Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, March 9, 2012

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

From My Shelf

Birthday Girl

Today is my birthday, and since it's also a Friday, I've decided to claim a three-day weekend featuring dinner with friends (cooked by my husband--yay!), and... a reading extravaganza. I have a special shelf, out of many shelves, that holds books I really want to read. This shelf undergoes frequent culling, but some books stay, and those are the books I will choose.

I'll be finishing Peter Robinson's Before the Poison, a haunting story of a woman hanged for murder in 1953, and the man who buys her house in England and is intrigued the mystery surrounding her. Then Jenny Lawson's memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, which is coming in April. Someone sent me this link to her blog, and I really did laugh until I cried. A more serious book I have been waiting to read is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, "handsold" to me via an editorial by Leonard Pitts, Jr. And John Donne: The Reformed Soul, a biography by John Stubbs. It came out six years ago, and I'm determined to finally read it, because I know I will sink into it and love it. How could I not? Here's the start: "His mistress lived with her parents, and access was a problem."

My husband gave me Sex, Death and Oysters by Robb Walsh for Christmas, knowing how much I love raw oysters. That's next. Then one of my favorite authors, in the vein of Anne Lamott and Barbara Brown Taylor, Lauren Winner. Her latest book is Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis--I read half of it a few months ago, then got sidetracked by work (of all things) and am eager to finish it.

This may seem ambitious, but given a day with no distractions, I've been known to put away three mysteries. The only problem will be my desire to read mysteries the entire weekend. But all that really remains to be decided is snacks. Tea with the Donne biography; Tim's Sea Salt and Vinegar potato chips with Jenny Lawson; red wine with everything else. --Marilyn Dahl, book review editor, Shelf Awareness

Sleeping Bear Press: When You Go Into Nature by Sheri M Bestor, Illustrated by Sydney Hanson

The Writer's Life

Joe Blair: I Didn't Set Out to Write a Memoir

I didn't set out to write a memoir. It was a day-by-day endeavor. Daily writing was a thing I had decided to do six years before I started editing the book. It was something I willed myself to do and, after a time, it was a thing I had to do. I had grown dependent upon it. My writing partner and I would write about an hour a day. We'd sit across from one another, open our computers, and we wouldn't stop writing for an hour. And then we'd read aloud whatever it was we'd written.

After I got an essay placed in the "Modern Love" column in the New York Times, I received calls from a few literary agents. I flew to New York and flew back home with a verbal contract. My new agent, Janis Donnaud, said she needed a book to sell. This, somehow, surprised me. All I had, after six years of daily essay-writing, were thousands of these little one-hour essays--overall, a bramble of words. No arc. No theme. One essay might be about a dog. One about the history of Dubuque. One about marital infidelity. It seemed to be an impossible task.

Editing By the Iowa Sea was sort of like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with pieces I made myself. I wasn't certain they'd fit together, and there was no box with a picture on the lid so I could be sure I had it right. I knew that the Iowa flood of 2008 had changed me in a profound way. And because it changed me, it changed my marriage. Actually, the flood saved my marriage. But until I began work on the book, I didn't know why. It's strange how stories happen in our lives and it takes the act of writing them down and then editing them to force us to realize the existence of them and the power of them to transform us at the very core. --Joe Blair, author of By the Iowa Sea (see review below)

Book Candy

Booklovers Map; Book Sculptures; Dickens Fashions; Sporty Bookcase

The Booklovers Map of America Showing Certain Landmarks of Literary Geography was featured at Brain Pickings, which reported that the vintage example of bookish cartography was created by Paul M. Paine in 1933.


Like a book surgeon, Brian Dettmer uses surgical tools to carve one page at a time in out-of-date encyclopedias, medical journals, illustration books and dictionaries, manipulating the pages and spines to form the shape of his sculptures, Posterous reported.


Dickensian chic: British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood channeled Charles Dickens during Paris Fashion Week, "combining her love of corsets, wacky plaids and Victorian chic.... Perfect for bleak houses and workhouses," the New York Daily News reported.


Off-road bookshelving with a vintage Jaguar: "Since the house was going to be a sustainable example, he could not drive around in a fuel-consuming car anymore," architect Thomas Dieben told Fast Company. "Selling it would do more harm than keeping it. [So] he decided to ask local guys to convert it to a bookcase and liquor cabinet."


Cookies and Pretzels and Wine, Oh My!

Response to our editorial about snacking was overwhelming, with salty snacks taking a slight edge over sweet. While we were mildly shocked at the librarians who eat and read, we were pleased with the suggestions we hadn't already thought of. For your reading and snacking pleasure, here are just some of the many comments we received.

Eliza Langhans sent a great line to begin with, from Amanda Filipacchi's novel Nude Men: "I am a man without many pleasures in life, a man whose few pleasures are small, but a man whose small pleasures are very important to him. One of them is eating. One reading. Another reading while eating."

One reader, Cheminne Taylor-Smith, said that books and food go together like peanut butter and jelly, and has become so obsessed with "the whole reading-and-eating thing" that she started a blog that links books and food. Roxann E. Dorweiler favors crispy chips and doodles: "I read in the sunroom so my husband does not hear the extreme chitter of the bag as I remove handfuls of salty goodness." Another reader, Clynell Reinschmiedt, also takes her husband into consideration because she reads in bed while he sleeps. She lets Life Savers (the original five-flavor ones) slowly melt in her mouth--"Cherry and pineapple are my picks but the other three flavors give me the little added joy of anticipation for my favorites, so the snack provides its own little story line as a sub-plot to the one I'm reading."

Barbara Fredholm had no hesitation in choosing cookies. "They can be eaten with one hand while balancing the book on a pillow and snuggling in my easy chair before the fireplace. The crumbs can be readily brushed off of clothing, chair and book to be consumed by the cat or dog." Pretzels--"Not messy, not greasy and not too bad on the calorie count"--are librarian Marge Mey's choice; "The best thing is that they leave no tell-tale signs on the book pages!" Another vote for pretzels comes from Karin Gjording: "Of course it's necessary to snack while reading! I drink coffee with morning reads. Eat muffins. Afternoons--popcorn or those peanut butter pretzels from TJ's." And popcorn, as Kathy Hudson says, must be air-popped: "You can read or craft and keep right on munching because there are no grease stains. It's lovely." Another greaseless munch is Cheerios, a favorite of Barbara Jones: "The hand-to-mouth moves speed up or slow down depending on the level of suspense or pace of action. Cheerios fly when things get tense."

As hard as it is to imagine (for most of us), some readers exercise willpower when snacking. Pat Hyatt limits herself to only one rosemary Triscuit every five pages, which is admirable. And others are decidedly genteel about it. Meredith Vajda says that reading is an excuse for sherry and shortbread on a wintry Sunday mid-afternoon. Katherine Hussey prefers tea and a tiny gingersnap or two, or wine and a few nuts, but follows that with "dark chocolate is ALWAYS good!" And Laurie Hawkins doesn't eat with a book but loves a glass of red wine while reading.

Not too many people copped to reading while eating a meal, but Stephanie Varga admitted to doing so, and said, "An additional dinner knife rested over the open book will keep it open so I can read and eat. My mother would roll in her grave if I committed the unpardonable act of cutting up all my food in advance. Pu-leeze."

Several readers tie specific foods with certain books. I, due to a Dick Francis marathon one time when I was sick, cannot even look at a Francis novel without wanting a ham sandwich, which his heroes always eat. For Renee Barker it's a liverwurst and cream cheese sandwich--"Meg Murray ate them in A Wrinkle In Time and I feel the pull to have one every once in a while in late October." For Janet Snyder, Heidi makes her "crave a toasted (or grilled) cheese sandwich when I read about Grandfather heating the cheese over the fire and tearing off a chunk of bread."

Some people don't eat or drink when they read, like Karin Toomey: "I may either sit up or lie down. When I read I read. Period."

Taking that a step further, or maybe backward, Jon Haupt squeezes in reading when he brushes his teeth. "I brush 2 minutes 2 or 3 times a day, and that adds up to 24+ hours of extra reading time per year. I use an electric toothbrush with a built-in timer. Gotta be careful not to dribble. So far, no accidents. No calories, either." Angela Dallin is another "non-eater," who has learned instead how to walk and read--usually not as messy as food--and has been an inveterate reader since childhood, when she "crawled into the corner behind the Christmas tree when it was lit, and managed to wade through Gone with the Wind and many other novels that way."

No matter the snack food or drink, Lynn Pines cautions that "Careful consideration must be given to whether or not the book will ever be shared. If not--it's 'game on' for snacks. I don't snack with other people's books--and let's be honest--some books we keep to ourselves. Potato chips alternating with M&M's work well for me. My dog is too smooth to use as a napkin so a damp washcloth works well for page turning...." And speaking of damp washcloths, Pepper Evans wants to know how to soak in the tub without getting her book wet. Karen Gray Ruelle also reads in the tub and ends up with damp-curled pages. But, she says, "We shouldn't be too precious with our books. Some are meant for keeping pristine, but most are meant to be read, read, read, and all those tears and marks and dog-ears show just how much we love those books." --Marilyn Dahl

Book Brahmin: Jacqueline Yallop

Jacqueline Yallop is the author of Kissing Alice, shortlisted for the McKitterick Prize. Obedience (Penguin, January 31, 2012) is her U.S. debut. Formerly curator of the John Ruskin Museum in Sheffield, England, she now lives in the South of France, where she plays tennis, travels when she can, and keeps pigs.

On your nightstand now:

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill; a freebie book of short stories given away by the Guardian newspaper; Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight, which I'm very much looking forward to starting, and a French-English dictionary which, sadly, seems to be always needed.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I loved reading when I was a child--one of the first books I remember clearly is Children of the New Forest by Captain Marryat, read in nightly installments by my parents when I was very young. Later came Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series, and lots of time pretending to be sailing on open waters instead of trudging along urban pavements. I loved Dickens, too, and was allowed to stay in bed on Saturday mornings so I could make some headway with the long stories. The day I read Wuthering Heights for the first time, when I was around 13, is absolutely etched in my memory.

Your top five authors:

This is really tricky: I think it would depend on mood and circumstance. And they'd be rather an odd bunch: not an obvious dinner party list! But George Eliot would certainly be in there, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Henry James. And I think I might give last place to P.G. Wodehouse: I do enjoy a bit of Jeeves and Wooster.

Book you've faked reading:

I've never faked reading anything, I'm afraid. I don't mind owning up to ignorance!

Book you're an evangelist for:

Unto This Last by John Ruskin. I suppose more of an essay really, first published in a series of articles in 1860. But I think it's reasonable to consider it a short book. Not easy but very rewarding: it's had a profound influence on many readers, including Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Ruskin's argument is that we should build our society on the basis of social justice and respect for the individual. His eloquent attack on capitalist economics and industrialization still seems extremely relevant.

Book you've bought for the cover:

As a lingering remnant from my days as a museum curator, I still have a weakness for lovely art and photography books. Recently I've treated myself to the catalogue to last summer's exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, which is one of those beautiful books you surreptitiously stroke when no-one is watching.

Book that changed your life:

Apart from the Highway Code (now probably entirely electronic anyway), which gave me the amazing freedom to drive and begin to explore the world, I would say: Bleak House, a discussion of which helped me win a place at Oxford to study literature; Wordsworth's Prelude, which encouraged me to first leave home for the English Lake District; and Graham Robb's Discovery of France, which has helped me better understand the country in which I'm now lucky enough to live.

Favorite line from a book:

From Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood, so perhaps this is cheating as it's a radio play rather than a book--but still, I've got a Penguin Modern Classics paperback, which must count: "It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and- rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. It's never the same once you know whodunnit.

Weird Histories; Children's Books; Writers of Place

Lloyd Shepherd, author of The English Monster, chose his top 10 weird histories, noting that his list "focuses on this central idea--that history is a fantasy which can be reestablished by the author--and takes it in all sorts of directions."


Noting that "a select group of individuals write books mostly to spite the author of another book," Mental Floss featured "7 children's books written in response to other books."


Flavorwire showcased "10 evocative writers of place" to honor the birthday earlier this week of Gabriel García Márquez, who "created some of the most beautiful worlds of any writer living today."


The economy still not getting you down? AbeBooks has just the reading list for you: "Great Depression literature: bestselling novels 1929-1939."

Book Review


Forgotten Country

by Catherine Chung

The forgotten country in Catherine Chung's memorable first novel is not Korea, but an America that has become taboo for those still earnestly seeking fulfillment. Forgotten Country begins with the sudden disappearance of Hannah, Janie's younger sister. Hannah's disappearance turns out to be temporary, but it echoes past disappearances--both voluntary and coerced--throughout the lives of other female members in the sisters' Korean-American family. Since the Japanese occupation of Korea, Janie's grandmother has told her, their family has lost a daughter in every generation. On the day Hannah was born, Janie was told to keep Hannah safe; she understandably feels shackled by this onerous burden. Hannah's disappearance also reminds her mother of her own sister's erasure--she was abducted by North Koreans and never heard from again.

While these disappearances subvert the relationship between the protector and the protected, love eats away at the family member who successfully "saves" her charge. Janie and Hannah's paternal aunt is a bitter woman who sacrificed her youth to raise their father and feels that her brother owes her his very existence.

In Forgotten Country, the past--a vigilant revenant--tirelessly seeks to strangle the present. The novel seamlessly incorporates Austen and Chekhov to create a claustrophobic milieu where emotional snares lurk behind well-choreographed behavior and modes of speech. Characters cross an entire ocean to congregate in a country house, but nothing changes from the outside of things. --Thuy Dinh, editor, Da Mau magazine

Discover: An indelible portrayal of familial love that vacillates between oppression and impotence.

Riverhead Books, $26.95, hardcover, 9781594488085

The Dog That Talked to God

by Jim Kraus

How does a person of faith go on living after tragedy strikes? That's the question the recently widowed, burned-out, 43-year-old Mary Fassler faces in The Dog That Talked to God by Jim Kraus (The Silence). Disillusioned by the platitudes offered by well-meaning friends and family in an effort to ease her inconsolable grief, Mary--shaken, lost and confused--decides to adopt a Schnauzer puppy named Rufus in the hope he will offer her companionship. During their daily walks through the suburbs of Chicago, Mary talks to Rufus, railing against a God from whom she feels estranged and abandoned, while trying to make sense of a past she can't let go of and the prospect of a lonely, uncertain future. One day, Rufus unexpectedly talks back to Mary and informs her that he is in regular communication with The Almighty. When he begins to relay messages from God, Mary begins to pine less and listen more.

Rufus becomes the impetus for Mary to reconcile her life. Kraus's dog-savior scenario feels plausible because of Rufus's quirky, gentle soul, while Mary's philosophical, humorous and refreshingly honest narrative buoys an otherwise heartbreaking predicament. As Mary interacts with family, friends and new love interests, her unwitting spiritual recovery propels her to set off with Rufus on a pilgrimage in search of a new life. Kraus's novel is an entertaining, deeply engrossing portrait of what it means to be fully human and fully alive. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A lovable talking dog helps a grieving widow reconcile her life and learn how to live again.

Abingdon, $14.99, paperback, 9781426742569

Mystery & Thriller


by Mike Cooper

When Wall Street's worst-performing financiers start dying in suspicious ways, financial "consultant" Silas Cade--who happens to be a black ops vet--is hired by an investment banker to investigate. Are angry investors who lost their life savings targeting money managers? Clara Dawson, a fledgling financial blogger looking for a big scoop, wangles her way into Cade's investigation and soon gets caught up in the violence. Cade's role expands to protect her, as he discovers that greed has no boundaries, not even murder.

"Clawback" is a term used in the financial industry to describe cases in which a firm reclaims payouts that it's already made or investors agree to return dividends they've already received, to cover subsequent losses; to illustrate the concept, Cade exacts a particularly forceful clawback on one of his client's investors early in the proceedings. ("Mike Cooper" is a pseudonym for a former financial executive, who also has a prior track record as a thriller writer under a different name). Even with Cooper's detailed explanations, some of the intricacies involved in investment strategies may go over readers' heads, but the action is tight enough to make up for any confusion. And there's humor in the scenario of nervous bankers packing heat to defend themselves, which doesn't bode well when they all get together for a fancy event.

Cade is a likable character with a wry worldview, though he's a little slow in figuring out some of Clara's motives and those of the people doing the--and making a--killing. Perhaps, though, this makes him more accessible. The ending suggests he might have something in common with Jack Reacher and, like that character, Cade may not be such a loner when readers follow him to his next adventure. --Elyse Dinh-McCrilllis, freelance writer/editor, blogging at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: A Wall Street thriller engaging enough even for financial laymen.

Viking, $26.95, hardcover, 9780670023295

Blue Monday

by Nicci French

Nicci French’s Blue Monday is the first novel in a new suspense series featuring Frieda Klein, an insomniac London psychologist who does her best thinking while taking long walks through city streets at night. She has a lot on her mind, including a patient named Alan Dekker who tells her he desperately wants a child--right before five-year-old Matthew Farraday goes missing from a local school. Alan wants a son who looks like him, with red hair and freckles--attributes Matthew happens to have.

Frieda takes her suspicions to the lead inspector in the case, and together they uncover perplexing similarities to the unsolved disappearance of a little girl 22 years earlier. Frieda makes a couple of leaps in reasoning that require suspension of disbelief, but the inner workings of the mind are mysterious, so anything is possible. The authors ("Nicci French" is a pseudonym for husband and wife Sean French and Nicci Gerrard) write in a cool, understated style befitting a protagonist who keeps her emotions at bay, and it works well for the story. Their restraint is helpful; the reader doesn't need all the horrific details of a child in jeopardy spelled out. But the story still manages to resonate, especially in its depictions of the families of the abducted children--the lack of closure tears them apart to the point their souls go missing, too. The dark ending also delivers a gut punch, making Blue Monday a shade closer to black. --Elyse Dinh-McCrilllis, freelance writer/editor, blogging at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: Nicci French's new heroine is a psychologist forced to choose between her patient and a missing child.

Pamela Dorman Books, $26.95, hardcover, 9780670023363

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Kingdom Come

by J.G. Ballard

Kingdom Come is the second of two J.G. Ballard novels that had been unpublished in the U.S. during the author's lifetime. It's heavily grounded in the themes that dominated much of Ballard's fiction during the 1990s and 2000s--especially the dark side of that era's economic prosperity. Kingdom Come probes a thriving suburb nestled in the shadow of Heathrow, where a shopping mall anchors the community's gradual slide into a 21st-century fascism.

Richard Pearson arrives in Brooklands after his father is killed by a lone gunman in a mall shooting, only to learn that the primary suspect has been released based on the testimony of prominent eyewitnesses. Wondering if there's a conspiracy that's somehow related to the town's nationalistic undercurrent of racism, he decides to stick around and investigate.

Kingdom Come is less concerned with its story than with its themes; Pearson's vacillating personality sometimes seem to defy emotional logic for the sake of extending Ballard's opportunities to jab at high consumerism. That said, Kingdom Come works better as a story than Ballard's other fiction from this period and, in a way, the Metro Centre shopping mall of this final novel becomes a reworking of the eponymous luxury skyscraper in Ballard's classic High Rise (1975) pushed in an equally surreal and violent direction.

The Collins English Dictionary defines "Ballardian" as dealing with "dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments." Kingdom Come is all that and then some--a fitting capstone to the Ballard legacy. --Ron Hogan, founder of

Discover: Like William Gibson, Ballard's late fiction looked at the cutting edge of contemporary society with a science fiction writer's critical, extrapolative eye.

W.W. Norton, $24.95, hardcover, 9780393081787

Biography & Memoir

Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars

by Sonia Faleiro

Sonia Faleiro met 19-year-old Leela while she was researching an article on Bombay's "bar dancers," the thousands of maltreated, disenfranchised, often alarmingly young girls who make their livings performing for men in dark bars, frequently selling sex at the behest of pimps.

Beautiful Thing is Leela's story, but through her, Faleiro unveils a larger narrative of Bombay's bar dancers and sex workers, one colored by love and violence, glamour and squalor, sex and corruption--and one that reveals the dark heart of Bombay itself. The city and its dance bars attract girls like Leela, who are lured into working "on the line" because of the immediate financial independence it promises. Faleiro discovered that these young women were fleeing horrifying home lives rife with every kind of abuse; she recounts that "every one of the bar dancers in Leela's building had either been raped by a blood relative or sold by one." But even though life on the line is a landmine of danger and exploitation, Leela relishes the freedom it seems to allow her.

Faleiro follows Leela through a year of her life. She meets a vibrant, heartbreaking array of dancers, prostitutes and hijras (physiologically male sex workers who dress and act as women), as well as the pimps, madams, gangsters and corrupt police who govern their lives.

Never judgmental or condescending, Faleiro delivers Leela's story with a reporter's distance and a novelist's immediacy. Leela moves through the pages as a remarkable, tragic and inspiring figure--victim, heroine, survivor. --Hannah Calkins, blogger at Unpunished Vice

Discover: Sonia Faleiro's portrait of one Bombay bar dancer tells an undeniably tragic but grittily inspiring story of thousands of girls like her.

Black Cat, $15, paperback, 9780802170927

Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflections in Yosemite

by R. Mark Liebenow

When his wife of 18 years died, R. Mark Liebenow was overcome with grief. He sought relief by following in John Muir's footsteps, consulting naturalists, historians, spiritual guides and artists along the way. Mountains of Light covers a year which he spends (in many short trips) in the Yosemite Valley, contemplating the natural world and the significance of death. He is "looking for the mystery of life," he writes, "even if it can't be solved but only hiked further into."

Mountains of Light is lyrical and decidedly literary. Liebenow's focus drifts: he describes a mountain vista, waxes mystical about the roles that insects and waterfalls and clouds play in the universe, quotes poetry (and Muir), confers with cutting-edge science and remembers his late wife. He includes morsels of history (particularly of Yosemite, from Native Americans through the Mariposa Battalion to the present) and catalogues plant and animal life. He considers various religious and spiritual understandings of nature and death and the mountains, mulling over his options for accepting his tragedy. The background for all this musing is dynamic, as Liebenow takes challenging hikes, explores, gets lost in the wilderness and watches his fellow campers and mountain climbers take still greater risks. The scenery changes drastically in four seasons, which Liebenow interprets metaphorically.

Part travelogue, part natural study and part memoir of grief, Mountains of Light is meditative, lovely, thought-provoking and, yes, sad--but worth it for the appreciation of this natural gem and the redemption it brings. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pages of julia

Discover: A quiet, moving memoir of grief and recovery set in the Yosemite Valley.

Bison Books, $16.95, paperback, 9780803240179

By the Iowa Sea

by Joe Blair

In the summer of 2008, eastern Iowa's rivers flooded, putting a large portion of the state underwater, including the town where pipe-fitter and sometime writer Joe Blair lived with his family. For Blair, the flood coincided with another disaster, this one personal: the deterioration of his marriage and the final, bitter reckoning between the life he wanted and the life he had.

At the time of the flood, Blair's relationship with his wife, Deb, is creaking under the strain of disillusionment and the unrelenting struggle of parenting a severely autistic son in addition to three other children. Their reality is a far cry from the dreams they had as newlyweds, when they set out on Blair's motorcycle with a few thousand dollars and no destination. When they ran out of money in Iowa, they never expected to be there 16 years and four kids later--exhausted, resigned and without a trace of the passion and hope that got them there.

And then, the flood. But By the Iowa Sea isn't all disaster. Blair is unquestionably devoted to his family, though honest about his shortcomings as a husband and father; his frustration and heartbreak are palpable.

When Blair transcends the drudgery of his day-to-day when writing about Michael, his profoundly impaired son, or when he writes about the Iowa plains, or when he recalls falling in love with Deb, he does hit something close to the divine. Blair was redeemed in writing By the Iowa Sea; the memoir is redeemed in moments like these. --Hannah Calkins, Unpunished Vice

Discover: Joe Blair's powerfully moving account of his reckoning with disasters both natural and personal.

Scribner, $24, hardcover, 9781451636055

Current Events & Issues

Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America

by David K. Shipler

In Rights at Risk, David K. Shipler (The Working Poor) explores the ways in which he says liberty--Americans' most treasured commodity--"dies behind closed doors," mainly because the justice system denies or dilutes constitutional rights afforded to those who most need them, making all Americans less "free" as a result.

He begins by exploring the USA PATRIOT (Uniting [and] Strengthening America [by] Providing Appropriate Tools Required [to]  Intercept [and] Obstruct Terrorism) Act and the post-9/11 war on terror, focusing on its rights-curtailing application to American citizens within the nation's borders. He then confronts abuses in the domestic criminal justice system, where many defendants discover that their constitutional rights are only as strong as their own ability to defend them--or to afford an attorney who can. In turn, Shipler discusses torture, the indefinite detention of "enemy combatants" and the many legal pitfalls of the immigration system--all situations in which the person most in need of protection is least likely to be offered basic legal rights. He closes with a look at the First Amendment and our nation's public schools.

Throughout, Shipler alternates theoretical explanations of legal points with anecdotes from people entangled in the system, sketching portraits that underscore the book's main points without overlooking his subjects' humanity. While the issues it raises are profound, Rights at Risk is well-paced and clearly written; Shipler has a particular knack for describing the holdings of complicated Supreme Court cases in a way non-lawyers can easily understand. This is a must-read for anyone dedicated to upholding the rights and freedoms that define "American." --Dani Alexis Ryskamp, blogger at The Literary Cricket

Discover: The real-life consequences of placing American citizens' rights in jeopardy for political gain.

Knopf, $28.95, hardcover, 9780307594860

Health & Medicine

Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It

by Craig Timberg, Daniel Halperin

The story of HIV and AIDS may have begun on the African subcontinent, but the blame for its global spread belongs to a Western legacy of colonial avarice and arrogance in the pursuit of conquest--that's the argument underlying Tinderbox, a thoughtful, well-researched narrative on the HIV/AIDS epidemic by Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg and medical anthropologist Daniel Halperin.

The first two-thirds of Tinderbox track the origins of HIV by modern DNA analysis to a remote southeastern patch of Cameroon in 1884, where humans likely encountered the virus through an infected cut or from the consumption of tainted chimpanzee meat. Europeans came to plunder the region's natural resources, replacing native familial sexual circles with prostitution and providing new routes for HIV infection. From there, it spread to the Kinshasa region, one of the first major colonial settlements along the Congo and the spot Timberg and Halperin identify as the "tinderbox" of infectious activity. As German and Belgian colonizers lay out an 85,000-mile network of roads and waterways, the groundwork was set for HIV to go global.

The AIDS crisis sparked a second wave of colonialism, rooted in the opposing philosophies of abstinence and condom promotion, despite scientific evidence pointing to the efficacy of circumcision and behavior modification in HIV prevention. In the last third of the book, jack-of-trades academician Halperin jumps into the contentious debate surrounding AIDS research, arguing that all methods discussed--abstinence, condoms, circumcision, antiretroviral drugs and behavior modification--are necessary to beat HIV into submission. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer

Discover: How colonial avarice and arrogance by developed nations propagated the spread of HIV to the rest of the world.

Penguin Press, $29.95, hardcover, 9781594203275

Children's & Young Adult

The Star Shard

by Frederic S. Durbin

This gentle adventure is just right for readers who dream of the beauty of fairy realms more than the dangers lurking therein.

The roving merchant city, Thunder Rake, rolls about the countryside "like a gargantuan living creature," hawking its goods far and wide. Cymbril, the famed "Thrush of the Rake," must sing for the market-goers wherever the Rake takes her, or whenever Master Rombol commands. She yearns for her freedom and snatches what little she can by sneaking along the alleyways and rooftops of Thunder Rake at night, unearthing buried secrets and forgotten magic by moonlight. (She's a bit like Philip Pullman's Lyra in her beloved Oxford.) When Master Rombol brings aboard a captured elfin boy, Cymbril finally finds an ally and hope for a new life; however, the elf is not the only new addition to the city. Something else has begun to roam the Rake at night that would make escape a very dangerous affair. Yet, what threat isn't worth facing to be free of one's cage? That is precisely what Cymbril seeks to find out.

Though suspense weaves its way into the story, the overall feel is akin to poking about in an eccentric old lady's house--if that lady were a witch, that is--placing it somewhere between The Secret Garden and Howl's Moving Castle. The Star Shard is less about the risks of entering the wild unknown and more about what it takes to reach the wild unknown in the first place. --Julia Smith, blogger and children's bookseller emerita

Discover: A 12-year-old who seeks to escape the traveling city where she is enslaved, by enlisting the help of an unusual team.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 10-14, 9780547370255

Fish Had a Wish

by Michael Garland

Fish daydreams about being other creatures that live on land or take to the sky, and the special things they can do. But in the end, Fish realizes that life as a fish is pretty good.

" 'I wish I were a bird!' said Fish. 'I could fly high up in the sky.' " Oh, to be a turtle, and "take a nap on a sunny rock." Fish expresses each wish clearly, and also a specific reason why being a bird or a turtle holds such appeal. As youngsters go through Fish's wish list, they learn about pond life. Some of the fantasies will get kids giggling--"I wish I were a skunk. I could make a big stink!"--as will the expression in the beaver's eyes for "I could be a beaver and build a big dam." But when Fish stops fantasizing and stays in the moment--dining on a delicious mayfly--the hero wishes things to remain just the way they are: "To stay a fish is what I wish."

The repetitive sentence pattern makes this paper-over-board book ideal for children just beginning to read independently. Michael Garland (Grandpa's Tractor) creates textured illustrations in digiwood that resemble woodcuts in emerald green, golden brown and sapphire blue. The radiant, realistic artwork of pond life juxtaposed against a fish's improbable wishes makes a winning combination. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A fish that fantasizes about a number of other creatures that live in the pond but winds up wishing "to stay a fish."

Holiday House, $14.95, hardcover, 24p., ages 4-8, 9780823423941

Same Sun Here

by Silas House, Neela Vaswani

Honest, poignant letters between two 12-year-old pen pals--one Kentucky born and raised, the other born in India and living in New York's Chinatown--demonstrate that the most important things in life are common among us all.

Meena left behind her home in the mountains of Mussorie, India, and her beloved grandmother Dadi to come to Manhattan. Now her father lives apart from the family to earn money in a restaurant, and comes home one weekend a month. River takes long daily walks with Mawmaw, his Cherokee grandmother, in the mountains of Kentucky. Like Meena, his father also had to take work away from home after the mines shut down, and he gets home infrequently. Meena and River discover other similarities. They both enjoy writing, they both love dogs, their grandmothers both grow okra in their gardens. River asks Meena what the red dot on an Indian woman's forehead (bindi) signifies (it "marks a place of wisdom"). Meena asks River if his freckles feel like bumps. They also discuss serious matters, such as the coal mining company's "mountaintop removal" near River's home, and Meena confides to River the racism she encounters in a post-9/11 world.

By sharing the details of their lives, Meena and River enlighten one another about misconceptions they'd had, and start to see each other as more similar than different. Their honesty creates an intimacy between them, and also shows young people how to ask somewhat prickly questions while conveying the underlying place of friendship from which it springs. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A moving novel told through letters between two 12-year-old pen pals who, despite appearances, are more alike than different.

Candlewick, $15.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 10-up, 9780763656843


Author Buzz

Dragon Kiss
(A Dragon Kings Novella)

by Donna Grant

Dear Reader,

Welcome back to the Dragon Kings! I'm thrilled to bring you DRAGON KISS. The world of the Dragon Kings keeps expanding, and this story brings us Alasdair and Lotti, a powerful couple who have overcome all odds to find love. But a deadly enemy intends to rip them apart.

I can't wait for you to fall in love with Alasdair and Lotti as I have.


Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: Dragon Kiss (A Dragon Kings Novella) by Donna Grant

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
January 9, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book

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