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Sleeping Bear Press: When You Go Into Nature by Sheri M Bestor, Illustrated by Sydney Hanson

Week of Friday, February 20, 2015

I recently read a book that's been selling like hotcakes: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Ten Speed Press). I'd seen articles about the author, Marie Kondo--the New York Times called her "a kind of Zen nanny"--and heard raves about the book from friends. I love the idea of tidying up, but my method has relied on neat stacks of things and keeping all my black clothes together. But the closet is full, and I sort and re-sort piles until, manically, I toss out six months of New Yorkers, recipes and curling Post-Its. Enter Marie Kondo.

At first, when I read that I'd need a quiet space (no music?!) to evaluate things, because "noise makes it harder to hear the internal dialogue between the owner and [her] belongings," I thought it silly. But, Kondo says, our rational judgment gets in the way of selecting what to discard; we should keep only what brings us joy. We can consider things like those too-tight shoes (but gorgeous and marked down three times!) as contributing to our understanding of ourselves, and they now can be pitched (but first, thanked). I thought, "Okay, worth a try."

Too woo-woo for you? Try this: put every item of clothing you have on the floor. Then start choosing "with love" and look for that spark of joy. Contrast this with opening a drawer and tidying what's in it--you may not discard anything; you'll just straighten. So place the contents on the floor and see what happens. Magic.

It's not just about clothes. Or books. Or photos. Or pots. Ultimately, it's about putting your house in order to discover who you really are, what you really want to do. "What you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life." Balanced? Or buried, physically and mentally, under superfluous things? Start tossing--the floor is right there. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

The Best Books This Week


The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty

by Amanda Filipacchi

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Amanda Filipacchi's three previous novels (Nude Men, Vapor and Love Creeps) secured her reputation as a comic satirist who captures the dreams and frustrations of everywoman while exposing their costs. In The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, she takes on the mixed blessings of female beauty with her signature wit and insight.

The story involves a tight circle of young New Yorkers who call themselves the Knights of Creation. Georgia is an acclaimed novelist wracked by self-doubt; Lily is an extremely unattractive but brilliant composer who uses her talents to seduce the shallow Strad; lovely Penelope makes ugly pottery she cannot sell. But the focus of the story is on Barb, an extraordinarily beautiful, unusually talented costume designer. Two years earlier, her friend Gabriel committed suicide, dazzled by her beauty and sick with love for her. Since then, Barb has hidden inside a fat suit and under a gray wig, determined that anyone new will love her for her inner beauty alone.

There's also a murder subplot, a delusional doorman and a delicious skewering of the shallow, self-serving media. And there's Peter, an anchorman perfect for Barb--except that, unbeknownst to her, he has schemed his way into her life after discovering old photos showing she's drop-dead gorgeous.

Will Barb accept Peter when she learns that he knows she's beautiful? Can she accept herself, beauty and all? The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty has a teeming cast of one-dimensional characters and a wildly improbable plot, but it's a funny and exuberant story that addresses the costs of a social preoccupation while losing none of its fairy-tale charm. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

W.W. Norton, $25.95, hardcover, 9780393243871

The Secrets of Midwives

by Sally Hepworth

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Neva Bradley always felt she was destined to be a midwife. Her hippie mother, Grace, and her no-nonsense English grandmother, Felicity (known as "Floss"), have both spent their lives helping women bring their babies into the world. Neva, too, became a midwife and enjoys her work at a Providence, R.I., birthing center, despite Grace's insistence that home births are the best option for mothers. But when Neva gets pregnant unexpectedly, her news will stir sensitive memories--and long-buried secrets--for all three women.

Sally Hepworth (Love Like the French) tells her story by giving voice to Floss, Grace and Neva in alternating chapters. Neva's determination to keep the identity of her baby's father a secret mirrors Floss's longtime refusal to discuss the difficult circumstances of Grace's birth. But all three women must weigh their desire for secrecy against the tight bonds of family, and the potential for healing if those secrets are revealed.

Hepworth's strength lies in articulating the emotional life of her characters, who emerge as three distinct, believable narrators. Floss's recounting of her early midwifery career in England is richly detailed, while the present-day New England setting sometimes feels a bit antiseptic by contrast. The minor characters, especially the men, are less fully fleshed out, but the story moves along at a fast pace that will keep readers engaged.

Perfect for fans of TV's Call the Midwife, this big-hearted family saga is both an honest emotional journey and a well-researched glimpse into the world of midwifery. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

St. Martin's Press, $25.99, hardcover, 9781250051899

Mystery & Thriller

Plague Land

by S.D. Sykes

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S.D. Sykes's debut novel, Plague Land, the beginning of a historical mystery series, is a literary whodunit set in the fearful, plague-ridden English countryside of 1350.

Young Oswald de Lacy had intended to be a monk, but at age 17 was summoned back from the monastery upon the deaths of his father and two older brothers. Suddenly managing his family's estates, the new Lord Oswald is already ill at ease when a village girl named Alison Starvecrow is discovered dead. Oswald and his mentor, Brother Peter, who accompanied him home from the monastery, suspect murder; however, Oswald is hesitant to get involved--until Alison's mentally unstable sister vanishes.

Brother Peter urges Oswald to keep investigating Alison's death, but everyone else--from his bitter sister, Clemence, to his scheming neighbor to the illiterate village priest--seems determined to thwart Oswald. The ambitious priest, convinced that a dog-headed man sent by the devil is guilty of the crimes, is whipping the villagers into a frenzy. Oswald soon realizes that if he doesn't solve the Starvecrow sisters' death and disappearance, he may lose everything, including the estate he thought he didn't want.

Atmospheric and brilliant, Plague Land evokes a dark era, where people were quick to believe in the supernatural. Oswald is a thoughtful and intuitive character, in spite of his youth, and Plague Land's haunting denouement is sure to leave readers eager for the next in the series. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Pegasus, $25.95, hardcover, 9781605986739

The Long and Faraway Gone

by Lou Berney

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The Long and Faraway Gone is Lou Berney's third novel, a standalone that deviates dramatically in genre, tone and style from his first two caper novels featuring Shake Bouchon (Gunshot Straight; Whiplash River). By trading exotic locales and Shake's madcap humor for a dark, psychologically suspenseful crime story set in Oklahoma City, Berney proves his writing skills reach long and far.

Wyatt Rivers and Julianna Rosales both experienced trauma during the summer of 1986. Wyatt has spent his life running from that past, while Julianna desperately searches for answers. When his job forces him to return to his hometown 25 years later, Wyatt is pulled back into the violent tragedy he tried so hard to escape. Meanwhile, Julianna learns a recently released felon may be the key to all her questions. She'll go to any length to find out, even if it puts her life at risk.

The dark, ominous tone and convincingly creepy, immoral suspects make The Long and Faraway Gone an intensely spine-chilling mystery. But more than that, it's an emotional dissection of crime and those affected by violent losses. Berney's compassion for each character makes an entire cast of delectably authentic and dimensional people.

Some elements of Berney's style remain the same. Dialogue continues to flow naturally, reflecting character and setting. His strong sense of place feeds vivid imagery. And his subtle, well-placed humor cinches the novel's realism. Readers who haven't discovered Lou Berney yet should take this golden opportunity to get acquainted. Those who have will certainly relish this gem. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Morrow, $14.99, paperback, 9780062292438

Dreaming Spies

by Laurie R. King

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Since 1994, when Laurie R. King introduced Mary Russell in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, readers have enjoyed Russell's unusual partnership with Sherlock Holmes. Brilliant and idiosyncratic, Russell has proved a worthy match for Holmes both personally and professionally, as the couple has tackled cases on three continents. In Dreaming Spies, King delves into an episode in their lives long shrouded in mystery: a three-week sojourn in Japan in 1924.

On board a ship heading home to England from India, Holmes and Russell meet a young Japanese woman. Haruki Sato comes from a family of acrobats, but her skills go far beyond athleticism. Educated in the U.S., she is a quietly lethal combination of ninja and diplomat. Sato asks Holmes and Russell for their help with a small but dangerous task involving blackmail and forgery.

King uses Holmes and Russell's journey to give readers a crash course in Japanese culture, but since every experience provides information vital to the case, it never feels like overkill. Longtime King fans will appreciate frequent references to previous cases, though the book stands on its own as a compelling adventure.

Although series like this are best enjoyed in order, Dreaming Spies will give new readers a brief but thorough introduction to Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell. Their unusual partnership is, as always, a delight to observe, and King expertly combines rich historical detail, deftly drawn characters and taut suspense. For Holmes fans, mystery lovers and those interested in either Japan or Oxford, this novel is a multilayered and entirely enjoyable journey. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Bantam, $26, hardcover, 9780345531797

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Very Best of Kate Elliott

by Kate Elliott

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The Very Best of Kate Elliott is a great compilation of shorter works written by science-fiction and fantasy author Kate Elliott (of the Crown of Stars and Spiritwalker series) over a 20-year span. Best known for her stories that feature strong female lead characters who often defy the conventions of their particular world, Elliott writes that at an early age, she made a decision to "to populate my stories with whatever characters I wanted, especially ones who represented people like me." There are women who are willing to take extreme risks and endure tortuous personal suffering to protect the ones they love, twin sisters who face a difficult dilemma and endure a dramatic solution to protect their queendom, women who engage in forbidden sexual pleasure and those who just want to experience the full realm of freedom--a concept held only by the men of their tribe.

Elliott draws on a wealth of mythical and magical lore from around the world to flesh out her characters, who dabble in herbal witchcraft or believe in magic, and her settings, in which readers can find essences of Asia and the Middle East, hints of Medieval Europe and far-off futuristic lands. In this compendium, vibrant details, unusual names and quirky plot twists are evidence of Elliott's active imagination, which sets off on a kaleidoscopic journey into the multilayered realms of these fierce, brave and loyal women, offering new readers and those familiar with Elliott a delightful plunge into fantasy. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Tachyon, $15.95, paperback, 9781616961794

The Glittering World

by Robert Levy

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Playwright Robert Levy weaves together a sparkling search for identity as several young people travel to a lonely artists' colony in the remote Canadian town of Starling Cove. Chef Michael "Blue" Whitley is seeking answers in the house his grandmother left him, the sale of which would give him the money he needs to save his restaurant in New York City. His best friend, Elisa, is looking for existential affirmation, too, as well as reasons to stay married to her therapist husband, Jason, who may be older but still struggles with his own demons and self-worth. Gabe rounds out the foursome, a street kid they met in the city who hovers near Blue with utter devotion.

The Glittering World is a fairy tale made distressingly real when Blue and Elisa disappear, perhaps at the hands of a supernatural race. The artist community may have disbanded decades ago, but echoes of their society and the events that transpired there continue to shape this world. This isn't the first time Blue has disappeared, his friends discover, and what he returned with is terrifying in its uncompromising reality.

Each character has a section from their respective viewpoints, first Blue, then Elisa, then Jason. Finally, it's Gabe who finds redemption and healing as he moves through the world of the Other Kind--beings beneath the earth that may not be as evil as they seem--and back to the glittering world as we know it. Levy's first novel is confident, brave and beautiful in every way, with resonant warmth and an understanding of the fundamentally singular human experience. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Gallery, $26, hardcover, 9781476774527

Finn Fancy Necromancy

by Randy Henderson

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Finn Gramaraye is having a tough day. Exiled to a formless void 25 years ago for a crime he didn't commit, he is planning to re-enter the human world when suddenly he encounters sabotage by mysterious forces. The worst part is not knowing specifically who has it out for him. It could be the unidentified entities who framed him when he was 15 years old, it could be factions in the world of wizardry, or it could even be someone from his own family.

The Gramarayes are necromancers, gathering magic essence (mana) from deceased magical folk. Dad has gone insane and mom is just a ghost. Finn's eldest brother, Mort, has kept the family business afloat during his exile, and might think Finn, a talented Talker who speaks to the dead, is back to take over. Finn's youngest brother, Petey, is sweet, dumb, incredibly loyal and thinks he's a werewolf, while Finn's older sister, Samantha, is allergic to magic and wants nothing to do with the family or its funeral home.

In addition to figuring out who's trying to frame and exile him yet again, Finn has to contend with conflicted feelings about his high school girlfriend and the girl next door, who's also sweet on him but more likely to smack him than kiss him. Because Finn's been gone since the 1980s, plenty of cultural shifts and unfamiliar references add to his confusion.

Finn Fancy Necromancy is Randy Henderson's first novel, and it's filled with seemingly effortless world-building and solid plotting, plus a fun murder mystery thrown in for good measure. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Tor, $25.99, hardcover, 9780765378088

Biography & Memoir

My Avant-Garde Education: A Memoir

by Bernard Cooper

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Before he concerned himself with Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, there were Brillo boxes and Life magazine editorials. As a boy, art critic Bernard Cooper (Maps to Anywhere) found art on a supermarket shelf. In My Avant-Garde Education, Cooper chronicles his coming-of-age as a member of the new guard and a student at CalArts in its infancy.

In its subject matter and its presentation--numbered sections that form a chronological pastiche akin to a Richard Hamilton collage--Cooper's memoir is solidly "pop." Raised in suburban Los Angeles, he learns to see the local Safeway as a gallery space, and he imparts a similar wonderment to the reader; in Cooper's prose there's an infectious enthusiasm, as if we, too, are on the cusp of a revolution. It's fitting, then, that the most charming parts of the memoir are his descriptions of performances, professors and kooky goings-on that are novel even today: a nude swimming pool on campus, a "happening" in which participants lick strawberry jam off a car, eccentric personas bred in the art world microcosm. His avant-garde education extended beyond the canvas, shaping his identity in galleries, on night drives and beneath the sheets.

At the end of the memoir are several essays. In "Uses of the Ghoulish," Cooper writes that, on his first assignment as a critic for Los Angeles magazine, he was "already torn between the memoirist's impulse to sift through the meanings of subjective experience and the critic's impulse to at least give the impression of objectivity." My Avant-Garde Education's strengths lie at that intersection, the often indistinguishable line between art and self. --Linnie Greene, freelance writer

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780393240719

All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found

by Philip Connors

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In 2002, Philip Connors left a plum position at the Wall Street Journal for a New Mexico fire lookout. Fire Season, his account of that experience, was a remarkable reflection on work, nature and the appeal of solitude. It also touched on his own demons, the subject of this powerful memoir, All the Wrong Places.

As a young man in the '90s settling into his first big job but still finding his way, Connors lives with contradiction: the son of a Minnesota pig farmer, he's now a New York journalist. He's out of place as a liberal in the Journal newsroom, he's white in a very black Brooklyn neighborhood, he pursues romance with the wrong women. But his younger brother Dan's suicide in 1996 at age 22, when Philip has newly arrived in New York, is the memoir's emotional core. It has colored Philip's every experience and prompted a search for clues to his brother's state of mind. He talks to Dan's friends, mines family history, recounts stories from his own memory, studies the autopsy report. Six years after his brother's death and just before he starts his fire season, Phil finally hears the wrenching but unprovable story of what may have driven his brother's despair. 

On its surface, All the Wrong Places is the story of a lost young man's search for explanations and stands as a moving account of grief. Through his writing, Connors eventually "finds a place to put it so that it wouldn't eat me alive," recognizing the futility of resolution and the necessity of connection. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

W.W. Norton, $25.95, hardcover, 9780393088762

Children's & Young Adult

Listen, Slowly

by Thanhhà Lai

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In Listen, Slowly, Newbery Honor author and National Book Award winner Thanhhà Lai (Inside Out and Back Again) describes Vietnam through the eyes of 12-year-old Mai Le, who visits her ancestral home for the first time. In this moving story, Mai accompanies Bà, her paternal grandmother, on a pilgrimage to discover what happened to her husband, deemed MIA during the Vietnam War.

Mai's and Bà's relationship, always close, deepens during this cathartic mission. Mai starts out as a self-involved teen, resentful of leaving her bikini-clad friends in Laguna Beach--and especially wary of leaving her best friend, Montana, famous for stealing other girls' boyfriends, alone with her secret crush. Lai smoothly integrates facts about what happened to the people of Vietnam without discussing the violence: the sights, sounds and smells, the wonderful foods and time-proven remedies (for parasites and acne), and the extraordinary sense of community and hospitality. Readers will identify with Mia's insightful and humorous reactions to alien traditions ("Is there one architect for the whole country?" she wonders) and language barriers, and their appreciation will grow along with Mia's as she comes to value how the neighbors band together to share meals and chores, and their sensitivity to Bà's loss in a nation long accustomed to occupation. The kindness and warmth the villagers show to Bà stand in stark relief to Mai's friendship with Montana.

This is a love story on many levels, between granddaughter and grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, and for the homeland one carries within. Details Lai plants early on add up to a powerful finish. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

HarperCollins, $16.99, hardcover, 272p., ages 8-12, 9780062229182

Why'd They Wear That?: Fashion as the Mirror of History

by Sarah Albee

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Arranged chronologically and touching on fashion and beauty as reflections of changing societies and times around the world, Sarah Albee's (Bugged: How Insects Changed History) highly visual volume asks readers to consider the role clothing serves and the statement it makes today.

Albee explains how fashion approaches differentiated classes and genders. In 300 B.C., Greek men wore tunics to the knee, women to the ankle. In the 19th century, men's top hats indicated wealth; laborers wore caps. Purple was reserved for royalty (from 900–600 B.C.) because the dye was so rare (made by Phoenicians in the city of Tyre from "snail snot"). Cortés pillaged the Aztecs, and brought back to Spain a red dye made from the cochineal (a legless, wingless female insect), a color adopted for Roman Catholic cardinals' robes and British military redcoats. Lighthearted subtitles disguise painful episodes, as with "Fashion Disasters"--the Mayan ritual of elongating heads by wrapping a young child's forehead between two boards, and bound feet for girls in 13th-century China (an x-ray of such deformed feet drives home the pain girls endured). And for "Dressed to Compress," the author explains that a corset could exert as much as "88 pounds of force on the internal organs." Albee also demonstrates a continuum regarding humans' obsession with youth (from the early 1500s to today), and Goth style (from 410 to today). A "dressed to kill" subtheme charts changing battle armor and "Warrior Wear."

Albee's survey of fashion and its purposes--often the oppression of women and the poor--is striking. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

National Geographic, $19.99, hardcover, 192p., ages 10-up, 9781426319198

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia

by Miranda Paul, illus. by Elizabeth Zunon

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This uplifting picture book by debut author Miranda Paul speaks to the power of one person to make a difference for many.

Isatou Ceesay is a real person who used a plastic bag, after her grandmother's basket broke, to carry her fruit back to her village of Njau in Gambia. She leaves the broken basket to "crumble and mix back in with the dirt." Elizabeth Zunon (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, picture book edition) creates collage compositions with light-filled photographs of forests trimmed into leaf-shapes, and sumptuous fabrics pieced together for Isatou's mbuba (long dress). When Isatou's plastic bag eventually breaks, she discards it, too. But unlike Grandmother's basket, the plastic does not crumble and mix back in with the dirt. Instead, "one plastic bag becomes two. Then ten. Then a hundred." The village goats ingest the bags and die, and mosquitoes collect in the dirty pools of water trapped by the bags. Then Isatou gets an idea: she can cut the bags into plastic strips and crochet them into purses. Zunon dresses the women helping Isatou in fabric collages of glorious colors and patterns, and layered textures of the plastic threads give the compositions a tactile quality. Paul's gentle repetition plays up the transformation of the plastic bags, as one woman chooses a crocheted purse "and shows it to one friend. Then two. Then ten."

Paul dots the text with Wolof phrases, and includes a glossary, along with a timeline and further reading for young people about other entrepreneurs in Uganda, Ghana and Kenya. Inspiring. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Millbrook/Lerner, $19.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 6-8, 9781467716086

A mother's death forces a teen girl to reevaluate their tumultuous relationship in this powerful coming-of-age novel for teens. For fans of I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.

Kirkus Reviews calls And Then There Was Us by Kern Carter "an emotional story of family and growth." 

After years of physical and verbal abuse from her mother, fourteen-year-old Coi moved in with her father, and together they created a peaceful life. But now, four years later, that peace is shattered when her mother dies. 

While Coi struggles to find kindness in her heart for the woman who did nothing but hurt her, her mother's passing does help reopen the door to her mother's side of the family. It's only through reconnecting with her estranged family members, especially her younger half-sister Kayla, that Coi's long-held views about her mother are challenged. 

And when Coi begins to see visions of her mother in her dreams, she is forced to ask herself what it means to forgive and be forgiven, and, most importantly, what it means to be a family. 

Kern Carter is the author of Boys and Girls Screaming, along with two self-published novels, Thoughts of a Fractured Soul (novella) and Beauty Scars. In addition to his writing, Kern is a filmmaker and also teaches professional writing at a local college, committed to supporting emerging writers and helping them find their voice. He lives in Toronto. 


Tundra Books: And Then There Was Us by Kern Carter


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