Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Poisoned Pen Press: That Night in the Library by Eva Jurczyk

From My Shelf

Jordan Scott: I Talk Like a River

Jordan Scott

When I was a boy, my dad would sometimes pick me up from school on "bad speech days" and take me down to the river. On those days, my mouth would just stop working. Every word was painful, the laughter from classmates unbearable. I just wanted to be quiet.

One particular day, while watching the water move against the shore, my dad said: "You see how that water moves, son? That's how you speak."

Stuttering is often mocked because it is seen as unnatural. For many, listening to and watching someone stutter is not a comfortable experience because language and sound are stretched to their limits. Strange noises burst from a contorting mouth, and what the listener thinks of as fluency or "normal speech" explodes. To stutter is to be dysfluent, and fluency, my speech therapist used to say, "is the ultimate goal."

But at the river, I learned to think differently about fluency. The river has a mouth, a confluence, a flow. The river is a natural and patient form, forever making its way toward something greater than itself. Yet as the river moves, it stutters, and I do, too.

My dad took me to the river to feel less alone. When he pointed to the river, he gave image and language to talk about something so private and terrifying. In doing so, he connected my stuttering to the movements of the natural world, and I delighted in watching my mouth move outside of itself.

Sometimes, I want to speak without worrying; sometimes I want to speak with grace, finesse and with all those words you can think of for "smooth." But that is not me.

I talk like a river. --Jordan Scott

Jordan Scott is the author of the children's book I Talk Like a River (Neal Porter, $18.99)

Book Candy

Travel Titles in a Non-Travel Time

Marriott Bonvoy Traveler recommended "17 books and podcasts to sate your inner traveler."


On language: Fast Company noted "6 Covid-19 terms that would have made no sense in January."


Anthony Anaxagorou shared his top 10 books about creative writing with the Guardian.


"Shakespeare First Folio fetches a record $10 million at auction," the BBC reported.


"What caused the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe?" Open Culture wondered.

Trowbridge Road

by Marcella Pixley

Marcella Pixley's latest middle-grade novel is at once a glorious celebration of the power of imagination and a heartrending cautionary tale about the danger of keeping certain secrets. Written with compassion, eloquence and a profound understanding of the ways physical and mental illness can rack a family, Trowbridge Road is positively luminous. 

When 11-year-old June Bug Jordan meets Ziggy Karlo in the summer of 1983, they are two terribly lonely children with many "things [they] don't talk about." June Bug's father died last year from a not-yet-understood illness called AIDS, and her mother Angela's mental illness is spiraling out of control: Angela obsesses over the possibility of germs coming through the cracks in the walls or on the groceries June Bug's uncle drops off every week. An inveterate observer (and tree climber), June Bug gets out of her sterile house when she can and begins to secretly watch Ziggy and his mother and grandmother, Nana Jean, from a copper beech tree in their backyard. Ziggy is staying with Nana Jean while his mother, a victim of domestic abuse, struggles to regain control of her life. He has long red hair, purple T-shirts with unicorns and a white ferret named Matthew--and a history of being bullied. He looks to be on track to being picked on again, this time by kids on Trowbridge Road, although Nana Jean is a fiercer protector than his troubled, distracted mother. Once they meet, June Bug thinks she and Ziggy "fit just fine" together.

With their shared sense of magic, the friends find a touching connection. In marvelous scenes of mystical imagination, they conjure a dragon-filled "ninth dimension" from high up in the copper beech and deep within a cellar hole sanctuary they call Majestica. In the tree, June Bug tries to make leaves move with her mind. Telekinesis, Ziggy says, "is not unusual for nomads of the ninth dimension." He tells her, "I'm with you. Can you feel me? I'm bringing you up into the branches. I'm lifting you." Having mothers who love them but don't know how to "make it stick" means the children must find another heart that knows them. They find that heart in each other, and also in June Bug's uncle and Ziggy's grandmother. As their friendship grows, so does their strength. Still, the secrets they carry weigh heavily.

June Bug's home-bound mother would like her daughter to stay in every Saturday to disinfect the house, following rules that include "Germs from the walls can fall to the counters, can fall to the floor, can get trapped beneath your feet and then spread back into the rest of the house, so you always do the first floor last with a brand-new bucket of bleach." The ever-ready bleach is also used to clean what her mother calls the "disgustingness" off June Bug when she returns home with the smell of the outside world on her skin and in her mouth. But June Bug begins finding ways of resisting her mother's compulsive behavior. She secretly fills a backpack with "Necessaries" for scouring the outside world off her skin before coming home: carrot scraper, letter opener, mouthwash, Q-tips and, of course, a jar of bleach. Keeping the almost anthropomorphized Backpack close at hand, she feels safe playing in the trees, grass and mud with Ziggy. But even the Necessaries can't keep the real world from eventually entering June Bug's home.

When the three generations of Ziggy's family, plus June Bug, come together in an explosive scene one morning, June Bug receives an unexpected gift. She learns that "a mother and daughter could be angry at each other. They could be furious. They could even hate each other for minutes or even sometimes years. But then they could sit at the kitchen table together on a sunny morning and eat breakfast, and they could swallow the food and feel full." Living as she does inside a silent secret, June Bug is stunned at this revelation.

Trowbridge Road is the kind of all-absorbing book that, at the end, leaves a reader startled to discover that the real world has been going on outside its pages all the while. June Bug's first-person narrative keeps readers squarely behind the eyes of a bewildered, grieving, growing 11-year-old. She, along with every other central character, is multilayered, authentic and vividly depicted. As in Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, the interplay between real and imagined worlds is seamless and as natural as the friendship between kindred souls. The scenes in the ninth dimension will have many readers longing to become nomads with June Bug and Ziggy, even as they suspect that one only travels in that world to escape this one. Those who know from personal experience "what happens to a home when it becomes a holding place for... secrets" will ache for the two young friends as they channel their pain and confusion in the best way they know how: through their imagination and connection with people who know how to make their love stick. --Emilie Coulter

Candlewick Press, $17.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781536207507

Marcella Pixley: Reflecting Complicated Families

Marcella Pixley is the author of Without Tess, Ready to Fall and Freak. She keeps her audience (and muses) close at hand by teaching writing to middle schoolers in Massachusetts, where she lives with her family. Recently, she spoke with Shelf Awareness about her unforgettable and intensely personal and emotional novel, Trowbridge Road (Candlewick, October 6, 2020).

Trowbridge Road takes place in Newton Highlands, Mass., where you grew up. Were there details or themes in the book that were influenced by your life?

There were so many details that were influenced by my life, and this is one of the reasons the book is so important to me. I had a pet ferret. I played cello. I lived inside my imagination. My mother dealt with depression and, from the time I was 11 years old, I suffered with obsessive compulsive disorder. Because my father was quite ill with a serious heart condition, I often obsessed about death and dying, and I yearned for the attention of my mother, who was sometimes distracted by her own struggles as she dealt with my father's illness. Newton Highlands seemed like a perfect neighborhood filled with perfectly happy people who seemed connected and satisfied. But no neighborhood is perfect. In reality, all families are complex and fragile. I wrote Trowbridge Road so that children in complicated families will have a chance to see a reflection of their own experience and maybe find the courage to tell their own stories.

Why did you decide to set Trowbridge Road in the 1980s, during the AIDS crisis?

I grew up during the 1980s, when AIDS was first coming into the public's attention. I wanted to write about the combination of ignorance, hysteria and silence that surrounded those years. People knew you could catch HIV. They knew that it killed you. But everything else about it seemed to be shrouded in misinformation and fear. The silence and fear surrounding AIDS was fueled by homophobia. When I started work on Trowbridge Road, I was interested in exploring the damage of silenced voices and silenced identities. I wanted to explore how secrets can shatter a family. June Bug's father was never able to express who he was. It takes enormous bravery to be true to yourself, even now in 2020. Even though we have made progress since the 1980s, the problems of bias and prejudice and the stigma of silence are still very much present-day issues. We still live in a world where it is difficult for many people to express their own authentic truths.

In spite of her mother's mental decline, June Bug keeps her spark of agency, refusing to give in completely to her mother's obsessive-compulsive behavior and demands. What gives her that strength?

Every time June Bug disappears into her make-believe world, she is feeding her spirit and reminding herself that she is strong. Another thing that gives her strength is the nurturing relationships she forges with Ziggy, Uncle Toby and Nana Jean. Each of these characters feeds her (both literally and figuratively) throughout the novel. June Bug discovers that when our families are in crisis, sometimes the love we need can come from outside of our homes. The concept of "family" can be wide enough and generous enough to include those we meet along the way. 

Can you talk about the line between reality and fantasy? To some extent, all the characters walk that line, for a range of reasons and with varying outcomes. 

Sometimes the line between fantasy and reality is blurred as a result of undiagnosed mental illness, as in the case of Angela Jordan, who is crippled by her fears. Sometimes it's as a result of family secrets. And then, of course, it is blurred by the sheer power of creativity and imagination. These children are resilient. They have the ability to lose themselves in make believe. When June is by herself, her imagination nurtures her. She can watch her neighborhood from the top of a tree and imagine that she is the one being cuddled and fed. When she is lying in her bed, she can imagine that she is traveling along a crack in the ceiling, marching away from her troubles. And then, once she and Ziggy become friends, the two of them become "nomads" who are able to cross the line between fantasy and reality whenever they want to. It is a power that gives them strength and hope.

June Bug learns that families can tell painful truths, be imperfect and get angry with each other but "the floor will not open up to swallow them."

All families are imperfect. They reach for each other sometimes and miss despite their best intentions. This doesn't mean they are horrible or evil people. It doesn't mean they don't love each other. It just means they are broken and fragile and not always able to get it right even when they want to. There is a pivotal scene where Jenny Karlo confronts Nana Jean about something important that happened when both of them were much younger. June Bug watches this mother and daughter fight with each other. She watches them tell the truth to each other about what hurt. She watches them express their fury, their disappointment and their bravery--and when it's over she sees that they can still love each other. They can heal from this. They can become stronger and happier as a result of the truths they finally tell. 

Do your students read your books?

My students are the best readers of my books, especially when I am drafting something brand new. I lead a writing group for teens called Writers' Guild during lunch and recess. In this group we talk together about the writing process. We set goals. We work on our own projects, and we give each other honest feedback. I read early chapters of Trowbridge Road to my sixth- through eighth-graders in Writers' Guild, and the feedback they gave me inspired me to keep going. My students are an everyday reminder that my readers are real human beings who have their own stories to tell. --Emilie Coulter

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: Maynard Solomon

Maynard Solomon, "a musicologist and record producer best known for his influential, lucidly written biographies of Beethoven and Mozart, as well as a hotly debated scholarly article on Schubert's sexuality," died September 28 at age 90, the New York Times reported. Solomon's 1977 biography of Beethoven, revised and reissued in 1998, "offered fresh, meticulously researched accounts of his life and perceptive yet mostly nontechnical discussions of his compositions," the Times wrote, adding that "his approach resonated outside the realm of classical music." Reviewing Beethoven Essays (1988), Times music critic Donal Henahan described Solomon as "one of the most persuasive voices on behalf of the perilous intellectual voyage known as psychobiography." Solomon's Mozart: A Life was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in biography.

In 1950, with a $10,000 loan from their father, Solomon and his brother, Seymour, founded Vanguard Records, which, along with its Bach Guild label, "released an impressively diverse catalog of valuable recordings, especially of overlooked works, and issued pivotal albums of folk music, blues and jazz" as well as classical works. Solomon's final book, Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination (2004), is available in paperback from the University of California Press ($31.95).

Book Review


Shelter in Place

by David Leavitt

Shelter in Place by David Leavitt (The Two Hotel Francforts) delivers a cutting view of elite white angst after the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump. Eva and Bruce Lindquist--"affluent New York liberals, not old money but not new money, either"--are hosting a dinner in their Manhattan apartment. Their guests are shocked at the election results, certainly, but Eva is beyond consolation, and attending the Women's March after inauguration isn't the solution she has in mind. "I've been thinking about it all day," she tells the group. "Where in the world is there a place where I won't even hear an echo of that cheering? And then I hit on it. Venice."

Eva's entitlement is, of course, a shield. Alec, the friend who acts as her foil, scoffs. "Does she honestly believe... that on a day-to-day basis it'll make even an iota of difference to her life?" Her friends, who (unlike her) have jobs and other concerns, are "letting Eva have our hysterics for us." There are subtle ironies, as when it's revealed Eva didn't even vote in the election she now cares so deeply about. Bruce, Eva's long-suffering husband, has been content to stay in her shadow but finds, unexpectedly, another woman with whom his own emotions take center stage.

Leavitt, using sharp social observations softened by humor, underscores the often well-meaning but impotent actions of the moneyed class. Readers looking for a contemporary plot, colorful characters and sly wit will enjoy this topical novel. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: This slyly observed novel takes place after the election of Donald Trump sparks fear and concern in a group of elite Manhattanites.

Bloomsbury, $27, hardcover, 384p., 9781620404874

Father Guards the Sheep

by Sari Rosenblatt

Within the eight interconnected stories that make up Sari Rosenblatt's perceptive debut collection, Father Guards the Sheep, ordinary people search for a sense of belonging. In the opening "Daughter of Retail," Ellen, a girl filled with self-doubt, becomes a reluctant employee at her father's business. She realizes that surviving necessitates a certain type of invisibility: "leaving the shell behind and taking the head with you." "Miss McCool" demonstrates Rosenblatt's proficiency at weaving a common thread among stories. Ellen, now an adult, can't shake her insecurities. Although she's graduated college and lives on her own, she's still adrift: "If I dozed for a while then woke, my room seemed strange. I couldn't name things.... I didn't seem to belong to me."

The yearning for belonging continues in "The New Frontier." Joel, often ignored, and his distant father are driving home from school. He looks at "houses with lights on in every room" and their inhabitants, "looking like they belonged exactly where they were." In the title story, "Father Guards the Sheep," Esther, a grown woman who lives at home, firmly believes she belongs there. But when her mother suggests other living arrangements, Esther thinks, with a wry comment, "my mother started interfering with the experience of being with my mother," and tells a desperate lie with deep repercussions.

Rosenblatt's unclouded and often gently humorous prose, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, succeeds in showing how profound inner lives can be. Fans of big-hearted stories will savor this collection. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: This clear-eyed debut story collection finds ordinary people searching for a sense of belonging in an often uncooperative world.

University of Iowa Press, $17, paperback, 152p., 9781609387440

Mystery & Thriller

Goodnight Beautiful

by Aimee Molloy

This review should be only one sentence: it's best to start reading Aimee Molloy's clever Goodnight Beautiful knowing as little as possible. Readers should go in blind--heck, even skip this review--but if they need more convincing, here are a few more details.

Newlyweds Sam and Annie move from Manhattan to Chestnut Hill, N.Y., to take care of his ailing mother. Sam, a psychologist, starts a private business and almost right away attracts patients, partly due to a local magazine newspaper profile showing how handsome and charming he is. Then he disappears during a storm, and everything readers think they know is turned on its head.

The unreliable narrator is a familiar trope, but Molloy takes it to the next level. It's almost impossible to see the major revelations coming, and when they do, they might cause whiplash and double takes, as one tries to comprehend what just happened and flips back through pages to reread sections. Red herrings and plot manipulations are often obvious, especially to well-versed thriller readers, but Molloy pulls off sleights of hand like an expert magician. It's not all about the twists, however. With short, brisk chapters in alternating points of view, the author takes her time establishing who Sam and Annie are, delving into topics such as trust, loneliness and parental attachment. The characters in Goodnight Beautiful might be conflicted, but Molloy knows exactly what she's doing, with them and her audience. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: In this cunning psychological thriller, a newlywed couple moves to upstate New York and encounters some extreme unpleasantries.

Harper, $27.99, hardcover, 304p., 9780062881922

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Once and Future Witches

by Alix E. Harrow

Alix E. Harrow (The Ten Thousand Doors of January) enters the ranks of the growing feminist witch genre with The Once and Future Witches, an expansive, angry and ultimately hopeful historical fantasy novel set in an alternate-history 1893 New Salem, 200 years after the (fictional) complete destruction of Salem.

The initially estranged Eastwood sisters represent three archetypal witches and women: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, though Harrow makes clear that every woman is not just one thing. Eldest sister and librarian Bella is the Crone, often found researching spells and acting as the voice of reason. Pregnant middle sister Agnes is the Mother, at times hesitant to enter or continue the fight. Much younger Juniper, half-feral and wildly optimistic, takes on the role of a warrior Maiden, murdering their abusive father and reuniting the sisters at the beginning of the novel; she is the glue that holds them together.

Harrow's world-building is intricate, and the plot is full of smaller battles and acts of rebellion, but her protagonists are complex women with clear motivations. The Once and Future Witches deals heavily with feminist themes, including women's suffrage, sexual harassment and legal oppression, but Harrow also works to broaden the scope beyond white feminism. Harrow's diverse cast of secondary characters are working toward equity in other spheres: the labor movement and unions, Black civil rights, sex work, and immigrant and LGBTQ+ experiences.

And though Harrow never pretends that change is immediate or easy, in the world she's created, witching is inside everyone, meaning that the power to effect change is within the grasp of all. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels

Discover: Readers looking for a feminist alt-historical fantasy about reclaiming witchcraft and taking down the dominant power structures will be riveted.

Redhook, $28, hardcover, 528p., 9780316422048

Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Tales of Horror

by Lincoln Michel, Nadxieli Nieto, editors

In sinister tales brimming with suspense, this slim yet potent collection of flash fiction probes humanity's dark side and the horrors born of global crises.

In Tiny Nightmares, edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto (coeditors of Tiny Crimes), each entry conjures a creepiness that lingers. Classic body horror and mainstays of speculative fiction chill via eerily original scenarios--a dismembered corpse is revealed by melting snow, a decaying body is willfully ignored by a partying coterie, ants carry home a vampire's severed fingers. Explorations of social and technological concerns--a horrifying solution to global warming, a rideshare passenger with unconventional luggage, a woman's (literally) haunting social media history--add a modern twist.

The frightening volume takes what is dreaded most and gives it life. It closes the gap between reality and nightmare, allowing deep-seated fears to manifest--a predatory man, a murderer on a dating app. In one particularly unsettling passage, an officer muses on how someone handcuffed in a police car could shoot themself, while footnotes reference true accounts of people of color whose deaths mirror this experience.

The 40-odd pieces span numerous subgenres, including sci-fi, occult, paranormal and even one choose-your-own-adventure. Authors vary their tones, some sardonic and deadpan, and others as apprehensive as readers will be, even as they succumb to the lure of the next page. With severely unhappy endings and unsavory imagery, Tiny Nightmares is the rare horror collection that will distress the hardest of hearts. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

Discover: A twisted and terrifying flash fiction collection about haunts both real and imagined.

Black Balloon Publishing, $16.95, paperback, 304p., 9781948226622

Graphic Books

Invisible Differences: A Story of Asperger's, Adulting, and Living a Life in Full Color

by Julie Dachez, trans. by Edward Gauvin, illus. by Mademoiselle Caroline

In her enormously affecting comics debut, Invisible Differences, French activist Julie Dachez introduces her autobiographical stand-in, 27-year-old Marguerite. Marguerite's daily life is most comfortable when she abides by her familiar rituals: wear soft clothes, depart for work at 7:30 a.m., grab her daily spelt roll at the same bakery en route. Any interruptions--casual conversations, too much noise, social engagements--can cause anxiety, exhaustion, immediate withdrawal. Her colleagues, her cousin, her lover seem incapable of comprehending her boundaries. Her need for "some answers" to her uncontrollable reactions eventually leads to information about Asperger's syndrome; the recognition is instant. Cautious new hope sends her on a long journey toward diagnosis, awareness and lifesaving acceptance.

With Marguerite as guide, Dachez, with a Ph.D. in social psychology, appends almost 20 pages about "What Is Autism," offering history, explanations, recommendations and resources. She finds an ideal visual partner in Mademoiselle Caroline, who initially appears on the pages as a bookseller, in whose shop Marguerite discovers a haven for information and friendship. Dachez deems Caroline the "perfect artist... able to turn [her] script into images with such fidelity and finesse." Caroline's brilliant use of color relies on mostly black-and-white to capture Marguerite's routine-reliant calm, then casting various hues to enhance reactions--agitating reds, familiar blue and discomforting yellows. As Marguerite's self-awareness develops, so, too, does Caroline's palette, aptly adding vibrancy in parallel with Marguerite's growth. Beyond author and illustrator, the opening credits page is notably crowded with additional collaborators, including prodigious translator Edward Gauvin and a sensitivity read by Ashanti Fortson. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: French activist Julie Dachez's U.S. comics debut details her lifesaving Asperger's syndrome diagnosis and its enlightening aftermath.

Oni Press, $19.99, hardcover, 196p., 9781620107669

Biography & Memoir

150 Glimpses of the Beatles

by Craig Brown

With a nod to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," satirist Craig Brown (Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret) examines the Beatles through kaleidoscope eyes in this wildly imaginative and tremendously entertaining biographical collage. In 150 non-chronological chapters, Brown picks pivotal events and people important to the band and devotes an entire chapter to each.

With nearly 200 books previously published on the Beatles and its four members, Brown delights in sorting through conflicting versions of band folklore--such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney's first meeting in 1957, and whether Lennon and gay manager Brian Epstein ever consummated their relationship. Even fans who have read numerous books on the Beatles will enjoy Brown's sharp eye for fresh details and sharp tongue in his retelling. Fans know Pete Best is considered "the fifth Beatle," but Brown offers a whole chapter on the sixth Beatle: drummer Jimmy Nicol, who replaced an ailing Ringo Starr for 10 days during the Beatles' 1964 Australian tour. The final chapter is one of its most compelling: told in reverse chronological order, it details Brian Epstein's 1967 suicide. It begins days after his funeral when two additional suicide notes are found and backtracks through his life to 1961, when he first saw the fledgling group perform and recognized their potential.

150 Glimpses of the Beatles is compulsively readable, and Brown's love and admiration of the band shines on every page. His perceptive take on a treasure trove of stories creates an indelible, full-bodied biography of one of the most important bands in music history. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: In 150 short chapters, Craig Brown creates a witty and wildly entertaining biography of the Beatles, capturing their exuberance, talent and social significance.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, hardcover, 592p., 9780374109318

We're Better Than This: My Fight for the Future of Our Democracy

by Elijah Cummings, James Dale, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings

Elijah Cummings's We're Better Than This is part memoir, part behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of American democracy and part call to action. That last piece is, perhaps, the most crucial concept readers can take from the life Cummings dedicated to public service.

Though Cummings began the work on this book himself, he and James Dale were unable to complete the project prior to the congressman's death in 2019. Dale, along with Cummings's widow, Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, completed the work posthumously to honor Cummings's wish to share his story with his nation, working diligently, Dale notes, "to make sure that this book was true to his vision and his wishes." The result is remarkable, capturing not only Cummings's stories but his voice (an effect further enhanced in the audio version, narrated by Laurence Fishburne, also from HarperCollins).

We're Better Than This takes its title from an oft-repeated phrase in Cummings's speeches, in which he displayed a righteous outrage at the state of American democracy in the 21st century. Though Cummings himself died before much of his work could be completed--to repair the damage he saw--his own words can be a comfort and a clarion call to act in trying times: "When it seems like you can't do anything, do something. Don't say it's too big or too oppressive to overcome. Start. Try. Now." He started the work--and now it's up to us to take it from here. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: Published posthumously, the memoir of the late Representative Elijah Cummings offers hope and an urgent call to action to protect U.S. democracy.

Harper, $28.99, hardcover, 272p., 9780062992260


Chicago's Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City

by Carl Smith

In October 1871, fire swept through Chicago, destroying much of the 40-year-old city in a few days and leaving 90,000 people homeless. In Chicago's Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City, urban historian Carl Smith (City Water, City Life) tells the story of the fire and Chicago's astonishing recovery, as well as how the disaster has played into Chicago's self-image over the 150 years since it occurred.

Smith's description of the fire's race through the city is gripping. Though readers already know how the story ends, he creates narrative tension through a series of vignettes based on the memories of those who fled the fire--including the long-maligned Mrs. O'Leary. (Spoiler alert: Smith demonstrates convincingly that neither O'Leary nor her cow were responsible for the disaster.)

His discussion of why Chicago was vulnerable to fire and how it rebounded so quickly are equally fascinating. The city was growing rapidly, but the local government was unwilling to listen to warnings about the potential danger of fire. Smith explores the city's divisive class, religious and ethnic differences, the struggles for political control resulting from those differences, and the outpouring of international support after the fire. He also considers innovations that affected the response to the fire, including the creation of professional fire departments and the rise of a popular press.

Chicago's Great Fire is a colorful and careful account of the growth and regrowth of an American city. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: A thought-provoking and lively account of the physical, political and social impact of a disaster on a community.

Atlantic Monthly Press, $28, hardcover, 9780802148100

Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin

by Megan Rosenbloom

The history of a macabre practice, and the ethical questions it raises, are revealed in Dark Archives, an engaging chronicle of a shadowy aspect of clinical medicine.

As a librarian and a leader of the Death Positive Movement, Megan Rosenbloom is the ideal guide to anthropodermic bibliopegy--binding books in human skin. Such a ghoulish practice can exist only in the cruelest of circumstances, like Nazi Germany, right? Wrong. As medical practitioners became a privileged class, "the medical profession lost sight of the patient as a person in favor of a patient as a collection of symptoms and manifestations, or a soulless cadaver on a dissecting table."

Using a process called peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF), Rosenbloom travels the world to test books that allege to be anthropodermic, providing a fascinating window into the lives of those involved along with context for understanding such a gruesome undertaking. John Stockton Hough, for instance, bound three medical books using the skin of Mary Lynch, the victim of tuberculosis. The troubling story of Crispus Attucks, a Black man whose murder at the Boston Massacre marked the beginning of the American Revolution and whose skin was allegedly used to bind a notebook, reveals the ugly history of racism in medicine that continues to this day. And readers learn about the long history of grave robbers who provided doctors and medical students with cadavers to dissect and partition.

Despite the grisly nature of the proceedings, Dark Archives succeeds precisely because Rosenbloom respects the books for their research value as well as the people whose skin was used to bind them, often without their consent. --Frank Brasile, librarian

Discover: The practice of binding books in human skin provides engrossing insight into the history of modern medicine.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, hardcover, 288p., 9780374134709

Children's & Young Adult

Every Color of Light: A Book About the Sky

by Hiroshi Osada, trans. by David Boyd, illus. by Ryôji Arai

Rainstorms will never look the same again after a mesmerizing trip through the forest with Japanese poet Hiroshi Osada as the guide. Combined with the marvel of Ryôji Arai's dazzling illustrations of nature, Every Color of Light is a refreshing sensory wonderland in picture book format.

There is a calm on the forest floor when the rain starts, "Pitter/ Patter/ Pitter patter." As the storm intensifies, Arai's illustrations grow darker, the lines stronger and Osada's words gain urgency: "The wind whips/ The rain slants." Then percussive onomatopoeia--"Bah-bah-BOOM!"--coupled with bold yellows, pinks and radiant whites that flash as powerfully as the lightning strike they represent.

When the storm settles and the rain disappears, Arai's sky lightens. Aqua, teal and yellow shine down on lush, green foliage. And a depiction of water droplets falling from leaves glistens with the rainbows of colors refracted in their molecules. The day wears on, going through its palette of luscious colors until night takes the stage. "Flickering/ The stars begin to sparkle," and Osada's dramatic forest tour draws to an end.

Mindfulness, spectacle and awe emanate from every page of this breathtaking collaboration. Arai's forceful use of color and line tell as much of the story as Osada's punctuation-less text loaded with illuminating figurative language. Kudos to David Boyd, who translated this 2011 picture book from the Japanese, for text that sounds as melodic as Osada's original poetry must be. All three contributors express a respect for nature's strength, resilience and beauty. Rain or shine, Every Color of Light is a cleansing breath of fresh air. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: A poet, an illustrator and a translator pay homage to the majesty of nature and its elements in a bold, radiant picture book.

Enchanted Lion Books, $17.95, hardcover, 38p., ages 4-6, 9781592702916

Class Act

by Jerry Craft

Welcome back to a new year at Riverdale Academy Day (RAD) School in Jerry Craft's entertaining follow-up to his 2020 Newbery Medal-winning debut, New Kid. Wannabe artist Jordan reunites with his closest friends: Liam, who arrives from his family's Riverdale mansion via chauffeur, and Drew, who commutes from a Co-Op City apartment where he lives with his grandmother. Craft's focus here is Drew: within moments of arrival, he's accosted by Andy with combative unwanted greetings and by Ashley, who shows her overbearing devotion with home-baked goods.

Although Jordan and Drew are both Black, Drew's darker skin especially stands out in the mostly white RAD community, which subjects him to continued microagressions and myopic racism from both students and administrators. Away from RAD, the trio's sleepover at Liam's mansion almost sunders their friendship as Drew grows increasingly uncomfortable with Liam's wealthy privilege. All three will learn valuable lessons about the danger of assumptions and the power of allyship as eighth grade continues. As in New Kid, young Jordan's black-and-white sketchbook comics insightfully capture the progress.

Just as his characters deal with their RAD new world bolstered by supportive friendships, Craft, too, deftly affirms the authors who have enabled and enhanced his sophomore title. His clever chapter title spreads are visual homages (with permission) to notable creators: He opens, for example, with "Sketch Diary of a Shrimpy Kid." By book's end, his acknowledgements feature a memorable roster of #OwnVoices (Reynolds, Woodson, Thomas) who have inspired him. By maintaining a convincing blend of challenges and triumphs for his own diverse cast, Craft's perceptive Class Act skillfully provides resourceful instruction on encouraging deeper understanding. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Jordan, Liam and Drew start another year together at elite Riverdale Academy Day to learn lasting lessons in eschewing assumptions and achieving better understanding.

Quill Tree /HarperCollins, $12.99, paperback, 256p., ages 8-12, 9780062885500


Author Buzz

The Rom-Commers

by Katherine Center

Dear Reader,

Famous screenwriter Charlie Yates wrote a romantic comedy screenplay--and it’s terrible. Aspiring writer Emma Wheeler just got hired to fix it. But Charlie doesn't want anyone rewriting his work--least of all a "failed nobody," and Emma can't support a guy who doesn't even like rom-coms, adding another bad one to the pantheon. So what choice does Emma have but to stand up for herself, and rom-coms, and love in general--and, in the process, to show her nemesis-slash-writing-hero exactly how to fall stupidly, crazily, perfectly in love?

Email with the subject line "The Rom-Commers sweepstakes" for a chance to win one of five copies.

Katherine Center

Buy now and support your local indie bookstore>

AuthorBuzz: St. Martin's Press: The Rom-Commers by Katherine Center

St. Martin's Press

Pub Date: 
June 11, 2024


List Price: 
$29.00 Hardcover

Blue Moon
(A Smoke and Mirrors Novella)

by Skye Warren

Dear Reader,

When I started writing Ringmaster Emerson Durand in the Smoke and Mirrors series, I knew he would get his own story. Insouciant. Charming. And he's actually the villain of that book. So can he be redeemed? It's the question I'm always working to answer in my books.

If he's going to deserve his own happily ever after, it's going to be a journey. A scorching hot journey!

That's what BLUE MOON illuminates. A dangerous ringmaster claims his rebellious acrobat for a sensual show you cannot miss.

Skye Warren

Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: Blue Moon (A Smoke and Mirrors Novella) by Skye Warren

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
March 12, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book

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