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January is over. How are you doing with your resolutions to lose weight, exercise fiscal restraint or simply exercise? Right. How about throwing away January's list and starting more carefully in February with just one thing?

Debbie Macomber, popular and prolific author (the Cedar Cove series), has written One Perfect Word (Howard, January 3, 2012). She talks about the power of a single word--"perfect" in that you choose one word to concentrate on for one year. Macomber comes at this from a Christian perspective ("God takes part in the choosing") in finding a word, exploring it, recognizing life lessons from the exploration. But the idea is good for anyone: seek, balance, passion. Or how about gratitude?

Recently, the Journal of Nursing published an article, "Giving Thanks Helps Your Psychological Outlook," that says counting your blessings is good for you. "While it seems pretty obvious that gratitude is a positive emotion, psychologists [have recently discovered] that it is one of humanity's most powerful emotions. It makes you happier and can change your attitude about life, like an emotional reset button."

Glennon Melton, in the Huffington Post, has a good take on gratitude in "Don't Carpe Diem." She was worried that she was not only failing at being a good parent, she wasn't enjoying parenting enough by seizing and enjoying every moment of it. "Carpe Diem doesn't work for me. I can't even carpe fifteen minutes in a row, so a whole diem is out of the question." But she has found something that works. Most of our lives are spent in Chronos (physical) time. But there is also "Kairos time... it's time outside of time... those magical moments in which time stands still. I have a few of those moments each day. And I cherish them." When she writes, "Carpe a couple of Kairoses a day," that's another way of practicing gratitude.

Bookstores are treasure troves of journals and notebooks. Buy a small journal. Every evening, write down three things you have been grateful for during the day. Bonus points if they are people. Maybe you'll be so busy being grateful that your previous resolutions will just happen. At the very least, you'll be happier, and that's no small accomplishment. --Marilyn Dahl, book review editor, Shelf Awareness

The Best Books This Week


The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

by Jan-Philipp Sendker, transl. by Kevin Wiliarty

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Jan-Philipp Sendker's brilliant debut novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, opens in a tea house in Burma, where Julia has come in an attempt to locate her father, who disappeared from New York City without a trace. Following a hunch (and an ancient, unmailed love letter) to her father's homeland, she hopes to uncover the secrets of his disappearance--and the first 20 years of his life.

In the tea house, Julia encounters U Ba, an aging Burmese man who mysteriously knows not only her name, but the purpose of her trip. Despite her initial protestations, he begins to recount a story of decades past, reintroducing Julia to the father she once thought she knew. "His sentences soon took the shape of a story," Sendkar writes, "and out of that story a life emerged, revealing its power and its magic."

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is laced with wonderfully crafted sentences like this, and, just as U Ba's sentences do for Julia, Sendker's combine to tell a powerful and magical story of a love that crossed continents and decades, that spanned blindness and physical disability to bring two people together as closely as one can imagine. Sendker's novel proves to be a love story of the most masterful variety: one that requires a box of tissues without ever venturing into the land of cliché. Coupled with an unusual glimpse into the Burma of the 1950s and today, readers will delight in the emotional power of Sendker's storytelling and find themselves believing not only in the power of love, but the strength of family. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Other Press, $14.95, paperback, 9781590514634

The Fat Years

by Chan Koonchung, transl. by Michael S. Duke

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In scenes befitting the bleakness of Huxley's Brave New World, Chan Koonchung's The Fat Years imagines a China not so far in the future where a majority of the population, as Julia Lovell writes in her introduction to the novel, is "happy enough with a status quo that has delivered economic choice without political liberties." The title refers to that self-congratulatory state, perpetrated and perpetuated by a repressive regime intent on projecting an image of prosperous dominance after the massive collapse of the global economy.

The Fat Years opens in the "Golden Era of Ascendancy," as the wandering, monkish Fang Laodi laments a memory gap of 28 days that seems to afflict most of his countrymen, including Lao Chen, a Taiwanese expatriate writer. Lao Chen fails to pay attention or understand the significance of Fang Laodi's ramblings until a chance encounter at a literary reading with his friend, anti-government conspirator Little Xi, draws him into the intrigue and mystery surrounding the lost month. Lao Chen imagines a happy ending with Little Xi, but her disappearance stirs him from blissful slumber and forces him to confront the truth behind the Communist Party's subterfuge and its subsequent attempts to maintain its unbending influence over the people, thereby rewriting history.

That such fiction could conceivably become reality makes The Fat Years chilling and bluntly effective in revealing the philosophical implications of Asian Calvinism and nationalistic worship, thanks to the Communist government’s totalitarian hegemony. With this work, Chan Koonchung presents us with an unignorable perspective on the state of affairs in the world's most populous nation. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.95, hardcover, 9780385534345

Home Front

by Kristin Hannah

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Jolene Larsen grew up with alcoholic parents, believing that some families were like well-tended parks, others like battlefields, "littered with shrapnel and body parts." Determined to create a well-tended life, she found the means at 18 by joining the army, where she met her best friend, Tami Flynn. They spent 10 years in the service, then, with marriage and motherhood, moved to the National Guard. Now, at 41, Jolene Zarkades has that tidy park: her husband, Michael; two daughters, 12-year-old Betsy and four-year-old Lulu; Tami next door; and work--she and Tami are Black Hawk helicopter pilots in the Guard.

A few days after Jo's birthday, Michael tells her, "I don't love you anymore." The next day, she and Tami are deployed and she must go. In Iraq, on an air mission to rescue troops, her copter is hit by rocket fire and crashes. She wakes up in a hospital, about to lose a leg. She's consumed with anger, bitterness, exhaustion, loneliness; her days of smiling through pain and loss are over. Her well-tended park is in shambles. She has no idea how to be.

Kristin Hannah has written a passionate story of war's cost to a family and the cost of silence. She weaves the two sides of a soldier's heart: the damage and the horror inflicted upon it, the honor and pride that make it beat. Jo is a hero, and her life from its start is a hero's journey--psychological, spiritual, physical. It's made with others--family, the Guard, Tami--and it's a journey that we are privileged to share. --Marilyn Dahl, book review editor, Shelf Awareness

For more on Home Front, check out our Maximum Shelf.

St. Martin's Press, $27.99, hardcover, 9780312577209

At Last

by Edward St. Aubyn

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A period of global economic turmoil may not the best time to read At Last, the final novel of Edward St. Aubyn's superb quintet of novels chronicling the sort of aristocratic dissolution that Britain is famous for. Can anyone these days really understand or care about the troubles of a family who "had a good run," lasting "six generations with every single descendant... essentially idle?" But strip away all the money, and St. Aubyn's Melrose family--with its history of child abuse, rape, murder, addiction and bad marriage--still possesses a little something that touches almost everyone.

Although the first of the Melrose novels (1992's Never Mind) began when Patrick Melrose was five years old, At Last provides enough background that it can easily stand on its own. The funeral of Patrick's mother, Eleanor, finally frees him from a lifetime of ambivalent feelings: hating her for abandoning him as a child to his abusive father, resenting the late-in-life irrational philanthropy that spurred her to give his "inheritance" to New Age shamans, but also desperately wanting her to be a real mother.

Eleanor Melrose's funeral is thinly attended by what's left of her family and friends, along with Patrick's ex-wife, his ex-girlfriend, his fellow AA confidants and two young sons. With easy balance, St. Aubyn moves the narration among the funeral guests, bringing respite from the often witty, often sardonic, but always perceptive musings of Patrick. He is the one who has suffered a lifetime of real family pain and has perhaps earned his resentment; but he is also the one who must accept who he is, "the inevitability of things being as they were," and decide what kind of parent and man he still could be. It is heartening that St. Aubyn ends his mostly disheartening, but also brilliant, Melrose cycle with a suggestion of hope. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, hardcover, 9780374298890

Biography & Memoir

Good in a Crisis

by Margaret Overton

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Margaret Overton is a smart, accomplished anesthesiologist, but in caring for others, she's overlooked learning to care for herself. If Good in a Crisis were a novel, readers might doubt the plausibility of her tribulations: a heroine with a spouse hell-bent on an acrimonious divorce; two beloved daughters leaving for college, one suffering a serious accident and long recovery; the death of several close friends; her mother slipping into dementia; relocation, remodeling, reshuffling of material goods... and a brain aneurysm?!

Margaret really does endure them all--but her story is filled with a surprising amount of humor. In a sardonic look at her divorce in the first paragraph, for example, she notes that her friends refer to her ex as "the sperm donor"--even after 20 years, he doesn't deserve the title of husband. Then, too, there's her foray into Internet dating: "It was like the Home Shopping Network, only better," she writes, "a weirdly attractive combination of shopping, romance, and voyeurism, without any calories or shipping charges."

Margaret exercises, works and is devoted to her daughters, friends, aging dog and mother. As she recounts her challenges, jokes about her romantic escapades and acknowledges the loving support of her friends and family, readers will cheer her resilience and heed her advice: "If you, like me, can survive your own middle age trauma, you might move on to a chapter of life that you think of as wisdom, since it sounds more appealing than dotage." --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller

Bloomsbury, $24, hardcover, 9781608197644

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis

by Lauren F Winner

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Lauren Winner told the story of her conversion from Judaism to Christianity in her first memoir, 2002's Girl Meets God. Nearly a decade later, the fervor of the conversion experience has faded, and as Winner struggles to cope with the death of her mother and the demise of a marriage that perhaps never should have happened, the faith that she would have expected to sustain her through these challenges seems to have escaped her as well. In Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, Winner chronicles her experience with that particular, unexpected loss--and, as the subtitle implies, how she found her way back.

Still's structure follows its subtitle; it's a series of brief reflections over the course of a year in which she ends her marriage and gratefully learns that her relationship with God is not ending along with it. Rather, it's arrived at the place where the biggest part of it will be spent.

Beginnings and endings are easier to define and to process, but most of life is lived in the middle--and the middle is where we seem most likely to become lost. Winner writes thoughtfully and eloquently about finding herself in the middle and accepting her place there. Still is not prescriptive; Winner is not telling the reader how to address a faith crisis, particularly one that comes at the same time as some other crisis. But her insights may be helpful to those who have reached their own middles. --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

HarperOne, $24.99, hardcover, 9780061768118

The Fry Chronicles

by Stephen Fry

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Stephen Fry has a respectable number of fans in the United States, but his popularity here is nothing like it is in England, where he's a cultural icon to which there's no precise American counterpart. Among his many accomplishments: he's an actor, a television presenter, a newspaper columnist, a public intellectual and a novelist. (Actually, with more than three million Twitter followers, he may be the most popular novelist on the Internet.) The Fry Chronicles picks up where the first volume of his biography, Moab Is My Washpot (1997), left off, and though it covers only eight years, what amazing years they are.

After a troubled childhood, including imprisonment, Fry took the entrance exams to Cambridge in 1980 and won a scholarship. He starts at the hallowed halls as a gay, bipolar, awkward young man in fear of being "found out" as some kind of fraud, setting the tone for the stories to come. He loves words, the "luxuriant profusion and mad scatter of them." We read about him meeting Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson; they begin writing and acting out skits in the Cambridge Footlights troupe and turn out a successful revue called The Cellar Tapes, which is aired by the BBC the following year. He's hired to rewrite the 1930s musical Me and My Girl and it's a success; then he's invited to join the cast of the hit sitcom Blackadder.

In the telling of these stories, he's very generous to others yet fairly harsh on himself, the blunt honesty tempered by his understated, dryly witty, conversational voice. The book ends on a dark note, with him snorting cocaine, and many of his biggest achievements--including his most popular television collaborations with Laurie--yet to come. That's a sequel anyone who reads The Fry Chronicles will eagerly await. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Overlook Press, $29.95, hardcover, 9781590207147

Psychology & Self-Help

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

by Susan Cain

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One-third to one-half of people are introverted by nature. They tend to think more deeply about fewer things and consider all the angles before making commitments, and are also more likely than not to be labeled "shy," "antisocial" or "unfriendly"--any of which can be fatal in our extrovert-driven, networking-intensive professional and cultural worlds. Yet, as Susan Cain's Quiet points out, introverts also offer vitally important and useful ways of getting things done.

Quiet reveals how introverts may provide a crucial balance against the gregarious "leap first, look later" approach favored by so many extroverts. During the recent Wall Street meltdowns, extroverts at many of the leading banks rushed into potentially risky decisions with too much confidence and too little second-guessing--to predictably disastrous result. Cain suggests that mixing in a few introverts, less likely to have taken serious risks without weighing the consequences, would have prevented or reduced the deep damage that occurred to the financial system.

Quiet also provides insight for introverts, their loved ones and their colleagues about what it means to be introverted, what particular benefits introversion can provide and how to incorporate introverted folks into an extroverted world so that all benefit. Her chapters on dating introverts and raising introverted children are especially readable and insightful, promoting the collective interest in the gifts of introversion while managing to make both introverts and extroverts feel there's nothing wrong with who they are. Quiet is a fascinating, easy-to-read book on a topic we can no longer afford to overlook. --Dani Alexis Ryskamp, blogger at The Literary Cricket

Crown, $26, hardcover, 9780307352149

Wabi Sabi Love

by Arielle Ford

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On a cold November day, Arielle Ford (The Soulmate Secret) happened upon an image of a large, cracked Asian urn and noticed the gallery had highlighted the imperfection through lighting. This image accompanied an article on wabi sabi, "the ancient Japanese art form that finds beauty and perfection in imperfection," which inspired Ford to write Wabi Sabi Love, "the art and practice of loving the imperfections in ourselves and in our partners."

Wabi Sabi Love is a primarily a self-help book, as Ford gently guides readers to recognize their own imperfections through stories about actual couples--including Ford and her spouse as well as the Obamas--who have embraced the ways individual imperfection can lead to a more perfect union. Ford believes that lasting love must not only accept the foibles and idiosyncrasies of each partner, but embrace them as singular manifestations of the couple's love: "A key aspect of Wabi Sabi is learning to move our focus from what makes our partners so annoying to what makes our partners so unique." For example, one woman realizes as she is yet again cleaning up the trail of poppy seeds left on the kitchen floor by her husband's daily muffin that the absence of the seeds would mean the absence of her husband, and suddenly the seeds seem as insignificant as their size.

At the end of most chapters, Ford provides exercises to help readers reconcile the daily irritations inherent in partnerships and embrace with gratitude what is most important: unconditional love. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics

HarperOne, $24.99, hardcover, 9780062003751

Health & Medicine

Beyond the Magic Bullet

by Raymond Chang, M.D.

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Raymond Chang, an expert in both contemporary Western and traditional Eastern medicine, is known as one of the pioneers of complementary and alternative medicine in the United States. In addition to his work as an oncologist, Dr. Chang is also the founder of the Institute of East-West Medicine and currently directs the world's largest database project on anti-cancer herbs. He has lectured widely on the concept of integrative oncology for many years, and knows that--despite extensive research and practice--there is no single "magic bullet" that offers a cure for cancer. Beyond the Magic Bullet outlines a therapeutic approach that focuses instead on cocktail therapy, an integrated regimen that includes conventional cancer treatments in combination with off-label drugs, nutritional supplements, specialized diets, spiritual activities and more.

Beyond the Magic Bullet focuses first on a clear explanation of the biology and treatment of cancer, ultimately suggesting a strategy for implementing cocktail therapy. The second half of the book then discusses, in detail, the various off-label drugs and dietary supplements that might be used in cocktail therapy. Dr. Chang's presentation is well-written, nicely designed and easy to follow despite its discussion of complex medical and pharmaceutical topics; it is clearly meant to be read by cancer patients and their caregivers. Best of all, though, Beyond the Magic Bullet encourages a conversation between patients and their providers about an individualized, multifaceted approach to the treatment of cancer, which should be the starting point for anyone suffering from such a complicated illness. --Roni K. Devlin, owner of Literary Life Bookstore & More

Square One, $16.95, paperback, 9780757002328

Children's & Young Adult

Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love

by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack Jr., illus. by Randy DuBurke

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The McKissacks' (Black Diamond) outlandish but true story of African American cowboy Nat Love, also known as Deadwood Dick, feels tailor-made for a graphic novel treatment.

The action begins in 1902 Denver, with an African American porter who grabs the reins of a runaway horse and saves a child in its path. One of the passengers recognizes the man's skills ("Deadwood Dick! I knew it was you," the passenger says) and invites him to submit some cowboy stories about "the Old West." The McKissacks, who based their account on Love's autobiography, thus create a segue into Nat Love's reflections on his past. He discusses his birth into slavery, being freed shortly after the Civil War, and then working to support his family. He found his calling breaking colts at 10 cents each. The hero earned the name "Deadwood Dick" in Deadwood, South Dakota's "Great Cowboy Games," for being the first to rope a wild mustang and also the best shot.

Randy DuBurke's (Malcolm X) predominantly black-and-white sequences, with just a dash of color, hasten the story's pace. He uses panels to depict Nat Love's step-by-step mounting of the horses, then opens up double-page spreads to convey the animals' speed before he breaks them. The McKissacks select milestone moments that give readers insight into the man's character and also other tools that kept Nat Love alive: he could read, and he always treated others with respect. This pageturner allows readers to learn about post–Civil War era and meet a remarkable man in the process. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Chronicle Books, $19.99, hardcover, 134p., ages 12-up, 9780811857499

Extra Yarn

by Mac Barnett, illus. by Jon Klassen

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"On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town, where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow or the black of soot from chimneys, Annabelle found a box filled with yarn of every color." So begins Barnett's (Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem) gently humorous and uplifting tale.

Annabelle knits a sweater for herself and her dog, Mars, and "there was still extra yarn." When a boy named Nate makes fun of her and Mars ("You two look ridiculous," he says), Annabelle replies, "You're just jealous." Though he denies it, "it turned out he was." Nate and his pooch, sporting sweaters, look less mean and downright contented. Barnett's turn of phrase becomes a refrain of sorts, as Annabelle and her boundless bounty of yarn wrap classmates, townsfolk and even buildings in colorful wool. A greedy archduke tries to buy the box of infinite wool for upward of $1 million, but Annabelle turns him down. And when he plots to steal the box, he gets his just deserts.

Klassen's (I Want My Hat Back) sepia-toned illustrations of wooden-plank fences, birch trees and clapboard houses make the rainbow-colored makeovers pop. He connects the sweater-clad villagers with a hanging colorful thread, as if he did not lift his paintbrush except to turn the page. It acts as a subtle metaphor for the common thread of Annabelle's kindness, which connects them all. Barnett and Klassen prove that a heartfelt homemade gift can nearly always warm a hard heart. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, $16.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-up, 9780061953385
new middle grade from claudia mills

When feuding neighbors Sonnet and Zeke are paired up for a class project, they unearth a secret that could uproot Sonnet's family--or allow it to finally heal and grow. 

Twelve-year-old Sonnet's family has just moved across the country to live with her grandfather. Gramps's once impressive apple orchard has been razed for a housing development, with only one heirloom tree left. Sonnet doesn't want to think about how Gramps and his tree are both growing old, she just wants everything to be okay.

Sonnet is definitely not okay with her neighbor, Zeke, a boy who gets on her bad side when he tries to choose her grandpa to interview for a history assignment. Meanwhile, Sonnet joins the Green Club and without talking to Zeke about it,she asks his activist father to speak at the Arbor Day assembly, resulting in a collision of worlds that Zeke wanted more than anything to avoid. When the interviews uncover a buried tragedy, Sonnet learns not just to accept Zeke as he is, but also that sometimes forgetting isn't the solution--even when remembering seems harder. 

Margaret Ferguson Books: The Last Apple Tree by Claudia Mills


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