Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, May 18, 2012

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

From My Shelf

When Rerouting Leads to Unanticipated Reading Obsession

Last month I considered the art of "rerouting"--those wonderful moments when a book sends you off in unexpected new reading directions. One of those journeys was launched by Adam Johnson's novel The Orphan Master's Son, which sent me to Barbara Demick's nonfiction work Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

But sometimes rerouting turns into full-blown, unanticipated obsession. Now I'm reading The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, in which B.R. Myers writes that "experts continue to describe North Korea as 'puzzling,' 'baffling,' a 'mystery'--and no wonder. Hard facts cannot be put to proper use unless one first acquires information of a very different nature."

Reading is a way--my way--to seek information of a different nature. After Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack by Robert Egan and Kurt Pitzer, I moved on to Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden. Now Victor Cha's The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future is at the top of my to-be-read list.

Fiction also continues to play its valuable role in the quest. All Woman and Springtime by Brandon Jones offers a haunting portrayal of young North Korean women caught in a sex trafficking ring. A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church features Inspector O, a DRPK cross between Arkady Renko and Humphrey Bogart whose noirish wiseguy 'tude, while entertaining, also seems like an ongoing death wish under the circumstances.

Each book opens the curtain just a bit. Do I understand more than I did before my unanticipated obsession kicked in? Perhaps. Do I understand North Korea? Of course not. All I can do is keep reading. --Robert Gray, contributing editor, Shelf Awareness

The Writer's Life

Kevin Barry: The Distinctive Flavor of Language

A common reference point for book critics trying to describe the dystopian near-future of Kevin Barry's debut novel, City of Bohane, a town where rival gangs pitch fierce battles for control of their territories, has been Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, but Barry himself doesn't quite see it. "There's only a few makey-uppy words in Bohane," he points out, sitting in a hotel cafe during a recent visit to the United States--and unlike the intricate vocabulary of Clockwork, his new slang should be easy for readers to figure out in context. (No back-of-the-book glossary needed here!)

In fact, Barry confesses, it wasn't until he was halfway through the first chapter that he realized the story was even set in the future--from that point on, though, he ran with it. (This led to some amusing conversations after the book's publication in Britain, when he was invited to science fiction conventions and readers kept asking why he didn't explain how the world got to the state it was in.) If you tell him that the rundown streets of Bohane remind you of films like Escape from New York or The Warriors, he'll cheerfully agree--then point out how the story and its characters also fit neatly into the patterns of classic western movies.

It's no surprise, then, that his box set of Deadwood DVDs was a source of inspiration. He's also a big fan of The Wire and The Sopranos, comparing the structure of all three series to epic novels, spending a long time at the beginning establishing the set-up and the complex network of character relationships, then bringing everything together for a huge payoff in the final acts. (Barry is also a screenwriter and has adapted City of Bohane for Parallel Films, the producer of Albert Nobbs and Breakfast on Pluto.)

Even more than the setting and the characters, though, it's the language that makes City of Bohane stand out. It's not hard to see why critics think of Clockwork; if you're going to try to explain the way Barry uses language to depict a radically alien world, it's an obvious comparison. Except that the Bohane dialect is really not as alien as all that. "I am very much fundamentally a writer who works with the ear," Barry said, and the novel's dialogue, as well as the patter of its unseen narrator, draws upon the speech of working class Irish, especially in the western part of the country where he grew up, with a few borrowings from other cities he's lived in, like Edinburgh and Liverpool.

"It has a strong taste," Barry says of the language. "It's like mackerel. But if people like it, they really go for it." That distinctive flavor did, however, lead to some initial difficulties in breaking into the American market: a top-ranking editor at one major house told him that he loved the book, but knew that he would never be able to overcome the objections of the sales department. Another big publisher did express interest, but Barry was ultimately persuaded to accept an offer from Graywolf Press, an independent house in Minneapolis. Instead of being one of several midlist titles struggling for attention, he was told, "You'll be their big book of the season." The decision has paid off for both Barry and Graywolf, with front-page praise in the New York Times Book Review being perhaps the most prominent of the novel's rewards--all of which pave the way for the U.S. publication of Barry's second short story collection, Dark Lies the Isles, in the fall of 2013.

In the meantime, can readers anticipate a return to Bohane? Barry doesn't see the novel as the opening round of a trilogy--"they have a habit of going wrong in the third one"--but he admits that while he was working on the audiobook, he began to realize that he'd like to have done more with several of the characters, especially the women. "And when you build a city like this," he says, smiling, "it feels like real estate." --Ron Hogan, founder of

Book Candy

Literary Justice; E.L. James Territory; Titles Choices

A judge in Northern California ruled that an allegedly violent criminal be released to his grandmother "with the stipulation that he read 'at least one hour every day, and... write reports on those books for at least 30 minutes every day,' " Page Views reported.

The Wall Street Journal noted that former pharmaceutical executive and white-collar criminal Andrew G. Bodnar, who was sentenced by a judge in 2009 to write a book reflecting on his criminal behavior, has submitted a 253-page manuscript into the court record.

Perhaps a similar dose of literary justice will be meted out to the U.K. man arrested this week for stealing from the "honesty box" of the bookshop at a Yorkshire monastery.


Touring the "deluxe mommy-porn apartment in the sky," Jacket Copy showcased the "real-life Escala Building in Seattle," where much of the "action" in E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey occurs.


Would you rather read The Winning of the War in Europe and the Pacific or The Black Rose. This was one of the questions in a 1948 test featured by BuzzFeed that was meant to determine how masculine or feminine you might be.

Great Reads

Further Reading: Rebelling Against Dictators

Since its publication in 2003, Azar Nafisi's memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran has testified to the power of literature to bring freedom to those oppressed by dictatorships. When Iran's Islamic government banned women from attending universities, Nafisi gathered seven female students in her home for a secret class. They discussed such classic novels as The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice, touching on larger themes of freedom, morality and a woman's right to love. As the regime's restrictions tightened, the secret meetings gave each woman the courage to rebel in small but important ways.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells a similarly powerful true story in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. When Kamila's parents flee Kabul to escape the Taliban, she must find a way to support herself and her five younger siblings who remain at home. Lemmon traces Kamila's journey from scared young woman to responsible dressmaker to entrepreneur, applauding the bravery of neighborhood girls who join her sewing business and the gritty determination of Afghans who refuse to surrender their beloved city to the tyrants.

Shooting Kabul, N.H. Senzai's young adult novel, approaches Afghanistan through the eyes of 11-year-old Fadi, who flees to the U.S. with his family in early 2001. In the confusion of their escape, his youngest sister, Mariam, disappears in the crowd, and Fadi blames himself for losing her. As he faces the difficult adjustment to life in California, including taunts and bullying after 9/11, he also joins the school photography club, planning to win a photo contest that offers a trip to India so he can search for his sister.

In Timeri Murari's novel The Taliban Cricket Club, rebellion comes in an unlikely form: a state-sponsored cricket tournament. Journalist Rukhsana, frustrated by her inability to work, teaches her brother and cousins to play, hoping they can win the tournament and escape to Pakistan. As they learn the game, which emphasizes individualism and fair play, both Rukhsana and the team begin to hope for a life outside the Taliban's harsh rules.

All four books serve as poignant reminders: rebellion against a dictatorship can begin with a small thing, such as a cricket ball, a camera, a length of fabric made into a beautiful dress or a book itself. Words carry power, and these stories remind Western readers of the small but vital freedoms we so often take for granted. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams


Books for Grads, Travelers, History Buffs

"Beyond the cliché: Ten picture book gifts for graduates" were suggested by Page Views.


USA Today recommended "five books for the perceptive traveler."


"Top 10 books about tough stuff from out there": Elizabeth Laird, author most recently of The Prince Who Walked With Lions, "travels the world from Africa to Australia in her pick of books showing teens tackling tough stuff and all their trials and triumphs along the way" for the Guardian.


"It's not just about the Tudors," the Observer's books editor William Skidelsky noted in sharing his picks for the "10 best historical novels."

Reading Book Spines: There's an App for That

"Do you hate turning your neck sideways to read book titles at libraries and bookstores? Or scrunching down as well to view lower shelves?" If you answered yes to those questions, the ShelfLook iPhone app may be just what you're looking for. It is designed to allow users to hold an iPhone horizontally and read titles on the screen.

The Accidental Author

When I moved to France for a year with my family, writing a book was the furthest thought from my mind. We were escaping the rat race, reconnecting with family (settling in the tiny village where my husband was born) and rethinking our lives. A big city girl, I had no idea what awaited me: loneliness (the reserved French don't make friends easily) and miserable weather (our vine-covered stone cottage overlooking the ocean, so charming in summer, grew moldy and swayed under winter gales, and we took to wearing wool hats indoors).

Meanwhile, my children were discovering the delights of French cuisine at preschool and daycare. The transformation in their eating habits was astounding: from absurdly picky eaters (we counted goldfish crackers as a separate food group) to happy, competent, eaters-of-everything--from mussels to mackerel, broccoli to beets. Preparing and eating food became a central, joyful part of our family life.

Inspired, I wanted to share what we had learned when we returned home to Vancouver. But it was an uphill battle, as North American culture often works against families who want to eat healthily. Ideas for a story began popping into my head--even waking me up at night. I had filled two notebooks with jottings when my husband said: "You should write a book." Actually, it wrote itself. I had never believed people when they said "it was all in my head, and I just needed to write it down," but that's what happened. Some chapters took only two days.

My blog has become part of the burgeoning food reform movement--I'm even a Jamie Oliver Food Foundation "Real Food Advocate." Both blog and book will, I hope, help change kids' food culture--at home and in schools. Not at all what I'd intended when we moved to France, but fulfilling (even thrilling!) nonetheless. --Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything (Morrow)

Book Review


In One Person

by John Irving

John Irving's 13th novel, In One Person, has an epigraph from Shakespeare's Richard II: "Thus play I in one person many people,/ And none contented." And throughout the novel, Shakespeare--plays, characters, lines--abounds. Irving also returns to a first-person narrator for the first time since A Prayer for Owen Meany; this time it's Billy, a young boy, then man, in search of who and what, sexually, he is.

It's the 1950s. We meet young Billy Francis Dean, Jr., from a small town in Vermont, lusting after Miss Frost, the town's librarian, and her girlish breasts. She gives him Great Expectations to read and then re-read because Billy, even from this early age, wants to be a writer, one who likes to digress, something he does often in his own books and in the one we are reading. These opening pages are lovely. Like Stephen King, Irving does small-town New England really well.

Billy goes on to attend Favorite River Academy, where his stepdad teaches drama. There he has a new crush, on a "striking-looking boy" who's on the wrestling team. Billy welcomes his homosexual tendencies, just as he welcomes his sexual friendship with Elaine Hadley. Back and forth go Billy's memories: a junior year in Germany and his relationship with Donna, a transsexual, and the poet Larry.

There's humor here, along with sadness and tragedy, especially in Billy's recounting of his New York City years and the HIV epidemic. There's also love, understanding--as well as misunderstanding--and even contentment, as we last hear from Billy in old age, teaching drama at his beloved Favorite River Academy. Billy has come home and Irving has, too. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: A huge cast populates this bawdy, life-affirming Dickensian romp about a bisexual man and his many loves.

Simon & Schuster, $28, hardcover, 9781451664126

I Am Forbidden

by Anouk Markovits

In this multi-generational saga spanning pre- and post-World War II Transylvania, Paris, England and Brooklyn's Williamsburg, Anouk Markovits explores the double-edged potential of religious conviction in the lives of two women who choose paths that are diametrically opposed.

When Mila Heller's parents are shot by Nazi soldiers, she is adopted by the rabbi of their Transylvanian village and becomes a sister to Atara Stern. As the daughters of a revered leader, the girls enjoy a status akin to princesses, yet Atara chafes at the restrictions of her ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic upbringing, while Mila looks forward to marriage and children in a home built on the foundations of that tradition. But, in a twist of irony, it is that same tradition that will threaten to destroy Mila's dreams of happiness.

Those outside a religion tend to see it as a collection of petty rules. Markovits--who was raised in the Satmar community--demonstrates that to those within, these laws are imbued with incredible power to save and destroy. Compounding this power is the story's connection to the Holocaust, which gives the characters even more cause to see the world as a Manichean play of righteousness and evil, dark and light.

Markovits best captures this theme in her tender depiction of Mila's marriage to Josef. Living within the codified parameters of "forbidden" and "permitted," the alternating flows of blood and ritual immersion, Mila and Josef share a love that is real and deep. By avoiding the easy cliché of the cold arranged marriage, Markovits intensifies the emotional heft of the story--and forces the reader to be moved by the characters' fates. --Ilana Teitelbaum, book reviewer at the Huffington Post

Discover: A lyrical novel about obedience, rebellion and tragedy by an author who grew up in the Hasidic community she writes about.

Hogarth, $25, hardcover, 9780307984739

The Master's Muse

by Varley O'Connor

With The Master's Muse, Varley O'Connor has crafted a compelling novel based on the life of prima ballerina Tanaquil Le Clerq--a complicated love story set amid the world of international ballet.

In 1956, "Tanny" Le Clerq was on the way to becoming one of the most famous ballerinas of all time. Married to George Balanchine, the genius choreographer who revitalized American ballet, Tanny danced across Europe that summer to rave reviews--until she collapsed in Copenhagen, and never walked again.

Polio transformed both Tanny's life and her already difficult marriage. Only 26 when the disease struck, she was Balanchine's fifth wife, more than 20 years younger than he. Tanny and Balanchine were passionate about each other, but they each had tempers to match their artistic gifts.

O'Connor follows the remaining years of their marriage, through the high points--such as when Balanchine designs physical therapy regimens for Tanny--and the low--including his affairs with ever younger ballerinas. O'Connor also depicts Tanny's desperate struggle to adapt to life in a wheelchair while still surrounded by the culture of dancing that she loves.

Through Tanny and Balanchine's story, O'Connor gives the inside scoop on more than 30 years of New York City Ballet history, and offers a true-to-life glimpse of a world full of music, love and art. Like an elegant ballet, The Master's Muse takes the reader on an artistic journey of love--an undeniably beautiful journey, despite its bittersweet ending. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: The complicated marriage of Tanaquil Le Clerq, a prima ballerina until she was paralyzed by polio.

Scribner, $25, hardcover, 9781451655384

They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

by Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley (Thank You for Smoking) holds the franchise on political satire. In They Eat Puppies, Don't They?, he takes on U.S.-Chinese relations, and leaves no wonton untouched.

Washington lobbyist "Bird" McIntyre joins forces with Angel Templeton, a sexy, in-your-face neocon, to work on gaining congressional approval for a top-secret weapons system that will cost bazillions of dollars. The idea is to strike fear in the American public so they will importune their congressmen into voting "yes" on the system.

Bird and Angel are having trouble finding a legitimate reason to slander China at the moment--when a boon comes their way in the person of the Dalai Lama, who fell ill while visiting the Pope. Bird proposes that they start a rumor that Beijing tried to kill the Dalai Lama on his way into a meeting in Rome. When asked about evidence, Bird replied: "Who needs evidence when you've got the Internet?" They feed the Washington media the sound bite, and the con is on.

Meanwhile, peaceful and harmonious Chinese President Fa has problems of his own and, in a perfect subplot, Bird's equestrienne wife, Myndi, has just earned a place on the Olympics team and the competition will take place in--wait for it--China. Competing agendas, persiflage, Angel and Bird circling each other and the whole Washington gambit combine to create yet another concoction that makes the reader laugh out loud--often. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

Discover: Political satire at its best, with plenty of hilarity to take the edge off the cynicism.

Twelve, $25.99, hardcover, 9780446540971

The Year of the Gadfly

by Jennifer Miller

The ivy and iron, the antique traditions, those gloomy, insular New England towns--there's something a little sinister about literary prep schools, especially one with a shady past and a secret society that terrorizes the school's elite. But while The Year of the Gadfly has enough drama and betrayal to rival The Secret History, Jennifer Miller's debut novel is more heartfelt than troubling and more funny than scary.

Fourteen-year-old Iris Dupont is still smarting from the suicide of her best friend when she starts ninth grade at Mariana Academy, a tony prep school in Nye, Mass. Plucky, precocious--and certain to resent that description--Iris is an aspiring journalist who regularly confers with the chain-smoking apparition of Edward R. Murrow. "I'd imagine Murrow in the room with me, the two of us speaking frankly about school, or the despicable state of the broadcast media," Iris explains. But not even Murrow's smoky guidance can prepare Iris for Prisom's Party, an underground society bent on vilifying anyone who violates Mariana's storied Honor Code. While the Party's intentions appear just, its destructive schemes and humiliating spectacles go too far--and Iris's sleuthing leads her into a sad, twisted story involving Mariana's unspoken history, her favorite teacher, Mr. Kaplan, and Lily, the mysterious albino girl who once lived in Iris's bedroom.

With wry sensitivity and a keen understanding of the deadly social landmines any high school student has to navigate (even without the intrigue), Miller has created a laudable heroine in Iris--and a poignant story about friendship and loss. --Hannah Calkins, blogger at Unpunished Vice

Discover: A funny, moving addition to the "school novel" canon, featuring an erudite 14-year-old heroine and a decade-old mystery.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, hardcover, 9780547548593

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

by Shehan Karunatilaka

"If you've never seen a cricket match," suggests Wijidasa ("Wije") Gamini Karunasena, "if you have and it has made you snore; if you can't understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you." After a lifetime of hard drinking, the aging Sri Lankan sportswriter wants to spend his last days paying tribute to his nation's greatest cricket players, in particular Pradeep Mathew, a fictional athlete whose prowess is comparable to Bernard Malamud's Roy Hobbs or George Plimpton's Sidd Finch--even though he remains a near-total cipher for the majority of Shehan Karunatilaka's debut novel.

The problem is almost nobody in Sri Lanka remembers Mathew, or wants to remember him. There are hints and allegations that he ran afoul of the nation's cricket authorities before fading into obscurity, but the story Wije eventually cobbles together is darker still.

There's a loopy, discursive quality to The Legend of Pradeep Mathew; it's not unusual for Wije to lead with the climactic moment of a story, then circle back several times, adding outlandish details with each go-around. Don't worry if the sports terminology goes over your head; the core of the novel is in Wije's obstinate--at times petulant--reluctance to let go of the emotional crutches that sustain his identity, even as he acknowledges the damage they've caused throughout his life.

Karunatilaka adds one last metafictional spin to the closing chapters, and though it breaks the connection readers will have made with Wije's voice, you'll be glad you got to tag along on Wije's quixotic search for a too-good-to-be-true sports legend. --Ron Hogan, founder of

Discover: A dying alcoholic hunts for a legendary cricket player in an Sri Lankan variation on A Fan's Notes.

Graywolf Press, $16, paperback, 9781555976118

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Gift of Fire / On the Head of a Pin: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion

by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley is best known as a mystery writer, but he's made a go at science fiction on several occasions. With The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin, Mosley continues to use SF as a platform for intense speculation about human nature and our capacity for transformative personal development.

The Gift of Fire tells the story of Prometheus's reappearance in contemporary Los Angeles, where the deity is immediately attacked by police officers and thrown into jail. Upon release, he makes his way through South Central, passing his divine spark on to a paralyzed adolescent who--now fully healed--begins to preach a gospel of spiritual revolution. In On the Head of a Pin, a videographer for a high-tech startup recounts the company's efforts to create a refined form of digital animation indistinguishable from real life that winds up tapping into the universe's memories--and causing him to form a bond with a post-human woman from the future.

Some readers may not be completely sold by Mosley's effort to infuse literary style into a "fiction of ideas," although the awkwardness of several bits of dialogue in The Gift of Fire is obviously deliberate, achieving a semi-archaic effect that works well with the mythological themes--and, by the end, it's equally clear the novella is intended more as parable than as imitation of life. In that sense, On the Head of a Pin is more "realistic," perhaps due to first-person narration that also gives the story a more psychological tone and a more subtle resolution. For those who know the genre well, Mosley's stories successfully re-create the spirit of 1960s and '70s science fiction and its willingness to tackle big questions without falling back on easy answers. --Ron Hogan, founder of

Discover: If you only know Walter Mosley through Easy Rawlins or Leonid McGill, this double shot of science fiction may come as a revelation.

Tor, $24.99, hardcover, 9780765330086

Biography & Memoir

Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story

by Daphne Sheldrick

Born into a family of Scots who had lived in Africa for several generations, Dame Daphne Sheldrick seems to have been perfectly suited to her Kenyan environment, even from an early age. Growing up during "days of discovery," she quickly became adept at observing the habits and patterns of wildlife; her childhood friends included an impala, a waterbuck, a zebra and a dwarf mongoose named Ricky-Ticky-Tavey. It was this unusual upbringing, combined with Sheldrick's inherent empathy for other living creatures, which fostered her lifelong interest in the welfare of animals.

From these youthful memories, Love, Life, and Elephants continues through Sheldrick's first marriage to her teenage sweetheart, their work in creating a new national park in Tsavo, and the birth of a daughter. It is in Tsavo that Sheldrick's marriage eventually dissolves, and she meets the love of her life, David Sheldrick, warden of Tsavo National Park. With David, Sheldrick again becomes a wife and has another child. Under his guidance, she also begins to perfect a method of hand-rearing baby animals, most often elephants. Tragically, David's life is ended early by a heart attack, but Sheldrick continues his work through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Orphans' Nursery in Nairobi National Park.

Sheldrick's connection with the orphaned elephants is, at times, quite astounding, and her forgiveness for their role in a debilitating accident is admirable. Readers who enjoy such books as Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa or Elspeth Huxley's Flame Trees of Thika will want to experience this remarkable African story. --Roni K. Devlin, owner of Literary Life Bookstore & More

Discover: A memoir of a life well spent in Africa, conserving Kenya's wildlife (and not just the pachyderms).

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27, hardcover, 9780374104573

Essays & Criticism

Exit Laughing

by Victoria Zackheim, editor

In Exit Laughing, Victoria Zackheim brings 23 writers together to reminisce on how the restorative power of humor has helped them confront and grapple with the pain of death. They provide a flawed, yet human, mirror in which to reflect the grief and emotional turmoil that accompany rituals of dying--making the discussion of death much less taboo in the process.

Zackheim opens the collection with the delightfully wicked "Another Expiration Date" by Malachy McCourt. McCourt muses on the euphemisms used to circumvent the "D" word, witticisms he and his siblings levy while mulling over his mother's burial options at an undertaker's office. A case of mistaken identity in a "Who's on first?" moment provides Karen Quinn with temporary respite from guilt over a dead pet in "Kitty... Mimi." Benita Garvin's novel about parental suicide turns into a moment of life imitating art in "Measuring Grief." Michael Tucker recounts how actor Cleavon Little stages his own deathbed in Blazing Saddles glory in "Cleavon Victorious." Even potty humor makes a morbid appearance when Kathi Kamen Goldmark receives an ancient porcelain commode in recognition of her dear friend, Jessica Mitford, in "Decca's Potty."

Death happens, and the writers in Exit Laughing show that humor can serve as an acceptable and beneficial means to mend broken hearts. Laughter, Zackheim writes in her introduction, "can open the door to emotions shared, and perhaps through this sharing we can not only process the reality of death but mend the complex and often difficult relationships we share with the person who is dying." --Nancy Powell, freelance writer

Discover: 23 perspectives on how the restorative power of humor can help us to grapple with the concept of death.

North Atlantic Books, $18.95, paperback, 9781583944073


Pity the Beautiful: Poems

by Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia excels at writing poetry that is accessible to general readers, in the colloquial tradition of Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur and Billy Collins. Pity the Beautiful, coming 10 years after the Poet's Prize-winning collection The Gods of Winter, speaks in a relevant voice of today within the formal verse structures of the past.

Gioia's poems tell of simple emotions and memories in the context of metaphorical observations. They are not ponderous reflections, but rather notes of slightly amused perplexity. The opening stanza of "The Road" is a good example:

He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching in the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware,
And someone else was walking next to him,
First friends, then lovers, now children and a wife.
They were good company--generous, kind,
But equally bewildered to be there.

Gioia is best when he touches lightly on the heavy blows that life often strikes. "Special Treatments Ward" tells of a children's hospital wing

...where the children come to die,
hidden on the hospital's highest floor....
No one chooses to be here. We play the parts
that we are given--horrible as they are.
We try to play them well, whatever that means.

Arranged in five sections, the poems in Pity the Beautiful cover a broad sweep of subjects and forms. They include a few translations, four songs from a libretto and a longer poem, "The Haunted," of a love affair thwarted by ghosts.

To his credit, Gioia makes no attempt to plumb the depths of our modern angst or push the boundaries of contemporary verse. Instead, he lets his far-reaching interests pull us into poems of simple grace, gentle irony and comfortable form. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: The fourth collection of poems by the former NEA chairman is rich in subtle irony and well-crafted storytelling.

Graywolf Press, $15, paperback, 9781555976132

Children's & Young Adult

Masque of the Red Death

by Bethany Griffin

Bethany Griffin (Handcuffs) brings new life to Edgar Allan Poe's 1842 classic short story of the same name.

A plague known as the Weeping Sickness has devastated society, killing an untold number of victims. Survivors face a life in which corpse collectors make daily visits. The few wealthy citizens purchase porcelain masks that filter the diseased air and make it safer to breathe. As the daughter of a renowned scientist, Araby Worth lives a life of privilege and luxury. She and her friend April spend their nights at the famed Debauchery Club, where their brief escapes offer Araby respite from the guilt she feels over her twin brother's death. When Araby becomes entangled with two young men, her life becomes complicated by far more than romance. Her love triangle is surprisingly fresh: the rivals know of one another and both prove themselves alternately trustworthy and dangerous. Two revolutions loom, and everyone has an agenda. Trust is a luxury no one can afford.

Griffin's novel pays homage to Poe's story with Gothic overtones, and updates it with well-placed touches of steampunk. She specifies neither time nor place, so readers may experience the novel as a turn-of-the-century tale or a futuristic dystopia. To Griffin's credit, this makes her story more accessible, bridging across time. Thanks to Griffin's strong character development, none of the characters' motives are clear, and no one is predictable. In this world, someone who proclaims love is just as likely to murder as the one who seems aloof. --Kyla Paterno, retail coordinator and blogger, Garfield Book Company

Discover: A dark homage to Edgar Allan Poe's story, in which safety and trust are relative, and the air itself is toxic.

Greenwillow Books, $17.99, hardcover, 366p., ages 14-up, 9780062107794

In Honor

by Jessi Kirby

An outstanding sophomore novel from author Jessi Kirby (Moonglass), In Honor combines a road trip with a personal journey.

A letter that Honor's brother, Finn, sent from overseas is long delayed, arriving just days after the military announces his death. Honor opens it hours after his funeral to find tickets to a concert, and a request from Finn to attend. Swallowed by grief, Honor immediately decides to fulfill his wish, even though the concert is only days away and she should be arriving at college instead. Finn's estranged best friend, Rusty, appears just as Honor is leaving, and after a brief conflict, they find themselves on their way to California together. "Yep. Finn wouldn'ta wanted you going off by yourself like this," Rusty says.

Kirby does an excellent job of developing Rusty and Honor, through both personal reflection and the interactions they have with each other. Their individual connections to Finn intertwine as they find a way to deal with their grief. References to Honor's home state invoke a Texas Forever feeling, and Rusty's attitude will charm most readers. What sets this book apart from other road trip stories are the descriptions Kirby uses in each of the places they visit: "Stars twinkled in the paling sky, sending light from the past all the way down to us." Honor paints a vivid picture in each scene, making it easy for readers to immerse themselves and connect with her as she tries to deal with her brother's death. --Shanyn Day, blogger at Chick Loves Lit

Discover: A road trip full of imagery and discovery, as Honor figures out who she is without her brother.

Simon & Schuster, $16.99, hardcover, 240p., ages 14-up, 9781442416970


by Alethea Kontis

This whimsical novel is the first solo young adult project for Alethea Kontis, a student of Orson Scott Card. But don't go into it expecting Ender's Game.

Enchanted follows the story of Sunday, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (all named for days of the week), and a frog prince named Rumbold. Weaving folklore and fantasy together with her own original ideas, Kontis (the AlphaOops series) builds a fairytale world populated by familiar characters. The story reads like a Who's Who of once upon a time mashups, with playful references to Jack and the Beanstalk, the Princess and the Pea, Cinderella and many others.

At times, the narrative gets a bit bogged down by the enormous cast of characters. And while the prince was charming as a frog, his personality changes dramatically after he becomes human. The story takes a decidedly sinister turn once Rumbold is free of his enchantment. So although much of the novel would entertain younger readers, the dark magic near the end ages it up.

With a nod to current trends in YA literature, the beautiful cover will certainly attract many readers, and fans of fairy tale retellings will no doubt be enchanted by this dark fantasy. --Sherrie Petersen, children's book reviewer and blogger

Discover: A dark fairytale mashup filled with familiar characters in original situations.

Harcourt, $16.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 12-up, 9780547645704

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