Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, July 28, 2020

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

From My Shelf

Xtravaganza Realness

Earlier this year, in our Reading with... Juli Delgado Lopera, the author of the novel Fiebre Tropical (Amethyst Editions, $17.95) mentioned as a favorite book Joseph Cassara's The House of Impossible Beauties (Ecco, $16.99). Lopera said, "The writing in that book is so delicious, I literally wanted to eat it up." Having heard only good things about it, I needed no more prodding.

It's about the 1980s in New York City. About the look. The pose. The walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, honey! Angel is building the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latinx house in the ballroom scene as she mothers other lost souls and runaways. Her family turns tricks in the streets and turns heads at the balls, transforming an eked-out living into glittering royal realness with the love and support they have to offer one another. Times may be hard, but Cassara stitches an elegant, silky gown of a novel from a beauty so raw you'd be forgiven for thinking it was impossible.

Fiebre Tropical, too, is an outstanding work of art. It's a nuanced tragicomedy about a Colombian teen with a sharp sense of humor as she develops a crush on the evangelical pastor's daughter, meanwhile managing her unhappy family in their new city of Miami. I adored every page.

And to top off my recent reading of queer Latinx brilliance, the poems of Roy G. Guzmán in Catrachos (Graywolf, $16) have been especially gripping. The "Queerodactyl" cycle of poems that describe the poet as a kind of dinosaur contain such magnificent lines as, "Twerking in church,/ I outperformed the candles," and "After they locate & excavate your wing fossils,/ perseverance might be the trait you're known for."

Maybe you, like me, have been hearing good things about these writers. Now is a great time to eat every delicious word!

--Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

The Writer's Life

Natasha Trethewey: The Lens of That Burning Question

photo: Nancy Crampton

Natasha Trethewey is a former two-term United States Poet Laureate and the author of five collections of poetry. She is currently the Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University. In 2007, she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection Native Guard. Memorial Drive (out today from Ecco/HarperCollins) is her second book of creative nonfiction.

Is this the book you thought you were writing when you began the project?

Not at all. When I first said that I needed to do it, it was after I had begun to get a lot of press about me as a writer, after the Pulitzer and after being named U.S. Poet Laureate. Because of that, there were many newspaper stories or profiles in which my mother was mentioned as sort of an afterthought, the backstory. She was basically summed up in a line as this victim to whom this terrible thing had happened, and it really bothered me. I decided that if that tragedy was going to be part of the backstory that was recorded again and again, then I wanted to be the person to write her story, so she would not be simply reduced to a murdered woman. What I wanted to do was to show how important she was, her life, my time with her, her death, and my becoming who I am and becoming a writer. I thought one of the ways to do that was to tell the story of who she was, and I imagined it as more like a sort of biography of her. I would have researched her the way I have researched historical figures I wrote about in poems.

It didn't work out that way. Instead, I think probably the moment that I looked at Shakespeare's Sonnet 3, those lines I used--"Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee/ Calls back the lovely April of her prime"--I knew that I was the biography, in many ways. That what she was able to make in me was one of the best records of who she was, and how remarkable and resilient she was.

How did you choose this title? Not person, action, relationship, but place--with obvious allusion to memory/memorializing.

You hit the nail on the head. As a writer I think one of my enduring projects is the drive toward memory and memorialization, and contending with the contentions and overlaps between personal memory and cultural or historical memory, what gets recorded and what gets left out of the record. So I knew that that was my project, because that's what I was trying to do in Native Guard, that's what I was trying to do in Domestic Work, is record part of my community, where I grew up in Mississippi, that was disappearing. These old people were dying, and it took me a long time to make that connection, that my mother had literally died on Memorial Drive in the shadow of the largest monument to the Confederacy. And that symbolically had something to do with my drive to memory and memorialization, and insisting that things that often get left out and forgotten are remembered.

It must have been painful in some ways to reenter this trauma. Was it worth it?

Oh, yeah. I mean, it was really difficult, and even now I find that having to talk about her and the book in this way keeps the grief that usually is farther away right up on the surface. So I'm living with it differently now than I usually do. But one of the things that I will never forget is when I first met Dan Halpern, who is my editor, and he had read just a few paragraphs of a scene that I had written when I was proposing the book, and he said to me that he fell in love with her just from that. And I thought, if that's what can happen then, yeah, it's worth it. She'll be remembered. She'll be known by people. And at least they'll know what she meant to me. That's a way of knowing her, too.

When you write a book like this, or in general: Do you write with an audience in mind, or for yourself first?

That's an interesting question that I hadn't thought about as related to this book. I think I might answer differently if I were thinking about poetry. Or maybe not. Because I was writing in response to what I told you about at the beginning, the newspaper articles that just recorded her as victim or murdered woman, I really was always having an audience in mind. Someone that I had to say oh, no, no, no--this is who she was, too. But at the same time, I think I must have been writing to myself, because of the things that I learned in the process. I knew many different things by the time I got to the end than when I started. I began to understand more things that I had willfully erased, things that were driving me internally on a subconscious level but that I hadn't allowed myself to think about consciously. And so in that way, I was revealing myself to myself. Which is of course why for me that other epigraph comes in: "All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." I didn't know where I was headed.

And maybe that's the problem in the question, because how could you ever not be writing for yourself?

Right, but it's a good question, because it makes you think about the not competing, but the multitude of motivations for writing a book project like this.

How different is the writing of prose versus poetry?

On the most basic level, the silly level, it has always been harder for me to write more. I've always been better at writing less. Give me an assignment in a class to write a seven-page paper--somehow I'm not going to be able to get to that. Poems are so much smaller and more compressed; that just seems my natural inclination. But I think that I write prose like that. I imagine there was so much more that could have been in this book and part of this story, but it sort of crystallizes around one or two threads. For me it felt like a very long extended poem that had to do some of the things that I want a poem to do, as it moves, as it turns to certain motifs, certain images, certain words.

Turning to poetry--does a book like Native Guard begin as a project, where there's a book idea and then it is filled with poems? Or do you write poems and then realize you have a book?

I almost always begin with a problem, some historical question that I want to ask myself, I want to ask the nation. I want to examine and explore from many different angles. When I am focused on something like that, it's as if I could look at anything and it will somehow be filtered through the lens of that burning question that I've been asking myself.

When my students are worried about what they're going to write about or whether the poems that they're writing will somehow hold together, I talk to them about their obsessions, the things that we can't get away from, that have an impact on how we see the world and the things in it. If you trust that, that's what will come through in your poems, and your poems will hang together more than simply because you're the person that wrote them. You're the vision behind them.

What are you working on next?

This book took a lot out of me, and so I'm in a place of trying to fill back up. There are things that I'm interested in, so I'm reading. It has a lot to do with my home state, and cross-mapping memory and memorialization, with Confederate monuments, sites of lynchings, which sort of engrave white supremacy on the landscape. I know that's what I'm thinking about, so I know that I won't be able to look at a tree without thinking about it. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Book Candy

Eerily Prescient 2020 Plague Novels

The BBC highlighted several "eerily prescient 2020 plague novels."


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"Eat like you're in the USSR with 'the Soviet diet cookbook,' " Gastro Obscura wrote. And Russia Beyond sampled "classical Russian characters and the traditional dishes they ate."


"Orson Welles narrates animations of Plato's Cave and Kafka's 'Before the Law,' two parables of the human condition." (via Open Culture)


Penguin showcased "eight of history's most influential literary circles."

Great Reads

Rediscover: Every Frenchman Has One

Olivia de Havilland, one of the last surviving actors from Hollywood's Golden Age, died on Sunday, July 26, at age 104, in Paris, France, where she had lived for more than 60 years.

Feisty, graceful, friendly, funny and seemingly ageless, de Havilland is best remembered for her roles in a range of films. She made nine movies with Errol Flynn and was nominated for five Oscars. The two she won were for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). Her other nominations came for Hold Back the Dawn (1941), The Snake Pit (1948) and Gone with the Wind (1939). Other films included The Adventures of Robin Hood and They Died with their Boots On.

In her memoir, Every Frenchman Has One, originally published in 1962, she focused on her sometimes bumpy adaptation to French customs, culture and the language after she married a Frenchman and moved to Paris. Ultimately she was very happy in her new home. Paraphrasing Caesar on Gaul, she said, "I came. I saw. I was conquered."

And even in 1962, when she was only 46, she imagined people thought she was long dead, writing, "And so, when I wonder if you know that I live in France, I'm sure you don't, because I am certain that you think me peacefully interred, and in good old native American soil. If that's the case, you're in for a surprise. By golly, I'm alive, all right, and I do live in France, and not under but on top of solid Parisian limestone."

Every Frenchman Has One was reissued in 2016, when de Havilland turned 100, with a new interview with the author. The book is available from Crown Archetype ($16).

Book Review



by Jill McCorkle

Early loss, and how it reverberates for decades in the lives of those who experience it, is the subject of Jill McCorkle's pensive Hieroglyphics. After more than 60 years of marriage, octogenarians Lil and Frank Wishart abandon their lifelong home in Massachusetts to move to Southern Pines, N.C., to be close to their daughter. Frank, a retired college professor with a particular interest in ancient burial practices, and Lillian, who ran a dance studio, are united by tragedy. In Lil's case, it's the death of her mother in the fire at Boston's Cocoanut Grove night club in November 1942 that claimed 492 victims, when Lil was 10. Frank suffered the loss of a parent at the same age: his father was killed in a December 1943 train accident--another real-life event.

Shelley Lassiter and her six-year-old son, Harvey, round out the foursome of characters from whose points of view McCorkle tells her story. Abandoned by Harvey's father, Shelley works as a court reporter in Southern Pines. Harvey, born with a cleft lip, is a sweet boy who has developed a fascination with murderers like Lizzie Borden and the Menendez brothers, and who insists to Shelley that their house--the same one where Frank went to live after his father's death--is haunted.

McCorkle (Life After Life) unobtrusively braids the stories of these characters, gently revealing how the traumas of Lillian and Frank's early lives indelibly shaped their perspective on the world, while subtly connecting Frank's story with that of Shelley and Harvey. McCorkle's storytelling skill almost gives the impression she's simply eavesdropping on her character's lives. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: This novel is a quiet yet revelatory exploration of how people persist in the face of tragic loss.

Algonquin Books, $26.95, hardcover, 320p., 9781616209728

The Two Mrs. Carlyles

by Suzanne Rindell

San Francisco's massive and deadly 1906 earthquake lasted approximately one minute, yet its aftermath created a dramatic divide in Cora, Flossie and Violet's friendship. The trio's longtime bond from their childhood in St. Hilda's Home for Girls through their young adulthoods of affluence lies at the heart of The Two Mrs. Carlyles, an evocative and fast-paced novel of historical suspense from Suzanne Rindell (Three-Martini LunchThe Other Typist).

A tragedy moments before the San Francisco earthquake presents the three with a life-changing decision, yet subsequent odd occurrences lead Cora and Flossie to sever their relationship with Violet. Bereft at their betrayal, Violet's determination to reinvent herself parallels San Francisco's civic rebirth, depicted in a symbolic yet subdued fashion. "Bit by bit, the city poked its head up from the ashes, rising shyly at first, curling into the air like a seedling sending its first green shoots up from the soil, feeling for sunlight. Folks began to rebuild. California is like a woman.... California really had reconfigured herself."

When Violet meets and marries wealthy scion and arts patron Harry Carlyle, her life transforms further while mysteries surround the couple: Why does Harry's longtime housekeeper Miss Weber dislike Violet so intensely? Are the unexplained happenings throughout Harry's mansion due to Violet's spells or a sinister presence? And is Harry's first wife, Madeleine, dead or alive?

The Two Mrs. Carlyles is an atmospheric thriller with both a fairy tale and gothic feel. With well-drawn characters and Violet as her deeply unreliable narrator, Rindell deftly unveils how wealth has the power simultaneously to elevate and destroy our relationships with the people we love. --Melissa Firman, writer and editor at

Discover: A gripping, twisting novel of historical suspense set in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake explores trust and deception among lifelong friends.

Putnam, $27, hardcover, 432p., 9780525539209

It Is Wood, It Is Stone

by Gabriella Burnham

A restless young woman struggles to find agency in Brazilian American author Gabriella Burnham's novel It Is Wood, It Is Stone. Linda's husband, Dennis, announces that he's been awarded a temporary professorship in São Paulo, Brazil, on the day she meant to tell him she was leaving him. She doesn't share her intention and decides to go, leading to a crisis she explains through a brutally honest monologue to Dennis. Her plan to leave "was less a solution and more like a heartbeat trying to break free from its rib cage," she tells him.

But São Paulo, instead of freeing her, creates even more claustrophobia. Unable to be truly independent because of language barriers and her own insecurities, Linda feels trapped in her apartment with Marta, their day maid. Marta is an enigma to Linda, who, for a time, stops leaving the apartment "for fear that Marta might grow roots in our bedroom and reorganize the air so that I could no longer breathe."

Linda sees Dennis as conventional and predictable, yet she wishes for his pragmatism, saying, "My goal was to find a wormhole, a channel to escape the odds, so that I too could achieve those things." Linda's escape comes through Celia, a captivating Brazilian woman. Their brief affair simultaneously gives Linda freedom and creates a tipping point in her marriage. She assures Dennis, "I wasn't looking to turn away from you; I wasn't looking to replace you; I was searching for another version of myself."

This debut novel is striking in its confident, close study of a complex woman in a fragile marriage. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: A discontented young woman moves to Brazil with her husband, exposing her insecurities and leading to a crisis that tests her marriage.

One World, $26, hardcover, 224p., 9781984855831

The Kids Are Gonna Ask

by Gretchen Anthony

In The Kids Are Gonna Ask, the funny, fast-paced, multi-format second novel from Gretchen Anthony (Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners), a well-intentioned quest to uncover a family secret upends the lives of two Midwestern teens and their grandmother when their story goes viral. 

When Bess McClair came home pregnant after a ski trip her senior year of college and decided to become a single mother, her mother, Maggie, welcomed the distraction from her grief over the recent death of her husband. She didn't pressure Bess to identify the father of the babies, fraternal twins Savannah and Thomas. Thirteen years later, Bess died in a freak accident, leaving Maggie and the kids no way to find the "biodad."

Now 17, the McClair twins run an amateur podcast notable for spawning the Internet phenomenon Zombie Baby. Studio owner Sam Tamblin listens to the breakout episode, in which Thomas mentions wishing he could meet his father, and offers to produce a podcast about the twins' search for him. When paternity privacy activists get wind of the fledgling show, the twins become the center of a media circus railing against them as dupes of an "angry feminist" agenda and questioning their right to conduct a public search.

Using third-person narrative, podcast and voicemail transcripts, e-mails, text message conversations and more, Anthony constructs a portrait of the difficult and delicate process of adolescence, when the search for one's identity becomes entangled with peer relationships and ambitions for the future. Smart yet surprisingly sweet, this meditation on family and media is as captivating as a favorite podcast. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Teenaged twin siblings broadcast their search for their unknown father in a podcast that invites national attention and criticism in this multi-format novel.

Park Row, $17.99, paperback, 416p., 9780778308744

Everything Here Is Under Control

by Emily Adrian

In Everything Here Is Under Control, Emily Adrian's emotionally nuanced adult debut (after YA novels Like It Never Happened and The Foreseeable Future), two childhood friends confront their shared past in order to move forward. Amanda is struggling under the physical and emotional toll of being a new mother. Her partner, Gabe, is doing his best, but in the screaming face of their newborn, Amanda is not sure it is enough. Exhausted and hurt, she drives to her hometown to stay, uninvited, with her childhood best friend, Carrie. The two used to be inseparable, but the years that have passed since Carrie's teenaged pregnancy have divided them. To rediscover their friendship and survive motherhood, both women must face the harm they have done to one another, even if it was in the name of love.

From page one, Everything Here Is Under Control is not afraid of talking straight. Looking at the trauma of birth, it enters into a frank conversation with its readers that is thoughtful and heartfelt, humorous and raw. The novel consistently engages with themes of motherhood, yet never forgets about the many forms of love that its characters have. Adrian depicts Amanda, Carrie and Gabe with compassion and precision, making them unfailingly lovable even with their personal imperfections. And while the novel is most interested in exploring the intricate relationships between its characters, it also pays careful attention to the sometimes suffocating, always complex inner workings of rural, small-town America. Warm, generous and outspoken, Adrian's fiction is a thought-provoking delight. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This charming family drama has big things to say about the love between friends, partners and, most of all, mothers and their children.

Blackstone Publishing, $24.99, hardcover, 9781982639648

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears: Stories

by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg (The Third Hotel) leads her characters into bizarre and life-changing situations--all the more powerful for their underlying emotional resonance--in her thrilling and uncanny collection of stories, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears.

The surreal permeates these stories in masterful fashion, as if each narrative, grounded in the real, slowly slips into the fantastical. The author admits this much in a sly, almost undetectable self-consciousness. "And this is the problem with translating experience into fiction, the way certain truths read like lies," the narrator says in "Last Night." In "Hill of Hell," the narrator explains "the way we are walled in by our secrets and the implacability of our judgments." When these walls come down, the experience for van den Berg's characters is both terrifying and liberating. When the world's expectations finally lay broken like a husk, each character emerges anew, shocked but utterly alive.

In one of the best stories, "Slumberland," a woman who has been photographing her Florida neighborhood at night discovers her neighbor has been crying for the pleasure of strangers on the phone; "dacryphilia," it's called. Like so many of van den Berg's stories, the plot twist provides an eerie but powerful form of human connection.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is not only a testament to the power of the short story, but to how, cumulatively, a collection can sustain an entire ethos and atmosphere. Van den Berg is a maestro of the form, and these stories shouldn't be missed. --Scott Neuffer, writer, poet, editor of trampset

Discover: In this uncanny collection, women confront a bewildering world to both terrifying and cathartic effect.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, hardcover, 224p., 9780374102098

Bottled Goods

by Sophie Van Llewyn

Bottled Goods, Sophie van Llewyn's first novel, is a curious story of oppression set in 1970s Communist Romania, featuring a young woman pressing against the confines not only of culture and state but of family. Largely realistic, the narrative takes the odd, surprising turn toward magical realism, making the already strange world of heavily monitored government control feel stranger still.

Readers first meet Alina as a girl, then a young single woman, working as a translator and tour guide on the Romanian coast. It is here that she meets her future husband, a history student (later professor) named Liviu. While Alina comes from a background of privilege and property, lost when the Communists took power, Liviu comes from privation, which he does not let her forget. When they marry, "It was not a wedding, but a documentary about customs and traditions that she had been watching, trapped inside the bride's body." Trapped indeed in several ways, she goes to work as an elementary schoolteacher; life is tolerable until Liviu's brother defects to France. Then the Secret Services enter their lives and everything changes.

Luckily or unluckily, Alina has an aunt with connections to the government, to whom she turns for help. Aunt Theresa's assistance varies from intervention with the authorities to entanglements with fairies and strigoi (Romanian folk spirits). When Alina gets desperate, the fairies' form of help will upturn her life yet again.

Fluid in form, often stark in style and surrealistic in subject matter, Bottled Goods is a strange and compelling story about freedom of choice and those we choose to keep near to us. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: An unusual story of 1970s Communist Romania with a thread of magical realism, told in flash-style snippets.

Harper Perennial, $15.99, paperback, 192p., 9780062979520

Mystery & Thriller

He Started It

by Samantha Downing

"We are a family of assholes. You can blame that on Grandpa, he started it."

With this description, how can one not want to read more about the Morgan family in Samantha Downing's acerbic thriller He Started It?

Grandpa recently died, and his last wish is for his grandchildren Eddie, Beth and Portia to re-create a road trip they all took with him when they were children. They must revisit the same landmarks in various states and not end up in jail if they want to inherit his millions. The ostensible purpose is to scatter his ashes at the final destination.

Along the way, the siblings--plus Eddie's wife and Beth's husband--encounter a black truck that seems to be following them. They keep hearing an old song that carries unsettling reminders of the original road trip. And something mysterious happens to Grandpa's ashes. Tempers flare, suspicions simmer and perhaps not everyone will survive the trip.

Unlike the bickering Morgans, readers will enjoy the offbeat tour across the United States, featuring real landmarks like a Bonnie and Clyde museum--complete with bloody dummies in a car--and a burial site for Cadillacs. Beth, the narrator, states at the beginning she isn't sure who the hero of the story is but it's definitely not her. Downing (My Lovely Wife) explores what makes someone a hero or villain, depicting characters who could be neither or both but are always compelling. No one trusts anyone else, so readers are never certain what will happen next. The ending might be polarizing but it's dark and bold, like Downing's prose. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: Three siblings and their spouses take a trip across the U.S. to fulfill their grandfather's dying wish and inherit his money in this engrossing thriller.

Berkley, $26, hardcover, 400p., 9780451491756

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Automatic Reload

by Ferrett Steinmetz

The unhinged steampunk epic Automatic Reload showcases a violent world of mayhem, love and redemption.

Soldier Mat Webb suffers from intense PTSD after shooting a child and losing an arm in a bomb blast during his last deployment. Rather than curl up in a ball and hide, he severs his remaining limbs and replaces them with the latest in military weaponry. His arms and legs become grenade and rocket launchers, and his reflexes become lightning quick. Mat hires himself out as a mercenary, accepting only righteous jobs. But fighting bad guys requires expensive and constant upgrades to his technical enhancement, and funds are low.

When a trusted friend coerces Mat into accepting a quick gig paying $3 million to supervise a team of cyborgs transferring a freight container to a transport vehicle, Mat readily agrees. He just can't look inside the container. But he and the team are attacked during the handoff, and Mat hears cries for help from inside the container. Mat looks inside and finds Silvia, a genetically altered human, shackled to an operating table. Mat rescues her and discovers the group behind Silvia's transfer is a sentient computer conglomerate desperate to replace humanity. Suddenly everyone involved points their weapons at Mat and Silvia, who must now destroy them all--or be destroyed themselves.

Ferrett Steinmetz's pacing and visceral action sequences scream for the attention of graphic novel fans. But the most striking element is what's at the heart of the story: two emotionally damaged people find enough commonality and strength in their weaknesses to fall in love. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this cyperpunk thriller, two damaged but dangerous people combine forces to wreak havoc on a sentient computer conglomerate hellbent on making humans obsolete.

Tor, $17.99, paperback, 304p., 9781250168214

Biography & Memoir

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir

by Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey, two-term United States Poet Laureate, forges a serious, poignant work of remembrance with Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir. Trethewey's mother, Gwen, is the focus of this book: the daughter's memories and what she's forgotten, and, pointedly, the mother's murder at the hands of her second ex-husband. The murder took place just off Memorial Drive in Atlanta, Ga.; the aptly named thoroughfare runs from downtown to Stone Mountain, monument to the Confederacy, "a lasting metaphor for the white mind of the South."

Trethewey is the daughter of an African American mother and a white Canadian father. Their marriage was illegal; she was born just before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Memorial Drive begins with her upbringing in Mississippi with her doting extended maternal family, necessarily recounting her early understanding of race and racism. This happy period ends abruptly with mother and daughter's move to Atlanta, when Trethewey's parents divorce. Atlanta has its strengths, such as a vibrant African American community, but very quickly, Gwen meets the man who will become her second husband. From the beginning, Joel is a sinister figure. Twelve years later, 19-year-old Trethewey returns to Atlanta from college to clean out her mother's apartment after Joel brutally murders Gwen.

While this central event is harrowing, Memorial Drive does not focus only there. Trethewey ruminates on memory and forgetfulness. While Trethewey does pursue forensic exploration, this memoir is more introspection than true-crime investigation. And it is gracefully and gorgeously rendered, as befits a poet of Trethewey's stature. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A former U.S. Poet Laureate remembers her mother, and wrestles with her brutal murder, in compelling and feeling style.

Ecco, $27.99, hardcover, 224p., 9780062248572

Children's & Young Adult

Condor Comeback

by Sy Montgomery, Tianne Strombeck, photographer

Sibert Medalist and National Book Award finalist Sy Montgomery is a regular contributor to the Scientists in the Field series, writing about reptiles, mammals, fish and--like this majestic delve into the California condor--birds. Condor Comeback takes young readers into the world of an oft-misunderstood vulture and offers them plenty of reasons to care about its well-being and critically endangered status.  

Working alongside specialists from the Santa Barbara Zoo, Montgomery observes condors both in the wild and in captivity, learning the meticulous details of the efforts to repopulate and conserve the largest bird species in North America. While the California condor was officially extinct in the wild in the late 1980s, it has since grown to a world population exceeding 450 birds, despite continuing threats. Montgomery shares her experiences through alluring prose that makes a creature that "stories and films often portray... as icky" morph into a fascinating bird worthy of protection that people can easily envision as "nature's original conscientious objector--a huge and powerful bird who 'could be a killer, but chooses instead to live in peace with his fellow creatures.' "

Montgomery's personal stories combined with interludes offering supplemental information leave readers with a wealth of knowledge and trivia. These extras are not only entertaining but will also likely impress the whole science class: for example, "Condors can shoot out their stinky, acidic throw-up like mace or pepper spray." The full-color photographs from Tianne Strombeck are striking--expressive and full of action--bringing the condor even closer to readers. From beginning to end, Condor Comeback encourages the audience to empathize with its subject and join in the fight to save this marvelous species. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: Sibert Medalist Sy Montgomery embeds herself in the remarkable world of California condor conservation as part of the Scientists in the Field series.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99, hardcover, 96p., ages 10-12, 9780544816534

Monster and Boy

by Hannah Barnaby, illus. by Anoosha Syed

Silliness abounds when a boy meets the monster under his bed in Monster and Boy, a fun-filled debut early-reader chapter book by Hannah Barnaby (There's Something about Sam; Wonder Show).

"Once there was a monster who loved a boy." Having never met the boy, though, the monster decided to introduce himself. Understandably surprised, the boy started to yell, and "the monster panicked. He did the only thing he could think of. He swallowed the boy." When finally freed from the monster's stomach, the boy has mysteriously shrunk, and the two new acquaintances must find a way to make him big again. Having never been anywhere but under the bed, the monster is timid, but with the encouragement of the boy, he bravely traverses the rest of the house. Hilarious antics ensue--introducing the monster to everyday objects, bargaining with an interfering little sister and an accidental swim in a toilet. This sweet and silly romp is made even more fun by the inclusion of a playfully eccentric narrator, whose entertaining asides provide additional monster-related context. And never fear, both monster and boy have a happy ending for, as the helpful narrator says, "if the ending isn't right, it's probably not the end."

Author Hannah Barnaby's whimsical story of an unusual friendship is enhanced by Anoosha Syed's dynamic line drawings in three colors. Syed (Bilaal Cooks Daal; I Am Perfectly Designed) uses loose, broken lines to create a monster (cuddly and yeti-like with antlers) and boy full of personality and life. Adorable and expressive illustrations, goofball humor and a story full of friendship and hijinks make this a fun, gentle adventure. --Jennifer Oleinik, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A series of silly events follows the first meeting of a boy and the monster who lives under his bed in this sweet early-reader chapter book.

Holt, $13.99, hardcover, 144p., ages 6-9, 9781250217837

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