Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Workman Publishing: Back-to-School Help is Here with Brain Quest, America's #1 Educational Bestseller!

From My Shelf

Ballantine Books: The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: Spindlefish and Stars by Christiane M Andrews

Calkins Creek Books: The Teachers March!: How Selma's Teachers Changed History by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace, illustrated by Charly Palmer

My Year of Proust

In September, I finished Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, concluding a year-long enchantment in what quickly emerged as my most profound personal reading experience to date. What I didn't appreciate is what happens after you think you've hit your peak.

I believe more have started Proust than finished, so how did it go for me? From the beginning and throughout, my mind frequently recalled that convention of the Golden Age of cartoons (of all things) when Bugs Bunny, say, would float above the ground and through a window, beguilingly led by the gravity-defying aroma of the perfect porridge. Or maybe it was pie.

Lydia Davis's translation clinched it in the first volume, carrying me through an open window into the life of my new best friend, our narrator. And I stuck with him--even the times when he is more than a complete ass and is, alarmingly, horribly and cruelly offensive--just as he stuck with me, patiently unfolding a world that is, by many turns, familiar yet also extinct. European culture, of the kind to which we are given entrée, might have been transformed by the Great War, but people not so much. I recognized myself and many others in most every page, while touring a life beyond my reach.

And then it ended, and I've been living with olfactory withdrawal since. Progressing from one book to the next, as many of us do, the completion of one book is to anticipate the next, and that has been the hardest thing about my year of Proust: I haven't wanted to read anything next. What could be next? I have picked up other books since, some finished, others not. Nothing suits. For all that I did find in Proust, I have not found a taste for what comes after.

--Neil Strandberg, director of technology and operations, Shelf Awareness

Simon & Schuster: Unicorns Are the Worst! by Alex Willan


Book Candy

Peter Pan's Dark Side

"Peter Pan's dark side emerges" with the release of J.M. Barrie's original manuscript, the Observer noted.

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Ted Geisel wrote the song lyrics. Mental Floss offered "12 spirited facts about How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

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"Pass the Little Ribbons: A Pasta Word Quiz." Merriam-Webster challenged foodie word fans to "match the pasta with its meaning in Italian."

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Neil Gaiman "talks dreamily about fountain pens, notebooks & his writing process" in an interview with Tim Ferriss via Open Culture.

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A signed copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets "bought for a penny has been sold at auction for £2,300 [about $3,025]," according to the Scotsman.

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From Thomas Paine to Lorraine Hansberry, 6sqft explored the neighborhood of "31 literary icons of Greenwich Village."


Walrus Publishing: Campaigning Can Be Deadly, Volume 2 by Charlotte Stuart


Great Reads

Rediscover: No Ordinary Men

Elisabeth Sifton, who the New York Times called "a widely respected book editor and publisher who burnished manuscripts by many of the 20th century's literary lions," died December 13 at age 80. In a long career at such illustrious houses as Viking, Knopf and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, she edited, among others, Saul Bellow, Isaiah Berlin, Don DeLillo, Carlos Fuentes, Philip Gourevitch, Michael Ignatieff, Stanley Karnow, Robert MacNeil and Peter Matthiessen.

Sifton was also an author. In 2003, she published The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, which in part told the story of the famous "serenity prayer," best known because of its adoption by Alcoholics Anonymous, that was written in 1943 by her father, famous theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. She put the prayer in its intended context--as an appeal for grace, courage and wisdom in a time of war--and she told of Niebuhr's efforts to fight fascism and promote social justice, racial equality and religious freedom.

Her other book--co-written with her husband, Fritz Stern, the eminent historian of Germany--No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State, was published in 2013. Theologian Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law von Dohnanyi together worked against the Nazi state, both philosophically and politically, likely doing what Sifton's father would have done were he in Germany instead of the U.S. in the same period.

The Serenity Prayer is available from Norton ($16.95, 9780393326628), and No Ordinary Men is available from New York Review Books ($19.95, 9781590176818).


Johns Hopkins University Press: The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Science, Deception, and the War on Vaccines by Brian Deer


The Writer's Life

Reading with... Samuel Shem

photo: Janet Surrey

Samuel Shem, M.D., is a novelist, playwright and activist, and professor of Medical Humanities at NYU School of Medicine. His novel The House of God, about medical internship, has sold more than two million copies in the U.S. His other novels include Mount Misery, The Spirit of the Place and At the Heart of the Universe. With Janet Surrey he wrote the award-winning off-Broadway play Bill W. and Dr. Bob and the books The Buddha's Wife: The Path of Awakening Together and We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men. He has also written the nonfiction essay "Fiction as Resistance." His new novel, Man's 4th Best Hospital (Berkley, November 12, 2019), is the sequel to The House of God.

On your nightstand now:

I read two books at the same time, one fiction, one nonfiction. This keeps both hemispheres of my brain tuned up. The fiction happens to be a perfect book that I'm re-reading, my tattered hardcover of Gabriel García Márquez's Of Love and Other Demons. Set in the 16th century of a fictional Cartagena, Colombia, it has it all--story, suspense, love and death.

My nonfiction reading is Falter by the writer and activist Bill McKibben, who, for 40-some years, has led the fight to save our planet through a nonprofit he founded, 350.org. The book ranges deep and wide over climate change and explains how to stop global warming.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Who remembers?

Your top five authors:

Shakespeare and Tolstoy: both touched by Divinity.

George Orwell: not just 1984, but also Animal Farm and the nonfiction essays.

Eduardo Galeano: the Uruguayan author of the Memory of Fire trilogy, a riveting story of the Americas from creation through many genocides to our current history. A great tale of resistance.

Graham Greene: The Quiet American is the perfect novel on our folly in Vietnam, and a nonfiction work, Getting to Know the General, tells the story of Panama's former leader Omar Torrijos.

Book you've faked reading:

I don't fake. Reading or anything else.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Any volume by Wallace Stevens. A favorite poem is "The Latest Freed Man." And I have to mention Dispatches by Michael Herr. The greatest Vietnam War nonfiction. With '60s cool and incisive truth-telling, it brings atrocity into focus.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Are you suggesting that you can tell a book by its cover? Hmmm.

Book you hid from your parents:

What parents? I was so into books--and sports--that I never quite noticed the parents.

Book that changed your life:

Change my life? So many books, so little changes. My life has been changed by sufferings and loves.

Favorite line from a book:

"The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it." From I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, a Bombay shopkeeper and enlightened soul whose dialogues were transcribed in the 1960s. Several of our great American Buddhist teachers, such as Jack Kornfield, traveled to his apartment above his cigarette store to hear him speak.

Five books you'll never part with:

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems; Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness; Vimala Thakar, The Eloquence of Living; Rilke, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God; and Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer's Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

War and Peace. The best summer job I ever had was as toll collector on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge across the Hudson River. I had the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift. After the bars closed at one a.m., traffic slowed way down, and I read. At night on the job, head over heels in love with my now wife, sitting there alone in that quiet booth for hours, reading until first light and the realization of how short the dark of night really was? Well, how could I not fall in love with pretty much everything right then, including Tolstoy and the peaceful war of love?

What is displayed over your writing desk:

A Chekhov quote from a letter to his editor: "The best of writers are realistic and describe life as it is, but because each line is saturated with the consciousness of its goal, you feel life as it should be in addition to life as it is, and you are captivated by it." This set me on my way and keeps me on my way.


Viking: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd


Book Review

Fiction

Africaville

by Jeffrey Colvin


The town of Africville exists. The small coastal community on the edge of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was home to black residents since the early 1800s, the majority with southern U.S. and Caribbean origins. Narrative magazine assistant editor Jeffrey Colvin mines the settlement's little-known history to create his epic debut novel, Africaville, the result of 20 years of research and writing.

Kath Ella and Omar--acquainted since childhood--share a brief summer romance that ends with pregnancy and death. Omar's fatal accident leaves Kath Ella a single mother to an infant named to memorialize his late father--until Kath Ella marries Timothee, a white man, in Montreal. Timothee was happy to adopt Kath Ella's toddler, but wanted to rename the younger Omar as Etienne. Already the child of light-skinned black parents, Etienne legally becomes a white man's son, effectively dismissing his Africaville heritage for decades.

Etienne continues to increase the distance--emotionally and physically--from his Canadian birth by marrying and having a son of his own, moving to Vermont, then Alabama. As civil rights protests intensify in the early 1960s South, news reports about a local preacher (Martin Luther King, Jr., is implied) hardly elicits a reaction from Etienne. Not until distant (black) Halifax relatives confront him about "crowing"--"that means a colored person is passing for white"--does Etienne begin to acknowledge, albeit half-heartedly--his ancestry.

In Colvin's carefully constructed family saga, erasure by death, neglect, loss--both intentional and situational--loom from one generation to the next. Despite departure and distance, Africaville ultimately proves to be a tenacious reclamation of story, of place, of belonging. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: The centuries-old yet little-known history of a black coastal settlement in Nova Scotia inspires Jeffrey Colvin's affecting multi-generational debut novel, Africaville.

Amistad, $27.99, hardcover, 384p., 9780062913722

Dial Books: Kitties on Dinosaurs by Michael Slack


Realm of Ash

by Tasha Suri


Tasha Suri follows her debut, the arresting India-inspired epic fantasy Empire of Sand, with another feast of desert magic, palace intrigue, forbidden romance and veiled princesses making all their own hard choices. While enriched by its predecessor, Realm of Ash could work as a standalone, as it concerns the younger sister of the first volume's protagonist, and its empire-shaking events mostly occur half a subcontinent away.

The story picks up with young, traumatized Arwa arriving at a hermitage for noble widows after the slaughter by magical forces of her husband and his entire court. (The mysterious specifics get teased out over several chapters, so new readers need not worry they've missed something.) While Suri excels at depicting the friendships and political maneuverings of women, Realm of Ash comes fully to life once Arwa gets packed off to the Imperial Palace to aid a bastard prince's heretical studies. Arwa's mission: to help Zahir save the teetering empire by taking opium and entering the Realm of Ash, a dreamscape where the thoughts of the dead still live.

The vivid, vital story that follows involves assassinations, secret societies, desperate journeys and the shock of discovering the bloody secrets behind an empire's power. But for all the imaginative scope and fresh worldbuilding, the heart of Suri's series beats in the chests of its indomitable heroines. Their every struggle and sacrifice, triumph and fear, resonate more deeply than the fates of whole worlds in less personal fantasies. --Alan Scherstuhl, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A veiled widow shakes an India-inspired empire in this vivid epic fantasy.

Orbit, $16.99, paperback, 496p., 9780316449755

Main Street Publishing: Temple of Eternity by R Scott Boyer


The Bishop's Bedroom

by Piero Chiara, trans. by Jill Foulston


The slow-burning The Bishop's Bedroom by the late Italian author Piero Chiara was first published in 1976. Jill Foulston provides the English translation of this popular novel.

Italy, 1946: World War II has just ended. An unnamed soldier in his 30s is decompressing from the battlefield by aimlessly sailing across Lake Maggiore. A wealthy, middle-aged former soldier named Orimbelli spots him at a port, and they strike up a friendship. It is a chance meeting that will ensnare the younger soldier in a heartbreaking, murderous love triangle.

During a dinner at Orimbelli's villa with the older man's rich wife and his sister-in-law, Mathilde, Orimbelli begs the young man to take him sailing. The two set off on an excursion of debauchery--wining, dining and sleeping with various women. Unaware of the gritty details of their adventures, Mathilde joins them on the next outing. An attraction develops between her and the soldier, but Orimbelli pulls the younger man aside and professes love for Mathilde. He implies his feelings are reciprocated.

Then the group receives word that tragedy has struck the Orimbelli household and they must return immediately. Suspicion, doubt and secrets threaten the new friendships, and the young soldier realizes far too late that he is a pawn in Orimbelli's Machiavellian plan of survival.

The misogynistic attitudes of the decade survive Foulston's translation, and the much-lauded prose is almost verbose enough to sink the story. Luckily, Chiara's masterful character development keeps this tense tale from capsizing. The subtlety with which the elder Orimbelli seduces the broken younger soldier to his way of thinking while ruining a potentially healing relationship for two desperate people is almost Shakespearean in nature. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this suspense-filled Italian novel, an aimless young soldier becomes entangled in an erotic adventure and murder while sailing across Lake Maggiore.

New Vessel Press, $15.95, paperback, 151p., 9781939931740

Mystery & Thriller

Tracking Game

by Margaret Mizushima


Margaret Mizushima (Burning Ridge, Hunting Hour) has created another compelling mystery in Tracking Game, the fifth entry in her Timber Creek K-9 mystery series. Deputy Mattie Cobb is at a community dance with veterinarian Cole Walker when they hear an explosion. Running to the scene, they find a van on fire and the body of local rancher Nate Fletcher next to it. But Nate didn't die in the fire--he was shot twice in the chest.

Mattie and her K-9 partner, Robo, search the scene. They discover a gun nearby and traces of cocaine in the van door. As the investigation continues, Mattie learns that the victim was leading outfitting trips into the Colorado wild, and she begins to wonder if these trips could be covers for drug-running.

When the sheriff's department receives a 911 call from a man up in the mountains, Mattie and Robo head out, only to hear the growls of an apex predator and find huge paw prints around the mutilated body. Mattie doesn't think it sounded like a cougar, so the sheriff's department teams up with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to find the beast.

Tracking Game's interesting mix of law enforcement investigation and wildlife management will keep readers engaged. Mattie's personal struggles also lend depth to the story, as she seeks to balance her working life and her developing relationship with Cole Walker and his children. The vivid Colorado setting adds the perfect touch, making Tracking Game sure to appeal to fans of Margaret Coel or Nevada Barr. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: In this evocative mystery, a deputy and her K-9 partner are on the hunt for both a human killer and a vicious predator.

Crooked Lane Books, $26.99, hardcover, 9781643851358

Biography & Memoir

What Are We For: The Words and Ideals of Eleanor Roosevelt

by Eleanor Roosevelt


"What I have learned from my own experience is that the most important ingredients in a child's education are curiosity, interest, imagination and a sense of the adventure of life." --Eleanor Roosevelt, from You Learn by Living

In her introduction to this collection of Eleanor Roosevelt's sayings, editor Mary Jo Binker notes that the words collected here are from a woman who, like a diamond, was "multifaceted and brilliant," who left her indelible stamp on the office of First Lady, and was instrumental in the creation and passage of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her careers spanned diplomacy, politics, education and journalism, and her convictions led her to become "an icon of female empowerment." Roosevelt's total writings are vast, and this collection endeavors to condense them into a digestible format (albeit more of a gift book than a volume of essays) while also providing a full bibliography to direct readers to the original sources. Nevertheless, with topics including politics and government, law, democracy, citizenship, voting, race, ethnicity, emotions, rights, ethics, faith and so much more, What Are We For presents a good picture of Roosevelt's values, her mores and why she remains a powerful feminist figure today. The quotes collected here remain inspiring and relevant in the current political, social and cultural context. They allow readers to step beyond their awareness of Roosevelt's most popular sayings, as passed around on the Internet or via greeting cards, and learn about the depth of this remarkable woman's mind. --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer

Discover: An easily digestible collection of the sayings of Eleanor Roosevelt, providing insight into her intellect and her many areas of interest.

Harper Perennial, $16.99, paperback, 256p., 9780062889478

History

Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

by Iain MacGregor


In Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Iain MacGregor captures the horror and disbelief of a city suddenly and seemingly permanently split in two, with relatives trapped on opposite sides and attempted escapees shot on sight.

Between 1961 and 1989, the Berlin Wall marked the front line of the Cold War. No part of its expanse was more symbolically or logistically important than Checkpoint C, which became Checkpoint Charlie in the NATO phonetic alphabet. An iconic white hut on the Allied side (specifically the American Sector) faced off against a deadly no man's land and hulking East German fortifications. Before the Wall's construction, each year hundreds of thousands of citizens--primarily young, educated professionals--had been escaping the German Democratic Republic (GDR) into West Germany. GDR leader Walter Ulbricht pushed his Soviet masters for a permanent solution. Once the Wall went up, Checkpoint Charlie became the only access point for Allied troops entering or leaving East Berlin.

Checkpoint Charlie chronicles the history of the Berlin Wall, and Checkpoint Charlie in particular, largely through eyewitness accounts. Beginning in 1961, with the overnight erection of barbed-wire barriers and a standoff between Soviet and American tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, MacGregor (To Hell on a Bike--Riding Paris-Roubaix, The Toughest Race in Cycling) traces the Wall's grim history through recollections of dismayed West Germans, GDR defectors, American and British military personnel, foreign journalists and spies. Checkpoint Charlie is available in time for the 30th anniversary of the bungled GDR press conference that led to thousands of East Germans crossing--and eventually destroying--the Berlin Wall. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer

Discover: Iain MacGregor captures the tense history of the Berlin Wall and its most famous gate, Checkpoint Charlie.

Scribner, $30, hardcover, 352p., 9781982100032

This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving

by David J. Silverman


"Serious, critical history tends to be hard on the living. It challenges us to see distortions embedded in the heroic national origin myths we have been taught since childhood." These words are how scholar of Native American, Colonial American and American racial history David J. Silverman begins This Land Is Their Land. It sets the stage for exactly what his book endeavors to do: confront the foundational American myth of Thanksgiving in time for the 400th anniversary of the "First Thanksgiving."

This text is an eye-opening account of an often ignored history--the real events that led up to what is taught broadly across the United States as the First Thanksgiving. By focusing on the Wampanoag people rather than Plymouth Colony's members and perspectives, Silverman, professor of history at George Washington University, brings forward the rationale for why some modern Native American people do not celebrate Thanksgiving but rather hold a Day of Mourning. Silverman explores the politics involving colonizers and the people who were there first, and gives an in-depth account of Wampanoag and other Indian histories, from contact and uneasy truces to the breaking of treaties and inflammation of further conflicts.

Thus, Silverman calls for contemporary Americans to revise this myth and to reconsider how the nation can better remember this history without continuing to silence people that still struggle with self-determination. This book serves as a much-needed challenge to the national origin myth of Thanksgiving. --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer

Discover: On the 400th anniversary of the First Thanksgiving, David J. Silverman reexamines and reconsiders the history and myths about the founding of Plymouth Colony.

Bloomsbury, $32, hardcover, 528p., 9781632869241

Social Science

The Witches Are Coming

by Lindy West


Start wielding rage like the weapon it is, Lindy West argues with her collection of cultural feminist essays, The Witches Are Coming. With her signature wit and snark, West flips on its head the "witch hunt" narrative spread by conservatives in the wake of the #MeToo movement. She picks apart the webs of power and complacency that have led to the crux of the "witch hunt" cries: namely, that those fighting for justice are crafting a baseless "mass hysteria." West, a New York Times columnist and the mind behind the Hulu comedy Shrill, counters with this: "There is power in saying, no, we will not settle down. We will not go back.... So fine, if you insist. This is a witch hunt. We're witches, and we're hunting you."

Some might argue West's book is an echo chamber, a gift for folks who already believe everything she is proclaiming, but West demands action from her readers and her critics alike. This isn't a book for plausible deniability.

Using seemingly unconnected observations from her career as a cultural critic--riffs on Gwyneth Paltrow's wellness empire, Guy Fieri's Guy's Grocery Games and Joan Rivers's self-deprecating comedy all make the cut--West weaves arguments both eviscerating and human. Not all will agree with her words, nor her ferocity when slinging them, but West finds popularity points laughable. As a woman and a self-proclaimed fat person, she's endured enough abuse that she's not here to spread platitudes. She's here to make magic from fury. Her arguments don't always land, but when they do, it's enough to make any reader want to take up spell-casting. --Lauren Puckett, freelance writer

Discover: This collection of feminist cultural critiques rips apart the status quo with ruminations on people including Donald Trump, Guy Fieri, Joan Rivers and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Hachette, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9780316449885

Psychology & Self-Help

Old Man Country: My Search for Meaning Among the Elders

by Thomas R. Cole


Given its title, it might be tempting for readers under Social Security age to dismiss Old Man Country: My Search for Meaning Among the Elders. That would be a mistake. Anyone who hopes to experience the blessings of longevity while also confronting its burdens will benefit from accompanying gerontologist Thomas R. Cole on his visits to a dozen wise men with hard-earned, firsthand knowledge of exactly what that means.

Cole (The Journey of Life) serves as director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at University of Texas Health Science Center. Between 2011 and 2017, he conducted a series of interviews with men in the "Fourth Age," the stage of life beginning roughly at age 80, and one that's been described as "a Black Hole--a vague, frightening, and shadowy cultural space that evokes denial when it doesn't provoke fear." In approaching his encounters with inhabitants of that territory, Cole, who's now 70, sought to "reclaim and enhance the humanity" of these men, most of whom, he clarifies, are white, Protestant, heterosexual and financially comfortable.

Cognizant of his approaching encounter with the Fourth Age, Cole generously shares pieces of his own story, including his painful divorce, illnesses and injuries, as he explains how his conversations with this group of eminent but deeply human men supplied him with "things to emulate and things to avoid, inspiring examples and cautionary tales." Readers who haven't spent a lifetime in the study of aging, as he has, should come away from these candid conversations with equally valuable lessons. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: A noted gerontologist explores life in the ninth decade and beyond.

Oxford University Press, $29.95, hardcover, 192p., 9780190689988

Nature & Environment

My Penguin Year: Life Among the Emperors

by Lindsay McCrae


Growing up on the outskirts of England's Lake District National Park, eight-year-old Lindsay McCrae was enthralled by nature and decided he wanted a career filming wildlife. A letter to a BBC nature program at age 14 resulted in him making a short film on badgers. From there his career took off, and he documented wolves in the Arctic and armadillos at the equator. McCrae's ultimate dream, to film emperor penguins in Antarctica, came true when the BBC Natural History Unit made that once-in-a-lifetime offer. The catch? He would need to prepare for a year, then be gone for 11 months.

Anyone who wonders what such an incredible and dangerous expedition entails will be enchanted by McCrae's chronicle of his time in the harshest climate on earth (reaching -60F degrees). My Penguin Year is a stunning and often gut-churning account of the lifecycle of thousands of emperor penguins from a "behind the lens" perspective. It also reveals the toll such a job takes on the participants--risk, confinement, isolation (from loved ones and medical treatment), and experiencing Mother Nature at her harshest.

McCrae carried a few added burdens: he married just before departing and his wife gave birth during his time away. His account of dedication and sacrifice, from both documentarian and penguin angles, is thoroughly compelling. The written version of McCrae's film (he won a BAFTA as director of photography for BBC's Dynasties) is an unforgettable, intimate story of survival. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: A filmmaker recounts his year spent documenting the delicate and treacherous lifecycle of Antarctica's regal emperor penguins.

Morrow, $27.99, hardcover, 304p., 9780062971364

Children's & Young Adult

Most of the Better Natural Things in the World

by Dave Eggers, illus. by Angel Chang


Dave Eggers, best known for his adult fiction, has previously written for kids, notably This Bridge Will Not Be Gray and Her Right Foot, but this is his first book for the pre-verbal crowd. Most of the Better Natural Things in the World is like a Richard Scarry word book for children of the Earth Day generation.

Each of 23 natural-world ID words--"Steppe," "Chaparral," "Foothills" and so on--sits on a spread; collectively, they're one vast unspooling landscape across which a tiger, toting a chair via a pink rope, makes its way. Dramatic moments arise as the tiger faces the untrammeled earth's challenges: there's the fjord above which the tiger clings to the end of the rope, the chair dangling perilously below. There are dunes across which the tiger plods, bent forward to counter the wind's resistance. The significance of the chair is finally explained at book's end: the adventurer arrives at a taiga (a what? Fear not: there's a back-of-book glossary) where there are three chairs, each occupied by a smiling tiger, around a table set for four.

For her picture book debut, Angel Chang supplies digitally tweaked mixed-media illustrations that have a hand-painted look. A gatefold devoted to "Vista" is slathered with fat strokes of purple, orange and gold conjuring sky; before it, the tiger is for once standing still, paralyzed with wonder. Readers of Most of the Better Natural Things in the World may adopt the same appreciative pose. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: Dave Eggers's stunning picture book introduces the youngest readers to words that identify the natural world's wonders.

Chronicle, $17.99, hardcover, 52p., 9781452162829

Song of the Crimson Flower

by Julie C. Dao


When romantic Tam plays his flute beneath her window, Lan feels "like a princess in the ancient ballads her father love[s]." If only Tam would get over the shyness that brings him to court her solely "in moonlit visits," Lan thinks her life would be perfect. Bao, "an orphan of no family," strives through hard work and relentless study to earn his place as apprentice to Tam's father, Master Huynh. Bao dreams of the person he cares for most, though she doesn't yet "know of his love." Although he has "no hope of winning her," he vows that the time has finally come for him to tell Lan the truth.

Bao confesses his deep feelings to Lan, explaining that he is actually the flute player, not the uninterested Tam; humiliated, Lan cruelly rejects the young "peasant" as unworthy. The deeply hurt Bao flees, hoping to find a legendary river witch who could "clear his mind" of Lan. When he finds the witch, she instead binds him to his flute with a curse that can be broken only if the person he loves declares she loves him in return before the next full moon. A now "desperately sorry" Lan insists on helping him break the curse before the spell becomes permanent and Bao loses his body forever.

Julie C. Dao weaves her Vietnamese-inspired folklore and imagery into a fresh, captivating fantasy that completes the duology begun with Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. Her heroes wrestle with family, class and uncontrolled power while finding ways to muster the strength it takes to do the right thing. At its heart, though, Song of the Crimson Flower is a magical love story. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI

Discover: Julie C. Dao crafts an enchanting stand-alone Vietnamese-inspired fantasy that is a companion to her two other YA books set in the same world.

Philomel, $18.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 12-up, 9781524738358

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