Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, April 15, 2016

Roaring Brook Press: Juniper's Christmas by Eoin Colfer

From My Shelf

The Things with Feathers

The first time I felt awe in the presence of birds was in Costa Rica, where scarlet macaws fly over the forest canopy in raucous rhythm. We also spotted a rare quetzal--a crimson and iridescent-emerald surprise. I felt a different sort of awe after reading Charles Siebert's New York Times article about parrots and PTSD. It's illustrated with photos of beautiful rescued birds; the most compelling one was Bobbi, a Goffin's cockatoo, who was kept in a kitchen drawer by her former owner. She's missing most of her feathers, but is still lovely in her disarray, and her remaining feathers are exquisite.

Feathers are considered the most complex body-protection structures found in vertebrates, and are among the most breathtaking. National Geographic photographer Robert Clark shows off their stunning beauty and complexity in Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage (Chronicle, $29.95). The close-up of the mating-season wing feather of the Great Argus (Malaysia), shows leopard-like spots (ocelli) above and below a deep blue shaft, with a band of yellow and black above small white spots on an orange background. The King Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea) sports a pair of "tail wires" that swirl into a green lollipop. Male Birds-of-Paradise perform elaborate and dazzling dances to attract mates, abetted by almost-profligate plumage.

The wing spread of the Lesser Snow Goose (North America)--white feathers overlaying black--is classically graceful, icily elegant. The plumage of the Superb Starling of Eastern Africa is a fan of velvety, shimmery blue-green. Ostrich feathers are useless except for balance when running; in Clark's image, they look like an Afghan's airy coat, while the chick's feathers are thistledown. The Palm Cockatoo (New Guinea) is a mysterious dusky, smoky gray with a bit of red on its cheek. The Gray Junglefowl (India) resembles a common chicken except for the gold and black paper-thin crest that resembles a spray of overlapping paintbrushes.

Feathers is spectacular.

--Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers


BINC: Read Love Support Campaign

Book Candy

Magical Cakes for Book Lovers

"A Song of Icing and Fire." Buzzfeed dished up "22 magical cakes all book lovers will appreciate."


CompletelyNovel suggested "3 ways to throw a book themed party."


Bustle introduced "10 terrible literary couples that would never last IRL."


"It means what it says: Samuel Beckett and 8 other quotable absurdists" were showcased by Signature, including this Beckett gem: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."


Pop children's fiction quiz from the Guardian: "Would you be able to pick out which protagonist we're talking about, with just a short description to make your decision?"

Great Reads

Rediscover: Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas

This Saturday at 8 p.m., HBO will air Confirmation, a TV movie about the contentious confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. Law professor Anita Hill turned the proceedings into a national sensation with testimony about her time working under Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She claimed to be the victim of serial sexual harassment by Thomas, who discussed sex acts, pornography and, she said, made repeated requests for dates. Hill's testimony brought workplace sexual harassment to the national spotlight. Thomas cited racial bias, claiming he was the victim of "a high-tech lynching."

Confirmation, directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) and written by Susannah Grant, stars Kerry Washington (Scandal) as Anita Hill and Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) as Clarence Thomas. Though the movie isn't based on either book, Hill and Thomas shared their very different sides of the story in their respective memoirs: Hill's Speaking Truth to Power (Anchor, $17, 9780385476270) in 1997 and Thomas's My Grandfather's Son (Harper Perennial, $15.95, 9780060565565) in 2007. --Tobias Mutter


Steve Berry: Listening to the Little Voice

photo: Kelly Campbell

Steve Berry is the bestselling author of 15 novels; his latest is The 14th Colony, a Cotton Malone thriller that revolves around a fatal flaw in the U.S. presidential succession act (see our review below). His books have been translated into 40 languages, with 20 million copies in 51 countries. Berry was a trial lawyer for 30 years and held elective office for 14 of those years. He is a founding member of International Thriller Writers and created--with his wife, Elizabeth--History Matters, a foundation dedicated to historic preservation. In 2012 and 2013, Berry's historic preservation work was recognized by the American Library Association, which named him spokesperson for National Preservation Week.

What inspired your love of history?

I've had a love of history going all the way back to elementary school. It's always been there. The very first adult fiction book I ever read was Hawaii by James Michener--it hooked me as a way to weave history into fiction to tell a story that is mostly real but some imagined. And hopefully always entertaining. Michener is my favorite writer. I read all of his stuff and began to get a much greater awareness that "this is what I like to read." You write what you love--that's what you should always do, write what you love. I love action, history, secrets, conspiracies, international settings; when I started writing, I naturally gravitated straight to that.

When you first started, though, you were writing what you were doing.

The very first manuscript I ever wrote was a legal thriller, back in 1990/1991; legal thrillers were really big then. I was a lawyer, so it was easy for me to put that story together. But writing what you know is very bad advice. Instead, you should always write what you love. I realized very quickly that I liked action, history, secrets, conspiracies and international settings so I immediately switched and started writing those types of stories. Over the years as I've been published and built up a readership, I carved out a little niche for myself. These stories are about 90% accurate; I trip it up about 10%, and I try to keep it as close to reality as I possibly can.

How do you decide where to smudge things?

I have to keep in mind at all times that I'm not writing a history book; I'm writing a book to entertain people. So I'm very careful about keeping it as close as I can, but there always comes that point where I have to twist it up to keep the book entertaining and exciting. And that's why I have the writer's note in the back--I think it's only fair to tell you where I've done that.

How did The Da Vinci Code help you in the publishing process?

Well, it's how I got published; Da Vinci brought the international suspense genre back to life. It had died in the 1990s because of the end of the Cold War. The genre didn't come back as a spy novel, thank goodness, it came back as action, history, secrets, conspiracies and international settings, which is exactly what I was writing. So I was in the right place at the right time on my 86th attempt. I had had 85 rejections up to that point and finally Random House bought me. Da Vinci did so well, it reignited everything and I got to ride along with that.

What kept you going through those 85 rejections?

It's the little voice in your head. It keeps you driving forward and sticking with it. And that little voice just kept plugging along, and I kept listening to it. If I didn't write, the little voice would drive me up a wall--just nag me to death. So I wrote to keep it quiet. Sure, 85 rejections was tough, there's no question. And I'm not superhuman, I actually quit three times during that process, but each time the little voice would drive me back. So I just stuck with it until one day I caught a break. The world changed and life was good.

What goals do you still have after 15 novels?

With each book I try to do something new and different that I haven't done before, something that pushes me just a little bit, makes the book a little more challenging, a little more interesting. Some new technique or some new plotting mechanism or something I do that I've never done before. And when I finish, if I don't say to myself, "That's the best thing I've ever written," then there's a problem with it. You never get perfect at it, you never get great at it, you can only hope to get a little bit better than you were yesterday. And if you can do that, you've achieved something. I feel that way when I'm done with something. The readers may not agree and may not like story, but for me, from my standpoint, when I hand that manuscript over I can say it's the best I've ever done.

This is the 11th Cotton Malone novel; what do you do to keep things fresh for both you and your readers?

I like Cotton. I enjoy visiting with him. My books are very different because they deal with something extremely different from history, but all of my books are the same because they have similar characters and similar things in them. That's the trick of writing a series--every book has to be the same but different. I'm very fortunate that I deal with different parts of history each time, so the adventures are diverse. I've changed up Cotton's world somewhat. There are things that have happened, things that have gone good and bad, new characters have come in, others have gone out. I've kept the world a little fresh and I keep things interesting for him. I have some plans for him over the next three years that will add some new freshness to it.

The Society of Cincinnati is one of those interesting things that come into play in The 14th Colony.

The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, was named for them. It was founded by a society member who wanted other society members to come out and settle there. I came across the society in some research a few years ago and bought a book about it that the society itself puts out and realized I could work these guys into a novel. They are the oldest fraternal organization in America and they are homegrown; it's a hereditary organization, which is fascinating for this country. And it still exists. I've given them a little fictional twist. I hope they'll enjoy being part of the novel.

Another element of The 14th Colony is a flaw in the Constitution. Does your legal background draw you to this type of subject?

I'm fascinated with Constitutional law; I always have been. I've been very fortunate in the novels to be able to explore some flaws in the Constitution. So yes, I consciously made an effort to write stories about them and I wanted to do those as quickly as I could before someone else grabbed them. I've explored about every flaw now. I'm doing one more in 2017, and after that I've used them all up. My legal background helped to explore those Constitutional anomalies and in this case, it's a really big one: What happens if the president-elect and vice-president-elect both die before taking the oath of office? There is a serious flaw in our law that has never been plugged, and it's still sitting there now today.

And it's well timed with this election year.

That was not unintentional. I had the plot idea, but I did the other flaws first and waited to do The 14th Colony in 2016 because it would be more timely now. It's a little bit of a technical issue that most people don't know even exists, so this one was one I doubted anyone would grab ahold of because you've got to really be a Constitutional geek to get into this. But I was aware of this for a long time, and I knew it'd make a good novel. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Book Review


The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

by Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Australian novelist Dominic Smith (Bright & Distant Shores) is a mesmerizing and magically faux historical novel.

The narrative dips gracefully between centuries to tell the interwoven stories of its three characters. Gifted artist Sara de Vos, in 1631, is the first woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke as a master painter, but she's also a working woman struggling with debt. Ellie Shipley, a lonely Ph.D. student in Brooklyn in 1957, consults for collectors and takes on restoration work to make ends meet when an art dealer persuades her to copy a rare de Vos called At the Edge of the Woods. Marty de Groot is a wealthy New York lawyer and descendant of the original owner; he is hosting a party when the painting is stolen and replaced with a fake so convincing it takes him six months to see the substitution and embark on his own deceptions to exact revenge.

Fifty years later, Ellie is a prominent curator in Sydney preparing an exhibition on female Dutch Golden Age painters when she learns that both versions of At the Edge of the Woods are on their way--the original from a Dutch private collector and her own forgery, personally delivered by Marty de Groot. Helpless with foreboding and regret, she's convinced her secret is about to be revealed.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a splendid thing: a riveting mystery set in the rarefied world of art collection about a stolen masterpiece and a gorgeous, haunting novel rooted in history, an incandescent achievement of literary imagination. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: A landscape painting becomes the focus of the longings and losses, deceptions and loves of its current owner, its forger and its Dutch Golden Age creator.

Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, $26, hardcover, 9780374106683

The One-In-a-Million Boy

by Monica Wood

In The One-in-a-Million Boy, her first novel in more than a decade, Monica Wood (When We Were the Kennedys) introduces readers to a cast of unexpected heroes and the remarkable child whose death brings them together.

At 104 years of age, Ona Vitkus found a once-in-a-lifetime friend in the 11-year-old Boy Scout assigned to refill her bird feeders. He hoarded objects in groups of 10, obsessed over world records, and laughed in a peculiar yip. He also showed Ona an interest and devotion she had never known before. At the story's opening, Ona has grown to look forward to the boy's visits, but this time, his father, Quinn, arrives in the boy's place.

Although certainly no rock star, Quinn Porter has made a living playing his guitar at any gig he can find, both chasing his dreams and avoiding Belle, his ex-wife two times over, and their boy, whose eccentricities left Quinn utterly baffled. Now the boy--he remains unnamed throughout--has died unexpectedly, and Quinn's detached treatment of his family becomes a source of stabbing guilt.

Wood dishes out tragedy and charm in equal measure with an intergenerational friendship that retains its beauty despite death. Although rarely seen directly, the titular boy hovers at the edges of every scene, binding Quinn and Belle whether they like it or not, drawing Ona's secrets from her lips. Wood interweaves the lives of her broken heroes until they cannot disentangle from one another. Although most readers will find tissues often necessary while navigating the layers of this story, the conclusion will leave them smiling through their tears. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: The sudden death of an unusual child brings together his grief-stricken mother, absentee father and the centenarian woman he befriended, with heartwarming results.

Houghton Mifflin, $25, hardcover, 9780544617070

The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the Californian

by David Dyer

David Dyer's experience as an Australian ship's officer, along with his extensive research into the SS Californian while a maritime lawyer, help to make his first novel, The Midnight Watch, a captivating trip back in time.

On the night of April 14, 1912, Second Officer Herbert Stone stood middle--or midnight--watch on the SS Californian, stopped for the night because of ice conditions in the Atlantic. He observed rockets shot from a nearby ship, and called down to his captain, Stanley Lord. Lord indicated that they could just be company signals; Stone should continue watching. After calling back a second time and sending an apprentice down to update Lord, Stone recorded in the ship's log that the rockets ceased and the lights from the steamer disappeared. What the officer had thought was a steamer that had sailed off was actually the passenger liner RMS Titanic in distress, and it had sunk.

In The Midnight Watch Dyer creates an account of what might have happened on both ships during that fateful night, as told from the perspective of fictional journalist John Steadman. Dyer's compassionate insight into Stone's psyche, with parallel references to Moby-Dick's Starbuck, creates a character almost as empathetic as a family of third-class passengers aboard the Titanic. And the cunningly developed setting is chilling enough to elicit shivers.

With Dyer's skillful writing and nautical understanding, the Titanic's famously tragic story resurfaces a century later, bringing a lesser-known aspect to light in this accomplished novel. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: A former navy member focuses on the actions of an officer and the captain of a nearby ship whose decisions may have cost the lives of more than 1,500 souls who perished on the Titanic.

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 9781250080936

The Decent Proposal

by Kemper Donovan

Los Angeles is the backdrop for Kemper Donovan's smart and observant first novel, The Decent Proposal, which asks, what would two people do for a million dollars? Sex is not part of this proposition. Rather, a mysterious, anonymous benefactor hires a lawyer to bring together two strangers, promising that they can split $1 million if they agree to spend at least two continuous hours with each other--engaging in substantial conversation--every week, for one year.

Richard Baumbach is a good-looking, down-on-his-luck film producer. Richard's best friend is Michaela (aka "Mike"), a hardworking literary manager. In college, they were a couple, but Mike ended their romance. Once Mike gets wind of Richard's moneymaking opportunity--the DP, as the "decent proposal" is called--the scenario suddenly frames Richard in a new light. Is Mike actually in love with Richard after all?

Elizabeth Santiago is the other half of the DP and the antithesis of Richard: she doesn't watch TV; she's not even on Facebook. On the fast track to partnership at her high-powered law firm, Elizabeth doesn't need the money. A loner who lives to work, she has forsaken her family and their devout Catholic faith. The DP offers Elizabeth a perfect opportunity to step outside her comfort zone.

A strong, omniscient narrator anchors Donovan's deconstructed, opposites-attract love story where emotional stakes deepen as the story unfolds. References to pop culture, classic literature and movies--along with snappy dialogue and well-drawn characterizations, especially in the cast of supporting players--infuse a clever plot filled with surprising twists that will keep readers entertained and in suspense. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: Two strangers are brought together by a mysterious benefactor who offers them a chance--with conditions--to split a million dollars.

Harper, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062391629

The First Book of Calamity Leek

by Paula Lichtarowicz

The First Book of Calamity Leek is disorienting at the start, as Calamity Leek records her memories of "the night Truly did it," with references to "the Pontefracts," the "High Hut," the "Garden" and "our Wall of Safekeeping" coming fast and furious in the first few pages alone. And Calamity, our strange and unknowable narrator, provides no explanation for them. She assumes that the world of the Garden--where she and her 15 sisters live with Aunty and the Mother, in fear of the Sun--is a world known to and understood by everyone. Anything that is not understood, after all, can simply be looked up in the Appendix--a binder full of definitions provided by Aunty to explain everything, including the Creation, Demonmales, the Outside, Unsavory Urges--or one of several volumes of Reader's Digest.

Though Calamity's narrative offers little to no explanation of the strange and complex world she inhabits, Paula Lichtarowicz has created a character whose strong and compelling voice will leave readers no choice but to forge ahead in their confusion. That confusion will be short-lived, though, as carefully paced and layered revelations bring Calamity's reality into ever-sharper focus. In the process, The First Book of Calamity Leek evolves from a strange fictional memoir to a disturbing story of creation myths and walled-up lives and of what happens when someone questions everything she's been taught as gospel. But Lichtarowicz peppers her debut novel with references to show tunes and movie stars and beauty treatments, keeping her seemingly fantastical novel firmly anchored in a familiar world. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: The fictional memoir of Calamity Leek and her life in the Garden is as captivating as it is strange and disturbing.

Flatiron Books, $16.99, paperback, 9781250087935

Mystery & Thriller

The 14th Colony

by Steve Berry

Former intelligence agent Cotton Malone is called away from his bookshop in Copenhagen to do a contract job for his ex-boss Stephanie Nelle in Steve Berry's 11th thriller in the series. Malone is shot down flying reconnaissance over Lake Baikal, Russia, and Nelle needs help getting him out, so she calls the agent's former love interest, Cassiopeia Vitt, in France.

In Russia, Malone comes face-to-face with Aleksandr Zorin, the ex-KGB agent he was sent to scout, and learns that Zorin is planning to strike the United States--as retribution for the Soviet Union's downfall. Zorin intends to uncover old nuclear suitcase bombs hidden in the U.S. by the Soviets during the Cold War. He plans to detonate them during the upcoming presidential inauguration and kill the newly elected president and vice president, a scenario that would wreak political havoc due to deep legal flaws in the Presidential Succession Act.

Zorin sets off on his mission believing that his people killed Malone. But with the help of an old Soviet archivist and Vitt, Malone escapes. He has to find Zorin and the bombs before the ex-spy can blow the U.S. into unprecedented political turmoil.

The reality of Berry's inauguration scenario heightens the intensity and suspense of The 14th Colony, while offering the reader fascinating, little-known tidbits about U.S. history and politics. Rapid, plot-driven action keeps the momentum of this adventure at a pulse-thumping speed. Long-time Malone fans and new readers alike should find much to satisfy their thriller cravings. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: Cotton Malone must stop an ex-KGB agent who plans to unleash his pent-up hatred for the U.S. at the presidential inauguration.

Minotaur, $27.99, hardcover, 9781250056245

The Murder of Mary Russell

by Laurie R. King

After several years in the company of Sherlock Holmes, Mary Russell has developed a deep affection for Holmes's faithful housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, who sees to their every need. Mary has never inquired into Mrs. Hudson's past, knowing only that she has relatives in Australia. But when a young, brash and armed Australian appears one afternoon, Mary finds herself caught off guard and suddenly curious. When Holmes returns home to find Russell gone, the great detective must reach into the past to unravel the young man's connection to Mrs. Hudson--and to find out where he has taken Mary.

Laurie R. King (Dreaming Spies, The Bones of Paris) continues her series featuring Holmes and Russell, interspersing Mary's first-person narration with extended flashbacks from Mrs. Hudson's earlier life. Raised by a ne'er-do-well father, Clarissa Hudson learned the tricks of the confidence game early on. Though her father favored his younger daughter, Alicia, it was Clarissa whom he tapped to be his partner in their "Cheats" and, some years later, turned to again when his luck ran out. An unexpected encounter with "the grey-eyed enigma of London" would bind Clarissa to Sherlock Holmes for life, and King expertly weaves together the threads of the housekeeper's past, Holmes's detective career and the echoes of that fateful night.

Whip-smart, suspenseful and intricately plotted, The Murder of Mary Russell shines a brilliant light on an often overlooked aspect of the Sherlock Holmes universe. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell delve into the origin story of the faithful Mrs. Hudson.

Bantam, $28, hardcover, 9780804177900

Biography & Memoir

Setting the World on Fire: The Brief, Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena

by Shelley Emling

The unrest of 14th-century Italy comes alive in Shelley Emling's biography of St. Catherine of Siena, Setting the World on Fire. Political imbroglios in the Catholic Church, brutal crusades in Palestine and the gruesome specter of the Black Death haunt Catherine's short life in Tuscany. From the time she was very young, she radiated a powerful mystic spirituality. She experienced rapturous visions of Jesus Christ, even becoming his wife in one, and staunchly resisted pressure from her family to marry anyone else. Mortifying herself through hunger, a painfully thin Catherine committed herself to working with the sick and dying while also vociferously charging the Papacy to quit its corrupted ways--a dangerous mission for anyone, especially a woman, at the time. As her influence spread and her body weakened, her spirit only grew stronger, and she eventually bore the miraculous marks of her devotion to Christ: stigmata.

Emling (Marie Curie and her Daughters) makes clear and concise work of relaying the significance of Catherine's ministry, without straying into hagiography. The author navigates the saint's ceaseless fasting with a fascinating passage about what one scholar calls "holy anorexics," and Emling never sugarcoats Catherine's troubling support of Christendom's war on Muslims. Setting the World on Fire is a slim but nevertheless intriguing study of a complex, charismatic woman. It is not for the squeamish reader; Catherine is reported to have "longed to quench her thirst with blood." In a time of myriad uncertainties, she saw the physical and the spiritual as indelibly entwined. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Shelley Emling's biography of St. Catherine of Siena depicts a fascinating and complex woman.

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 9781137279804


The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life

by Michael Puett, Christine Gross-Loh

Most philosophy courses begin with big, abstract questions: What is morality? What is the meaning of life? These questions, explains Harvard professor Michael Puett, run opposite to the ideas of Confucius, who was most interested in the simple concerns of everyday life--how to be happy or how to treat other people. Incidentally, these are also the questions Puett frequently hears from his students at Harvard, where he has taught Chinese philosophy for more than two decades. Now Puett, along with journalist Christine Gross-Loh, has boiled down the ideas of his courses in The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life.

Gross-Loh, who holds a Ph.D. in East Asian history from Harvard, first became interested in Puett while writing an article for the Atlantic that sought to explain why a course on 2,000-year-old thinkers had become one of the most popular on campus. Perhaps one reason for this is Puett's ability to understand his audience. In The Path, he addresses the Western reader directly, explaining that many Western ideas taken for granted are the legacy of Protestant values--for instance, the idea that a person has a "true, authentic self" whose purpose he should aspire to fulfill. This notion is in fact incompatible with Confucian thought, which does not see individuals as "fixed" but rather as constantly changing beings with the ability to adapt at any given moment. While The Path is a quick read, the ideas it suggests will likely stick with readers for a long time. --Annie Atherton

Discover: The key ideas of ancient Chinese philosophy are distilled in this accessible guide on how to live a happy, meaningful life.

Simon & Schuster, $24.99, hardcover, 9781476777832


Rapture: Poems

by Sjohnna McCray

Poet Sjohnna McCray's life provides plenty of material for his debut collection, Rapture. The son of an African American Vietnam vet who died in his 40s and a Korean prostitute, McCray mines the complications of his family life and upbringing in Cincinnati. Overcoming the disadvantages of diabetes and his father's postwar employment as a janitor, McCray put himself through Ohio University, earned an MFA at the University of Virginia and an MA from Teachers College at Columbia University before winning the 2015 Walt Whitman Award. His poems explore the nuances of race, fatherhood, disease, sexuality and loneliness that his background inevitably threw his way.

In "How to Move," for example, he recalls that "Men on the corner used to holler/ that dad was a high yellow nigger/ or if the sun had darkened him/ and pulled the red to the surface of his skin,/ a red nigger." In the same poem, race becomes even more of an issue when his father loses his leg and has to choose from the prosthesis makers' color options: "perfect shades of negroness/ for limbless negroes, every negro/ matched to a swatch or chart with names/ like fingernail polish." Desire flairs in "Midlife Crisis in Boots" as the narrator is transfixed by a rodeo calf roper, but libido is tempered by commitment in the title poem: "Cast/ before one another, blemishes apparent/ ...we refuse to yield/ back into being singular." With each poem in this very personal collection, McCray digs deeply into his experience to craft an identity that embraces the complexity of his life without denying it. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Sjohnna McCray's first poetry collection explores his quest to find individuality and connection from a complicated past.

Graywolf Press, $16, paperback, 9781555977375

Children's & Young Adult

Weekends with Max and His Dad

by Linda Urban, illus. by Katie Kath

It's Max's first time to see his dad's new apartment after his parents' divorce. The room his father fixed up for him is awfully... blue. Max doesn't want to hurt his dad's feelings, but the Detroit Lions football décor, complete with helmet lamp, is so second grade. Max, now a third grader, has moved on from football to being a spy, as outlined in The Sneaky Book of Spy Skills. Max is hoping his dad will be "helper spy" Agent Cheese this weekend, and he can be Agent Pepperoni.

In Weekends with Max and His Dad, an appealing series debut by Linda Urban (A Crooked Kind of Perfect; Hound Dog True), father and son navigate the unfamiliar waters of mom-less togetherness on three consecutive weekends. Amid the fun of playing spy, pizza and pancakes, Urban adeptly gets to the heart of things, mirroring the sensitive nine-year-old's emotions--from "low-down and blue" to giddy joy--with clarity, compassion and humor. Max's new double-household life entails a few hassles, including having to tag along for double the errands, and "Max would rather be in jail than go shopping. In jail you could sneak a spoon out of the cafeteria and dig a tunnel and escape. There was no escape from the grocery store." Still, father and son are so obviously fond of each other, the future bodes well for an ever-evolving relationship that's surely full of sleuthwork, singing and silliness.

Katie Kath's sketchy, pen-and-ink illustrations (also seen in Kelly Jones's Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer) add warmth to an already winning story. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A father and son find their own way to navigate life together, post-divorce, in Linda Urban's engaging series debut for ages 6 to 9.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, hardcover, 160p., ages 6-9, 9780544598171

Golden Boys

by Sonya Hartnett

In Golden Boys, Australian author Sonya Hartnett, winner of a Printz Honor for Surrender, wriggles deep into the psyche of a few children. In this working-class suburb of yesteryear, the neighborhood kids travel in packs, and being a child is like being "dropped on a strangers' planet, forced to accept that these are the ways of this world." Childhood is "like being in rough but shallow water, buffeted, dunked, pushed this way and that." Growing up is "an unbuckling of faith."

Hartnett's mesmerizing story, told in shifting perspectives, begins with the "golden boys," 12-year-old Colt and his younger brother Bastian, sons of the movie-star-handsome, yet unsettlingly "try-hard" dentist Rex Jenson. He gives his boys all the state-of-the-art loot they could want "so he will be the father of envied sons." Most recently he's brought home a BMX bike, and, in a humiliating game, makes his boys guess what color it is before he'll hand it over. Bastian, who often has a "just-hatched-from-the-egg" expression, guesses nervously, gamely playing along. As Colt dryly notes, his trusting brother's "whole world is one of those plastic kitchens in which girls make tea from petals and water."

Although there is some action--rambling bike rides, scrapes with a bully, a father's drunken rampages and grisly moments aplenty--the brilliantly expressed private thoughts of Colt and neighbor-girl Freya are what really propel this literary novel. As the salty, credible Aussie banter keeps the brutal narrative buoyant, Golden Boys dazzlingly reflects the ferocity, rage, dread, shame, guilt and dark understanding with which children view the flawed adults around them. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Australian author Sonya Hartnett delves deep into the nature of childhood in this masterful novel for teens and adults alike.

Candlewick, $17.99, hardcover, 256p., ages 14-adult, 9780763679491

Fletcher and Zenobia

by Victoria Chess, Edward Gorey, illus. by Victoria Chess

"Once there was a cat named Fletcher who lived in the largest and tallest tree for miles around. He had run up it in a moment of thoughtless abandon, and ever since had been unable to get down again." So begins the small and square, nonsensical and endearing Fletcher and Zenobia by Victoria Chess and Edward Gorey, first published in 1967.

Up in the tree with Fletcher is a leather trunk containing a hat collection that the cat doesn't need. But one day, he finds a large papier-mâché egg in the trunk, and inside is Zenobia, an old-fashioned doll cast off by an unfeeling child named Mabel. Since there's no getting down from the tree, the cat and doll decide to have a party with lemon cake, peach ice cream and "what seemed like at least several hundred balloons, although really there were only twenty-seven." The extensive hat collection finally comes in handy. A guest making a "flumpety flumpety" sound shows up and reveals himself to be a moth. Lots of waltzing under the stars and eating of "frightfully rich" cake ensues, and the moth grows so large so fast that he is, in the end, able to fly them off the tree top: "And so Fletcher and Zenobia flew away to the great world--and who knew what special occasions?"

Chess's enchanting artwork is finely etched and saturated in jewel-like colors, each small square a perfect little painting framed by a creamy border. As in Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy-cat, readers will want to follow these two wherever the scrumptiously implausible journey takes them. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: In this charming 1967 picture book by Victoria Chess and Edward Gorey, a cat who lives atop a tree befriends a doll named Zenobia.

New York Review Children's Collection, $14.95, hardcover, 72p., ages 5-7, 9781590179635

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