Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, February 14, 2017

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

From My Shelf

Expect the Unexpected: Reading John le Carré

Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of Amberlough (Tor, $25.99), a debut spy thriller set in a fantastical version of the Roaring Twenties (reviewed below). Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod and Mythic Delirium. She is a graduate of the Alpha and Clarion writers' workshops and a winner of the Dell Magazine Award.

photo: Debra Wilburn

I put off reading John le Carré's classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for a long time, convinced it was going to be a boring book about boring old white men. How delicious to be proven so very, very wrong. I finally read it when I was working on my own spy thriller, Amberlough, and needed intel on how real espionage worked. Le Carré started writing fiction while he still worked for the Secret Intelligence Service, so I figured he wouldn't steer me wrong.

The opening scene, in which Jim Prideaux tows his trailer onto school grounds and meets Bill Roach, school outcast, threw me off balance, charmed me. What was this story about a limping French teacher and a painfully nerdy kid? This wasn't how a spy thriller was supposed to start. But the tension in this book builds like the gradual increase of white noise in a stress test chamber, until it's roaring in your ears, jacking up your blood pressure, shortening your breath. You don't remember getting to this point, but here you are.

It's a structure that mirrors its main character, George Smiley, a man so inoffensive, so bland and unassuming, you don't realize he's interrogating you until you've told him all your secrets. And while it is a book largely about old white men, there are several capable, canny women. There is canon queerness. There is incredible complexity in every character interaction, and all of it feeds into the plot. I had to eat my words: this book was anything but boring.

It served as inspiration for Amberlough. Spies didn't need to be James Bond; they didn't need to chase down villains and assassinate them with exploding pens. All they needed was to know the right people, and lean on them just hard enough.

Book Candy

Profound Act of Reading Aloud

Brightly explored "building a world of empathy through the simple yet profound act of reading aloud."


Headline of the day: "Portrait of 'real' Mr. Darcy unlikely to set 21st century hearts aflutter."


Bustle shared "13 quotes from 1984 that are horrifyingly relevant In 2017."


The New York Public Library shared "10 fun facts about Winnie the Pooh."


Buzzfeed displayed "26 literary tattoos that are borderline genius."


In Siberia, an Ice Library of Wonders at the Gora Sobolinaya (Sable Mountain) ski resort near the town of Baikalsk "is part of a campaign to put the area on the international tourism map," BBC News reported.

The Impossible Fortress

by Jason Rekulak

It is 1987, and 14-year-old Will has an ordinary, perfectly boring teenage life. His time and energy are spent on fitting in in high school, obsessing about hot girls, ferreting out the secrets of computer coding--and, wherever possible, combining those three things for greatest effect. Case in point: his coding of the game "Strip Poker with Christie Brinkley," in which a string of computer code allows players to battle the computer in poker, removing an article of clothing from Brinkley (rendered in punctuation marks) for every hand the computer loses. His mother works the late shift at the local grocery store, leaving Will and his two best friends, Alf and Clark, with ample un-chaperoned time to spend as they see fit--biking around town, renting videos and generally acting like teenage boys. "But then Playboy published nude photographs of Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White, [Will] fell head over heels in love, and everything changed."

So begins The Impossible Fortress, Jason Rekulak's debut novel, which features the world's most unlikely heist: the theft of the Vanna White issue of Playboy (since they're too young to purchase it) from a local office supply store. With wily ingenuity, Will and his friends plot their caper, complete with a scale model of their small hometown that would leave even Ocean's Eleven envious of their planning skills.

Part of the boys' plan to steal the magazine involves Will romancing the office storeowner's daughter, Mary. But as Will sets out to befriend and ultimately seduce the awkward, computer-obsessed girl who codes in the back of the store, he finds he's more intent on working with Mary to build a new computer game than he is in kissing her. As the two work together to teach themselves a new coding language and design a game to enter in a nearby gaming contest, their friendship turns into something more real than Will had ever envisioned--and the already complicated heist becomes more tangled than any scale model could predict. As Will's feelings for Mary intensify, he begins to realize the potential for his reckless actions to hurt those he cares most about.

The Impossible Fortress is set in 1987 Wetbridge, N.J., a working-class town, and the novel feels entirely a part of this time and place. Will is captivated by early-days computer coding on a Commodore 64, and dreams of winning an IBM PS/2 in a video game design contest. He and his friends visit the local video store to rent and re-rent the same movies time and again. Their town is marked by a main street full of shuttered or struggling shops, "squeezed by competition from all the new shopping malls." The very center of the heist--the Playboy and the boys' plan to sell photocopies of the pictures to classmates--is inherent to the year. But while The Impossible Fortress is fully immersed in 1980s culture, what is most remarkable about Rekulak's story is the way his reflections on being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood prove as relevant today as they would have been then.

Rekulak's tale takes place during a few months of Will's freshman year of high school, when Will and his friends are still poised on the edge of young adulthood. In many ways, the three are still little boys, dreaming up wild adventures to fill their empty afternoons that feature themselves as the heroes of their own stories. But they are also beginning to recognize their place in the world, the hardships their parents face and the realities of moving into adulthood. Will, in particular, seems to realize the potential for his actions to help (or hurt) those around him as he grows into himself (a transition represented by his switch from the childhood nickname "Billy" to the more adult "Will" over the course of the book). This coming of age is brought more fully into focus as the relationship between Will and Mary becomes ever more meaningful. 

Rekulak has carefully nested these thoughtful reflections on growing up within the absurd story of the boys' attempted burglary, which keeps the book squarely in the camp of "funny" over "serious." But the funny here serves to further underscore the importance of the serious: the heist provides a unique framework for a sweet and memorable coming-of-age love story. Rekulak's ingenious novel is sure to appeal to anyone who likes an endearing tale. --Kerry McHugh

Simon & Schuster, $24, hardcover, 304p., 9781501144417

Jason Rekulak: Growing Up in the '80s

photo: Courtney Apple

Jason Rekulak is the publisher of Quirk Books, where he has worked on bestselling titles such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. In his debut novel, The Impossible Fortress, three teenage boys in the 1980s set out on a seemingly impossible task: to steal the issue of Playboy featuring Vanna White. Rekulak lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two children.

You work in publishing, but this is your first novel. Was the process surprising? Did your work experience make this easier or harder?

I've been at Quirk for 16 years, so I'm pretty entrenched in the indie world with no corporate infrastructure or massive resources. So it has been revealing to see how a big house handles your book. That's been fascinating, and I've had some exposure to some new things. On the other hand, though, some things are wholly familiar. They're currently in the process of changing the cover... again. Of course they have to change it. It wouldn't be publishing if they didn't have to make changes. I'd say background at Quirk has definitely prepared me for some of the bumps along the road.

Do you think your experience as a publisher changed the way you wrote the book at all?

Probably. At this point, I've worked on a lot of books. I feel a lot more confident than I did when I was younger, but I don't know if that is because of my experience as a publisher, necessarily.

On the one hand, I think the book is commercial and has a lot of hooks. On the other hand, I think it must not be commercial at all, because there aren't really any good comparative titles for it. So part of me thinks that maybe my work as a publisher influenced some of the choices I made, but I'm not sure.

The Impossible Fortress reads like a heist story--but not a traditional one. What drew you to this genre?

The Impossible Fortress is, on the surface, a silly heist book set in the '80s about these young boys who are planning to steal something totally ridiculous: the issue of Playboy featuring Vanna White.

I had that itch that I think a lot of writers have: to write about my childhood, my adolescence, my coming of age. Will and the world that he lives in are based on my own experiences. His town is exactly where I grew up geographically. I loved the downtown we had; instead of a Staples, you had a real store, and that money stayed in the community. We had an independent bookstore that was five blocks from my house.

But then I had to ask myself, what are they going to do? These kids can't just sit around talking for the whole book. Once I hit on the heist framework, that gave all these ideas a shape and a structure. It wasn't like the heist here was life or death, either, because I didn't overwhelm all of the other things I wanted to write about.

On its surface, the book is very funny; it's slightly absurd and has some hilarious moments. But it's also fairly serious, with many reflections on what it's like to be a teenager, especially in the '80s.

I find I'm most comfortable with the funny stuff. I'm less comfortable with the passages where I'm trying to dig into real emotion and heart. I just worry that it's going to make readers throw the book across the room. That was something that really came out in the editing process. I had a great editor who would point out where I had a strong point and needed to add a couple more lines to really get to the heart of what was happening emotionally. A lot of that is still pretty subtle, though. I thought that any kind of big scene where I spelled it all out would be kind of annoying. 

Will is a computer gamer who teaches himself code. Are you a coder yourself? Or were you when you were Will's age?

I was a big computer programmer when I was a teenager, and I really loved that era of early home computers where you had to literally type in the code if you wanted to play something. The games you could buy then weren't designed by thousands of people like they are now, they were designed by one person who did everything: the graphics, the sound, the music, and the coding. When I was Will's age, 13 or 14, that was my aspiration: I wanted to be one of those people.

I would make games that were really very rudimentary: you would be a square and you'd have to go fight the monsters that were squares. But the instructions for the game would be 7 or 8 pages of text, with history and backstory and where all the square characters were from and where they were going. It was all completely irrelevant to the game, but it was a form of writing that I felt like I could do. So I would create these giant games with these giant backstories, which was kind of like writing fiction, in a way.

By the time I got to college, I realized I didn't have to do the coding part of it if I didn't want to. I could do the writing and the story part of it and not have to bother with the messy coding and software and all that stuff. So that's what I did. And now I work in publishing.

So the pieces of code that introduce each chapter... are those functional?

My original plan was to make the game that Will and Mary are making; those excerpts are code for the game. I wanted them to be playable on these emulators you can download for your computer now that will turn it into Commodore 64 or a TRS-8 or whatever. But six months into writing the book and making the game, I realized no one was going to download the emulator for Commodore 64 and then type in all of this code. (Even though that's what I did all the time when I was 14; I'd think nothing of typing in several hundred lines of code.)

Instead I ended up partnering with this husband-wife wizard programming team to make this game where readers could just go online to play it. They read the book, and read about the game in the book, and they figured out a way to turn it into a real thing. Ultimately, if we did the game right, I think the gameplay will underscore the story of The Impossible Fortress. --Kerry McHugh

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Review


The White City

by Karolina Ramqvist, trans. by Saskia Vogel

Karolina Ramqvist's The White City is the story of sensitive Karin and her mysterious gangster lover, John. Karin's lavish life has gone on the rocks after John has disappeared and the Swedish authorities are about to seize their modernist mansion, car and ill-gotten bank accounts.

All Karin has left is their infant daughter, Dream, and a safe full of guns. Her phone and utilities are soon to be disconnected; winter's wind and snow chill her cement-floored house. John's former gang members and their girlfriends won't return her calls. Karin's once extravagant edgy life has been shrunk to one of motherhood: "Dried pools of breast milk and urine, patches of drool, and globs of spit-up splotched the champagne-colored satin sheets.... Dirty towels and crumpled wet wipes were strewn among glasses and bowls crusted with leftovers." Can Karin muster the energy and wits to use John's small arsenal to shake money out of his fellow mobsters? Can she be the mother to Dream that she wants to and feels she ought to be?

If lean on plot, The White City is rich in language and ambience. Moody, mysterious, maternal and magnetic, it is a story set against a frozen landscape "mottled with meltwater and mud splatter," with slippery subway stairways and immigrants shoveling snow from roofs. Winner of Sweden's prestigious 2015 Enquist Prize, it is a haunting novel of a woman adrift yet firmly attached to romantic memories of her lover and the simple needs of her daughter. Like a Madonna of the tundra, Karin is a resilient and irresistible protagonist, and Ramqvist is a serious contender for the Swedish literary limelight. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: The White City is an evocative, moody story of a missing mobster's lover--once living large, but now left with only her infant daughter and a safe full of guns.

Black Cat/Grove Press, $16, paperback, 224p., 9780802125958

Ancient Tillage

by Raduan Nassar, trans. by K.C.S. Sotelino

Raduan Nassar's Ancient Tillage, newly translated by K.C.S. Sotelino, offers a Dionysian rush of lyricism, a drunken dance of description and imagery that opens the darkest doors of human desire. First published in Brazil in 1975, this short yet emotionally intense novel is divided into 30 chapters, ranging in length from a few pages to brief single paragraphs. The tragic tale of a farmer family in dissolution is revealed through the point of view of André, the family's adolescent son, who is torn between a father's piety and his own indulgent desire for his sister, Ana. His transgressive sexuality and poetic sensibilities become a potent, anarchic force undermining patriarchal order.

In this way, Ancient Tillage extends the dark romantic individualism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; it presents the individual mind as bold destroyer of hierarchy but also, in turn, as a passive receptacle, fatally sensitive and eternally haunted by images and desires. That such self-indulgence leads to familial strife and tragedy, as in Goethe's novels, is not surprising. But unlike his European predecessors, Nassar (A Cup of Rage) hews an earthy, sensual expressionism more reminiscent of Latin American poets like Pablo Neruda. The novel brims with lavish images and symbols of nature, such as "the damp, silent blue breeze that soars like a scarf over the atmosphere at the same time every day." Nassar's sentences flow in sinuous, mesmerizing waves, educing "destiny's baroque geometry" and the "bright dust" of creation. Deeply stirring and unforgettable, Ancient Tillage is nothing short of a literary masterpiece. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist and fiction author

Discover: This English translation of a classic Brazilian novel offers a dizzying and disturbing experience of the lyrical self.

New Directions, $14.95, paperback, 184p., 9780811226561

The Girl in the Garden

by Melanie Wallace

Melanie Wallace (The Housekeeper) takes readers back to 1970s New England with The Girl in the Garden. June is a very new, very young mother when Ward abandons her and their son, Luke, in a vacation cabin on the Atlantic coast. June's short life has been one of isolation and neglect; she has no one to go back to and no idea of a future to work toward.

Mabel, the woman who rented the cabin to Ward, takes pity on June and allows her to stay. When the vacation season draws to an end and the cold weather approaches, Mabel makes arrangements for June to move into a guesthouse belonging to her reclusive friend Iris. Here June meets Iris's lawyer Duncan and his friend Oldman. She begins to shape a life for herself and Luke in the small community, until Iris's estranged daughter returns, bringing a war-scarred Vietnam veteran along with her. The Girl in the Garden tells their stories--their secrets, struggles and successes--gracefully woven together in poetic prose that evokes strong atmosphere and sense of place. Whether it's Oldman's Studebaker, the town restaurant or Iris's garden on the year's first snowfall, Wallace warmly envelops the reader in the essence of her setting.

The Girl in the Garden is populated with scarred characters; some carry visible scars while others harbor hidden ones. Each suffers on the fringes of society because of these scars. But Wallace shows how healing acceptance can be. Soulful and exquisite, this novel blooms with the beauty of humanity. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: A young mother, abandoned with her infant son in a coastal New England village, finds a future and a purpose with the townspeople who take her in.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, hardcover, 240p., 9780544784666

Mystery & Thriller


by Lara Elena Donnelly

Lara Elena Donnelly's gay fantasy spy novel straddles a number of genres, but Amberlough is an audacious, hypnotic and completely compelling debut novel that never feels restrained by genre limitations or fractured by its reach. At nearly 400 pages, this is a hefty novel full of fascinating characters exploring oversized topics such as sexuality, music, culture, fascism, nationalism, class wars, revolution and love.

It opens with epigraphs from John le Carré and from Christopher Isherwood's fictional character Sally Bowles. So it's not surprising that the vaguely European city of Amberlough feels like noir-ish Berlin in the 1930s. The government is corrupt, the nightlife is decadent and a conservative, fascist organization called the One State Party (nicknamed the Ospies) is on the rise. Gay master spy Cyril DePaul works for the city's central intelligence and has been on desk duty since he was nearly killed on his last mission. Although shaken by the experience, he's convinced to go back into the field to infiltrate the Ospies. Complications arise when his cover is blown and he's blackmailed into working as a double agent to help sway the upcoming election to favor the Ospies. Amberlough is not a trustworthy city, but DePaul's only way out is to endanger the lives of two people he does trust: his lover Aristide Makricosta (the high-profile emcee at the very popular Bumble Bee Cabaret and a secret black market smuggler) and beautiful dancer Cordelia Lehane, who works with Makricosta.

Donnelly's exuberant and complicated espionage thriller is a delicious adventure that smoothly addresses timely topics such as diversity, nationalism, corruption and repression. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: This timely debut novel is an ambitious and entertaining espionage thriller that tackles sexual politics, the rise of fascism and political corruption.

Tor, $25.99, hardcover, 400p., 9780765383815


by Ragnar Jonasson, trans. by Quentin Bates

It's 2008 and the Icelandic economy is imploding, so Ari Thór Arason is thrilled to be offered a police job straight out of the academy. His girlfriend is not so excited to learn that the job is in Siglufjörður, a remote northern fishing village closer to the Arctic Circle than to Reykjavik, and so she stays behind.

Siglufjörður is surrounded by fjords, and the only road access is through a narrow tunnel. This seems charming at first, but quickly gives the already lonely Ari a mounting sense of claustrophobia. Then, in quick succession, a retired, famous author is found dead at the bottom of the local theater's staircase, apparently the victim of an unfortunate stumble, and a woman is found lying in the snow, half-naked, bleeding and barely alive.

As an avalanche blocks the road, Ari becomes convinced that the two incidents might be related, and that the elderly writer's fall was no accident. But small-town prejudices are playing against Ari the newcomer, and he must race to catch a killer before the road reopens. His suspect pool is small, but they seem to be protecting each other.

A blend of Agatha Christie's classic crime stories and Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic thrillers, Snowblind aptly depicts Ari's tension and terror as he grows ever more isolated. Perfectly capturing the pressures of rural life and the freezing, deadly Icelandic winter, Snowblind will keep readers on the edge of their seats--preferably snuggled beneath a warm blanket. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: A young Icelandic policeman struggles to solve his first case in a tiny town cut off by an avalanche from the outside world.

Minotaur Books, $25.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250096074

Distress Signals

by Catherine Ryan Howard

Catherine Ryan Howard's Distress Signals--shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards' Crime Novel of the Year after its U.K. release--opens with a man plunging off a cruise ship into dark waters, but readers will have to wait to discover why he jumped.

Adam Dunne's girlfriend Sarah leaves Cork, Ireland, to attend a business conference in Barcelona. She doesn't return. And no one can reach her. Then he receives her passport in a package mailed from France, with a note saying, "I'm sorry--S."

Adam sets out to track down Sarah, not believing she would leave him like that. When he digs into her recent activities, however, he discovers a shocking secret, and that Sarah was last seen on a cruise ship called the Celebrate. He books himself on the same ship, but will he find Sarah at one of the ports, or his own death?

Though this is Howard's debut novel, she writes with complete command of language, plot and the thriller genre. She also knows the ins and outs of maritime laws that often lead to deaths on ships in international waters going unsolved.

The chapters alternate among the points of view of three characters: Adam; a crew member on the ship; and a boy named Romain, whose story occurs mostly in the past and is itself a mystery in how it intersects with the others. In a testament to Howard's skill, Romain's narrative is the most moving and resonant--his soul may be distressed but his humanity comes through loud and clear. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: A man goes looking for his missing girlfriend on the cruise ship where she was last seen.

Blackstone Publishing, $24.99, hardcover, 9781504757522

Rather Be the Devil

by Ian Rankin

After more than 15 mysteries starring the maverick, whisky-drinking Inspector John Rebus, it seemed Ian Rankin (Even Dogs in the Wild) had left him behind, instead writing about Inspector Malcolm Fox, a teetotalling, do-it-by-the-books cop. But, in his last few novels, Rankin has crafted some delightful mysteries starring these two as part of an unlikely trio of investigators: Rebus, Fox and DI Siobhan Clarke.

When Darryl Christie is badly beaten, Clarke immediately suspects the Edinburgh gangster's long-term rival, Big Ger Cafferty, who has supposedly retired from the life of crime. Fox and his team of specialist investigators are called in when the organized crime alerts go off, and Clarke and Fox turn to the retired Rebus as their unofficial assistant, since his knowledge of Big Ger Cafferty goes back decades.

Over the years Rebus has achieved a grudging respect for his former nemesis, especially since the young new villains aren't playing by the rules. But things get more complicated as Rebus can't resist poking his nose into a cold case, Fox and Clarke find a former cop dead under suspicious circumstances, and Christie's supposed assailant vanishes from police surveillance. In addition, Fox is facing some huge problems with his sister, who struggles with addiction and who tangentially gets involved in their case against Cafferty.

With his spare Scottish prose, some hilarious moments between Rebus and Fox as their disparate personalities clash, and a deft weaving of many separate plot lines, Rather Be the Devil is a practically perfect mystery. And its shocking denouement will leave the reader eager for the next in the series. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: Detective Inspector Rebus comes out of retirement to help with a tricky case involving several of Edinburgh's biggest crime bosses.

Little, Brown, $27, hardcover, 320p., 9780316342575

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Binti: Home

by Nnedi Okorafor

In Nnedi Okorafor's series, a gifted young Himba girl named Binti heads to an off-Earth university for highly talented galactic citizens, against her family's wishes. En route, she chooses to become genetically altered to better broker a peace between the jellyfish-like aliens who attack the transport ship (the Meduse) and the humans aboard.

This altering gives Binti tentacles in place of hair, further making her feel like an outsider at home. While she befriends aliens on a different planet, her Himba family and friends value putting down roots and never wandering. Binti and her honorable Meduse friend, Okwu, have both done well in their studies on Oomza; still, Binti feels called to return to her family home and undergo the traditional rites of becoming a woman. Taking her friend home with her is Binti's way of harmonizing relations between humanity, her conservative family and Okwu himself.

Once on Earth, Binti's family has a hard time accepting Binti's new tentacles, not to mention her wanderlust. When Binti's paternal grandmother comes to the tiny village from the nearby desert, Binti must choose between loyalty to her matriarchal tribe and yet another unsanctioned trip away, with her grandmother's tribe, who are outcasts among the Himba.

Home, like its Hugo and Nebula-winning predecessor, Binti, gives readers a view of humanity's future from a non-Western perspective, with a young woman-of-color protagonist and a well-constructed universe full of alien and human foibles. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A woman must choose between rigid family tradition and adventure among space aliens.

Tor, $14.99, paperback, 176p., 9780765393111

Biography & Memoir

The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan

by Patricia Bosworth

Patricia Bosworth's moving and raw The Men in My Life is a riveting memoir of family dysfunction, comparable to Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle and Brooke Hayward's Haywire.

This unsparing and superbly written follow-up to Bosworth's 1997 memoir, Anything Your Little Heart Desires, focuses on the years 1953 to 1964. At 20, she marries the first man she bedded--a volatile and physically abusive painter who distances her from her family and erodes her self-esteem. When her gay younger brother commits suicide, her family splinters further. "We remained a family full of terrible silences," she writes. Her lawyer father's escalating alcoholism and prescription drug addiction leads to several suicide attempts and unsuccessful rehabs stints before he also kills himself. Adrift from her family and reeling from grief, Bosworth focuses her attention on an acting career and is accepted into Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio. She channels her suppressed emotions and forges friendships with Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Elaine Stritch and others.

Her bad romantic choices in men (including a married actor four years her father's senior), and a near-deadly abortion days before flying to Rome to film The Nun's Story opposite Audrey Hepburn, finally bring an epiphany. Although she had appeared in several Broadway productions, she realizes her true passion is writing. Her friendships with Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal point her toward this calling. Bosworth's memoir excels as both a searing and tragic family portrait and fascinating look at a budding stage career in the 1950s. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Patricia Bosworth dissects how the suicides of her brother and father propelled her toward bad relationships and a career on stage.

Harper, $27.99, hardcover, 384p., 9780062287908

Social Science

Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life

by Haider Warraich

In Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life, Haider Warraich explores how human death has evolved over the course of history and offers recommendations for its future. A medical doctor, Warraich supplements his research with anecdotes from his personal experience, and draws on literature, theology, statistics and legal theory as well as the hard sciences. The resulting expert opinion is heartfelt, convincing and well informed.

Warraich begins with the mechanics of how cells die and the opportunities for analogy they offer: cells choose to die to promote the good of the organism; not dying on time is as bad as dying too soon. He recounts the medical advances that have increased human life spans astronomically in the last two centuries. In what comes to feel like the heart of Modern Death, Warraich then studies the nuances of euthanasia, assisted suicides and the withdrawal of life-support systems, and their legal histories in the United States and worldwide. He finds that these three categories of death are far less distinct than generally believed. Finally, he advocates strongly for patients' control over their own ends of life and exhorts his readers--patients and physicians alike--to discuss death openly.

For anyone interested in its thesis--that death is an important part of life, and medicine and society could do a better job of delivering this experience--Modern Death is a sincere and thorough examination of an often overlooked subject. Well served by Warraich's professional expertise and earnest emphasis, this is an indispensable contribution to the conversation about death. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: This interdisciplinary study of death and how we can improve--not avoid--it is highly readable and timely.

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781250104588

Travel Literature

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia

by Lisa Dickey

In 1995, ghostwriter Lisa Dickey (Citizenville by Gavin Newsom) was working as a translator in St. Petersburg when she set out on her first voyage across a Russia still reeling from the fall of the Soviet regime. Guided by intuition, she and a photographer made their way westward from Vladivostok, profiling locals and making friends in 11 cities and villages, including Lenin impersonators, the nouveau riche and farmers descended from Genghis Khan. Dickey returned in 2005 to a Russia that was more affluent, confident and open. And in 2015, she found that that confidence had stubbornly ossified amid economic collapse and growing tensions with the U.S. Yet wherever she went, she found a gracious, savvy and often humorous people who were easily able to overlook their differences.

Bears in the Streets is about real people and their cultures, a journalistic ethnography as much as a travelogue. Dickey knows when to report objectively and when to cut loose and enjoy the vodka. She sprinkles her reportage with humorous footnotes and includes personal photos that become a metacommentary on life and aging. Dickey deftly uses her own homosexuality as a lens and point of contrast, as Russian attitudes toward gays change--albeit more slowly than in the U.S.--in the time between her visits. They still believe, however, that Americans think bears roam the Russian streets.

Bears in the Streets is one of those rare books that shows readers something new in the ordinary; it's touching, funny and utterly necessary. --Zak Nelson, writer and bookseller

Discover: This witty and heartfelt time-lapse travelogue focuses on ordinary people, revealing a Russia overlooked by most Westerners.

St. Martin's Press, $25.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781250092298

Children's & Young Adult

We Are Okay

by Nina LaCour

Marin Delaney is alone in her college dormitory at Christmastime, having decided to stay on campus in New York for a month-long semester break after Gramps, her only family, died back home in San Francisco. The staff gave her the groundskeeper's number in case anything went wrong. It's obvious that a lot has gone wrong already for Marin--but the reader is in the dark at first, left to discover Marin's history in flashbacks to her life with Gramps in California.

Anyone who has ever fantasized about spending an entire month completely alone will appreciate Marin's intimate, vivid descriptions of a cleared-out dorm, surrounded by snow, so quiet she can hear the heat come on. She makes lists of things she'll do: make soup, meditate, watch documentaries, find new music. From her emotional depths, she wonders how she'll act when Mabel--the beautiful friend she used to "practice kissing" with, until neither one was practicing anymore--flies 3,000 miles to visit her: "I don't know what I will do with my face: if I will be able to smile, or even if I should."

All the awkwardness and emotion of Mabel's visit are wonderfully portrayed, as the two young women do a delicate dance of friendship and love, hurt and healing, mostly inside an eerily empty dorm. In the hands of Nina LaCour (Hold Still; The Disenchantments; co-author of You Know Me Well), the story of a grieving girl and her profound sense of loneliness is bittersweet and hopeful. Marin is not alone, and in this poetic, skillfully crafted story, lonely teens may see it's possible that they aren't, either. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: In Nina LaCour's YA novel, a grieving student with no family decides to spend winter break alone on her college campus in New York.

Dutton, $17.99, hardcover, 240p., ages 14-up, 9780525425892


by Matthew Van Fleet

"Once upon a time/ there was a tiny little chick/ who went down to the dance hall/ just to get some kicks." The bad news is that Chickie Baby just hatched yesterday and doesn't know how to dance. The good news is that the dance hall is filled with jazzy, jiving animals eager to help the baby chick learn. A three-piece band of rhinoceroses (called The Rhinyls, naturally) keeps the beat while hula-skirted hippos show Chickie Baby how to shake and shimmy, alligators do the Gator Mashed Potater and bowtie-clad pigs demonstrate the Crazy Piggy Tap: "Tippity, tippity,/ tippity, tippity,/ tippity, tippity,/ TAP!"

It's hard to decide what is the best part of Matthew Van Fleet's (Tails; Dog; Heads) extra-sturdy interactive board book. Is it the toe-tapping rhymes, the adorable pastel-colored animals or the big tabs that, when pulled, make the gator's arms swing, the hippopotamus's skirt swish and the Bouncy Bunny's feet "hippy hippy HOP!" behind clear plastic windows? Preschoolers will chant along with a menagerie of wild and barnyard animals as they "boom, baba, BOOM!" and "shimmy,/ shimmy,/ SHAKE!" until the final spread when a partial page folds back to reveal a pop-up grand finale and curtain call. The message to Chickie Baby--and to the reader--is, "You can dance!" Fans of Barnyard Dance (Sandra Boynton) and Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp (Carol Diggory Shields and Scott Nash) will do the Busy Beaver Bop in their joy at being able to add another happy, energetic dance book to their repertoire. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A just-hatched chick gets the lesson of a lifetime at a dance hall full of shimmying, bopping, tap-dancing animals in Matthew Van Fleet's hugely appealing interactive board book.

Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, $19.99, other, 16p., ages 2-up, 9781481487078

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