Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, October 6, 2020

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

From My Shelf

Scandal, Snark and Crime-Solving Smarts

In the early days of quarantine, I picked up a crime novel from a neighbor's Little Free Library. I'd heard of Sara Paretsky, but hadn't read any of her mysteries featuring wisecracking Chicago sleuth V.I. Warshawski. By the time I'd finished Dead Land (Morrow, $28.99), I was more than willing to go back to the beginning of V.I.'s adventures, Indemnity Only (Dell, $7.99). I'm now halfway through the series, which so far comprises 20 novels and a short story collection.

Paretsky has spent her adult life in Chicago, and her novels turn a keen eye on its financial corruption, backslapping politics, complicated modes of transportation and always-simmering ethnic tensions. V.I.--"Vic" to her friends--grew up on the South Side, the daughter of a Polish cop and an opera-singing Italian mother. After law school and a stint as a public defender, she set up her own private detective business. But the crimes that drive Paretsky's narratives are rarely the routine financial investigations that pay Vic's bills. Instead, she gets caught up in other, far more compelling cases: a monastery accused of counterfeiting securities (Killing Orders, Morrow, $9.99), a Filipina prison escapee tied to a labor scandal (Hard Time, Dell, $7.99), a childhood friend who begs Vic for a favor with disastrous consequences (Blood Shot, Dell, $7.99). These cases provoke V.I.'s curiosity and her strong sense of justice, as well as her fierce commitment to underdogs. (Her encounters with friends, enemies and the cops call forth her caustic sense of humor, with varied but always entertaining effects.)

Vic is brilliant, hotheaded and utterly human: she makes mistakes, drinks too much and goes haring off on ill-advised midnight adventures. But she'll follow a victim--or a villain--to the ends of the earth to see justice done. And I'm relishing my own travels through the city she calls home. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Book Candy

Major Literary Moments as Zoom Meetings

Lit Hub featured Kate Gavino's new comic "Climactic Moments in Literature Rescheduled as Zoom Meetings."


"Good grief! 18 facts about Charles Schulz's Peanuts comics." (via Mental Floss)


"Anne Sexton's sensual love poem 'Song for a Lady,' in an animation inspired by Oliver Sacks." (via Brain Pickings)


"An animated introduction to Albert Camus' existentialism, a philosophy making a comeback in our dysfunctional times." (via Open Culture)


"Rare edition of Shakespeare's last play found in Spanish library," Smithsonian magazine reported.

Dear Child

by Romy Hausmann

German author Romy Hausmann's chilling English-language debut, Dear Child, begins where other abduction thrillers end: with the abductees having escaped. But they are far from being free, and Hausmann keeps readers captive until the last sentence.

When Lena Beck was a 23-year-old student, she went missing in Munich after attending a party. That was 13 years ago. In the present, near the Czech border, in Cham, a woman runs out of the woods one night and is hit by a car. She has no ID or personal effects on her, but right behind her is an eerily calm 13-year-old girl. When paramedics arrive, the girl tells them her name is Hannah and her mother is Lena. Hannah even knows her mom's blood type.

While waiting for Lena to undergo surgery at the hospital, Hannah is looked after by Sister Ruth, who attempts to retrieve emergency contact info from Hannah. What's her father's name? Family surname? Phone number? Address? Where was Lena running from?

Hannah whispers, "Nobody must find us."

When Sister Ruth asks her to elaborate, Hannah says, "[Mama] wanted to kill Papa by accident," and tells her that Hannah's younger brother, Jonathan, is back at their cabin in the woods cleaning stains from the carpet. He was scared of the noise. What noise? "What it sounds like when you bash someone's head with something. Bam!"

Certain something is very wrong, Sister Ruth notifies the authorities, who eventually call Lena Beck's parents, Matthias and Karin. After 4,825 days, they cannot believe the police have found Lena, injured but alive.

Matthias and Karin race to Cham in the night, and encounter a crushing surprise at the hospital. But they also catch sight of Hannah, who's the spitting image of Lena as a teen. The girl is being remanded to a childhood trauma center and, apparently, Matthias and Karin also have a grandson, who's been found at the cabin--along with the body of a man with his face bashed in. The kidnapper is dead, and the nightmare is over for his victims. Or is it?

Comparisons to Emma Donoghue's Room are perhaps inevitable, but by starting the novel with the abductees' escape, Hausmann keeps readers wondering where the story goes from there, as it travels down mysterious and surprising paths. Chapters alternate between the points of view of Matthias and the former captives, with flashbacks providing glimpses of what happened inside the cabin. Scenes of cruelty are horrifying but not graphic; most are narrated by Hannah, who doesn't fully understand the significance of the adults' actions.

Hannah's voice is the most striking, and Hausmann captures it perfectly. Born in captivity, the girl is both highly intelligent and achingly innocent, her view of the world entirely shaped by a cruel man. Her impeccable politeness has a sinister effect, making readers question what's beneath the unruffled patina. She draws disturbing pictures, in art therapy and to pass the time, observing that she needs the crayon in carmine red to illustrate fresh blood, that claret's "fine for old blood, and for really old blood the brown crayon is best." Her matter-of-fact revelations raise fresh questions in a case thought to be closed.

And Hannah has no patience for people without manners. When her little brother becomes catatonic after he's given pills at the children's psychiatric center, Hannah thinks, "I don't like his stupid eyes" and "it's making it harder for me to love him." After all, he must say hello when he sees her and not hit his head on the table while eating. She starts distancing herself from Jonathan, which makes his plight even more heartbreaking. At least inside the cabin, the boy felt loved by his sister and mother.

In contrast to the children's reactions, Matthias is consumed by rage. Rage at the fact that he couldn't prevent Lena's abduction, that he still doesn't know all the horrors she suffered at the cabin, that he now might have no control over his granddaughter's care. He's faced with questions from his wife and from Hannah's doctors: How can he provide a "normal" life for someone who feels safest locked up in a cabin? The whole ordeal hurls Matthias toward a startling self-reckoning, with Hausmann showing how someone driven by love might inflict as much damage as someone who sets out to harm.

The author also explores the notions of imprisonment and freedom, how neither is tied to four walls and physical space. After moving back to her own place, the woman who fought and escaped from her abductor realizes she's still a prisoner. She keeps her doors locked and shuns company, allowing only her former girlfriend to visit. Her fears, Matthias's savior complex and Hannah's desire to return to the only home she knew collide in a white-knuckle climax. And just when readers think it's okay to exhale, the final note of hope--of one woman's determination to find beauty beyond boundaries--will take their breath away. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Flatiron Books, $26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781250768537, October 6, 2020
Flatiron Books, $26.99, hardcover, 368p., 9781250768537

Romy Hausmann: No Boundaries or Limits

(photo: Astrid Eckert)

Romy Hausmann was born in East Germany, and at 24 became managing editor of a Munich television production company. She has published several novels in Germany but Dear Child, which Flatiron will publish October 6, 2020, is the first to be translated into English. It's also Hausmann's first thriller, depicting what happens after longtime victims of abduction manage to escape from captivity. Hausmann lives with her family in the woods near Stuttgart.

You've published before, but this is your first thriller. What inspired the switch to this genre?

For many years, I'd not read thrillers myself, almost only literary fiction. Most of my own memory of the genre goes back to holidays in Italy as a teen in the 1990s, when I'd run out of my own reading and I would pick up my mother's books; she used to read rather light crime fiction and thrillers. The language was often too flat for me and the psychology felt neglected. All in all, I found thrillers completely uninteresting.

Until many years later, when I happened to read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Is that what thrillers could be like these days? That language, that psychological depth, that complexity. I was stunned by my enthusiasm and immediately thought, I want to write something like that!

Dear Child explores the meaning of freedom, how sometimes imprisonment doesn't require four walls or captivity. You grew up in East Germany. What did freedom mean to you then? Where did you find it and how did you experience it?

I was a child at the time and our living conditions were normal for me because I had no means of comparison. My parents were also born into this system, and we basically only knew what "freedom" could look like from TV (there were only two state channels in the GDR at the time; we watched Western TV with a specially designed antenna).

I remember there had always been discussions at home about escaping to the West, that that was my parents' life mission: to make and realize the ultimate escape plan. And I also knew I couldn't tell anyone about it because otherwise the Stasi would have come and taken my parents away.

Nevertheless, I had a good childhood, and as a child it's about other things that make you feel free. Hanging out with friends, climbing trees. I think I only realized later how bad [living in the GDR] must have been for the adults, and how much it had shaped me that at home everything was about this one topic. Now that I've grown up, "freedom" is still my greatest asset. I hate setting limits on myself, or having them set by others.

When the Berlin Wall came down, how did the meaning of freedom change for you?

It used to be about a geographical boundary, freedom of expression and the ability to buy what you wanted, go on vacation to wherever you wanted, learn the profession you wanted to work in. After the fall of the wall, all of that was there and available. Today, I'm focused on stretching the personal boundaries I have in my head. To do things even if they scare me or I might fail, always bearing in mind I have only this one life.

Another theme in Dear Child is that well-intentioned people and those who willfully cause harm are perhaps not too different from one another. It's an uncomfortable thought but the story shows how that can be true.

Life is not black and white, just as we humans aren't either. We all live in our own "gray." Imagine that you are a good person, but someone does something bad to your child. I bet you could become a monster in those circumstances--at least I would.

This is what Dear Child is about. It's not about a bad person who is crazy or degenerated from birth and does cruel things purely for his own fun. This is about normal people who've had their psyche scratched by what has happened to them in their life, and who are now doing what they think is right, even if they objectively cross social and moral boundaries. But they don't notice that anymore; they are trapped in themselves. I think that is also what makes Dear Child so uncomfortable--we suspect that under certain circumstances, we too could mutate into these monsters.

You live in a remote house in the woods. Part of the book is set in the woods. How much of your own surroundings is reflected in the story?

A lot! I am often out in the woods and go for walks. These huts are a common sight. Of course, they are more likely to be used by forest farmers to lock away their equipment. But theoretically, one or more people could be held there and no one would get suspicious.

The scenes dealing with the treatment of children in the psychiatric facility seem very realistic. How much research did you do to achieve this?

Psychology is my hobby. Of course I had to do some research, but I didn't see it as work, and it mainly satisfied my own fundamental interest. Especially when writing from Hannah's perspective, I benefited from the fact that I am--or at least I think I am--a very empathetic person. I just imagined what it would be like if I had been locked up in a hut all my life and now had contact with the real world for the first time. It seemed to go remarkably well.

When the book was finished, I did speak to a trauma expert who confirmed I had understood the behavior and mechanisms of the victims in a way that, in their experience, could have happened in reality.

The book is quite unsettling. When you like to be scared, what and who do you read?

I actually read exactly the kinds of books I write myself. I'm not interested in serial killers who go out for fun and stage some bloodbath. I don't like to read about spilling guts and gallons of blood. I want to read about normal people with whom I can identify. I find that a lot more creepy. I love Gillian Flynn, all of whose books I've read now, but also Harlan Coben, Paula Hawkins, John Marrs. I've also been very impressed by the Scandinavian Ane Riel, as I've been with Fiona Cummins, whose latest novel, When I Was Ten, I recently read as an early proof. And of course we also have some really good authors in Germany.

What's next for you?

My second thriller, working title Marta, Asleep, will be published in Germany soon, which is very exciting for me. I will also be on a reading tour again, which is always great fun, and I have just completed the planning phase for my third thriller. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: Anne Stevenson

Anne Stevenson, the poet and biographer of Sylvia Plath, died September 14 at age 87. The Guardian reported that "from the appearance of her first book of poems, Living in America, in 1965, her voice was distinct and clear. There was a wry tone in those poems, one of detachment and bemusement, with a tinge of social critique, as in The Dear Ladies of Cincinnati (1969), which summons these middle-class women who found husbands 'who, liking their women gay,/ preserve them in an air-tight empire made of soap/ and mattresses.' " In 1989, Stevenson published Bitter Fame, a controversial account of the life of Sylvia Plath. "Many readers at the time complained that Stevenson had less reverence for Plath than was usually required, with perhaps too much sympathy for her husband, Ted Hughes," the Guardian wrote.

As a poet, Stevenson published 16 books, including various selected volumes and two collected editions, The Collected Poems of Anne Stevenson, 1955-1995 (1996) and Poems 1955-2005 (2005). In the introduction to a 2010 book of essays on her poetry, Angela Leighton noted that Stevenson had, "like many poets writing in the last 40 or 50 years... been in and out of critical fashion," and yet she remained true "to her own voice and her own sense of what constitutes poetry."

Book Review



by Sayaka Murata, trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Sayaka Murata's Earthlings, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is a shocking allegory about the consequences of nonconformity. Natsuki begins her story in childhood, when she recognizes, with a dispassion that sets off early alarms, exactly what is expected. "I was a tool for the town's good, in two senses. Firstly, I had to study hard to become a work tool. Secondly, I had to be a good girl, so that I could become a reproductive organ for the town." Natsuki is an outlier in a conventional family and is comforted by Piyyut, a toy that she thinks is animate and from another planet. Her cousin Yuu, of similar age, is also a family outsider who believes he's an actual alien.

When a teacher rapes Natsuki and no one believes her, she says, with customary understatement, "It's really hard to put into words things that are just a little bit not okay." Readers, in detail, know how "not okay" it is. But Natsuki's tendency to view herself with clinical detachment isn't foolproof, and her harrowing reaction to this abuse is the first indication she's approaching a disassociation from which it will be hard to return. Her stand against conformity eventually leads to a grotesque and unexpected twist that is not for the squeamish but which punctuates their compelling desire for metamorphosis. Perfect for fans of Chuck Palahniuk and Ottessa Moshfegh, this worthy follow-up to Murata's acclaimed Convenience Store Woman will stay with readers long after the story is over. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: A young girl grows into adulthood believing that she doesn't belong on this Earth in this shocking story about the consequences of nonconformity in a society with rigid expectations.

Grove Press, $26, hardcover, 240p., 9780802157003

Each of Us Killers

by Jenny Bhatt

Debut collections rarely prove even in quality and efficacy, which makes Jenny Bhatt's 15 compelling stories in Each of Us Killers even more memorable. Peripatetically spread across continents, Bhatt's characters are often caught between expectations, desires and boundaries.

Bhatt opens with a bang--literally. In "Return to India," a man is dead, shot by a stranger's gun. Details of his isolated immigrant life are gradually exposed by his co-workers, his ex-wife and even his killer. Bhatt also employs that cleverly affecting group-reveal in her final story, the titular "Each of Us Killers," in which village men divulge to the reader--but remain guarded with the outsider journalist--the horrific details of a vicious attack and subsequent murder/suicide.

In between, standouts proliferate. In "The God of Wind," especially notable for its brevity at barely two pages, an exhausted rickshaw driver must summon some semblance of divine energy to run "like the God of Wind" when he's confronted with a shocking discovery. In "Mango Season," a shop employee recalls his "exquisite hopes of youth" decades earlier, triggered by the mangos he passes on his way home from work. In "Life Spring," a woman abandons her abusive husband and finds phenomenal success as a baked sweets entrepreneur, propelled by a startling intimate experience. In "Time and Opportunity," an aging food stall owner is trapped by his own thieving family; in "Neeru's New World," the predator doesn't win; in "Journey to a Stepwell," marriage doesn't have to be a woman's life goal.

Challenging assumptions, confronting power, manipulating barriers whenever possible--even at grave personal cost--Bhatt's cast surprises, inspires, frightens,  beguiles, but never disappoints. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: For fans of Jhumpa Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry and Samrat Upadhyay, Jenny Bhatt's exquisite debut collection offers 15 intriguing, disturbing, unforgettable stories. 

7.13 Books, $18.99, paperback, 180p., 9781733367264

Zero Zone

by Scott O'Connor

Scott O'Connor's Zero Zone sets itself apart from the literary thriller pack thanks to its highly original premise and empathetic range. The author of Half World and Untouchable, O'Connor once again plumbs the depths of trauma with careful attention to psychological detail. Zero Zone's central narrative follows the installation artist Jess Shepard in late-'70s Los Angeles. Jess has become a figure of unwanted celebrity after a strange series of events at her desert art installation, Zero Zone, culminated in a cult-like group barricading themselves inside. Several years after she was attacked by a survivor, Jess is preoccupied with the imminent release of her attacker from prison, as well as her own complicated feelings of culpability for the events at her installation.

O'Connor approaches the story from various angles: brief, punchy chapters skip back and forth in time and among a half-dozen characters' points of view. O'Connor excels at sympathetically depicting the extremes of human thought, building careful psychological portraits of characters yearning for something like transcendence. Zero Zone shows how its damaged characters' beliefs that "this world was simply a mask hiding another, more beautiful place" led to the shocking events at the installation. O'Connor takes care not to paint anyone as an uncomplicated villain, an approach that pays off as the novel becomes a reflection on forgiveness, letting go of the past and healing. While it builds to a suitably harrowing climax, Zero Zone quickly reveals itself to be a meditation on art in the body of a thriller. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine

Discover: In this surprising literary thriller, damaged people face the traumatic aftermath of a cult-like experience at a desert art installation that ended in violence.

Counterpoint, $26, hardcover, 320p., 9781640093737

Leave the World Behind

by Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam (That Kind of Mother) thrills and unsettles with Leave the World Behind, a novel about family and other relationships, getting what's desired and reactions in the face of crisis.

The story begins mid-road trip, a white family of four on their way from the city to their vacation rental. Amanda, an account director in advertising, and Clay, an English professor, plus their two kids. They have an apartment in Brooklyn and a mid-range sedan somewhere between luxurious and bohemian. And yet they are jealous of their well-appointed Airbnb, its idealized decor and the imagined lives of its owners. Alam's writing is gorgeously detailed and impeccably paced, so that this is a story for readers to sink into, effortless and comfortable, even sumptuous. Until a knock comes at the door.

Ruth and G.H. are the owners of the vacation home, and the arrival of the older couple in the middle of the night is disturbing enough, but their story is stranger: a blackout in New York City, fear driving them out into the country, invading the family's perfect getaway. Amanda is suspicious. Unexpectedly, Ruth and G.H. are Black. Amanda wonders if it wouldn't make more sense for them to clean this beautiful house, rather than own it.

The resulting tension touches on generational differences, gender dynamics, class and race--Clay and Amanda are self-conscious of their faux-benign racism, and the story serves subtly as a criticism of social norms. Leave the World Behind is pitch-perfect in atmosphere, easy to read and deceptive in the high polish of its setting. Alam has crafted a deeply bewitching and disquieting masterpiece. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: Ominous events throw two families together and off-balance in this captivating, thought-provoking novel.

Ecco, $27.99, hardcover, 256p., 9780062667632

Mystery & Thriller

When No One Is Watching

by Alyssa Cole

What makes When No One Is Watching, a thriller by Alyssa Cole (A Princess in Theory; An Extraordinary Union), so psychologically haunting is that it could easily be true. Cole has taken the gentrification of historically Black and other marginalized identity neighborhoods and plumbed that reality to its darkest depths for a tale that's eerily uncomfortable due to its chilling familiarity.

When Sydney Green comes home to Gifford Place, the historically Black Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up, she's not surprised to see new white faces living among the brown ones. When a perky blonde relates white-dominant history to groups of tourists--part-sightseeing, part-house hunting--tromping through Sydney's neighborhood, Sydney designs her own tour centering Black stories, even as her childhood neighbors' homes become re-occupied at surprising speed. People she was sure would die in their family homes surrounded by loved ones and memories are suddenly gone without saying goodbye.

Thus begins the descent into conspiracy-theory madness that turns out not to be crazy at all, but rather a web of kidnapping and lies whose threads reach into all aspects of society: the cops, the press, the lawyers, the realtors, some of the very neighbors themselves, and the new medical research center in the neighborhood, the one intended to provide groundbreaking opioid addiction treatment. If everyone is in on it, even those in Sydney's own community whom she would never think to suspect, how can she trust Theo, the male half of the white couple living in Mrs. Payne's former house, who also suspects something sinister about the neighborhood's rapid transformation? Told from both Sydney's and Theo's perspectives, their suspicions converge in action-packed final chapters that don't shy away from the depths of human greed and depravity, nor the grim actions of exactly what it takes to rebel against them. --BrocheAroe Fabian, owner, River Dog Book Co.

Discover: A historically Black neighborhood gentrifying at an alarming pace provides the backdrop for a psychological thriller made all the more alarming by its parallels to real life.

Morrow, $16.99, paperback, 368p., 9780062982650


by John Banville

Early on in Man Booker Prize-winner John Banville's Snow, a murder suspect asks Detective Inspector St. John Strafford, "Will you be calling us all together at dinnertime to explain the plot and reveal the killer's name?" It's part of Snow's good running joke about its unmissable resemblance to an old-school mystery, although readers will be hard-pressed to name one of those with a castration at its center.

On a pitilessly snowy December morning in 1957, a body is found in the library at Ballyglass House, owned by the aristocratic Osborne family and located in southeast Ireland's County Wexford. The corpse, which has been worked over with a knife, is that of Father Tom Lawless, a parish priest and frequent visitor to Ballyglass House, where the elements forced him to spend the night before his body was discovered. As Strafford and his junior officer conduct the business of interviewing the Ballyglass House residents and staff, they find that no one has an alibi for the night of the murder, nor is there evidence of forced entry.

Snow represents the first time that Banville (The SeaAncient Light) has wrested credit for a mystery novel from his crime-writing alter ego, Benjamin Black, and with good reason: Snow is a beautifully executed, nostalgia-churning throwback that directs the occasional wink at the reader. Of the fact that Father Tom was not only stabbed in the neck but also "gelded," Strafford thinks at one point, "No newspaper in the country would dare print such shocking facts." Those were the days. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Sidelining Benjamin Black, his crime-writing alias, John Banville takes credit for this satisfying old-school-style mystery in which a priest is murdered at a County Wexford estate in 1957.

Hanover Square Press, $27.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781335230003


Ties That Tether

by Jane Igharo

Nigerian-Canadian author Jane Igharo's debut, Ties That Tether, explores love across cultural divides in a sweet, thought-provoking romance about finding happiness while remaining true to one's background.

Right before her family emigrated to Canada when Nigerian-born Azere was 13, she promised her father on his deathbed that she would marry only an Edo man. After yet another blind date orchestrated by her mother fails epically, Azere falls headlong into a mind-blowing one-night stand with sexy stranger Rafael. She knows her mother will never accept a white suitor, so Azere walks away from their connection, only to have Rafael show up as a new hire in her workplace. However, their chemistry is irresistible, and hiding their feelings becomes impossible when Azere learns their night together left her pregnant. 

Igharo shows great promise, particularly in her examination of the catch-22s of trying to remain true to one's culture of origin while also embracing and fitting into the culture of a second home country. Rafael's family is Spanish, adding an extra layer of complexity as Azere worries that her Nigerian roots will take a backseat to his family's traditions when their baby is born. Some readers may become impatient as Azere struggles to find her voice, but Igharo does a fine job of communicating her heroine's desire to remain close with her family. Rafael has tragic secrets of his own, but his care and respect for Azere help keep readers' sympathies engaged. Happily ever after is hard-won and satisfying in this #ownvoices romance. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A Nigerian immigrant in Toronto struggles with her vow to marry only someone of her ethnicity when she falls in love with a white man.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 320p., 9780593101940

Psychology & Self-Help

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change

by Maggie Smith

When poet Maggie Smith's marriage fell apart unexpectedly, she began writing "notes to self": brief meditations on dealing with times of intense turmoil and darkness. Each one contained a kernel of advice: "Let the hard days be hard." "Tell yourself kinder truths." "Believe there is peace up ahead.... Even if you can't see it yet." She began posting them on Twitter, ending each note with "Keep moving." In her wise luminous sixth book, Keep Moving, Smith (Good Bones) combines some of those notes with longer essays about dealing with grief, upended expectations and the surprising new spaces created by upheaval.

Smith brings her poet's sensibility to loss, asking questions about the gifts of darkness, delighting in words and concepts with multiple layers. (Revision, a favorite writing practice, also becomes "re-envision," a chance to change one's outlook.) She draws in stories from when her children were small, trying to help them make sense of this confusing world and its transient, heartbreaking beauty. Smith's daughter offers the idea that the sky fills in the space when a tree is cut down, expanding into its new possibilities. As she walks through the aftermath of divorce, Smith also learns to stretch out, filling in her new, unfamiliar space. Her essays trace her journey from darkness to layered light, and her nudges to readers offer wise companionship for their own difficult journeys. "Fill yourself to the skin," she says. "Let yourself be changed, and trust that change is not erasure. Keep moving." --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Poet Maggie Smith offers wise, luminous advice on dealing with loss and turmoil in a collection of meditations and essays.

Atria, $24, hardcover, 224p., 9781982132071

Nature & Environment

Douglas Fir: The Story of the West's Most Remarkable Tree

by Stephen Arno, Carl Fiedler

The Douglas-fir is complex and chock full of enigmas, even regarding something so seemingly simple as its name. "Douglas-fir" was not formally settled until 1950, despite the tree being centuries old and specimens first collected by a non-indigenous person in 1791. The tree's secrets are spilled in Douglas Fir, so titled by forestry pioneers Stephen Arno and Carl Fiedler because this is how (incorrectly) the name is used in common parlance--all the more amusing when one learns it isn't a true fir.

The Douglas-fir was once the world's premier construction lumber and changed the course of history on several fronts. Douglas-fir is a "mix of distinctive structural features and physiological attributes [producing] a tree that is puzzling, exceptional, and in ways a marvel of nature." It yields more quality lumber than any other tree in the world and its genetic diversity allows it to range from mere head-height to hundreds of feet tall. It tends to be fire-resistant, adding to the chance it can live for centuries. Coastal Douglas-fir even contributes to its own irrigation by collecting fog droplets on its needles. "Though this tree has long played an integral role in the lives of humans and animals, many of its secrets are only now being understood through modern science."

Arno and Fiedler have written other books together about the natural world (Ponderosa) and present a seamless and engaging history of one of its marvels. The narrative includes historical photos and detailed sketches and is followed by a visitor's guide to notable North American Douglas-firs--altogether a trip-inspiring package. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: Two noted foresters give due to nature's "all-purpose" tree, how it helped chart the course of history and some of the secrets it still holds.

Mountaineers Books, $21.95, hardcover, 192p., 9781680511994

The Reign of Wolf 21: The Saga of Yellowstone's Legendary Druid Pack

by Rick McIntyre

"Why can't I find a man like 21?" a friend asks Rick Mcintyre. This bemoaning might seem strange when one learns 21 is a Yellowstone wolf, but The Reign of Wolf 21 amply explains the dismay. Picking up where he left off in The Rise of Wolf 8, his award-winning story of a runty wolf pup who rose to alpha male status, McIntyre provides another fact-filled and science-based tale that can't help but also warm hearts. The detailed daily observations of mating, feeding and hunting habits for what became the largest pack ever recorded are also a love story for the ages.

"At its height, the Druid Peak pack, led by wolf 21, comprised thirty-eight wolves and held sway over an enormous territory in Lamar Valley. The intrepid alpha male achieved all this by being fearless in battle, never backing down, never killing a rival wolf, and, even more importantly, having an equally loyal, fearless, and wise companion by his side, wolf 42." The story of how 21 and 42 became who they were, particularly through the early influence of other pack members, and their devotion to each other give soul to the story.

Wolf 21 was raised and mentored by 8, his adoptive father, and McIntyre shares enough of their relationship to evidence 8's impact. But those interested in 21's ultimate reign over the wolves infamously reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 will certainly want to start at the beginning or go back to fill in the details of this legendary saga so skillfully told. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: The epic tale of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park continues in this second installment highlighting the Druid pack's legacy.

Greystone Books, $26.95, hardcover, 272p., 9781771645249

Children's & Young Adult

Sun Flower Lion

by Kevin Henkes

There's something new under the sun: Sun Flower Lion is a fresh spin on the traditional cumulative tale. Not only does it depart from the breakneck pacing and seemingly endless unspooling characteristic of "This Is the House That Jack Built" and its kind, in Kevin Henkes's book, imagination, not action, fuels the narrative.

"This is the sun," Henkes begins, "Can you see it?" This introduces a white circle rimmed with lacelike yellow trim. Throughout the book's six whisper-short chapters, this simple image--it conjures a color-reversed fried egg--keeps changing its look and, hence, identity. For starters: to illustrate "This is a flower. Can you see it?" chapter one's sun has grown a stem and two leaves. And, hey, what's this? "It looks like a little lion." Later in the book, the lion sleeps: "He dreams he is in a field of flowers.... The flowers are cookies."

For the book's art, Henkes sticks with yellows, grays and black and white, which serve his mission: to spur toddlers to look for similarities among images. The book concludes with a cozy, applause-worthy curtain call for its featured players: the sun and a flower flank a lion family that includes the little cub, whose tail tuft will remind keen-eyed readers of... something. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: Kevin Henkes's exhilaratingly simple spin on the cumulative tale shows how imagination can transform the sun into a flower--and other things, too.

Greenwillow, $18.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780062866103

When You Breathe

by Diana Farid, illus. by Billy Renkl

Physician Diana Farid uses her medical expertise and poetry skill to give young readers a magical glimpse into the life-giving process of breathing. Farid's strong, accessible imagery and Billy Renkl's bold, colorful collage and mixed-media illustrations work together to educate a young audience about this vital, involuntary function.

A miraculous transformation occurs when the air outside the body is inhaled. It becomes breath. "When you breathe--/ whoosh!--/ breath fills/ the upside-down tree/ inside your rising chest." The textual and visual metaphor aptly relates the lungs bronchi with the branching plant that provides the air to start. Renkl's stunning depiction of the inverted tree, complete with colorful flowers and vibrant leaves, drives home the beauty of the system. "Breath blooms/ at tree tips,/ like sprouting leaves/ on lush spring stems." The activity in the lungs pushes this marvelous substance out to all corners of the body, bringing life: "every step,/ every hop,/ every ascending tune." Then, when "those grand atoms... which make the stars" complete their course, the breath returns to the world as air.

The science of the body is wholly charming in this poetic tribute to lungs. Farid's representation is awe-inspiring and accessible, despite the complex topic. Renkl's dramatic illustrations--layers of patterned shapes in rich colors and textures--gives the art dimension and vibrancy. An added bonus is a vocabulary list of breathing words at the end of the book. When You Breathe, an author and illustrator debut, is a sensory extravaganza. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: In their picture book debut, a physician and an artist use nature and poetry to explain the act of breathing to young readers.

Cameron Kids, $17.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 3-5, 9781944903930

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