Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, August 29, 2014

Mariner Books: Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real about the End by Alua Arthur

From My Shelf

A Dose of Dystopia

Think dystopian novels are played out? Think again. Some authors are doing incredible things in this genre, inventing worlds strikingly like our own and yet terrifyingly different, worlds that capture the imagination in new and interesting ways. And while we wait eagerly for the final volume in Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy, a dose of new dystopia can't possibly hurt.

Edan Lepucki's California made headlines when Stephen Colbert urged his viewers to make it a bestseller in the midst of the Amazon-Hachette battle. And it worked! Lepucki's novel takes place in a California devastated by natural disasters, with a cast of characters aiming to build a utopian society, and is complex, multilayered and downright compelling.

Where Lepucki's characters aim to build a utopia, the people in M.R. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts just want to survive. Cast out of their secluded barracks after an attack by a rebel faction, unlikely compatriots--a handful of soldiers, a teacher, a doctor and a young girl named Melanie--flee across what was once England, hoping to find refuge near the former London. The only catch: they have to avoid herds of "hungries" along the way. Yes, it's a zombie novel, but it's like nothing you've ever read.

Ben H. Winter's Last Policeman trilogy, which culminates in World of Trouble, takes a different tack, giving us a world that is not yet ruined by disaster--though it's due to be struck by a meteor in less than a year. Some people "go bucket list," running off to fulfill their wildest dreams, some loot, some go to work everyday. But police are no longer available to patrol, engineers no longer available to maintain roads, tech companies no longer available for Internet service. Against this pre-apocalyptic background, Winters sets a series of whodunit mysteries that prove to be more about the philosophical and moral implications of the coming end of the world than who actually did it--though that doesn't stop Detective Hank Palace from trying. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Sleeping Bear Press: A Kurta to Remember by Gauri Dalvi Pandya, Illustrated by Avani Dwivedi

The Writer's Life

Sonya Cobb: The Value of Craftsmanship and Art

Sonya Cobb has worked as an advertising copywriter for 26 years. After having her children, she turned to writing fiction as a way to reclaim a part of herself "that had been neglected for way too long." In her debut novel, The Objects of Her Affection (just published by Sourcebooks Landmark), a wife and mother becomes a thief who steals Renaissance works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cobb lives in Westchester County, N.Y., with her two children and her husband, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

You say that the heroine of the novel "bears more than a passing resemblance" to you. Was this a conscious choice?

Job Number One for me was making my story feel as real and true as possible, and like many first-time novelists, I found it easiest to tap into my own reality for material. Becoming a mother was a powerful experience, with a lot of very complicated, mixed emotions that I thought could, in certain situations, drive someone to desperate acts. I decided to start with the very real feelings I had as a working mother with two small children. Then I imposed some dire circumstances on my character and imagined what the result would be. So it was a little bit like exploring my own life in a parallel universe, if things had gone very badly for me.

Tell us about the research needed to write this novel.

I love research because it provides a fun little escape from the tough business of writing--but you don't feel guilty about it because it's absolutely necessary. My husband has a vast library of art books, which I turned to for information about Nuremberg goldsmiths and Saint-Porchaire ceramics. I also spent time wandering the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and exploring the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's web site. Finally, I turned to auction websites when I was looking for smaller, not-quite-museum-quality objects that could plausibly be found languishing in a storage room.

How and why did you select the specific art and artifacts the heroine steals in the novel?

I chose decorative objects because they're easier to slip into a bag than, say, a painting. I picked silver because there's so much of it out there--some of it very old and valuable, most of it not. So it's plausible that a museum could have received a large batch of family silver that went straight into storage, and that one or two super-valuable pieces could have escaped the curators' notice.

Some of the objects I describe are real, and some are loosely based on real objects. All of the artists mentioned are real. The Jamnitzer mirror is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The van Vianen tazza, a footed dish, is loosely based on a piece in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Saint-Porchaire candlestick is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.

In the story, museum security seems surprisingly lax. Is this typical? 

For the most part, the scenarios that allow Sophie, the protagonist, to steal objects simply wouldn't happen in a modern-day museum. Storage practices are quite rigorous, and visitors--even curators' spouses--are never allowed to be anywhere near museum objects without an escort. They're never allowed to enter storage areas at all. The system of object cards that I describe in the book has been replaced by collection management software such as The Museum System (TMS), which is widely used by most major museums to keep track of works of art.

Illegal art trafficking contributes to the suspense of the novel. What knowledge or experience, if any, do you have with black markets and dealers?

Early on in the writing of the novel, I was inspired by Robert Wittman's book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures. The founder of the FBI's Art Crime Team, Wittman describes dozens of thefts that he investigated over the years. I was most fascinated by the petty thefts--the small, often unnoticed objects that would be pilfered from storage areas by museum employees. I learned that while famous works of art are almost impossible to sell, those smaller objects often disappear into the black market without a trace. 

An old house and a major renovation figure prominently in the story. Is this something that personally interests you?

My husband and I renovated a Civil War-era row house very similar to the one I describe in the book. I fell in love with the house and its history. The row house was an early example of mass production: every house on a block was exactly the same, with stock decorative details that were produced in great quantities. Nevertheless, everything was made from noble materials, with care and attention to aesthetic matters. In my house we found, under the wallpaper, a signature by "The Plaster Boys," dated 1863. They were proud of their work! Beauty, artistry and craftsmanship were still valued at that time, even as we emerged from the industrial revolution. Sophie and I both feel sad about the demise of those values in today's world.

Please discuss the themes of the novel--the idea of want and need and the value we place on things and aspects of our lives.

Sometimes I feel oppressed by the amount of "stuff" we're surrounded by in today's world--the piles of cheap, mass-produced goods we bring home from the store in big plastic bags. These goods are inexpensive and plentiful, so you could say they have little value in a monetary sense, and they lack value because we have no connection to the people who made them. If you buy a ceramic bowl at Target, you probably don't spend any time thinking about the person who designed it, or the person who glazed it. But if you own a tazza crafted by van Vianen--the silversmith who eventually left the trade to take over his father's brewery--you own a part of someone's story. That, in itself, has a lot of value apart from the aspects of supply and demand. It connects us to one another, even across centuries.

Sophie, the protagonist, is struggling with her own sense of value, and work is important to her sense of identity, just as it probably was for van Vianen and Jamnitzer. When Sophie learns the story behind the van Vianen tazza, she begins to understand the true value of work, and she begins to grasp the enormity of her crime.

The Objects of Her Affection blends suspense with domestic and marital issues. Did you find it difficult to balance these aspects?

It was incredibly difficult... and tricky: the story has to move, but it takes time to develop your characters' inner struggles. I've never truly enjoyed novels that are purely plot-driven or purely character-driven, so I set out knowing very clearly what my task would be. Being a first-time novelist, though, I had to toss out writing that was either too slow or too fast or not contributing to both character and story. 

What are your future literary plans?

I'm working on a second novel that explores themes of work, class, human nature and creativity through the eyes of two very different characters. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton

Dark shadows, whispered secrets and glimpses of life through ancient keyholes are just some of the elements that infuse The Miniaturist, an evocative, atmospheric debut novel by Jessie Burton. The action takes place during the Dutch Golden Age, in 17th-century Amsterdam, along the Herengracht, one of the most important and prestigious canals in the city, the neighborhood of the richest and most influential.

The story launches in October 1686 when 18-year-old Petronella "Nella" Oortman arrives in Amsterdam. With her father deceased and the family in debt, Nella is married off to a man who her mother believes "can keep a guilder in his purse." The couple is actually married in September, but it is not until October that Nella leaves her mother and siblings at their countryside home in Assendelft and travels to Amsterdam. With Peebo, her caged pet parakeet, in tow, Nella, an imaginative girl, is ready to embark on her new life as the wife of the rich and charming Johannes Brandt--a 39-year-old, high-ranking merchant powerbroker for the Dutch East India Company that plies wares throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and Indonesia.

Upon Nella's arrival, she is surprised to learn that her husband is traveling. In his absence, she is greeted by Johannes's sister, Marin Brandt, a severe, tightly wound, sharp-tongued woman dressed heavily in black who grudgingly welcomes Nella into the household, which also consists of a maid and cook named Cornelia; Otto, Johannes's manservant, with exotic "coffee-bean" colored skin, whom Nella later learns speaks French and English, can plot a map and check the quality of Haarlem wool; and two beloved whippet dogs who worship their master, Johannes.

Once settled, Nella is stymied by the excessively frugal household and her controlling sister-in-law who orders Nella's clothes and drags her to church. Cornelia, the cook-maid, comments, "Marin eats like a mouse and shops like a nun." When Nella questions her sister-in-law about this way of life, Marin replies, "The Bible tells us that a man should never flaunt his wealth."

Marin appears as devout and zealous in her religious belief as she is strict and rigid in managing the household financial accounts. Why is that? And why is she not married? The intrigue only deepens when Nella snoops in Marin's room and discovers a provocative love letter. Who could it be from?

Perplexed, Nella feels invisible and ignored in her new home where she senses an underlying permissiveness and an uncharacteristic friendliness coming from the servants, which Nella is not used to and cannot understand. When her husband is home, which is not often, Johannes is kind, but distant--even rejecting Nella's romantic overtures. He does little to appease his new wife or tame his overbearing sister, whom Nella overhears telling Johannes how to make trades and other business decisions. Why does rich and powerful Johannes make comments about his "cloudy, untouchable wealth"? Is his fortune somehow in jeopardy?

With Johannes always traveling, Nella has many questions she would like to ask her sister-in-law, such as details about her husband's business and about commodity traders like Frans and Agnes Meerman, who deal in sugar loaves. Nella finds that conversation with Marin is never easy, and Marin's responses to inquiries about her brother's work are puzzling: "He turns mud to gold. Water to guilders. He sells other men's stock at better prices. He fills his ships and puts them out to sea. He thinks he's everybody's favorite. That's all I know."

Aggression increases between the two women, and when Johannes presents his new bride with a wedding gift, an exact model replica of their home, "an enormous, looming structure measuring nearly half of Johannes's height... a huge cupboard supported by eight curved and sturdy feet," the balance of power and authority in the household suddenly begins to shift.

At first, Marin takes issue with the lavish gift, which she feels is a garish symbol of wealth and power. At the cost of three thousand guilders, Marin believes that if "invested properly, a family could live off that for years." Nella, on the other hand, sees the cabinet house as "beautiful and useless," an insulting "monument to her powerlessness" as mistress of the actual house.

Marin ultimately encourages Nella to decorate the cupboard. "If you leave the cabinet empty," Marin says, "you'll turn Johannes's gift into a crime of profligacy." Marin gives her pseudo-blessing and extends promissory notes to Nella, finally propelling Nella to leave the house and venture into the busy shopping district in search of a miniaturist who can help her decorate the cabinet, in defiance, with all the material things that Marin detests.

The miniaturist proves to be elusive and is never in the shop; Nella leaves notes at the store. In her travels, Nella also gathers information about her husband and his associations. When startling truths come to light, Nella's loyalty comes into question as she begins to fear for her life--and the lives of others.

During this time, the chronically absent miniaturist sends cryptic messages and unsolicited parcels to Nella--intricately crafted, precise furniture reproductions for the cabinet, along with eerily accurate replicas of the inhabitants of Nella's world.

The miniature creations seem to mirror real-life adversities--often foretold. Who is this mysterious craftsperson who knows so much about Nella and the complex relationships of those in the household? Can this artisan/prophet see into the future? And does the miniaturist have some sort of ominous power and control over Nella's fate?

The idea is as unnerving to Nella as the revelations and rumors that continue to emerge about the secret, flawed lives--and love affairs--of those around her. Suspense builds as the realities of Nella's world shrink in size, becoming as compressed as the confines of that cabinet house.

Burton is a skillful writer. Her narrative is riveting and lyrically written in the present tense. The historical drama plays out over a period of three months against a detailed, sweeping backdrop of Amsterdam, while Nella makes a transformative journey from naïveté to enlightenment to empowerment. The Netherlands, at this point in history, was a largely male-dominated, pious and puritanical, church-governed civilization. Therefore, it is refreshing that Burton chose to focus the story on the plight of Nella and other women in her circle. These female characters wield their influence and vie for freedom behind the scenes, in a repressive, intolerant society ruled by vanity and wealth and plagued by greed and prejudice. In the end, the power of love and obsession, sins and secrets, loyalty and forgiveness bind together a cast of sympathetic characters who all have a part to play in a collectively chilling conclusion. --Kathleen Gerard

Ecco Press, $26.99, hardcover, 9780062306814

Jessie Burton: When Imagination Takes Control

photo: Wolf Marloh

Oxford University graduate and actress Jessie Burton is English born and bred. Her debut novel, The Miniaturist (Ecco), tells the story of a wealthy, dysfunctional family living in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age. Burton claims her only connection to the Netherlands is having visited Amsterdam twice. On one of those trips, she visited the Rijksmuseum and was drawn to an eight-foot-tall cabinet house built in the late 17th century. Burton was intrigued by the "very beautiful, decorative object, full of detail, precision and imagination." When she discovered the miniature house was an exact replica of an actual house owned by a woman named Petronella Oortman--and that it cost the same as a full-blown townhouse to build and furnish--the writer in Burton began to consider the type of woman who would commission such a house and what sort of society would condone such an expenditure.

It took Burton four years and 17 drafts to perfect the novel. During that time, she got to know the characters better, layered and sculpted the story and enriched it. The finished project ultimately went to auction in Britain and around the world. The book will be published 30 languages. Burton admits, "I would have been happy with one!"

When you first saw the cabinet house in Amsterdam, did you perceive the potential to write a historical novel immediately?

Not immediately, no. I bought the guidebook in the museum shop and kept reading and thinking about the cabinet house. A month or two later, I abandoned another writing project I had been working on and pictured this young woman, turning up in the city of Amsterdam to start a new life. It began as a short story--I had never written a full novel. But quickly it became clear I had a novel on my hands.

Tell us about the research necessary to create such an authentic 17th-century world.

I researched as I wrote. I needed the fictional story to pose factual questions rather than just me absorbing historical facts and regurgitating them as prose. I could neither afford the time nor money to travel extensively to Amsterdam, so I read a lot about the social and art history of the region, looked at paintings, and used Google maps and moved through the city, parts of which have barely changed since the 17th century!

I had the fictional skeleton of the novel in my head, but certain facts, like what pie they might have eaten and in what season, or the debts accrued with a tailor, or draconian citizenship policies, or the type of dog an Amsterdammer might have favored, would trigger my imagination and root the story in a factual, yet still impressionistic, setting. The facts that I learned allowed me to play. The priority was the story. Sometimes I conflated real-life events, sometimes I adhered to them in their chronological order. Other times, I rebelled, because it's a novel. I let imagination take control.

Did you ever have a dollhouse?

I did. When I was a child, I had a Sylvanian Families one, with little woodland animals instead of dolls. I adored it. I had a whole world--a nursery, a school, a shop, an ice-cream cart, a house... it was perfect.

The owners of the actual cabinet house--Nella Oortman and her wealthy, merchant husband, Johannes Brandt--are characters in the novel. How much of their lives is historically accurate and how much was invented? Were any other characters based on actual people?

Very little is based on actual lives. I was more interested in the object of the dollhouse as the inspirational springboard. I invented the ages of Nella and Johannes, the fact that it was Nella's first marriage and her rural upbringing. The novel is all invention except for their names, the historical setting and the fact that Nella owned the dollhouse. All the other characters are invented, too, but their presence has been inspired by many portraits and paintings I studied from that time.

Are there any characters in the novel to whom you feel a strong affinity/dislike?

I feel very deeply for Marin, Petronella's sister-in-law. She took me by surprise. Initially, she was supposed to be a sort of obstacle to Nella, and not much more, but then I realized how complicated and strong she was, how capable she was of love. I have no dislike of any of my characters. They all have their crosses to bear.

There are strong feminist overtones in the novel. Was it always your intention to build that platform into the storyline or did those aspects evolve through the writing?

I had no agenda nor pre-orchestrated intentions. My female characters are just who they are. If a male writer puts strength, color and adventure in the hands of his male characters, he is not asked if he is pursuing an agenda. Many people assume that what he's doing is the norm, because that is the overarching dominating history of Western literature--books by male writers portraying the male experience as universal, even when they're writing women characters. I am female, and it is quite normal for me to give the universal themes to my female protagonists. I didn't think twice.

Did you carefully plot out the novel before undertaking to write it?

I didn't know before I started writing what was going to happen in every chapter, but I had images in my mind--scenes, conversations, ideas I wanted to explore. I had a vague arc with a beginning and an end, and was always jotting down instructions to myself like, 'this has to happen--but where?' Gradually, through the long process, things all started slotting into place. But the process was not obvious.

Why did you choose to write the narrative in the present tense?

I chose the present tense to ratchet up the tension. The book takes place over three months, and I wanted readers to really feel they were seeing all this through Nella's eyes.

The story is visually rich and would certainly lend itself well to a TV or film adaption. Any prospects?

Thank you! On that subject, my lips are sealed!

You've been an actress in Britain for many years. Have you found any similarities between acting and writing?

I have always written--short stories, sketches, poetry. And writing has always gone hand in hand with my acting....The pursuit of a creative career is fraught with high expectations and disappointment... but I think acting and writing are actually very different. Acting works when the actors on stage are all in harmony with each other--it's communal, a mutual concerto, it's about listening and sharing. But writing is so solitary--you are ALL the actors, the director, the producer making sure you turn up for work... it's impossible for me to compare them as they use different parts of who I am.

Are you writing a second book? If so, will it be another historical novel?

Yes. My next book is set in Spain in 1937 and London, 1967. It is about identity and belonging, the chaos of war, missing bodies, an art theft, an unusual friendship and a woman who isn't who she says she is. That's all I can say for now! --Kathleen Gerard

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Candy

Murakami Time; Stunning Writing Studios

The Week featured "your literary playlist: a guide to the music of Haruki Murakami," noting: "At times, reading Murakami's work can feel like flipping through his legendarily expansive record collection." Or you can test your Murakami 1Q with the Guardian's quiz.


Because "even the smallest fact can change the course of the future," Buzzfeed shared "34 facts you probably didn't know about the Lord of the Rings trilogy."


"What should I read next? It is not a casual question. We are not frogs. We are chasing something more profound than flies. Every time I finish a book and consider what to read now, it feels... important," wrote Sonya Chung in an essay for the Millions headlined "On the Nightstand: On Deciding What to Read Next."


Slate "translated these 12 famous first lines from novels into emojis. Can you name them?"


Noting that "it seems natural that writers usually yearn for their own private sanctuaries," Flavorwire toured "10 stunning writing studios."


"Magic bookcase makes itself in neat stop-motion video," Sploid promised.

Book Review


Heroes Are My Weakness

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Susan Elizabeth Phillips (The Great Escape), loved by fans for her trademark sense of humor and brusque heroes, goes a shade darker in this modern-day gothic delight.

Down-on-her-luck puppeteer Annie takes refuge at Moonraker Cottage on Peregrine Island, planning to gather her thoughts over the long Maine winter in the remote home her mother left her. However, her plans are quickly upset by Theo Harp, bestselling horror author and owner of Harp House, the mansion that looms over Annie's cottage. After a dangerous and demented prank Theo pulled on her when they were teens, Annie will never believe he's anything but a psychopath. Theo wants Moonraker Cottage as his studio, so when Annie finds the place trashed, Theo's her first suspect. But when he tries to protect her as the incidents escalate, Annie's accusations lose steam and her attraction to him grows. The question of whether Theo has changed (or has a different perspective on their long-past conflict) is wrapped up in a more frightening problem: if Theo isn't the one attacking her, who is?

Phillips serves up a contemporary Jane Eyre with a helping of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Her keen eye doesn't miss the elements that make both stories perennial favorites: the struggling but plucky heroine, the powerful man who might be hero or villain, the secret tragedy waiting at the core of the story. She balances these heavier components with her usual humor, largely provided by the puppets, from which Annie imagines running commentary. Phillips's hot winter nights will have readers happily anticipating the cooler seasons ahead. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A contemporary tribute to the gothic romance--with a few laughs along the way--from a powerhouse romance writer.

Morrow, $26.99, hardcover, 9780062106070

Lock In

by John Scalzi

Haden's syndrome results from a virus that can, in 1% of the cases, "lock in" its victims, leaving them conscious and aware in a body that can no longer move or respond at all. In the 25 years since the virus first appeared, a culture has risen around these victims; these paralyzed people are now able to control robotic bodies remotely (called "threeps," after Star Wars' famous golden droid) and live productive lives.

Newly minted FBI agent Chris Shane is one of those affected by the disease. When his threep stumbles across a complicated murder at the Watergate Hotel involving an "integrator"--a human whose body can be taken over in the same way a threep can--there's no telling how far up the political food chain the evidence may lead. His veteran partner, Leslie Vann, is no slouch, but it will take their combined talents and life experiences to get to the bottom of the murder and the high-level corporate and governmental players who may be behind it all.

Science-fiction writer John Scalzi (Redshirts; Old Man's War) again proves his facility with both world building and character, this time in a near-future tale heavily influenced by police-procedural fiction and speculation into human-computer interface technology. Scalzi never belabors his point, nor does he hit readers over the head with the issues he explores. Rather, Lock In is compelling and fresh, offering a smart take on medical ethics, prejudice and the corrupting power of the corporate world. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A near-future world in which paralyzed people can control both robotic and human body doubles, making an unusual murder even trickier to solve.

Tor, $24.99, hardcover, 9780765375865

Mystery & Thriller

The Furies

by Natalie Haynes

Grieving after the violent death of her fiancé, theater director Alex Morris leaves London for Edinburgh to take a job at a last-resort school for troubled teens. Not much has previously engaged these kids, but Alex gradually connects with them by teaching the Theban plays--starting with Oedipus the King--and the role of fate in life.

As the class reads more and delves further into themes of revenge, Alex is unaware that one of her students may be taking the subject matter too seriously and wants to incorporate it into real life. She recognizes her student's obsession too late when she witnesses a shocking incident. Could Alex be blamed for not preventing it, or worse, encouraging it with her lessons?

The Furies may be British author Natalie Haynes's debut novel, but as she demonstrated in The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, she can write with an assured hand about the Greeks. Readers get a refresher course on the classics via the students, who have funny reactions to all the twisted tragedy, using flippancy to disguise their growing interest.

The story alternates between scenes of Alex in a lawyer's office and flashbacks to reveal how and why she ended up there. Guessing what happened isn't hard if the reader is already familiar with Greek mythology and the significance of this novel's title (published as The Amber Fury in England); the narrative doesn't surprise much in that aspect. But the characters are worth getting to know, all broken people trying to escape their own tragic lives. And, unlike traditional Greek tales, the ending offers a glimmer of hope. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: A grieving teacher and her troubled students in a modern-day Greek tragedy.

St. Martin's Press, $25.99, hardcover, 9781250048004

Strange Shores

by Arnaldur Indridason, trans. by Victoria Cribb

Arnaldur Indridason (Black Skies) takes a departure from his usual Reykjavik setting in Strange Shores, his ninth Inspector Erlendur mystery. The cast of regular secondary characters is thus completely missing, so readers are treated to a close-up of Erlendur himself--with his cigarettes and obsessions and stubborn tenacity.

Erlendur, who periodically returns to the village of his childhood, is camping out in the ruins of his former home. All his life he's been haunted by the disappearance of his brother, Beggi, who vanished into a blizzard at age eight. Erlendur, age 10 at the time, has always felt responsible for losing his grasp on Beggi's hand.

This loss has created a lifelong obsession with missing people, and spurs Erlendur unofficially to investigate a woman who went missing during World War II. Matthildur also vanished into a storm, and local rumors have ranged from suicide to accident to murder at the hands of her ne'er-do-well husband. Erlendur makes the rounds among the village's elderly, asking questions, reading old letters and seeking closure for both Matthildur's family and himself.

Erlendur's painstaking re-creation of the final weeks of Matthildur's life is a testament both to his dedication and to long memories in small towns, especially those in Iceland. While very different from the rest of the Erlendur series, this mystery is a fantastic addition. Its slow pace and apparently idle beginnings mask dark secrets and a chilling crime. Eerie, even agonizing at times, Strange Shores brilliantly illustrates the haunting power of the past. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: Inspector Erlendur investigates the chilling mystery of a woman who vanished into an Icelandic blizzard 60 years ago.

St. Martin's Minotaur, $25.99, hardcover, 9781250000408

The Phantom Coach: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Ghost Stories

by Michael Sims, editor

In the introduction to The Phantom Coach, editor Michael Sims (The Dead Witness; Dracula's Guest) explores why modern readers are still so entranced by classic tales from beyond the grave, writing, "the protagonists face the great chilling fact of human life: that it's brief, linear, and moves toward the grave as swiftly as an arrow. Ghost stories permit us to peek behind the shroud." Sims's chosen Victorian works do just that, ranging among topics such as lost children, lingering family spirits and haunted boating expeditions.

Sims's collection features a dozen authors, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and Amelia Edwards, with many lesser-known and infrequently anthologized pieces in place of more commonly known works from the era. Sims introduces each story with a brief background on the author, notes about how the ghost story fits into the author's oeuvre and, where relevant, how the story relates to the others in the collection (Dickens, for example, edited several of the tales found here for his periodicals Household Words and All the Year Round). The pieces, arranged in chronological order, span the Victorian era, pulled from as early as 1852 and as late as 1907. Combined into one volume, these 12 stories give readers an excellent entry point into the spooky literature of the Victorian era--a time marked by a fascination with death and dying. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A thoughtfully arranged collection of ghost stories from the Victorian era.

Bloomsbury, $17, paperback, 9781620408056

The Iron Sickle

by Martin Limon

An unusually tall Korean man with a deformed lip enters the U.S. Army Claims Office in Seoul, requests to see the civilian boss and slices the man's throat with an iron sickle concealed inside his overcoat. The murderer escapes amid the ensuing pandemonium. The next night, when the mysterious, sickle-wielding Korean man assassinates an American MP in a neighborhood just outside the army compound and escapes unnoticed again, the stakes become greater.

Army Criminal Investigation Division agents George Sueño and Ernie Bascom aren't assigned to the case until Korean National Police Inspector Gil Kwon-up, aka Mr. Kill, requests them for the joint investigation. The maverick partners dig into the evidence, but what they uncover is certain to earn them enemies on all sides and, very possibly, make them the next targets for the elusive killer.

In The Iron Sickle, a post-Korean war crime story, Martin Limón (Mr. Kill; G.I. Bones) engages readers by blending Korean history, lore and geography with a tightly developed plot. His descriptions of war horrors are memorably disturbing without being gratuitously graphic. And Sueño and Bascom are a fascinating pair who add occasional levity without overshadowing the gravity of the novel's subject matter. The plot features several characters from prior novels, allowing regular series readers a bit more insight into the relationships previously forged; however, readers new to Sueño and Bascom should have no trouble following the story on its own.

Limón uses Korean (which he then translates) throughout the novel, which may momentarily pull some readers out of the story, but the momentum of the plot will certainly right their course. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: U.S. Army CID agents George Sueño and Ernie Bascom investigate two unusual murders in this post-Korean War series.

Soho Crime, $26.95, hardcover, 9781616953911

Biography & Memoir

Worn Stories

by Emily Spivack

Emily Spivack's fascination with the past lives of clothing led her to create a website,, on which she collects "sartorial memoirs" from friends, family, acquaintances, celebrities and everyday strangers. Now her book, Worn Stories, assembles those accounts. They are short, and generally recorded as told to Spivack but are occasionally written by the contributor. Each brief narrative is accompanied by a photograph of the item, against a white background, adorned at most by a clothes hanger. The text describes how the speaker came to own the article, or what took place in and around it that made it worth keeping--sometimes for decades. A dress, a pair of shoes, a hat or accessory conveys an emotion or an experience: love, loss, accomplishment. They may symbolize a place or a time in a life, or remind us of what we don't want to forget.

These vignettes are at turns hilarious (humorist John Hodgman's long-sought Ayn Rand dress or trucking manager Pamela Jones's party dress), silly (reporter Jenna Wortham's sequined top) and poignant (creative ambassador Simon Doonan's Lycra shorts or writer/bartender Kelly Jones's tie-dyed wrap skirt). Some have historical significance: Holocaust survivor Dorothy Finger had an ill-fitting suit made from a piece of wool fabric that was the only thing she saved from her life in Poland.

Spivack speaks directly to her reader only in a brief introduction. The collection of contributors' reports forms a whole that is entertaining, thoughtful and loving of the universal tales we have to tell about the garments we carry through our lives. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A meditative collection of short, accessible memoirs documenting the meaning of clothing.

Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95, hardcover, 9781616892760


Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad

by Brian A. Catlos

Popular conceptions about the role of religion in the Middle Ages take two basic forms. One version looks at the medieval world in terms of crusade, jihad and pogrom: a violent collision between mutually intolerant communities of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, with long-term consequences for the modern world. The alternate vision, popularized in works such as María Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World and focused on medieval Spain, is that of La Convivencia--a culture of mutual tolerance and reason. In Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors, religious historian Brian A. Catlos (The Victors and the Vanquished) convincingly argues that neither interpretation adequately addresses the shifting political, economic and religious alliances of the Mediterranean world from 1050 to 1200.

Catlos looks at the complex relationship between politics and religious identity in the medieval Mediterranean through the stories of men who straddled communal boundaries in pursuit of power. Muslim and Christian kings made alliances against common enemies. Latin Christians went on crusade against other Christians. Sunni Muslims declared jihad against Shiites. Jews served as governors, generals and administrators in both Muslim and Christian kingdoms--and in one case came close to ruling a Muslim state. Mercenary warriors, including the legendary El Cid, switched sides whenever it was in their own interest.

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors is a fascinating and complex account of diversity, collaboration and conflict in the period when medieval Christianity met the Islamic golden age. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: Realpolitik in the medieval Mediterranean.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28, hardcover, 9780809058372


Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto

by Steve Almond

Those who don't care for the U.S.'s favorite fall sport might be inclined to pick up Steve Almond's Against Football, looking for validation of their position. Those who love the sport may be drawn in by its subtitle, One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, for similar reasons. Almond's power lies in his ability to speak to both readers.

Almond (Not That You Asked; Candyfreak) states that he's loved football all his life--playing the game, following it, bonding with father and brothers and friends over it--but he can no longer watch it in good conscience. This collection of essays, reflections and arguments is his attempt to reconcile the sport's appeal and allure ("in its exalted moments, [it] is not just a sport, but a lovely and intricate work of art") with its undeniably problematic aspects. The brutality and violence of the play is the most obvious issue, but Almond also addresses the culture surrounding football, commenting on its tolerance, if not outright cultivation, of homophobia, racism, greed and other undesirable attitudes.

Is it right that an activity proven to cause irreversible physical and mental damage is promoted to boys and young men as a viable career path? How do athletic scholarships support the educational mission of universities? Why does reverence for football players' skills seem to give them a pass for sometimes-criminal behavior off the field? None of these questions are easily answered, but healthy debate is what Almond is after here. Opinionated and provocative, Against Football may be a "reluctant manifesto," but it proves the author is passionately interested in starting a conversation. --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

Discover: The struggle of a lifelong football fan to come to terms with the disturbing, unsavory aspects of the game he still loves.

Melville House, $22.95, hardcover, 9781612194158

Children's & Young Adult


by Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier (Smile) once again mines her family history with humor and compassion, for this graphic novel memoir that centers on a road trip.

Mom, Raina, and her two siblings, Amara and Will, pack up the family van, which they'll drive from California to Colorado for Raina's mother's family reunion. Daddy will fly out to meet them. When Raina points out that her mother doesn't get along with her siblings, Amara takes that as a cue to pick a fight with Raina. "Why did I ever ask for a sister?" Raina asks herself in a thought balloon. Telgemeier segues into a memory in which she begged for a sister; she neatly signals the flashback with yellow-tinged frames around the comic strip panels, the start of a pattern. Once again, Telgemeier gets all the tempos of family life just right: arguments metamorphose into laughter; alliances shift from sisters versus brother, to Amara and Will versus Raina, and so on. Additional flashbacks explain Raina's fear of snakes (a key plot element when Amara gets one as a pet), Will's arrival and their father losing his job. This last develops especially effectively, as Telgemeier explores in a dream sequence--shrouded in purple--her feelings of fear and her need for reassurance.

Telgemeier's willingness to lay bare her vulnerabilities as a 14-year-old (including a scene of her cousins making fun of her teddy bear) will strengthen readers who also struggle to get along with their siblings and to act more "grown up." --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Another graphic novel chapter in the talented Raina Telgemeier's family history, presented with her usual humor and compassion.

Graphix, $24.99, hardcover, 208p., ages 8-12, 9780545540599; $10.99 paperback 9780545540605

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes

by Nicola Davies, illus. by Emily Sutton

For curious minds and budding scientists, this introduction makes the giant job of minuscule microbes understandable and fascinating. The work of a microbe may be good or bad, from a human perspective, as author and artist aptly demonstrate.

In Emily Sutton's illustration on the title page, two siblings sail on the sea with their cat while a school of small fish swims below. "You know about big animals, and you know about small animals..." begins Nicola Davies's (Outside Your Window) text; a killer whale dwarfs the boat, and above the horizon an ant walks on a tree limb. Everything gels with a turn of the page: "but do you know that there are creatures so tiny that millions could fit on this ant's antenna?" The ant's antenna is enlarged "as big as a whale" so that readers can see the microbes residing there. "Right now there are more microbes living on your skin than there are people on Earth," Davies tells us, followed quickly by a "Don't worry!" and an explanation of how microbes residing inside and outside of our bodies keep us well. The book gives examples of the different shapes and sizes of microbes, and their role in breaking down food into compost and milk into yogurt.

Brother and sister model how germs ("the wrong kind of microbes") make you sick and how to "stop them from getting in." This is a fine introduction to a microscopic world. Those who wish to know more may enjoy It's Catching by Jennifer Gardy. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A fascinating introduction to the microscopic creatures that do big things--both good and bad, from a human perspective.

Candlewick, $15.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 5-8, 9780763673154

Hug Machine

by Scott Campbell

With his overlong arms, wide eyes, and red boots that match his shirt's stripes, the narrator of Scott Campbell's (Zombie in Love) enchanting picture book announces his arrival from a hilltop: "Whoa! Here I come! I am the Hug Machine!"

He hugs his deadpan mother, father and older sister as he explains, "No one can resist my unbelievable hugging. I am the Hug Machine!" The charm of the book lies in the pictures' contrast with the Hug Machine's running commentary. He embraces a policeman, elderly gardener, businessman and musician, who all wear the same straight-man expression as his family members. The Hug Machine demonstrates opposites: "My hugs make the biggest feel small," he says, encircling a tall bear, and "the smallest feel big," as he snuggles a turtle. He hugs soft things (a lamb) and hard things (a large stone). His greatest success comes with a crying baby, who smiles when hugged: "Hug accomplished!" says our hero, as the page turns pink with rays that suggest a flashing light. That success leads to others: a porcupine ("I am so spiky. No one ever hugs me"), for which he dons protective gear, and a blue whale ("Surely I am too big for you to hug"), which requires a ladder. Campbell's blue and green tones for the recipients make the match up with the predominant reds of the Hug Machine's attire seem inevitable.

Campbell ends on a human and humorous note: even Hug Machines need refueling--and also to be hugged. Guaranteed to start a hugging frenzy. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A charming picture book about a boy who's unabashedly affectionate--infectiously so.

Atheneum/S&S, $16.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9781442459359


Author Buzz

The Wild Card
(A Rivers Wilde Novella)

by Dylan Allen

Dear Reader,

"What if…?" is my favorite question to ask myself when I start writing a book. The answers that Cassie and Leo's story delivered were unexpected and heartwarming. Adding a heist and serendipitous reunion into the mix took my tried and true favorite trope, second chance, to a whole new level. Theirs is a classic case of right person/wrong time. Whether you're a Rivers Wilde newbie or expert, watching them overcome some pretty steep hurdles is a wild, thrilling, feel good ride.

I hope you love every word. xo,

Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: The Wild Card (A Rivers Wilde Novella) by Dylan Allen

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
January 16, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book


Kids Buzz

Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night

by Steven J. Simmons and Clifford R. Simmons
illus. by Ruth E. Harper

Dear Reader,

My newest and latest in a three-book series, Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night?, came from seeing the fascination so many kids have with the ocean and ocean creatures. How do a whale, octopus, dolphin, clownfish, great white shark and so many other undersea animals get their rest?

After all, they need to get their rest and sleep, just like all of us. So dive into this rhyming STEM picture book to encourage a love of nature and the environment--and under the covers for a great bedtime story.

"What do animals do when children are sleeping? Featuring creatures young children are likely to know, this book has the answers....[and] unusual nighttime facts are a plus." --Kirkus

Steve Simmons

KidsBuzz: Charlesbridge: Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night? by Steven J. Simmons and Clifford R. Simmons, illus. by Ruth E. Harper


Pub Date: 
April 16, 2024


Type of Book:
Picture Book

Age Range: 

List Price: 
$17.99 Hardcover

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