Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, September 19, 2014

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

From My Shelf

This Is Where I Leave You

Jonathan Tropper, the internationally bestselling author of the novels Plan BThe Book of Joe, Everything ChangesHow to Talk to a Widower, This Is Where I Leave You and One Last Thing Before I Go, is one of the Shelf staff's favorite authors, and we have been eagerly awaiting the film version of This Is Where I Leave You (Plume, $16 paperback), released today. The movie trailer promises all the wit mixed with family tension we've come to expect from his books, and Jason Bateman is the perfect actor to bring to life one of Tropper's deftly limned male characters.

In How to Talk to a Widower, Doug Parker is widowed at 29, stuck in suburbia with overwhelming grief and an equally grieving 15-year-old stepson, Russ. Our review said, "How Doug and Russ come to terms with [death and sorrow and rage] unfolds with humor and sadness in this marvelous novel, where grief is examined in its myriad forms. A bittersweet story well told with depth and charm." We also reviewed One Last Thing Before I Go: "Tropper... scores again [with] a sharp and very funny study in dysfunctionality and middle-age crisis in a time of economic chaos and collapsing hope."

In our interview with him, Tropper said that he's "always created characters for whom redemption was a distinct possibility. [In One Last Thing] I wanted to write about someone who is already past the point where he can correct his mistakes, [and] see what redemption looks like when it doesn't physically fix anything." All of the families he's written about have been called "dysfunctional" in reviews, but he has generally disagreed. My feeling is, any family in which the family members will be there for each other at those key moments of need is not a dysfunctional family, no matter how much they may not get along. He wants people to be both moved and entertained, "to reflect on their own lives and relationships." We expect the new movie to do just that. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

Sleeping Bear Press: When You Go Into Nature by Sheri M Bestor, Illustrated by Sydney Hanson

The Writer's Life

William Alexander: Flirter avec le français

William Alexander is a journalist, memoirist and author of The $64 Dollar Tomato and 52 Loaves of Bread. In his new book, Flirting with French (our review is below), Alexander regales readers with anecdote after anecdote about the trials of mid-life language learning, while offering a crash course in the current science of second-language acquisition, the history of France (and the French language), and even a helpful flowchart guiding us through the labyrinthine social rules which govern the use of the French pronouns tu and vous.

Obviously, learning French has been on your mind for some time. Were you always intending to write the book that Flirting with French became? In what ways did the project change over time?

It's hard to fathom now, and I feel foolish confessing this, but my original proposal for Flirting (working title: My Fair Frenchman) was that I, like Eliza Doolittle, would master enough of the language in only six months (or nine months at most, I stated), to "join French society," by which I meant hanging out in cafés and attending parties at which I'd join in on discussions on French politics and philosophy. (I wasn't starting from scratch; I'd had four years of French some 40 years earlier.) I fully expected to write a tale of triumph and fluency, not of failure and incoherence.

Why do you think that France holds so much romantic appeal for Americans? Why don't we feel the same way about Madrid or London as we do about Paris?

My theory is that Ernest Hemingway planted the seed of this idealized image of Parisian bonhomie and café life in The Sun Also Rises, and Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron watered it with An American in Paris. Not to mention all those GIs returning from the wars with their tales of free love and French kissing. But there truly is something special about Paris, bisected by the Seine and anchored by the Eiffel Tower. How can you not love a city whose openly gay and openly socialist mayor turns the banks of the Seine into a beach every summer? That boasts a boulangerie on every corner? Whose broad avenues are lined with outdoor cafés, where for the price of a single drink, you can linger all day? Where hidden pocket parks, fountains and statues abound? In sum, it's a very civilized place, from the architecture to art to the food, and I think Americans respond to that.

You had a terrible experience with French in high school. What are your thoughts now, after returning to language study as an adult? Should all children be exposed to a second language in school?

Without a doubt, all American children should receive second-language instruction in school (just not from my teacher, the sadistic Madame D---), and the younger they start, the more success they'll have. Besides the obvious cultural reasons to learn a foreign language, and the importance of broadening young (and old) minds, the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are finally coming to be recognized. And those benefits carry far beyond childhood. A recent study found that the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's occurs, on average, three years later among bilinguals than in monolinguals. If you teach foreign language properly in elementary and secondary school, you don't need to require that students continue it in college--that advanced study can be reserved for those who want to pursue foreign studies or, for example, read Proust in French. Although reading Proust in English is hard enough.

You mention Camus, Proust and Molière, among other French writers. As a writer and reader yourself, have you ever tried to read French literature in the original? How has studying the language changed your view of the many French translations you've read?

In fact, one of my motivations for learning French was to be able to read the classics in the original. But when I tried, I ran into an unexpected obstacle that no one had warned me about: the passé simple. This past tense, while little used today, was once used universally in written French, while the common passé composé, which is what all French-language students learn, was reserved for spoken French. That's right, the French have two past tenses: one for formally written, one for spoken French. And the passé simple often has inscrutable conjugations, which makes reading Balzac très difficile. (Plus you need to have a really extensive vocabulary to read even Le Petit Prince.) That being said, I was thrilled that I succeeded in reading Jean-Paul Sartre's short play The Reluctant Prostitute in the original, with the help of an English-language version and a French-English dictionary. Reading it in French reveals just how much you miss in translation. For example, the play opens with a man at the door of a prostitute. He addresses her as vous, while she uses the informal tu with him. This brought me to a dead stop. I thought I knew something about the informal, but who would call a prostitute vous while being called tu? A Noir (black man), that's who. Just think of all the social nuances that have been lost in the English translation of both vous and tu to "you," including the critical piece of information that a black man was on a lower social rung than a prostitute. Additionally, it wasn't until I learned some French that I realized how many words are left out of subtitles. Sometimes I'm able to catch the additional dialogue, and while it may not be critical to the plot, there is definitely something lost in the truncation and translation. It's akin to listening to Beethoven over AM radio. I shudder to think how some of the great dialogue from American films gets condensed in foreign releases. Did Rhett Butler's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," become simply "Je ne m'inquiète pas" in France?

You experienced some very serious health problems while writing the book. In what ways is this a book about aging and midlife in addition to being a book about language?

While my health issues certainly didn't make things any easier, they're not an excuse. Let's face it, I wasn't going to learn French in any event. But for me, the issues of health and aging and challenging your brain are inseparable. The (wholly self-induced) pressure to learn French may well have contributed to my heart irregularities; likewise, my intense study seems to have reversed some of my previous cognitive declines due to aging, so by necessity it's a book about all three issues. Early drafts left out the heart irregularities and my brush with la mort entirely, because it was something I didn't particularly care to discuss or revisit, and certainly not capitalize on, but the book seemed incomplete without it--as if I'd held something back. Because, well, I did. So in the end, with the encouragement of my editor, Amy Gash, I included it, and aside from it completing the story, I'm hoping that people with similar heart arrhythmias will get something from it.

How did this experience compare to writing The $64 Tomato and 52 Loaves?

A friend of mine described Flirting as The $64 Tomato with Frenchmen instead of groundhogs. Honestly, I was totally surprised when the first jacket blurbs and reviews came in using descriptions like "hilarious." At the time, trying to learn French didn't seem so funny. While all three books share the characteristics of being part memoir and part research, part humorous and part serious, Flirting and 52 Loaves were created in a drastically different fashion from Tomato, which was written retrospectively, and without a publisher, agent or editor. I define "innocence" as not having a book contract.

Do you have a favorite moment from your year of French that didn't make it into the book?

The hardest "French moment" to leave on the cutting-room floor was a chapter about my visit to the Frenchiest Town in America: Madawaska, Maine, about a hundred miles farther north than Montreal, where, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, a remarkable 83% of its families spoke French as their first language. Learning about the twice-exiled French settlers known as the Acadians, the attempts of the Maine KKK (which boasted a larger membership than Mississippi!) to rid Maine of French, and the current struggle of the ninth- and 10th-generation descendents to hang onto their heritage and language is a fascinating and poignant story, but Flirting just wasn't the right place to tell it. C'est la vie! --Emma Page, bookseller at Island Books, Mercer Island, Wash.

Book Candy

Regency Costume Record; Literary Tats

Last Saturday, 550 "suitably attired" fans at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, reclaimed the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people dressed in Regency costume, BBC News reported.


"24 literary text tattoos inspired by moving words from books" were highlighted by Bustle, which noted that it "isn't surprising that so many people have chosen to use their bodies to pay homage to their most-loved words from lit."


Emma Carroll, author of The Girl Who Walked on Air, chose her "top 10 circus books" for the Guardian.


Charles Barkowski, of course. Extending an invitation to "unleash your inner J.K. Growling," Buzzfeed showcased "22 literary pun names for your dog."


Flavorwire ventured into "10 experimental novels that are worth the effort."


Architecture & Design peeked behind "14 secret bookcase doors, always fun and always mysterious."

Book Review


Cry Father

by Benjamin Whitmer

Benjamin Whitmer (Pike) stands squarely in that "rural noir" sub-genre niche of tweakers and trigger-happy drunks worked so effectively by Larry Brown and Rick Gavin. Whitmer's Cry Father is an accomplished, swaggering tale of battered-but-still-striving men living in the no-man's land of southeast Colorado. It's a male-centric story of fathers and sons whose women are "merely" ex-wives, girlfriends, baby mamas and nursemaids. Nonetheless, Whitmer hardly needs them to tell his often-violent story of men hanging on to whatever slivers of redemption they can find.

Patterson Wells is an itinerant tree trimmer called in after tornadoes, floods and other natural disasters to clear power lines and occasionally pull bodies out of the debris. With his dog and a bottle of bourbon, he jumps in his truck to cash in on calamity wherever it turns up before sleepwalking home to his rudimentary cabin in the San Luis Valley. After his young son Justin's death from a botched surgery, the divorced Patterson clings precariously to the companionship of his dog, his still-sympathetic ex-wife and his neighbor Henry--a broke-down, recovering alcoholic and former rodeo bull rider. It's a life, but not much of one. When Henry's drug-running son Junior shows up from Denver to rail against the once-absent, abusive father he thinks screwed up his life, Patterson's marginally tolerable life takes a turn for the worse.

In a misguided attempt to protect Henry, Patterson gets sucked into Junior's fast and loose life, and in Junior's turbulent wake, Patterson learns to accept his own failings as a father, husband and friend. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A first-rate addition to the canon of "rural noir" storytelling.

Gallery Books, $25, hardcover, 9781476734354

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales

by Margaret Atwood

In her first story collection since 2006's Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood brings readers nine narratives that concentrate on relationships, revenge and the gradual decline of the human body and mind in old age. In classic Atwood style, each piece is full of succinct, descriptive prose that nails an image. In the opening lines from the first story, "Alphinland," we learn that Constance is old, alone and faced with the prospect of venturing out in an ice storm. Atwood describes the freezing rain as "handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Whenever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. In the streetlight, it looks so beautiful: like fairy silver." As Constance watches the weather, she resents the high-definition television that shows "the pores, the wrinkles, the nose hairs, the impossibly whitened teeth shoved right up in front of your eyes so you can't ignore them the way you would in real life."

"Alphinland" is connected to the next two stories via a tangled love story among several characters; the remaining tales stand alone. Regardless of the setting, in each, Atwood illustrates the kindness or viciousness of human beings. Although the themes and topics Atwood addresses are not new--alcohol, sex, love, money, fame, drugs, death, obituaries, extramarital affairs and even a possible vampire--as always, her perspective is bright and energetic. She firmly grasps the human condition in all its ragged, aging splendor and delivers yet another exceptional addition to her already extensive collection of classics to be read and cherished. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: The many layers of the human psyche and the body's physical condition, all revealed in definitive Atwood style.

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $25.95, hardcover, 9780385539128

Crazy Horse's Girlfriend

by Erika T. Wurth

In her debut novel, Erika T. Wurth drops readers into an underworld of drug-using teens and abusive parents and explores life among mixed-race families who are trying to eke out a living off the reservation. Margaritte is a 16-year-old pot smoker who turns to dealing drugs with her cousin Jake, so the two can save up enough money to get the heck out of Idaho Springs, Colo. What unfolds for Margaritte, Jake and the rest of her family is revealed in spunky, fast-paced prose full of expletives and sharp details that snap and crackle.

Barely making passing grades in school, Margaritte sneaks out her bedroom window to attend weekend parties where drugs and alcohol are readily available, to sell drugs with Jake and to spend time with her new boyfriend, Mike. What she longs for is freedom from her messed-up surroundings, and she vows not to become stuck like so many other teen girls she knows: pregnant and living on welfare. But as often happens, Margaritte slips down the rabbit hole, along with Jake and Mike. The three fall into conventional roles, but Wurth's portrayal of these characters breathes new life into quasi-stereotypical parts as she splatters the heartfelt emotions and the inner conflicts of this trio of teens across the page. Powerful in its sentiments, Crazy Horse's Girlfriend brings a dose of much-needed diversity to the world of fiction. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: A young girl, entangled in the drug world, struggles to escape her surroundings before they swallow her whole.

Curbside Splendor Publishing, $15.95, paperback, 9781940430430

A Distant Father

by Antonio Skármeta, trans. by John Cullen

Jacques, the narrator of Antonio Skármeta's A Distant Father, is the anemic 21-year-old schoolmaster in Contulmo, an isolated village in southern Chile where the inhabitants are all "secondary figures, not protagonists." He has bronchitis from smoking cheap cigarettes and lives with his mother near the mill. Unfortunately, on the same day that Jacques returned to the village with his teaching certificate, his father disappeared.

Jacques continues his absent father's friendship with the miller, who knows the missing man better than his own family does and mysteriously offers to take Jacques to his first whorehouse, in the larger, neighboring town of Angol. While there, Jacques also hopes to buy a birthday present for a student of his--a boy whose 17-year-old girl has set her heart on the young professor. Out of this slightly raunchy setup, Skármeta skillfully builds his simple drama.

Unexpectedly, when the schoolmaster gets to Angol, not only does he discover a soft-hearted whore in the whorehouse, he also finds his missing father outside the movie theater. He's become the town projectionist, but that's only the first surprise for his son. And when the young professor finally arrives at his student's climactic birthday party, the gathering is life-changing for more than just Jacques.

All of Skármeta's literary effects are achieved with simple elements and swift, economic strokes; characters are established in only a few words. At 105 pages, told in ultra-short chapters, this is a cunning little novella that pulls off surprising emotional wallops. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: A cinematic story about a young Chilean professor who discovers his long-lost father in the neighboring village, from the author of Il Postino.

Other Press, $15.95, hardcover, 9781590516256

Love Me Back

by Merritt Tierce

Love Me Back stands at the crossroads of beauty and brutality. Tenderhearted readers ought to proceed with caution, though the literary critics among us will likely commit several choice sentences to memory. Merritt Tierce's prose is that sharp, and her keen eye for human frailty and resilience is that laser-focused.

Marie, the protagonist of Tierce's debut novel, waits tables at a string of restaurants, beginning at an Olive Garden and ending at a Dallas steakhouse where $100 tips are commonplace. Hers is a messy ascent, and through her series of foibles, the reader begins to see the inescapable cycle in which she's trapped. Tierce filters most of Marie's life through a few lenses: tawdry hookups in restaurant parking lots; forays with lascivious customers and their drugs; piercing moments of regret during brief visits with her daughter, who lives with Marie's ex. Tally up these traumas, self-inflicted or otherwise, and the story serves as an extended allegory for the ways in which industry servitude takes a deep psychological toll. Tierce makes Marie's life so tragic that readers might wish they could intervene, to break the cycle of choices--like self-mutilation and degrading sex--that seem as rote to Marie as polishing silverware.

It's fruitless to search for hope in Love Me Back, but readers looking for poignant, unadorned prose will find it in spades. It's not this story's brutality that lends it gravity--it's the way in which Marie is revealed to the reader, a tortured soul as real and nuanced as any living woman. --Linnie Greene, freelance writer and bookseller at Flyleaf Books

Discover: A brutal, beautiful glimpse at the seedy underbelly of the restaurant industry and the toll it takes on one young woman.

Doubleday, $23.95, hardcover, 9780385538077

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Last Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection

by Jay Lake

Last Plane to Heaven is the final book of short stories from science-fiction author Jay Lake, who passed away from cancer in June 2014. This posthumously published collection is full of weird tales, far-out speculative fiction and solid steampunk stories, with a foreword by Lake's favorite sci-fi grandmaster, Gene Wolfe.

The stories are grouped in sub-genres (steampunk, science-fiction, fantasy, weird fiction), and all are rather experimental in both tone and form, highlighting Lake's fantastic talent in a variety of styles.

"Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story" explores the nature of consciousness and how we might come to love aliens who may need to use our own sanity to communicate. "Hello, Said the Gun" is a shorter story of a sentient weapon and its long wait for a young girl to find it. There are several pieces about angels: archetypal, sarcastic, terrifying.

The book ends with "The Cancer Catechism," about the disease that ultimately claimed Lake's life. He knew this would be his last book and described his final days in brilliant, poignant poetic language. "There are no atheists in the oncology unit," he writes. "Only the catechism of cancer, and the difficult comfort it brings even amid the worst of times."

This collection is a powerful record of one man's ability to project realities and characters upon the page with strength and vision. The end of such a talent is full of infinite sorrow. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: The final work of a major talent in science fiction, full of weird, affecting stories across a diverse set of subgenres.

Tor, $27.99, hardcover, 9780765377982

Biography & Memoir

My Grandfather's Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War

by Anne Sinclair, trans. by Shaun Whiteside

Paul Rosenberg was a successful art dealer in Paris in the 1930s, a friend to and advocate for Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse. A Jewish man, he fled his home in Vichy France in 1940, fearing for his family, his livelihood and his collection of modern masterpieces. From his new home and gallery in New York City, he campaigned for the rest of his life to recover the many valuable paintings and sculptures he lost during the war, looted by Nazis and French collaborators.

Journalist Anne Sinclair didn't pay much attention to her maternal grandfather's life and work as an art dealer until he was long dead. In examining old papers, however, she discovered a story that moved her and that represents the experience of many French artists and art professionals, whose collections were stolen and never returned. In My Grandfather's Gallery, Sinclair writes that she "wanted to create an homage to my grandfather, a series of impressionist strokes to evoke a man who was a stranger to me yesterday, yet who today seems quite familiar."

Many unidentified paintings continue to lie in museum basements throughout France even now, "awaiting the return of those who will not come back." Sinclair, like her grandfather, acknowledges that lost lives trump lost art; but the spoliation of priceless paintings constitutes an important piece of her family history, as recorded in this deeply felt memoir. Despite an occasionally awkward translation to English, My Grandfather's Gallery is a powerful history made personal. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: Investigations by an art dealer's granddaughter into paintings stolen in World War II France.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, hardcover, 9780374251628

Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart

by William Alexander

William Alexander (The $64 Dollar Tomato; 52 Loaves of Bread) suffers from an affliction that is all too common in the U.S. This journalist and memoirist is a certified francophile, a man who dreams of spending his retirement sipping wine in a Paris cafe, Camus in one hand and a Gauloise in the other. Unfortunately, one obstacle stands between him and his dream: in order to be French, Alexander would need to speak French. His high-school French classes were such a traumatic experience that he chose a college major based on its lack of a language requirement, which meant that between the ages of 17 and 57, his exposure to the French language was all but nonexistent.

Flirting with French is the story of the year Alexander spent trying to overcome that 40-year handicap. Much more than just a journal of his misadventures with Rosetta Stone, the book is full of well-researched digressions and enough fun facts to fuel weeks of dinner-table conversation. Alexander regales readers with anecdotes about the trials of midlife language learning while offering crash courses in the current science of second-language acquisition, the history of France (and French) and even a flowchart to help navigate the labyrinthine social rules that govern the use of the French pronouns tu and vous. When a serious health condition threatens to put an end to the adventure, Flirting with French takes a turn for the contemplative. Alexander combines a wide-eyed delight at his newfound knowledge with a well-earned cynicism at the pains of middle age. --Emma Page, bookseller at Island Books in Mercer Island, Wash.

Discover: A funny, surprising memoir about one man's quest to learn French in a year.

Algonquin, $15.95, paperback, 9781616200206

Cosby: His Life and Times

by Mark Whitaker

For millions of Americans, Bill Cosby is an icon: a fast-talking, quick-witted, warm-hearted comedian with a penchant for crazily patterned sweaters. In the first major biography of Cosby, Mark Whitaker (My Long Trip Home) explores the man behind the public image, delving into both Cosby's personal history and the impact of his career on stand-up comedy, television and attitudes toward racial tensions in the U.S.

Whitaker traces Cosby's journey from the housing projects of Philadelphia to his stints in the U.S. Navy and at Temple University (he dropped out of high school and college, but later earned several advanced degrees). Despite the stabilizing influences of his mother, Anna, and his Granddad Samuel, Cosby struggled with discipline and motivation until he found his way to the comedy circuit in Greenwich Village. Spending night after night performing in New York City clubs, Cosby honed his skills, creating and refining the routines that catapulted him to fame when they were released in album form.

Although Whitaker clearly admires and respects his subject, he does not idealize Cosby: the biography balances stories about Cosby's groundbreaking TV roles in I Spy and The Cosby Show with accounts of his financial troubles, the lingering painful effects of his extramarital affair and his controversial views on race relations. The book's last section focuses on the emotional repercussions of the murder of Cosby's only son.

Blending social history, family stories and behind-the-scenes glimpses into Cosby's career, Cosby is a compelling, layered portrait of a towering figure in American comedy. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: An engrossing biography of Bill Cosby balances his life story with social commentary on the impact of his TV roles.

Simon & Schuster, $29.99, hardcover, 9781451697971

Psychology & Self-Help

Behind the Gates of Gomorrah: a Year with the Criminally Insane

by Stephen Seager

"Regardless of a person's crimes... if you live with them long enough, a relationship forms." This is the first lesson psychiatrist Stephen Seager (The God Gene) learns when he starts working in Unit C of Napa State Hospital in California. Nicknamed Gomorrah, the forensic mental institution houses the criminally psychotic, and Unit C has the worst of the worst.

Seager details his year, during which he learned the procedures for dealing with violent outbreaks, received 10 stitches in his head, was threatened with a shank and heard about the death of his predecessor due to injuries by a patient. He says, "These guys are like human IEDs, and you don't want to be around when they explode." Yet Seager is around when they explode, and despite the terrifying anxiety felt each day by the doctor and his family, he continues working with a determined outlook. For many of the patients, he believes something can be done (he just needs to discover what that something is).

In this real-life account that progresses like a suspense novel, readers will not only bear witness to the doctor's anxiety but also Gomorrah's more comedic side, such as a visit from Santa Claus, played by one of the patients. Seager provides background to help readers accurately comprehend the various workings--and limitations--of Napa State. It may be impossible to fathom how the staff continues working in such an environment without experiencing it personally, but Behind the Gates of Gomorrah may well provide the next best option. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: A year in the life of a psychiatrist working with the most violent of Napa State's criminally insane patients.

Gallery Books, $26, hardcover, 9781476774497

Children's & Young Adult

Egg & Spoon

by Gregory Maguire

Set in Tsarist Russia, Gregory Maguire's (Wicked) suspenseful story conjures the folkloric figure Baba Yaga--a hilariously acerbic old witch--and incorporates fantastic creatures such as the Firebird, an ice-dragon and a talking cat, to create a fairytale saga that will delight and challenge its readers.

Thirteen-year-old Elena struggles to keep her dying mother alive in the poverty-stricken village of Miersk. With no food or medicine, and with one brother working abroad and the other conscripted into the army, she resolves to ask the Tsar for help.  Meanwhile, Ekaterina, or "Cat," finds her private train stuck in Miersk, delaying her arrival in St. Petersburg for the Tsar's ball.  When the train takes off unexpectedly, Elena is trapped aboard and Cat is sent tumbling out the door and into the path of Baba Yaga. There are larger problems than the girls' swapped fates, however. " 'Something is wrong with the world,' said the witch, almost to herself. 'It appears to be broken.' " As seasons grow erratic and the Firebird--the "Spirit of All the Russias"--goes missing, Cat and Baba Yaga head to St. Petersburg (and Elena) to alert the Tsar.  All three characters must band together to restore the world's natural order and magic.

Alternating, ultimately interweaving story lines add complexity to a plot driven by an enticing mix of mystery, danger and magic--a combination sure to appeal to fans of Tom McNeal's Far, Far Away. Themes of friendship, family and self-discovery underpin the girls' fantastic adventures, creating a new take on this classic Russian tale. --Julia Smith, blogger and former children's bookseller

Discover: A funny and adventurous story of mistaken identity set in Tsarist Russia, involving two teens and the witch Baba Yaga.

Candlewick, $17.99, hardcover, 496p., ages 12-up, 9780763672201

El Deafo

by Cece Bell

In this graphic novel memoir, Cece Bell (Rabbit and Robot) describes navigating life as a hearing-impaired young person with a Phonic Ear. It's a universal story about trying to figure out who you want to be and where you belong.

When Cece was four years old, she was diagnosed with meningitis. In the hospital, "everything is so quiet." Suddenly Cece goes from having a "normal" childhood to feeling left out of conversations and television shows. Bell's ironic choice to use rabbits, who have large ears, as characters, combined with the very real portrayal of her parents, friendships and school, make Cece a heroine with whom children can easily identify. Cece struggles with the implications of wearing her Phonic Ear, a box that amplifies sound that she wears around her neck, struggling with how to hide it and when to wear it. One of the book's central dilemmas involves Cece's realization that the aid not only makes it easier for her to understand her teachers, but also lets her hear the teacher outside of the classroom (e.g., in the bathroom). If Cece confides her secret, will it gain her friends or make enemies of her peers? Should she divulge the "superpowers" the Phonic Ear gives her?

Readers will delight in the insightful and funny thoughts Cece shares through the guise of her cape-wearing alter ego, the superhero El Deafo. Cece's universal feelings make this memoir accessible to anyone who has experienced moments of awkwardness in wondering what others are thinking, making friends or wishing they had super powers. --Susannah Richards, associate professor, Eastern Connecticut State University

Discover: A funny and poignant memoir in graphic novel format about a child grappling with hearing loss, entering school and making friends.

Amulet/Abrams, $10.95, paperback, 248p., ages 8-12, 9781419712173

Falling into Place

by Amy Zhang

Amy Zhang crashes onto the YA scene with this debut novel about a physics student who puts Newton’s Laws of Motion into practice by driving her Mercedes into a tree. A mysterious narrator with close ties to Liz Emerson tells this nonlinear story and pieces together the puzzle of what sent Liz speeding off Highway 34.

The narrator urges Liz to stay alive, powerless to do anything beyond that, as everyone awaits Liz's recovery. Liz is the most popular junior at Meridian High, who became lonely after her father died and her mother busied herself with business trips. Liz is no innocent. She once rallied an entire class to bully the classmate who would become her best friend during a pop quiz simply because Liz didn't know any of the answers. She records a video that goes viral of Liam Oliver at an awkward angle, which ignites false rumors. Zhang keeps the morality scale gray, skillfully redeeming Liz in small but loud ways: Liz's many regrets as she's speeding down the highway, and when she signs up to be an organ donor a week before her crash so her "heart will beat for someone who deserves it."

The snapshots of Liz's friendship with the narrator effectively reveal the cause and effects on a child who would grow up to become hopeless and destructive to herself and to those orbiting her. An uplifting ending awaits readers. A good pick for fans of Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall and Gayle Forman's If I Stay. --Adam Silvera, children's bookseller

Discover: A novel unspooled by a mysterious narrator with close ties to a teenager who drives her car off the road.

Greenwillow/Harpercollins, $17.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 14-up, 9780062295040


Author Buzz

Dragon Kiss
(A Dragon Kings Novella)

by Donna Grant

Dear Reader,

Welcome back to the Dragon Kings! I'm thrilled to bring you DRAGON KISS. The world of the Dragon Kings keeps expanding, and this story brings us Alasdair and Lotti, a powerful couple who have overcome all odds to find love. But a deadly enemy intends to rip them apart.

I can't wait for you to fall in love with Alasdair and Lotti as I have.


Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: Dragon Kiss (A Dragon Kings Novella) by Donna Grant

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
January 9, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book

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