off the wagon and revealing just enough of the secret to spark Jimmy's curiosity. The clues lead him around the world to a hierarchy of the world's powerfully elite, and his perseverance may earn him the story of a lifetime... or a place on the obits page.

Alan Glynn (Limitless; Winterland) capably juggles several subplots in Bloodland, giving the reader just enough detail to know the subplots will come together, but not enough to figure out how until Glynn is absolutely ready to reveal it. This lack of foresight, combined with the constant movement of the novel's players, keeps the momentum at a full-tilt pace. The timely political, corporate, military and scientific references are engaging, but don't be distracted: this is a book that requires close attention to all the players in the game. Keeping up with this pack of corrupt competitors sprint to the finish line will put your cardiovascular system to the test; don't forget to breathe! --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: A heart-pounding thriller that may have you looking at conspiracy theories in a whole new light.

Picador, $16, paperback, 9780312621285

Budapest Noir

by Vilmos Kondor, trans. by Paul Olchváry

Zsigmond Gordon spent some time at a newspaper in Philadelphia before returning to his native Budapest to become the crime reporter at Evening. In 1936, as politicians kiss up to Fascists by changing the names of local landmarks to things like "Adolf Hitler Square" and censoring the papers, Gordon thinks to himself, "I write the news if, that is, the news lets itself be written." A colleague tells him to lighten up: crime in Budapest is a farce perpetrated by petty bumbling freaks--and, anyway, it's nothing like the grit of Philadelphia. Still, Gordon becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about the murder of a beautiful Jewish woman after seeing the crime scene, in an area frequented by street prostitutes. He establishes the who, what, when and where quickly, but is troubled when why does not come into focus. Throughout his investigation, he encounters resistance from his girlfriend, his editor, the police and, most damagingly, a violent hit squad, but everyone's entreaties only inflame his reportorial zeal.

Vilmos Konder beautifully depicts the atmosphere of pre-World War II Budapest, with its corrupt politicians, Communist cells and hustling criminals, and recounts Gordon's steps with GPS-level precision: "On Berlin Square he transferred to another [tram] to Calvin Square," runs one typical passage. "He walked along Kecskeméti Street, turning onto Bástya, and was already in the Guinea Fowl a couple of minutes before noon." Time-traveling visitors would have no fear of wandering down the wrong street with Budapest Noir under their belts. --John McFarland, author

Discover: An atmospheric novel set in 1930s Budapest, where an intrepid reporter finds farcical surfaces hide nefarious schemes.

Harper, $14.99, paperback, 9780061859397

Boca Daze

by Steven M. Forman

Steven M. Forman's third novel (following Boca Knights and Boca Mournings) checks back in with retired Boston cop Eddie Perlmutter, better known as the Boca Knight. Now firmly established as a private investigator in South Florida, Eddie is hit by several cases simultaneously. First, a homeless man claiming to be the Depression-era sad clown Weary Willie is attacked, and a local reporter asks Eddie to look into the circumstances. Then a new friend, World War II vet Herb Brown, suggests an investigation into a too-good-to-be-true investment scheme. For good measure, an old mobster acquaintance (and former foe from his days with the Boston PD) asks Eddie to take on the Florida "pill mills." Eventually the Boca Knight finds himself staking out a Catholic church, traveling to Tallahassee to lobby the state legislature and palling around with a homeless woman with a tragic past. All this, while experimenting with Viagra to try to keep up with his much-younger girlfriend.

Eddie is wry and self-deprecating; the overall tone is humorous, his battles with "Mr. Johnson" especially so. Don't sell Eddie short, though: despite the laughs, he can still take on gangsters a fraction of his age. Forman briefly but seriously addresses the Florida health crisis caused by a barely regulated prescription drug market, and then Boca Daze wraps up all its tragedies neatly and hopefully, with a wedding and a boxing match. Fans of lighthearted mysteries, South Florida or elderly heroes will be more than pleased with the Boca Knight's latest quests. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pages of julia

Discover: A witty sexagenarian PI who's unafraid to take on a wacky variety of villains all at once.

Forge, $25.99, hardcover, 9780765328762


Thinking the Twentieth Century

by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

In September 2008, historian Tony Judt was stricken with ALS, a disease that would take his life within two years. Four months after that terrible diagnosis, though, he began Thinking the Twentieth Century, an unusual collaboration with Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor specializing in Eastern European history--an expansive, challenging series of dialogues in which the two trace the major currents in the intellectual history of 20th-century Europe. Judt and Snyder draw on rich stores of reading and reflection to explore the ideological clashes that marked the last century.

There are moments when one's attention may wander at the mention of some unfamiliar Eastern European economic or political thinker, but this is a true conversation, not an arid academic colloquy. Judt and Snyder never lose sight of the grand sweep of events and personalities marking an era that "began with a catastrophic world war and ended in the collapse of most of the belief systems of the age."

Framing each of the book's chapters are fragments of Judt's biography, many of which reveal the events that shaped his political beliefs. Although the English-born Judt was Jewish, for example, he traces his antipathy to the current state of Israel to his experiences there after the Six-Day War in 1967. Because Judt's fearless opinions are expressed so pointedly and with such passion, it's unlikely readers will ever find themselves in total agreement with him. But whether one adopts or rejects his worldview, this invigorating dialogue grants us the privilege of encountering a fertile mind in all its vibrancy, gone far too soon. --Harvey Freedenberg

Discover: Two brilliant minds in a capacious dialogue about 20th-century European intellectual history.

Penguin Press, $36, hardcover, 9781594203237

Psychology & Self-Help

Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality

by Hanne Blank

Hanne Blank follows up Virgin: The Untouched History with Straight, a compact and engaging look at not just the history, but the construction of heterosexuality. Yes, that's right: the construction: Blank argues that heterosexuality is a concept "coined for a world in which the ideal of economically and socially viable adulthood meant marriage, children, and middle-class domestic responsibility"--in other words, "heterosexuality" is just a stamp invented to legitimize sexual desire and activity between men and women.

That claim may raise even the most progressive eyebrows, but Blank's surprisingly short history is also surprisingly convincing. She traces the development of heterosexuality from the word's first appearance in 19th-century Germany to its current status as "emblematic of an inherent physical and psychological normalcy." While displaying this impressive scholarship, Blank makes Straight personal as well as academic, using her not-quite-hetero relationship with an intersex partner as a powerful frame for her argument. "To lay claim to heterosexuality, it seems to me, after all my explorations into its history and nature," Blank writes, "is to pledge allegiance to a particular configuration of sex and power in a particular historical moment. There isn't much in that configuration, or its heritage of classicism and misogyny, that I find appealing enough to want to claim as my own." However, skeptics (even those quite attached to this "particular configuration") will find plenty to learn from in Straight about sexuality, gender, history and the messy intersection of all three. --Hannah Calkins, Unpunished Vice

Discover: A strong case for the idea that heterosexuality is not the fact of nature we consider it to be.

Beacon Press, $26.95, hardcover, 9780807044438

The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking

by Mikael Krogerus, Roman Tschappeler, trans. by Jenny Piening, illus. by Philip Earnhart

Every day is comprised of a constant stream of decisions, many of them unconscious, but each one shaping the direction a life can take. The Decision Book, already an international bestseller, provides an overview of 50 decision-making models. With the help of Mikael Krogerus, Swiss management consultant Roman Tschäppeler groups these models into chapters on self-improvement, increasing one's self understanding, coming to a better understanding of others and how to support others in improving themselves.

For those struggling to make hay of listing the pros and cons of a decision, for example, the "rubber band model" reframes a decision into looking at the positives of each alternative. Another model offers guidelines on deciding how much to spend on gifts commemorating various occasions. Along the way, Krogerous and Tschäppeler explain cognitive dissonance and Maslow's Heirarchy, along with theories that aren't necessarily "decision-making models" but can be applied to a greater understanding of some of the personal and societal forces that shape decision making. Their writing is concise, giving a clear summation of the various models. The Decision Book will lead curious readers to look further into ideas of particular interest in other places; it provides excellent frameworks of a wide range of useful methodologies. While some of the models present tongue-in-cheek subjective self-exploration, the book as a whole provides a valuable, straightforward set of guides for anyone interested in sociology, business or coming to a better sense of oneself. --Matthew Tiffany, counselor, writer for Condalmo

Discover: Models for sound decision making, plus a greater understanding of what shapes the choices we make.

W.W. Norton, $17.95, hardcover, 9780393079616

Children's & Young Adult

Kindred Souls

by Patricia MacLachlan

With her trademark grace and warmth, Patricia MacLachlan (Sarah, Plain and Tall) explores the close bond between grandparent and grandchild and the value of shared memories.

Ten-year-old Jake believes that his 88-year-old grandfather, whom everyone calls "Billy," will live forever. Even Lucy, a stray dog that latches onto Billy, trusts that he will always be there. On most days, Jake and Billy take long walks around their family farm. As they walk, Billy shares his love of nature and tells Jake stories of the sod house where he grew up--a house that fell into disrepair after they built a bigger farmhouse of wood. The sod house forms the heart and soul of Billy's memories, and one day while on their walk, Lucy digs up an old sod brick. Billy is filled with joy at the idea of showing Jake how to build a new sod house. Though Jake feels intimidated by the project, Billy tells him they are "kindred souls." When his grandfather falls ill, Jake is determined to make him proud.

MacLachlan's prose is as spellbindingly lyrical as ever, and her vivid imagery allows us to feel the seasons change along with Jake. Readers will cheer as Jake learns about giving back to his grandfather, who has given so much to him. He also shares the responsibility with his brother and sister so they can build a new sod house for their grandfather together. A wonderful selection to give to a child dealing with the loss of a grandparent, and an uplifting tribute to grandparents everywhere. --Molly McLeod, school librarian

Discover: A timeless story of the mutual support between grandparent and grandchild, and the enduring value of shared memories.

Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, $14.99, hardcover, 128p., ages 7-10, 9780060522971

I Don't Want to Be a Pea!

by Ann Bonwill, illus. by Simon Rickerty

"All hippos have birds, and Bella is mine," says the hippo hero. "Correction. All birds have hippos, and Hugo is mine," the bird hero retorts. Thus, Ann Bonwill (Bug and Bear) sets up the duo's differing points of view and the source of her picture book's humor.

Hugo's statements appear in balloon-like type that reflects his round, commanding shape. Bella's lines appear in more delicate lettering that complements her light-as-feathers presence. But don't underestimate Bella's strength of character. As the two prepare for the "Hippo-Bird Fairy-Tale Fancy Dress Party"--er, the "Bird-Hippo Fairy-Tale Fancy Dress Party"--they run into a slight disagreement about the costume.

Hugo thinks they should dress as the princess (Hugo) and the pea (Bella). Bella thinks a pea "is too green and small." She wants to be a mermaid, with Hugo as her rock. But Hugo thinks a rock is "too gray and blobby." Simon Rickerty's (Unfortunately) bold black outlines accentuate the hippo's silvery tones and the bird's baby blue against glorious backdrops of butter yellow and hot pink. His occasional use of patterns (for the king's cape and jester's cap, for instance) heighten visual interest. After several more no-gos, the two erupt in a two-page image of orange hippo footprints and bird scratches. Will they each go to the party solo? But what is a hippo without his bird, or a bird without her hippo?

This comical yet poignant tale models a way to compromise for the greater good of fun and friendship. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A hippo and bird who celebrate each other's individuality yet willingly compromise to keep their friendship strong.

Atheneum, $14.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 2-6, 9781442436145


Author Buzz

The Wild Card
(A Rivers Wilde Novella)

by Dylan Allen

Dear Reader,

"What if…?" is my favorite question to ask myself when I start writing a book. The answers that Cassie and Leo's story delivered were unexpected and heartwarming. Adding a heist and serendipitous reunion into the mix took my tried and true favorite trope, second chance, to a whole new level. Theirs is a classic case of right person/wrong time. Whether you're a Rivers Wilde newbie or expert, watching them overcome some pretty steep hurdles is a wild, thrilling, feel good ride.

I hope you love every word. xo,

Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: The Wild Card (A Rivers Wilde Novella) by Dylan Allen

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
January 16, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book


Kids Buzz

Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night

by Steven J. Simmons and Clifford R. Simmons
illus. by Ruth E. Harper

Dear Reader,

My newest and latest in a three-book series, Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night?, came from seeing the fascination so many kids have with the ocean and ocean creatures. How do a whale, octopus, dolphin, clownfish, great white shark and so many other undersea animals get their rest?

After all, they need to get their rest and sleep, just like all of us. So dive into this rhyming STEM picture book to encourage a love of nature and the environment--and under the covers for a great bedtime story.

"What do animals do when children are sleeping? Featuring creatures young children are likely to know, this book has the answers....[and] unusual nighttime facts are a plus." --Kirkus

Steve Simmons

KidsBuzz: Charlesbridge: Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night? by Steven J. Simmons and Clifford R. Simmons, illus. by Ruth E. Harper


Pub Date: 
April 16, 2024


Type of Book:
Picture Book

Age Range: 

List Price: 
$17.99 Hardcover

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