Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, February 12, 2013
From My Shelf
Be My Valentine Books
I recently heard--or maybe made up to suit myself--that Valentine's Day was more unpopular than New Year's Eve, despite the cute cards ("yOu're just my typO") and crowded romantic restaurants. (Haven't made a reservation yet? Tough.) To be sure, any occasion that involves chocolate is not all bad; since chocolate graces the check-out counters in many bookstores, pairing it with books is a nice alternative to wilted flowers and crowded cafés, and might even sway people who say "Grrrrr" to February 14. Still, even the latter sort probably like a good romantic novel now and then, so we have some suggestions.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes is the moving story of a curmudgeonly quadriplegic and quirky young woman hired to care for him, with an ethical question at its base. It's serious yet funny, and is romantic in spades. The same can be said for Truth in Advertising by John Kenney. At first, I thought it might be the funniest book I'd read in a while; then Kenney grabbed my heart as he told his tale about adman Finbar Dolan trying to keep up a façade covering a sad reality and feelings for a coworker. Both authors combine humor, tenderness and pain flawlessly into wonderful books. A box of tissues is advised, in a good way.
The Importance of Being Wicked is lighter choice, a romp featuring a spirited widow working secretly as an architect for her late husband's firm, and an attractive owner of a manor to be restored. Author Victoria Alexander has crafted a most pleasurable historical romance. Somewhat more wicked is S.E.C.R.E.T. by L. Marie Adeline, the first of an erotic series with a feminist bent: a secret society that empowers women through sexual encounters. Confidence, self-worth and independence are the goals. And fun.
A good book and chocolates. Flowers optional. --Marilyn Dahl, book review editor, Shelf Awareness
The Brain That Reads; Foodie Fiction; Reads for Kids
"Reading about experiences is almost the same as living it." That's just one of the aspects of the bookish mind explored by Open Education Database in the post "Your Brain on Books: 10 Things That Happen to Our Minds When We Read."
Get Ready for "Foodie Fiction," Bon Appétit magazine warned in presenting "novels of various vintages (new, older, forthcoming) and terroir (America, Spain, the Netherlands), for those of us who like to read, eat, and read about eating."
Noting that the writer's life "life isn't traditionally exciting," Flavorwire offered "10 movies that make writing look incredibly dangerous."
Fungible terms for noisome wordsmiths: Mental Floss revealed "11 words that don't mean what they sound like."
Joanna Nadin, author of the Penny Dreadful series, chose her "top 10 laugh-out-loud reads for 5 to 8-year-olds" for the Guardian.
The Rainbow Book Chair, designed by Chen Liu, "would be really cool in the kids section of a library or a school for a more playful atmosphere," Design Milk noted.
The Writer's Life
Sara J. Henry: Crime in a Cold Place
|photo: Joseph M. Mascia|
Sara J. Henry's first book, Learning to Swim, won several awards and was chosen by the Boston Globe as one of the best crime novels of 2011. Combining thoughtful reflections on relationships and the roles we play in each others' lives with a rock-solid plot, it's a debut novel that reads like the work of a seasoned novelist. Henry's new book, A Cold and Lonely Place (Crown, $24), builds on her debut and takes us further into the lives of characters trying to make sense of events out of their control.
Your main character, Troy Chance, shares your journalism background. How much of her is based on you?
I think in general authors don't like admitting how much of their main character is them, but in this case, the cat seems to be out of the bag. People don't have to know me long to see that this main character is pretty much me.
Or at least a younger me. I moved to the Adirondacks at 26 to become the sports editor for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, a small paper in an area where sports was a vital part of the community. I knew nothing about sports reporting when I arrived, so this was in many ways my own "learning to swim." There I lived in a big house on Main Street in Lake Placid with a roster of rotating roommates, and after two years quit to write freelance, much as Troy did.
Troy looks like me (more than one person has asked if the person on the paperback cover is me); she dresses like me; she likes computers and bicycles and dogs, as I do, and shares some other traits with me. She can, however, eat things I no longer can, which is possibly why I describe food so lovingly--which very much annoys some readers.
Crime novels are tricky, in ways that other novels aren't--that need for a mystery, that thread of wrongdoing and drama woven into the narrative. Was it challenging to find a new twist, to make the suspense fresh without shoving characters into situations that seem contrived?
You have hit the nail on the head. One friend told me, "It's a good thing you don't write mystery. 'Cause I hate mystery. You write people, and I feel like I know them." Which I find a great compliment--and it is how I try to write, to focus on the people, rather than the events. As the classic suspense novelist Mary Stewart once said, "What mattered to me was not the mystery, but the choice the heroine faces between personal and larger loyalties."
But of course these are crime novels, and it's the crime or the mystery that provides the stage for the characters. And extreme situations let us get to know characters more intimately, more quickly.
The challenge is to weave those threads through the book without sacrificing character (or bogging down in detail--I did a lot of trimming on Learning to Swim). And, as you point out, to come up with situations that don't seem contrived, which is trickier with a "civilian" main character than one who's a detective or PI.
Setting up the first two books was easy enough--I shouldn't admit how readily these opening scenes popped into my head!--but I'm well aware of the Murder She Wrote syndrome. While continually stumbling across dead bodies in a tiny town worked fine for a TV show, it would pretty well doom a character-driven series. What helps is that Troy is now writing magazine articles that require travel, that her brother is a policeman, that she is close to the Canadian detective. Which all give room to a lot of possibilities.
Do you have more books planned for these characters? The way the second flows from the first, it almost seems like you have a grand plan in mind.
I've always planned this as a series, a five- or six-book arc featuring Troy. I don't see it running much longer with her as the central character: her personal growth is a major theme, and at a point she will mature enough emotionally that it would no longer be interesting--or would be supremely annoying if she didn't. I have thought of branching out the series, as Australian author Michael Robotham did, with books featuring other characters: Jameson, the Ottawa policeman; Simon, Troy's policeman brother; or Alyssa, the Vermont journalist. Or a combination thereof. --Matthew Tiffany, counselor, writer for Condalmo
by Margaret Wrinkle
Margaret Wrinkle's debut novel, Wash, begins as an unflinching look at the particular horrors inflicted within the larger horror of slavery. But Wrinkle, a filmmaker and artist from Alabama, then delves deeper into one of America's founding sins; she plumbs beyond the brutality and into the wisdom of the ages to compose an elegiac yet surprisingly uplifting portrait of the resilience of the human spirit.
Wrinkle creates indelible characters to lead the reader into the nightmarish world of slavery. Wash (short for Washington) is too free, strong and defiant to make a good field slave, so his conflicted owner hires him out to other slave owners as a breeding slave. Pallas, a slave woman from a neighboring plantation, is given to three teenage boys for their sexual amusement. In a circular narrative voice full of the presence of nature's divinity and the cycles of life, Wash delineates the utter debasement of Wash and Pallas, but also reveals how both of them find ways to hold onto a piece of themselves that cannot be stolen or exploited.
Wash is a challenging novel that unabashedly confronts the inherent homoeroticism of a slave owner admiring his slave's prowess, as well as the other sexual undercurrents of slave society. But it also suggests sympathy for slave owners who destroyed their minds and hearts trying to live with their young country's contradictory practices of liberation and cruelty. Most of all, Wash is a solemn and magnificent paean to the survival--even amid the most crushing, inhumane conditions--of the special and eternal essence within every soul. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic
Discover: A magnificent and challenging novel of slavery, full of wisdom and the divinity of nature, that paints an ultimately uplifting portrait of the resilience of the human spirit.
Shadow on the Crown
by Patricia Bracewell
In 1002, Emma of Normandy was sent by her brother, Richard of Normandy, to marry England's widowed King Athelred. The marriage, like so many of its time, was political in nature, meant to bind a peace between the English and the Normans in face of the ever-growing threats of Viking invasion. Teenage Emma soon finds herself wed to a much older man who sees her as little more than an annoyance; the only way to secure her place in the English court is to bear the king a son. But when the Viking threat becomes a reality and she finds herself falling in love with a man who is not her husband, she must decide where her loyalties lie--with Normandy or with England, with duty or with passion.
Shadow on the Crown, Patricia Bracewell's debut novel, gives readers this story and more, basing its version of Emma's life on events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. According to Bracewell's author note, Queen Emma commissioned a written history of her life, but started her tale in 1017, leaving no record of her first 15 years in England or her marriage to King Athelred. Shadow on the Crown is the first in a planned trilogy that will recreate this forgotten period of Queen Emma's life, combining historical accuracies with imagined romance and political intrigue in a novel that will fit nicely on the shelf between Gabaldon's Outlander and Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: A novel sure to resonate with fans of Philippa Gregory’s work, detailing the life of Queen Emma of England at the turn of the 11th century.
Percival Everett by Virgil Russell
by Percival Everett
In Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, the ground is constantly shifting. Is this the story of an aging writer as dictated to his inquisitive son, or is the son imagining what his father might say to him, or is the son even real?
Or is it about a ranch owner who stumbles into a relationship with a horse doctor? Is Murphy a contractor who accepts an antique Leica camera from a morbidly obese neighbor or a painter who's just discovered he might have an adult daughter? And just how did Nat Turner survive from the time of his pre-Civil War rebellion to hang out with Charlton Heston as part of Martin Luther King's inner circle during the March on Washington?
The elderly author in the nursing home, the narrator who comes closest to mirroring Everett, angrily recalls how one critic told him his work "was about itself and process and not about objective reality and life in the world," so "I asked him what he thought objective reality was. Then I punched him."
Eventually, the narrative settles into a single groove, but it's not entirely safe to assume that the aging writer in a nursing home is the same writer from the earlier chapters.
Everett's metafictional reflections on identity free him to create scenes of great emotional authenticity, as the array of characters gives him multiple options with which to tackle some of the toughest questions we can ask ourselves about our relationships to the world--and the people closest to us. --Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com
Discover: Everett's metafictional reflections on identity will further solidify his critical reputation; readers who are unfamiliar with him but up for a literary workout may find this a good place to start.
Mystery & Thriller
by Charles DuBow
In his seductively fascinating debut novel, Indiscretion, Charles DuBow poses the question, "What does the man who has everything desire?" It's hard to imagine Harry wanting anything more in his idyllic life: he's an exceptional athlete and award-winning author happily married to a smart, loving woman whose beauty is legendary. They throw fabulous parties, fly planes and generally live a charmed, golden life that, despite their wealth, seems to emphasize the things that really matter in life.
Enter Claire, a young dazzling woman who becomes a part of their social circle and falls for Harry. Harry adores his wife, Maddy, and their son, but he's powerless against his profound connection with the exciting Claire--and she has no scruples in getting what she wants. In fact, she can't seem to help herself; she's overwhelmed by her feelings for this fabulous, accomplished older man.
Indiscretion draws you in like a beautiful, intriguing woman you meet on a long train ride. Harry and Claire's affair begins to lose its luster (as most clandestine arrangements do) once it's out in the open, and judgment and contempt trump desire, but DuBow isn't going to let Harry get away too easily. The story's tone transforms from glamorously erotic and appealing to a cautionary tale that will linger in the darkest part of your heart long after you've completed this stunning tale of love and loss. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend
Discover: The seductive tale of a man who has it all, and the repercussions of wanting more.
The Burn Palace
by Stephen Dobyns
Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace begins early in a late October morning in the small town of Brewster, R.I. As most of the town sleeps, we see Nurse Spandax rushing to the nursery after an illicit sexual encounter with Dr. Balfour. A newborn boy is missing, replaced by a "huge snake with red and yellow stripes." She screams.
"Now, like an airborne camera," Dobyns writes, "we move back from the hospital," and meet the town's residents. Among them are Ernest Hartmann, a visiting insurance investigator; Larry Rodman, who collects rings, "one of the perks of working at the Burn Palace," as Brewster residents call the local crematorium; Vicki Lefebvre, whose daughter is also missing; Sheriff Woody Potter, off to investigate the babynapping; and 10-year old Hercel McCarty Jr., who can do "things" and whose pet snake is missing. Hercel's afraid of his stepdad, Carl, who has something in his gut trying to "break free."
Things slowly begin happening, like the way one character speaks: "the words percolated into his head like water seeping into clay." While visiting an Indian burial ground, Hartmann is stabbed and scalped by a man without a face. There's talk of Wiccans and witches, and the mother of the missing baby says she was impregnated by devils. Nurse Spandax goes missing. Coyotes are gathering around town. Carl, hearing voices, has taken to growling and staring at knotholes in his bedroom.
Dobyns weaves a huge, seamless tapestry of a narrative, unfolding a suspenseful, eerie tale of a town caught up in a spell ripped from a Nathaniel Hawthorne story. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: Stephen King almost never blurbs other writers, but he calls Dobyns's latest novel "authentically great... terrifying, sweet and crazily funny."
Science Fiction & Fantasy
A Natural History of Dragons
by Marie Brennan
Lady Isabella Trent is known from Scirland to Eriga as the world's preeminent dragon naturalist, an unexpected and somewhat unorthodox career for a noble woman of Scirland. But before she became famous for her dragon exploits, she was a young woman thrust into society in search of a husband at her parents' insistence, sacrificing her love of books and learning in favor of doing what was expected of her. Little could her parents have known she would land one of the most eligible bachelors in Scirland--or that he would entertain her dreams of studying dragons in far-off lands.
A Natural History of Dragons is Marie Brennan's imagined memoir of this fascinating woman and the creatures to which she dedicates her life. Brennan's skill in developing believable, engaging fantasy steeped in archeological history and folklore is what makes this "memoir" so successful--it is at once as fantastical as it is real. Brennan, writing as Lady Trent, drags readers through lands we have never heard of in search of creatures we have never seen, but never once lets us forget that we are reading about an insecure young woman and new bride, struggling to prove her worth despite her gender and to maintain a ladylike reputation without sacrificing what she loves most. Though dragons may not exist in our own world's history, it is certain that the struggles of women like Trent do, and Brennan captures both with equal elegance in this first volume in the memoirs of Lady Trent. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: The imagined memoirs of Lady Isabella Trent and her lifelong dedication to dragons, the first in a planned series.
The Mad Scientist's Daughter
by Cassandra Rose Clarke
In the opening scene of Cassandra Rose Clarke's The Mad Scientist's Daughter, Cat is just a small girl when her father brings Finn home to live with their family. At first, his strange demeanor convinces her that he's a ghost. She tries taking him to the local cemetery to make his spirit vanish, but he doesn't go anywhere; in fact, her father decides to make Finn her homeschooling tutor. Eventually, she discovers the truth--Finn is a vividly life-like robot--and as she hits adolescence, her parents grow concerned about her intense emotional attachment to him. Despite their best efforts, though, she begins to push their relationship into uncharted territory....
In her first novel for adults (after the YA The Assassin's Curse), Clarke traces Cat's life through several decades, maintaining an emotional consistency to the character even as she convincingly echoes the shifting mindset from early childhood to middle-age. The novel also walks a careful tightrope: Although Clarke portrays the discreet sexual relationship between Finn and the adult Cat sympathetically, she also makes it clear Cat is exploiting the robot both physically and emotionally. It's also obvious that Finn has a greater emotional capacity than Cat suspects, and when she enters into a loveless marriage with a wealthy industrialist to support her artistic lifestyle, he dramatically breaks off contact. Cat still has some significant growing up to do, and though Clarke does steer things toward a happy ending, it's definitely one that is earned rather than rewarded. --Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com
Discover: An emotional drama about a woman who takes advantage of her best friend's affection--only this time the best friend is a robot.
Detroit: An American Autopsy
by Charlie LeDuff
In many ways, Charlie LeDuff's personal story overwhelms the account of the decline and fall of Motor City in Detroit: An American Autopsy. LeDuff made his bones as a reporter at the New York Times, contributing to its Pulitzer-winning series "How Race Is Lived in America," but when the staid Times became too restricting, he quit and moved to Detroit to work the city beat for the underdog Detroit News.
LeDuff knows the dark side of Detroit down to its grim corner taps ("cinderblock, cheap paneling, a jukebox, and a handful of wretches with faces of mud"), yet he holds sentimental hometown affection for his city despite recognizing that "it never was that good in the first place." With a reporter's tenacity, he digs into the details of Detroit's history of corrupt and incompetent leadership. His sharp tongue takes on a string of mayors and petty politicians on the take, "bejeweled and flamboyant... Little Richard of the cloth" preachers and the arrogant executives who destroyed the automotive goose that laid Detroit's golden egg. For LeDuff, the story of Detroit is "about angry people fighting and crying and snatching hold of one another trying to stay alive. It is about the future of America and our desperate efforts to save ourselves from it." Even if this metaphorical leap is a little over the top, Detroit: An American Autopsy is first-person reporting at its best. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: A personal account of the downfall of Detroit from a city of opportunity to a city of despair.
Biography & Memoir
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things
by Paula Byrne
Biographies of Jane Austen adopt a reverent tone when extolling her prodigious literary gifts, yet little is known about Austen herself; many of the letters that could cast light on her short life were destroyed by her sister Cassandra. Paula Byrne dissembles the myths surrounding Austen by focusing on the minutiae of life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Key scenes, objects and experiences pivotal to Austen's fiction become the anchor with which to reveal The Real Jane Austen.
"Her novels were grounded in the real world," Byrne writes. "In order to create them, she drew upon the reality she knew: the people, the places, the events." She uses personal artifacts such as a topaz cross and Austen's vellum notebooks, as well as scenes from the novels, to support or debunk modern perceptions about the author. A family profile becomes the preamble for a general discussion on the custom of childless couples adopting distant relations as heirs; a description of a shawl imported from East India leads to a treatise on poverty and its effects on a woman's prospects for marriage and survival--a very real threat for dowry-less daughters and a theme of great significance in Austen's fiction.
Under Byrne's scrutiny, Austen's satirical and wickedly delicious wit, her worldly ways and confidence in her craft serve as an antithesis to the image of a staid, naïve maiden living a simple country life. The result is a fresh behind-the-scenes look at an author who, for many, stands behind only Shakespeare as the greatest English writer. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: A fresh biography examines the minutiae of daily 18th- and 19th-century life to shed new light on a beloved author about whom little is known.
Fresh Off the Boat
by Eddie Huang
"Fresh off the boat"--FOB for short--is used derogatorily to describe immigrants who have not yet assimilated into their adopted country's cultural environment. Eddie Huang, the notorious chef of BaoHaus, a New York eatery known for its Taiwanese-style street sandwiches, turns this negative meaning into an affirmative cri de guerre. Huang asserts that he "refused the American Experience [he] was sold, remixed it for [himself], chopped it up, and sold it back." Told in a voice replete with hip-hop ethos, Huang's tale of growing up Taiwanese-American is a "recipe" for how to thrive in a culture that values individualism but judges its citizens by a pre-pack standard of success.
Eschewing measurements for this recipe, Huang instead describes how he arrives at "good food," relying on humble ingredients steeped in personal history but free from neurosis. By turn contradictory, belligerent, yet surprisingly reflective, Fresh Off the Boat emphatically rejects the Asian American male's standard narrative, discarding the emasculated "mandarin" stereotype to embrace the model of a shrewdly contentious marketer--a 21st-century version of Ralph Ellison's (In)visible Man.
Ultimately, Huang's rebellion represents a quintessential American story. From drug-dealing undergraduate to streetwear designer to restaurant owner (and also attorney for a white-shoe law firm along the way), Huang intuitively understands the power of self-invention as a means to realign social and racial inequalities: "I tell people all the time. Whether it's a girl, a skirt steak, or a record, you know in the first five seconds if it's a hit." --Thuy Dinh, editor, Da Mau magazine
Discover: An arresting bildungsroman by a food warrior who specializes in "freshness" as a way of life.
Children's & Young Adult
Scarlet, The Lunar Chronicles, #2
by Marissa Meyer
Marissa Meyer takes up the second installment of her four-part tale, begun with Cinder, with 18-year-old Scarlet's discovery that the police have closed the case on her missing grandmother. The author continues to move at her lightning pace, and smoothly weaves Cinder's story into this Little Red Riding Hood retelling.
Scarlet and her grandmother grow "the best tomatoes in France," according to their top client, Gilles, owner of the Rieux Tavern. And Scarlet knows her grandmother would never leave without a note, and certainly not without her I.D. chip, which Scarlet had found bloodied and wrapped in cheesecloth on the kitchen counter. Footage of Cinder at the ball, the culminating event of the New Beijing festival in the first book, plays on the netscreen at Rieux Tavern as Scarlet makes her delivery there. Scarlet takes issue with the raunchier remarks, and a fight breaks out. A stranger to town, a streetfighter known only as "Wolf," comes to Scarlet's aid.
Meyer once again reimagines a classic fairy tale and delves into its darker implications. Themes of feminism, keeping one's autonomy in a relationship, coping with betrayal and good old-fashioned storytelling come together in another tour de force. Both Cinder and Scarlet begin a quest to uncover and accept newfound facts about themselves and their families, even as their searches bring them together. Meyer creates another memorable heroine, and fans will be chomping at the bit for the third book, Cress, modeled on Rapunzel. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Marissa Meyer follows up Cinder, her highly imaginative retelling of Cinderella, with an equally captivating twist on Little Red Riding Hood.
by Megan Miranda
Megan Miranda's debut novel, Fracture, established her as a strong architect of psychological drama, and she comes through again with her sophomore novel, Hysteria.
Mallory has killed her boyfriend, but can't remember the details of that night. With the heroine caught between sanity, her dreams and the opinions of those around her, her parents decide to send her to a prep school where she can escape the stares and finger pointing. They feel confident that the new start will help Mallory to move on. But a new environment isn't enough: "The room throbbed with the boom, boom, boom just like at home. Same as always." The guilt and madness slowly build as Mallory has trouble discerning her dreams from real life. Mysterious bruises appear on her skin, she has interactions with students she can't remember and, finally, another boy is killed in her room.
Alternating between Mallory's memories and the present, Miranda uses a narrative style that evokes a teen on the edge of sanity. Mallory's journey to find herself and understand what happened with her dead boyfriend and the boy at her new school will leave readers feeling as anxious as the narrator. Miranda has created a true psychological drama from first page to last. --Shanyn Day, blogger at Chick Loves Lit
Discover: A girl accused of murder who attempts to prove her innocence in spite of her inner demons.