Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, December 9, 2014

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

From My Shelf

Gift Books: Music

Like last year, 2014 has been good for music books, particularly as musicians of a certain age decide it's time for a memoir (or a biographer decides for them). Illustrious guitarist/vocalist George Benson has, with Alan Goldsher, written George Benson: The Autobiography (Da Capo, $25.99), an account that will have you humming "Masquerade" while you read. David Ritz has written more than 50 books, many of them as ghostwriter for musicians. After collaborating with Aretha Franklin for From These Roots, he has come out with an unauthorized biography--Respect (Little, Brown, $30), a dramatic and definitive study of the Queen. Listening to Aretha, from "Chain of Fools" to "Nessun Dorma," is a must go-with.

No need to seek out music for Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr (UNC Press, $39.95)--it comes with a 20-track CD. Over a span of centuries, Scots-Irish immigrants brought traditional ballads to Appalachia, merging their musical heritage with those of African-Americans, French and others. A more recent past comes from critic Greil Marcus in The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs (Yale University Press, $28). He has a unique slant on rock, writing not just about the iconic but focusing on what he considers important; as always, Marcus thinks outside the record sleeve.

Hunter Davies, true to his name, has ferreted out more than 100 original handwritten documents for The Beatles Lyrics (Little, Brown, $35). They are reproduced here, along with the history of each. James Spada has collected tons of photographs for Streisand (Abrams, $40); there is some text, but the draw is definitely the photos spanning her illustrious career.

For serious jazz nuts, there's Uncompromising Expression by Richard Havers (Chronicle, $85), a chronicle of Blue Note, the definitive jazz label, that commemorates its 75th anniversary. Albums covers, liner notes, ephemera from the archives. Cool. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

Book Candy

Decorations for Muggles; Paddington Bear Quiz

Buzzfeed found "18 magical Harry Potter-themed Christmas decorations."


How much do you know about Paddington Bear? The Guardian featured an ursine quiz about the lovable creature "in the familiar duffel coat."


"When you're upset, sometimes our first instinct will be to suggest a certain a book." This was just one of "11 things to know before you date a bookworm" suggested by Thought Catalog.


Describing the works as a "singular style of haunting whimsy," Brain Pickings showcased Danish artist Kay Nielsen's "stunning 1914 Scandinavian fairy tale illustrations."


Pun punishment: China recently "decided to ban wordplay on the grounds that it breaches the law on standard spoken and written Chinese, makes promoting cultural heritage harder and may mislead the public--especially children," the Guardian reported. Meanwhile in the U.S., Seattle Seahawks football player Richard Sherman "is featured in Letters of Boom, a word game app that "is all about spelling with speed."

Great Reads

Christmas Favorites for Re-reading

The holidays often bring a nostalgic urge to re-read old favorites, especially books with a Christmas setting. Cozy up to one of these classics with a cup of cocoa, and you're guaranteed to feel a little less Grinchy and a little more Kringlely.

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer is a quintessential country house mystery. Curmudgeonly Nathan Herriard is killed on the eve of Christmas, and nearly all of his guests and relatives are glad he's dead, leaving Inspector Hemingway quite a puzzle to solve.

In Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher, five lonely strangers are drawn together at the holidays. A grieving man, a lonely woman and a teenager on the run are among those who find affection in unexpected ways. A heartwarming story, Winter Solstice is a testament to the power of love.

Connie Willis brings a touch of the bizarre to her collection Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. From alien invasions to secret Santas to the time-traveling appearance of the actual Joseph and Mary in search of an inn, Miracle is a delightfully different twist on a traditional Christmas.

Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig is a romantic holiday romp, featuring Mr. Turnip Fitzhugh (who was not nicknamed for his mental prowess), Miss Arabella Dempsey, teacher at a select young ladies’ seminary, and some French spies who are trying to use the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale's Christmas festivities as a cover for their activities.

If you're looking for a book to enjoy as a family, you can't go wrong with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, with illustrations by Judith Gwyn Brown. The hilarious hijinks of the terrifying Herdman children (the scourge of the neighborhood), and their shenanigans during a Christmas pageant will keep your children laughing year after year. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Book Review


The Paris Winter

by Imogen Robertson

In the winter of 1909, Maud Heighton, a genteel Englishwoman, struggles to make ends meet while studying at the Académie Lafond in Paris, one of the few studios where drawing classes are open to women. When one of Maud's classmates, a generous Russian socialite named Tanya, secures her a job as live-in companion to a charming Frenchwoman, Maud believes her financial troubles are over. Enjoying her new posh life with her employers, siblings Sylvie and Christian Morel, Maud begins to flourish artistically and personally. But amid the glitter of lavish holiday celebrations, Maud's comfortable routine is shattered by a devastating betrayal and she barely escapes with her life.

Finding herself in a Montmartre artist's garret, Maud recovers slowly, with the help of Tanya and Yvette, a former model from their art class. The three young women navigate the complex world of Belle Époque Paris, dealing with romantic and economic difficulties while plotting their revenge on the Morels. Meanwhile, rich American aristocrat Madame de Civray, who played an unwitting part in Maud's downfall, becomes a key participant in both the young woman's plan for retribution and her future career.

Imogen Robertson (Circle of Shadows) paints a dark, evocative portrait of the turbulent era, highlighting the limits placed on women through the three distinct protagonists. Strong-willed and resourceful, all three women must struggle against the financial and social constraints placed on them to build rich and satisfying--if unconventional--lives. Instead of centering on a conventional love story like similar historical works, the dramatic, intriguing, richly detailed historical novel is held together by the tensile strength of the women's friendship. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: A young artist is swept into intrigue and treachery amid the glitter and shadows of Belle Époque Paris.

St. Martin's Press, $25.99, hardcover, 9781250051837

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014

by Alice Munro

In her foreword to this selection of Nobel Prize–winner Alice Munro's latest short stories, novelist Jane Smiley writes, "underlying all of her work there is a political assertion--that the lives of girls and women, the lives of hired girls and men who work in foundries... are all equally complex and equally worthy of portrayal." Amid the litany of her accolades, there's no questioning Munro's place in the contemporary canon, but Family Furnishings emphasizes her important role championing the types of stories Smiley describes, in which Munro wields her prodigious talent to give voice to inner lives in conflict with their exteriors.

One of the most remarkable elements of this lengthy collection is the fact that it represents a mere fragment of Munro's complete works. The pieces she penned at the end of her career are knife-sharp, the result of years spent whittling her craft to its barest essence. In "Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage," which hinges on a series of morally intricate choices, Munro refuses to pigeonhole her characters into simple archetypes. The lonely, lovelorn woman isn't powerless; the rich man who hired her isn't an evil cad. The characters are as flawed, empathetic and mysterious as any human.

As with a fine garment, the mark of these stories' excellence is their near-invisible seams, the effortless ways in which they reach their surprising and moving resolutions. When imagining how these near-perfect stories came into being, it might be tempting to say, with reverence, "Magic." --Linnie Greene, freelance writer

Discover: An expansive selection of Nobel Prize–winner Alice Munro's latest short stories, which give voice to eccentrics, misfits and the working class.

Knopf, $30, hardcover, 9781101874103

Mystery & Thriller


by Stephen King

When six-year-old Jamie Morton's brother loses his voice in an accident, the town's new minister, Reverend Jacobs, restores it with an electrical gadget of his own design. The Reverend is a man of the cloth who loves electricity, until his wife and young son are tragically killed and he loses his faith. He becomes a carnival performer, a healer and a wealthy eccentric, but his relationship with Jamie is far from over.

Years later, Jamie, a young musician hooked on heroin, seeks Jacobs's help to kick the addiction, again with an unusual gadget. Jacobs heals many people, but the bizarre after-effects of his electrical treatments are undeniable. At times, Jamie wakes up in strange surroundings only to find himself banging his head against the wall and stabbing his arm with a pen, repeating, "Something happened. Something happened."

Eventually, Jacobs calls a middle-aged Jamie to an isolated house in Maine because he needs help, and Jamie reluctantly agrees. The older man's plan seems impossible: he wants to reach beyond the grave with his "secret electricity."

It's this final Lovecraftian turn that provides most of the direct horror in the novel. Otherwise, King does what he does best: he creates compelling, fully developed characters who stand in for the reader--initially skeptical, incredulous, everyday folk, later true believers who have come into contact with forces beyond the ordinary. There's not much gore in Revival, but the creep factor is dialed up on every page with a sense of foreboding that eventually comes to a satisfying and truly shocking conclusion. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This rollicking read from a master of horror offers an electrifying perspective on life, death and the supernatural.

Scribner, $30, hardcover, 9781476770383

Biography & Memoir

The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

by Amanda Palmer

"It is a fear of the no that keeps so many of our mouths sewn tightly shut," says musician and performance artist Amanda Palmer. Her first book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, explores her relationship with that fear through her experiences as a creator, a businesswoman, a friend and a wife.

Palmer's journey from Boston street busker to crowd-funding success story and central figure of a devoted online community offers many examples of what can be accomplished when someone is willing to tear out those stitches and risk the "no," but she's also brutally honest about just how difficult the asking is. Palmer's account of her conflict over accepting financial help from her own husband (writer Neil Gaiman) until the money from her million-dollar Kickstarter campaign came in is a particularly vivid illustration, and her exploration of this and other experiences, yields reflections on relationship dynamics, trust and vulnerability as strength.

Palmer frames many of her "lessons learned" in terms of their practical meaning for fellow artists, and her stories of nurturing her connection to her supporters--a significant factor in her crowd-funding success--are valuable just for that. However, The Art of Asking also works as personal memoir, building on the directness and honesty Palmer has displayed in her years as a songwriter, poet and blogger. Much as Anne Lamott offered "instructions on writing and life" in Bird by Bird, Amanda Palmer will be instructive to anyone who struggles with fear of the "no." --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

Discover: How nurturing personal connections has shaped the life and career of musician Amanda Palmer.

Grand Central, $27, hardcover, 9781455581085

Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury

by Paul Strohm

Annus mirabilis--"year of wonders"--is a time when important events occur. For Geoffrey Chaucer, that time was 1386, so argues medieval literature scholar Paul Strohm (England's Empty Throne) in his sparkling Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury.

That particular year was one of crisis for Chaucer. He had already written more than half of the poetry he'd ever compose, enough to establish him as "the greatest English author before Shakespeare." Previously, he had a secure government job as a controller in the wool business, a nice apartment in London and security within the monarchy; he had been elected a Knight of the Shire, which gave him status and privilege. But for a variety of political reasons, in 1386, at the age of 43, Chaucer lost his job and home, and his marriage to Philippa was on the rocks (she would die a year later). Financially ruined, he retreated to Kent, adrift.

What was it about his character and his life that made it possible for him to create The Canterbury Tales? Strohm the literary detective works his wonders answering this question. From hundreds of scraps of information, a deep knowledge of the period and a bit of intuition, the biographer reconstructs Chaucer's life up to the creation of his masterpiece. The epic poem started with a mixed company of pilgrim tale-tellers. From this notion issued forth the work: "serial, multivoiced, stylistically mixed, many-themed." Strohm's meticulously researched, beautifully rendered mystery ends when the capacious life of the eventual founder of English letters is fully revealed. Annus mirabilis indeed. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: Not just a tale of one writer of the 14th century but an all-encompassing, scintillating portrait of medieval England and the making of The Canterbury Tales.

Viking, $28.95, hardcover, 9780670026432

Political Science

The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House

by Chuck Todd

In 2008, the United States elected its first African-American president, a man with little Washington experience and few inside connections. NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd (How Barack Obama Won) believes voters chose a fresh face with unconventional ideas because they wanted radical change. But Todd points out that "in order to create a new set of rules, you have to succeed by the old ones." And at that point, he writes, Barack Obama hadn't succeeded by any rules.

The Stranger is Todd's unadorned examination of the 44th U.S. commander-in-chief's time in office. Throughout his initial election, the hard-won Affordable Care Act and its bumpy implementation, two wars he inherited and a decimated economy, Obama has faced a politically divided governing body prepared to dig their heels in. Todd illustrates a mostly unbiased picture of Obama's successes, failures, strengths and weaknesses, though his effort is not completely free of personal opinion. He also presents a fair view of the president's detractors and foes.

The Stranger takes the foreign world of Washington politics and makes it accessible to average readers, most of whom will likely find unexpected and fascinating information about both Obama and Washington. But they may also find frustration in the egos and mindsets of many who appear on the pages. As Todd explains, "A president's legacy takes years, even decades, to fully reveal itself." Barack Obama's legacy will not be realized for some time, and The Stranger isn't meant to predict it. Instead it offers an insider's view of this history-making American. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: A portrait of the 44th U.S. president painted by a Washington insider.

Little, Brown, $29, hardcover, 9780316079570

Essays & Criticism

Windows on the World: Fifty Writers, Fifty Views

by Matteo Pericoli

For Matteo Pericoli, architect and artist, the act of looking out a window often provides a "reset button" of sorts, a moment of mindless distraction. But in 2004, as he prepared to move out of his New York City apartment, Pericoli (London Unfurled) had a sudden urge to capture the view from his window, a scene he had looked at daily for seven years without always seeing it.

Drawing the landscape--window frame and all--revealed to Pericoli how deeply his view of Manhattan had affected his perception of the city and his time there. That experience inspired his Windows on the World project, which ran first in the New York Times and later in the Paris Review. Working from photographs, Pericoli created detailed pen-and-ink illustrations of windows belonging to writers, which were published alongside brief essays from the writers themselves. This volume collects 35 previously published window-essay pairings, along with 15 new illustrations and their accompanying texts.

From city rooftops or lush parks to suburban vacant lots and a few remote islands, the views are varied and stunning, encompassing locations on six continents. The written meditations on each window provide insight into the close, often complex relationships between writers and the places where they write.

"Each window represents a point of view, and a point of origin," notes Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review, in his preface. Pericoli's keen-eyed drawings provide a new and graceful perspective on the quotidian, prompting readers to observe their own everyday worlds more closely. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: A diverse, fascinating collection of writers' views on the landscapes seen from their windows, illustrated by artist-architect Matteo Pericoli.

Penguin Press, $27.95, hardcover, 9781594205545

Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas

by Adam Kirsch

Though he's not yet 40, on the strength of the 19 essays collected in Rocket and Lightship, Adam Kirsch (Why Trilling Matters) qualifies as one of our most important working critics. Whether he's writing about literary classics or his contemporaries, Kirsch matches erudition with a generous, sympathetic spirit to produce criticism that's consistently wise and enlightening.

Kirsch intends that his essays "engage with texts at the point where literature intersects with society and history." That approach emerges explicitly in several pieces, including two that focus on Charles Darwin and two others that confront the theories of Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man. Several essays are devoted to Jewish writers, and Kirsch is especially incisive in deconstructing Cynthia Ozick's "complicated engagement" with Henry James. He offers provocative insights into the theme of Jews and Jewishness in the oeuvre of Marcel Proust, whose mother descended from German Jews and who "moved in a milieu that was extensively, if not exclusively, Jewish," but he is equally proficient in dissecting the work of writers who don't share his religious heritage.

Simply listing the range of some of Kirsch's other topics--the sexual identity of E.M. Forster, the tensions between the inner lives and the criticism of writers like Alfred Kazin and Susan Sontag and the psyche of present-day Europe as revealed in the works of novelists Michel Houellebecq, W.G. Sebald and Ian McEwan--suggests the breadth of his concerns. Rocket and Lightship highlights the virtuosity of a keen thinker, someone intent on challenging our preconceptions while welcoming us to an intellectual feast. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: Poet and critic Adam Kirsch's 19 incisive, challenging essays explore a range of literary and cultural topics.

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780393243468

Body, Mind & Spirit

Imagine This: Creating the Work You Love

by Maxine Clair

In Imagine This: Creating the Work You Love, Maxine Clair (Rattlebone) deftly blends memoir with self-help and transforms the challenges of her own life into inspiration for anyone hoping to embrace a life of meaning and purpose. Clair opens with a vignette of two seemingly contradictory versions of her own childhood. In one, filled with light, color, music, games and unconditional love, "every day is a tableau of summer." In the other childhood, images of poverty, deprivation, loneliness and headaches proliferate, and "every day is marked by bleak winter." An account of her abusive marriage follows, but underpinning the narrative of her early years is her redeeming belief that a benevolent universe provides guideposts throughout life, alerting us when we stray from our true path toward fulfillment.

Clair shares the "sacred practices" (journaling, meditation, affirmation, present moment awareness) that helped her discard destructive patterns in order to embrace creative, life-giving choices; at the end of every chapter, she includes concrete instructions, examples and exercises to help readers find their own voices and dreams. Vivid images like "trees shouting in blossoms or exploding in shades of autumn's hallelujah" and "snow quietly softening the contours of the visible and invisible world" make Clair's true calling as a poet seem as clear as her gift for helping others find their own passions. And with chapter titles like "Tuning In to the Sacred Within," "Finding What Is Seeking You" and "Hovering Between Endings and Beginnings," there is something here for everyone. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics

Discover: One poet's search for fulfillment that can serve as a beacon to all looking for meaning in life.

Agate Bolden, $15, paperback, 9781932841831


A Woman Without a Country

by Eavan Boland

Among Irish poet Eavan Boland's descriptions of her ancestral landscape lies a central conflict of identity that hinges on a quote from Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas: "The outsider will say, 'in fact, as a woman, I have no country.' " Boland, who splits her time between Stanford, Calif., and Dublin, Ireland, searches unrelentingly for the space to which she and other women can lay claim, one outside the confines of history and geography.

Boland gives voice to a range of women, including her grandmother, who died in 1909 at 31, leaving five children, and her mother, as stoic and weathered "as if she had been made out of elm." In "The Wife's Lament," a 10th-century poem that Boland translates from its original Old English, the speaker is an abandoned woman whose lord has left, instructing her to "be still/ Stay here. In this place./ ...penniless, friendless...." While much of this collection focuses on grieving and grievances, these poems are anything but one-note. Suffering is merely one side of the coin, and she describes the other elements of womanhood just as artfully. In "Talking to My Daughter Late at Night," a mother recalls the rituals of her grown daughter's childhood bedtime. She muses, "The world is not stern, after all. Paper birds/ Are folded and fly off in the playground."

The most enchanting books convey urgency, a thought that needs to be voiced. A Woman Without a Country succeeds, and its combination of insight and candor proves that Boland's works belong alongside that of her legendary Irish predecessors. --Linnie Greene, freelance writer

Discover: A nostalgic, sensory collection of poems about belonging, belief and nationality as a woman, and the liminal truths between these conflicting identities.

W.W. Norton, $24.95, hardcover, 9780393244441

Children's & Young Adult

Waiting Is Not Easy

by Mo Willems

Patience is not a virtue that most children desire. But Gerald and Piggie show that patience does pay off--at least when it comes to surprises.

With a minimum of fanfare and a healthy helping of humor, Mo Willems proves again why he's a genius when it comes to beginning readers. Piggie cartwheels onto the page (indicated by dotted lines). "Gerald!" he cries. "I have a surprise for you!" The elephant replies, "Yay! What is it?" But if Piggie tells, that would ruin everything. "The surprise is a surprise," smart Piggie says. Piggie's words appear in pink balloons; Gerald's appear in gray. Readers easily see that the speech bubbles match the characters. Gerald poses yes-or-no questions to try to figure out the surprise. When he asks, "Can we share it?" Piggie turns upside-down with excitement: "Yes!" Growing ever more impatient, Gerald groans so loudly, he knocks over poor Piggie. "I am done waiting!" Gerald says. "I do not think your surprise is worth all this waiting!" Piggie disagrees. Gerald exits off the left-hand page, then returns. With an upturned brow or downturned mouth, Mo Willems's gifted pen tells children all they need to know about the friends' moods. They wait. "It is getting dark!" observes Gerald. "Soon we will not be able to see each other!"

For the surprise, Willems introduces a medium he has not used before in this series, and its effect will send chills of awe down readers' spines. A beautiful meditation on trust and friendship's shared moments. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Gerald and Piggie's experiment in patience, with a surprise well worth the wait.

Disney/Hyperion, $8.99, hardcover, 60p., ages 4-7, 9781423199571

King Dork Approximately

by Frank Portman

Eight years after Frank Portman's highly entertaining debut, King Dork, the author--and 15-year-old Tom Henderson (aka King Dork)--picks up where he left off.

Despite an abundance of references to the previous book and Portman's ability to fill in readers new to Tom Henderson's world with funny asides and quips, readers will most enjoy this book if they've read the first one. Tom continues to make his way through his deceased father's library, but without a mystery to solve, this sequel is weighted more toward Tom's nerdy charm and less toward plot. Roughly 50 pages in, Tom learns that the scandal he uncovered in book one has precipitated the closing of Hillmont High School, and he and Sam Hellerman (his alphabetically destined best friend) must head to different locations. But this gives Tom fresh fodder for his keen observations, as when his fellow band member Celeste ascends the social ladder at Tom's new high school, Clearview: "Occasionally, it's true, a given girl could move beyond her station, by being especially mean, or loud, or funny, or by sucking up to the higher-ranked girls. But there was a limit... one false move and back down the ladder you went."

Readers who lapped up the first book will find the intelligent, sarcastic humor just as razor-sharp here. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A sharp-edged sequel for fans of King Dork.

Delacorte, $17.99, hardcover, 368p., ages 14-up, 9780385736183

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