Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Harlequin: The Last Breath by Kimberly Belle

From My Shelf

Moms We Wish Were Real

I love Goodnight Moon. I love Margaret Wise Brown; I love Clement Hurd. But I do not love Runaway Bunny. Why? Mama Bunny is a stalker.

Instead, consider giving a new mother Someday by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. It's a hymn to motherhood that reminds us to savor the moments. A few more favorite board books to give new mothers, for playing and cuddling: I Kissed the Baby! by Mary Murphy, with high-contrast artwork just right for a new baby's eyes; The Baby Goes Beep by Rebecca O'Connell, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max, in which a toddler (could be a boy or girl) engages in fun activities (with both Mom and Dad); and a celebration of babies around the world, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by baby experts Mem Fox (author) and Helen Oxenbury (artist).

Exemplary mothers in beginning readers include the ursine mama in Else Holmelund Minarik's Little Bear books, illustrated by Maurice Sendak; and Kevin Henkes's loving mouse mother in Penny and Her Song. Model mothers in beginning chapter books that leap to mind for me are always the unorthodox ones: Clementine's mother in the series by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee, and the mom she'd be friends with in The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia MacLachlan. It's hard to beat MacLachlan's mothers, even the ones who marry into the family, as in Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Please don't miss the best mother to come along in middle-grade fiction for quite some time: Mrs. Pullman in Wonder by R.J. Palacio. After home-schooling her son, Auggie, through 27 operations for his cranial abnormalities and facial disfigurement, she prepares him to begin fifth grade, knowing he must learn to navigate a world that stresses first impressions. Mrs. Pullman is not perfect, but she's darn close. It's a book for the entire family. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Harlequin: Going gone by Sharon Sala

Harlequin: Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn

Plume: Mrs. Lincoln's Rival by Jennifer Chiaverini

Book Candy

Ellen 'Reads' E.L. James; Dining Room-Libraries; Quizzes

"Do not eat the pancakes!" Ellen DeGeneres auditions for the job of audiobook reader for Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.  

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"Dining rooms with beautiful bookshelves" were featured by theKitchn.com, which noted: "What if--I began to wonder--one was surrounded by shelves and shelves of books in the dining room?... Not only would it serve an aesthetic purpose, but a practical one, too. When the room (or area) wasn't being used for dining, it could function as a library of sorts."

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"Who wrote that memoir?" For sports fans, Mental Floss offered a "coach speak" book titles quiz.

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How well do you know Snow White? The Guardian offered two quizzes, one for kids under seven and another for everyone else.

Ecco: The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco

Great Reads

Further Reading: Girls Reading

The most iconic Mother's Day gifts are flowers and brunch, but why not celebrate the mothers in your life this year with one of these books that celebrates books themselves and the girls who love to read them?

Maureen Corrigan, book critic on NPR's Fresh Air, hit the nail on the head with the title of her memoir: Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books. Corrigan explores the formative power of books in shaping her life, from her first recognition of people who don't understand the power of reading to her career as a professional book reviewer. She also details her love of books in three genres she "created" (female extreme adventure novels, hard-boiled detective stories and tales of Catholic saints and martyrs), leaving readers a history of a life dedicated to books and a powerful list of titles to add to the ever-growing to-be-read stack.

Jo Walton's Among Others takes a more fantastical approach to the subject of the formative power of reading, but is still, at heart, an ode to the power of books to mold us into the people we become. As a child, Morwenna and her twin sister played in the industrial ruins near their home in Wales, where they befriended the spirits who lived among the ruins. When an accident claims the life of her twin and Morwenna is sent away to boarding school, she turns to books of science fiction and fantasy to keep her company. Through these books, she reconnects with the world, with other readers and with herself. Walton's delicate combination of classic Welsh mythology with the science fiction and fantasy titles of the 1980s is a powerful one, and like Corrigan's memoirs, will leave readers with a long list of titles to explore.

Katie Ward's debut novel, Girl, Reading, is in fact a series of self-contained, intertwined stories, each centering on the creation of a portrait of a girl, reading. The book begins in the 14th century and moves to the year 2060, with tales threaded together by the commonality of the creation of the portraits and persistent allusions to art and literature. The result is a novel that celebrates the intimate, delicate bond between women and their books--a subject no reading mother will want to miss. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Selected Shorts

The Writer's Life

Rosamund Lupton: The Strength of Family Bonds

Following her debut novel, Sister, Rosamund Lupton returns with Afterwards (reviewed below), in which suburban mother Grace runs into a burning building to save her teenage daughter. Both women are badly burned and find themselves sharing an out-of-body experience at the hospital. Lupton, a former screenwriter who lives in London with her husband and two young sons, recently spoke with us on her novel about love, family, and what comes afterwards.

Afterwards centers on Grace's love for her husband and children. What inspired you to create the members of this close-knit family? How did you first get the idea for their story?

I am a wife and mother myself, so inevitably drew upon that experience. Although the characters themselves are totally imagined, the bonds between them are ones I know well. I was interested in the "mother tigress" instinct that seemed to me to arrive with a baby, and I explored that with the mother character, Grace. At the beginning of the novel she runs into a burning school to rescue her teenage daughter and from then on finds tremendous physical and mental courage, which is an instinctive rather than a rational response. I hope that the novel illuminates, in a dynamic way, the strength of family bonds.

Much of the book hinges on Grace's love for her daughter Jenny and their relationship. As the mother of two boys, did you have to stretch your imagination to create the mother-daughter bond? How do you see Grace's relationship with Jenny as different from her relationship with Adam?

I think personality--of both parent and child--influences the bond more than gender does. My two sons are not yet teenagers, so I couldn't steal anything from them to create the character of Jenny (which I'm sure they're grateful for!). That said, I remember vividly what it was like to be a teenager and my own close relationship with my mother, so I had that to draw on. Grace's relationship with Jenny is different from the one she has with Adam because Jenny is older and getting to be independent of Grace, rather than because she's a girl. When I first wrote Jenny and Grace, I had Jenny as a rather dislikeable, selfish teenager who I thought would mature through the book. I didn't enjoy writing her this way, and thought the reader wouldn't enjoy reading her, so I changed her into a character I liked from the beginning. As I wrote, it was Grace who had to mature through the book. Like many mothers, I feel that children make me grow up as much as the other way around.

How did you decide to use out-of-body experiences as a central plot device?

Before I had any plot or real story, I knew I wanted to write about a mother and daughter talking to each other, as spirits, throughout the novel. I thought it would be fascinating to have characters who could watch and comment on the action but not take part. I hoped to show a relationship evolving in a short space of time, and to really get to know these characters. At another level, I wanted the spirits idea to be a metaphor for the connection that exists between two people who love each other. Although I found it creatively inspiring, there were practical challenges. For example, it was confusing to have spirit voices mingling with "real" ones, and I had to rewrite the beginning so that Jenny and Grace's conversations are pretty separate from the "main" action. But gradually, as the reader hopefully gets on board with the whole idea, I stop separating their conversations from the action they're watching. I always knew that this was a difficult idea to pull off, and in the end I'd just have to hope readers would take that leap of faith with me.

In both Afterwards and Sister, you chose to have the narrator address another central character rather than the reader. Why do you use this approach?

I worked for many years as a screenwriter so it's natural for me to write a novel as one half of a dialogue, addressing someone else. It is a more intimate way for me to write, and I hope that the reader feels pulled into the characters and the story.

Domestic violence affects a family in this story. Is domestic violence awareness a cause near to your heart?

The family as a sanctuary from violence and brutality is something I believe in very strongly, so I find it shocking and disturbing when, instead of refuge, there's viciousness and cruelty. In Afterwards, I tried to write about the complex effect of domestic violence as well as delineating the travesty of trust and love.

Afterwards is a moving story about family, but it's also a top-notch mystery. How do you balance the two?

I hope that the story and the mystery are woven tightly together. Grace's love for her daughter and son push her on as a detective--she has to find the culprit in order to safeguard her children. The tension ratchets up during the book for Grace, and therefore for the reader, too.

Do you plan to continue exploring family dynamics in your work?

I'm not sure that I'll choose family members again, but I think dynamics between people--whether family members or not--have been the stuff of stories from time immemorial.

What message do you hope readers of Afterwards take from the book?

I just hope that they enjoy reading it--if they take anything away from it, then I'm honored. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger, Infinite Reads

Weinstein Books: Billion Dollar Painter by G Eric Kurskey

Inklings

The Joy of Knitting

Knitting is one of the great inventions. With two sticks and some sort of yarn you can make pretty much anything you want. People have been knitting since the first millennium. Even in the world of the quick result and extreme irritation if your Internet connection isn't instant, people are still prepared to sit down and patiently work away with the same materials the Egyptians used, to produce, slowly and painstakingly, the same basic fabric that they produced. You would have expected it to have died out by now, but giving someone a hand-knitted present shows that you are prepared to put the time in, which, given that time is such a precious commodity, makes it priceless.

Perhaps one of the reasons that we still keep at it is that there is something inherently soothing in the rhythm of knitting. And then there are the results--from the practical to the bizarrely weird, there is a pattern for it somewhere, generally on the Internet. If you learn to knit, you enter a remarkably civilized and helpful online community, where people will take the greatest care to make supportive suggestions and offer advice; you become part of a giant worldwide knitting fraternity (or is that sorority?). One of the added benefits is that in that fraternity there are people making the most extraordinary things. As well as sweaters, bobble hats and scarves, on the Internet we have found a dissected lab rat, a zebra crossing, an anatomically correct full set of internal organs, even a full-sized Ferrari. We like to feel we have contributed in our small way to expanding the repertoire of knitting with Knit your Own Dog and Knit Your Own Cat. Knitting encompasses all our idiosyncrasies: it can be purely practical, but it can also be done for the sheer pleasure of making something lovely. --Sally Muir, co-author with Joanna Osborne (Muir and Osborne), of Knit Your Own Cat and Knit Your Own Dog (Black Dog & Leventhal)

Plume: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Literary Lists

Buildings Made out of Books; Books to Fuel Wanderlust

Would you live in what you read? "10 gorgeous buildings made out of books" were showcased by Flavorwire.

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If the changing season has you staring out your windows, "peering longingly at the world beyond, wishing for a little adventure and travel," then Flavorwire may offer a temporary cure with its list of "10 books to fuel your springtime wanderlust."

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"Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French." The Guardian featured its selections for the "10 best first lines in fiction."

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After gathering a list of "19 fun facts about children's books spotted at the library," Mental Floss shared "photos of books with facts related to them."

Book Brahmin

Book Brahmin: Beth Gutcheon

Beth Gutcheon is the author of Still Missing, More Than You Know and Leeway Cottage, among other books. Her ninth novel, Gossip, was  published by Morrow on March 12, 2012. Gutcheon lives in New York City with her husband and her attack poodle, Daisy Buchanan.

On your nightstand now:

To be clear, my nightstand is a sturdy side table in the living room where I read after everyone else is in bed. It's stacked pretty high, but the books in current rotation are Claire Tomalin's Dickens, for pleasure, and Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem, for research for a new novel and also for fun. I'm a fan of his novel Sashenka. Also, Rembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama because we're going to Amsterdam next month. They're all pretty fat; someone should make a book derrick.

Favorite book when you were a child:

All the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. (I disdained the ones by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who carried on after he died, though I read them when I ran out of real ones.) The only one I didn't love was The Wizard of Oz, perhaps because it's so overexposed, but also it seems more programmatic than the rest. Anything with the Nome King in it gave particular joy.

Your top five authors:

Austen, Dickens, Willa Cather, Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh.

Book you've faked reading:

Gone with the Wind when I was 12 and my best friend was mad for it while I was still caught up with the Black Stallion books. Being unmasked in this fraud was so painful that I read GWTW immediately to recover my dignity, and then was of course in thrall to it for years myself.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Book of Ebenezer LePage by G.B. Edwards. It was published posthumously in 1981, the author's only completed work; the story of an old man on Guernsey looking back on his life and, oh, the language! Every page is vivid and wry and chewy and makes you want to move to the Channel Islands. It goes in and out of print, but is currently in, as a New York Review of Books classic. Also, The Assault by Harry Mulisch, a story that begins with a disgusting act of moral cowardice in occupied Holland during World War II, with a circular structure in which each chapter reveals something new about what happened until by the end it brings you around to see that the initial event was entirely different from what it looked like. Brilliant.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Cookbooks and garden books always pose a danger. I bought Of Gardens by Paula Deitz for the most ethereally beautiful cover ever, but then I accidentally also read it. Lovely inside, too.

Book that changed your life:

Great Expectations. I'd been hooked on Dickens since reading David Copperfield in eighth grade, but GE was the thunderclap one. The ending is so stunning, the last thing you are expecting, and yet you can easily see that you'd been set up for it from the opening scene. It showed me what a miracle of craft that kind of devastatingly satisfying storytelling is, conceived as a whole from the ending forward, with the machinery in plain sight, yet unseen until the author wants you to see it.

Favorite line from a book:

To be honest, the first line of Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged," etc., but everyone must say that. Here's a random one from Dombey and Son, about witnesses signing the church registry after a wedding: "All the party sign--Cousin Feenix last, who puts his noble name into a wrong place and enrolls himself as having been born that morning." It always makes me laugh, yet it's such a throwaway, like thousands of such moments in Dickens.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

If I have to choose one, I guess Brideshead. But wait--what about My Antonia, or The Great Gatsby, or any Jane Austen at all?

Books you are most looking forward to:

Anything from Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kittredge is a marvel, but I love her earlier two novels even more. Also, Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall is such dazzling historical fiction, psychologically contemporary but not anachronistic. I love her describing an angry Ann Boleyn as looking as if someone had knitted her and pulled the stitches too tight.

Book Review

Fiction

More Like Her

by Liza Palmer

Everyone knows a woman like Emma, a central character in Liza Palmer's More Like Her, a woman who seems to epitomize perfection--a beautiful and successful woman, with a handsome husband and stunning home, who inspires envy. But things are never what they seem, and a chill might run up your spine as you read this novel, which embraces a darker, edgier side of chick lit. Told from the point of view of unlucky-in-love Fran, More Like Her rips the blinders off all its characters with the revelation that the seemingly unflappable Emma has been the victim of years of domestic abuse. When Emma's husband commits the ultimate violent act, Fran is forced to examine her perceptions of those around her but, more importantly, reevaluate how she has been zombie-walking through her own existence.

Drawing strength in the aftermath of Emma's tragedy, Fran struggles to learn the lesson that life is far too short to hide her true self. She begins taking more chances--in her career, in a relationship with a sexy Southern businessman and in her attempts to honor the memory of Emma. Palmer creates a cast of authentic characters around Fran, people who could be your co-workers or members of your book club. More Like Her is a reminder that, despite appearances, you can't really understand a relationship unless you're in it.--Natalie Papailiou. author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend

Discover: Liza Palmer's dark, edgy chick lit proves that when it comes to relationships, you can't judge a book by its cover.

Morrow, $14.99, paperback, 9780062007469

Dirt

by David Vann

David Vann's debut, Caribou Island, a beautifully dark novel, was both a fully realized tale and a portent of things to come. In Dirt, Vann is still exploring darkness and what it can do to families.

In 1985, Galen lives with his mother, Suzie-Q, in a secluded house in a suburb of Sacramento. His Aunt Helen and her daughter, Jennifer, visit many afternoons for tea and occasionally all four of them visit Grandma in a nearby nursing home. An idyll? Hardly. This is a family made so dysfunctional by lies, violence and abuse--physical and emotional--that even basic civility is lost to them.

Galen is 22 with no job, never went to college, bulimic, virginal and seeking transcendence in whatever New Age mantra or practice is available. Jennifer is 17, precocious, a sexual tease who tortures the besotted Galen. Once a year, everyone goes to the family cabin near Lake Tahoe and Suzie-Q tries to re-create her Norman Rockwell illusions about family fun--down to Grandma's chicken and dumplings.

This time, it all goes wrong because a revelation is made that changes everyone. Back home, Galen and his mother move toward an inevitable conclusion. Galen, crazed and out of control, tries to become one with the dirt, to become "a meditation on dirt." Naked, sweating and threatening, he digs and mounds dirt, wallows in it, making and remaking his world according to Siddhartha's meditation. He has finally internalized the fact that all that holds his family together is hatred and violence. The ending will leave you wide-eyed.  --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: A young man dead-ended by circumstance and a vicious family loses everything in a single afternoon.

Harper, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062121035

Afterwards

by Rosamund Lupton

Rosamund Lupton (Sister) offers up an intricately plotted combination of thriller, speculative fiction and mother-daughter celebration in Afterwards. One afternoon, Grace Covey waits to collect her eight-year-old son, Adam, and 17-year-old daughter, Jenny, from their exclusive school. When the building bursts into flames and Grace runs inside to save Jenny, the family's calm suburban life devolves into a nightmare.

Grace and Jenny wake up in the hospital--outside their badly burned, comatose bodies. They can hear and see everything, but can be seen and heard only by each other. Grace watches as doctors tell her distraught husband that she and Jenny may never wake up, and tries to provide emotional support to her daughter even though she has no idea how to explain their ghostly state. Meanwhile, the police receive evidence that Adam started the fire. Grace believes her son has been framed; so does her sister-in-law Sarah, a police investigator. Grace shadows Sarah's investigation, learning disturbing information about the school, as well as tragic secrets behind her best friend's carefree exterior. The key to the mystery may lie with Jenny, however, and Grace must help her daughter find the strength to remember the events surrounding the fire.

Lupton delivers a top-notch mystery with red herrings galore. At its heart, it deals with parents and children, the shared joy and pain. Grace also sees the strength and intensity of her husband's love for her, a force that sustains their lives and yet is sometimes forgotten in the minutiae.

Readers are encouraged to grab a box of Kleenex, put Mom on speed dial and discover what comes afterwards. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Discover: Lupton follows Sister with an intricately plotted combination of mystery and fantasy in a love song to family ties.

Crown, $25, hardcover, 9780307716545

Jonah Man

by Christopher Narozny

Jonah Man is the story of an old performer on the road, barely hanging on to his career by taking and selling drugs, forced to share the stage with a talented young star in the grip of an abusive, ambitious father. The drugs get out of hand, the father is murdered, the kid takes off for New York and the cops ride in to sort it all out. So what's new and fresh about this? Well, in Christopher Narozny's first novel, the story takes place in the itinerant vaudeville world of the early 20th century, told with the grit and stage vernacular of that hard life behind the velvet curtain.

The old performer is Swain, a one-handed juggler who knows that bouncing rubber balls off his traveling collection of prosthetic hooks is "a good act, but it's not a finale." To make ends meet and numb disappointment, he deals vials of unnamed potent elixirs along the circuit while skimming a taste from each for himself. Swain's self-aware voice opens the novel, setting the scene for subsequent chapters narrated by the remaining characters, as Narozny describes the fleeting thrill of live entertainment where "nobody knows why you do what you do, no more than they know why they watch... there is only the mesmeric whirl." When that thrill becomes drudgery, the actors move from accolades to anonymity. The richly imagined Jonah Man, a hard-luck story of a career on the skids, is part mystery and part tragedy--a story that might play out in any era. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A vaudeville-era novel with a fresh take on the timeless drama of talent, jealousy and addiction.

Ig Publishing, $15.95, paperback, 9781935439486

Mystery & Thriller

Come Home

by Lisa Scottoline

Lisa Scottoline (Look Again) clearly knows how to write a thrilling mystery: she's published nearly 20 of them in her long and successful career. In Come Home, however, she draws on her personal experience as a stepmother to write an intriguing tale about the lengths a mother will go to for a child to whom she has no blood relation. It's complicated, to say the least.

Come Home introduces us to Jill, a single mother and pediatrician with a preteen daughter. Through flashbacks we learn that her cad of an ex-husband not only stole from Jill, but abruptly ripped two stepdaughters out of her life when she caught him embezzling from her medical practice. Suspending, for a moment, the puzzle of what Jill ever saw in him, Scottoline makes us feel for the fact that despite Jill's best efforts, she lost not just her husband, but two children in the divorce. When Jill's shady ex-husband is found murdered, bringing her back in contact with the two young ladies she once thought of as her own, all hell breaks loose in a dangerous game to find the killer before he strikes again.

Scottoline has crafted a mystery set in a modern, blended family. She examines the bond an ex-stepparent has to children she can no longer rightfully call her own. The heart-wrenching family drama makes for an interesting backdrop to what could otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill whodunit. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend

Discover: Lisa Scottoline's latest mystery redefines how far a stepmother will go for her children.

St. Martin's Press, $27.99, hardcover, 9780312380823

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel

by Stephen King

Stephen King's The Wind Through the Keyhole takes place between two earlier books in King's Dark Tower sequence (Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla), which means it could be considered book 4.5 in the series. In the middle of their journey to the mysterious Dark Tower, Roland Deschain and his band of gunslingers encounter a Starkblast, a rare storm that freezes and destroys everything in its path. They have no choice but to hole up and wait out the storm. To pass the time, Roland tells a story about a younger version of himself sent to help a town afflicted by a murderous shapeshifter. And there's a tale told within this tale as well, spoken to a frightened boy the younger Roland has taken under his protection.

This complicated structure complements the tales; readers will be as interested in the tale of young Roland and partner Jamie DeCurry as they are in the final inner story of Tim Ross and the magical being who later comes to be known as the Man in Black. Fans of the Dark Tower novels will thrill to the many echoes of the earlier works, with new insights into familiar characters and settings. The Wind Through the Keyhole is a commentary on the human need for stories and a fitting reminder of Stephen King's own status as master storyteller, focusing Roland Deschain's world just a little more clearly to readers both familiar and new to the series. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A double-nested set of spellbinding stories results in Stephen King's most ambitious creation yet.

Scribner, $27, hardcover, 9781451658903

Biography & Memoir

A Wedding in Haiti

by Julia Alvarez

In 1997, while in her native Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, became the owners of 60 acres of deforested land that ultimately became Alta Gracia, a 260-acre organic coffee farm/literary arts center. There they met Piti, a Haitian teenager working on a neighboring farm. "Somewhere in Haiti, a mother had sent her young son to the wealthier neighbor country to help the impoverished family. Every time I spotted [him], I felt the pressure of that mother's prayer in my own eyes." Soon Piti was working at Alta Gracia and had become part of Alvarez's extended family. One evening, in an attempt to assuage his homesickness, Alvarez assured Piti that when he married, she'd be at his wedding. In August 2009, Piti did indeed call on Alvarez to come to his wedding scheduled in a remote part of northern Haiti the following week.

They dropped everything and went, although the journey wasn't easy; almost a year later, a few months after Haiti's devastating earthquake, they traveled back to Haiti with Piti, his wife, Eseline, and daughter, Ludy. That trip makes up the second half of the book.

With these two deeply affecting journeys, Alvarez offers us a miniature yet beautifully illustrated portrait of her own marriage, whose bond mirrors that of her own parents, both of whom were suffering from advancing Alzheimer's yet never lost each other or the memory of their great love. Ultimately A Wedding in Haiti is a deeply personal story of family and connection that casts a light on larger issues of global community and the need for unity, compassion, and understanding. --Debra Ginsberg, author

Discover: A moving account of bonds that can materialize unexpectedly, as well as a beautiful portrait of two marriages, told through Julia Alvarez's story of two trips to Haiti.

Algonquin, $22.95, hardcover, 9781616201302

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

by Alice Kessler-Harris

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) was many things: a successful playwright, screenwriter and memoirist; a suspected Communist (maligned as an unrepentant Stalinist) who stood up against political intimidation in the 1950s; a labor organizer and civil rights activist; partner to Dashiell Hammett for more than 30 years; a woman criticized for being manlike and grasping, but simultaneously overly feminine and stylish; a New Orleans-born resident of New York, Hollywood and Martha's Vineyard who persisted in calling herself a Southerner. She was respected for her literary contributions, hailed as a hero by a feminist movement that she largely rejected, praised and excoriated for her politics and, ultimately, vilified for what came to be seen as the outrageous mendacity of her memoirs. It would be difficult to locate a biographical subject more contradictory or complex. In A Difficult Woman, Alice Kessler-Harris makes an excellent case that Hellman represents the complexities and changing mores of the 20th century.

The contradictions in her personality and politics are brought into relief by her written work--including plays still popular in repertory theater today--which always included strong moral statements. The concepts of truth and deception, or betrayal and loyalty, play large roles in her work and this insightful biography, rich with context, shows how they were also themes that defined her life. Not an apologia, but an exploration of nuances, A Difficult Woman gives us an infinitely more complex Hellman than the popular image that has survived her. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pages of julia

Discover: Lillian Hellman's paradoxical, powerful personality set against the backdrop of a turbulent century.

Bloomsbury, $30, hardcover, 9781596913639

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

by Anna Quindlen

If there's an upside to aging, it might be that we're sharing it with Anna Quindlen, with her "Ah-HA!" moments and attitude of gratitude. Boomers have always enjoyed being a majority, but Quindlen's essays have been mainstays of optimism, her realistic yet upbeat tone ever present in her New York Times and Newsweek columns--and in the memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, which ends, characteristically, "...to be continued...."

A Quindlen fan once described a "Life in the 30's" column as "fridge worthy," posting it where women place significant memos. In that column (collected in Living Out Loud), Quindlen took seriously her role as spokeswoman. "Sometimes I would think I was the only person alive concerned about some crazy cul-de-sac of human behavior," she writes in Lots of Candles. "Then I would get letters from readers and realize that was not the case, that we were not alone, any of us."

From the perspective of middle age, Quindlen addresses sandwich-generation responsibilities, the joy of parenting, the angst of girls pining to be size zero and consumerism (admitting to a love of goods, from shoes to throw pillows). Throughout, she emphasizes not the moments that have "passed us by" but "the pitfalls we've skirted." 

Just as A Short Guide to a Happy Life is the perfect graduation gift, Lots of Candles will delight moms (as well as readers who want to treat themselves to Quindlen's wit and wisdom). --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller

Discover: A comforting memoir of middle age by a beloved author who writes like her readers are her friends.

Random House, $26, hardcover, 9781400069347

History

Midnight in Peking

by Paul French

In Midnight in Peking, Paul French (The Old Shanghai A-Z), takes readers to pre-Communist China, breaking the true crime mold in gripping detective noir style. As the sun rises after a bitterly cold Peking night in January 1937, a local man makes a chilling discovery. At the foot of a watchtower rumored to be the haunting ground of fox spirits, a young foreign woman lies murdered and mutilated, her organs cut out, her limbs and neck partially severed. Peking police predict difficulty identifying the victim due to the lacerations in her face until E.T.C. Werner, a former British diplomat, arrives on the scene and cries out the name of his only child: Pamela.

Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, head of the British Municipal Police in Tientsin and a former Scotland Yard man, is called to Peking to investigate the crime, but faces a string of dead ends and finds his hands tied as his superiors discourage him from investigating any leads that involve the foreign community.

Interweaving DCI Dennis's investigation with details of life in 1930s Peking, French takes the reader on a vivid tour of a community of aristocrats and con men, bureaucrats and pimps, a microcosm of propriety and barely concealed vice hovering on the brink of destruction. His careful attention to atmosphere, historical accuracy and character development evokes in the reader the same sympathy and frustration at thwarted justice that led him to write Pamela's story. --Jaclyn Fulwood, graduate assistant, University of Oklahoma Libraries

Discover: A gripping noir true crime story set in 1937 Peking--opium dens, corruption, foreign enclaves and fox spirits in a city about to be swept away by an enemy army.

Penguin, $26, hardcover, 9780143121008

Children's & Young Adult

The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?

by Mo Willems , illus. by Mo Willems

Ever since the Duckling first appeared in The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!, Pigeon has felt gypped. Why does cute little Duckling get everything all the time? It's simply not fair.

Here Duckling proves to have a few tricks tucked under her feathers. Along comes Duckling (scooty scoot scoot!). She bats her big blue eye and asks politely, "Hello! May I have a cookie, please?" A cookie appears from out of the sky. "Thanks!" she says with a flappy flip flap! Her joyful flight-dance scatters a few of her yellow feathers. But then, bursting into the picture from stage left is... the Pigeon. "Hey! How did you get that cookie!?" The large, bold type suggests the power of Pigeon's delivery. In smaller, quieter type, the Duckling replies, "I asked for it.... Politely."

Mo Willems once again proves that a roll of the eyes, a half-drawn eyelid and body posture can convey a great deal of emotion. The pigeon's eyelid at half-mast as he says, "You asked for it..." telegraphs, "Come on!" With that, he kicks off a litany of things in cartoon panels that Pigeon fans will be able to recite by heart ("I ask to drive the bus! I ask for hot dog parties!... I've asked for a walrus!"). Then, "Right now, I'm asking,... Why? WHY? WHY?" As usual, Pigeon works himself into a tizzy, and we won't tell how Duckling deflates his hot air.

But we reveal that she gets the last laugh--who says nice guys finish last? This is Mo Willems at his best. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A Pigeon adventure with Duckling in a lead role that takes the cake, er, cookie--one of Willems's best.

Hyperion, $15.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 2-up, 9781423151289

Double Dog Dare

by Lisa Graff

With pranks figuring strongly into its premise, Lisa Graff's latest middle-grade novel (The Thing About Georgie) makes a fun read starring sympathetic characters.

When the Media Club at Auden Elementary tries to pick a news anchor to read the daily announcements, Francine Halata and Kansas Bloom tie with three votes each. They agree to determine the winner by double dog dares: whoever completes the most dares gets the job. They both start out strongly: Kansas licks a lizard at recess, and Francine balances a spork on her nose for 15 minutes at lunch. But Francine quickly falls behind when she can't hang upside down on the monkey bars for an entire recess, and Kansas manages to trick the yard monitor into letting him sniff the man's armpit. That's when the competition really ramps up.

But there is more to Double Dog Dare than pranks and competition. Francine finds out that her parents are getting a divorce and doesn't tell her best friend Natalie. Instead of hanging with Natalie after school, Francine helps her father move into his new apartment. And Kansas has just enrolled in Auden Elementary because his mom left his deadbeat dad for a new job in a new town. Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Francine and Kansas, so readers find themselves rooting for both candidates to win. Ultimately only one of them does, but how this is achieved involves a hamster, a talent show and a really bad magic act. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, the monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI

Discover: A school story filled with fun pranks and a lot of heart, making it an appealing choice for both girls and boys.

Philomel/Penguin, $16.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 8-up, 9780399255168
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