Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, January 24, 2017

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

From My Shelf

Downton's Downside

Inspired by the World War I experiences of his grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien, Simon Tolkien has written a coming-of-age novel, No Man's Land (Talese/Doubleday), about a lower-class boy, Adam Raine, who escapes the coal mines by winning a scholarship to Oxford. But then the war threatens to tear apart everything he's achieved. Tolkien describes both the horrors of trench warfare and the Edwardian age in all its splendor and cruelty:

photo: Nicholas Tolkien

Every January for the last six years we have been welcoming the cast of Downton Abbey into our homes. We've enjoyed the spectacle of an ordered world where everyone, from His Lordship down to Daisy, the kitchen maid, belonged to Downton and had a role to play in keeping the vast machinery of the household ticking over. Everyone was looked after; everyone mattered. Or did they? 

Edwardian society had a quite incredible divide between rich and poor. One percent of the population owned half the nation's wealth and, following the lead of pleasure-loving King Edward VII, they threw off the repressive solemnity of the Victorian era and indulged in a frenzy of conspicuous consumption. The rich regularly spent more on a single dinner than a poor family could earn in a year. To make this mad pursuit of pleasure possible, their servants did back-breaking work for little money and no thanks. Rising before dawn in cold candle-lit attic rooms, they emptied chamber pots and ash, hauled coal and hot water up and down steep stairs, laboring late into the night; if they encountered one of their betters they were instructed to turn their faces to the wall. And, to make matters worse, the upper servants often bullied the lower ones, revisiting on them the abuse they had suffered in their younger days. This was a hard, cruel, selfish world, epitomized not by Downton Abbey but by the Titanic disaster: 61% of the first-class passengers survived, but only 23% of those in third class did. It was a decadent society, rushing like the Titanic headlong towards its own destruction.

The Writer's Life

Gregor Hens: 'Everything Revolves Around Language'

photo: Peter von Felbert

Gregor Hens has written six books--novels and short stories--and has translated works by Will Self, Jonathan Lethem, Leonard Cohen, Rawi Hage and George Packer, among others, into German. Hens was born in Cologne, Germany, and resides in Berlin. He has a Ph.D. in linguistics and has taught literature for more than 20 years, most recently at Ohio State University in Columbus. His memoir and "meditation," Nicotine, has just been published by Other Press. Our review is below.

What drew you to write about your struggles with nicotine?

I wrote the book because I wanted to say something that is both very personal and very general. My struggle with nicotine provided an opportunity to write about the mental processes that interest me, and also to tell my own story. I read a lot of Moshe Feldenkrais before and during my work on the book. He inspired me a great deal. The idea that we can't simply unlearn the habits we want to shake off, that we have to find productive work-arounds (which requires awareness), comes from Feldenkrais. I also wanted to write about the topography, the mental landscape of my life between the old West Germany, Ohio, New York and the new Berlin.

This book is very personal and revelatory.

Yes, a project like this only works if you are completely open.

Did you set out to write a book about your smoking addiction or did that topic evolve?

It was clear that the book was going to be about my history of nicotine addiction. Everything else just followed. I didn't feel like I needed to adhere to any particular genre. Writing, especially in creative nonfiction, always involves finding a (new) form; with some books this is more obvious than with others.

Was writing this book rewarding?

The greatest reward, always, is just to have written the book. It makes me very happy when people come to me and tell me that it has touched their lives in certain ways.

Your prose is beautiful--powerful, detailed and poetic.

Everything I do revolves around language. I write and I teach German (currently to Dartmouth College students studying abroad in Berlin and to Syrian refugees). I'm a linguist by training... syntax is my specialty.

The quirky visual images in the book--photographs, sketches--are a nice touch.

Those were my idea. I selected them, some I took--or drew--myself. It's a tribute to W.G. Sebald, whose work I admire.

Your mother figures into an early experience you had with nicotine. Would you also credit her with your well-read life and as an inspiration for your writing life?

My mother is only part of the story of my addiction, I don't attribute it to her, and, more importantly, I don't blame her. She died when I was fairly young. I'm 50 now, and I'm still trying to figure out what I got from her, and what I projected onto her. She was trained as an interpreter (English, French, German) and yes, very interested in literature. I suspect that she named me after a Franz Kafka character (Gregor Samsa), even though she always claimed I was named after Pope Gregory the Great!

You encountered your first experience with tobacco when you were six. At what age did you become a "bona fide" smoker?

About age 13.

You've quit and gone back to smoking many times. What's the longest you've ever quit? Do you think you'll go back?

Five years is my record. I won't start again. A lot of people would demand an explanation from me, it wouldn't be worth the trouble--which, partially, was the point of writing the book. It's like an insurance policy against relapsing.

Were you ever tempted to replace your nicotine addiction with something else addictive?

I don't subscribe to the theory that one addiction replaces the other. I love endurance sport, and it has, in a way, replaced my smoking habit, but I'm not addicted to it.

Smoking in the U.S. has become a rather shameful taboo. How does it compare to smoking culture in Germany today?

It may be a shameful taboo in New York and California. However, things look a little different in rural America. So it's also a regional and social issue, like fast food. Nobody should be ashamed of smoking. Developments in Europe are similar, we're just a few years behind. I was never ashamed to be a smoker.

Do you feel "vaping" and the legalization of marijuana will impact the role of smoking in modern culture?

Vaping looks ridiculous, so I think it might be a fad. Imagine Audrey Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart vaping! Some people relapse after smoking weed, especially when it's mixed with tobacco. Not a good idea if you want to stay smoke-free.

There's a very well-drawn scene in the book where, among your many quests to quit smoking, you visit a Catholic hypnotist and smoking cessation specialist in Ohio.

Yes, he was an odd character: the way he cluttered up his beautiful home, the fact that he kept having to use the bathroom; even his coffee-table book said something about him. I don't have a problem with Catholics--in fact, I'm friends with a priest, whom I envy for his groundedness. I just don't think (Christian) prayer and meditation go very well together, as I explain in the book. I did, however, question the hypnotist's qualifications as a smoking cessation specialist since he, himself, had never smoked.

What it's like working with Will Self, who provides a wonderful introduction to Nicotine?

I serve as the German translator of work for Will Self--and very happily so. He is a very smart and funny man and a great writer. I'm extremely honored that he wrote the introduction.

You are known for your translation work, but Jen Calleja translated this book. Why did you not translate Nicotine?

I only translate from English to German, not the other way around. Most of us translate only into our native languages. Jen Calleja did a wonderful job, she really understood the book, she "got" the dry humor of certain passages. Her language is beautiful.

Would you hope this book would appeal more to smokers or to non-smokers?

I wrote the book for smokers, former smokers and non-smokers alike. It's not about cigarettes, it's about learning, about how we treat ourselves physically and mentally, and those things surely are of interest to everyone. A couple of people have told me that the book helped them to quit, but many others have told me that it has engaged them in other ways, and made them think about their own habits, how they formed, and about their own stories.

What do you hope readers will take away from Nicotine?

I have no particular agenda--I just hope readers will enjoy the book for what it is, that it will make them think and laugh and wonder.

What's next?

A novel, and a book-length essay about what Mark Twain has called the "awful German language." --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Book Candy

The Value of the Arts

"Don't hang back with the brutes: 10 quotes on the value of the arts" were presented by Signature.


Bustle suggested "5 ways to read more intentionally in 2017."


"Presenting 'Mirrer,' the Wonderland dating app," courtesy of Quirk Books.


Author Chibundu Onuzo picked the "top 10 megacities in fiction" for the Guardian.


Pop quiz from Mental Floss: "Pick the 'D' literary characters."


With the Chuck bookshelf, "each board can be lifted and bent to create space for your personal and favorite objects and books."

Great Reads

Rediscover: The Egyptian

Mika Waltari (1908-1979) was a prolific Finnish author, poet, playwright and essayist whose breakthrough hit came in 1945 with the historical novel The Egyptian. It was first translated from Finnish into Swedish, and the abridged 1949 English translation by Naomi Walford came from the Swedish manuscript rather than Waltari's native tongue. The book became an international bestseller, and was adapted into a Hollywood film in 1954.

The Egyptian takes place around the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten (approximately 1353-1336 BC), during which the traditional, polytheistic Egyptian religion was supplanted by a quasi-monothestic form of worship centered on the sun god Aten. The novel's protagonist is Sinuhe, a fictional royal physician, who relates the story while in exile after Akhenaten's death. His travels bring him across much of the then-known world--from Babylon, Minoan Crete and the Levant--and into contact with real historical figures such as Nefertiti, the young King Tut and the sculptor Thutmose. Throughout Sinuhe's travels, the threat of the tyrannical Hittite king, Suppiluliuma I, looms over an Egypt divided by internal strife. Waltari wrote The Egyptian during World War II, lending the novel a tone of war-wariness and a pessimistic view of human nature's repetition through the ages. It was last published as part of the Rediscovered Classics series by Chicago Review Press in 2002 (9781556524417). --Tobias Mutter

Book Review


The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

by Lindsey Lee Johnson

First-time novelist Lindsey Lee Johnson puts to use her years of experience tutoring privileged teens in Marin County, Calif., in a vividly realized skewering of entitlement culture in one of its favorite playgrounds--high school.

Tragedy strikes in middle school, when friendless Tristan Bloch slips a love note to Cally Broderick, who bows to peer pressure and shows the note to the popular boys. The resulting cyberbullying firestorm ends in Tristan's suicide, a shock that resonates through the student body as the kids involved progress to their junior year of high school. Newly minted teacher Molly Nicholl begins her career as one of the English faculty at Tamalpais High School blissfully unaware of the Tristan Bloch incident. Her most intriguing student is Calista--formerly Cally--Broderick, who has a talent for writing and is "trying to reach someone; the someone was Molly." Just as Molly remains unaware of the part Calista once played in another child's death, she cannot see the secret lives her students lead outside her classroom, made possible by plenty of money and little parental supervision.

Sharp, sarcastic and wise, Johnson's novel also displays unexpected kindness in its devotion to showing the struggles motivating the teens' behavior, each a product of a family and society that force-feeds them too many expectations coupled with limitless freedom. An Up the Down Staircase for the era of free-range versus helicopter parenting, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth reminds adults that adolescence is an exquisitely troubled country unto itself. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Debut novelist Lindsay Lee Johnson takes readers inside the lives of privileged teens.

Random House, $27, hardcover, 288p., 9780812997279

Huck Out West

by Robert Coover

It takes some cheek to write a sequel to Mark Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If anyone can pull it off, however, it's Robert Coover (The Public Burning; Noir), whose writing pushes the boundaries of fiction. Despite this oeuvre of challenging reading, Huck Out West is a funny, often rollicking, episodic story that embellishes Twain's sardonic wit with Coover's own trenchant humor and linguistic finesse to prick the Manifest Destiny balloons of United States history.

Coover's Huck is an exuberant pragmatist--exploring the "territory" west of the Mississippi one step ahead of those out to "sivilize" him. To scratch his itch for rambling, he scouts for both Civil War armies, steals horses and cattle, kills "injuns," rides for the Pony Express, stumbles into the Dakota gold rush, and joins a Lakota Sioux tribe. With his truth-stretching best friend Tom Sawyer a lawyer (what else) back east, Huck finds a new wingman in the Lakota outcast Eeteh: "He's a loafer and a drunk like me and he don't fit in with his people no more'n I fit in with mine." When Tom unexpectedly shows up at Dakota Gulch to bring order to its remote anarchy, he exhorts a gathering crowd: "We're making the first ever perfect nation out here and there ain't no damn injuns going to stand in the way." But Huck's learned a thing or two in his years out west and answers with his usual simple insight: "Well, you can live with folks without trying to whup them." Surprisingly perhaps, Huck Out West is very much a book for our times. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Robert Coover comes down to earth in a hearty, funny, stinging sequel to Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 320p., 9780393608441


by Lucinda Rosenfeld

Set in a gentrifying neighborhood of an unnamed city, Lucinda Rosenfeld's Class is told from the point of view of Karen Kipple, a woman in her mid-40s who works as the director of development for a small nonprofit dedicated to eliminating childhood hunger in the United States. Karen's husband, Matt McClelland, has abandoned his job as a lawyer for evicted tenants in order to devote his energies to building a website for low-income city dwellers. The pair lavish most of their remaining attention on their only child, eight-year-old third-grader Ruby.

In their own minds, Karen and Matt's progressive credentials are burnished by their decision to send Ruby to a public elementary school where only 20% of the students are white, convinced she'll receive an "invaluable, once-in-a-lifetime education in multiculturalism and class difference." Among her peers who choose to send their children elsewhere, Karen has two goals: "to foster guilt and shame, and to instill doubt about whatever alternative had been secured."

But when one of Ruby's friends transfers to a less racially mixed school after an incident with an African American classmate, Karen begins to question whether she's sacrificing her daughter's well-being to pride in her principles. On a walk through an adjacent neighborhood, she hatches an audacious scheme designed to safeguard Ruby's education, one that becomes ever more daring as she struggles to be equally protective of her own liberal values. With an acerbic wit and insight revealed in the double meaning of the novel's title, Rosenfeld deftly punctures the hypocrisy that's sometimes exposed in the daunting process of trying to be true to one's professed beliefs. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: Lucinda Rosenfeld offers a piercing take on one woman's struggle to narrow the gap between her liberal ideals and the realities of modern urban life.

Little, Brown, $26, hardcover, 352p., 9780316265416

Mystery & Thriller

Little Heaven

by Nick Cutter

Horror novelist Nick Cutter (The Troop) continues his streak of genre mash-ups with Little Heaven, a nasty epic that grafts Lovecraftian imagery onto a neo-western foundation, throwing in a cult subplot for good measure. The novel bounces back and forth in time between the 1960s (when three guns-for-hire named Micah, Minerva and Ebenezer get roped into a scheme to rescue a young boy from Little Heaven, a Jonestown-like cult in the backwoods of New Mexico) and the 1980s (when Micah rounds them back up to help save his daughter). The 1960s plot has the three gunfighters gradually discovering the horrific supernatural underpinnings of Little Heaven, while the 1980s story is about the trio's reluctant return to a place they've never been able to forget.

Cutter might not be as pithy as Elmore Leonard, but his hardboiled prose is perfect for the flowery unknowability that characterizes Lovecraftian horror: "When humans experience something that challenges their fundamental belief of the world--its reasonableness, its fixed parameters--well, their minds crimp just a bit. A mind folds, and in that fresh pleat lives a darkness that cannot be explained or accounted for." Which is not to say that Cutter is shy with gross-out scares: "It opened its mouth. Its face split in half, pulling its head apart; the top of its skull levered back like a Pez dispenser." The novel even includes grotesque illustrations perversely reminiscent of the charming sketches commonly found in 19th-century classics. Cutter knows horror, and he nails the basics well enough to support ambitious plotting and refreshing genre experimentation. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

Discover: Hardened mercenaries encounter supernatural evil on their mission to save a child from a dangerous cult.

Gallery Books, $26, hardcover, 496p., 9781501104213

The Girl Before

by JP Delaney

Emma insists to her boyfriend that they can no longer stay in their apartment after her traumatic assault during a break-in. Their realtor mentions a special house: One Folgate Street. It's a fantastic property, but the owner is not your typical landlord.

Jane can no longer afford her current flat. Her realtor mentions a promising option--an amazing place, really. The catch? It's not a typical lease agreement, which is especially fitting since One Folgate Street is not a typical rental.

Each woman is so taken with the apartment she is willing to accept the roughly 200 stipulations of the minimalist covenant--no pictures, no potted plants, no books, no ornaments--and meet with the owner, Edward Monkford, for a face-to-face interview.

The Girl Before is told in alternating points of view, with the chapters rotating between the voices of Emma and Jane, each residing at One Folgate Street, several years apart. The integration of high-end technologies contributes to the eerie atmosphere--the house constantly watches and monitors its inhabitants. The two women are dramatically different personalities, but their experiences in the home--including an affair with Monkford that works to weave a darkly erotic element into their stories--begin to mirror each other's.

Intense and entertaining, this a satisfying read for fans of domestic thrillers, and minimalists may find some new decorating ideas. Either way, shuck off the unnecessary commitments and settle in for a wild stay in an innovative house packed with mystery. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: JP Delaney has crafted a psychological thriller around a distinctive building that enchants two women with its minimalist design.

Ballantine, $27, hardcover, 352p., 9780425285046

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day

by Seanan McGuire

John W. Campbell Award-winning writer Seanan McGuire (Every Heart a Doorway) has written a thrilling and thought-provoking ghost story about a woman who dies before her time and must deal with unfinished business.

In 2015 Manhattan, Jenna works as a suicide prevention counselor and shares her apartment with terminally ill cats adopted from a local shelter. She drowned in Mill Hollow during a 1972 storm, as she ran away from her grieving family after her sister Patty's suicide, for which she blames herself. For each suicide Jenna prevents, equal time is deducted from the debt she owes for dying early. She receives disturbing news, however, that New York ghosts are disappearing, mirror-bound by a witch with mysterious motives. Jenna teams up with the corn witch Brenda to search for the missing ghosts, but all paths lead back to Mill Hollow, forcing Jenna to confront the very demons that kept her away.

The story has a lot in common with Showtime's Dead Like Me: the dead who coexist among the living in purgatory until they cross over, the touch that bleeds (or gifts) away a life, and dealing with the aftermath of unexpected death. McGuire's mythology digs deeper to explore the issues behind life, death and loss in a way that is natural, believable and life affirming. And Jenna is admirable in her desire to do right. In the end, "Everything that lives can die, and everything that dies can leave a ghost behind." --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: A dead woman teams up with a witch to settle unfinished business and restore New York City's ghosts to their natural order.

Tor, $15.99, paperback, 192p., 9780765391421

Biography & Memoir


by Gregor Hens, trans. by Jen Calleja

Cigarettes inspired German author and translator Gregor Hens to write the unconventional and intriguing meditation Nicotine. He examines his life as a smoker and non-smoker many times over. "I've smoked well over a hundred thousand cigarettes... and each one of those cigarettes meant something to me.... Every cigarette that I've ever smoked served a purpose," he tells us as he delves into his past and delivers an entertaining book that is part memoir, part essay and part research summary into the "all-pervading nature" of addiction.

Hens recounts how and when smoking took root in his life: he was six years old when his mother gave him a lit cigarette to ignite the fuse on a bottle rocket one New Year's Eve. He supplements his personal anecdotes by sharing cultural customs related to smoking, especially during his formative years in the 1970s and 1980s. With detailed, fluid and sensual prose, he weaves tidbits of history throughout, including Adolf Hitler's anti-smoking stance and Mark Twain's wit on the subject.

At the time of writing Nicotine, Hens was no longer a smoker. But he explains that he wrote it in order to dissect his addiction and analyze how smoking colored distinct eras of his life and served as inspiration for his creativity. Smoking and cigarettes might not be good for the health of the body, but Hens's glimpse through the prism of addiction offers an enriching and enlightening account that benefits the mind and the soul. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A writer and translator explores his experiences with smoking, cigarettes and the nature of addiction.

Other Press, $16.95, hardcover, 208p., 9781590517932

The Princess Diarist

by Carrie Fisher

In Carrie Fisher's third collection of essays (following Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic), the actress, writer and humorist looks back four decades to recall the summer of 1976, when she was 19 and spent three months in England playing Princess Leia in the film Star Wars. A sizable portion of The Princess Diarist excerpts from the three notebooks she kept during the filming. Rather than offering behind-the-scenes anecdotes about filming the blockbuster film that spawned a galaxy of sequels and merchandise, Fisher's witty and highly quotable diaries primarily focus on her affair with costar Harrison Ford.

This is no tabloid tell-all. "There are some things that I still consider private," Fisher writes. "Clothes falling away signals a situation that I'll likely avoid putting into words." The Princess Diarist focuses on Fisher's attempts to sort through her raw emotions and self-doubts as a sexually inexperienced young woman falling in love with a charming but aloof married man. "I've got to learn something from my mistakes instead of establishing a new record to break." Even as a teenager, Fisher was acutely observant and used her diary to precisely dissect her feelings about wanting a relationship but fearing vulnerability and exposure of her self-destructive nature. "Heaven's no place for one who thrives on hell." 

Fisher's trademark self-deprecating wit and astute self-analysis are well represented in The Princess Diarist. This is a thoughtful, achingly candid and supremely clever memoir. Sadly, Fisher (1956-2016) died while on tour promoting the last of her seven books. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: With incisive wit and heartbreaking vulnerability, the late Carrie Fisher recalls her long-hidden love affair with Harrison Ford while filming Star Wars.

Blue Rider Press, $26, hardcover, 272p., 9780399173592

Social Science

Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths about America's Lingua Franca

by John McWhorter

Linguistics professor John McWhorter (Words on the Move) has a message in Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America's Lingua Franca: he exhorts his readers and the general public to recognize Black English (a term he prefers to African American Vernacular English or to Ebonics) as a language unto itself, not merely a mess of grammatical mistakes and slang: "a development that happens alongside the standard variety, not in opposition to it."

McWhorter worries that academic linguists have relied too long on scholarly arguments in making this point. He does review some of those arguments--for example, Black English's systematicity, meaning it has a grammar of its own--but then turns to global language patterns. Many cultures and language groups speak both a formal and a casual language in different settings, e.g., Standard Arabic and the local colloquial form (Egyptian Arabic, Syrian, etc.). While he acknowledges that racism partly underlies a general resistance to Black English as a legitimate language, he quickly moves on to what he sees as the larger problem: a misunderstanding of the value of diglossia, or speaking two languages. Along the way, McWhorter cites the relationship between modern Black English and the lingo of minstrel shows, makes the case for a recognizably black way of speaking (or "blaccent") and examines usages such as "baby mama," "who dat?" and what he perceives as two versions of the N-word.

Linguistics fans will be enthralled by McWhorter's fascinating and logically presented study of two forms of English spoken in the United States. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A linguist argues for the legitimate and complicated contributions of the language he calls Black English.

Bellevue Literary Press, $19.99, hardcover, 192p., 9781942658207

Travel Literature

Meet Me at the Bamboo Table: Everyday Meals Everywhere

by A.V. Crofts

University of Washington professor Anita Verna Crofts has assembled a warm and thought-provoking collection of essays about food and the people with whom she's enjoyed meals around the world. The pieces are rather short, roughly three pages each, but they're packed with provocative meditations on the power of food to transform mere acquaintances into friends and foreign lands into something like home.

The title essay exhibits strengths found throughout the collection: lyricism, fascinating descriptions of cultural traditions and an awareness of the history behind those traditions. In Kunming, China, in 1992, recent college graduate Crofts is seeking coffee in the "land of tea." She finds it in a small shop, whose "white-tiled walls resembled a subway platform" and whose patrons were elderly--a far cry from the hip java joints she was used to in Seattle. In "Feeding the Neighborhood," Crofts walks through the cobblestone streets of Rome, amazed by the city's smallness (little pastries, tiny apartments). That sense of amazement sticks with her, and when she's back in the States, she sells her car and downsizes to a condo. These essays are more than loving memories of food--they're instructions for living life.

They also address Crofts's privileged status as a tourist. In "A Common Language of Meat," she ruminates on her outsider status in Namibia's inner cities and considers the ethical dilemma of gaining access to a community that she did not earn. Crofts's sensitivity to cultural differences and loving descriptions of the communities she visits make Meet Me at the Bamboo Table a compelling collection of writing on food, travel and memory. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and critic

Discover: With sensitivity and lyricism, Crofts explores the food and cultures of different peoples around the world.

Chin Music, $16.95, paperback, 216p., 9781634059602

Children's & Young Adult

City of Saints & Thieves

by Natalie C. Anderson

Sixteen-year-old Congolese refugee Tina, aka Tiny Girl, has spent five years on her own on the streets of Sangui City, Kenya. She visits her younger half-sister, Kiki, at the nuns' school, but she's otherwise singularly focused on a plan to avenge the murder of their mother by the hand of her former employer, the white, wealthy mining mogul Mr. Greyhill. Tiny Girl is a member of a tattooed gang of tech-savvy thieves called the Goondas, who "pick up refugee kids like that street dog picks up fleas." In her straight-talking way, she explains, "I learned how to hurt people, and how to be hurt but not show it." When the fateful night comes for her gang to infiltrate the compound of her nemesis Mr. Greyhill, she has honed her plan for vengeance to a sharp point: "Dirt. Money. Blood." But when all goes awry, Tiny Girl is launched into a deadly odyssey to Congo and beyond to find the truth about her past.

Natalie C. Anderson's breathtaking debut is deep, dark and--remarkably for the subject--quite funny at times. Tiny's tough exterior masks the vulnerable, motherless child within. Dialogue between Tiny and the memorable characters--fey IT genius Boyboy; crafty Bug Eye; "dull-witted as two rocks in a bag" Ketchup; and bewildered Michael, son of "Mr. G" and former friend of Tiny's--is snappy and authentic. Pages will fly by as readers root for Tiny and her loved ones, even if she can't yet admit they--and she--are loved. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Congolese teen refugee and Kenya street gang member Tiny Girl pursues her mother's killer across Africa in a high-tech, street-savvy mission of vengeance.

Putnam, $18.99, hardcover, 432p., ages 13-up, 9780399547584

Scar Island

by Dan Gemeinhart

In teacher-librarian Dan Gemeinhart's (The Honest Truth; Some Kind of Courage) thrilling and darkly comedic third novel, Scar Island, 12-year-old Jonathan Grisby is sentenced to 10 weeks at Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys. Sixteen juvenile offenders and eight adults occupy Slabhenge, an Alcatraz-like former insane asylum "surrounded on all sides by the foaming sea." Presiding over the island is the Admiral, a tyrannical warden with a penchant for chocolate, full naval dress and excessive corporal punishment. The Admiral believes that through work and necessary discipline, he can rehabilitate the "[b]loody, disgusting little scabs" in his charge. He never gets that chance with Jonathan.

During "Morning Muster," a deadly lightning storm leaves the Slabhenge students devoid of adult supervision and the boys are left to fend for themselves. They reluctantly rally around Sebastian, an older boy with a violent, authoritarian streak and the longest tenure at Slabhenge: "He called us scabs right?... You know what you get when you keep picking at a scab?... You get a scar, idiots... scars are tough... This ain't Slabhenge anymore!... It's Scar Island... Say it!" As the boys revel in their newfound freedoms--eating gluttonously, exploring hidden corridors, reading Robin Crusoe aloud--tensions rise among them. The stakes intensify further when the storm of the century threatens to wipe out the entire school.

With a nod to William Golding's Lord of the Flies and other survival tales, Scar Island delves deeply into the guilt, regret and shame that can consume a person's life. Friendship, however, can be the antidote to many hardships, and redemption may be just within reach. --Casey Stryer, publishing assistant, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Dan Gemeinhart's haunting, suspenseful third novel follows 12-year-old juvenile offender Jonathan Grisby as he adjusts to his new life at an Alcatraz-like reformatory for troubled boys.

Scholastic Press, $16.99, hardcover, 256p., ages 10-14, 9781338053845

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