Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, December 10, 2021

Roaring Brook Press: Juniper's Christmas by Eoin Colfer

From My Shelf

Reinvention or Reimagination?

I love a good reinvention narrative. There's something empowering about watching a character, especially a real person, steer their life in an entirely new direction. But some of my favorite reinvention stories aren't necessarily 180-degree turns. Rather, they involve a series of changes (some drastic, it's true) that leads the protagonist to become more fully the self she's always been meant to be.

Trina Moyles had always loved the Canadian boreal forest where she grew up, but she never expected to spend multiple summers there, spotting smoke from atop an isolated fire tower. Moyles's gorgeously written memoir, Lookout (Random House, $24), dives into the logistical and emotional challenges of that life of deep solitude. She charts not only the ground around her fire tower, but her own internal growth during a difficult but formative season.

Growing up in rural Maine, Erin French spent a lot of time at the diner her dad owned, but she wasn't planning (then) on running her own restaurant one day. French's memoir, Finding Freedom (Celadon, $28), chronicles her journey of culinary and personal discovery, and the founding of the Lost Kitchen, the restaurant she owns in Freedom, Maine.

Memphis-born Elizabeth Passarella didn't leave behind her Southern identity when she became a New Yorker. Rather, her adult life--and her memoir, Good Apple (Thomas Nelson, $25.95)--centers on learning to reconcile the two, or at least laugh at the tension between them. In short, punchy essays, Passarella takes readers through the highs and lows of her life in Manhattan: rats in her bedroom, public marital disputes, the Rockettes, the trickiness of navigating politics (electoral and cultural) with grace. All three women write with humor and insight about the situations that have shaped them into their truest selves. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

BINC: Read Love Support Campaign

Book Candy

Tot Books About Tats

The New York Public Library checked out "inked picture books: tattoos in literature for the very young."


"We're not mad. You're mad." Merriam-Webster looked up "19 words for the cranky and disagreeable."


"Malcolm X's former prison cell becomes first of 1,000 planned 'freedom libraries,' " the Guardian reported.


The Tolkien estate blocked JRR Token crypto-currency, BBC News noted.


Mental Floss shared "7 fantastic facts about Terry Pratchett."


Kateřina Lichnovská's Urban Bookshelf "works for an exterior condition but it keeps visual delicacy of interior furniture."

True Crime Story

by Joseph Knox

In the aptly titled True Crime Story, crime novelist Joseph Knox plays a teasing, clever game of story-within-a-story. The book is not quite autofiction, not quite noir and certainly not documentary, yet it draws heavily from each subgenre as it assembles a mystery plausible enough to unsettle. Knox presents his latest--his first stand-alone novel after wrapping up the Aidan Watts trilogy--as if it were a genuine true-crime manuscript, inserting himself as a character amid a heap of interview transcripts, e-mails and mysterious documents. Never is the reader meant to entirely trust the author: the first line of an introductory "publisher's note" reads: "This amended second edition of True Crime Story includes wider context on the previously undisclosed role of Joseph Knox in the narrative, as well as his response to various allegations raised in the press."

Immediately, readers are wary of this Knox fellow, which is perhaps the greatest fun of True Crime Story. The audience is as irritated with this unreliable character as they are charmed by the actual author, whom they know is gleefully pulling the wool over their eyes. None of it's real. Perhaps some of it is real. Welcome to the Matrix of crime fiction, mayhap?

In True Crime Story, the central mystery is (purposefully) one familiar to readers: a young, pretty white girl goes missing. In December 2011, 19-year-old Zoe Nolan, a Manchester University student, walks out of a party and is never seen again. Seven years later, she still has not been found--dead or alive--and though many remember her face from the news, the case is on a block of ice. The friends who knew her then--her suspicious sister, Kimberly; a coursemate, Fintan Murphy; another friend, Jai Mahmood; her flatmate, Liu Wai; and her toxic boyfriend, Andrew Flowers--sit for interviews with Evelyn Mitchell, a floundering writer looking for a new idea. Enveloped in Zoe's story and convinced she's found something remarkable within the pages and pages of material, Evelyn is sucked deeper into the mystery until she finds herself an unwitting part of it. As she investigates, she e-mails Knox, whom she had met at an author event, asking for his opinion.

Inconsistencies arise constantly within the alibis and anecdotes surrounding Zoe's case, which Evelyn finds troubling enough. But then a real danger arises, threatening Evelyn's safety and coaxing Knox himself further into the tale. Readers won't finish the book liking the fictional Knox much, but that's part of the real-life Knox's game.

In some senses, True Crime Story is exactly that: a strategy, a cheeky experiment, a toy the author is using to test his own wits. It is a notable book largely because it is a conceptual one. Yet it is also, at its best, a full-throated critique of the ways in which the true-crime fad treats victims, in particular young women, and the dangers the world fails to acknowledge when these crimes happen. The conceit is a dissection of the definition of truth; the jab is in the title itself. Who decides what is true? And who has the power to label what is a crime and what goes ignored? Who do we forgive most easily? And, perhaps most titillating: Why do we care so little and so much at the same time? True crime has become one of entertainment media's most lucrative operations. Yet there's no denying it is a profit powered by tragedy, and often preventable ones at that.

True Crime Story relies heavily on dialogue from Evelyn's interviewees. Knox does a masterful job interspersing their snips of conversation to reveal troubled dynamics and to shift the reader's ire from one subject to the next. The oral history form is an ideal fit for a crime novel, as it reveals just how easily inconsistencies arise to throw a case into confusion. Facts never feel finalized. The least suspect characters can quickly become the prime ones with a single errant word. Such possibilities mean readers will tear through True Crime Story, never sure of what they think they know. If the book were any less of a page-turner, that unreliability would be exhausting. But Knox makes it fun.

The final reveal is a climax that appropriately shocks but might frustrate readers who deem themselves detectives. This denouement is part of Knox's strategy. At no point is the reader allowed to feel as if they're standing on solid ground; shiftiness is how Knox proves his point.

True Crime Story is a refreshing, unexpected entry in a perhaps tired genre of cops and robbers, missing girls and their terrible fathers and boyfriends. It takes a loupe to storytellers' own role in the creation of a true-crime phenomenon, then zooms out to examine the wide-ranging aftershocks. Joseph Knox shows us there are no winners and losers in true crime, even when the case is cracked. There is only the tragedy, and the terrible, confusing pleasure we get from picking it apart. --Lauren Puckett

Sourcebooks Landmark, $16.99, paperback, 400p., 9781728245867

Joseph Knox: A Study in Self-Illusion

(photo: Jay Brooks)

Joseph Knox was born and raised in and around Stoke and Manchester, England, where he worked in bars and bookshops before moving to London. He runs, writes and reads compulsively. His debut novel, Sirens, was a bestseller and has been translated into 18 languages. The Smiling Man and The Sleepwalker are the second and third books in that series. His stand-alone novel, True Crime Story, is available now from Sourcebooks Landmark.

This is your first-ever stand-alone novel, a major departure from what you've done before. What led you in this direction?

I actually had the idea for True Crime Story--a novel presented in the interview style of an oral history book--before I wrote my debut, Sirens. I was reading an oral history of Warren Zevon years and years ago and loved the style, one where you might get a statement from his wife in one paragraph and a statement from his mistress in the next. I immediately saw the potential for a novel in that, and especially a mystery, because it invited differing opinions and versions of events. It invited varied voices, different senses of humor, conflicting values, etc., in a way that might allow the book to become a kind of a social novel as well as a crime one.

Ultimately, that's why I didn't even attempt it at the time. I knew I wasn't a strong enough writer to deliver on that level of ambition, and maybe I'm still not, but after spending eight years writing my debut, then delivering a second and a third novel, I felt like it was time. I thought: 'Let's take a chance, let's break out of the noir sub-genre, and let's try to do something a little bit fresh in crime fiction.' I drank an awful lot, and I wrote like hell.

True crime is everywhere, and yet your book stands out because it is, in fact, fiction masquerading as true crime. There's a hint of parody in that. What were you trying to experiment with, or perhaps to prove about the genre?

First and foremost, I'm a crime writer, and my main ambition was to try to present a satisfying, entertaining mystery that felt fresh and stood out in a crowded market.

But I guess I'm also asking questions about who gets to shape the narrative when a young woman goes missing. What is our fascination with missing teenage girls? Why do we as a society seem to favor white and pretty ones? And these questions are just as applicable to crime fiction as to true crime. It's a common criticism of the genre that male writers are very quick to kill off young women on the page for profit and thrills. I guess I wanted to hold myself to account for that kind of writing to some extent. I've always tried hard not to write salaciously--but as I said above, I'm also trying to entertain, and I've definitely crossed some lines before.

Another factor I'm interested in is the concept of "true" crime itself. Is anything ever really empirically true once it's been remembered by one person, recorded by another, written down by yet another, edited by a fourth, read and interpreted by a fifth, etc., etc.

Along with many others, I consider Capote's In Cold Blood to be a seminal and stunning work of true crime. But many of the people interviewed for the book said he stretched the truth where it suited him and made things up where he had to. So, was it ever really true crime? Or was it just an experimental novel with some masterstroke publicity?

Was this harder to write than an actual true crime story? 

Interesting question! I'd say this has been the easiest book I've written--but only because the three novels preceding it were much more personal. The first took eight years to write; I started hallucinating when I wrote the second; and the third made me seriously consider not writing again. Afterwards, I declined to renew my publishing deal and left England for southeast Asia, trying to get as far away from everything as possible. I had a headache for three months and didn't write for a year.

True Crime Story was challenging but somehow in a fun way. I think I was dying to write some different voices. I also think that the cut-up style--different interviews, e-mails and documents--meant that I could work on different parts when any one of them got too difficult. I also can't discount the fact that I had the idea so many years ago. I'd been turning it over, both consciously and subconsciously, for a decade. Who knows how many micro-problems were solved in that time?

How did you keep everything organized? Did you need several bulletin boards just to keep all your notes straight.

Every time I write a book, I swear up and down that I'm going to plan it and start some kind of spreadsheet to hold all the information in, but then I open Excel, struggle with it for a few minutes and [give up]. I tend to just make notes all over the place as they occur to me. That might sound lightweight, but I make up for it by truly living in the world of the novel as much as possible. When I'm writing, I work for 16-18 hours per day and I don't do anything else for months on end. I eat, sleep and breathe it, and I'll re-read it hundreds of times. When you go at it like that, it becomes like your life, and you remember the details like you would the things that have actually happened to you.

What true-crime stories did you use as inspiration for Zoe's tale? Is her character an amalgamation of real-life women, and if so, which cases did you draw upon the most?

I don't think I used any one young woman as inspiration--if only because I was more interested in the milieu of a murder/missing person. The press--good and bad--the grieving families and friends, and the ones who clearly see it as the start of their 15 minutes. There's a lot of opportunity attached to tragedy--a grotesque kind of fame--and I think that's what I was more interested in than anything.

What I always loved about Ross MacDonald mysteries--and what I've always tried to emulate in my own writing--is that they become an excuse to look at family tragedies with all interpersonal frailties and weaknesses exposed. I think if people are honest with themselves, that's what they love about so many of the true crime podcasts. It's a kind of gossip and hearsay, and even better, it's life or death! So I'm trying to tap into that while also raising a bit of an eyebrow at it as well.

I try to resist the deification [of missing girls], though. If I vanished tomorrow, the last thing I'd want anyone to think of me as is a saint or a victim. It's insulting and dehumanizing, in my opinion; people deserve better than that.

What was it like writing yourself AS a character? Your fictional self will obviously be different from your true self, so how did you choose which real-life elements to incorporate and which to tweak?

The book seemed to naturally demand it, so in I went. I knew that to keep things convincing, the Joseph Knox of the book would have to be a bit of a sh*t bag. Luckily, that wasn't a stretch. That said, I've had several people finish the book believing that everything is real and taking issue with me for the terrible things "I" have done. I guess I have to take that as a compliment, though?

As you were writing, did you know your ending all along? Or did you come to the conclusion the way your fictionalized self did?

I had a sense of the ending but not really an idea of how I was going to arrive at it. There's quite a lot of autobiography in the book, and the person who appears to be the most likely culprit at its close is based on someone I knew. They weren't quite as bad as the person in the book, but had the same kind of schism, in that they presented themselves to the world as one thing, but turned out to be manipulative, vindictive, abusive and even violent when it suited them. I have no idea what became of this person, so hopefully they don't recognize themselves in the book and find my house. Maybe that's the sequel? --Lauren Puckett

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: Almudena Grandes

Almudena Grandes, the "award-winning Spanish writer and ardent feminist who shot to fame with an erotic novel about a woman rebelling against social norms," died November 27 at age 61, the New York Times reported. Grandes wrote more than a dozen novels, featuring protagonists who "mostly live on the edges of traditional Spanish society, either struggling against its sexual restrictions or marginalized by poverty. She was also a left-wing activist who had set about writing a six-novel series focused on Spain in the aftermath of its civil war of the 1930s. She completed five volumes."

Grandes's breakthrough came in 1989 with the publication of Las Edades de Lulú (The Ages of Lulu), which "won a literary prize for erotic fiction, sold more than a million copies worldwide and was turned into a movie by the director Bigas Luna, with a cast that included Javier Bardem in his first screen appearance," the Times said. Her other books include Malena es un Nombre de Tango (Malena Is the Name of a Tango) and Los Aires Difíciles (The Wind From the East), both of which were adapted into films. Her last published novel, the fifth installment in her series about the Spanish Civil War, La madre de Frankenstein (The Mother of Frankenstein), was released in 2020. The Ages of Lulu is available from Seven Stories Press ($13.95).

Book Review


O Beautiful

by Jung Yun

There is a cool tension between insiders and outsiders in O Beautiful, the spellbinding second novel by Jung Yun, whose debut, Shelter, rightfully drew massive critical acclaim. In the center of it all stands Elinor Hanson, a New York magazine reporter fresh out of a master's program. She's on assignment in Avery, N.Dak., researching a story about the oil boom in the Bakken region--a project handed to her by Richard Hall, a professor who could no longer write the story himself, a man with whom she has a complicated past.

Whereas Elinor is still a little green, Yun is again in perfect control of her story, fully exercising Richard's rule to "learn as much as possible about a subject before deciding what the story was." And there are many angles to consider: the environmental disaster of fracking; the "Avery scale" of sex politics, where men outnumber women roughly 30 to one; a missing white woman from Avery and the many more Mahua women missing from the reservation nearby; the exploding population versus the limited small-town infrastructure creating economic chaos. A windshield sunshade at the gas station runs $39.95, while a piece of cardboard can be bought from the liquor store recycling for a dollar--still a rip-off, "but at least it's the cheapest rip-off in the area." As Elinor investigates, it's her childhood upbringing in the area, as a mixed-race Korean American, that informs her enthralling attention to these subjects and more, having always straddled the line between inside and out. O Beautiful is an exceptional second work by a great American novelist. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Jung Yun leaves no stone unturned in her superbly tense novel about a magazine reporter's intersectional investigation into the oil boom in North Dakota.

St. Martin's Press, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250274328

Love in the Big City

by Sang Young Park, trans. by Anton Hur

A young gay man loves, loses and lives against the backdrop of Seoul in Love in the Big City, a wistful, moving debut in four parts by South Korean novelist Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur.

The narrator, a man in his early 30s, attends the wedding of his college best friend, a young woman who "could toss societal norms like used Kleenex." He reminisces about their shared apartment, the Marlboro Reds he bought for her that stood in the freezer beside the blueberries she bought for him, and their fierce support of each other, and he realizes this golden period is over. In the following three parts, he recounts his life through the lens of his romantic relationships, "love that disappeared like light rain over asphalt," longer partnerships that leave a sour aftertaste, and the possible love of his life. Along the way, he struggles to make it as a writer, contracts a life-changing STI, and becomes a carer for his cancer-stricken mother, who had him committed as a teenager for being gay.

Park's leading man will captivate readers with his blend of snarky humor, self-effacement and moments of touching vulnerability as he navigates life and love in a society still unaccepting of queer identities. His misadventures in a world of unappealing jobs, dating app hookups and the existential dread of entering adulthood should resonate especially with anyone who has come of age in the current epoch. Intimate and sharply observant, this bold confessional novel showcases a fresh, striking voice in literary fiction. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: An acerbic young gay man in Seoul struggles with life and love in Park's intimate, sharply observant debut.

Grove Press, $26, hardcover, 240p., 9780802158789

Mystery & Thriller

The Pledge

by Kathleen Kent

Edgar finalist Kathleen Kent (The Outcasts) launches an explosive finale to her trilogy about Detective Sergeant Betty Rhyzyk with The Pledge, which melds a thrilling police procedural with a complicated home life.

The Pledge has barely begun when Kent shows her solid, thoughtful approach to action with Betty pitted against two drug cartels. Betty's clearance rate as a detective with the North Central Dallas Police Department has brought many criminals to justice, but also generated enemies. The drug cartels are led by Evangeline Roy and her rival El Cuchillo, also known as "The Knife," and each wants Betty to eliminate the other.

At home, Betty and her wife, Jackie, are caring for seven-month-old Elizabeth, whose teenage mother, Mary Grace Miller, had been living with the couple before she abruptly disappeared. Worried about Mary Grace's safety and Elizabeth's future, Betty and Jackie hire a private investigator specializing in finding underage runaways. The couple's concern grows when Mary Grace's stepfather, a wealthy real-estate tycoon whose penchant for young girls has resulted in several lawsuits settled privately, also begins looking for the teenager. He's especially interested in the baby.

Kent meticulously juggles plot threads while delving into the intelligent Betty's appealing personality. Betty worries how her recent promotion will affect her close relationship with her squad, and if she is ready for this next level of her career. She and Jackie's strong marriage further elevates The Pledge. Readers will miss Betty, but Kent has done justice to her character's swan song. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer 

Discover: Kent skillfully juggles numerous plot threads in this rousing end to her trilogy about Dallas's intelligent Detective Sergeant Betty Rhyzyk.

Mulholland, $28, hardcover, 400p., 9780316280457

Hello, Transcriber

by Hannah Morrissey

Hazel Greenlee likes to throw stuff off Forge Bridge; the objects range from a cheap bracelet to what readers of Hello, Transcriber will come to learn are items of greater significance. Hannah Morrissey's debut is a well-crafted thriller that splits its time between Hazel's professional and personal lives until they converge, a physical point of confluence being what she thinks of as the suicide bridge.

Narrator Hazel, who aspires to be a writer, and her husband, Tommy, an aquatic ecologist, hunter and gun nut, live in Black Harbor, a crime-blighted city outside Milwaukee in which suicide is almost as prevalent as the oxycodone use that so often accompanies it. After Hazel lands a job as the Black Harbor Police Department's new transcriber, one of the first reports that she types up concerns the death of a nine-year-old boy whose mouth exhibits the white foam associated with a drug overdose. The murder was brought to the police's attention by William "Sam" Samson, who confessed that, with the help of drug dealer Tyler Krejarek, he hid the body in a dumpster behind the apartment building in which the kid and Tyler both resided. Meanwhile, Hazel becomes distracted by her blooming crush on investigator Nikolai Kole, who's handling the case, having just returned from a six-month suspension for a reason that no one is disclosing.

Hello, Transcriber is wonderfully attuned to the particulars of Hazel's job, and Morrissey is a psychologically attentive writer who captures the bristly tension between longtime locals and newcomers. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Hannah Morrissey's debut is an earthy thriller-romance hybrid centered on a married police department transcriber who becomes fixated on a case and on the detective covering it.

Minotaur, $27.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781250795953

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Even Greater Mistakes

by Charlie Jane Anders

Relationships and dreams remain achingly familiar, even in the wildest futures, in the stories collected in Even Greater Mistakes by Charlie Jane Anders (Never Say You Can't Survive).

In "The Time Travel Club," a group that meets to share fictional stories of their time travel adventures is presented with a working time machine but stymied by trigonometry when it comes to using it. A young couple turns to suspended animation to help them balance their relationship with launching their careers in "The Power Couple." The 19 stories in this collection demonstrate Anders's mastery of many genres and tones, including comic space opera, queer body horror and a few set in the present or very near future with only minor speculative elements. Although all of the stories have been published previously, some have been expanded or substantially reworked. Some are intended as epilogues to Anders's novels but are self-contained enough that they can still be appreciated by readers who come to these first, as long as they don't mind spoilers.

Frequently tackling issues around mental health, gender, political turmoil and climate change, Anders toys with expectations and alternately delivers laughter and chills. "Ghost Champagne," in which a woman is haunted by her own future ghost, is a particular standout for the combination of its sharp wit and intense handling of depression. This collection will be appreciated not only by Anders's existing fans but also by readers of Ursula Le Guin and other sociological science fiction. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: This varied collection of 19 short stories showcases the author's sharp insight and knack for defying expectations.

Tor Books, $27.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781250766502

You Feel It Just Below the Ribs

by Jeffrey Cranor, Janina Matthewson

A survivor of a world-altering upheaval reveals how the research she developed to rebuild society was hijacked for purposes beyond what she intended in this suspenseful novel by Jeffrey Cranor (The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, written with Jeffrey Fink) and Janina Matthewson (Of Things Gone Astray), set in the world of the podcast Within the Wires.

You Feel It Just Below the Ribs is presented as an autobiography of Miriam Gregory, a psychologist who played a pivotal role in an alternate 20th century. Following decades of war in her youth, Miriam becomes involved in the building of the New Society, founded on the basis of eschewing all tribalism, including the bonds between parents and children. How this is accomplished is revealed slowly through both Miriam's narrative and footnotes ostensibly added by an underground publisher when the manuscript was discovered. However, as Miriam's story progresses and becomes darker, the footnotes become ever more insistent that her version of events cannot be verified and contradicts established facts. Is the manuscript actually a work of fiction, a fraud, or an exposé of a conspiracy never otherwise revealed?

Just as each season of Within the Wires is a self-contained story presented as found audio, this novel stands independently, although listeners will recognize elements of the society and enjoy learning more about their backgrounds. Fans and newcomers alike will be engrossed by the mix of alternate history, science fiction and slow-burn horror. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: A suspenseful story of survival and loss gradually exposes the creation of a dystopian world order.

Harper Perennial, $16.99, paperback, 384p., 9780063066625

Graphic Books

Leonard Cohen: On a Wire

by Philippe Girard, trans. by Helge Dascher, Karen Houle

Award-winning Canadian cartoonist Philippe Girard (Obituary Man) admirably condenses seven decades into a concise 120 pages in Leonard Cohen: On a Wire. It's a valuable introduction to the tumultuous life of the iconic singer/songwriter/poet perhaps best remembered for his classic "Hallelujah," eventually covered by some 200 musicians.

Girard begins at the end, on November 7, 2016, when Cohen fell out of bed in his Los Angeles home: "Nobody heard me," he utters. "I am going to die here, all alone, like a dog." Rewind to Montreal, Cohen's birthplace, where he's a teen in 1947, desperately looking for his missing pooch, whose frozen corpse he finds under the neighbor's porch. "This is a rotten way to say goodbye," Cohen mourns. Farewells become a repetitive theme throughout his many decades, during which his achievements are often marred by drugs, alcohol and dysfunctional relationships--romantic, familial, professional.  

Girard captures Cohen's impending death in evening shades of blues and greys; as Cohen lays dying, Girard interrupts his final hours with significant life events in a fuller color palette dominated by yellows and browns. Cohen writes, learns guitar, buys the famous blue coat in London, falls in love with muse Marianne in Greece, makes music, gets famous, makes deals, breaks hearts (his own included), fathers two children, loses everything, starts again. For the many famous people sharing Cohen's path, Girard appends a "Rogues' Gallery"-who's who.

For generations unaware of Cohen's remarkable legacy, Girard's insightful biography underscores his unyielding tenacity, even in the worst clutches of depression and addiction. Inspiring and informative, Girard--translated by Helge Dascher and Karen Houle--provides indelible testimony to a legendary creative life. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Canadian cartoonist Philippe Girard presents an insightful, concise graphic biography of fellow Canadian, world-renowned musical icon Leonard Cohen.

Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95, hardcover, 120p., 9781770464896

Biography & Memoir

A Life of Picasso IV: The Minotaur Years 1933-1943

by John Richardson

In the immeasurably rich A Life of Picasso IV: The Minotaur Years 1933-1943, John Richardson resumes the artist's story like so: "Of all the problems besetting Picasso in late 1932, foremost was the misery of married life with his Russian wife, Olga." The romantically tempestuous decade that Richardson proceeds to cover, which largely corresponds with Picasso's 50s, finds the painter almost unreasonably productive, as if he discovered artistic fortification in unrelenting domestic chaos.

Richardson interweaves the dramas of Picasso's personal life in France (his efforts to divorce Olga, his rotating mistresses, his troubled teenage son) with reports on his artistic output (most famously 1937's Guernica) and updates on his public persona (he sticks to the periphery of the surrealist movement but stands proud as part of the Resistance). If Richardson seems to be able to understand his subject so well, that's probably because the author was an acquaintance of Picasso, as he makes unostentatiously plain throughout the book ("I was present in the 1950s when Picasso revealed the depth of his van Gogh obsession").

Richardson, who died in 2019 at age 95, didn't live to complete Picasso's story, but A Life of Picasso IV, whose illustrations number nearly as many as there are pages in the main text, concludes with a fitting epitaph for the artist, courtesy of his mistress-muse Dora Maar. "It's no wonder Dora turned to religion," Richardson writes of her life after the artist replaced her. "As she would later say, 'After Picasso, there is only God.' " --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: The fourth and final volume in John Richardson's invaluable biographical portrait abounds with fresh insights, some of which the author gleaned from his acquaintanceship with his subject.

Knopf, $40, hardcover, 320p., 9780307266668


A Short History of Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce

by Massimo Montanari, trans. by Gregory Conti

People have been enjoying spaghetti and tomato sauce for thousands of years. In A Short History of Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce, professor of history and nutrition writer Massimo Montanari of Bologna, Italy, serves up a fascinating chronology, deconstructing the roots of this beloved food while also unraveling preconceived notions and misconceptions.

Ingredients for this iconic Italian dish were derived and evolved from many cultures and places: pasta, the dried form, came from Arabs--not, as once believed, from Marco Polo on his return from China. Cheese and tomato--once considered lowly peasant foods--arrived in Italy from Spain via South America. It was Italian culinary ingenuity--along with a penchant for cuisine marked with onions, garlic, basil, chili and olive oil--that ultimately put these components together to form what has become a symbol of Italian identity.

This thorough, well-researched and enlightening narrative highlights the ancient approaches to making and shaping noodles, including the origins of lasagna; ways to cook pasta; how explorers, rulers and even physicians influenced recipes; how utensils, like the fork, played a significant role in pasta consumption; and factors that ultimately led to the development of what is now known as the Mediterranean Diet.

Montanari (Medieval Tastes) sets a beautiful table filled with savory information that will appeal to academics, history buffs, the culinary-minded and those eager to learn how and why twirling a fork into a mountain of spaghetti with tomato sauce has become a delicious source of comforting nourishment, as well as a quintessential and beloved cultural phenomenon. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: An Italian food historian serves up a thoroughly fascinating, in-depth study of an iconic comfort food credited to the Italians.

Europa Compass, $18, hardcover, 128p., 9781609457099

Social Science

The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life's In-Betweens to Remake the World

by Kaya Oakes

Women, notes journalist Kaya Oakes, often find themselves caught between opposing expectations: what their families and societies want for them, their own dreams and ambitions, and the limits (and surprises) of their experiences. In The Defiant Middle, her thought-provoking fifth book, Oakes examines the lives of women throughout history, with a focus on the medieval era, who "defied expectations and reinvented themselves, along with their world."

Oakes (The Nones Are Alright) organizes her work into several provocative categories of identity, including "Barren," "Angry," "Crazy," "Butch/Femme/Other" and "Alone." Her subjects are sometimes officially saints: women who are now venerated by the Catholic Church and other religious groups. But all of them are gloriously messy humans who, during their lifetimes, elicited powerful reactions in the (mostly male) people who had control over their lives.

Oakes also shares anecdotes and frustrations from her own life (acknowledging her privileged status), and blends them with scholarly research and incisive analysis of what her subjects' stories might mean for women today. After a meditation on Julian of Norwich, she writes about "how to tell the difference between loneliness and its longing for others, and longing for solitude's pitched and heightened awareness." And in a chapter that reimagines "barrenness" as a potentially fertile field of selfhood, she writes, "This is the unexpected second bloom, the surprise spring of water, the stranger appearing, walking on the heat-shimmering road. The woman, emerging, on her own."

Both an unusual feminist text and a tribute to trailblazing women, The Defiant Middle offers a lens and a roadmap for women seeking to grow beyond constricting and conflicting expectations. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Journalist Kaya Oakes offers stories of trailblazing women and thought-provoking insights on how to defy society's expectations.

Broadleaf Books, $26.99, hardcover, 200p., 9781506467689

Children's & Young Adult

Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed: 15 Voices from the Latinx Diaspora

by Saraciea J. Fennell, editor

Saraciea J. Fennell's introduction to Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed begins with the assertion, "We are so much more than... myths." Edited by Fennell, the anthology successfully brings together 15 authors who interrogate stereotypes about people from the Latin American diaspora. These stories offer a bracing dive into the reality of racist microaggressions, family ghosts and cultural isolation.

The standout "Eres un Pocho," by Mark Oshiro, is boldly told in second person. Oshiro describes their upbringing as a trans-racial adoptee who felt "like an exhibit in a zoo," their story leading readers off an emotional cliff in search of language and community. Language is explored in several pieces, including Ibi Zoboi's "The Haitian Sensation," which describes "trying to pass as 'Spanish' " to fit in with Black Dominican girls in grade school. Zoboi points out that the media is partly responsible in creating Latinx stereotypes in that it "has mostly portrayed the whitest parts of Spanish-speaking countries." The Afro-Latinx authors echo the displacement that comes with being Black and Latinx, and the racism pervasive within Latin American communities. A powerful example is the poetic prose in Julian Randall's "#Julian4Spiderman," in which Randall's coming-of-age story as a boy "begging to be seen" centers on Marvel's AfroLatino SpiderMan, Miles Morales.

The impressive lineup of Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed offers a wide scope of personal essays ranging in narrative voice and structure, the stories unflinching in their earnestness but also filled with music and food and joy. This collection is necessary reading. --Zoraida Córdova, author and editor

Discover: Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed is a remarkable collection of essays depicting the joys and sorrows of the Latinx diaspora.

Flatiron Books, $18.99, hardcover, 272p., ages 12-up, 9781250763426


by Neal Shusterman, Jarrod Shusterman

The father-son writing team of Neal and Jarrod Shusterman (Dry) successfully takes on the opioid epidemic in their riveting, tense sophomore novel.

Eighteen-year-old Ivy Ramey struggles with ADD while her younger brother, Isaac, is on track to become a propulsion engineer. Though Isaac is a year younger than Ivy, he often feels like the older sibling as he repeatedly bails her out of bad situations. On one of these nights, Isaac sustains an ankle injury that threatens his chances of earning a soccer scholarship. His pain, the stress of his parents' financial worries and his sister's behavior turn Isaac to the oxycodone Roxicet--"Roxy"--to soothe his woes. At the same time, Ivy is faced with the possibility of flunking out of high school and chooses to obtain a prescription for Adderall--"Addison"--to help her focus and take control of her life. Addison is always on the periphery--"in the Party, but not of the Party"--while Roxy is "so hot right now." The two "gods" wager to see who can be the first one to bring their "plus-one" to the Party (a stand-in for altered states) and into the intimate, deadly VIP Lounge.

Roxy uses point of view to explore the effects of drug dependency and abuse: third-person limited to get inside the heads of the teen addicts and surprising first-person perspectives from individual drugs. In the opening chapter, one of the Ramey siblings dies from a drug overdose. From there, the authors backtrack two months to follow Ivy and Isaac on their downward spirals as well as the drugs themselves, delivering powerful, tense scenes that elicit empathy and compassion. Roxy is a dark, gritty cautionary tale about the dangers--to oneself and to loved ones--of addiction. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader

Discover: A pair of siblings become the playthings for two drug "gods"--Roxy and Addison--in this riveting thriller that addresses the opioid epidemic.

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $18.99, hardcover, 384p., ages 14-up, 9781534451254

I Don't Want to Read This Book

by Max Greenfield, illus. by Mike Lowery

Best known for his role in the TV series New Girl, debut author Max Greenfield joins forces with illustrator Mike Lowery (Everything Awesome series) in this hilarious picture book tribute to reluctant readers.

"I don't want to read this book," the unseen narrator declares in childish lettering on the otherwise blank first page. They subsequently delineate their objections in a panoply of fun-for-the-eyes lettering styles across a series of exuberant, colorful layouts. First, they worry the book may have a lot of words, as demonstrated by the word "words" repeated in a range of lettering styles across a full spread. Worse, many books have sentences, also known as "too many words all smushed together." Paragraphs are an even greater threat. "I would love to meet a person who is able to read a full paragraph and not lose their train of thought," the narrator says, the last three words written on a drawing of a train with an uncoupled caboose. Their worries become self-fulfilling prophecies as the monologue turns from words into sentences, paragraphs and a dreaded chapter heading until the narrator realizes they've inadvertently read the entire book.

Greenfield's irreverent text demolishes the fourth wall, and Lowery's peppy pencil and digital-media renderings of his words have a vibe reminiscent of a child's journal, with doodle-style drawings accenting his dynamic renditions of Greenfield's words. For avid and reluctant readers alike, this tongue-in-cheek, metafictive send-up of reading as a chore is delightfully unlikely to live up to its title. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth experience manager, Dayton Metro Library

Discover: This scrappy, funny picture book riffs on a sassy reluctant reader's loquacious refusal to read it.

Putnam Books for Young Readers, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 6-8, 9780593326060

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