Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, May 2, 2017

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

From My Shelf

The Enduring Lure of Southern Fiction

Lauren K. Denton makes her debut this month with The Hideaway (Thomas Nelson), a novel set in the South that explores the bittersweet nature of love lost, then found again. Denton lives in Alabama with her husband and two children.

photo: Angie Davis

In the South, we tell stories--those we make up and others that have been passed down through generations--about the people, places, struggles and beliefs that shape our corner of the world. It seems every few years, one of these comes along and knocks everyone on their backs. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Prince of Tides. The Secret Life of Bees. The Help. These books have a reach that extends far past the southern landscape in which they're set. I've often wondered what it is that binds southern stories together and why so many people, no matter where they live, love to immerse themselves in our stories as if they were their own.

The definition of southern fiction has fluctuated over the years, but the major elements remain the same: the priority of family, the closeness of community, struggles over race, the abiding allure of religion. Even for those not born and raised in the South, these themes tend to resonate in some capacity, and often a deep one. Not all southern novels manage to squeeze in every theme--although some do--but I'd wager at least a couple of these elements are present in every piece of southern fiction ever written. Hearing the joys and struggles of other lives, especially lives that take place in this steamy cauldron of hope and hurt, helps us navigate our own.

Book Candy

The Moby-Dick Big Read

Call me Benedict. The "Moby-Dick Big Read" features a different voice for all 135 chapters, including Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Waters and more.


Mental Floss showcased "11 authors who hated the movie versions of their books."


Quirk Books checked out "libraries we wouldn't mind getting locked into."


"Math problems for English majors" were posed by McSweeney's.


Author Fiona Stafford chose her "top 10 books about trees" for the Guardian, while Electric Lit explored "12 unforgettable forests in literature."

Ginny Moon

by Benjamin Ludwig

Benjamin Ludwig pulls from his personal experience with both autism and the foster care system in his charming debut novel, Ginny Moon. The title character is a 13-year-old autistic girl recently adopted by her "forever" parents, Brian and Maura Moon. The Moons love Ginny and provide her with a safe, stable home, an excellent education with the accommodations her disability requires, and the psychological support to weather her transition to a new family.

Before that, when authorities discovered Ginny, she was severely underweight and had been abused by her drug-addled birth mother, Gloria. After struggling through a series of unsuccessful foster homes, Ginny finds herself living in the Blue House with the Moons. The couple is now expecting a biological daughter, so they are trying to prepare Ginny for the arrival of Baby Wendy. However, Ginny's behavior is causing concerns. They borrowed a simulation doll from school, and the data in the device's computer shows Ginny hitting the doll more than 80 times. Even worse, Ginny attempts to contact her birth mother, putting her new address on the Internet so Gloria will know where to find her.

With Brian's high blood pressure and Maura's pregnancy, the Moons begin to question whether they've made the right decision in bringing this child with so many exceptional needs into their home. They love Ginny, but is she simply more than they can handle with a new baby on the way?

Ginny Moon is narrated by Ginny, and readers are privy to her thoughts and feelings, those she's unable to communicate to her parents, teachers and friends. These intimate glimpses into the troubled young girl are endearing, sometimes funny and terribly heartbreaking. The voice Ludwig gives Ginny is as distinctive as she is, shunning autistic stereotypes for an authentic character. She loves Michael Jackson and watching movies on her DVD player. She's capable of complex thought but can answer only a single question at a time. And Ginny often thinks in terms of math and numbers, but unlike the misperception that all people with autism are math savants, Ginny's understanding is skewed and distorted, like when she says, "It is a question she shouldn't have asked. Because I don't know how to answer it. To answer it I would have to be nine years old again on the other side of Forever. I would have to subtract myself from this side in order to get back."

Her application of math equations to abstract concepts shows a creative if somewhat confused train of thought. There's both beauty and torment along those tracks leading Ginny to well-meaning but dangerous choices--for her and her new family.

Ludwig also provides readers with vivid views of the chaos and fear in Ginny's mind. When she goes to the Halloween dance at her school, "There are witches and princesses. Someone is even dressed like a cow. And all of them are making noise. So much noise I can't stand it. The music is way too loud. A lot of the kids are yelling and trying to scare each other. I see vampires and gypsies. I see a giant bug and a cat. I even see a kid dressed up as a baby. It is like all the things that are in my brain came out."

The complexity of Ginny's character allows readers to empathize with her, while understanding the agonizing conflicts the Moons experience. This complexity also serves to enhance the novel's suspense. Ginny's wild and unpredictable escapades will keep readers anxiously engrossed and emotionally invested. It's virtually impossible not to cheer for this young girl with the humongous heart.

Ludwig's minor characters add strength to the story as well: Ginny's devoted school friend Larry, who wants nothing more than to win Ginny's heart, and her psychologist, Patrice, who seems to understand her better than anyone. They add a special dimension to both the novel and to Ginny, since they are viewed through her eyes and we see her through her dealings with them. Her communication barriers often result in feelings of helplessness and frustration for both Ginny and those she interacts with, but through all of them, readers will find a fleshed-out portrait of an exceptional person.

Ginny Moon is an irresistible story, compassionately rendered and nakedly honest. The realistic dialogue is packed with humor and candor. The short chapters combined with action and strong plot twists make for a swift pace. And Ginny Moon is simply a remarkable young woman, sure to steal readers' hearts. But she'll return them bigger and better than ever. --Jen Forbus

Park Row Books, $26.99, hardcover, 368p., 9780778330165

Benjamin Ludwig: Teacher, Dad and Storyteller

photo: Perry Smith

A lifelong teacher of English and writing, Benjamin Ludwig lives in New Hampshire with his family. He holds an MAT in English education and an MFA in writing. Shortly after he and his wife married, they became foster parents and adopted an autistic teenager. Ginny Moon is Ludwig's first novel--and the first title from the new Park Row Books imprint--and was inspired in part by his conversations with other parents at Special Olympics basketball practices.

In the acknowledgements for Ginny Moon you thank a professor who advised you not to teach. Why did you ignore his advice?

Because I love stories. Most people don't get to hear or tell new stories unless they're around other people. In a school--especially if you're teaching English or language arts--you're surrounded by stories all day. You hear them in the hallway, you read them with students. You listen to stories and tell them as you teach.

Which came first, the desire to teach or to write?

The desire to write, no question about it. I wrote stories in spiralbound notebooks all through school, and passed them to friends in the hallway so they could read them during study hall. It was pretty much impossible not to fall in love with literature, when you're writing all the time. Plus I saw that all of my teachers were storytellers, oral storytellers. I loved being in class to hear them talk. I knew that as a writer I'd have to make a living, and the only thing I wanted to do was to tell stories. What better job is there for a writer than being an English teacher?

And how did your writing evolve from those stories in school to Ginny Moon?

I used to be concerned with symbol and meaning, with imparting a lesson. So many of the stories I read as a kid seemed lesson-based. Religious stories, myths, fables--all of them have a message to impart. I read a lot of fantasy, too, and a lot of fantasy is about archetypes. So my early stories were focused on teaching lessons or conveying ideas. It was incredibly freeing to get beyond that stage. It happened at some point in high school, when I read Tolkien's letter to readers at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. He explains that he "detests allegory," and goes on to explain why he prefers history instead. I didn't love history, but I saw his point. I got the idea in my head that when I write fiction, I don't have to judge everything, or even explain a lot of behavior. I just have to tell what happened.

If you could go back and visit your school-aged self, what would you tell that younger you?

I'd have to probably say something like, "Hey, you're going to have to write some awful, awful books before you can write a good one. And that's okay." I wrote at least 10 novels before Ginny Moon. All of them are on my computer, and almost all of them are completely unreadable. But every single one of them was essential. I learned how to write through writing those books. And I love them for that, even though the writing is bad and the storytelling is pretty shoddy. Writing a lot of unpublishable books was part of the learning process for me.

What's one thing you know now that you wish you had known for your first novel?

I wish I'd known how to trust the creative process. I didn't know how to do that at first. I didn't believe that ideas came from some shapeless, mysterious place. I thought you had to actively build the whole story, consciously. And that's just not true. Yes, there's a lot of conscious plotting and structuring, but a huge portion of writing a book is going into this dark, liquid place where ideas come from. I do, anyway.

You have personal experience that inspired Ginny Moon.

I couldn't have written Ginny Moon if I hadn't become a foster parent and adopted a special-needs teenager. But it wasn't really my experience that made the book come together. It was Ginny's voice. It drove the story. Ginny's voice is based on a combination of voices that I heard at Special Olympics basketball games, and from my experience teaching school. Once her voice was in place, the plot came together quickly. I'd ask myself, why does she emphasize that particular word? Or what is it that's really bothering her when she picks at her fingers? The answers to those questions, and others like them, composed the backstory, as well as a lot of the points of conflict.

In a previous interview you mentioned that autism doesn't have a strict set of characteristics. So how did you go about deciding what would define Ginny?

People with autism are individuals, and really can't be lumped together in terms of behaviors that they exhibit. So when it came to deciding how Ginny would function in the world--how she would navigate through it, really--I worked backwards, using her voice as a starting point. I really believe that the way a person talks is sort of like a story unto itself. If you listen to it, and get past all your assumptions, you begin to see what the person has been through and where she's headed.

Did you find that voice a challenge, given the tendency of those with autism to internalize so much?

At first, because Ginny's voice came to me so forcefully, I almost couldn't keep up with her narration. Then, later, when I went back to work with the raw material, there was a lot that wasn't working. I had to find a way for Ginny to move between the quiet exterior that she presents to other people and the intensely verbal thoughts she keeps to herself. Not everyone thinks in words, but I was writing a novel, so words were all I could use. In the end I said: this is a story, not real life, so I'm just going to do the best I can to imitate in words what a not-so-wordy person might think.

Her voice is powerful in making this novel so charming.

I'm glad you found it charming! There's a lot of humor in Ginny's voice, but I hope readers can sense how torn she is. Ginny's circular and repetitive thinking is a product of her obsessiveness. I don't mean she's obsessive in an unreasonable way. After all, this is a character who needs something desperately, and asks for it desperately, but no one understands her. The quirkiness of her voice comes from the errors in her understanding, the linguistic accidents that occur when she tries to say something and her words don't add up.

What advice do you have for readers who may be considering fostering or adopting and may encounter some of those problems the Moons did?

For people considering adoption: just do it. No matter how difficult adoption might seem, no matter how it might inconvenience your lifestyle--your worry and fear is nothing compared with the worry and fear that a child experiences as he or she waits for a Forever Family. Not to mention all the trauma they've been through. The same goes for refugees. We have to take them in. We aren't here to take care of only ourselves. We're here to take care of other people. We went through some really difficult times with our daughter, yes, but as an adoptive parent, you become part of someone's healing process. Then you become part of her walk towards independence.

And finally, what's in store for you now?

I want to teach so badly. I took a year off to support Ginny Moon, and though it's been great, it was really hard to not be with teachers and students all day. I'm eager to teach fiction at a college or university--I see it as the natural evolution of my career--but at the same time, I have some books that need to be written. I'm finishing up another novel, another really voice-y book that I call Both Ways. I hope to write some YA novels, and maybe some middle-grade, down the road. I'm sure we'll adopt another child at some point. But in the short term, I'm going to write and teach and keep on being a dad. Those three things are really all I know how to do. --Jen Forbus

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Book Review


Signs for Lost Children

by Sarah Moss

In Victorian England, women are beginning to qualify as medical doctors. Ally Moberly is among this rare group, but respect doesn't accompany her role, especially when she pursues an interest in those institutionalized for madness, the lowliest branch of medicine. She contemplates herself through the logic of the period, "An unnatural, undomesticated being, very probably subject to mental instability herself, for why else would a woman declare herself unsatisfied by her own family life and seek to usurp the masculine role?" So she is resigned to a life of spinsterhood in exchange for her career, until she meets Tom, a young engineer for an innovative company. Not long after their wedding, he travels to Japan to oversee the construction of lighthouses. His long absence creates space for the couple to grow in independent directions, leaving them with new challenges upon his return.

While Sarah Moss (Bodies of Light) explores the nature of marriage through Ally and Tom, the real draw to Signs for Lost Children is her probing journey through the Victorian view of insanity and the dawning of feminism. Ally's traumatic personal experiences with her mother, as well as her intellect, give her a deep understanding that eludes most men in the medical field at the time. She's well developed as a character, eliciting empathy and encouraging readers to connect with her. Tom's character is also strong, but Ally simply dominates the novel. Readers will enthusiastically delve into her life and root for her to succeed. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: A nontraditional woman in Victorian England pursues a medical career treating the insane while weathering the challenges of a long absence from her engineer husband.

Europa, $19, paperback, 368p., 9781609453794

American War

by Omar El Akkad

The U.S. is as divided as ever. The Southwest has turned to embers, and rising waters have submerged the coasts. Omar El Akkad's debut novel, American War, begins in the early 22nd century, with narration by an old man who has devoted his life to studying "this country's bloody war with itself"--but not the one readers might expect. His focus is the Second American Civil War, which began in 2074. The North fought Southern secessionist states over their resistance to a bill prohibiting the use of fossil fuels, a dispute that led to the president's assassination. The war ended in 2093, but the suffering continued for another decade when a Southern rebel snuck into the North and unleashed a biological agent that killed an additional hundred million people.

Sarat Chestnut, age six at war's outset, is taken from her Louisiana home and herded along with her mother, twin sister and older brother into a refugee camp. The novel follows the family's experiences over two decades, a journey in which Sarat goes from a tomboy growing up in a corrugated shipping container near sorghum fields to a resistance fighter battling the forces of the North. The tension flags at times, but American War is nonetheless a compelling read that eerily parallels the present day--drone strikes, detention camps--and offers a chilling reminder that irreconcilable differences predictably lead to war. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer

Discover: A debut novel imagines a Second American Civil War, in which red and blue states fight a bloody battle over fossil fuels.

Knopf, $26.95, hardcover, 352p., 9780451493583

Mystery & Thriller

Prussian Blue

by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr came to acclaim with March Violets, the first in his Berlin Noir thrillers starring detective Bernie Gunther, with a supporting cast of assorted Nazis. Prussian Blue, 12th in the series, is a knockout, zipping along like a car with a cut brake line.

In 1956, Gunther's working at a Riviera hotel, and is tricked into dinner with an old nemesis, Erich Mielke, now with the East German secret police. Gunther is to pay a prior debt by poisoning a certain woman, but escapes Mielke and sets off for West Germany. As he flees, he recalls another trip, almost 20 years earlier, when he thought himself "possessed of a sense of decency and honor I now found almost quaint."

In 1939, Reinhard Heydrich summoned Gunther to his office and gave him seven days to solve a murder at the Berghof, Hitler's home in Berchtesgaden. Gunther stayed on point with coffee and meth, while negotiating the mare's nest of various Nazi intrigues, determined to find the killer. His investigation was, not surprisingly, perilous--"the greatest mystery on this magic mountain is how I'm going to break this case without myself getting broken permanently."

As the novel swings between decades, Bernie Gunther's saving graces are his cynical humor and sense of honor as he seesaws between angst and Weltschmerz. But he wonders at his capacity to work for an evil regime. He wonders why he didn't plant a bomb in Hitler's study. The reader wonders with him, but knows he will stay the course, even when events of the two decades stunningly converge. --Marilyn Dahl

Discover: In the 12th Bernie Gunther novel, the former Berlin detective can't escape his past dealings with Nazis and his present dealings with the Stasi.

Marian Wood/Putnam, $27, hardcover, 544p., 9780399177057

The Curse of La Fontaine

by M.L. Longworth

Newlyweds Judge Antoine Verlaque and Marine Bonnet, a law professor, are settling into their new life together (and trying to decide whose apartment to live in). They are also enjoying meals at La Fontaine, a restaurant in their Aix-en-Provence neighborhood run by Chef Sigisbert "Bear" Valets. But when a skeleton is found in the restaurant's courtyard, Bear and his employees (including a refugee from Togo) fall under suspicion. And so, Verlaque and Bonnet attempt to solve an eight-year-old mystery in M.L. Longworth's sixth novel to feature the investigative duo, The Curse of La Fontaine.

Longworth (who began her series with Death at the Château Bremont) opens with the couple's destination wedding in a small Italian village, and returns to that day periodically throughout the book. But the mystery centers on the skeleton in the courtyard--that of a local young man--and his complicated connections to Bear and other characters. Though Verlaque is concerned about solving the case and bringing closure to the man's family, he finds plenty of time for other diversions, including Cuban cigars, fine wine and the delicate dance of new matrimony. Meanwhile, Bonnet, convinced of Bear's innocence, offers her apartment as a temporary pop-up restaurant space, causing Verlaque to worry about conflicts of interest, his own impartiality and the effect of this case on his fledgling marriage. Longworth's sun-drenched setting, quirky characters and leisurely narrative pace balance out the murder plot, while her mouthwatering food descriptions will appeal to Francophiles and foodies. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: M.L. Longworth's sixth Verlaque & Bonnet mystery finds her newlywed investigators helping out a local chef while solving a murder.

Penguin, $15, paperback, 320p., 9780143110941

A Welcome Murder

by Robin Yocum

Robin Yocum (A Brilliant Death) returns to the Ohio Rust Belt for A Welcome Murder. Johnny Earl, former Pittsburgh Pirate and high school sports star of Steubenville, has just gotten out of jail after a seven-year stint for dealing cocaine. He is appalled to discover that his high school sweetheart, Dena Marie, is married to a loser while sleeping with both the sheriff and Rayce Daubner, a local druggie and the FBI informant who got Johnny locked up.

When Daubner turns up dead, Johnny Earl and Dena Marie are first in the sheriff's sights. Then a pair of white supremacists, who heard rumors about Johnny's drug money stash, show up looking to fund their Aryan nation. And a couple of FBI agents, who happen to hate the sheriff, arrive in Steubenville, at which point the whole thing almost becomes farcical, as characters circle each other trying to turn Daubner's death to their advantage.

Surprisingly funny for a homicide mystery, A Welcome Murder is full of odd and unreliable characters who alternate telling their stories. Every chapter puts a slightly different spin on events as Johnny Earl, Dena Marie and her husband, and the sheriff and his wife tell their versions. Since each person is convinced of a different culprit, the rotating viewpoints will keep the reader guessing till the very end. Perfectly paced and extremely entertaining, A Welcome Murder is a welcome addition to any mystery lover's library. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: Several unreliable narrators try to figure out who killed a man, and spin the investigation to their own advantage, in Rust Belt Ohio.

Seventh Street Books, $15.95, paperback, 263p., 9781633882638

Food & Wine

Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire

by Barbara Lynch

It's unlikely that many James Beard Award-winning chefs can say they have prank-called Julia Child--but Barbara Lynch (Stir: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition) can. Even better, she also impressed Child with her cooking.

In Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire, Lynch tells these stories and others, dishing on the forces that inspired her fierce independence and her journey into the food world. She sketches a hardscrabble childhood in her native South Boston. Among splintered memories and fractured limbs, she highlights the flavors and experiences that most deeply affected her as a lifelong Southie. Lynch reminisces about fried baloney sandwiches and even knuckle sandwiches served up by neighborhood friends, foes and family alike. Distaste for school led Lynch to spend her teen years adopting a surprisingly literal take on the classic Boston expression "wicked pissah." Yet she went on, without formal culinary training or a high school diploma, to build an epicurean empire.

This is the story of Lynch's passion for cooking, and other great loves of her life, but where Out of Line especially shines is in the writing on food itself. She writes evocatively about her signature dishes, such as her prune-stuffed gnocchi or delicately layered lasagnas, and as well of her first visit to Tuscany. Lynch also swears like a chef; one of her favorite adjectives for even a sophisticated meal is "kickass." And with her life itself on the menu this time, her approach mirrors her cooking: artful and bold. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: Boston-bred chef, cookbook author and restaurateur Barbara Lynch dishes up tales and recipes from her life.

Atria, $26, hardcover, 304p., 9781476795447

Biography & Memoir

A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City

by Drew Philp

Whether it's crime, corruption or urban decay, Detroit's seemingly insurmountable array of problems have been well documented. That's why freelance journalist Drew Philp's A $500 House in Detroit is such a tonic. The story of its author's five-year effort to rehabilitate a dwelling in one of the city's blighted neighborhoods is an inspiring portrait of one man's dogged persistence. It offers a clear-eyed glimpse at how a brighter future for the once proud Motor City might be slowly emerging.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, the idealistic Philp, who is white, is the quintessential Angry Young Man. He moves to Detroit--whose population is more than 80% African-American--with "no job, no friends, and no money," trying to reconcile his background of educational privilege with the poverty that surrounds him. At a tax sale in October 2009, he acquires a 1903 Queen Anne house and sets to work transforming it into habitable space. With the help of his father, grandfather and a shifting cast of neighbors, Philp slowly acquires the skills that enable him to resurrect this "white-and-gray clapboard shell on a crumbling brick foundation, filled with junk."

He layers the account of his backbreaking labor with economic and sociological insights into Detroit's plight, while describing the efforts of other determined homesteaders to reclaim abandoned neighborhoods. He has little patience for the gentrification movement led by wealthy business leaders and instead puts his faith in the unceasing toil of his fellow urban pioneers. "We were going to have to pit our humanity against their money," he writes. It's probably not a good idea to bet against this once great city's revival. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Discover: Journalist Drew Philp's memoir is the inspiring story of his personal part in the struggle to revitalize Detroit.

Scribner, $26, hardcover, 304p., 9781476797984


History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town

by Filip Springer, trans. by Sean Gasper Bye

Filip Springer's History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town is a searching work of historical journalism that tracks the life and death of a tiny Silesian mining village. Translated from Polish, it is a memorial to a town that seemed constantly subject to the brutal whims of history, a force that Springer memorably visualizes as "a beast that knew only how to sow chaos and destruction."

Kupferberg stands at the top of a mountain intermittently mined for valuable minerals like copper and silver. The town's early history is marred by war, brutal winters, fires and disease. A part of Germany, it survives the world wars relatively unscathed, until the Soviet counteroffensive reaches Kupferberg, and Polish police and soldiers arrive with orders: "Treat the Germans as they have treated us." All Germans are expelled, and the place is renamed Miedziana Góra and absorbed into Soviet-occupied Poland.

The bulk of History of a Disappearance focuses on the motley, occasionally eccentric inhabitants navigating the hazards of Communist rule. Miedziana's doom comes in the form of uranium mining, undertaken with a minimum of safety considerations for the workers and their families. The overexploited mountain eventually begins to give way beneath the town, causing large parts of Miedziana to sink into the earth. Springer says in his epilogue, "I don't suppose it's a good thing not to notice the disappearance of an entire town," and thanks to his fascinating history, Kupferberg seems unlikely to fade from memory. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Discover: History of a Disappearance resurrects the remarkable story of a town that weathered the worst of European history only to be consumed by massive sinkholes.

Restless Books, $17.99, paperback, 320p., 9781632061157


The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science

by Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy (The Music of the Primes) is an accomplished and popular ambassador for science. He is a mathematician with hobbies in the arts, the author and host of many television series and books, and the second Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. In The Great Unknown, he explores the potential limits of human knowledge with great clarity and charm.

"Would we want to know everything? Scientists have a strangely ambivalent relationship with the unknown... what we don't know is what intrigues and fascinates us, and yet the mark of success as a scientist is resolution and knowledge, to make the unknown known." Du Sautoy investigates the frontiers of mathematical and scientific ideas, sorted into broad concepts such as Chaos, Matter, Consciousness and Infinity, and set in the context of history, evolution, philosophy, literature and music. He expresses his own confusion and worries, interviews specialists, tells personal anecdotes and provides lively hand-drawn illustrations.

A lot of popular science rehashes metaphors that have been floating around for decades. There's a little of that here, but du Sautoy's explanations are always solid and thoughtful, and many are unusually clever and original. Like the first Simonyi Professor, Richard Dawkins, he is an atheist, but unlike Dawkins, du Sautoy has genuine interest in religious ideas that relate to his theme of the unknowable. For anyone with great curiosity about scientific inquiry and the deep mysteries of the universe, this will be a rewarding tour of the current scene. --Sara Catterall

Discover: This is a clear, entertaining and mind-stretching exploration of scientific ideas and the limits of human knowledge.

Viking, $30, hardcover, 464p., 9780735221802


Hard Child

by Natalie Shapero

The self is a shifting yet sharply felt thing in Natalie Shapero's poetry collection Hard Child. The title refers to the poet's own pregnancy, loosely discussed in several poems throughout the collection, exploring how a child changes one's impressions of the world. Shapero (No Object) is the opposite of a sentimentalist, however. Sentiments abound but not through any direct, self-serious reflection. Rather, Shapero uses a distinct style of stream-of-consciousness, playful interrogation and mordant wit. Her style is oblique and sometimes outlandish in its levity, yet in its sum, inimitable and strangely touching.

Whenever Shapero's freewheeling imagination alights on kernels of truth, the effects are sobering. "Of the cruelty ringing the earth,/ I am a portion," the poet declares in the disturbing poem "Passing and Violence." Other proclamations, such as in "Was This the Face," are likewise startling and refreshing in their boldness: "God is abusive toward all His children,/ and also He hardly ever comes around!" Shapero savors the grit of her own wit. Occasionally, the hard intelligence in her voice breaks on moments of genuine beauty. For example, of humanity's dubious conception of heaven, the poet writes, "I sleep/ against it and wake with its imprint on me." In pursuing the realities of human experience, both in dreams and death, Shapero produces a strikingly authentic voice, as if truth, however unpalatable, were the only thing that could save the world. Alternately hilarious and bleak, hopeful and fatalistic, Hard Child surprises with its uncanny emotional range. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author

Discover: Poet Natalie Shapero uses dark humor and intelligence to probe the realities of self and identity.

Copper Canyon, $16, paperback, 96p., 9781556595097

Children's & Young Adult

Goldfish Ghost

by Lemony Snicket, illus. by Lisa Brown

"Goldfish Ghost was born on the surface of the water in a bowl on the dresser in a boy's room." The upside-down goldfish drifts out the window to begin his quiet, solemn afterlife. As he glides past towns and beaches and oceans teeming with busy life, he learns that it's "hard to find the company you are looking for." Returning eventually to his bowl, he finds that another goldfish--a live one--has taken his place. "She seemed nice enough, but she was not good company, and the moon called Goldfish Ghost back out the window." It's not until our solitary hero encounters another friendless soul--the ghost of a lighthouse keeper--that he finds the company he's been longing for.

Young readers who have lost a loved one will find solace in this gentle, meditative tale, but all will appreciate the sweetness of finally feeling "at home" with a friend. The true magic of Goldfish Ghost comes with the harmonizing of author and illustrator's talents; Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events) and Lisa Brown (The Airport Book) previously collaborated on The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. Brown's India-ink-and-watercolor, muted blue/gray/gold illustrations are reminiscent of 1960s and '70s picture books. One of the most ethereal and affecting moments in recent picture books comes when the lighthouse keeper takes Goldfish Ghost "in her quiet hands and placed him where the light had once shone for sailors at sea." The image of the upside-down ghostly white fish contentedly suspended in the center of the massive lighthouse lantern is strikingly unforgettable. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown team up in an unusual and moving picture book about what happens to a goldfish after he dies.

Roaring Brook Press, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 3-6, 9781626725072

North of Happy

by Adi Alsaid

Like the perfect tacos Carlos and his brother, Felix, purchase the night of Felix's death, North of Happy is rich, layered, colorful and delectable.

Felix is the innocent victim of a shooting that night, and Carlos is left bereft and floundering, and feels himself slipping away. He wonders if he can continue on the path his father planned for him--an internship and college in the U.S--thinking to himself, "[T]hey haven't even noticed that my shadow disappeared when Felix did, that I'm not whole anymore." That's when Carlos realizes he has to leave and find what's missing. He leaves his home in Mexico City for a small island off the coast of Washington State where he lands a job washing dishes in a renowned restaurant. For a young man who's always loved food and cooking, he's now immersed in his dream world. The icing on the cake is Emma, the head chef's daughter and the young woman bringing awe and wonder into Carlos's life.

But as Carlos mixes together all the ingredients of his new life--his job, his girlfriend and his family--the recipe doesn't quite turn out the way he plans. There's nothing half-baked about Adi Alsaid (Let's Get Lost) delightful novel; it's wonderful through and through. Felix ends his description of the perfect taco by saying it "makes you hungry for life and... makes you feel like you have never been more alive." Felix could have easily been defining North of Happy.  --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: After his older brother's death, a young man searches for meaning in his life and finds it washing dishes in the kitchen of a famous restaurant.

Harlequin Teen, $18.99, hardcover, 304p., 9780373212286


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