Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, October 2, 2018


Oxford University Press: Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon

From My Shelf

Timber Press: New books that harness the healing power of plants - Win the gift of self-care!

Flatiron Books: If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura, translated by Eric Selland

Build Your Cookbook Shelf: Kitchen Tools

I own only one kitchen "unitasker," as Alton Brown dismissively refers to kitchen tools with a single purpose: a cherry pitter. (Really, if you've ever tried to pit a batch of fresh cherries without one, you'll quickly see why they're a necessity.) I'd rather save my pennies for a quality version of a kitchen tool I know I can use again and again, in any number of ways.
 
My slow cooker gets a ton of use for every meal imaginable, but it's especially in rotation in fall and winter. For cuisine-specific cookbooks for slow cookers, try Fresh from the Vegan Slow Cooker (Harvard Common Press, $16.95) by Robin Robertson, which offers 200 vegan recipes, or The New Indian Slow Cooker (Ten Speed Press, $19.99), in which author Neela Paniz offers slow-cooker recipes for traditional and nontraditional Indian dishes.
 
Not to be outdone, pressure cookers like the Instant Pot are starting to rival the slow cooker for kitchen popularity--and there are cookbooks to educate and inspire any new (or old) pressure cooker owner, too. Most notable is How to Instant Pot (Workman, $16.95), which promises to teach home cooks how to use this innovative device not only to pressure cook, but to slow cook, steam and even make rice or yogurt.
 
It's not just about fancy technological gadgets in the kitchen, though. Something as simple as a casserole dish can be inspiring in the right hands, as evidenced by The 8x8 Cookbook (Burnt Cheese Press, $24.95). In it, author Kathy Strahs breaks out of the brownie mold with a series of "square meals" for family dinners and desserts alike. Cast-iron pans offer even more flexibility, functioning on the stove, open fire or in an oven. The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook (Sasquatch, $19.95) elaborates on the many benefits of cast iron, from browning to changing the texture of baked goods, and the team behind Cook's Country magazine has collected its favorite cast-iron recipes in Sharon Kramis's Cook It in Cast Iron (America's Test Kitchen, $26.95). --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Get Lit at the Beach: 3 days, 8 authors, April 5-7, 2019 in Cannon Beach, OR - Click to learn more!


Book Candy

Original Superheroes?: Ancient Roman Comic Strip Found

"Found: an ancient Roman comic strip with speech bubbles," Atlas Obscura reported.

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Mental Floss showcased "5 weird 1960s covers for classic novels."

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The Swamp Monsters of Malibu, for example. Quirk Books browsed the fake books in the hit Netflix series BoJack Horseman.

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"This is what being an elementary school librarian means to me today," Tanya Turek wrote for Brightly.

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"Regency rendezvous." The Guardian took readers "inside the world of Jane Austen fandom."


1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List

by James Mustich

Many avid readers have a "book bucket list": that hefty classic they've always meant to tackle, that series they'll get around to someday, that book their mother or husband or best friend loves that they've just never managed to try. But 1,000 books to read before you die? Sounds intimidating, to say the least.

Fear not. James Mustich, a longtime bookseller, voracious reader and a co-founder of the acclaimed book catalogue A Common Reader, has taken has taken on the task: he's compiled a massive, eclectic, surprisingly accessible list of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. The fifth installment in Workman Publishing's 1,000... Before You Die series, Mustich's book is an erudite, lively encyclopedia of gems from many genres. Organized alphabetically, it runs the gamut of taste and time: classic novels, myths and plays; beloved mysteries and children's books; acclaimed contemporary fiction; seminal works of cultural criticism and much more. But it is not, as Mustich insists in his introduction, a canon or a prescriptive list. Rather, it's an invitation to explore. Begin at the beginning, the end, or anywhere you like. Flip through the entries; search for your favorites or for what might be missing. And--almost certainly--enjoy a few moments of serendipity along the way. 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die will likely encourage booksellers and readers to participate in a communal conversation around the importance of books in our lives.

"A book about 1,000 books could take so many different shapes," Mustich admits in his introduction. The shape of this one is, essentially, a virtual bookstore. At once expansive and meticulously curated, it includes "not only books for all time but also books for the moment." As readers wander through its pages, Mustich hopes they will discover "a browser's version of paradise." He freely admits the challenges involved in compiling such a list: the need to include certain essential classics, the equally pressing need to draw in a diversity of voices from varied countries, eras and languages. And while the book is heavy on Western literature (classic and contemporary), it does include a number of voices that aren't standbys on English-class syllabuses.

The act of compiling a list like this, as Mustich notes, inevitably exposes the list-maker's own privileges, prejudices and omissions. But the final list is also--as it should be--"personal and sometimes peculiar." Readers will almost certainly find themselves inclined to argue about the inclusion of some texts and the omission of others, but that, Mustich exclaims joyfully, is the point. This is "an invitation to a conversation--even a merry argument", and avid readers will find plenty of material for both here.

The book is organized alphabetically, which leads to some strange bedfellows: Jean-Jacques Rousseau lands right next to J.K. Rowling, and Cormac McCarthy's grim post-apocalyptic novel The Road appears just before Robert McCloskey's classic picture book Make Way for Ducklings. But this system, in addition to being democratic, helps lend the book its feeling of wandering in a capacious yet well-curated bookstore. You never know what you might find on the shelves, but you can trust that many, if not most, of the essentials are here.

Mustich can't resist a bit of instruction along the way: he gives some authors--Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Simone de Beauvoir--their own mini-sections, with biographical sketches and brief entries on several of their best-known works. But even the shorter entries often contain surprising facts about the books, the authors and their respective histories. All of them are packed with helpful endnotes suggesting other worthy titles by the same author, or similar books for readers to try.

Mustich's joy in stories and storytelling is by no means limited to the printed word: he also recommends audiobooks, film and theatrical adaptations (where available). As if that weren't enough, dozens of entries contain handy cross-references to other entries in the book, making the compendium less overwhelming and more navigable. Occasionally, Mustich fits in a few more books under a topical heading, such as "Books on Books," "Heroic Fantasy" or "Space Opera," and at the very end, "A Miscellany of Special Lists." These mini-lists, in particular, read like a conversation with an enthusiastic bookseller who simply can't help recommending just one more book (or six).

The best way to use this book is, in fact, to wander: flip through a section or two, go back and forth looking for something you thought you saw. Read the endnotes, skip a few entries or whole sections, only to find them again later. In short, "Read at whim!" as the poet Randall Jarrell entreated his readers. Mustich invokes Jarrell in his introduction, and it's good advice: with a list this extensive, whimsy is not only enjoyable but absolutely necessary.

Thoughtful, often witty, informed and unfailingly enthusiastic, Mustich's collection fulfills one more aim of every bookstore worth its salt: inspiring readers to dive headfirst into a good book--especially one (or 12 or 50) they didn't know they were dying to read. --Katie Noah Gibson

Workman Publishing, $35, hardcover, 960p., 9781523504459

James Mustich: A Book of Serendipitous Delights

 

photo: Trisha Keeler Photography

A longtime bookseller, James Mustich was the co-founder and publisher of the acclaimed book catalogue A Common Reader for two decades.

Tell us about the inspiration for 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.

I've been selling books for most of my adult life. In the 1980s, I had a mail-order catalogue called A Common Reader. We'd send it out to customers around the country, listing books and telling people about them. So I've been writing about books for many years.

I'd known Peter Workman, the founder of Workman Publishing, for a long time. When he published 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, we said, "It'd be great to do something like this about books." The project took more than a decade to come to fruition. Peter and I had lots of conversations about what the book would be. We wanted something that was personal, but also gave a kind of survey of literature. Not in the college course sense, but in the sense that you might look around at a good bookstore and ask, "What are the books I'd like to read, or to tell other people about?"

How did you decide what to include in the compilation?

I did a lot of research, and I wrote about each book to the best of my ability. I want to share my enthusiasm about books people love, or books readers may know about but might not have taken the plunge into. I've been a bookseller for many years, so I've also had lots of conversations with book buyers. All of that mixed with some degree of literary style is built into the entries in the book. It's not a canon or a prescriptive list, but more of an invitation: Here's a big bookshelf of interesting things. Find something that interests you and pull it off.

Book lists are flourishing in our culture--from the Pulitzer winners to BuzzFeed listicles and every outlet in between. How do you expect people will react to this particular (long!) list?

I've spent 14 years writing this book, and I expect to spend the next 14 months traveling the country on book tour, having people tell me what I left out! But I'm excited about that. The book is meant to engage people's passions. It's an invitation to engage with your own shelves and start conversations around what books people should be reading. We can lose a lot of that in the book business, or in online bookselling, which is more transactional. But when you walk into a bookstore, you're walking into this big conversation, and I wanted to capture some of that here.

How do you hope people will engage with the book?

I don't expect that people will read it from beginning to end. I expect them to look for things they love, things they're interested in, and look for the things that aren't there. It's funny: I had all these conversations with friends about the book, what we could do to promote it. We didn't get very far. And then we all went out to dinner and argued for hours about the books we would read, the books we would include. Which is the whole point--it's an invitation to a conversation!

I hope the book will also be a resource for people who will flip through it and think, for example, that they always wanted to read Faulkner, and it will give them some encouragement in that direction. Or a nudge to explore newer writers, like Ali Smith or Elena Ferrante. It's not meant to be prescriptive. It's about browsing, and discovery and serendipity. The book is arranged alphabetically on purpose. Chronologically can be a snooze, and if you do it by genre, people get stuck where they already are, sometimes.

Conversation is definitely what it's about.

Yes. And that sense of discovery. I quote the poet Randall Jarrell in my introduction: "Read at whim!" I think that's so important. I love to discover what's meaningful to people through the books they love to talk about. I have eight file cabinets filled with letters from when we had A Common Reader. I would get letters from people living in the woods, and from navy officers living on aircraft carriers, telling me about the books they read to their kids when they were home. This book is an outcome of all of that, across the years, knowing countless readers and how passionate they are about books.

How did you ever narrow down the list?

I thought of it in a couple of ways. One: we read the way we eat. One day we want a hot dog, and the next day we want to go to a fancy restaurant. Or sometimes both on the same day! And I also kept imagining: If I had a bookstore with a thousand books in it and I wanted to have all the books I love, plus the usual suspects of classics and so on, plus something surprising for everyone who came in, how would I put that together? That kind of organized it for me.

Are there any books you love that you absolutely couldn't squeeze in?

There's a picture book called Burnt Toast on Davenport Street by Tim Egan. I was in Books of Wonder, a fantastic children's bookstore in Manhattan, with my younger daughter, Iris, who was maybe three or four. She marched over to the shelf and said, "Daddy, I want this one." We took it home, and I subsequently read it to her several hundred times. She made a great choice. And I couldn't get that one in here. But that's another book, where I'd like to write about those books that have been meaningful to me emotionally.

This book is a kind of virtual bookstore. Are there any real-life bookstores that embody the spirit of a well-curated, surprising, specific list like this?

Three Lives and Company in the West Village [in New York City], for sure. You walk into Three Lives, and you feel smarter and more cultured, more interesting to yourself than you were before you walked in. The curation is so great, and there's always something surprising that you didn't know you were interested in.

Of course, there are great bookstores all across the country, and part of this book is a salute to booksellers. There's a great bookstore in Ann Arbor, Literati Bookstore, that opened maybe five years ago. (I think I'd read about it in Shelf Awareness!) My daughter had just started at the University of Michigan, and I went to visit her there. I walked in and I was blown away. Every time I go to Ann Arbor, I go back to Literati. The intelligence of the curation, the enthusiasm of the staff picks--I walk in there and I spend $200, and I'm totally happy to do it.

What else would you like people to know about the book?

It's not actually just 1,000 books, if you can believe it. There are endnotes for each book, with other works by that author, or other things to try. There are more than 5,000 books cited within the book. This could have been a book of 2,000 books to read before you die, but I would have died before I finished writing it! --Katie Noah Gibson


Shelf vetted, publisher supported.


Book Review

Fiction

The Parting Gift

by Evan Fallenberg


The Parting Gift is a feverish and hypnotic epistolary novel, and a tantalizing literary treat. While wholly its own creation, readers may feel the influences of Patricia Highsmith (the sense of mounting dread) and Edmund White (the white-hot sexual encounters are salacious, surprising and erotic). An unnamed gay narrator who has been living with his straight college friend for the past four months has decided to move on and, as a parting gift, he's decided to write a letter explaining what brought him to his friend's doorstep.
 
The narrator drops out of grad school "under highly unpleasant circumstances" just months before graduation. Vacationing with friends in Tel Aviv, he meets Uzi, a roughhewn spice merchant, and immediately seduces him. "We were a mess," he writes, "a heaving, sweating, panting, quivering mess. And I was hooked." Uzi has two ex-wives and five kids (including an anorexic daughter and drug-selling son) but makes room in his home for his new romance. As their relationship builds, however, so does the narrator's mistrust. And this paranoia leads him down dark alleys. As he writes to his college friend: "Jealousy is a dangerous motive, and revenge its sharpest weapon."
 
Evan Fallenberg (When We Danced on Water) has crafted a haunting, emotionally satisfying and beautifully written story of obsessive love. Few readers will be able to stop reading this short novel before its surprising climax. The Parting Gift's vivid characters and their pyretic emotions make this an incredibly haunting novel. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: A haunting, erotic and beautifully written epistolary novel about a gay affair in Tel Aviv that turns into an obsessive quest for revenge.

Other Press, $22.99, hardcover, 256p., 9781590519431

Viz Media: Fullmetal Alchemist: The Complete Four-Panel Comics by Hiromu Arakawa


Crudo

by Olivia Laing


It's the summer of 2017. Amid North Korean nuclear detonations, hurricanes, presidential tweets, Brexit, White House firings, Internet rage, Charlottesville, an earthquake in Mexico, political tension in Spain, an eclipse--Kathy is getting married. She feels conflicted about her wedding, and as she counts down to the date, she consumes current events online, news that washes over her like a saturated sponge.
 
British author Olivia Laing's first novel follows a fictionalized Kathy Acker in a year when the apocalypse seems nigh. Laing's writing is urgent and lyrical, with short, tightly crafted sentences that can be read as slowly as poetry or as quickly as tweets. She repurposes quotes from Acker's writing, which adds another layer to the narrative; Acker used them to describe the '80s, and they are just as meaningful in 2017.
 
Throughout, Liang (The Lonely City) captures both the anxiety and detachment of the time. She writes, "Kathy was becoming obsessed with the numbness, the way the news cycle was making her incapable of action, a beached somnolent whale." The end of the world and beginning of a marriage are both ways to think about our own mortality, and Liang, in less than 150 pages, asks: How is it possible to love, to even think, in a society on the brink of collapse? Crudo is a time capsule that will become even more meaningful with age. --Katy Hershberger, freelance writer and bookseller

Discover: In Olivia Laing's first work of fiction, Kathy Acker contemplates marriage and current events in 2017.

W.W. Norton, $21, hardcover, 160p., 9780393652727

Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR: Attucks!: Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City by Phillip Hoose


The Devoted

by Blair Hurley


Like an update to Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, Blair Hurley's first novel, The Devoted, tells of a young woman's struggle to reconcile a strict Boston Catholic upbringing with a decade of Buddhist training. Confused and searching, Nicole Hennessey trades in aspirations of Catholic sisterhood and an adulation of her parish priest for obedience and sexual submission to her zen master. After an ill-fated yearlong run from home at 17 ("smelling of weed, wary as a cat, creeping out of her house"), she makes her way to the Peaceful Healing Zen Center ("a glass storefront, wedged in between a hardware store and a Mexican restaurant") where she gradually falls under the spell of the zendo's master. Suspicious of Nicole's obsession, her concerned older brother lures her to Brooklyn in hopes that a new place will break her pattern of spiritual dependence.
 
A Pushcart Prize-winner and native of Boston, Hurley captures the heart of the Hub, including its provincial and reticent citizens "with every face hidden behind a baseball cap or a coat collar... so buttoned up, so tribal." It is the vulnerable yet determined Nicole, however, who puts the zest into The Devoted. Whether probing the hoarding fetish of a sensitive guy she picks up in a Boston bar or becoming an informal roshi herself to a women she meets in an Upper East Side zendo, she is a sincere, if flawed, seeker of personal fulfillment and independence. Hurley's abundant talent convincingly illustrates that dharma don't come easy. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Hurley's debut novel tells of a young Boston woman seeking release from a strict Catholic past and a decade of zen obedience.

W.W. Norton, $25.95, hardcover, 320p., 9780393651591

Atlantic Monthly Press: Unto Us a Son Is Given (Commissario Guido Brunetti #28) by Donna Leon


Mystery & Thriller

When the Lights Go Out

by Mary Kubica


Jessie Sloane's plan to accomplish her dying mother's wish that she "find herself" hits a snag when her college application is flagged because her name and Social Security number relate to a death certificate filed 17 years ago. Distraught at the loss of her only family, Jessie sets out to fix what she's certain must be a simple clerical error and finds only more mysteries about her identity.
 
Meanwhile, back in 1996, Eden and husband, Aaron, have purchased the cottage of their dreams and start trying to have a baby. Eden's fervor in treating the couple's fertility problems is intensified by visits from neighbor Miranda, who seems to get pregnant merely by being in the vicinity of her husband. To make matters worse, Miranda ignores her small children and constantly complains about the drudgeries of marriage and motherhood.
 
Plagued by insomnia, Jessie experiences visions that twist her perception of the present and her investigation into her past in ways she's unsure she can trust. Eden is also undergoing a transformation as her longing for a child threatens her marriage and makes her question what she's capable of.
 
When the Lights Go Out is Mary Kubica's fifth psychological thriller, and she continues to prove adept at her favored narrative of alternating characters and timelines. Kubica's stories always include emotional underpinnings that serve her characters, particularly important when faced with challenges of coincidence and believability. The final twist will be polarizing, but there is no question that Kubica has a knack for compelling storytelling. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review.

Discover: The story of a newly motherless daughter searching for her true identity is interwoven with the past of a woman desperate for a child.

Park Row, $26.99, hardcover, 336p., 9780778330783

Viking Books for Young Readers: Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson


An Act of Villainy

by Ashley Weaver


Ashley Weaver (A Most Novel Revenge), takes her characters into the heart of the London theater scene in An Act of Villainy. Amory Ames and her husband, Milo, have just been to a play in London's West End when they run into an old friend, Gerard Holloway. He invites them to come see a performance of the new play he's directing. When Milo informs Amory sotto voce that Holloway has cast his mistress as the lead in the play, Amory is both appalled for her friend Georgina, Holloway's wife, and intrigued to see Miss Flora Bell.
 
Flora Bell turns out to be an astonishingly good actress--who has been getting threatening letters. Amory and Milo agree to help look into who has been sending them, but before they reach any conclusions, Flora is found strangled.
 
Amory is the one who finds Flora's body, and manages to convince Scotland Yard that she and Milo ought to assist in the murder investigation. Weaver skillfully presents believable motives for nearly all the cast members to want Flora dead, making Milo and Amory's task practically insurmountable, until Amory has a breakthrough. Funny, with a mellow pace and occasional introspection from Amory about the state of her marriage, An Act of Villainy is a charming historical mystery in the vein of Rhys Bowen or Jacqueline Winspear. Weaver brings the glittery world of 1930s high society to the forefront, and Amory and Milo's lazy, glamorous life is sure to enchant readers. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: In this historical mystery set in London in the 1930s, a high society couple investigates the murder of a West End actress.

Minotaur Books, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250159755

Greystone Books: The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things (Mysteries of Nature Trilogy #3) by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst


Science Fiction & Fantasy

Zero Sum Game

by S.L. Huang


In Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang introduces Cas Russell--an expert in the purposefully vague field of "retrieval"--who finds her skills tested after a rescue mission brings her to the attention of a vast and dangerous conspiracy. Russell is no easy target, capable of seemingly impossible physical feats and unerring marksmanship that enables her to kill packs of goons with ease. Rather than super-strength or heightened reflexes, she relies on her uncanny facility for math: "The dark-suited men became points in motion, my brain extrapolating from the little I could see and hear, assigning probabilities and translating to expected values."

Huang's protagonist is hard-nosed to an extreme: the closest thing she has to a friend is another murderously talented killer with a penchant for sadism and few recognizable emotions. The novel pushes a relentless pace, with countless well-executed action scenes and an impressive body count. The only force that can stand in Russell's way for long is an elusive organization named Pithica. Russell must question her own mind as she finds evidence of Pithica's eerie ability to manipulate thoughts.
 
Zero Sum Game's pleasures lie in the protagonist's repeated ability to extricate herself from seemingly impossible predicaments, whipping up math-based solutions to gunfights on the fly. In one memorable scene, Russell makes a number of small adjustments, one involving an umbrella, that allow her to eavesdrop on a distant conversation. How? It involves sound waves and, of course, math. In Cas Russell, Huang has created a protagonist with a distinctive hook. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Discover: This science fiction thriller stars Cas Russell, an expert in retrieval and seemingly impossible gunplay thanks to her preternatural grasp of math.

Tor, $25.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781250180254

Sterling Publishing: The Mood Book: Crystals, Oils, and Rituals to Elevate Your Spirit by Amy Leigh Mercree


Graphic Books

RX: A Graphic Memoir

by Rachel Lindsay


Rachel Lindsay turns a critical eye on mental illness medications and the mainstream perceptions of sanity in her first graphic novel, RX.
 
Diagnosed at 19 with bipolar disorder, Lindsay had to reprioritize her life around the medicated daily ritual. Work became a means to an end; Lindsay ditched her artistic dreams and took a full-time job as an assistant account executive to pay for ongoing treatment. Her involvement with an advertising campaign for Pristiq, an antidepressant by Pfizer, tested the limits of Lindsay's mental fortitude. The reality of her experiences clashed with the magical transformation of patient lives implied by the ad's bullet points, affecting her morale and self-perception. She spiraled into a manic episode, quitting her job and going on a spending spree. This led to her involuntary hospitalization at a mental health facility, where she learned to reclaim her identity and happiness through a maze of medication and self-control.
 
Lindsay uses humor and visuals to explore the vulnerability of mental illness. The black-and-white sketches move from sedate and clean lines depicting the ordinariness of her 9-to-5 life to the frenzied and energetic scratching that becomes symbolic of her mental unraveling. The ongoing stresses of conformity versus individuality merge into a thought-provoking discussion of whether to medicate or not medicate: "Life planned around being medicated, out of fear of yourself, fear of ruining your life... again. But in exchange--whose life was I actually living?" --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: RX is a candid and heartfelt graphic memoir that looks at the struggle to stay sane in an overly medicated world.

Grand Central, $28, hardcover, 256p., 9781455598540

Tyndale House Publishers: How the Light Gets In by Jolina Petersheim


Biography & Memoir

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet: A Memoir

by Kim Adrian


The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a memoir with an unusual structure to match its ever-shifting reality. Kim Adrian (Sock) writes the story of her mentally ill mother, how she got this way and what Adrian can or should do about it.
 
Linda, Adrian's mother, has been diagnosed with a long list of ailments: borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, bipolar, psychosis, paranoia and more. Adrian's father is an alcoholic; his memories can't be trusted because "he'd been drunk the whole time." In constructing this narrative, then, she relies entirely on her own memory. But the trouble with remembering the truth of what happened is that Linda's lies, manipulations and her own troubles with reality created a wildly shifting experience for her oldest daughter. If Linda retold a story, the very truth of it changed for Adrian. Reconstructing the past now is therefore a fraught undertaking.
 
This attempt to reorganize a life is presented alphabetically, beginning with an anecdote titled "Abecedarian," about an unexplained event in grade school, and ending not with "Zigzag" but rather "&." "Until the mid-nineteenth century, the ampersand was considered the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet," and for Adrian it offers "a verbal umbrella" under which she is both mother and daughter, both happy and sad.
 
The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a feat on many levels. Adrian tells a harrowing story, surprisingly redeemed by her own sweet family, and in many ways also continuing. Her work as glossator is astonishing and inventive. The result is whimsical, even darkly funny at times, brimming with compassion, terribly sad and deeply loving. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A remarkable memoir, organized as a glossary of terms, that is part detective story, investigating a mother's mental illness.

University of Nebraska Press, $19.95, paperback, 304p., 9781496201973

The Diary of a Bookseller

by Shaun Bythell


Scotland officially named Wigtown its "book town" in 1998, following the success of the original Book Town, Hay-on-Wye, in Wales. Ever since, the village in the country's idyllic southwest is a destination spot for book lovers. Now Wigtown native Shaun Bythell, who purchased the Book Shop in 2001, when he was 31, takes readers behind the scenes with The Diary of a Bookseller, a day-by-day record of 2014 in the store.
 
Bythell writes a stream-of-consciousness, detailed memoir reflecting on the book business, his relationships, colorful customers, village news and literature. His observations are hilarious. "Bev dropped off a box of the mugs onto which she's printed the cover of Gay Agony," and this snarky note on one of the parade of part-time staff: "Today was Katie's last day, so I gave her a hug as she was leaving. She hates physical contact, so it was particularly gratifying to see how uncomfortable it made her." Maintaining his stock of 100,000 titles requires numerous buying excursions, which offer rich stories if not always worthwhile books. Bythell works in the store daily and also coordinates a "Random Books" subscription service; he also manages online sales, a tricky and demanding venture. "Shop small" advocates may appreciate his opinions. He commends James Patterson's bookstore grant program and warns, "The sad truth is that, unless authors and publishers unite and stand firm against Amazon, the industry will face devastation."
 
Not every day is notable, and a straight-through read of The Diary of a Bookseller could be tedious. But dipping into Bythell's reflections a few days at a time is sure to bring book lovers chuckles, nods of recognition and a surge of hope for bookshops everywhere. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: A Scottish bookseller's diary reveals the day-to-day tasks of running a bookshop, told with sardonic wit and abundant title references.

Melville House, $25.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781612197241

Nature & Environment

How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals

by Sy Montgomery, illus. by Rebecca Green


Nature writer Sy Montgomery, a 2015 National Book Award finalist for Soul of an Octopus, recounts the life lessons she gained from 13 encounters with animals, from Australian bush creatures to the family dog.
 
Montgomery confides that from a young age, animals have always taught her the most, beginning with her scrappy childhood dog, a Scottish terrier named Molly, whose toughness and jaw strength four-year-old Montgomery coveted. Despite her parents' hopes that she would follow the family's military tradition, an encounter with three emus in Australia hooked her on studying animals, and she never looked back. A pinktoe tarantula named Clarabelle taught her to look for wonder in unlikely places. Christopher Hogwood, a runty piglet that became a benign behemoth--and inspired her book The Good, Good Pig--showed her how to treasure each moment. Later, a pair of tree kangaroos in New Guinea would remind her of the beauty of life when the deaths of both Christopher Hogwood and border collie Tess left her heartbroken.
 
Whimsically illustrated by Rebecca Green (How to Make Friends with a Ghost), this memoir in animals recalls the childhood joy of discovering a new favorite chapter book. Montgomery's fans already know her musings on animals reach a level of wonder and reflection most often seen in spiritual contemplation, and indeed, her awe feels akin to religion. Her infectious depth of feeling for the creatures that have enriched her life charm anew in this light read that will touch anyone who knows that animals make us human. (Final illustrations not seen.) --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager, main branch, Dayton Metro Library

Discover: This memoir in animals pays tribute to the wonder and solace nature writer Sy Montgomery has found among them.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $20, hardcover, 208p., 9780544938328

Children's & Young Adult

A Spark of White Fire

by Sangu Mandanna


A Spark of White Fire, inspired by the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic, follows Esmae, a girl who "has no wealth, no glory, no power, and no family." A pawn in a massive game between royalty and gods, Esmae tells the reader, "[y]ou'd be forgiven for thinking the girl is irrelevant.... But she's not irrelevant. I'm not irrelevant."
 
Esmae's uncle, King Elvar, usurped the Kali throne from her father and exiled her family. Esmae, however, was cursed as a baby and sent away by her mother before the exile; everything she knows about her own history and royal lineage was told to her by a god. Esmae, now 17, seeks a way to break her curse and return to her family. Hoping to accomplish this, she enters a contest in which the prize is an unbeatable, god-created warship called the Titania. Alexi, Esmae's twin brother, and her adopted cousin, Max, also enter the contest--Alexi is preparing to take back the throne, while Max is working to keep his father, Elvar, on it. It is Esmae, though, who prevails, winning the Titania and the chance to find her family. But the story that Esmae was told about her mother isn't the real story, and returning to Kali means stepping into a web of political and romantic intrigue. Esmae ultimately must decide whether the family she has sought her entire life is the one she is destined to call her own, or if the gods have another future for her.
 
Sangu Mandanna's (The Lost Girl) novel seamlessly weaves science fiction elements with Indian mythology, creating a world that feels truly alive. Mandanna's characters are fully fleshed, especially the engaging and sympathetic Esmae. A Spark of White Fire is the first in a trilogy, and readers will be eager for the next installment. --Clarissa Hadge, manager, Trident Booksellers & Café, Boston, Mass.

Discover: With meddling gods, civil war and political intrigue in her way, Esmae won't have an easy time trying to return to her home kingdom and her family.

Sky Pony Press, $17.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 12-up, 9781510733787

Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon

by Suzanne Slade, illus. by Thomas Gonzalez


In riveting free verse, Suzanne Slade, author of Astronaut Annie, recounts the almost 3,000 days between President John F. Kennedy's monumental space announcement and the moment when "Armstrong steps onto the Moon,/ leaving a footprint that will last forever." She charts an emotional course for readers through each Apollo mission, from the devastating first to the historic 11th. Slade shares fascinating facts like "getting a simple drink of water/ is a challenging game of 'capture the droplets' " and develops atmosphere that raises goosebumps, such as when "the Earth shrinks/ from a basketball,/ to a baseball,/ to a golf ball." She also builds breathtaking suspense: "The rocket engine must reignite/ and push the craft out of lunar orbit./ If it fails, the men will be trapped in space/ forever." The result is a book that will captivate and entertain young readers while educating them about an amazing decade of U.S. space exploration. 
 
Slade's poetry alone gives this book potent gravitational pull, but Thomas Gonzalez's exquisite, life-like pastel, colored pencil and airbrush illustrations render the reader powerless to its attraction. The amazing detail in elements such as the droplets of water in space and the sense of movement when a lunar module spins out of control boost the power of Slade's words. And the meticulously rendered imprint of Armstrong's footprint on the moon launches modern readers back to 1969 to experience the sheer awe. In the 21st century, space travel goals aim much further away than the moon, but Countdown drives home how truly incredible the Apollo missions are in the history of mankind. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: The story of how the United States put men on the moon is brought to life through a perfect combination of powerful words and striking illustrations.

Peachtree, $22.95, hardcover, 144p., ages 10-14, 9781682630136

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