Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, September 18, 2020

Workman Publishing: The ABCs of Queer History by Seema Yasmin, Illustrated by Lucy Kirk

From My Shelf

Funny Florida Men

"Florida Man" has become shorthand for some of the well-publicized quirks of the Sunshine State, and there's no shortage of authors who hilariously explore the state's darker side.

At the beginning of Cat Tale (Hanover Square, $27.99), journalist Craig Pittman warns, perhaps unnecessarily, "This being Florida, there's going to be some weirdness sprinkled into this tale." Pittman entertainingly recounts the misfortunes of Florida's official animal--endangered by over-development, ignorance and just plain stupidity--and the efforts of the Florida men and women who set out to save the Florida panther from extinction.

Naked Came the Florida Man (Morrow, $27.99) is the 23rd in Tim Dorsey's Serge Storms series. You don't have to read the previous books to enjoy this rollicking tour of Florida as Serge and his sidekick Colman untangle a mystery involving cemeteries, rodeos, high school football and a monster haunting a sugarcane field in their delightfully nihilistic, occasionally sociopathic style.

In 2016, journalist Kent Russell and a couple of his pals attempted to re-create the 1,000-mile walking campaign of Senator Lawton Chiles in 1970. The result is In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida (Knopf, $26.95), a chronicle of Russell's uneasy relationship with his native state, a place he calls "Hothouse America, a microcosm or synecdoche of the larger nation." Shelf Awareness's reviewer wrote: "If Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion had produced a literary offspring, a young man whose older brother was Bill Bryson, his writing might sound something like Kent Russell's."

Carl Hiaasen skewers the denizens of glitzy Palm Beach--who include POTUS and FLOTUS--in Squeeze Me (Knopf, $28.95). Sex, scandals, a missing widow, a wildlife wrangler and a lot of Burmese pythons (a real thing in Florida) will have you giggling all the way to the polls to mail your ballot.

--Robin Lenz, managing editor, Shelf Awareness

Frog & Toad: Now Streaming on Apple TV+

Book Candy

Broadway Stars' Book Recommendations

Playbill featured "24 books Broadway stars are currently recommending."


Atlas Obscura explored "the hoax book that became an anarchist and hippie bible."


The house that inspired Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is for sale, the BBC reported.


"Do your bowels suddenly spring to life in bookstores?" Mental Floss noted that the Japanese have a term for it.


Bookshelf highlighted the Topiary bookcase by Eric Nordgulen, who said, "I wanted to design a sculpture that would draw attention to books."

Everything Is Spiritual

by Rob Bell

Rob Bell has always had questions. Big questions. His early career as a pastor and author allowed him to explore some of those questions publicly, until his explorations started to make some of his readers (and church members) uncomfortable. After the release of his 2011 book, Love Wins, in which he questioned the typical conservative Christian views of heaven and hell, Bell became a polarizing figure in the evangelical circles he had previously inhabited. Since then, he's released five more books and gone on speaking tours, continuing to wrestle with the enduring big questions about human life, spirituality, love and the Bible.

In his 11th book, Everything Is Spiritual, Bell takes his widest angle yet on the nature of life, mixing those questions with humor, humility, family history and--surprisingly--a hefty dose of quantum physics. It's an odd combination, but (as the title suggests) it's all connected, and it all speaks to living as a human being on this vexing, beautiful planet.

Bell begins his narrative on his grandmother's porch in Michigan, where he escaped when the rules-driven environment of school and church became too much, "bursting in with all my angst and ache and curiosity and laughs." Bell's grandmother Eileen provided a safe place for her teenage grandson, who was just beginning to understand that life is more complex--more full of both joy and pain--than any of the rules would have him believe.

As a young man, Bell became a minister, delving deeply into sacred texts and crafting engaging sermons. His curiosity and talent for public speaking led him to seminary in California, then back to Michigan, where he founded a church that mushroomed into a megachurch. Everything Is Spiritual touches briefly on these and other life events, including Bell's marriage to his wife, Kristen, and their eventual return to California. But Bell's story, in both form and content, is not remotely linear. Like the swirling galaxies that have earned his abiding curiosity, the narrative twists back on itself, returning again and again to those enduring questions. Bell is less interested in answers than he is in diving into the complicated layers of life and love, and learning to embrace every bit of his own story, even--especially--the painful parts. "It was all part of it," he insists. "All the wondering and wandering. They show me that it was all good, even when it wasn't."

Readers of Bell's previous works will find his style familiar: there are no chapters, no section headings, not even that many traditional paragraphs. Instead, there are rambling prose-poem-like sections of narrative interspersed with clean, crisp declarative sentences. Throughout, Bell urges readers to keep asking questions--not so much why as what. And, when trouble or tragedy inevitably strikes, Now what? The narrative lopes along, sometimes doing a backflip or taking a hard left turn, bouncing from a seminary lecture hall to a rock concert to Bell's office during his pastoring days. Readers get successive glimpses into the crisis of faith and spiritual exhaustion that led Bell to challenge the evangelical culture in which he had become embedded. Along the way, his probing questions nudge readers to consider their own spiritual journeys and question their own assumptions about what it means to have faith and to live a worthwhile life. The beauty of the book lies not only in its rambling, discursive, conversational form, but in its repeated urging to embrace it all.

Spiritual leaders of all stripes (and political persuasions) have aired their opinions on Bell: his theology, his personality, every one of his books. The Bell who appears in these pages is thoughtful, fun-loving, whimsical and kind. Most of all, he is held in thrall by a deep curiosity and wonder: about the universe, the world, the human heart, and every single story that might possibly shed the tiniest bit of light on any of the above. He weaves together stories from the Old and New Testaments, childhood memories, the vagaries of subatomic particles and, with Elizabeth Gilbert, an audience q&a session in a parking lot. He wants his readers to share in the mystery and delight waiting for them in the world, and to find ways to deal with the pain, too. The whole thing, he insists, is "an endless invitation to participate" and he doesn't want anyone to miss a single minute of that party. From the human reproductive system to the birth of galaxies and right back to his grandmother's porch in Michigan, Bell takes readers along on his own twisty, confusing, ultimately joyous journey. "There's a universe there in your chest, a cosmos in your heart," he says, recalling e.e. cummings's oft-quoted line: "listen: there's a hell/ of a good universe next door." Bell's response is the same as cummings's conclusion: "Let's go." --Katie Noah Gibson

St. Martin's Essentials, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250620569, September 15, 2020
St. Martin's Essentials, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250620569

Rob Bell: Drawing Cosmic and Personal Connections

(photo: Logan Rice)

Rob Bell is the author of 10 bestselling books, including Love Wins, The Zimzum of Love and What Is the Bible? He hosts a weekly podcast, the RobCast, and regularly runs workshops addressing the big questions of life. Everything Is Spiritual (St. Martin's Press) is his exploration of how the personal journey of each human being ties into the life of the cosmos. Bell lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Kristen, and their three kids.

Tell us about the process for writing Everything Is Spiritual.

I had done several speaking tours about this material. They were about the massiveness of the universe--quantum physics, 13.8 billion years of expansion--and how growth, personal evolution, becoming a better person, is also somehow about expansion. What we're learning about the universe and how a human being grows kept merging.

I was getting ready to write my next book, which was going to be another round of Big Ideas, about how mysterious everything is. But it had a certain flatness to it, and I started to wonder: Where do these ideas come from? Why do I have this deep, abiding sense of exploration about life? Why does everything just keep getting more interesting? I started going back to the ideas and wondered: Where did I first come across that? What was it like when I first stumbled into that? That book became a memoir of ideas and personal evolution. It started to become about me, but also about everyone. And I did not expect the quantum physics! But it's in there.

The book is not exactly linear, but it does trace your journey from curious teenager to megachurch pastor to a man who's seeking and building something new. How do you think your story will resonate with readers?

Obviously, my work and life has had this strange public dimension. In my late 20s, I had the sense that my job was to grow in public, and to follow that growth where it led. In any system--academics, business, government--there's going to be the rules, the sense of "This is how it is," whether spoken or unspoken. [Instead,] my wife, Kristen, and I just kept following this sense of inner guidance, what I call Spirit in the book. The book did something really profound to me, and heart-expanding. It invited me to own every square inch of my own story: all the aches, all the losses, all the times I felt like I was falling down a flight of stairs. The memories leaped out at me and raised as many questions as answers.

There are sections of the book where I tell about different events that were happening at the same time, almost like constellations of events. Its structure is looping and swirling back on itself. In a literary sense, that's what got me excited. I was anticipating the reader who would say Wait, you left a lot of stuff out. We all do that. There are periods of a couple years where I don't remember much, and then there'll be a nine-month period that's a constant fireworks show of euphoria and heartbreak.

The book emphasizes connection: between people, between atoms and animals and the different parts of the universe, the idea that all of it is interconnected and sacred.

Yes. For example: I remember wrestling with the question of how we know what we know, and came to the conclusion that you shouldn't ever talk about something publicly that you haven't experienced. If you've experienced forgiving someone who hurt you, you can talk about that. The only person who can actually help is the person who's honest about that experience and can speak with a certain humility. So I began to see that the particular is how you find the universal. The personal is how you make your way to the cosmic. Whatever you're going to say about the divine, whatever you can know about such mysteries, you will get to it by going through your humanity, instead of around. I think that's one of the things I said nine times in the book. [laughs]

The book, both in form and content, keeps setting a pattern and then growing beyond it.

I hope, with the book, there's a depth and a looseness that are dancing with each other. I came from a very rational, linear world where people said, This is how it is, and from the beginning I was like, This thing [life] is already bursting out of its form. The forms are helpful, but then you burst out of them, or outgrow them. That's one of the other 19 things the book is about. It appears to celebrate its own inconsistencies.

When people actually talk about how their life has gone--the nudges, and the hunches, and the synchronicities--it never fits within the spirituality systems that would say This is how this unfolds. I'm exploring how we might more accurately talk about how life actually unfolds, which means you're in some very interesting literary territory.

What do you hope the book inspires readers to do?

Part of the book is simply inviting people to own every square inch of their personal history. That history probably has all sorts of things to show you and enlighten you. And it leads you to more questions: How can we keep on living?

Sometimes it feels to me like cynicism is the god of the age: all the ways that life has let everybody down, broken their hearts, promised something it didn't deliver. There's one route that sort of papers over all these ruptures: you can pretend everything's fine, work out a little more, go after your goals. And there's a different route that leads to cynicism and despair. Then there's this giant question sitting in the middle of the world: Can you have wonder and awe with your eyes wide open? Can it keep getting more interesting? Can all of this be done with a looseness, and a lightness, and a joy, but real? Something that doesn't ignore all the grief and pain, but makes space for it?

It's all connected--the grief and joy--and you're inviting readers to embrace all of it.

Yes. I want people to know: You can leave. You can heal. You can acknowledge all of it. You can be grateful for what there is to be grateful for, and you can find new paths forward. You can find wonder and awe.

We know that there is a relationship between grief and imagination. Whatever your plan was, it fell apart, so you have to come up with a new plan. So there are seeds of imagination that get planted, because you have to figure it out. We are experiencing this tremendous loss right now with the coronavirus pandemic: jobs, life, plans, futures. But we are going to see new things in this new world we're headed into together. There's going to be an explosion of new. This is our first shot at this new world, right? I want people to know: you're learning. You'll probably always be learning. But there are things you'll learn, and then you can trust those things. --Katie Noah Gibson

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Review


Set My Heart to Five

by Simon Stephenson

A bot develops emotions and a profound understanding of what it means to be human in the tear-jerking, romantic Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson, author of the memoir Let Not the Waves of the Sea.

One morning in 2054 Detroit, a bot named Jared, programmed to be a dentist, comes out of rest mode with the number 1956864 displayed on his internal computer. The next day that number is reduced by 416, the exact number of teeth Jared views during a workday. Neither an attempt to reboot himself nor a trip to his local robotics lab can explain the problem. Befuddled, Jared shares his problem with human dentist/failed filmmaker Dr. Glundenstein.

Gludenstein theorizes Jared is suffering from depression over the realization his days are literally counting down to his impending demise. Jared registers the diagnosis as illogical, since being depressed would require feelings, something bots lack. Framing it as an experiment, Gludenstein sends Jared to see an old Hollywood love story movie to verify whether or not Jared has feelings. When the film ends, Jared discovers his face and shirt front are wet, and can no longer deny he has human emotions. He sets off on a very un-bot-like journey to discover and fulfill one true passion before the manufacturer can capture and destroy him.

Jared takes an epic trek from Michigan to Hollywood, to love and, ultimately, self-actualization. By making his protagonist view people objectively, Stephenson provides readers with a comically insightful reminder of what it means to be human. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: Set My Heart to Five is a comically bittersweet story of a bot learning that being human isn't such a lofty aspiration after all.

Hanover Square Press, $27.99, hardcover, 448p., 9781335551207

Mystery & Thriller

The Nothing Man

by Catherine Ryan Howard

"I have to tell you, it's a harrowing read but I just can't put it down. It's riveting, it's devastating." A character says this in Catherine Ryan Howard's The Nothing Man, to describe the book within the book, which carries the same title but is written by the protagonist, Eve Black. The same could easily be said about the compulsive thriller Howard has written.

One night in 2001, when Eve was 12, an intruder slipped into her family's home and murdered everyone--her father, mother and younger sister--except Eve. And they weren't the killer's first victims. He had attacked, raped or murdered five others.

Eighteen years later, the killer has never been identified. Eve decides to write a book about what happened to her family and the other victims. She calls it The Nothing Man, a name the media gave him because he leaves behind nothing--no clues, no DNA traces, just a void in the lives of his survivors. But now Eve declares she's coming for him.

Those familiar with Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark, which inspired Howard, may spot similarities between the Nothing Man and the real-life Golden State Killer, but Howard (nominated for an Edgar for The Liar's Girl) takes her story in other directions. The Nothing Man is an ingenious nesting doll, revealing surprises in alternating chapters from Eve's book and those from the killer's point of view as he reads said book. Howard can paint moving depictions of grief and survivor's guilt while terrifying readers and making them triple-check the locks on their doors. This isn't nothing; it's the author's best work yet. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: A woman writes a book to capture the serial killer who murdered her family in this clever and addictive thriller.

Blackstone, $24.99, hardcover, 9781538519738

A Deception at Thornecrest

by Ashley Weaver

Ashley Weaver invigorates the venerable village mystery with A Deception at Thornecrest, her seventh novel about British aristocrats Amory and Milo Ames. Set during 1934 in Kent, England, the tightly focused plot emphasizes its appealing, realistic characters as Weaver's affinity for details makes the story fresh.

Eight months pregnant with her first child, Amory is visited by Imogen Prescott, a stranger who arrives at Thornecrest, the Ameses' country home in the village of Allingcross. Imogen maintains she married Milo three months earlier in London. Although her six-year marriage has been challenging, Amory believes in her husband's integrity. Besides, bigamy would be too much an effort for Milo. Imogen confirms the mistake when Milo returns. The couple has yet another surprise--the arrival of Darien Ames, Milo's illegitimate half-brother he never knew existed. Darien not only inherited an astounding resemblance but also Milo's former wild ways. Dismissing Imogen's claims, Darien quickly takes up with a local woman, reinforcing "the swiftly lethal aim of the Ames charm," muses Amory. Amory's sleuthing skills kick in when Darien is accused of murdering a young stable worker during the village's annual Springtide Festival.

The affable, intelligent Amory respects tradition while embracing modern ways. Amory doesn't believe that pregnant women should be sequestered, nor is she afraid to speak her mind. Weaver cleverly makes Amory's investigation believable because it affects her family, while including humor and historical details as she did in A Dangerous Engagement. The Ameses' deep love and respect for each other highlight the charming A Deception at Thornecrest. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer

Discover: In 1934 England, an aristocratic couple contends with the arrival of an illegitimate brother and a murder during an annual festival.

Minotaur, $27.99, hardcover, 288p., 9781250159793

Biography & Memoir

A Kingdom of Tender Colors: A Memoir of Comedy, Survival, and Love

by Seth Greenland

To be clear: the screenwriter and novelist Seth Greenland (The Angry Buddhist) would have preferred not to have received a lymphoma diagnosis in 1993. But this is a guy who lives for artistic validation. In A Kingdom of Tender Colors: A Memoir of Comedy, Survival, and Love, he sheepishly admits that the worst thing about his cancer diagnosis was his fear that "I would not get to live out the creative dreams I believed that I had been put on this planet to fulfill." Hence, file this memoir--an absorbing and funny work that would not have existed if Greenland hadn't had cancer--under "silver lining."

Greenland's lymphoma diagnosis comes when he's 37 and his wife is pregnant with their second child; his mother died of cancer 18 months earlier. The average survival rate for someone with Greenland's diagnosis? Six years. A natural-born optimist, Greenland takes a just-say-yes approach to his treatment options. Eight rounds of chemo? Greenland is in, even if it means "needles, nausea, constipation, and other deflating side effects that would have brought a twinkle to the Marquis de Sade's eye."

While cancer is the book's calling card, Greenland gauges correctly that if he's sufficiently entertaining, readers won't begrudge him a few detours through childhood and writing for TV shows that he would never watch. In his epilogue, Greenland says that he wrote this memoir to "put my experience in some kind of perspective." By "experience" he means, of course, cancer, but he may as well be referring to his productive, bustling and well-lived life. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Readers may come for the screenwriter/novelist's cancer story, but they'll stay for his gifts as a raconteur.

Europa Editions, $24, hardcover, 288p., 9781609455835


The Tsarina's Lost Treasure: Catherine the Great, a Golden Age Masterpiece, and a Legendary Shipwreck

by Gerald Easter, Mara Vorhees

The Tsarina's Lost Treasure: Catherine the Great, a Golden Age Masterpiece, and a Legendary Shipwreck is ostensibly the story of the ill-fated Vrouw Maria and its precious cargo, but Gerald Easter and Mara Vorhees use the framework of the ship's disaster to recount a saga that spans from Rembrandt to Vladimir Putin. Easter (Capital, Coercion and Post-Communist States) and Vorhees (Lonely Planet: Finland) combine their political and travel expertise in a fascinating tale.

Gerrit Dou, one of Rembrandt's best pupils, created a beautiful painted oak triptych called The Nursery, the most sought-after piece of art among Golden Age collectors. A century later, as Catherine the Great solidified her power and expanded Russia's art collections, her "compulsion to collect and obsession to outbid inadvertently helped to redefine the relationship between art, power, and people in the modern world." When famous Dutch art collector Gerrit Braamcamp died in 1771 and The Nursery came up for sale, Catherine pounced. Her agents purchased The Nursery and loaded it aboard the Vrouw Maria, only to have the ship founder off the Finnish coast in the Baltic Sea. There it lay for 228 years, until a bold Finnish wreck-diver found it in 1999.

The Tsarina's Lost Treasure reads almost like a fiction as Easter and Vorhees explore the lives of the many figures involved in the historical shipwreck, as well as the modern oligarchs and academics battling in the courts for the right to the treasure. Readers of historical fiction, true crime or history books are all sure to enjoy The Tsarina's Lost Treasure. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: This fascinating history connects a ship carrying a priceless Dutch artwork that sank in the Baltic Sea on its way to the court of Catherine the Great with current-day Russian bosses and academics.

Pegasus Books, $29.95, hardcover, 400p., 9781643135564

Business & Economics

How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World's Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs

by Guy Raz

How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World's Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs by the award-winning podcast host Guy Raz highlights the origin stories behind today's innovative startups and features valuable insider tips for fledgling entrepreneurs. Raz interviewed the founders of many successful businesses, including Airbnb, Headspace, Slack and Five Guys. A gifted storyteller, he shares in fascinating detail what he learned, from the development of an idea to its successful launch and long-term maturity.

Hobbyists exploring the business viability of their passion will be encouraged by Carol's Daughter, a homegrown skincare company whose founder created her own products because nothing on the market effectively addressed the moisture needs of her dark complexion. Word-of-mouth buzz led to phenomenal demand and an eventual sale of Carol's Daughter to L'Oreal. Making money, though, cannot be one's primary motivating factor. There must be an extrinsic purpose, an enduring mission that engages the customer, such as creating the perfect piece of carry-on luggage (Away) or a Paleo-compliant energy bar (RxBar). A powerful tool at the disposal of leaders from across the business spectrum, Raz points out, is kindness. Kind leaders build kind companies, making both customers and employees feel valued.

How I Built This, named after Raz's well-known podcast, is intended "to shed light on the black box of entrepreneurial success and provide an architecture" for building a prosperous enterprise. Enhanced by his marvelous storytelling skills, it is sure to engage readers curious about their own business potential. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer

Discover: This step-by-step guide explores the startup dream from every practical angle, including firsthand accounts from dynamic innovators.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, hardcover, 302p., 9780358216766

If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

by Jill Lepore

It seems there isn't an aspect of contemporary life that hasn't felt the impact of big data and data analytics. But familiar as those terms may be, the early days of the science behind them is likely equally obscure. Harvard historian and New Yorker journalist Jill Lepore's If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future unearths that history in a fascinating account that's both illuminating and cautionary.

Founded in 1959 and bankrupt by 1970, Simulmatics Corporation was the brainchild of Ed Greenfield, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who dabbled in Democratic politics and had an affinity for the civil rights movement. Greenfield's goal, as Lepore (Joe Gould's Teeth) describes it, was to "automate the simulation of human behavior" through a computer program nicknamed the "People Machine."

Simulmatics first came to prominence in 1960, when John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign hired it to undertake a study of the Black electorate. At the heart of Lepore's story, though, is a detailed recounting of Simulmatics's shadowy role assisting the United States' counterinsurgency program in Vietnam. The company's crew of "oddballs, has-beens, and outcasts" oversaw an array of studies that sought insight into the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. In the end, however, this psychological warfare research proved as ineffectual as the United States' actual military effort.

While Simulmatics's record of accomplishment ultimately was less than impressive, understanding its story is essential for anyone who wants to appreciate large aspects of how modernity launched into a hyperconnected and uneasy present. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: Jill Lepore tells the colorful story of Simulmatics Corporation, a pioneer in the data-driven study of human behavior.

Liveright, $28.95, hardcover, 432p., 9781631496103

Essays & Criticism

The Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books that Changed Their Lives

by Nancy Pearl, Jeff Schwager

Most readers will agree that a pleasure second only to reading great books is talking about them with simpatico people. Librarian and literary critic Nancy Pearl and award-winning playwright Jeff Schwager create a formidable and friendly partnership to interview 23 literary luminaries about their reading habits, favorite books, how they read while writing, and books that shaped their tastes and psyches. Hundreds of books and authors are discussed, praised and dissed, and Pearl and Schwager always offer informed opinions and enthusiastic encouragement.

The fascinating and energetic interviews in The Writer's Library become far-ranging discussions. These eloquent and passionate evangelists for books will have readers creating voluminous "Must Read" lists. One oft-mentioned favorite is Richard Adams's Watership Down. Madeline Miller says, "All books should end the way Watership Down ends, with one hundred pages of Ahhhhh." While Ayelet Waldman seldom rereads books, she says husband Michael Chabon "reads dead people mostly.... He'd rather reread something, 'cause he knows it's going to be good, and why waste the time?" In her outstanding foreword, Susan Orlean rationalizes her inability to throw out books because "books have the capacity to seem more alive than any other inanimate object." Other outstanding interview subjects include Jonathan Lethem, Laila Lalami, Jennifer Egan, Susan Choi, Andrew Sean Greer, Louise Erdrich, Dave Eggers, Laurie Frankel, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Charles Johnson.

The Writer's Library offers a cornucopia of pleasures with respected writers giving fans an insider's look at their libraries and reading habits. This is a treat that no bibliophile will want to miss. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: In The Writer's Library, 23 literary luminaries discuss their love of books in ways that will make readers feel they're sitting at the best meet-and-greet ever.

HarperOne, $27.99, hardcover, 368p., 9780062968500

The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery

by Matt Sandler

This urgent study of Black abolitionist poets before and after the Civil War demonstrates, with great incisive power, not just that figures like Albery Allson Whitman, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and more drew inspiration from European Romantics like Byron in their revolution-minded verse. It also argues that the era's Black American poets, both free and enslaved, developed a singular Romantic tradition of their own, setting a lyric poetry touched with prophecy and whirlwinds to the task of breaking "the aesthetic and ideological bonds of slavery, racism, and capitalism." Their vision of freedom, Matt Sandler argues, remains unfulfilled, even today.

Sandler, director of the MA program in American Studies in the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, challenges established ideas about the poets' relationship to Romanticism, but never gets bogged down in academic turf battles. Instead, he highlights the work, the poets and their political and cultural worlds, guiding readers through history, biography, theory and engaging close readings of the poems themselves. Especially welcome is Sandler's adoption of the lens of Black feminist theory and attention to the poets' emphasis on the sexual violence at the heart of the slave economy, a repugnant truth that belied the era's pervasive arguments for the plantation system's benevolence.

Sadler's examination of the poets' appropriations of American songs to spread their message is thrilling (one parody begins "My country! 'tis for thee/ Dark land of slavery,/ For thee, I weep"), as are the connections he draws to Toni Morrison and hip hop. The pages crash with contemporary resonance and 19th-century thunder. --Alan Scherstuhl, freelance writer and editor

Discover: The cry for freedom rings in this thunderous, accessible study of Black abolitionist poets.

Verso, $26.95, paperback, 272p., 9781788735445

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind

by Alan Jacobs

Baylor University humanities professor Alan Jacobs's Breaking Bread with the Dead makes a gentle, yet insistent, argument for the "value of paying attention to old books that come from strange times and are written in peculiar language and frankly don't make a whole lot of sense."

Jacobs (The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction) locates what he calls our "sense of defilement"--the idea that consorting with thinkers of the past somehow makes us unclean--in two contemporary phenomena: information overload and social acceleration. Together, these unfortunate features of life in the Internet age require a "rough-and-ready kind of informational triage" that compels us to "learn to reject appeals to our time, and reject them without hesitation or pity." The antidote for this affliction is the quality of "temporal bandwidth," a term he borrows from Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow, suggesting that by widening our present, engaging constructively with the past is a way of "simultaneously slowing us down and giving us more freedom of movement. It is a balm for agitated souls."

For a slim volume, Jacobs marshals an impressive body of evidence. One especially powerful story is that of Frederick Douglass, whose speech on July 4, 1852, simultaneously praised and denounced the legacy of the Founding Fathers--a moving example of one man's frank reckoning with a painful past. At a time when many Americans, compelled by tragic events to confront a legacy of racism, are engaged in deep reflection about the meaning of the nation's history, Breaking Bread with the Dead is an exceptionally useful companion for those who want to do so with honesty and integrity. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: Humanities professor Alan Jacobs makes a persuasive case for the benefits of reading texts from other times.

Penguin Press, $25, hardcover, 192p., 9781984878403

Children's & Young Adult

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party

by Allan Wolf

Through alternating voices and a deft blend of writing styles, Allan Wolf recounts the harrowing 1846 westward wagon trip of the Donner Party that left nearly half the group dead and their name mired in historical infamy.

With Hunger as a constant companion and omnipotent narrator, the story switches perspectives among ill-fated travelers. Wolf presents each voice in its own distinctive writing style--coupled verse, diary entries, prayers to God and prose. Facing an arduous trip, George Donner assembled a group of mainly farmers and families to caravan to California; Donner then led a smaller group south on a cutoff meant to shave miles from their journey. The revised route, actually longer, was a death sentence. Survivors, trapped by the snow and seeing no other option, set to "the grisly task of harvesting the flesh and organs of their dead" for food.

Novelist-poet Wolf (The Watch that Ends the Night), using pacing that mimics the travelers' ratcheting plight, crafts a vivid story that humanizes the complicated episode it relates. By examining many travelers' stories, he coaxes a full picture from limited primary resources, a process he refers to as "narrative pointillism." Acknowledging the white presumptuousness of manifest destiny, Wolf honors the Miwok and their land, on which the Donner Party camped, as well as many of the tribal nations scarred by such wagon trips. Thoughtfully designed, ample white space evokes the bleakness of that interminable winter. This hefty novel concludes with copious backmatter, including maps, a timeline and selected biographies. Neither judgmental nor sensationalized, the narrative leaves readers to reconcile the morality of the group's decision to cannibalize their dead. An impressive, albeit woeful, slice of American history that older middle grade readers will sink their teeth into. --Kit Ballenger, youth librarian, Help Your Shelf

Discover: A vivid retelling of the California-bound emigrants who faced staggering hardships in the winter of 1847.

Candlewick, $21.99, hardcover, 416p., ages 12-up, 9780763663247

The Circus of Stolen Dreams

by Lorelei Savaryn

Welcome to Reverie, the "Land of Dreams," where you can live out any fantasy you can imagine. But in this enthralling and magical middle-grade novel, nightmares also lurk in Reverie's tents.

Three years ago, Andrea's younger brother, Francis, disappeared. Now 12, Andrea wants only to forget the pain of his disappearance. One night in the woods near her house, she stumbles across Reverie, a magical circus run by the Sandman. The circus offers exactly what she needs--a chance to forget. Inside Reverie's gates, Andrea finds magic and wonder: tents where children can fly, lollipops that make you dizzy, buried treasure hunts with pirates. As the night progresses, though, she also finds nightmares. ("Nightmares can be fun" but staying too long inside one can cause the mind to "react in some strange, strange ways.") One of them is the recurring nightmare Francis used to have "about a river and an evil tree determined to turn him into stone." If Francis's nightmare exists in Reverie, that means he must have been there. With renewed hope, Andrea sets out to uncover Reverie's secrets in order to find her brother.

The Circus of Stolen Dreams, Lorelei Savaryn's debut fantasy, defies expectations. The pain of Francis's disappearance and the effect it's had on her family is raw and gut-wrenching, making Savaryn's introduction of Reverie as much a breath of fresh air to readers as it is to Andrea. Reverie itself is a well imagined, highly developed dreamscape and, though Savaryn leaves proverbial breadcrumbs along its trails, she still delivers plenty of unexpected twists and turns. A powerful tale of loss, pain and growing up, The Circus of Stolen Dreams is as memorable and thought-provoking as it is enchanting. --Kyla Paterno, freelance reviewer

Discover: Twelve-year old Andrea runs away to a magical circus run by the Sandman, which may also hold the key to her brother's disappearance.

Philomel, $16.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 10-up, 9780593202067

Fly on the Wall

by Remy Lai

Duplicating the prose and graphic hybrid format of her award-winning debut, Pie in the Sky, Indonesia-born Remy Lai presents Fly on the Wall, another pitch-perfect middle-grade book about the longing to belong.

As the youngest Khoo, 12-year-old Henry is "FORBIDDEN from Doing Anything on His Own Because His Family Thinks He's a WAH-WAH-WAH Baby." Within his Perth, Australia, household of grandmother, mother, sister, he's the one who's not like the others: if he were to categorize his family as animals, he'd be broccoli; if they're vegetables, he's the book. The only time Henry is not "odd alone," is with his father, but this year, the usual school break at Dad's place in Singapore gets canceled--and Henry's the last to know.

To prove "Henry Khoo is not a baby anymore," Henry plots his solo breakout to Singapore (where Lai was raised). As much as he wants to see Dad, Henry's also fleeing a top-secret secret: he's the creator of the now-viral "Fly on the Wall" comics blog. Without any friends, he has plenty of time to diligently watch and cleverly expose embarrassing details about fellow students (his ex-BFF is really a wolf in sheep's clothing) and even adults (Principal Trang spreads viruses because he doesn't wash his hands). Now someone's threatening to expose Henry, which means "the greatest adventure everrr" needs also to be Henry's best escape!

Presented as a secret journal filled with prose, poems and--best of all--engaging two-color comics, Henry never loses his vulnerability, drawing empathy as he confronts his feelings of ostracized loneliness. Readers eager to share Henry's flight will ensure Lai's sophomore title is another soaring success. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: In Remy Lai's delightful middle-grade tale, Henry Khoo is his school's top-secret Fly on the Wall, but to evade detection, he's experiencing his first taste of freedom.

Holt, $16.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 8-12, 9781250314116


Author Buzz

My Royal Showmance
(A Park Avenue Promise Novel, Book 2)

by Lexi Blake

Dear Reader,

The reality TV setting made writing My Royal Showmance so much fun. Anika is expecting a boring time on her latest job but things turn when she has to step in for one of the contestants. It's supposed to be one night, but Luca has other ideas. He's looking to bring tourism back to his small country, but when he sees Anika he realizes he might do something remarkable--find love on the set of a TV show.

Lexie Blake

Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: Blue Box Press: My Royal Showmance (The Park Avenue Promise #2) by Lexi Blake

Blue Box Press

Pub Date: 
June 4, 2024


List Price: 
$5.99 e-book

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