Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Roaring Brook Press: Juniper's Christmas by Eoin Colfer

From My Shelf

Fall Fiction Preview, Part 3

And, yes, still more fall books I'm excited about:

The Twelve by Justin Cronin (Ballantine Books, October 16) Finally, the second book in the Passage trilogy. In the present day, three strangers attempt to navigate the chaos of a manmade apocalypse, searching for others, desperate to survive. Move 100 years into the future, where the cast of The Passage... well, if you haven't yet read The Passage, hop to, and prepare for the next high-adrenaline ride in Cronin's world.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin Books, October 23) In 1990, in the largest unsolved art heist in history, 13 works of art were stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by two thieves posing as police. In Shapiro's novel, struggling artist Claire Roth agrees to forge one of the stolen paintings--a Degas masterpiece--in exchange for her own show. Not surprisingly, many layers of deceit ensue.

The Racketeer by John Grisham (Doubleday, October 23) In the history of our country, only four active federal judges had been been murdered. Judge Raymond Fogletree became number five, along with his young secretary. The narrator knows who killed him. The narrator is an imprisoned lawyer. Prime Grisham territory.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, November 6) Set in contemporary Appalachia, a story of a young mother, a mysterious ecological event (sign from God or portent of climate disaster?) and the ensuing media firestorm.

Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto (Scribner, November 6) Otto's novel explores the ambitions, passions, conflicts and desires of eight female photographers during the 20th century. She offers a history of feminism and photography--a must read especially for admirers of Margaret Bourke-White, Tina Modotti, Imogene Cunningham and, oh, maybe 100 others.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese, November 13) During the Cold War, Cambridge student Serena Frome is recruited by MI5 to infiltrate the literary circle of a young writer in order to manipulate the "cultural conversation." Betrayal, love and intrigue by a masterful writer--more reason to anticipate November. --Marilyn Dahl, reviews editor, Shelf Awareness

BINC: Read Love Support Campaign

The Writer's Life

Jean Zimmerman: Inventing Around the Edges of History

The author of four nonfiction books, Jean Zimmerman is making her fiction debut with The Orphanmaster (Viking), which blends mystery and romance in an extensively researched 17th-century America. Blandine van Couvering, just 22 and herself an orphan, is a trader--a "she-merchant." With the help of the dashing English spy Edward Drummand, Blandine is determined to discover who is murdering orphan children in New Amsterdam.

You've written nonfiction books; The Orphanmaster is your first novel. What was the impetus to go from nonfiction to fiction?

I love writing fiction... poking around into peoples' lives, especially women's lives, which often haven't been given their due in the popular imagination. I have found that in profiling women, my particular passion, there can be a certain limitation-- fewer documents exist to give the details of their lives, fewer journals or letters or memoirs. So it can be a challenge for a historian to draw a full, rich portrait of a real 17th-century Dutch she-merchant, as I did in a nonfiction book a few years back. Being able to imagine my way across some of these gaps, to invent around the edges of the historical record is one reason I so enjoyed working on a novel. I also found it tremendous fun to develop a love story with smart, quirky characters.

In addition to that love story, you developed The Orphanmaster around a mystery.

Like pretty much everyone in the world, I have always loved the tension in Jane Austen's novels between seemingly unlike characters; people who would never make sense together yet ultimately are perfect for each other. And I wanted to create some of that tension between Blandine, in all her intelligent sensitivity and Dutch independent female glory, and Drummond, martial and tough and definitely old school. I was rooting for the two of them to get together, and I was the one writing the book!

The mystery originated with the archaic term "orphanmaster," a real government function in the Dutch colony. I encountered it during research for my nonfiction book about New Amsterdam, when the orphanmaster was called upon to make sure a young girl receives a just inheritance. But to me the term sounded vaguely nefarious and spooky. It just made sense to have the good guys, the budding lovers, chasing down the bad guys, whether that turned out to be the orphanmaster or another character. It was a way to bring them together in an "alliance of two," as Drummond phrases it.

The role of the orphan in the early colonies is fascinating. Orphans weren't brought to the New World to be adopted, but as a source of labor.

The colony had a high proportion of orphans not only because Holland shipped over children as a source of cheap labor, but because so many children lost their parents in the New World due to disease, shipwrecks and Indian incursions. Hence the position of the orphanmaster, whose job was to oversee orphans' interests, to speak for them and make sure they fared okay. I found the fact that so many children in this small settlement were in such a precarious position to be very poignant. The cases detailed in New Amsterdam's Minutes of the Court of the Orphanmaster prove they had a very difficult time of it. In a way, though, the orphans' experience could be a crucible that made them strong, plucky, inventive--all innately American traits. Blandine van Couvering, my central character, is herself an orphan, and those personal characteristics both help bring her forward in the world of fur trading and enable her to solve the case of the missing orphans.

Did you find it difficult to let go of the "fact" to be able to write the "fiction?"

I will always be enamored of facts. They offer a poetry of their own, and I think they are crucial to telling a story well. The fact, for example, that Hollanders preferred not to place their Turkish carpets on the floor because they thought them too valuable, instead laying them out on the table to be admired... a small fact but to me exciting, a sort of mini-novella about the mindset of the Dutch in that era. I used hundreds of such details in The Orphanmaster, and ultimately they were a springboard for exploring the relationships of my characters. The way people act toward each other and feel about each other, the choices they make, can be expressed via their material circumstances. So the fact that Edward Drummond, the English spy, habitually wears a long, ringletted wig tells of his fealty to King Charles II of England, who originated the fashion, and when he doffs that wig it says something about his evolution as a character. By the by, I love men's periwigs as curiosities of their time and have written about them before in nonfiction. Wigs were a huge part of men's and women's lives for much of recent human history. We now go about comparatively bald!

Did anything in your research surprise you?

I'm still floored by the fact that we can go back to that time, factually, via a map and census of Manhattan that were both prepared in 1660. At the beginning of the 20th century, the map's street plan and the census data were collated by an eccentric collector and genius named I.N. Phelps Stokes. Through his work, we know the identity of every person living in the New Amsterdam settlement at the time, their vocations, their personal characteristics. We know where the gardens and orchards were, what the houses were like, the layout of the whole colonial enterprise. That foundation inspired me, enabling me to see, hear and smell the Manhattan Island of that time in a way I never could have otherwise. I will never cease to marvel at my source material, which really put wind in my sails as I worked on the novel. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Book Candy

The Places It Went; Game of Attack Ads; Hip Hop Poe

Best graduation gift ever: The Daily What shared the story of recent high school graduate Brenna Martini, who received a copy of Oh the Places You'll Go! by Doctor Seuss as a graduation gift. You may ask: Doesn't everybody? But what makes this one special is that every year since she entered kindergarten, her father had every teacher, coach, and principal write a little something about her inside the book.


If you thought the political struggles in Westeros were already violent and treacherous, now those devious rivals for power in the Seven Kingdoms have unleashed their ultimate weapon: Game of Thrones attack ads.


While the prototype ExhibiTable "is clearly oriented toward institutional and retail uses (e.g. stores, libraries and exhibition spaces), it could work equally well in a the home of an avid reader who likes to leave out their favorite books or magazines," Dornob noted.


"Hip-Hop 101 with MC Edgar Allan Poe." Wired magazine featured "a slice of musical edutainment that explores poetic meter." 

Great Reads

Further Reading: Beach Books

You'd be hard-pressed to find any two people who define a beach read in the same way. Is it a book about warm weather and beaches? Or a book set during the summer months? A light, easy read, or is summer the time to tackle a heavy, literary tome?

For those looking to take the beach to the beach, there is no shortage of reading material about sandy shores. J. Courtney Sullivan's Maine is a novel of family and friendship, the story of three generations of Kelleher women as they descend on the family cottage one summer. Its unhurried, thoughtful pace is perfect for lazy days and long summer nights, while the steady unveiling of family secrets is bound to keep readers riveted through whatever beach distractions may present themselves. George Howe Colt takes on a similar subject--the recurring family vacation to a favorite summer spot--in The Big House, part love letter to the past and part history of the American summer home, told through the history of his family's own summer house on Cape Cod.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach's much-acclaimed 2011 novel, takes on one of summer's greatest pastimes--baseball. Henry Skrimshader, a young prodigy of a shortstop, is recruited to play baseball for Westish College, where his life quickly becomes intertwined with the lives of four others. Harbach's stunning debut weaves together the narratives of each of these characters seamlessly, building a novel that is as much about baseball as it is about human relationships, love and loyalty.

Justin Cronin's The Passage bears scant resemblance to other vampire novels on the scene today; Cronin's "vampires" are the result of a virus let loose in the U.S., and the consequences are deadly. The plot is relentless, breakneck and, even though it's an 800+ page novel, the ending comes before you know it. With the next volume in the Passage trilogy coming this fall, now's the perfect time to pick up--or revisit--Cronin's nightmarish future. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm


Books That Shaped America; Summer's Best SF; Yoko's Recos

An exhibition at the Library of Congress highlights a "wonderfully diverse list of 'Books That Shaped America,' " the Washington Post reported. The exhibition "puts on display what one might call the classics of upset and troublemaking. When first published, these books shocked people, made them angry, shook up their deepest beliefs."


Noting that this has been a particularly good year "for science fiction books that are page turners with pleasingly complicated political and social subtexts, NPR's Annalee Newitz recommended the "summer's best sci-fi: planets, politics, apocalypse."


What would Yoko read? If you ever wondered, the Guardian offered a short answer with "Yoko Ono's top five must-reads."


Penelope Harper, author of the Lollipop and Grandpa series, chose her "top 10 great grandpa books" for the Guardian.


"Great children's books that look death in the eye" were showcased by io9, which noted that "some of the most soulful depictions of death aimed at kids come from the science fiction and fantasy genres."

Encountering Art

Any time my friend goes to an art museum, he rushes quickly through all the rooms, as if he's late for an important meeting. Then, if he spots something he likes, he will stop and look at that piece for two or three hours.

Another friend, while living in London, went to the Tate several times a week and sat in the same room all afternoon, where he would read a book. He just liked to be among the paintings in that room.

Most people walk through museums slowly, at the rate of half a stroll, giving equal time to every picture, which seems to be the custom.

I once visited the Reina Sofia in Madrid. Picasso's Guernica was hanging on the wall, and a great crowd of people were standing before it. It felt like they were looking at it for a very long time. It made me optimistic, for a moment, about art. Then they all turned and left at the very same instant. Only then did I notice they all had headsets on. The audio was done.

For a long time, I felt some self-recrimination, looking at art. Like I wasn't having the right thoughts, or the right feelings. That I didn't know enough. A year ago, I went to some galleries with a friend. I said, "I don't like this piece." He said, "I don't think about whether I like a piece or not."

I have come to think that encountering art is more like encountering people than anything else. Once in a lifetime, or maybe two or three times, you'll be absolutely struck by someone; stopped dead in your tracks. I once saw a friend cry, tears streaming down his face, in the Richard Serra room at the Museo Bilbao.

We don't expect to like every person, or to have relationships with everyone we meet. We don't feel bad about having a circle of five or 10 people who we carry with us through our lives.

Maybe there are only five or 10 artworks in a lifetime that could possibly mean something to someone. The rest are like the people you pass in the streets. You don't feel obliged to have feelings about every single one of them. They're meaningful to other people; they don't have to be meaningful to you. --Sheila Heti

Heti's most recent novel, How Should a Person Be? (Holt), is about the friendship between a young female writer and a young female painter.

Book Review


The Chaperone

by Laura Moriarty

Sparks fly when Laura Moriarty re-creates the socially uptight world of 1920s Kansas and teams Cora Carlisle, a straitlaced mother and wife of a successful Wichita lawyer, with Louise Brooks, the 15-year-old helmet-haired beauty who became the queen of silent films. With a comfortable mash-up of fact and fiction, The Chaperone explores themes of disconnected parents and children familiar to readers of Moriarty's previous novels (including While I'm Falling).

Cora is hired to accompany Louise as a chaperone in New York City--but hired more to convince Brooks's father to pay for the young dancer's trip than to rein in his irrepressible daughter's hedonistic impulses. As the unlikely couple rides the luxurious train from the Kansas prairie to Grand Central Terminal, Moriarty shifts her story's focus from the uninhibited Brooks to Cora, whose corseted Wichita propriety masks a latent passion that will bloom in the anonymity of New York. (Her marriage is one in name only, after she discovered her husband's homosexuality.) Although Cora and Brooks begin their trip a generation apart, Cora learns that "spending time with the young... can exasperate, of course, and frighten," but it "can also drag you... right up to the window of the future, and even push you through." For Cora, Louise Brooks's departure from Wichita to live among the cultural avant-garde becomes a kind of permission "to at least try to live as one wished, or as close to it as possible." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A Kansas woman chaperones the young Louise Brooks on her first trip to New York City in 1922.

Riverhead Books, $26.95, hardcover, 9781594487019

Island Apart

by Steven Raichlen

With a track record of grill-themed books like Planet Barbecue!, one might be unsure what to expect of Steven Raichlen's first crack at a novel. However, he's crafted an exceptionally nuanced and fascinating read in Island Apart.

The setting, and the source of the novel's title, is Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts; the main characters are recovering cancer patient Claire and a mysterious figure known only as the Hermit (which might be another source for the title). These two injured souls begin a courtship based not on emotional connection, but on food. From fragrant hazelnut tortes to glistening lobsters thermidor and coconut hot pepper soup, foodies Claire and the Hermit try to outdo one another as they forge their bond. It is a pleasure to behold, although you might not want to start reading unless you have a fridge full of groceries--this book will inspire your inner chef.

Raichlen is well-versed in epicurean delights; as the two loners' relationship unfolds, cooking takes a central role. The riveting descriptions of how these gourmands gather ingredients from the woods, and their process of transforming basic staples into dazzling meals, nearly overshadows the captivating tale of how Claire draws the Hermit out of his shell. In addition, the cast of supporting characters, from a zany author who eats only sauerkraut to a rebellious biker with impeccable manners, serves to enrich the story in an amusingly memorable way. With a debut novel like Island Apart, Raichlen could consider shelving his barbecue tools for good. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend

Discover: A can't-miss debut novel by the king of barbecue books, Steven Raichlen.

Forge, $24.99, hardcover, 9780765332387


by J.R. Angelella

One might think, based on the title, that J.R. Angelella's debut novel, Zombie, is a tale of shambling undead devouring their way through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Well, it's not; rather, it's a story about the undead parts of our own lives, shut down by mass media consumption and cannibalistic social mores, and the bravery needed to strike a new path and lead a life of authenticity.

Jeremy Barker, a 14-year old who's just landed in the hellish environs of an all-boys Catholic high school, is a zombie movie fanatic who has developed rules for living from his obsessive viewing. He needs these defense mechanisms to deal with his pill-popping mom, who's left his dad (who, in turn, might be part of a crazy cult). Angelella's portrayal of the small injustices and everyday violence of high school life is pitch-perfect; he's also astute at capturing the fine line between romantic joy and overactive hormones when Jeremy meets a pretty drama club girl from a nearby school. As the story grows darker and Jeremy's dad ends up in a genuinely menacing place, the action is delivered in crisp, cinematic bursts.

Zombie, like so many of the movies that inspired it, is not for the faint of heart. It is violent and dark but ultimately has a benevolent message about the human capacity for survival--whether we are fighting the walking dead, weird cults or just the scary, sometimes dehumanizing halls of the local high school. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: A coming-of-age tale--angry and violent but full of heart--with stellar prose, first-rate dialogue and a cinematic eye for detail.

Soho Press, $15, paperback, 9781616950880

Bared to You

by Sylvia Day

Readers who loved Fifty Shades of Grey will want to continue their exploits in erotica with Bared to You, the first installment in a new trilogy by veteran romance author Sylvia Day.

Eva could live the high life if she chose, but instead shares an apartment with her jaded best friend, Cary, and is determined to make it to the top of the advertising world on her own merits. Privately, Eva struggles with a traumatic past and her paranoid mother's lack of boundaries. When gorgeous billionaire Gideon Cross steps into Eva's life, she initially resists his aggressive come-ons but cannot deny her lust for his stunning body. A no-strings arrangement quickly becomes a tangle of unstoppable need, but Gideon carries dark secrets to match Eva's own. The lovers must learn to trust each other or their own fractured psyches will tear their relationship apart.

Day writes indulgent fantasy at its most enjoyable, in a story populated by high-society beauties and rakes, all of them hiding dark passions and darker secrets behind their glittering facades. While elements of Bared to You bear superficial similarities to Fifty Shades of Grey, Day charts the course of her plot and her characters' development into different territory as Eva and Gideon try to build a lasting relationship despite the challenges caused by their mutual fear of emotional intimacy. Filled with catty socialite drama, dysfunctional personalities and deliciously explicit love scenes, Bared to You takes a sensual look at a darker side of love. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger, Infinite Reads

Discover: Two damaged lovers try to forge a relationship in the first installment of Sylvia Day's sexy Crossfire series.

Berkley, $15, paperback, 9780425263907

Mystery & Thriller

A Bad Day for Mercy

by Sophie Littlefield

"So you got two hormonal teenage boys, a bloody murder, illegal doctorin', a business feud, a illegal immigrant situation, all of it circlin' around a relative you don't hardly even know, and tomorrow's your birthday. Well ain't you managed to step into a fine mess."

Thus Chrissy Shaw succinctly sums up A Bad Day for Mercy, the fourth book in Sophie Littlefield's Stella Hardesty series. Stella is back handling problems with her less-than-legal tactics and all the attitude and wit readers have come to expect, but this time she's dealing with family, namely her step-nephew. Pulling Stella out of Missouri enables Littlefield to introduce new characters who add a layer of complexity to an already divinely original member of the crime fiction world.

A Bad Day for Mercy speeds along at a nonstop pace. Littlefield brings the concept of the nesting Matryoshka dolls along with her new Russian characters: open up one event and find another mystery inside. The manner in which Littlefield places her mysteries one inside another makes figuring out the culprit a true challenge.

Littlefield has managed to keep this series fresh and original. New readers to the series will be able to enjoy A Bad Day for Mercy as much as the devoted series fan; just enough of Stella's background is explained for newcomers to understand her character without weighing down those who have been with the series from A Bad Day for Sorry. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: Russian mail-order brides, Spanx, Botox, human heads and drug-peddling gangs all add up to murder in Stella Hardesty's fourth adventure.

Minotaur Books, $24.99, hardcover, 9780312648381

The Neruda Case

by Roberto Ampuero, trans. by Carolina De Robertis

Though The Neruda Case, the first novel by Chilean Roberto Ampuero to be translated into English, is breezily scented with the high Valparaiso air and its protagonist's genial manner, this glittering detective novel develops into a suspenseful resolution as the fictional mystery intertwines with the real-life events of Augusto Pinochet's brutal 1973 coup.

Cayetano Brulé, the hero of previous Ampuero novels, is a Cuban living in Miami who, as the novel begins, comes to Chile with his Chilean wife to work for the broad socialist goals of the recently elected Salvador Allende. He stumbles into a friendship with the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, a close ally (in real life as in this story) of Allende. Neruda hires Cayetano for a secret, personal mission: to find a former lover and ascertain if her 30-year-old daughter is the dying poet's progeny. The crumbs of the woman's trail lead Cayetano to Mexico, Cuba, Eastern Europe and Bolivia before bringing him back to Chile just as the Allende dream is dying amid the furor of impending militaristic terror. As Neruda's health declines and the dark days of Pinochet draw nearer, Cayetano's quest becomes maddeningly elusive, yet ever more imperative to the young detective as he becomes unmoored from everything except his duty to this great, and greatly flawed, man.

The Neruda Case, though ostensibly a mystery, manages also to humanize the legendary Neruda and give air to the international wound of Allende's murder. The English-speaking world would be well-served by more translations of Ampuero's work. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic

Discover: A suspenseful, atmospheric mystery with political undertones set during the waning of the Allende government in Chile.

Riverhead Books, $26.95, hardcover, 9781594487439

Social Science

Taste Matters: Why We Like the Foods We Do

by John Prescott

From picky eaters to thrill-seeking foodies, humans value food for more than mere sustenance and survival. In Taste Matters, John Prescott explores the motivations behind our food preferences, weaving together psychology, physiology, anthropology and the evolutionary history of the taste bud.

According to Prescott, the human emotional response to foods dictates what we eat, and this in turn is defined by cultural context and the complexity of individual flavor combinations. He invokes Pavlovian conditioning, nature versus nurture and Darwinian principles in his attempt to understand the fluidity of the human palate. Consider: the human tongue has up to 8,000 taste buds arranged in varying densities on the tongue; these physiological densities define how we handle the intensity of flavors, explain why some tolerate coffee or beer better than others and reveal how the smell of Roquefort cheese can induce disgust in the uninitiated. He also shows how contextual understanding and the smart pairing of flavor profiles (particularly sweet and salty) can overcome phobic reluctance to new foods.

Densely packed and scientific to its core, the first half of Prescott’s treatise can lapse into technical ramble as he ties together a cohesive explanation of how flavor, odor and taste interact. But when Prescott segues into the origins of molecular gastronomy, obesity and the hedonistic aspects of food, Taste Matters progresses past jargon and takes on a life of its own, teaching us how the separation of food for pleasure from food for survival can lead to a more healthy approach to eating and sensory fulfillment. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer

Discover: The physical and emotional motivations behind our food choices and how they dictate our need for sensory gratification.

Reaktion Books, $30, hardcover, 9781861899149

Nature & Environment

Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters Black Bears to Bumble Bees

by Charles Finn

From birds to bumblebees to bison, Charles Finn (editor of High Desert Journal) exquisitely captures the minute details of chance encounters with a variety of animals, insects and birds. Wild Delicate Seconds encapsulates these accidental meetings in vivid, colorful prose that reads like poetry; Finn describes an owl poised "like a teardrop against the dark wall of forest" or a heron that resembles "a hunched stone, an oval of waiting." From the amusing antics of four flying squirrels that launch themselves into space ("square as kites they flew--stuntmen, stuntwomen, acrobats in a jungle gym world") to the serenity of trumpeter swans ("all curves and smoothness and grace... like a string of white pearls"), Finn causes time to stand still and forces the reader to pause in an otherwise hectic day.

Short, sweet and compassionate, the tiny details in these essays speak to the heart, bringing the peace, humility and serenity of the natural world to those who otherwise might not notice what Finn aptly describes. "Because of the unexpectedness of these meetings they held a special quality for me," he writes. "Always there was a timelessness, a residue of the sacred, and a lingering feeling that I was witnessing something spectacular. And I was." Readers will feel the same way after indulging in each of these brief reflections. --Lee E. Cart, freelance reviewer

Discover: Sweet, succinct essays on the birds, insects and animals of the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon State University Press, $16.95, paperback, 9780870716553


Fragile Acts

by Allan Peterson

Poetry can be a direct conduit to the most populist, universalist sentiments or reflective of our personal dreams and longings. Allan Peterson's Fragile Acts introduces us to a poet capable of changing from the personal and interior to the global and exterior in a single work, sometimes in a single line:

"A pinwheel in the heart spins off oxygen like sparks
people singing anthems try to cover with their hands.
A pure Indonesia under my pillow opens its markets
every night to music, caged birds bought to be released."

Fragile Acts takes chance after chance with rhythm and meter; poems begin and end in unexpected places yet never seem incomplete. Peterson addresses the shrinking of our world through technology but also pays heed to the splintering and cognitive dissonance resulting from the torrent of information hurtling into our heads:

"At night when stars fall on Alabama
water goes granular and steps back, dreams improve us
with their thick pastels, revisits in tints.
Maybe the astronauts called from their cloudless telephones
with news from Long Distance:
Romans invaded Arabia Felix, Columbus discovered Ohio."

It is from these shards of the modern world that Peterson arranges his poetry, mosaic-like, into bold and beautiful forms.

Peterson deserves a wide audience. He possesses great observational power, offering an unusual worldview that assimilates disparate strands of vision and event into art that is timeless. Kudos to the McSweeney's poetry series for championing Peterson's work--and for the wonderful physical beauty of this edition of Fragile Acts. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: A poet who maps both his personal consciousness and the modern world in a beautiful, bold way.

McSweeney's Books, $18, hardcover, 9781936365807


Unholy Night

by Seth Grahame-Smith, narrated by Peter Berkrot

Seth Grahame-Smith has made a name for himself with delightful re-imaginings of well-known stories and histories, including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Unholy Night continues this trend, tackling the story of Christmas and the three kings who journeyed to visit a small babe lying in a manger. Or, rather, of the three escaped criminals disguised as noblemen who try to hide out in a manger that also happens to house Mary, Joseph and the recently born baby Jesus.

Grahame-Smith approaches the story through the perspective of one of the three visiting kings, Balthazar--a professional thief famous across the Roman Empire for his masterful deceits. When Balthazar escapes execution, with two other criminals in tow, he finds himself on the journey of a lifetime, in the company of a carpenter, a woman and a babe--with the entire Roman army on his heels. His fight to protect his travelling band is complicated by his agnostic views, his lack of religion and his tortured past.

Peter Berkrot's (77 Shadow Street) narration brings Grahame-Smith's already rich characters to life, from the spunky, opinionated Mary to the spiteful, bitter Balthazar, and though the three "kings" do not, in fact, smoke a rubber cigar, they do have their fare share of humorous exchanges, adventures and full-out battles. Unholy Night is an entertaining retelling of one of the most familiar stories in Western civilization. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A delightfully re-invented tale of the first Christmas, from the imagination that brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Hachette Audio, $26.98, unabridged, CD, 9781611133943

Children's & Young Adult

Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always

by Tao Nyeu

As with her marvelous Bunny Days, Tao Nyeu uses a limited palette of lime green, cornflower blue and cantaloupe to convey a light mood and a hint of nostalgia as she explores the many shades of friendship.

Squid, with his green polka dots, sports a wool hat with a pom-pom. His best friend is blue-spotted Octopus, wearing a plaid cap. A quartet of brief tales charts the mostly ups and a few downs in their friendship. In the first story, "The Quarrel," Squid knits Octopus eight socks, only to hear Octopus insist that he wears mittens--but they reach a peaceful compromise after seeking out (and ignoring) the advice of Wise Old Turtle. Each has his talents. While Squid knits, Octopus paints, sculpts and photographs. After a dream in which he starred as "Super Squid," the fellow wakes up feeling ordinary--until Octopus reminds Squid of all the good things he does for his friends. Youngsters will enjoy knowing the true function of "The Hat" that "float[s] down from above," even as Octopus and his fellow sea creatures hazard erroneous guesses (flowerpot and soup bowl, among them; our favorite: a fish calling a spur a "can opener" and "pizza cutter"). Fun side conversations at Yum Yum's soup stand come to fruition a few pages later. The closer, "The Fortune Cookie," affirms the duo's friendship, through good fortune and bad.

There's plenty to pore over in these pages, and much fodder for discussion in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms about how to be a good friend. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A picture book exploring the joys of friendship, starring two eight-tentacled pals.

Dial, $16.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 3-5, 9780803735651

Between the Lines

by Jodi Picoult, Samantha Van Leer

What reader hasn't imagined herself into the pages of a much loved story? In the novel Between the Lines, Jodi Picoult (My Sister's Keeper) and daughter Samantha Van Leer deliver an interesting twist: this time, the prince wants out.

Fifteen-year-old Delilah is obsessed with a book. Not a cool romance novel or science fiction, but a fairy tale meant for little kids. Her mother is worried. So is her best friend, Jules. But Delilah feels a connection to this storybook prince: "The very first thing you learn about Oliver is that it's not easy growing up without a dad. It was as if the words had been taken straight out of my mouth." Plus, Prince Oliver is smart, cute and he knows how to kiss. Delilah reads the story over and over, until one day an illustration in the book changes. The next thing she knows, she's talking to Oliver and... he's talking back.

The engagingly written novel moves from the storybook itself (with full-color illustrations as chapter openers) to Oliver (his narrative appears in blue type) and to Delilah (hers is in green type). The alternating chapters portray the budding romance between Oliver and Delilah, and juxtapose the fairy tale with the turmoil of contemporary high school. Plenty of obstacles keep this unlikely pair apart, yet they persevere through adventures with mermaids, accidents with wizards and a visit to a real-world psychiatrist. It's a fun romp that fans of both fairy tales and teen romance will enjoy. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, the monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI

Discover: From mother-daughter team Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer, a fun romp from fairy tale to the real world in search of true love.

Emily Bestler/Simon Pulse, $19.99, hardcover, 368p., ages 12-up, 9781451635751

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