Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, April 12, 2013

Poisoned Pen Press: That Night in the Library by Eva Jurczyk

From My Shelf

A House Filled with Hope

I just read a delightful novel, The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag (our review is below). The Hope Street house in Cambridge is where women have come for several hundred years for respite, for renewal, for advice--women like Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker. The walls move, the books rearrange themselves and rustle their pages to gently clap. Soap operas are played out by characters painted on the china--the Red Queen engages in light bondage with Dopey; Rumpelstiltskin slips off Guinevere's blouse. Portraits on the wall talk.

Menna van Praag says that the idea for Hope Street came to her three years ago when she visited a very special house. The moment she stepped inside, "I felt it was watching me, holding me. I could feel its spirit so keenly. I went home that night and began writing, and everything else took off from there."

In the book, Alba comes to the house unsuspectingly, drawn to it after a traumatic event. One consequence of the trauma is that she has lost her special sight; the loss of her gift is both a metaphor and real (within the parameters of magical realism). Van Praag says that magical realism is a metaphor for faith. "If you don't believe, you don't look, if you don't look, you don't see. In the beginning Alba's lost her faith and needs to find it again."

Alba finds her heart's passion in several ways; some of the women who stayed at Hope Street didn't. The book is not all happy endings, and van Praag straddles the line between reality and magic (with some sexy bits). She said that doesn't create tension for her as a writer: "I love it. I want to live in a world that is both real but where anything is possible. That's why I write these stories." And we are so glad she does. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

The Writer's Life

Guy Gavriel Kay: Inspired by History

photo: Samantha Kidd Photography

For more than 20 years, Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing literate, entertaining fantasy novels, rooted in real historical settings. His poetic style, rich and compelling characters and believable world building have earned him the respect of his peers and a large and fervent readership. His books have won many awards, including the 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Ysabel. His newest novel is River of Stars (Roc, $26.95), set in an alternative fantasy version of China, circa 1100. See our review below.

Tell us about River of Stars for the reader who's not familiar with your work. 

River of Stars is inspired by history: the remarkable Northern Song dynasty of China (around 1100 A.D.). It moves from the tensions of a dangerous court to scenes involving the most ordinary people in villages so small they aren't even on the map. One mother does the bravest thing in the book, perhaps, to try to save her beloved, very sick daughter... and all she does is walk, alone, to the neighbouring market town. These small moments in people's lives are central to how I write.

The two main characters are a man and a woman who are each, in their own way, fighting what their time and world "allow" people to be. The role of women in this very "formal" society is a major theme. The book is pitched on a very large scale--war, peace, politics, intrigue--but I am always as interested in the inner lives and relationships of my characters. That means romantic love, parent-child dynamics, and even two brothers who are among my favorite figures in the novel. I want readers to care about these people and what happens to them.

The action takes place hundreds of years after the events in Under Heaven. Did you know this was the direction you were heading after the first novel set in Kitai (China)?

I honestly didn't. I never know what a next book will be when I finish one, and I could have gone just about anywhere after Under Heaven. (Well, maybe not to seafood recipes.) One of the things that happened was that I had formed some close friendships with scholars exploring elements of Chinese history, and one of my dearest friends is an artist who was doing the same thing, and I started reading some works on the Song and by figures from that time... and became hooked. I have no idea what goes on in something "hooking" me (why one thing and not another) but it is very powerful when it happens.

Though your acknowledgement at the end of River of Stars captures the process quite well, tell us about the research you do in order to capture a certain period and locale. In particular, can you speak of the challenges of doing research in and about China for your last two novels?

It wasn't formally very different from other recent novels I've done. I think my first "way in" here was through some of the very great poets of China, not just their craft and art, but the world and worldview they give us vignettes of. I am reading and corresponding, making notes, considering themes, sometimes traveling, for about 12 to 18 months before I start writing. I love the research period, and I get very edgy when I realize the time has come to start turning it into a book.

You are known for writing fantasy novels set in thinly veiled or slightly altered versions of real historical places. What's the appeal of this approach versus writing straight historical fiction?

That's a terrific question that demands an essay, and I have written essays and speeches on this. Here are two aspects of what appeals to me. I dislike presuming to know the thoughts and feelings of a real person. I prefer inventing a Valerius and Alixana, rather than pretending I know what Justinian and Theodora of Byzantium were like when alone, or in bed together. (They're from my two Sarantine Mosaic books.) I feel ethically and creatively better when working this way. Secondly, I have always disliked the "smugness" with which modern writers and readers often view beliefs of the past. ("Can you believe they thought that if you threw a curse tablet into an open grave...?") So I let the freedom of my quarter-turn to the fantastic (as one reviewer once put it) allow me to make the world be as the people in the story believe it to be. This gives weight and value to their worldview, and--if I do it properly--lets the reader see it that way, too.

The use of magic, the appearance of the divine and the uncanny in your works is always understated. Do you have a method for bringing these elements organically into play?

As I said, I like to work with the supernatural as a way of helping the reader understand the world as my characters understand it. It is a tool for bringing the worldviews of the past a little more to life (I never assume we are actually getting the full picture; when we write about the distant past we are all shaping, to a degree, a fantasy of it). So I suppose my "method" is to keep in mind that these elements are in the service of the story and the setting, not present for their own sake. I want all the elements of the novels to be organically linked to each other, in order to help the reader's immersion into my story.

You are brilliant at capturing the romantic aspect of life, the sexual longing and fulfillments of the flesh. How do you approach this as a writer?

You do know this is almost begging for a joke about due and diligent research.... Honestly, I think it is another element of fiction that comes back to imagination and empathy, and perhaps also, in a larger sense, to a core belief in respecting my readers. In assuming they are interested in, and willing to explore with me, complex figures experiencing complex lives, which can (and will) include the erotic and emotional.

You stand out among modern male fantasy writers in being able to portray strong, fully realized heroines (Lin Shan in your new book is only one example). What influences in your life made you more attuned to writing credible females?

Thank you. I admit I used to feel very flattered when readers made comments like this. But as I get older I have come to worry about what is embedded in the comment. If we can only write from our own stance or perspective, how do we do any fiction that is not autobiography? How does a woman write a man? A young author do an elderly character? An Australian or Indian novelist create a Canadian? A decent person create an evil character? In the end, all of this comes down to imaginative empathy and to craft, and these are central to the writing process. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Book Candy

Handwritten Poems; Books to Movies; Campus Novels

For National Poetry Month, Flavorwire offered some "fascinating, handwritten poems of famous authors."


For book-to-movie fans, Word & Film recommended "6 movie adaptations that made the authors famous" and Deja Reviewer cautioned readers about "10 films that barely resemble the books they're based on."


As evidence that the genre is still kicking, Flavorwire submitted "10 great contemporary campus novels."


Since this country is dominating headlines in recent weeks, the Washington Post recommended "10 illuminating books about North Korea."


Helen Humphreys, author of True Story: On the Life and Death of My Brother, shared her "top 10 books on grieving" in the Guardian, where she wrote that she "included books that speak to multiple types of grief, not just the grief that is experienced when losing a loved one, since even without facing a death, we are often grieving--for an absent love, or a place, or a lost part of our own lives."


Hemingway's A Farewell to Porridge is just one of Buzzfeed's collection of the "best of online literary curiosities."

Book Review


The Cat

by Edeet Ravel

The relative brevity of The Cat, Edeet Ravel's novel exploring a mother's grief, doesn't lessen its emotional impact. 

Elise's son has been the most important thing in her life since the day he was born. When she suddenly loses him in a tragic accident, she struggles to find any reason to go on living, but one waits, literally, at her feet--the boy's beloved cat, Pursie. The fact that there's still someone on earth whose life depends on her pushes Elise forward, however reluctantly, through the days and weeks after her son's death.

This is not a human/animal bonding story, however. In fact, the relationship between woman and feline is less central to the novel then its title would suggest. As Elise documents her journey through the aftermath of losing her son, it's apparent that she's at least as resentful of Pursie's need for her as she is grateful for it. Like most of her relationships with anyone other than her son, this one is difficult and not entirely satisfying. Also not entirely satisfying is Elise's habit of referring to her deceased child as "he" or "my son." But it's a telling detail: it's distancing, yet perhaps indicative of the depth of a mother's pain in that she cannot bring herself to use her dead son's name.

Ravel has crafted a wrenching portrait of the complexities of grief. Elise's swings among guilt, anger and crushing sadness; withdrawal and connection; and regression and ultimate progress toward recovery are affecting and emotionally true. --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

Discover: A deeply affecting novel of grief and the unexpected lifelines that help a woman through it.

Pintail, $16, paperback, 9780143186458

The Proper Words for Sin

by Gary Fincke

Most of the stories in The Proper Words for Sin, Gary Fincke's new collection, are set in the large swath of Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Fincke, who has published 24 books of short fiction, poetry and nonfiction, has captured, with both honesty and empathy, the mix of stubbornness and stoicism that characterizes this region.

Disaster and tragedy are never far away in these 11 stories. In "The Fierceness of Need," a high school English teacher and his pregnant wife battle over whether they will return to their home in the shadow of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant after its partial meltdown, while their neighbor struggles to cope with his daughter's eating disorder. "Somebody Somewhere Else," the story that concludes the book, is by far its most powerful. Set in Centralia, where an underground mine fire has burned for more than 50 years, it focuses on one of the handful of people remaining in the hollowed-out community, a recently retired man who thinks he's been a witness to the abduction of a young girl.

Although it wouldn't be accurate to characterize any of his stories as truly comic, Fincke seasons them with memorably odd characters such as the woman in "The Out-of-Sorts" who holds police officers at bay by brandishing poisonous snakes. As strange as these characters may seem, Fincke never treats them as objects of ridicule.

The stories in this collection are more likely to evoke a knowing nod than a jolt of surprise. Readers who enjoy the gritty, realistic short stories of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff will find themselves comfortably at home in the work of Gary Fincke. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: Gary Fincke's story collection admirably portrays the lives of people living in a large swath of his native Pennsylvania.

Vandalia Press, $16.99, paperback, 9781935978886

The Thief of Words

by Starling Lawrence

Starling Lawrence's The Thief of Words tells an old story, one summed up neatly by its protagonist: "A man falls down the rabbit hole in pursuit of a woman little more than half his age," says Owen, a writer in New York.

When Owen falls in love with Nora, his publisher's young editor, he tumbles into a world darker and more brutal than even his detached writerly common sense bargained for. Hurt by Nora's ultimate rejection, he strikes back by writing a book exposing her tumultuous past.

Lawrence, former editor-in-chief at W.W. Norton (and current editor-at-large), knows much about writers. He also seems to know a good deal about well-educated, naïve young women. Nora, fresh out of Brown, joins "Hands Across the Sea" to do missionary work in Sierra Leone. She and the other young Americans in her group are thrown together with a group of displaced black South Africans. Despite the watchful oversight of the mission's leader, Nora becomes attached first to her attractive, abused refugee bunkmate, Aurelia, and then to Aurelia's spurned boyfriend, Morlai. On a side trip to Morlai's home village, Nora's romantic infatuation bounces up against reality when they are accosted and humiliated by brutal diamond smugglers.

Lawrence gradually explains Nora's hurtful rebuff of Owen and his subsequent revenge through seamless shifts between Owen's first-person narration and Nora's revealing Sierra Leone diaries. In her last entry, a resolute Nora sets the course that will be Owen's undoing: "She would do the things she must do, she would heal, and she would think no more about the riddle of love."

The Thief of Words is a fresh, satisfying take on an old story. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: An older writer's infatuation with his young editor is undone when he discovers the brutal disillusionment of her past.

Quantuck Lane Press, $24.95, hardcover, 9781593720506

Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

On a snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born blue in the face, strangled by her own umbilical cord, never taking her first breath; on a snowy night in 1910, the local doctor arrives at Mrs. Todd's bedside just in time to save Ursula's life.

In 1930, Ursula Todd walks into a restaurant and shoots Hitler at point-blank range; in 1930, she is wed to an abusive husband in England.

In 1933, Ursula Todd weds a German man and settles in Germany, unable to leave the country after war begins in 1939; in 1940, she is having an affair with a British government official in London.

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd's many, many lives, all starting in the same place, at the same time, but varying by degrees. She lives through the Second World War again and again: as a friend of Hitler's mistress, as a member of London's air raid patrol, as a government worker. She loses siblings, parents, friends, lovers. She sees families torn apart, city blocks destroyed, "the crushed fragments of lives, never to be whole again."

It is only natural, then, that Ursula begins to question her ability to change the past--and therefore the future. Atkinson details the implications of a life lived over and over again: Are our fates locked in, or do we have the power to change them?

The success of Life After Life lies in Atkinson's ability to parse these cerebral questions of life and philosophy without ever losing sight of Ursula's story--or stories. The result is stunning, emotional, at times funny--and downright unforgettable. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: Kate Atkinson (Case Histories) has written a complex historical novel of reincarnation and its implications that proves unforgettable.

Reagan Arthur, $27.99, hardcover, 9780316176484

The House at the End of Hope Street

by Menna Van Praag

The titular residence in Menna van Praag's The House at the End of Hope Street appears only to women like Alba Ashby, who finds herself at its door after "the worst event" of her life. She's welcomed by Peggy, who explains to Alba she can stay for 99 nights, "long enough to help you turn your life around but short enough so you can't put it off forever."

Alba receives advice from portraits of the house's former residents--including Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Taylor--who speak to her. She also meets two other women seeking sanctuary: Greer, an actress at a crossroads in her life and career, and Carmen, who has buried something in the yard that seems to terrify her. Each woman's actions start affecting the others', driving them to face what they're running away from, until they discover they're not hopeless after all.

On the surface, this novel (van Praag's second, after Happier Than She's Ever Been) may sound precious: in addition to the talking portraits, the house has a ghost cat, a magical closet and breathing walls. The story stays grounded, however, because there is nothing cute about the events that send the women to the house. They've all gone through experiences that would derail most people. Their secrets unravel slowly, so there's a sense of mystery, and some of the revelations are surprising. Everything wraps up a bit too neatly in the end, but whatever happiness van Praag's characters find feels well earned. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, writer/editor blogging at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: A magical story about finding hope when life seems desolate--in an enchanted house where the spirits include several famous women.

Pamela Dorman Books, $25.95, hardcover, 9780670784639

The Death of Fidel Pérez

by Elizabeth Huergo

When a drunken Fidel Pérez steps onto the creaky balcony of a Havana apartment building to lament his latest romantic loss, the railing gives way. His brother, in a last-ditch heroic effort to save Fidel, tumbles after him and soon the misinterpreted cry goes around the neighborhood: "Fidel has fallen! His brother, too!"

With this brilliant premise, Cuban-born Elizabeth Huergo launches The Death of Fidel Pérez, a provocative debut novel that is simultaneously a requiem for the lives destroyed under both the Batista and Castro regimes and a poetic imagining of what the cusp of a true Cuban liberation might look like.

Huergo introduces us to three Habaneros, each scarred by the revolution and needing release, who get caught up in the reckless, viral mood sweeping the city. There is a haggard street woman who lost her son and slips in and out of reality; a haunted professor who survived years of confinement and torture as a political prisoner; and a student ready to become an activist--if, indeed, the time of a new revolution is at hand. Gently uncovering the humanity of her characters while eschewing easy political leanings, Huergo shows us the burden carried by modern Cubans awaiting the inevitable fall of Castro and their unknown future.

With a writing style deeply influenced by the best of the Latin American magical realism traditions, The Death of Fidel Pérez is a lyrical and heartfelt fable--an optimistic, yet wise, ode to the possibilities and apprehension inherent in the words, "Fidel has fallen." --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic

Discover: Elizabeth Huergo, who came to the U.S. from Havana as a child, has written a lyrical fable of modern-day Cuba.

Unbridled Books, $25, hardcover, 9781609530952

Mystery & Thriller

Frozen Solid

by James Tabor

The landscape of James M. Tabor's Frozen Solid is as much a character as Dr. Hallie Leland, the microbiologist who flies to the South Pole to finish the research started by a former colleague who died under mysterious circumstances. Minutes after Hallie arrives, another woman suddenly bleeds out right in front of her, and the deaths don't stop there. As if the the deaths and harsh climate aren't enough, Hallie's life is endangered when she stumbles upon a secret video and a conspiracy with chilling ramifications for the human race. Cut off from the rest of the world, with a killer in the vicinity and no one to trust, she can rely on only herself to get out alive.

Hallie is not just brilliant but attractive; she's equally skilled at diving into supercaves in Mexico (as she does in Tabor's previous book, The Deep Zone) as she is under Antarctic ice. As a protagonist, she could easily be unbelievable if she weren't so grounded and likable. Tabor's ice-diving scenes are both eerie and awe-inspiring, with an undercurrent of menace that threatens to engulf Hallie in unending cold and darkness.

A thriller, this novel is also educational, scattering terms like "dehiscence" and "extremophile" throughout. One could feel smarter after reading it. The ending, with its references to tornadoes and Dorothy, is a bit odd--but perhaps it's a clue about Hallie's next extreme adventure. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, writer/editor blogging at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: Another extreme adventure with the brilliant and talented microbiologist Hallie Leland, introduced in Tabor's The Deep Zone.

Ballantine, $26, hardcover, 9780345530639

Science Fiction & Fantasy

River of Stars

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay's River of Stars is a deeply engrossing epic fantasy with profound things to say about politics, art and the escaping of lesser fates through skill and effort. As in most of Kay's previous works, it takes place in a fantastical variant of an actual historical time period; in this case, medieval China's Song Dynasty. (It's a sequel of sorts to 2010's Under Heaven, which was set four centuries earlier.)

Kay brings a genuine appreciation of Song-era poets and statesmen, seamlessly weaving together poetry from the period with his own variations into the narrative, a fitting device considering that two of the main characters, Lin Shan and Lu Chen, are based on the poets Li Qingzhao and Su Shi. However, Kay is first and foremost a storyteller; his novels grip readers with the passions and obsessions of real people--the romantic entanglements, improbable alliances and domestic intrigues that can ruin or make lives.

While River of Stars may be epic fantasy at its finest, with visceral action set pieces and armies in motion across multiple kingdoms, Kay ups the ante by examining the conflicts and resolutions that confound and lift the individual human heart. Even the most minor of characters becomes vividly real through a few effective and touching details. The result is an enjoyable and moving read that brings a crucial period of Chinese history to life with a new relevance for modern audiences. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: An epic novel set in a fantasy version of China's Song Dynasty offers a profound examination of history and the human heart.

Roc, $26.95, hardcover, 9780451464972

Biography & Memoir

Midnight, Jesus & Me: Misfit Memoirs of a Full Gospel, Rock & Roll Late Night Suicide Crisis Psychotherapist

by J. M. Blaine

Late-night suicide hotline interventionist Jamie Blaine is the man to call if you're thinking about jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. His aptly titled memoir, Midnight, Jesus & Me traces a life immersed in the charismatic extremes of megachurch evangelism, in which he never loses his love for his diverse musical roots--playing in his own "Pentecostal Skynyrd" band, running the deejay cage at the roller rink, even singing "heavy on the backbeat" gospel. Blaine writes like a born-again Nick Hornby or Chuck Klosterman; woven into every scene is a soundtrack.

His story is really the stories of the desperate end-of-the-rope, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God hotline callers. He fails some, rescues many, but listens to them all. Often the connection that saves them is music, whether he sits down to play Rush songs with off-his-meds Larry or sings Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" as paramedics arrive at a caller's house. (This call closes with a typical Blaine exchange: " 'Good song,' Caller says. 'But you ain't no Haggard.' 'Probably not,' I reply, 'but good luck gettin' Haggard to sing for you at two in the morning.' ")

Funny and freewheeling, Midnight, Jesus & Me is a collection of parables about the fallen and the fearful, but it's also about their redemption. Blaine has a good songwriter's talent for distilling a nugget of truth. "Call on God, but row away from the rocks" is not bad advice... even if you're not about to jump off a bridge. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: The funny and freewheeling memoir of a midnight hotline interventionist and evangelist with an eclectic taste in music.

ECW Press, $17.95, paperback, 9781770411081

My Backyard Jungle: The Adventures of an Urban Wildlife Lover Who Turned His Yard into Habitat and Learned to Live with It

by James Barilla

When James Barilla went from renting to owning a home in South Carolina, he wanted to have his yard certified as a wildlife habitat. With the constant stream of news about global warming and vanishing species, Barilla felt his wildlife habitat could make a small contribution to the environmental struggle.

But what does having a wildlife habitat mean? He wanted to raise fruit trees and start a garden--would it also be possible to have squirrels, rabbits or deer? Could they co-exist? And what would it mean for humans to co-exist with the creatures that would take up residence in his yard? To answer all the questions blooming in this new habitat, Barilla traveled the world. Though he starts out with little knowledge about wildlife habitats, he is committed to his efforts. From monkeys in Delhi to bears in Massachusetts to marmosets in Brazil, Barilla explores the urban settings where humans live close to wild animals, talking with both experts and local residents to examine how they get along without major conflict or destruction.

Each section begins with a statistical fact related to the highlighted creature, but the chapters themselves are not laden with stats or scientific jargon. Instead, Barilla gives us first-person accounts of his eye-opening experiences--his reactions, questions and realizations. My Backyard Jungle is a fascinating exploration for anyone interested in wildlife and the human's role in the great circle of life. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: A new homeowner set on certifying his yard as a wildlife habitat travels the world to discover exactly what an urban wildlife habitat is.

Yale University Press, $28, hardcover, 9780300184013

Children's & Young Adult

Zebra Forest

by Adina Gewirtz

This spellbinding and psychologically penetrating debut novel delves into the dangers underlying the stories we tell ourselves to make life bearable.

Eleven-year-old narrator Annie lives in a small house with her Gran and her nine-year-old brother, Rew, at the edge of a forest. They call it the Zebra Forest because of its mix of white birch and chocolate oak trees. Gran has good days and bad days, but Annie and Rew can always escape to the Zebra to tell stories. Gran told them that their father was killed by an angry man who picked a fight. "My father died and the other man was sent away, and that was all," says Annie. "The story of my father was a short one." Annie remembers her mother's parting words as she dropped off the children with their Gran eight years before: "They were always his idea, anyway."

Gerwitz counterbalances the personalities of the two siblings to brilliant effect. Annie sees things in black and white, like the Zebra Forest, and Rew reads between the lines. Even minor characters spring to life through the author's use of tactile details. When a stranger breaks in through their kitchen door, they think Gran is crazy when she calls him by their father's name. This is a timeless story of how lies can imprison families. Only by facing the truth can they begin to take hold of their lives and begin to heal. Readers will hope for many more books to come from newcomer Adina Rishe Gerwitz. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Eleven-year-old Annie's world turns upside-down when the father she thought was dead bursts through her Gran's kitchen door.

Candlewick, $15.99, hardcover, 208p., ages 9-up, 9780763660413

This Is What Happy Looks Like

by Jennifer E. Smith

After showing readers how romance can blossom on a flight to London in last year's The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, Jennifer E. Smith here shares another love story woven by twists of fate, in the style of You've Got Mail.

When small-town girl Ellie O'Neill receives a misdirected e-mail from movie star Graham Larkin, the two 17-year-olds strike up an anonymous correspondence. (E-mails between Ellie and Graham--some witty and charming, others heartbreaking--are interspersed between chapters.) For the first time since his rise to fame, Graham feels valued for who he is, and not just as an actor stuck doing movies that don't matter. Whereas Graham has become a household name, Ellie is hiding her identity to protect her mother's affair with a politician. But when Graham's feelings escalate for the girl he never met, he arranges to have his latest film shot in Ellie's "Middle-of-Nowhere, Maine" hometown.

Smith buoys the serendipity in this romantic comedy of errors with smart sentiments and authentic characters. Graham and Ellie are a mesmerizing fit, neither of them playing roles, and overcoming  obstacles, including Graham's agent's attempt to engineer a publicity stunt with his co-star, Olivia Brooks, and Ellie's mother's firsthand warnings about how badly a relationship can unravel when the world is watching. This well-crafted novel shines like a spotlight. --Adam Silvera, Paper Lantern Lit intern and former bookseller

Discover: The serendipitous romance between a teenage movie star and a small-town girl with a secret.

Poppy Books, $17.99, hardcover, 416p., ages 12-up, 9780316212823

Doug Unplugged

by Dan Yaccarino

Dan Yaccarino (All the Way to America) takes readers on a journey around a city, as a charming boy robot unplugs from his wall socket and heads out to explore the world beyond his home.

Each morning young Doug's parents plug him in so he can download fascinating facts and lessons. One day, after his parents leave, something catches Doug's eye outside his window and, full of curiosity, Doug pulls his plug so he can explore his city with his jetpack blasting, and learn about the world first hand. Cement, for instance, is squishy, and flowers peek from the sidewalk cracks. Best of all, Doug discovers the concept of play. A boy in the park teaches Doug hide-and-seek, tag and other games. Through their play, Doug discovers the joy of having a friend. After lots of fun in the park, Doug's friend feels lost when he cannot see his mom or dad. Doug helps his friend reunite with his parents, and then begins thinking about his own parents, and all the new things he'd like to share with them. The best lesson of the day: to show parents that you love them, give them a hug--which Doug rushes home to share with his own parents.

Yaccarino documents Doug's journey with simple and appealing art created with brush and ink on vellum and photoshop, capturing the young robot's energy and enthusiasm. There are informal maps that graph Doug's journey and multiple pictures on a page showing his various activities. --Mollie Welsh Kruger, graduate faculty, Bank Street College of Education

Discover: What it means to unplug--to get out, experience the world and build relationships--and then to return home.

Knopf, $16.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 5-9, 9780375866432

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