Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Dutton: Sunderworld, Vol. I: The Extraordinary Disappointments of Leopold Berry by Ransom Riggs

From My Shelf

In Memoriam: Peter Matthiessen

One day, years ago, I came across a book called The Snow Leopard, and bought it because it sounded exotic--big cats and the Himalayas. I expected, well, snow and leopards. What I got was an unexpected spiritual journey with author Peter Matthiessen, who died on Saturday at age 86; he had been ill with leukemia.

Matthiessen, in addition to writing more than 30 books, was co-founder of the Paris Review (a cover while briefly working for the CIA), a naturalist, explorer, Buddhist teacher and priest, and political and environmental activist in his spare time. Matthiessen accomplished the unusual feat of winning the National Book Award in two categories: in nonfiction, he won for The Snow Leopard and in fiction for Shadow Country (which was originally published in longer form as a trilogy: Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone).

"Peter was a force of nature, relentlessly curious, persistent, demanding--of himself and others," said his literary agent, Neil Olson "But he was also funny, deeply wise and compassionate."

Steve Chawkins, in the Los Angeles Times, described him as "both an elegant novelist and a rugged naturalist, a traveler known for his graceful yet spare descriptions of the wildest places on Earth."

Matthiessen's last book, In Paradise, is being published by Riverhead Books today. Riverhead described it as "a novel inspired by a profound experience Matthiessen underwent as a participant in a Zen meditation retreat at Auschwitz in the 1990s, a powerful and uncompromising exploration of the legacy of evil and our unquenchable, imperfect desire to wrest good from it." Riverhead publisher Geoff Kloske commented: "We are deeply honored to be custodians of Peter's final, characteristically bold work of art."

The New York Times has a lengthy obituary, as well as a feature about Matthiessen in yesterday's magazine section that was printed before his death. --Marilyn Dahl

The Writer's Life

Book Brahmin: Brad Parks

photo: James Lum

Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty Awards. A Dartmouth College graduate, Parks spent a dozen years as a reporter with the Washington Post and the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger and is now a full-time novelist. His fifth Carter Ross thriller, The Player (St. Martin's Minotaur, March 2014), received starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal and was a Top Pick of RT Book Reviews.

On your nightstand now:

The Accident by Chris Pavone. Well, that and about a dozen other books (by Allison Leotta, Carla Buckley, Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, Cara Black, Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay... and that's just the fiction). Yes: I'm a slob who seldom cleans his nightstand.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Gentle Ben by Walt Morey. I checked it out from the Ridgefield (Conn.) Public Library on August 9, 1984. I know because I still have it. At 10 cents a day, the overdue fines are now over $700. They can come after me if they want to. I'm still not returning it.

Your top five authors:

Aw, man. Could we expand this to 50? Okay, going alphabetically:

Lee Child: The only author who makes me drop everything the second he comes out with a new book.
Harlan Coben: The reigning master of the twist you never see coming.
Michael Connelly: The best police procedurals in the business (Harry Bosch) and the best legal thrillers (Mickey Haller).
Lisa Gardner: Plot. Prose. Character. Voice. Her game has no weakness.
John D. MacDonald: My desert island author.

Book you've faked reading:

Paradise Lose by Whatsisface Milton. I faked reading it in high school and college. Though I hear it ends well for Satan.

Book you're an evangelist for:

I have probably recommended Megan Abbott's Dare Me at no less than 30 book signings. "It's a book about cheerleaders," I tell people. And when they look at me funny, I say, "But it's sort of like cheerleaders meet Macbeth."

Book you've bought for the cover:

I have bought books for their titles, blurbs, dust jacket copy, first lines, awards or simply because I liked the prose on a random page I opened. But never once for the cover. What can I say? I'm colorblind.

Book that changed your life:

This is a really, really geeky answer. But I'm a geek, so... The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. It's a book about how science comes to adopt new paradigms, but its conclusions can be extended to virtually any human endeavor.

Favorite line from a book:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" It's the first line from Charlotte's Web, another favorite book from childhood. All you have to do is add Mrs. Arable's response--"One of the pigs is a runt... Your father decided to do away with it"--and you have one of the great thriller takeoffs of all time.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I've now read this book in three different decades of my life and gotten something completely different out of it each time. Maybe when I'm 90, I'll get everything out of it I should. And then I can die happy.

One thing from the reading universe you'd like to ban:

The phrase "guilty pleasure." It pains me when I talk to someone who says, "I can't wait to read (BOOK BY AUTHOR THEY REALLY LOVE) but first I have to get through (BOOK BY AUTHOR WHOSE NAME HAS BEEN REDACTED DUE TO PROFESSIONAL COURTESY)." Please don't slog through a book because you feel like you "should" read it, or because someone else has deemed it "important" or because, like a trip to the dentist, you feel like it's "good" for you. (Unless, of course, you really like going to the dentist--I'm cool with that.) If reading something gives you pleasure, don't feel guilty. Life is too short to go around apologizing for what's on your nightstand.

Book Candy

NCAA-Style 'Lit Madness' Winner; Essential Poetry

While you may have been entranced by the NCAA basketball final between Connecticut and Kentucky, the real drama was occurring yesterday in the Bookish Lit Madness character brackets, where a "final two" showdown between Tiger Lily and Lisbeth Salander resulted in a convincing win for the girl with the dragon tattoo.


"It's National Poetry Month, and you're probably thinking: 'I should really read more poetry. But where oh where do I start?' " Flavorwire asked, then provided a list of "50 essential books of poetry that everyone should read."


Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, picked her "top 10 books about intelligent animals" for the Guardian.


For Arthur Conan Doyle/Benedict Cumberbatch fans, Buzzfeed offered "75 thoughts everyone has when they watch the first episode of Sherlock." And if that's not enough lit TV for you, how about "61 things that happen on every episode of Game of Thrones."


Mental Floss previewed "five early film adaptations of books you might not know about."


"To be..." but be quick about it. "All of Shakespeare's plays, converted to 3-panel Webcomics" were showcased by io9.

Book Review


The Plover

by Brian Doyle

Declan O Donnell, last seen in Brian Doyle's Mink River, is back here at the helm of the Plover, a small boat the "size of a roomy coffin." As Declan tells us of his trip along the Oregon coast, "I am on a voyage to nowhere, and in no hurry to get there neither."

But he's not completely alone. Accompanying him on this sea are objects (he keeps a list). Here are half a bottle of wine, a plastic turtle, a tiny head of a sea lion pup, a very old basketball, a ukulele and more--and a ship, dead ahead. It's Declan's first encounter with Enrique and his ship, Tanets. "You want beer?" Enrique says, "Maybe we will shoot you and take your boat." They don't; the pirates leave, but they will return.

Declan has a chance rendezvous with Piko, a native in a canoe, who brings his brain-damaged and crippled daughter, Pipa, aboard the Plover. More people are met and welcomed--a mysterious boy from a forested land and a minister exiled because he was too much of a visionary. Perhaps Doyle should have subtitled his novel The Plover: In Which Our Sea-Faring Hero Declan O Donnell, Gentleman Sailor, Encounters Diverse and Unique Peoples, Lands, and Adventures. And then there's the matter of that persistent "fecking hole" that Declan patches over and over again because the "ocean is a professional assassin, my friend."

The Plover is a fun ride with meaning and heart, lots of it, as well as jokes, scares, storms at sea, surprises, magic, absurdity--and humanity, exuberant joyful humanity. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: A picaresque story of a man alone at sea who soon finds himself far from lonely.

Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, hardcover, 9781250034779

Frog Music

by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue's Frog Music is a compelling, atmospheric literary crime novel. Animated by flawed but very human characters, it combines the suspense of her bestselling Room with elements of the historical fiction that launched her career.

Blanche is a high-priced dancer and whore in Gilded Age San Francisco. She is sitting near an open window with her new and only friend, the enigmatic cross-dresser Jenny Bonnet. Blanche bends over to untie her shoes just as a shotgun is fired, killing Jenny. Blanche is convinced the bullet was meant for her and means to find the killer--she suspects her former lover Arthur or his devoted minion, Ernest. They despise her for leaving Arthur without income, and they hate Jenny for shaming Blanche into retrieving her infant son from the baby farm where Arthur sent him after his birth. The novel cuts back and forth in time as Blanche works through the possibilities leading to the murder, tries to find her stolen son and evades her antagonists.

The result is a novel with plenty of action, rich in atmosphere and dense in historical detail. But it is, above all, a novel that belongs to its characters. One of the novel's many strengths is Blanche's gradual willingness to show her vulnerabilities alongside her growing self-respect and maternal commitment.

The essential facts of Frog Music are based on a real-life unsolved murder. Donoghue's meticulous research enhances her story with colorful slang, newspaper clippings and snippets of popular songs. But Donoghue's achievement is finally one of the imagination and rests on her ability to find the emotional heart of her characters. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: A richly atmospheric novel set in Gilded Age San Francisco based on a real-life unsolved murder.

Little, Brown, $27, hardcover, 9780316324687

The Land of Steady Habits

by Ted Thompson

The title of Ted Thompson's debut novel, The Land of Steady Habits, is a retro nickname for Connecticut and also a description of Anders Hill's pre-retirement and pre-separation life: decades of train commuting to a Wall Street job that financed the family's "charming" Georgian Colonial, his sons' "impressive degrees" and his wife's "extravagant" empty-nester kitchen renovation. Anders, a southern runaway who blue-collared his way through Bowdoin and once dreamed of manning a fire tower, has run out of enthusiasm for the WASP dream.

At first, Anders revels in his escape from the steady life, but the exhilaration of freedom is soon dampened by aimlessness, and his situation becomes unpleasantly unsteady after he learns of a major flaw in his financial projections. His decision to resolve the dilemma by admitting his mistake to his wife comes undone when she gushes "that Anders may have been right all along, that the divorce was what was best for both of them." Still in denial that what he discarded is irretrievable, Anders attends a holiday party hosted by her friends and, shocked by something he sees there, makes an error of judgment that will reverberate through all of their lives.

The prose in The Land of Steady Habits is confident, impeccably tailored and underwritten with wise humor. Thompson uses inner monologue and flashback to contextualize character and he provides ample swaths of dialogue with young people to balance the old-dude rants. Although one late tragicomic scene almost tips into insensitivity, its tone, and the novel, are redeemed by Anders Hill's breathtaking honesty. --Holloway McCandless, blogger at Litagogo: A Guide to Free Literary Podcasts

Discover: A novel about a Connecticut commuter whose midlife emancipation teaches him more than he bargained for.

Little, Brown, $25, hardcover, 9780316186568

American Romantic

by Ward Just

Ward Just knows his way around a novel--18 of them now, including finalists for both a Pulitzer (An Unfinished Season) and a National Book Award (Echo House). American Romantic follows Harry Sanders, who works his way through government pay grades: a midlevel embassy diplomat in prewar Saigon; then ambassador assignments in a half dozen embassies around the world; and, finally, a comfortable retirement in the south of France. He has an intense love affair with Sieglinde, a German medical aide in Saigon; permanently scars his feet in a covert Vietnam intelligence-gathering mission; marries May, daughter of a hardscrabble Vermont family; and visits his politically well-connected centenarian father as often as he can.

In short, Harry is a career government servant, albeit one whose path touches the world's high and mighty as well as its weak and helpless. The disillusioned Sieglinde describes young Harry in his Vietnam role as an "American romantic... you love the war," while he more soberly sees himself as "a witness to events I didn't understand and would never understand." To May, who accompanied him in his 40-year career, "Harry was cheerful, an optimist, good-humored and determined to make the best of things."

The title of Just's extraordinary 1979 short story collection Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women might as easily apply to his new novel. His work explores the fragile connections between the personal and the professional, the role of fate in affairs of State and the burden of living a meaningful life with some measure of personal contentment. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: An aging American diplomat takes stock of life choices, in both profession and passion.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, hardcover, 9780544196377

Mystery & Thriller

The Collector of Dying Breaths

by M.J. Rose

In the 16th century, a young Italian man, apprentice to the apothecary at a monastery, became Catherine de Medici's personal perfumer. René le Florentin accompanied Catherine when she left her native country to marry a French prince, and spent the next four decades concocting fragrant potions to seduce and delight--and occasionally poisonous ones to rid the queen of her enemies. But René nursed a secret obsession: the quest for a formula to reanimate a person's dying breath, enabling them to live again in another's body.

In present-day France, Jac L'Etoile, perfumer and mythologist, is mourning the death of her brother, Robbie. As she struggles with her grief, Jac takes on one of Robbie's last assignments from a wealthy, eccentric client: She must attempt to mix René le Florentin's unusual formula, the creation of which consumed the Italian artisan. Isolated in a grand château, Jac reaches out to Griffin North, her former lover, to help her unravel the mystery of René's potion and its connection to the château.

M.J. Rose (Seduction, The Book of Lost Fragrances) continues her Reincarnationist series with a twisting plot filled with lush descriptions of French court life and the scents mixed by Jac and René. Jac's frequent hallucinations, in which she glimpses scenes from René's life, sometimes teeter on the edge of believability, but add an interesting paranormal element. The implications of reanimating a dying breath are never fully considered, but the quest makes for a sensual, entertaining tale that mixes perfume, history, passion and revenge. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: A sensual, entertaining tale of perfume, passion and revenge in the court of Catherine de Medici and in modern France.

Atria, $25, hardcover, 9781451621532

By Its Cover

by Donna Leon

Books are at the fore in By Its Cover, the 23rd installment of Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series. Leon has attracted readers from all over the world with her Venetian setting, irresistible characters and in-depth exploration of politics, morality, graft and corruption. Art and literature have played an important part in many of those cases, but this time, all the focus is on books.

Brunetti is called when Dottoressa Fabbiani, chief librarian at Biblioteca Merula, discovers someone has stolen pages out of several rare books. The immediate suspect is an American professor who requested the volumes for his research. Unfortunately, he fled the library earlier in the day--and, after checking his documents and credentials, Brunetti discovers he is an impostor.

Unlike previous novels, no time is spent at leisurely lunches with Guido and his family, discussing the relative merits of artichokes or just how al dente the pasta is. This is serious business; suspects are thick on the ground, motives proliferate and then an ex-priest who spends his days at the library is brutally murdered. As the investigation continues, Brunetti asks himself who is really innocent and who guilty, examining all his preconceived assumptions of virtue and morality. Of course, he prevails in the end, drawing all the loose ends together, including the library's patron, a friend of his wife's wealthy family. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: Another irresistible installment in the Guido Brunetti series set in Venice.

Atlantic Monthly Press, $26, hardcover, 9780802122643

Food & Wine

Sweet Paul Eat & Make: Charming Recipes & Kitchen Crafts You Will Love

by Paul Lowe, illus. by Susan Evenson

As a young boy following his Norwegian grandmother ("Mormor") and great-aunt Gunnvor around the kitchen, Paul Lowe never dreamed he would one day share their recipes with the world. But when he started a food and craft blog, Sweet Paul, he combined the Scandinavian cuisine of his childhood with the American food he had since grown to love. Lowe's blog has grown into a successful magazine, and Sweet Paul Eat & Make presents a collection of nourishing recipes and simple, rustic craft projects.

Lowe loves eggs in any form; the Morning and Brunch sections feature egg-based dishes along with several versions of pancakes and French toast. The Noon section offers fish tacos, kale Caesar salad and his signature feta and lemon dip. The Night section suggests richer fare such as Norwegian meatballs, boeuf bourguignon, several potato recipes and a host of delicious desserts, from an airy pavlova to a rich tiramisu.

Many of the craft projects involve repurposed kitchen items, such as a tart tin transformed into a mirror or a punch bowl turned pendant lamp. Lowe believes in simple, whimsical projects with only a few steps and materials, and he doesn't mind a bit of imperfection. Following his Mormor's motto, "perfection is boring," Lowe gives readers the tools and techniques to experiment and make the projects their own.

Sweet Paul Eat & Make offers a refreshing dose of realism balanced with charm for crafters and cooks overwhelmed by the world of Martha Stewart. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: A whimsical collection of recipes and craft projects from the creator of Sweet Paul magazine.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30, hardcover, 9780544133334

Biography & Memoir

Exodus: A Memoir

by Deborah Feldman

In her 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman chronicled her upbringing in the insular, fundamentalist Satmar sect of Orthodox Judaism and her flight from its practices with her young son. When she left her Brooklyn, N.Y., community behind at age 23, Feldman had a new life ahead of her--and very little idea how it would look or who she would be within it. In Exodus, she explores where the first few years of that journey have taken her, and the perspective she has acquired since it began.

While she no longer considers herself Orthodox--and some responses to her first book suggest that this disassociation is reciprocated--Feldman continues to identify as Jewish. However, in order to move forward, she decides she must also move backward. Much of Exodus tracks her travels through Europe as she follows the path of her grandmother, a survivor of the concentration camps, and grapples with the ways in which she herself could be called a survivor.

Exodus is a companion piece to Unorthodox, and while it's not necessary to read both memoirs in chronological order, those who have read one will likely want to read the other. Exodus has the feel of a coming-of-age story, tracing the protagonist's steps toward self-discovery. It meanders at times and feels somewhat unresolved in the end, leaving the reader with a sense that Feldman is still at the beginning of her self-reformation, still searching and sorting out. She's not yet 30, so that seems right. --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

Discover: A young woman's progress toward becoming herself after fleeing an insular religious community.

Blue Rider/Penguin, $26.95, hardcover, 9780399162770


Learning to Walk in the Dark

by Barbara Brown Taylor

Conventional wisdom has it that light is associated with good, while darkness represents evil and danger. Barbara Brown Taylor believes otherwise. In Learning to Walk in the Dark, she compellingly makes the case for why darkness is as necessary to our well-being as light, and that to have one without the other is to live only half a life.

When Taylor told people she was writing a book about darkness, reactions were uniformly negative, with darkness equated to spiritual warfare, depression, nightmares and other adverse notions. More determined than ever, Taylor continued exploring physical, emotional and spiritual darkness. A charming, witty and wise guide into the heart of darkness, she reveals the beauty and riches to be found there and shares the life-shaping lessons she would never have learned in the light. Woven into the narrative are elements of cosmology, biology, psychology, history and theology, offering a thought-provoking and often surprising study of a topic most people actively try to avoid.

Regardless of where readers stand on the spiritual spectrum, there is plenty here to ponder. Taylor has filled Learning to Walk in the Dark with fascinating facts and anecdotes, from the origin of the word "night," which comes from Greek myth, to insights on insomniacs like Mark Twain and Van Gogh, who often did their best work during the darkest hours, to why she learned as much about human nature working as a waitress at an underground bar as she did writing papers for seminary classes. Ultimately, Taylor challenges us to think differently about a subject we've largely been led to believe is unassailable. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Discover: An impassioned plea to embrace darkness, both metaphorical and literal.

HarperOne, $24.99, hardcover, 9780062024350


Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting: Poems

by Kevin Powers

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting is the debut poetry collection by Kevin Powers, author of the National Book Award finalist The Yellow Birds. Most of the poems directly address the experience and aftermath of war. All reflect the effort to make sense of it. Some seem to question the value of trying to say anything at all: "I tell her I love her like not killing/ or ten minutes of sleep," Powers writes, in the title poem about the jarring contradiction of composing a love letter in the midst of battle. "I tell her how Pvt Bartle says, offhand,/ that war is just/ making little pieces of metal/ pass through each other."

Other poems are more abstract in their speculation about the atrocity of war. "Photographing the Suddenly Dead" begins with a long reflection on the idea of impermanence and the meaning of objects, until it becomes clear that its real subject is the speaker's guilt, triggered by the memory of a photograph of a young man killed in battle. Powers often uses beautiful lyrical language and aphoristic observations to get at deeper truths, as though his real subject is too dark, too immense, to approach head-on.

Much contemporary poetry celebrates a compressed intensity of line. These poems are looser, more accessible and more narrative in structure, using visceral images and vignettes to portray the worst that humanity can experience in a collection that will leave the reader changed. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: An accessible debut poetry collection from an army veteran who served in Iraq.

Little, Brown, $23, hardcover, 9780316401081

Children's & Young Adult


by John Corey Whaley

What is it like to be frozen, à la Ted Williams, never believing you'll really come back--and then you do? That's the preposterous premise of John Corey Whaley's novel, conveyed with realistic emotions that keep his narrator, Travis, grounded, and the story credible--and also highly entertaining--for readers.

Life has gone on without Travis, whose body was invaded by acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and who was offered an opportunity to have his head cryogenically frozen. With nothing to lose, Travis agrees, and "comes to" with his healthy head transplanted onto a healthy body. Travis has been "away" for only five years, yet the social and emotional divide between 16 and 21 is vast. Travis had expected to come back in the far future ("Where were the jetpacks?" he wonders). Instead, the girl he loves is engaged to someone else, and his best friend has gone back in the closet. The only refreshing new addition to his life is Hatton, whom he meets on his first day back to school and who calls out "Noggin!" The two become fast friends.

Whaley makes his hero's implausible situation absolutely convincing. The questions lurking behind Travis's sometimes rash actions plague all teenagers. What happens when, in a friendship, the two parties grow at different rates? Is there enough there to salvage? Can you teach yourself to expect less? Ultimately this insightful story explores the challenges of intimate relationships and managing expectations. Whaley asks teens to think about the life they want to make for themselves. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: In this new YA novel from the author of Where Things Come Back, a winning hero finds out a five-year absence can feel like a lifetime.

Atheneum/S&S, $17.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 14-up, 9781442458727

The Here and Now

by Ann Brashares

What if the only way to live in the future is to return to the past? Ann Brashares's (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) latest novel, The Here and Now, explores that tantalizing possibility.

In 17-year-old narrator Prenna James's time, near the end of the 21st century, climate change has turned the world into an overheated, damp wasteland. Food is scarce and plague runs rampant. Prenna is chosen to be one of the Travelers, a select group immune to the plague who will travel back to 2010 and work from there to avert disaster. Though she's been warned to avoid relationships with so-called "time natives," Prenna grows dangerously close to Ethan. The 12 rules governing Prenna and her people are meant to preserve time and its "natural sequence," but Prenna begins to wonder if perhaps the only way to save the future is to break the rules designed to protect it. Ethan and Prenna, after a surprising encounter with a homeless man they call Ben Kenobi, set out to defy time and change the future--no matter the consequences. Though Prenna and Ethan's romance is a central plot point, it never overwhelms Prenna's overriding mission to save the future.

Brashares imagines a horrifying trajectory: children too terrified to go outside, governments collapsing for lack of resources, mosquitoes carrying pandemic plagues. Skillfully weaving together time travel, planetary devastation, climate change, plague and young love, the author creates an engaging, adventurous tale. --Kyla Paterno, trade book buyer and blogger, Garfield Book Company at PLU

Discover: Ethan and Prenna, from different time periods, fall in love while attempting to save the world.

Delacorte, $18.99, hardcover, 256p., ages 12-up, 9780385736800

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