Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, May 14, 2013

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

From My Shelf

Neal Thompson: Edgy

Neal Thompson likes edges. In his previous newspaper career, he was always looking at the fringes for overlooked stories. With his first book, Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, the story was not so much overlooked as hidden, as Shepherd was a very private man. He was also brash and colorful, and was regarded as the best astronaut of the original Mercury Seven--a perfect subject for Thompson, who said, "I'm awed by guys who push themselves to some types of extremes, be it physical, emotional professional." He likes to explore not just where that drive and focus take a person, but also where they come from.

He next wrote Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR. Today, NASCAR is a family sport, but its origins lie with Depression-era Southern moonshiners, Ford-V 8s and ace mechanics (cue Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road). A different type of focus led Thompson to write Hurricane Season: A Coach, His Team, and Their Triumph in the Time of Katrina--an inspirational story of perseverance, trust, respect and dignity.

Now Thompson's gone back to the fringe in A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley (our review is below). Ripley was shy and geeky; all he had going was talent as a cartoonist. He was odd-looking, with prominent buck teeth, and was drawn to odd people; his cartoons championed the misfit and the oddball. He had a passion for strange things, an obsessive curiosity, and turned his "Believe It or Not" concept into a popular radio show. With the resulting fame and fortune, he lived a "wildly incautious life"--reckless, adventurous and nuts.

Thompson is pursuing a new story, one that's about an extreme culture that promises to be as fascinating and compelling as flamboyant astronauts and oddball entrepreneurs. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

The Writer's Life

M.J. Rose: Finding Our Better Selves

photo: Pushett Irby Studios

M.J. Rose is the author of 13 novels, including the first self-published e-book to go mainstream, Lip Service, which she published in 1999. Her last four novels, The Reincarnationist, The Memorist, The Hypnotist and The Book of Lost Fragrances, were all Indie Next picks. Rose is also the co-author of three nonfiction books, including the recently published What to Do Before Your Book Launch, with Randy Susan Meyers. Her new novel is Seduction (Atria Books), a gothic tale that involves lost letters of Victor Hugo, current-day mythologist Jac L'Etoile and someone called the Shadow of the Sepulcher; see our review below.

A founding member and current board member of the International Thriller Writers and founder of the first marketing company for authors,, Rose has been profiled in Time, Forbes, the New York Times, Business 2.0, Working Woman, Newsweek and New York magazine, has appeared on The Today Show, Fox News and PBS NewsHour and has been featured in dozens of magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad, including USA Today, Stern, L'Officiel and Poets and Writers.

Reincarnation is a central topic in many of your novels and your characters run the gamut from committed belief to deep skepticism. Where do you fall, and what do you find most interesting about this concept?

Today I pretty much believe, but last week I was questioning things again. My opinion tends to be colored by whatever character I'm writing at the time. When I'm Jac, the heroine of Seduction and The Book of Lost Fragrances, I doubt, but when I'm writing her mentor Malachi or her brother Robbie, I believe.

The first character we meet in Seduction is Victor Hugo. As an author, how does your process or technique change when writing from the point of view of a historical figure, like Hugo, as opposed to an original character like Jac?

Writing Hugo was like nothing else I've ever done. He is a fairly recent historical figure and all his writing is available, from his letters to poems. I read and read and read and then put it all away. I almost abandoned the book three times because I felt overwhelmed by his genius. Ultimately it was picking up a fountain pen and a bottle of ink and a journal from Paris and starting the book in longhand that allowed me to find a Hugo who didn't intimidate me. I wound up writing the entire book in longhand... all 120,000 words of it.

In discussing your previous novel The Book of Lost Fragrances, you described a lost Egyptian book of perfume formulas as a sort of kernel of historical fact that inspired the novel. Was there a similar spark behind this novel?

Yes, I was reading a book about reincarnation and came across the fact that Hugo believed in reincarnation and experimented with spiritualism. That led to me reading his biography and discovering the one very slim section on the many séances he conducted. He claimed to have spoken to everyone from Napoleon to Shakespeare to Jesus, and it was his descriptions of those conversations that sparked my imagination. It doesn't always start that way though. In The Reincarnationist I started with ancient Rome and then created the characters. I knew that was a period when Paganism and Christianity were both practiced and that conflict fascinated me. It's always different. The main character in the next novel is Catherine De Medici's perfumer and as he has no knowledge of or curiosity in reincarnation at all.

Your heroine, Jac L'Etoile, has built a career exploring historical and mythological kernels of fact and the fictions that surround them. Do you think she inherited that from you? How did you go about choosing her career?

I wish I could tell you that, but I don't know. So much of my early process is taking my main character with me, especially to museums, and what he--or she--focuses on gives me clues. When Jac came to me it was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She stopped me to show me a painting of Galatea and Pygmalion.

What was the significance of her choice? What did you take away from that experience and use to build her?

The significance was initially in the mythological aspect of the painting, but then it was symbolic as well. The more I examined the painting the more I understood about Jac. I had to figure out why this particular painting mattered to her so much. Jac is conflicted about the impact her first lover, Griffin North, had on her life. When she saw that painting, it made her feel as he made her feel when she first met him. As if he was bringing her to life--sexually at least. In a way, she resents him a little for being so important to her.

Scent, the sense most closely linked to memory, serves as a kind of mental trigger for Jac, but it's also used in a more symbolic or metaphorical sense. What are the different ways that scent functions in the novel?

The area of the brain where our memories live is pressing up against our olfactory center. So we are more likely to remember something through the scent of it. I think for Jac, and for me, scent is as melancholy as it is joyous. She recalls and remembers and is reminded of all the people she's loved and lost first through scent and then is able to process those feelings and learn to live with them. I think this book, and so many of my novels, is about us coming to terms with who we were in our effort to become who we want to be--our better selves. --Judie Evans, librarian

Book Candy

Colors in Novels; Bookshelves for the Nursery

"What colors are the insides of your favorite novels?" Flavorwire showcased artist Jaz Parkinson's "clever posters [that] chart the colors in famous novels."


"What's Cooking? 3 Books That Are More Filling Than Food" were recommended at NPR by Jessica Soffer, author of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.


For bookish movie fans, Word & Film offered "6 brilliant portrayals of editors on film."


Maybe it's just a bad case of Marvolo Gaunt? The latest Mental Floss quiz: "Harry Potter character or hideous skin disease?"


"With the love for books comes the need for shelving--lots and lots of shelving--and lately, we love adding a special shelf for the current book, the favorite read and the trusty one that always puts weary heads to sleep," Project Nursery noted in highlighting "unique bookshelves for the nursery."

Book Review


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra's stunning, dazzlingly good first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is set in Chechnya in 2004, a place suffering horribly under the brutal rule of Russia. The novel begins when an eight-year-old girl, Havaa, wakes the morning after "the Feds" have burned her house and taken her father away. A neighbor, Akhmed, finds the girl hiding in the forest, sitting on the already packed suitcase her father had told her always to keep by her door. They must leave before the Feds return; they step out into the cold and snow and begin walking, careful to avoid mines.

He takes her to the hospital in Volchansk where Akhmed was born; the city looked as though it were "made of shoeboxes and stamped into the ground by a petulant child." Here he meets Sonja Andreyevna Rabina, an ethnic Russian and an accomplished surgeon, the last of a staff of 500; she has amputated 1,643 legs. Living on pills, she's as devastated as her hospital. Akhmed, a barely capable doctor in his village, can help her.

The novel takes place over five days, but the telling weaves in and out of the past eight years, as Marra takes us on an extraordinary journey into a world little known to many of us. He slowly unfolds his story with a balanced sureness and subtlety rare in a first novel, with a rhythm that is graceful and welcoming. Although it's sometimes horrific, it's also beautiful, heartbreaking and filled to the brim with the vital "human matter" of life. It may be the best new novel you'll read this year. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: Anthony Marra's stunning, dazzlingly good first novel takes us on extraordinary journey into a little-known world.

Hogarth, $26, hardcover, 9780770436407

Benjamin Franklin's Bastard

by Sally Cabot

It may be difficult to picture the bespectacled and wigged founding father as a dynamo between the sheets, but Sally Cabot's Benjamin Franklin's Bastard gives us a glimpse of a young, virile Franklin who was just as passionate about women as he was about electricity. One of these passions led to a son born out of wedlock in 1730, William Franklin.

Drawing upon the historical record--including excerpts from Franklin's letters--Cabot's debut novel relegates both Franklin men to the periphery and instead focuses on the two women responsible for William's eventual rise from "base-born brat" to the last colonial governor of New Jersey (and a Loyalist who eventually settled in Britain). There's Deborah Franklin, a "ruined" woman whom Benjamin took as his wife and who reluctantly raised her husband's bastard as her own child. And, since William's birth mother was never revealed, Cabot has created the clever and bold Anne, a character so intriguing that you miss her sorely whenever she's not present.

The true heartache and courageous gumption in this story belong to Deborah and Anne. Cabot shows her readers how cruel and limiting colonial American society could be to women, and her descriptions of the cultural mores of that time are as riveting as the stirrings of the American Revolution. Her account of the unsinkable Anne clawing her way up from a prostitute to a respectable business owner, while yearning for her lost son, is unforgettable. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend

Discover: Sally Cabot's debut novel will make you view Benjamin Franklin in a new light.

Morrow, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062241924

Southern Cross the Dog

by Bill Cheng

Bill Cheng, a New Yorker inspired by a love of the blues, offers a debut novel of astonishing mood and vision set in the Jim Crow-era South. Music plays a small role in the narrative, but the mysterious and heady language of Southern Cross the Dog is thrillingly alive with an otherworldly mix of accursedness and transcendence that echoes the blues.

Robert Chatham is Cheng's modern-day Odysseus, moving through the stations of post-slavery privation and heartache. After the great flood of 1927, his parents, still grieving his lynched brother, send him off to be an errand boy at a brothel. Later, he joins a crew clearing land for an electric dam that promises to bring cold milk and bright-kitchen modernity to the South in exchange for denuding huge swaths of the Mississippi wild. Then, after nearly drowning in the river after a suicidal attempt to rescue some of the crew's equipment, he's saved and imprisoned by a near-feral family of French trappers. When he is finally reunited with two childhood friends, Robert finds them too broken and insane to offer much solace or help him with the devil on his own tail.

If Cheng hadn't crawled so deeply into the part-real, part-mythical world of the music he loves, Southern Cross the Dog could have been a pretentious work of cultural appropriation. But this young writer has instead, with a complete lack of guile or affect, written a new masterpiece of the South. --Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic

Discover: An astonishing debut novel that uses the imagery and spirit of the blues to tell a masterful story set in the Jim Crow era of the South.

Ecco, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062225009

Mystery & Thriller


by M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose's Seduction is the second installment in the story of perfumer and mythologist Jac L'Etoile (after 2012's The Book of Lost Fragrances). Reeling from emotional loss in the wake of her last adventure, Jac reconnects with a troubled childhood friend, Theo Gaspard, on the Isle of Jersey. Though she plans to investigate Celtic ruins, Theo has a very different sort of mystery in mind. The island was once home to French novelist Victor Hugo, who, after the death of his oldest daughter in 1843, became deeply entrenched in spiritualism in an effort to communicate with her spirit. Hundreds of the séances that Hugo participated in were transcribed and published, but Theo believes that there are additional transcripts, left hidden by Hugo on the island, that detail a monstrous offer made by a spirit Hugo called the Shadow of the Sepulcher.

Rose's work tends to be complex, resisting easy genre classification. Part thriller, part historical mystery, with supernatural elements and a dash of romance, Seduction is, first and foremost, a damn good read. It is also a nuanced, evocative portrait of the human mind beset by sorrow and uncertainty. Juggling many threads, Rose weaves three seemingly disparate plots to a shared ending that is as inevitable as it is surprising. Seduction will leave longtime M.J. Rose fans pining for the next installment and send newcomers scrambling to get her previous titles. --Judie Evans, librarian

Discover: M.J. Rose's latest genre-blurring novel probes the inescapable connections between who we are and who we were.

Atria, $24, hardcover, 9781451621501

Food & Wine

The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories and Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts

by Jessie Oleson Moore

In The Secret Lives of Baked Goods, Jessie Oleson Moore does more than bring together the recipes for more than 40 favorite American desserts; she details the historical evolution of each confectionary from its conception to its modern status as a much loved and tasty treat. From light, fluffy birthday cakes brought to us by the Industrial Revolution to the gingerbread men of 16th-century England, the chronology of each sweet is as fascinating to read as the recipe is to make.

If you've ever wondered how pineapple upside-down cake was invented or what the difference is between "blondies" and "brownies," Moore has the answers. She explains that chocolate chips were invented after the Toll House cookie became famous and that we owe Cherries Jubilee to Queen Victoria and the chef Auguste Escoffier. Joe Frogger cookies "were first made in Marblehead," she tells us, "and took their name from the plump, dark little frogs that lived in a pond near the cottage of a fellow known as Uncle Joe," while Whoopie Pies have caused "a sort of sugary civil war between Maine and Pennsylvania, who both argue that the other state stole the treat in a case of confectionary larceny."

Moore provides readers with recipes that are "respectful to the original," but still easy to make using modern equipment and ingredients. History and sweet treats combined with mouthwatering photographs make Moore's book a delight to read and use. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: The history behind beloved dessert favorites.

Sasquatch Books, $24.95, hardcover, 9781570618536

Biography & Memoir

Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America

by Kathleen A. Cairns

Barbara Graham's life might have sprung from the pages of a pulp crime novel. Born in northern California to a single mother, she was in and out of trouble for loitering, gambling and similar small-time crimes. Then, at the age of 28, she went on trial for murder, along with two male accomplices. All three were sent to the San Quentin gas chamber in 1955, but of the trio, Graham endured in both the popular and the political imagination.

Women were sentenced to death and executed in the 20th century much less frequently than men. In Proof of Guilt, Kathleen A. Cairns explores some of the reasons for this discrepancy. She notes that, in openly expressing her anger and frustration during her trial, Graham failed to live up to the jurors' often sexist notions of how a female defendant "should" behave--and that she likely paid the ultimate price for that, even though her trial was riddled with rights violations, including a confession obtained under illegal and possibly coercive circumstances. Yet Graham's story also helped the growing movement to abolish the death penalty, particularly after it was memorialized in the 1959 film I Want to Live!

Cairns, a historian who often focuses on the incarceration of women (The Enigma Woman; Hard Time at Tehachapi), underlines that narratives have extraordinary power to shape public perception and public policy. Yet she never loses sight of the humanity of her subject and the importance of certainty when using the death penalty. --Dani Alexis Ryskamp, blogger at The Book Cricket

Discover: A notorious case of a woman executed for murder serves as the basis for an analysis of gender politics and capital punishment.

University of Nebraska Press, $29.95, hardcover, 9780803230095

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley

by Neal Thompson

Ripley's Believe It or Not has become a part of the American vernacular; A Curious Man, Neal Thompson's comprehensive biography of LeRoy Robert Ripley, delves into the life of the man behind the pop-culture phenomenon.

A shy, buck-toothed, stuttering child and a chronic doodler, Ripley grew up humbly in the early 1900s with dreams of becoming a big-league baseball player. Although he was clumsy and socially awkward, his athletic ability helped him excel at the sport. When an injury sidelined Ripley from playing ball professionally, he turned to his second love--drawing. A self-taught artist, he started working as a newspaper cartoonist in San Francisco, eventually migrating to the New York Globe, where he pitched his editor an idea about sports oddities. Thus the Believe It or Not series was launched, later expanded to include strange, bizarre facts and exotic curiosities that fascinated readers and ultimately propelled the column into worldwide syndication.

Ripley's cartoons and essays were an extension of his own personality, and his work made him a popular, wealthy celebrity and a pioneer in several media. He traveled the world, hobnobbing with the rich and powerful while seeking out new material about underdogs and outcasts. Despite his success and fame, Ripley was an enigmatic misfit. Thompson (Light this Candle) traces the trajectory of Ripley's ascendency and those who influenced him, fleshing out a fully realized portrait of Ripley's life and legacy with vigor and vitality. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A comprehensive biography about a man whose curiosity for the strangeness of the world built the Ripley's Believe It or Not brand.

Crown Archetype, $26, hardcover, 9780770436209


Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis

by Robert M. Edsel

Robert M. Edsel's Saving Italy is a fascinating, engrossing and impeccably researched history that reads like a first-rate suspense thriller.

Forty-eight men and women served with the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section in the Mediterranean theater during World War II. Captain Deane Keller, a painter and Yale art professor, assisted by art historian Lieutenant Fred Hartt, led the "Monuments Men" as they protected Italy's great artistic treasures from the Nazis. (And from Allied bombs, too; Da Vinci's The Last Supper was nearly destroyed by a 1943 assault on Milan.)

As Florence's beautiful bridges were systematically blown up by Hitler's retreating army, a tireless civil servant in Florence helped organize an evacuation of many of the city's priceless paintings to the Tuscan countryside, while several sculptures, including Michelangelo's David, were entombed in brick. Many great works of art went missing; Edsel recounts that the Monuments Men traveled all over Europe trying to track them down. He also tells about the secret peace talks between a German SS officer and the Allies, with art works as hostages, and the great risks that another SS officer--an archeologist before the war--took to protect other antiquities.

Edsel's dedication to this story runs deep; he's also the founder and president of the Monuments Men Foundation, which serves both to honor their work and to raise awareness about the importance of protecting great art from armed conflict--for which he received the National Humanities Medal. Saving Italy is a superb work of history and a riveting tale. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: The real-life history behind George Clooney's World War II drama Monuments Men, coming to theaters December 2013.

W.W. Norton, $28.95, hardcover, 9780393082418

Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History

by Eduardo Galeano, trans. by Mark Fried

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (Open Veins of Latin America) has built his career by blending history, fiction and political analysis into a form that he describes as "obsessed with remembering." In Children of the Days, he compresses that obsession into a form modeled on the medieval book of days.

Instead of a typical "today in history" almanac, Children of the Days is a series of one-page responses to historical events, people and ideas--closer to riffs than essays--each tied more or less to a specific day of the year. Beginning with the reminder that January 1 "is not the first day of the year for the Mayas, the Jews, the Arabs, the Chinese or many other inhabitants of this world" and ending with the Hebrew meaning of "abracadabra," Galeano's compendium of facts is unabashedly multicultural. There's a strong bias in favor of historical anecdotes from Latin America, Africa and Asia, but he never romanticizes the non-Western world.

He celebrates not only well-known historical figures, but forgotten heroes and martyrs. He draws unlikely connections and ignores mainstream high culture, discussing the significance of Tarzan's howl at greater length than responses to major works of Western art. Some themes recur: lost libraries, new knowledge, old prejudices and daring acts of resistance to tyranny. Even when his subjects are familiar, Galeano's conclusions are always surprising. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: A modern book of days celebrating forgotten moments of our collective, multicultural past.

Nation, $26.99, hardcover, 9781568587479

Current Events & Issues

Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling

by Sabrina Jones, Marc Mauer

Since Marc Mauer first published Race to Incarcerate in 1999, American prison populations have stabilized and, in the last couple of years, even declined modestly. This is mostly due to recent economic downtrends and consequent cost-saving measures that impose constructive versus punitive approaches to sentencing. Yet, as a new edition of this landmark work--featuring the starkly drawn imagery of graphic artist Sabrina Jones--shows us, much more can be done.

Mauer's first edition took a hard look at the policies influencing rising prison populations in the 1990s, the result of "tough on crime" movements that funneled streams of money into the prison industry while doing little to address underlying social problems and inequities. Little has changed; disparities are still apparent within minority populations, particularly in area of drug enforcement where a two-tiered system offers a slap on the wrist for the "haves" and incarceration for the "have-nots."

Jones's gritty illustrations punctuate Mauer's main points. The result is a searing indictment of divisive policies and empty rhetoric. Throughout the short narrative, it is obvious that Mauer and Jones still believe that change can prevail--and that if politicians would only remove the blinders and make much needed investments toward the future, they would see that continued incarceration does nothing to heal the demographic divide. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: Graphic artist Sabrina Jones's starkly rendered interpretation of Marc Mauer's landmark work on the modern prison system.

New Press, $17.95, paperback, 9781595585417

Children's & Young Adult


by Margaret Stohl

"One bright night in the middle of the day, a silver ship sailed down to stay...." This catastrophe marked Doloria's first birthday and changed the course of humanity. Thirteen ships, the so-called Icons, landed on Earth, destroyed major population centers and killed billions of people by stopping their hearts with an electrical pulse. But Doloria ("Dol"), marked on the inside of her wrist, was spared for reasons beyond her understanding. Now, at age 17, she lives on Grass Mission in southern California with her best friend, Furo ("Ro"). They share a primitive life with the old Padre except for their uneasy suspicion that their marks and their uncontrollable emotions brand them as different and possibly dangerous, but to whom?

The Icons brought the House of Lords, who now rule the world, and keep humans under a cruel enslavement. They've never been seen outside of their ships. Dol and Ro discover that they are Icon Children, and find themselves swept up in dueling plots either to protect the Lords from the teens' own potential power or to strike against them in a risky bid for freedom. Their telepathic and telekinetic skills could be the Icons' undoing and humanity's salvation. Which will they choose?

Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Creatures) moves from the gothic to the realm of science fiction with this series opener. Readers may find the parallel plot structure challenging initially, but their imaginations will be quickly engaged. The cover will attract both crossover appeal and fans of both sexes. --Jessica Bushore, former public librarian and freelance writer

Discover: Two teens with unusual powers in a sci-fi world ruled by the House of Lords, from the co-author of Beautiful Creatures.

Little, Brown, $18, hardcover, 448p., ages 12-up, 9780316205184

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein

by Jennifer Berne, illus. by Vladimir Radunsky

Author Jennifer Berne (Manfish) and artist Vladimir Radunsky form the ideal team to tell of the early childhood and late blooming of Albert Einstein.

With a minimum of text and artwork that moves smoothly between the abstract and the concrete, the duo demonstrates the way Einstein's mind also traveled fluidly between his imagination and setting down his ideas in a way that others could understand. Young Albert said nary a word until he turned three. When he was ill, Albert's father brought him a compass, and the boy's observations led to a breakthrough: "Suddenly he knew there were mysteries in the world--hidden and silent, unknown and unseen." The book's design also supports this transition. As Albert reads and wonders and learns, Radunsky fills the pages with swirls of colors and crossed-out formulas, alluding to the scientific process of trying hypotheses and eliminating theories that don't work. Enlarged phrases in red type give readers the gist of the major ideas Berne presents.

Most of all, the book awakens a sense of curiosity and mystery in youngsters. As Albert watches a lump of sugar dissolve in his tea, he wonders, "How could this happen?... How could one thing disappear into another?" This observation eventually leads to his hypothesis about everything being made of atoms. The book ends by posing to readers this very idea ("Questions that someday you may answer... by wondering, thinking, and imagining"), along with Einstein's main discoveries and a list of books for further reading. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: An introduction to Albert Einstein and an invitation to children to awaken their imaginations, from a dynamic author-artist team.

Chronicle, $17.99, hardcover, 56p., ages 6-9, 9780811872355

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