Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, September 21, 2012

Roaring Brook Press: Juniper's Christmas by Eoin Colfer

From My Shelf

Everywhere a Hobbit...

Many years ago, an uncle gave me a copy of The Hobbit, which I read with great pleasure (and still have). It's a literary rite of passage. Today, September 21, marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit, and tomorrow is Bilbo Baggins's birthday, traditionally celebrated by Tolkien fans as "Hobbit Day." Tolkien's publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has sent out more than 1,000 event kits--with balloons, trivia questions, movie posters, etc.--to bookstores, teachers, homeschoolers and librarians to encourage participation; more information is at Read the Hobbit.

Corey Olsen, author of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, will host an all-day virtual festival/live Internet radio show on the Middle-earth Network at Hobbit Day on September 22. (At the upcoming Boston Book Festival and Miami Book Fair, Olsen will be joined by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, authors and editors of The Art of the Hobbit, also published by Houghton.) And on the official anniversary, fans around the world are encouraged to participate in a global "Second Breakfast"--the meal especially enjoyed by Bilbo Baggins--at 11 a.m. local time.

Houghton is using social media--Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter (#Hobbit, #HobbitDay)--in coordination with Warner Brothers, and others to get word out to the existing Tolkien fan base and to create new fans. A virtual community read of The Hobbit will be held during the month of October. Discussions will be take place on Goodreads and Facebook, supplemented with quizzes, polls and essays from experts. Houghton will also host a Twitter discussion using the hashtag #ReadtheHobbit.

All this leads to the pièce de résistance: the first of Peter Jackson's three Hobbit films opens on December 14! It couldn't happen to a better furry-footed Middle Earthian, or a better book. --Marilyn Dahl, book review editor, Shelf Awareness

BINC: Read Love Support Campaign

The Writer's Life

Michael Ennis: Rethinking Machiavelli

Michael Ennis earned his degree in history at the University of California, Berkeley, taught art history at the University of Texas, Austin, and developed museum programs as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow. He is the author of two previous historical novels, Duchess of Milan and Byzantium. He has written for Esquire and Architectural Digest, and is a regular contributor to Texas Monthly. He lives in Dallas with his video producer wife, Ellen, their daughter, Arielle, and their Australian shepherd, Zoe.

A series of gruesome murders play out against a backdrop of court intrigue and dark magic in his latest novel The Malice of Fortune (Doubleday), reviewed below. Teaming up to solve the mystery are none other than Niccolò Machiavelli, Leonardo Da Vinci and a beautiful courtesan with a mysterious past.

The historic events you chose are rich with possibilities for fiction storylines. How did these events inspire you as the backdrop for a mystery?

This convergence of well-known personalities and political turmoil--events that became central to Machiavelli's The Prince--would alone seem to be more than a full plate. Yet I decided to interweave this political drama with a murder mystery that involves the unmasking of a serial killer, because the murder mystery--or more properly the mystery behind a series of historically documented murders that began with the assassination of the Borgia Pope's cherished son in 1497--was not only integral to the power struggle that unfolded in the final months of 1502, but also illuminated that political drama and its far-reaching consequences in a way that documented history simply could not.

I started with the known facts: Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli were both at the court of Cesare Borgia in the obscure little Italian city of Imola at the end of 1502, a meeting of the minds that in many ways jump-started the modern world. And we have ample evidence that in Imola both Leonardo and Machiavelli became intimately--and terrifyingly--familiar with an individual whom today we would describe as a psychopathic serial killer. So the task I set for myself was to take the documented history and the questions it raised, and infer from them an entirely plausible "undocumented history"--a dramatic narrative that would that answer questions about Leonardo, Machiavelli and The Prince that the historical record certainly raises, but has never answered. As Machiavelli says in introducing his own narrative at the beginning of The Malice of Fortune, there is a "terrifying secret I deliberately buried between the lines of The Prince." That secret--a murderer's secret--is no fictional invention, and it is impossible to fully understand The Prince, which continues to have a transforming effect on Western culture, without deciphering it.

This may be the first time in fiction that Machiavelli has been portrayed as a heroic, even sexy protagonist. What was your motivation in making Machiavelli and The Prince the centerpiece of this novel?

Machiavelli has a great saying that I cite: "Everyone sees what you appear to be, few truly know what you are--and those few dare not oppose the opinion of the many." He was referring to how easy it is to acquire a good reputation if you simply keep up appearances. But his own case proves the flip side of this axiom--it is also very difficult to dispel a bad reputation, once "what you appear to be" becomes enshrined in popular opinion. And for centuries Western culture has imputed to Machiavelli's personal character the most extreme and often poorly understood values of The Prince. His name has been transformed into an adjective that remains widely used today, but his enduring notoriety has given him an undeserved reputation as a self-help guru for amoral, ruthlessly self-interested connivers of all sorts, from ambitious corporate executives to mass-murdering dictators.

The truth is, if you get into the details of Machiavelli's life and read his extensive personal correspondence, a very clear picture emerges of a man who could not have been less "Machiavellian." A loyal, charismatically charming friend and scrupulously honest public servant, Machiavelli struggled his entire life to empower people rather than princes--not to mention being an incurable romantic who often professed, in ornate prose and poetry, his belief that love conquers all. So as a fictional character, history's real Machiavelli has the ability to shock, simply because he isn't at all what our popular notion of "Machiavellian" has told us to expect.

You've proposed a different way of reading The Prince than is traditionally taught in the classroom--as a study of human nature rather than a ruthless how-to guide to power. What lessons do you think we can still draw from it in the 21st century?

The Prince is the key to the widespread mischaracterization of Machiavelli himself, because in it he seems to advise self-aggrandizing despots on the most effective ways to grasp and hold on to power--we believe that's all there is to his political philosophy because The Prince is usually taught out of context. I would suggest that it is actually harmful to teach The Prince without also requiring a reading of Machiavelli's uninvitingly titled Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, a more complete work that lays out Machiavelli's true political beliefs. In the Discourses, Machiavelli details his preference for the superior if imperfect wisdom of the people, as he passionately advocates representative government--a radical egalitarianism that would not become a potent political force until the American and French revolutions more than 250 years later. The Prince was merely Machiavelli's plan B, an instruction manual for the Medici prince who took over following the complete collapse of the Florentine republic, amid a an imminent threat of foreign invasion. In this context, Machiavelli intends The Prince to be consulted only when political prudence has long been disregarded, chaos reigns and the only choice, if a people are to avoid enslavement by foreign powers, is between effective or ineffective despotism. But the Discourse's lucid, carefully laid out case for moderation, openness and fairness was so far ahead of its time that today it could not be more timely for the Western governments and economies that are presently perched on the edge of a precipice.

Instead we've got a lot of false Machiavellians--both in business and government--cluelessly thumbing through The Prince, either literally or metaphorically, and their reckless self-interest is bringing down the whole system of free-market democracy that they imagine they are advancing. Today we hear from our leaders of all political stripes that we can no longer afford to be good--we must separate the world into winners and losers, and make sure we end up among the winners, regardless of how we get there. But what Machiavelli really says is that if we want to preserve the institutions by which we profit and remain free, we can't afford not to be good.

In a book about the victimization of women, Damiata--a beautiful courtesan driven by the desire to protect her son--provides a counterbalance of feminine strength. We also see a human side to Machiavelli through his love for her, so that in a sense, Damiata seems like the emotional center of the novel.

You've really hit the nail on the head here, because the biggest problem I confronted with the entire narrative was how to get readers emotionally invested in a central protagonist--Machiavelli--whom they are predisposed to see as one of history's most toxic, evil personalities, and a bit of an anti-feminist at that. So in that sense, everything must begin with Damiata: only when we have discovered Machiavelli just as she does in her "real-time" narrative, and come to believe as she does in his essential virtue and humanity, can we make an emotional investment in him and his story as he subsequently tells it. And even then, Damiata's wrenching personal quest to free her son, in concert with Machiavelli's quest to save her, provides the emotional drive for Machiavelli's own narrative. It's an interesting dependence, because it mirrors Machiavelli's real life. My research revealed a man who relied throughout his life on strong, independent women for his own emotional and intellectual support. His mother was an educated woman who was the widow of a prominent "pro-democracy" Medici opponent when she married Bernardo Machiavelli, and I believe that she more than Machiavelli's legalistic, cautious father was responsible for his egalitarian beliefs. And throughout his life Machiavelli sought out the companionship of women much like Damiata, educated courtesans whose real trade was intellectual engagement--far more than merely physical--with powerful men. Machiavelli, who never escaped Florence's beleaguered middle class (which was much like America's today), certainly couldn't afford these ladies' professional services, so these were real friendships.

How did you come up with the puzzles and diagrams that are the focus of the mystery?

Here again history presented everything. Leonardo da Vinci's Map of Imola, which is the basis for the murderer's elaborate game-playing, is one of his lesser-known but most revolutionary works--an exactly scaled "aerial" perspective that anticipates by centuries the kind of satellite views we now get in Google Maps. This remarkable map, which Leonardo completed about a month before my story begins, still exists; it's now in Windsor Palace's Royal Library. The murderer's geometric overlay, derived from Archimedes' proofs, is based on an actual note that Leonardo wrote in the summer of 1502, just months before the events I describe, saying that he expects to get a text of Archimedes' theories from Vitellozzo Vitelli, one of the prime murder suspects. So these historical details could be worked neatly and quite plausibly into the plot.

In this novel, the city of Capua is synonymous with unspeakable horrors committed against innocents, mostly women. Does this have a basis in historical fact?

Like all the other details, this massacre is presented in The Malice of Fortune exactly as it is recorded in history--all of the suspects in the murders were actually present there, and the horrors they and their soldiers inflicted on the innocent townspeople, which I chose to keep mostly "offstage" and allusive, are so barbaric that they would probably be taken as over-the-top inventions if I had explicitly spelled them out. Executed by a massive mercenary army, the sack of Capua exposed the brutal corruption of the condottieri, the cabal of warlords who profited--extravagantly--from Renaissance Italy's privatized warfare. Machiavelli, by the way, considered these preening private warlords the greatest evil of his time, as morally bankrupt as they were militarily ineffective, whenever they were called upon to defend Italy from actual foreign invaders. The condottieri went from war to war--most of which they instigated for business reasons--unscathed, becoming the wealthiest men in Italy while the little people whose cities were sacked and fields plucked clean paid with their lives and livelihoods for the whole egregious system. And if anyone wants to see the condottieri as a metaphor for today's financial industry, be my guest.

Of Da Vinci's drawings of the human body, Damiata says, "The Maestro has found this secret world beneath our skin." In your depiction of Renaissance Italy, secret worlds abound--in the esoteric sciences practiced by Da Vinci, in the witch covens of the Italian countryside, in the private bedchambers of princes. Do you see Renaissance Italy as a setting with particular potential for the mysterious and the unexplained?

What makes Renaissance Italy such an effective setting for this sort of thing is the very evident tension between the dawn of modern scientific empiricism and the persistence of ancient superstition. In fact, it's often hard to draw the line where the infant sciences become distinct from arcane practices like alchemy and astrology. And often what appears cryptic and mysterious, such as Leonardo's drawings of veins and arteries--the "secret world beneath our skins"--becomes the basis for a conceptual breakthrough like Leonardo's precocious understanding of how a system of valves and a powerful pump--the heart--forces blood to circulate throughout the body. So I think the real interest is not just all this arcana per se, but the often quirky dialogue between the emerging modern mind and a world still dominated by magic, demons and deities. That was something I made a real effort to capture, rather than to portray Leonardo and Machiavelli as preternaturally prophetic and clear-headed in their thinking. Like all true innovators, they must struggle against the immense weight of established beliefs.

Witches and witchcraft are integral to the story. How much of this was based on fact? Did you take liberties in order to weave some magic into this otherwise historical tale?

Here again, I didn't need to invent anything. Instead I did enough research for a stand-alone historical novel simply to find the authentic details that would really bring to life a single episode--though it is an episode that ripples throughout the entire book.

In Renaissance Italy the pervasive influence of stregoneria--the ancient folk religion, based on the cult of Diana, practiced by streghe, or witches--is attested by the brutal efforts of the Church to suppress it, as well as the survival of the stregoneria into at least the early 20th century. Most of the witchcraft details in The Malice of Fortune were taken from transcripts of trials conducted by the Inquisition in the exact area of the Romagna where my account takes place. The use of a Latin textbook as a bogus "book of spells," which figures so prominently in the plot, is one such detail, along with all the incantations and physical elements involved in a Gevol int la caraffa--a divination wherein the Devil is summoned to appear in a jar of water. The use of a narcotic ointment to bring about a hallucinatory "night ride" is described in a number of Renaissance-era sources, along with fairly specific recipes for mixing this concoction. But as much as I strove for verisimilitude, part of that realism was preserving an authentic sense of "magic" and wonder surrounding these rituals, because whatever credence--or lack thereof--we might attach to them, the streghe were true believers in the services they performed, at great risk, for impoverished communities that were only victimized by both the Church and state. --Ilana Teitelbaum, book reviewer at the Huffington Post

Book Candy

Authors' Homes; Alphabet's Origins; Literary Insults

NBC News offered a quick tour of "7 famous authors' homes you can visit."


"With the help of the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Phonecians," Jason Novak showed "what characters in the alphabet originally represented" for the Rumpus.


"You bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation." Kingsley Amis was just one example as Flavorwire served up a "literary insult for every occasion."

Great Reads

Now in Paper

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Ecco, $14.99)
The 2012 Orange Prize winner: a dazzling jewel of a novel that uncovers the love story at the heart of The Iliad between its key figure, Achilles, and his companion Patroclus.

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Vintage, $15.95)
Literary tricks and surprises abound as Hollinghurst follows several dozen characters through almost 100 years of hidden passionate friendships and secret loves, while suspense lurks just beneath the surface of their glossy, privileged world of rigorous conventions and repressed passion.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (Algonquin, $14.95)
Owing much to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Jordan's thought-provoking dystopian novel lives up to its influences as she examines our schadenfreude-hungry culture and the precarious position of women's rights within it.

The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis (Soho Crime, $15.95)
In Copenhagen, Red Cross nurse Nina Borg risks her life to rescue a kidnapped three-year-old Lithuanian boy in an intense but compassionate thriller that actually thrills, where you care about the characters, and the consequences are dreadful.

We the Animals by Justin Torres (Mariner, $12.95)
A touching, frightening story of three boys who grow up amid neglect, poverty, violence and occasional moments of pure, radiant love. The first-rate prose will leave you gut-socked and breathless, but the writing is so exquisite, it makes the painful trip so worthwhile.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Picador, $16)
From Brown University to Cape Cod to India, Jeffrey Eugenides's latest novel traces a lavishly detailed portrait of a love triangle. His descriptive powers are vivid and he displays a depth of characterization and commanding prose style that sustain the story's momentum.

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes (Grove, $15)
Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes writes about the necessity of preserving the humanity of those who fight for our nation and honoring the humanity of those they kill; it's both a letter to young warriors and a catalyzing call for change.

The Other Walk: Essays by Sven Birkerts (Graywolf, $15)
In 45 diverse and thoughtful personal essays, critic Sven Birkerts offers glimpses into his personal life and encounters with the world around us. They are best consumed in slow, contemplative bites, with ample time allowed to reflect on and absorb them.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton, $16.95)
A rich and satisfying tale of the preservation of intellectual history in the acclamation for Lucretius's "De rerum natura" and its reclamation from obscurity. The Swerve won the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfiled (Gotham, $16)
In his lively, informative survey of 560 years of typefaces and font choices, Garfield does not set out to make anyone who uses Times New Roman as a default font feel unadventurous, but he succeeds in doing precisely that in this witty book about thousands of cooler alternatives.


Presidential Campaign Books; Challenged, Challenging Titles

Elect these books. Jacket Copy's recommended "12 essential presidential campaign books."


Acknowledging the "allure of literary contraband," Word&Film prepped for the upcoming Banned Books Week with a list of "challenged and challenging tales of troubled youth most glaringly absent from the canon of coming-of-age adaptations."


Who'd like another serving of Quaking pudding? Lawrence Norfolk, author John Saturnall's Feast, chose his "top 10 seventeenth-century food books" for the Guardian.


Noting that "many of science fiction's most indelible stories are about warfare, io9's readers picked the "12 greatest science fiction war stories."

Book Review


Beautiful Lies

by Clare Clark

Clare Clark's Beautiful Lies was inspired by the real-life story of Gabriela Cunninghame Graham, wife of the aristocratic writer and parliamentarian Robert Cunninghame Graham, well known in the 1880s for his socialist politics. Clark sets her novel in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, but not everyone is celebrating--unemployment and homelessness lead to widespread riots. Parallels between 19th-century Britain and today's world are easily drawn, but never in a preachy or obvious way.

Maribel Campbell Lowe has fashioned an exotic personal history out of whole cloth. The truth is much more prosaic and, if discovered, potentially disastrous for her husband, Edward, and his family. She is already a bit of a scandal: a childless, chain-smoking photographer who does as she pleases.

In another modern touch, Beautiful Lies also outlines the beginnings of newspaper corruption and tabloid journalism, as Maribel runs afoul of Alfred Webster, a self-righteous newspaper editor who pretends to be Edward's friend but is in reality his nemesis. It is possible he knows the truth about Maribel's past and might use it against her and Edward, but Maribel is not without her resources in that department.

Edward, meanwhile, is ousted from the House of Commons for taking part in a demonstration and sent to jail. While he is serving his sentence, Maribel goes to Spain to look for a mine that will end their financial problems, another of the subplots Clark uses so well to flesh out the social landscape, mores and morals of her late 19th-century setting. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: Frequently longlisted for Britain's Orange Prize, Clark returns with a story based on real Victorian-era celebrities making their way through the Queen's Golden Jubilee year.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, hardcover, 9780151014675

The Wine of Solitude

by Irène Némirovsky, trans. by Sandra Smith

Since the posthumous publication of Suite Française, many more of Irène Némirovsky's works have been translated and re-translated, none more autobiographical than The Wine of Solitude, a fiercely brave and angry little book, brutally unsentimental, stripped of domestic fantasy.

Hélène is an eight-year-old who scorns kissing and affection and is determined to be happy, shuttled about from the sleepy provincial Russian town where the tale begins to St. Petersburg, Finland and Paris. She grows from an innocent who loves studying and books into a lovely teenager determined to punish her spoiled, self-indulgent mother for years of selfishness.

Practicing the kind of sexual cruelty explored in the classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Hélène sets out to rob her mother of her lovely young Max. Némirovsky's tributes to other greats of French literature are everywhere apparent, as she writes with the sparseness of de Maupassant and the audacious feminine wiles of Colette.

The characters are multidimensional and pathetically human, from Hélène's devoted grandfather--who squanders three fortunes--and her prophetically sad grandmother, weeping as she does the household chores, to the doomed young governess, Mademoiselle Rose, and Max, tricked into giving his heart to his mistress's daughter. They exist, all of them, in a world of wealth and privilege, untroubled by "the sad sound of soldiers marching toward death."

It's the birth of a writer, shaped by war and revolution, told with the devastating cynicism of a young woman in a corrupt and greedy social world, where mothers openly flaunt their lovers and children are humored and ignored. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle

Discover: The neglected daughter of selfish, upwardly mobile parents decides to punish her mother by stealing her handsome young lover in Némirovsky's autobiographical novel.

Vintage, $15, paperback, 9780307745484

Emma: An Annotated Edition

by Jane Austen; Bharat Tandon, editor

Many Jane Austen fans have a particular favorite among her titles. Those who claim Emma as their preferred work--oh, the clever matchmaking premise, the accomplished narrative, the bright wit!--can further their adulation with this edition annotated by Bharat Tandon (Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation).

In his introduction, Tandon notes that he wants "only to shed enough light on Austen's details to enable individual readers to make their own informed decisions regarding exactly how the details connect with those contexts that time has rendered less manifest." And so he does. His notes include definitions, historical information and commentary; all are highly readable and always elucidating. He also purposefully avoids over-interpretation of Austen's text, allowing the reader to experience the joy of the original work while benefiting from his insight. The extensive annotations are accompanied by a lavish collection of illustrations, many in color, that serve to better define the novel's setting.

For die-hard fans of Emma, this annotated edition is a must-have. For readers new to Jane Austen's work, it's the perfect way to start what might likely turn out to be a lifelong love affair with her work. --Roni K. Devlin, owner, Literary Life Bookstore

Discover: A highly readable, wonderfully illustrated and remarkably enlightening annotation of Emma, part of a series encompassing all her novels.

Belknap, $35, hardcover, 9780674048843

The Malice of Fortune

by Michael Ennis

Stieg Larsson and CSI meet Renaissance Italy in Michael Ennis's ambitious The Malice of Fortune, in which Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli team up to investigate a series of grisly murders. All the victims are women; all are horribly mutilated. Anyone might be the next victim, including the beautiful golden-haired courtesan Damiata, with whom Machiavelli has fallen in love--and who guards a secret or two of her own.

The fictitious story in The Malice of Fortune occurs within a framework of documented historical events involving Duke Valentino--better known as the notorious Cesare Borgia, eldest son of Pope Alexander VI--and the brigand leaders who propose to help him conquer Italy. A treaty between Valentino and these leaders would mean certain doom for Florence, and that is how Machiavelli enters the story--as a low-level emissary sent by the council of Florence to stall negotiations as much as he can.

Damiata acts out of desperation to save her son from the clutches of Pope Alexander VI. Her child's father, the Pope's younger son, Juan Borgia, was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant--and Damiata is a suspect. Until she can prove her innocence, her son is held hostage in the Vatican. As the corpses pile up, a complex pattern takes shape--a message from the murderer so deviously encoded that Da Vinci, recently retained as Cesare's chief architect, must turn the full weight of his intellect to solving it.

The Malice of Fortune contains innumerable twists that culminate in a memorable, suspenseful conclusion. --Ilana Teitelbaum, book reviewer at the Huffington Post

Discover: A complex serial killer thriller set in Renaissance Italy, starring such colorful figures as the Borgias, Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli.

Doubleday, $26.95, hardcover, 9780385536318

Mystery & Thriller

The Cocktail Waitress

by James M. Cain

Attention, James M. Cain fans: if you've been desperate for another shot of Cain's noir, you can quench your thirst with The Cocktail Waitress. It took Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai nine years to track down this unfinished manuscript from Cain's final years, and he's done a superb job of bringing the dark and gritty story back to fully hardboiled life.

Meet beautiful Joan Medford of Hyattsville, Md., (where Cain lived in his final years). She's telling her story into a tape recorder and recounting it all, "including some things no woman would willingly tell." Her husband, a brute, has just died in a car accident (Double Indemnity redux?). The young woman is broke, and her three-year-old son, Tad, is being taken care of by her unruly sister-in-law. Fortunately, with a little help from those gorgeous gams and the way she fills out a flimsy peasant blouse without a bra, she secures a job as a cocktail waitress. Two regular customers vie for her attention: a handsome young stud named Tom and the elderly Earl K. White III, a wealthy, drab financier and widower. In pure Cain style, things get messy--and deadly.

What will Joan do--or, better yet, not do--to get her son back? The ending is vintage Cain. The Cocktail Waitress is a not-to-be missed crime thriller for all Cain fans. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: A rare, hardboiled blast from the past in this newly discovered James M. Cain novel about a cocktail waitress with a yen for danger and a thirst for sex.

Hard Case Crime, $23.99, hardcover, 9781781160329

The Cutting Season

by Attica Locke

Attica Locke's debut novel, Black Water Rising, garnered prize nominations and a devoted readership. The Cutting Season is just as good. It's set in Louisiana on Belle Vie, a former plantation--now hosting weddings and historical reenactments--that has been anything but a "beautiful life" for many of its inhabitants over the centuries, from slaves and freed blacks to the white family that owns it today.

Caren Gray, the manager of Belle Vie, has connections with the plantation through her slave and freed ancestors. One day, a young Mexican woman working nearby is found with her throat cut. There is no shortage of suspects. As Caren works to remove suspicion from one of the young men working for her, she uncovers evidence that Jason, one of her ancestors who disappeared many years ago, also was murdered. Caren's nine-year-old daughter, Morgan, is also involved, in ways that are slowly and surprisingly revealed. Morgan's father, Eric, arrives when it appears that Morgan might be in danger, and matters quickly become awkward as old feelings resurface. The intertwined murders keep the reader mesmerized and rooting for Caren as she tries to fit the pieces together and understand how this recent murder and that of Jason are connected.

Past, present and an uncertain future must be reconciled. Locke brings it all together by story's end, but not before Caren has come to terms with her own past, her paternity, her love for Eric and her protection of her daughter and her staff--and is ready to move ahead. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: A beautiful plantation is the scene of a migrant worker's murder, which drives its manager to investigate another murder, save a man falsely accused and examine her own life.

Harper, $25.99, hardcover, 9780061802058

Biography & Memoir

Kaffe Fassett: Dreaming in Color: An Autobiography

by Kaffe Fassett

Renowned artist and designer Kaffee Fassett connects with readers in Dreaming in Color. Through storytelling about images of his early paintings, illustrations, hand-knitting, fabric design, quilts, needlework and so much more, he re-creates his bohemian childhood in Big Sur, Calif., his world travels and his forays into every kind of creative design.

His parents bought a cabin from Orson Welles in the 1930s and transformed it into the world-famous Nepenthe restaurant. Kaffe and his siblings lived outdoors as much as inside; his childhood was not one of cosseted overprotection. He was allowed to roam the acreage, encouraged to help the workmen and learned to work with his hands as an artist, an artisan and a craftsman.

He attended a boarding school run by disciples of Krishmamurti, studied painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and then traveled to England. From this eclectic background came his fascination with design, whether in needlepoint or mosaic, tapestry or rugmaking, costume and set design or quilting. His journeys around the world inspired him to create different patterns, to use dyes and colors in unusual ways. He is the first living textile designer to have a one-person show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Dreaming in Color, illustrated with 500 color pictures, is a feast for the eyes. The text, filling in the story of his life, is straightforward, with a conversational tone, giving credit to those people and events that inspired him--but always, first and foremost, filled with the color and drama that are Kaffe Fassett. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: A gorgeous look at the life and world of Kaffe Fassett in all its creative manifestations: art, quilting, knitwear and textiles.

Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $40, hardcover, 9781584799962

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

by Tom Reiss

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous French writer Alexandre Dumas, lived a life that sounds like fiction: the son of a white aristocrat and freed slave, he was sold into slavery by his father before being repurchased and freed in France to live the life of an aristocrat's son. From there, he joined the French Army, where his physical stature and military prowess launched him through the ranks under Napoleon--until he was captured and held prisoner in Sicily for more than two years.

The Black Count recounts the life--and legacy--of this great man in extensive detail. Tom Reiss (The Orientalist) draws on over six years of primary research to tell Dumas's story. But the book is much more than a biography of a great French general. It's also a history of civil rights in France, an account of the French Revolution and a tale of Napoleon's rise to power. Woven throughout all of this historical detail is an ongoing analysis of Dumas's influence on his son's famous novels, particularly The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Though General Dumas is not commemorated with any statue in France today, he remains an important figure in French history and in literature; The Black Count merges the myth of the man contained in his son's novels with the facts of his life, resulting in an impeccable history that reads like a novel but packs the facts of a textbook. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: The story of the real man behind the legendary Count of Monte Cristo--and his lasting impact on French history.

Crown, $27, hardcover, 9780307382467

Nature & Environment

Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land

by James McClintock

Zoologist James McClintock has spent his career in the Antarctic, lovingly examining and meticulously documenting the wildlife, from the leopard seals and emperor penguins to the tiny sea butterflies and plankton, while recording changes in ocean conditions. Lost Antarctica collects a selection of his experiences: deep-sea diving, storms at sea, sightings of creatures large and small and other discoveries of tiny, crucial instances of evolutionary genius. Although he takes his time getting there, McClintock's most important point is cautionary: Antarctica, he says, is an early warning for the rest of our world.

McClintock has observed climate change firsthand and can lend his firsthand knowledge to other studies that document and explain the crisis. He also addresses "the other CO2 problem"--the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our oceans that lower the water's pH levels. The combination of ocean acidification, rising temperatures and melting ice threatens many species and their delicate relationships with one another--and the consequences extend even further, as some organisms that live only in Antarctica have been shown to yield chemicals that can help fight cancer and influenza.

While Lost Antarctica is an alert about climate change and ocean acidification, it ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. McClintock's message is reasoned and well documented--and his descriptions of a wondrous world of coral, starfish, sea sponges, fish, crabs, penguins and birds of prey make this important scientific message accessible to the general reader. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at Pages of Julia

Discover: A warning about climate change wrapped in a tender package of stories about penguin chicks and fur seals.

Palgrave MacMillan, $26, hardcover, 9780230112452


The Best American Poetry 2012

by Mark Doty

Frost said a good poem "begins in delight and ends in wisdom," and the same can be said of a good poetry collection. The Best American Poetry 2012 fills that objective thanks to the inspired selections of guest editor Mark Doty. " 'Best' is problematic," he admits in his introduction. "This book might well be called Seventy-Five Poems Mark Likes."

Doty's anthology begins with a delightful first line from Sherman Alexie: "The music of my youth was much better/ Than the music of yours. So was the weather" and ends with Kevin Young's revelation about his pregnant wife's sonogram: "And there/ it is: faint, an echo, faster and further/ away than mother's, all beat box/ and fuzzy feedback. You are like hearing/ hip-hop for the first time--power / hijacked from a lamppost--all promise." In between, Doty shares works from familiar poets like Mark Strand and Frederick Seidel as well as relative newcomers like Erica Dawson and Michael Morse. The best selection may be Spencer Reece's long "The Road to Emmaus," a dramatic narrative in the styles of E.A. Robinson and T.S. Eliot paying tribute to the narrator's AA sponsor "caged in his worries of doctor bills, no money,/ and running out of people to ask for it: / mulling over mistakes, broken love affairs." Overall, Doty's bias toward "a certain disciplined richness of language, a considered relation between restraint and gorgeousness," yields one of the strongest collections in this estimable series' 25-year history. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Mark Doty gives us an excellent overview of the fresh, diverse voices of 75 contemporary American poets.

Scribner, $16, paperback, 9781439181522

Children's & Young Adult

Bear Has a Story to Tell

by Philip Christian Stead, illus. by Erin E. Stead

The Caldecott Medal–winning creators of A Sick Day for Amos McGee present another inspiring tale of friendship and collaboration.

"It was almost winter and Bear was getting sleepy." Against a spare white background where birch tree trunks and golden-leaved maples stretch off the top of the page, the ursine hero walks with a mission: "Bear had a story to tell." One by one, the fellow asks his friends if they want to hear his tale. "I am sorry, Bear," says Mouse, "but it is almost winter and I have many seeds to gather." Bear helps Mouse gather seeds. He helps Duck find a Southerly wind, and digs a "frog-size hole" in which to tuck Frog safely for the winter. As Bear calls down Mole's hole, readers must turn the book to appreciate the depths of Mole's tunneling. At the bottom, Mole is already asleep. Erin Stead renders the first snowfall as a vision in cornflower blue and violet with white (and a few yellow) circles dotting the sky. Bear's skyward look of wonder mirrors our own, and on the next page Bear himself is sound asleep.

With the first signs of spring, Bear rolls in the sunshine under a sky of teal green. As he welcomes his friends back, he gives each a gift. And they, in turn, give Bear a gift. Erin Stead's visual clues to the cycles of the seasons echo Philip Stead's lilting circular construction of the narrative. Together they celebrate the ebb and flow of friendship, and its endless gifts. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: The Caldecott Medal–winning team's latest tale of friendship and togetherness throughout the changing seasons.

Roaring Brook Press, $16.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 2-up, 9781596437456


by Saci Lloyd

In Saci Lloyd's (The Carbon Diaries) new dystopian action-packed thrill ride, England is in trouble. Oil is scarce, and countries that rely on it are falling far behind the "wave and wind" nations. Even London's Outsiders, rebels who choose to live off the grid, have been more successful at making their own energy than the British government.

Uma is an Outsider who finds herself with the key to a revolution in her hands. She must deliver a disc to the next Keeper, who will help lead the Outsiders in their quest for a better life. Hunter is a privileged Citizen, whose father holds an important official job troubleshooting one energy crisis after another. But Hunter is fascinated by the way Outsiders live. It's real, and when he's not plugged into his retinal scan like the rest of the Citizens, playing online games "like a braindead dingus," he can see "London as it really is." The two are thrown together when Hunter witnesses the killing of a defenseless Outsider by brutal Kossak soldiers, and they team up to figure out how they can deliver the disc and save the Outsider movement. On the run now, they draw their friends and family into danger along with them, with the Kossaks hot on the trail, determined to stop them with whatever force is necessary.

Momentum features strong characters in a high-tech, desperate world. Even in a crowded field of dystopian post-oil stories, this one will stand out for its taut energy and well-plotted suspense. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, the monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI

Discover: A post-oil dystopian adventure, featuring lots of action and well-defined characters, with just the right amount of romantic tension.

Holiday House, $16.95, hardcover, 224p., ages 12-up, 9780823424146

Freaks Like Us

by Susan Vaught

Vaught (Going Underground) mixes mystery, friendship and an unusual narrative voice in her latest novel.

Self-proclaimed "Alphabets" because of the mental disabilities each of them possesses (ADHD, BPD), Jason, Sunshine and Derrick have been friends since Kindergarten and ride the "short bus" together. When Sunshine, a selective mute, never makes it home from the bus stop, Jason (aka "Freak") tries to solve the mystery, even as he's being questioned as a suspect. His schizophrenia causes him to lose touch with reality, and that complicates things. Jason describes it this way: "I talk great in my head, but I suck out loud, and sometimes because there's so much racket, I'm not good at staying on track or explaining what I see...." Unsure of what is a real memory and exactly what happened the day Sunshine went missing, Freak's inner monologue conveys his struggle as time ticks down and Sunshine gets farther from being found.

Vaught's ability to capture the voice of a teenager in such complicated circumstances--suffering from schizophrenia, missing a friend, solving a mystery, a suspect himself--feels authentic and compelling. What could have easily been a book just about schizophrenia has been expertly crafted into a story about a missing girl, the relationships among the Alphabets, and their connections to their friends and family. While readers may initially find it challenging to settle in with a narrator whose mind works so differently from their own, Freak's completely genuine voice and loyal actions will win them over. --Shanyn Day, blogger at Chick Loves Lit

Discover: A detective story that involves true friendship, told by a unique narrator.

Bloomsbury, $16.99, hardcover, 240p., ages 12-up, 9781599908724

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