HarperOne: Hear Yourself: How to Find Peace in a Noisy World by Prem Rawat

Garden District Book Shop Issue for Tuesday, July 13, 2021

From the Shelf

Roads Taken... and Not Taken

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" has served as an iconic decision-making image for decades. Often the road chooses us, though, and sometimes we plunge headlong into the undergrowth. The last four books I've read were, in quite different ways, about just how complex, and even deadly, roads taken or not taken can be. 

In The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28), Julian Rubinstein reconstructs the life and harsh world of gang member--turned anti-gang activist--Terrance Roberts, who was identified as the shooter in a 2013 violent confrontation in his Northeast Denver neighborhood. "I feel like in many ways, this book is actually a story of the history of activism and thwarted activism," Rubinstein told NPR.

Sebastian Junger looks at what underlies "the frantic performance of life" in Freedom (Simon & Schuster, $25.99), where he explores the concept through the double lens of his extensive readings as well as several long, and technically illegal, hikes alongside East Coast railroad lines with friends, including Afghan War vets. The inside joke about freedom, Junger notes, "is that you're always trading obedience to one thing for obedience to another."

Actor Danny Trejo has been in the media a lot since the recent release of his new memoir, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption and Hollywood (with Donal Logue; Atria, $26). But the story of his life before Hollywood called ("I wasn't a kid who'd fallen through the cracks, I was a kid who'd fallen through the crack in the crack") is an extraordinary account of a tough road taken to a hard-won destination. 

As I was reading these three books, my early mornings were spent with Arthur Sze's The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, $35). His incisive words ("Footprints underwater in a rice paddy/ and on the water's surface, clouds") became a complementary tale of paths chosen and paths that choose us ("Revelation never comes as a fern uncoiling a frond in mist; it comes when I trip on a root, slap a mosquito on my arm"). --Robert Gray, editor

University of California Press: Hella Town: Oakland's History of Development and Disruption (1st ed.) by Mitchell Schwarzer


Milkweed Editions: Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming by Antonio Michael Downing


Yen Press: Never Open It: The Taboo Trilogy by Ken Niimura

In this Issue...

Reviews

Prepare Her: Stories

by Genevieve Plunkett

Prepare Her is a well-crafted and emotionally astute collection of 12 stories with particular insight into the experience of girlhood.

Read this review >>

The Letters of Shirley Jackson

by Shirley Jackson , Laurence Jackson Hyman, editor

Shirley Jackson's letters are just as compelling and beautifully written as her best novels.

Read this review >>

The creators of Can an Aardvark Bark? take readers on an enlightening and poetic tour of the incredible 14 monkey species co-existing in Peru's Manú National Park.

Read this review >>

Review by Subjects:

Fiction Science Fiction & Fantasy Romance Essays & Criticism Children's & Young Adult

Sleeping Bear Press: The Ghouls' Guide to Good Grammar by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Mary Sullivan

From Garden District Book Shop

Upcoming Events

Postponed - In-Person Event - Kent Babb: Across the River: Life, Death, and Football in an American City

09/16/2021 - 6:00PM

  EVENT Postponed THE GARDEN DISTRICT BOOK SHOP HOSTS KENT BABB TO CELEBRATE HIS NEW RELEASE, ACROSS THE RIVER: LIFE, DEATH, AND FOOTBALL IN AN AMERICAN CITY The Garden District Book Shop is thrilled to host an evening celebrating the recent release of award-winning sportswriter Kent Babb’s, Across the River: Life, Death, and Football in an American City.  What is sure to be a classic work of sports journalism, Across the River  is an investigation into the...

Book Candy

Fictional Fashion Disasters

"The worst fashion disasters in fiction" were highlighted by the BBC.

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Mental Floss Shared "7 things you might not know about Harold and the Purple Crayon."

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"Word well used: 'usurpations,' courtesy of the Declaration of Independence." (via Merriam-Webster)

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The Guardian showcased "the world's best new public libraries--in pictures."

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McSweeney's imagines what happens when "T.S. Eliot goes to a Planet Fitness gym."

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France has acquired the original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom for more than $5 million, Artdaily reported.

Imagine: Dance or Die: From Stateless Refugee to International Ballet Star, a Memoir by Ahmad Joudeh

Great Reads

Rediscover: The Forever War

U.S. troops are finally leaving Afghanistan after a 20-year occupation. Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, were being harbored by the Taliban, thus instigating the 2001 invasion by U.S. and allied forces. Bin Laden escaped, the Taliban went into hiding, and what began as a manhunt ballooned into a botched nation-building exercise that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. The Taliban, as most expected would happen, had only to bide their time until U.S. forces withdrew. Now the notoriously corrupt U.S.-backed government is collapsing under the Taliban advance, prompting comparisons to 1975 South Vietnam. Like the British and Soviets before them, the U.S. has learned why Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires.

Journalist Dexter Filkins covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for the New York Times, work that made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002 (he later won in 2009) and inspired his 2008 book, The Forever War (not to be confused with Joe Haldeman's 1974 sci-fi classic). The Forever War chronicles Filkins's experiences as a war correspondent during the War on Terror, including being embedded with a Marine company that lost a quarter of its soldiers in the 2004 assault on Fallujah, Iraq. Filkins's aptly named book won the 2009 Colby Award and the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction. It is available from Vintage ($16.95). --Tobias Mutter

Wiley: Buffalo, Barrels, & Bourbon: The Story of How Buffalo Trace Distillery Became the World's Most Awarded Distillery (1st ed.) by F Paul Pacult

The Writer's Life

Tahmima Anam: 'An Immigrant Girl from Queens'

photo: Abeer Hoque

Tahmina Anam is a British writer of Bangladeshi descent with roots in the U.S. She earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard and a Master of Arts in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. An op-ed columnist for the New York Times and the Guardian, Anam garnered critical acclaim for her historical trilogy, A Golden Age, The Good Muslim and The Bones of Grace. Her fourth novel, The Startup Wife (Scribner, $26, reviewed below), is a contemporary story featuring a computer scientist and the unexpected path her life takes after she marries her high school crush. Anam lives in London with her entrepreneur husband and their two children. We spoke over socially distanced tea and ice cream in London's Kenwood Park.

Your earlier novels were inspired by Bangladesh's turbulent history and include gorgeous love stories of those caught between different worlds. What inspired you to pivot to a contemporary novel about startup life in New York? Is it based on your own experiences?

I was born in Bangladesh, but I didn't grow up there. When I was two years old, my father got a job with the U.N. and we moved to Paris, then to New York City. I spent many happy years of my childhood in Queens (and I was very glad to return there for this novel).

This novel is, as you pointed out, a departure from my previous work. It's not set in Bangladesh, and it's not about characters caught up in the long sweep of history. This story just comes from a different part of me, the immigrant girl from Queens who finds her way in the world.

Ten years ago, I became a startup wife myself. My husband started a tech company, and I've been a board member from the beginning. Sometimes, sitting in board meetings, I would wonder what it might have been like if I had started a company, and what kinds of challenges I might be confronted with as a non-white, non-male founder. So that's when Asha was born.

Why did you originally want to publish The Startup Wife under a pseudonym?

When I think back, I kind of can't believe I did this, but it's true! I asked my agent to submit the novel under a pseudonym. I think it's because it felt like such a departure from my earlier novels, which were all set in Bangladesh. Plus it was my first time attempting to write comedy, and I just wasn't sure I would be able to pull it off. Of course, now that I look back, I can see the thread between those earlier novels and this one, but at the time, I had all sorts of anxieties: I wondered if anyone would take me seriously, and I also wondered if they would take me too seriously and not laugh at my jokes.

The protagonist Asha Ray embodies the characteristics of an ideal female leader: she's smart, ambitious and yet deeply compassionate with a brilliant sense of humor. Is she based on a real person?

Asha is every strong, funny, clever, ambitious brown woman I have ever met. She's my dream girl, and she's an amalgamation of all the women I know and love, including my sister, my mother, my girlfriends. And, just because I could, I gave her the freedom to curse as much as she wanted! This was deeply liberating.

The power dynamics between genders is a fascinating theme in The Startup Wife, especially so between Asha and her husband, Cyrus. What is it about their relationship that leads Asha to question her own leadership skills?

Asha and Cyrus are wrapped up in that oldest of love stories--the high school crush. So when they are reunited, Asha just accepts Cyrus for who he is--she's so used to being in love with him from a distance that she automatically falls for him in the present. It isn't until they start working together that things get more complicated, and she realizes that something of her self is getting lost, even as she is fulfilling a romantic fantasy.

The Startup Wife is populated with phenomenal female characters who represent the future of startup culture. It's an inspiring thought! Having experienced that culture firsthand, what changes do you most hope to see in the next generation of startups?

It's not a coincidence that I named the setting Utopia, because it's full of female entrepreneurs who lift each other up. Some of the characters--Asha included--come up against the obstacles that so many female entrepreneurs face, but I wanted to give her a sisterhood to lean on, a group of friends who would help to remind her of what's important. I hope that the startup world will someday catch up with Utopia.

Does your academic background in social anthropology come in useful when writing fiction?

Absolutely. I would tell anyone who wanted to be a writer to at least take a course in social anthropology. Anthropology is essentially the study of otherness--how to look at the world through the eyes of another person--and this is precisely what a writer has to do too. I also had some incredible mentors when I was doing my Ph.D., and they encouraged me to experiment with fiction, even as I was pursuing an academic degree.

My anthro degree also came in handy for this novel, because the company that Asha starts (called WAI, which stands for We Are Infinite) is a platform that produces custom-made rituals. And if there's anything anthropologists are known for, it's our obsession with rituals as the foundational acts of cultural belonging--so I got to put my degree to good use.

How has it been for you and your family during the pandemic? Did it affect your writing?

It's been a journey. In a way, I was lucky, because my children are small, and they didn't miss being out in the world. But I faced the same juggle as all working parents did. As for writing--I had to finish my edits in the midst of it all, and it wasn't easy!

You found tremendous success as a young author writing from an unusual Bangladeshi-American perspective. What advice do you have for aspiring writers crafting stories that reflect their own multiple identities?

For me, the most important thing was finding my story. In the case of the trilogy, especially with the first novel, I set out to write a war story, but I ended up writing a family story. And the journey for me was discovering that the aspects of the independence war that really moved me were the human stories, especially the stories of women. We don't think of mothers as revolutionaries, but we should, because for every freedom fighter holding a gun, there was a mother who was working secretly for the resistance. In every book I have written since, it's the silence of women and women finding their voices--that's what I write about. That's my story, and there will be a million ways to tell that story, and that will be my life's work. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

AK Press: Grievers (Black Dawn #1) by Adrienne Maree Brown

Book Reviews

Fiction

Prepare Her: Stories

by Genevieve Plunkett

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O. Henry Award-winner Genevieve Plunkett's debut collection of a dozen stories, Prepare Her, is a vivid and emotionally raw look at the less-picturesque side of small-town Vermont life. In "Something for a Young Woman," an adolescent girl bonds with her employer over her boyfriend's shortcomings and, in her later years, reflects on this almost-romance with an older man. "Trespassers," another female coming-of-age story, features teenaged Emi who copes with dissociative episodes, underwhelming sexual encounters and the loss of close female friendships. Meanwhile, "Gorgon," a darkly tender story of a girl obsessed with myths and disturbed by the homeless man outside her window, captures the simultaneous feelings of loneliness and being watched that one experiences as a prepubescent girl. 

Plunkett's writing is mesmerizing in its even pacing, crisp prose and minute character insights. The deeply internal and meditative nature of her stories is well-captured in the particularly evocative opening to one of the collection's best stories, "Single," which describes a woman's daydreams of living alone despite her stiff marriage to her childhood friend: "A room like in a poem, with soft ponderous light. Curtains. Old-fashioned colors, like faded yellows and olive green. There would be a book open on a tidy desk beside a bed with a single pillow." The neatness and precision of Plunkett's writing is well-suited for the quiet but emotionally deep nature of her characters, who straddle the line between a too-lucid understanding of the world and a longing to escape into the imaginative realm of the ever-evasive could-be. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Prepare Her is a well-crafted and emotionally astute collection of 12 stories with particular insight into the experience of girlhood.

Catapult, $16.95, paperback, 256p., 9781646220403

The Startup Wife

by Tahmima Anam

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Endowed with witty prose and an intriguing premise, The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam is a sparkling send-up of modern-day entrepreneurial culture, featuring a Bangladeshi American coding genius and her unexpected journey to startup fame.

A whirlwind romance leads to a spontaneous wedding between Asha, a Ph.D. student in Cambridge, Mass., and Cyrus, a charismatic spiritual guide who creates customized rituals for people based on their interests, beliefs and passions. Inspired by the popularity of her husband's services, Asha abandons her degree, designs an algorithm to produce faith-based rituals on demand and launches a social media platform called We Are Infinite ("WAI"), with Cyrus as its public-facing leader.

WAI joins an exclusive female-led New York tech incubator called Utopia, which, along with nurturing dynamic startups, is tasked with the mission to "find solutions to the inevitable demise of the world as we know it." Thanks to WAI's incredible success, Cyrus's popularity soars to cult-like status. Complex cracks appear in his and Asha's relationship, prompting Asha to question the wisdom of so closely aligning her work life and marriage. Meanwhile, there's a global pandemic raging and the apocalypse that Utopia was preparing for might finally be here.

The Startup Wife is a highly successful departure for Anam (A Golden Age; The Good Muslim; The Bones of Grace), acclaimed for her elegant historical fiction. Anam writes perceptively about startup culture through the experiences of Asha and her female cohort at Utopia, offering thoughtful commentary on the challenges facing women who occupy space in this male-dominated field. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

Discover: An enterprising couple launches a powerful social media platform offering customized spiritual rituals in this ingenious drama set in a high-tech New York startup incubator.

Scribner, $26, hardcover, 304p., 9781982156183

China Room

by Sunjeev Sahota

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China Room, the outstanding third novel by Sunjeev Sahota (The Year of the Runaways), ends with a black-and-white image of an older woman holding a crying infant. That photo is the dual narrative's pivotal connector: a "great-grandmother... who'd travelled all the way to England just so that she might hold... her newborn great grandson." Sahota magnificently weaves together the stories of rural Punjabi ancestor Mehar and her British descendant, whose "I"-voice reveals both his story and the stories he can never know.

In 1929, 15-year-old Mehar is one of three girls wed to three brothers. None of the brides knows which is her betrothed; all are controlled by the men's widowed mother, Mai. The girls share the china room--named for Mai's wedding dowry plates--to sleep, except when Mai summons one wife to join one husband in a "windowless chamber at the back of the farm," so dark that the girl still can't distinguish the brother she's with. Pearls, procured to encourage fertility, will cause both boundless joy and everlasting tragedy.

Seventy years later, Mehar is gone when her 18-year-old great-grandson arrives from England to spend the summer before university with an uncle and his wife. He's "too skinny, too pinched, too drawn," and his all-too-obvious alcohol (and more) addiction causes his removal from his relatives' house to the abandoned ancestral home. There he finds shelter and solace in the china room. An iconoclastic woman doctor and an opinionated teacher become unexpected regular visitors. Stories and companionship will heal his soul.

China Room is no effortless read, but one that promises to haunt and illuminate. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Sunjeev Sahota's magnificent third novel reveals the lives of a rural Punjabi bride and her British great-grandson who returns to their ancestral home 70 years later.

Viking, $27, hardcover, 256p., 9780593298145

Born Into This

by Adam Thompson

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Adam Thompson's Born into This is a striking collection of hard-edged stories set primarily in the Australian state of Tasmania. Wrestling with issues of race, colonialism and individual agency, every story features Aboriginal characters, and the various experiences and complexities of this identity (which the author shares) form the heart of the stories' combined impact. The collection is loosely linked by recurring characters and settings: an act of angry protest at the center of one story reappears as a minor annoyance in another. An island on the Bass Strait is home to a family over generations.

The collection opens with "The Old Tin Mine," a story about a bitter, aging guide at a "survival camp" for city youth, who may be nearing the end of his career. "Honey" offers cold, brutal, satisfying justice in the face of hate. In "Aboriginal Alcatraz," a man wrestles with a life-changing decision in the midst of a storm, building to an ironic conclusion. In the title story, a young woman fights an inherited losing battle involving eucalyptus plants. These punchy tales question family ties, infidelity, superstition and who has the right to claim Aboriginal ancestry.

Thompson's characters are stoic, taciturn, often blue-collar. Their reactions to these challenges range from rage to lethargy; their stark stories are frequently, quietly, brutal. It is not all bleak: Born into This contains as well dark humor and even slim strands of hope. The overall effect is understated: simple, unglamorous lives and events crescendo toward a thought-provoking and memorable whole. This is a haunting debut collection by a skilled writer. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: These cunning, clever, piercing stories of marginalized indigenous Australians are both compelling and illuminating.

Two Dollar Radio, $15.99, paperback, 142p., 9781953387042

A Passage North

by Anuk Arudpragasam

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A Passage North is the beautifully written second novel by Anuk Arudpragasam (The Story of a Brief Marriage). It uses protagonist Krishan's trip to northern Sri Lanka as a springboard for searching meditations on love, belonging and the aftermath of the island's brutal 30-year civil war.

When Krishan is informed of the death of his grandmother's caretaker, Rani, in a freak accident, Krishan suspects it was actually suicide. He decides to travel to the northeast to attend her funeral, and in so doing stirs up conflicting emotions about his Tamil heritage and the immense suffering brought about by the war that he sees himself as largely having escaped.

Much of A Passage North is about what it means to experience trauma secondhand: in documentaries about war crimes in the north that Krishan watches obsessively while living in India, in the hours spent "going page by page through blogs, forums, and news sites that shared images and videos taken during the last months of fighting," and in his relationship to people like Rani, who lost both her sons to the war. Krishan attempts to make sense of that enormous loss in the context of his own life, one spent searching for purpose and meaning.

Arudpragasam ties the novel together with ambitious prose, which makes even unlikely tangents feel incorporated into a cohesive whole, a part of Krishan's attempt to organize his knowledge and experiences into something meaningful. A Passage North succeeds remarkably at capturing the turmoil of a young man looking for a way forward amid the ghosts of the past. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine

Discover: A Passage North digs deep into the sprawling thoughts, feelings and loves of a young man traveling through a Sri Lanka haunted by war and ties them together into a cohesive whole.

Hogarth, $27, hardcover, 304p., 9780593230701

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Witness for the Dead

by Katherine Addison

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In this introspective, assured standalone fantasy-mystery, Katherine Addison returns to the steampunk-infused fantasy realm of her beloved debut, the Locus Award-winning The Goblin Emperor

Thara Celehar is a Witness for the Dead, able to read the last memories of the recently deceased. After assisting the emperor with a murder investigation, Celehar is now the Witness for the Dead in the city of Amalo, where he dodges political tension among members of the local religious hierarchy in between helping petitioners. When he is called as witness for an elven opera singer found dead in the canal, her memories tell Celehar someone murdered her, but not who or why. His investigation pulls Celehar into the orbit of the Vermilion Opera and its affable, attractive director. Answers come slowly, but Celehar has plenty of other cases to occupy his time, including searching for the grave of a young woman whose husband may have murdered her and stopping a vicious ghoul in a remote mining town.

Addison deepens the world of the series with new details about its intersecting religious and judicial systems and the magic that supports them. Humble, dedicated Celehar makes for an endearing hero and narrator. His work requires sensitivity: "If you numb yourself to the horror... you can't talk to the dead at all." Imbued with Addison's flair for memorable, sympathetic characters navigating thorny intrigue, The Witness for the Dead will please fans of the original novel and genre readers alike. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Sensitive, dedicated Thara Celehar, a minor character from popular forerunner The Goblin Emperor, investigates a murder in this assured, introspective fantasy-mystery.

Tor, $25.99, hardcover, 240p., 9780765387424

Romance

It's Better This Way

by Debbie Macomber

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Debbie Macomber is never afraid to tackle hot-button contemporary issues. In It's Better This Way, she delivers a highly charged story that packs an emotional wallop, centered on the aftermath of breakups and a middle-aged romance that faces opposition from their two complicated families.

This tightly woven story is bound by many threads. After 31 years of marriage, Julia Jones's golf-pro husband, Eddie, left her for another woman. Julia is finally ready, after six months of readjustment and transition, to embark on a new chapter in her life. She sells the family home and her design business and then moves into the Heritage, an upscale building in downtown Seattle, Wash. Her supportive adult daughters, Hillary and Marie--furious with their father, his choices and the hurtfulness of his actions--cheer her on. When Julia starts working out in the exercise room at the Heritage, she meets Heath, a divorced hedge-fund manager and father of two sons, Adam and Michael, close in age to Julia's girls. When Julia and Heath strike up a friendship that slowly begins to heat up into something more, their respective children become leery and try to quash the middle-aged couple's chance at forging new love.

Macomber (A Walk Along the Beach; Window on the Bay) has a firm grasp on issues that will resonate with readers of domestic fiction. Well-drawn characters and plotting--coupled with strong romantic subplots and striking coincidences--will keep readers rooting for forgiveness, hope and true love to conquer all. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: An emotionally evocative portrait of mid-life love complicated by blended family dynamics.

Ballantine Books, $27, hardcover, 320p., 9781984818782

The Rehearsals

by Annette Christie

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Annette Christie gives a fun Groundhog Day twist to a classic wedding-weekend story in her warm, insightful debut novel, The Rehearsals. After 12 years together, college sweethearts Megan Givens and Tom Prescott are gathering their families and friends, and tying the knot. But after a rehearsal dinner where the secrets flow as freely as the champagne, Megan and Tom decide to call off the wedding. Unfortunately, both of them wake up the next morning trapped in a time loop, with no clue about how to get unstuck--or what they'll do if their wedding day ever actually dawns.

Christie's snappy narration alternates between Tom's and Megan's perspectives, giving readers deep insight into Megan's scrappy, drama-filled Montana family and Tom's ice-cold, wealthy East Coast upbringing. Both of them recall their time together at Harvard (and their mutual connections to Tom's roommate, Leo), their early years in New York and the ripple effects of key moments in their relationship. Megan, both a planner and a pleaser, tries every strategy she can think of to get them out of the time loop, but each set of decisions lands her back in her hotel bed. Along the way, she and Tom are forced to reflect on the patterns and decisions that led to that first disastrous rehearsal, and consider what they'd do differently if they (ever) get the opportunity. 

Funny, romantic and surprisingly thought-provoking, The Rehearsals is both a highly enjoyable romp and a poignant meditation on love and second chances. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Annette Christie's witty, warmhearted debut novel brings a Groundhog Day twist to an already chaotic wedding weekend.

Little, Brown, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9780316592994

Essays & Criticism

The Letters of Shirley Jackson

by Shirley Jackson , Laurence Jackson Hyman, editor

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Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) is remembered for her peerless crafting of psychological suspense and horror short stories ("The Lottery") and novels (We Have Always Lived in the Castle). But she had another side: long before Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck, she essentially created the mommy blog genre with her affectionate and humorous magazine pieces on raising four children. This collection of nearly 300 lengthy letters spanning 27 years ranges in content from lighthearted family anecdotes to serious discussions of her writing process, family drama, writer's block, insomnia, agoraphobia, psychoanalysis and health problems.

The critical acclaim and popularity of Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House finally brought financial security, but her marriage was precarious. A 1960 letter to her husband reads like a shotgun blast of pent-up frustration, anger and hurt. "I also do not believe you realize the brutality of your constant small reminders, to me and the children, of our insignificance," she writes. "You once wrote me a letter... telling me that I would never be lonely again. I think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me."

While Jackson labored over her published prose, her massive missives seem to flow effortlessly. Yet, her letters captivate with the same sly, caustic humor, clever attention to detail and inventive phrasing that mark her best writing. At nearly 700 pages, readers are unlikely to find a book that moves with more assured swiftness than The Letters of Shirley Jackson. This is a bountiful offering fans will treasure. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Shirley Jackson's letters are just as compelling and beautifully written as her best novels.

Random House, $35, hardcover, 672p., 9780593134641

A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form

by Brenda Miller

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In A Braided Heart, Brenda Miller (An Earlier Life), a professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays.

In 18 concise pieces, Miller tracks her development as a writer and discusses the "lyric essay"--a form as old as Seneca and Montaigne that prioritizes imagery over narrative. Metaphors join the fragments of a life story, and "peripheral vision" of past events reveals what was most important. She takes a challah loaf into class to symbolize "separate parts intersecting," much like plot strands.

The essays give flashes of insight into the author's life and writing process. "Durable Goods" remembers an ex-boyfriend through a miniature pen he made, while "On Thermostats" likens the literal temperature at a writers' colony to the quest for control--over a writing project or over life in general. Elsewhere, Miller weighs the Internet's power to connect or distract, and celebrates collaboration between authors.

This is not just a how-to guide for writers, though. It exemplifies as much as it teaches, citing everyone from Mark Doty to Virginia Woolf as it encourages readers to embrace a reflective mindset, drawing connections between life experiences and pinpointing moments of meaning. For instance, Miller's "hermit crab" essays (which adopt an existing form), shaped around rejection letters and an apology, allowed her to tackle painful memories and tap into universal emotions.

These innovative and introspective pieces, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck

Discover: A writing professor weaves her personal experiences into eloquent, instructive essays on the art of autobiographical prose.

University of Michigan Press, $24.95, paperback, 148p., 9780472054923

Children's & Young Adult

Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme

by Melissa Stewart , illust. by Steve Jenkins

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The wonder of 14 monkey species in Peru's Manú National Park is the basis for this whimsical, illuminating poem written and illustrated by the team behind Can an Aardvark Bark?, Melissa Sweet (Summertime Sleepers) and Steve Jenkins (Tiny Monsters). The poem, accompanied by supplemental text and bright, bold cut- and torn-paper collage illustrations, is a charming homage to the particularly large number of monkey species co-existing in the same rain forest.

For each species, author Stewart pairs a rhyming couplet in large font with a narrative paragraph in smaller font. The rhythmic lines of poetry highlight the location of the monkey in the rain forest and a fun fact about it: "Way up in the leafy crown/ woollys dangle upside down." The accompanying narrative text elaborates to give older or more invested readers a broader image of the primate: "To cross gaps, they hang by their tails and gently lower themselves to the next branch. They also swing by their tails to reach tasty fruit." Jenkins's vivid, textured illustrations marvelously complement Stewart's words. The realism in his detail is tangible; enough to make one want to stroke the fur of the spider monkey or nuzzle the face of the marmosets.  

Stewart and Jenkins have produced another stellar picture book. Location is key to the monkeys' co-existence, so Stewart includes an infographic that pinpoints where in the shared trees each monkey lives. Also included at the conclusion are pages providing additional information on each primate in the poem. Fourteen Monkeys, entertaining, informative and stimulating, exemplifies the characteristics of great nonfiction--it is a wonderful way to spark curiosity and start young readers on a life-long road of discovery. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: The creators of Can an Aardvark Bark? take readers on an enlightening and poetic tour of the incredible 14 monkey species co-existing in Peru's Manú National Park.

Beach Lane Books, $17.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 3-8, 9781534460393

Six Crimson Cranes

by Elizabeth Lim

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Magic abounds in this mesmerizing YA fantasy based on East Asian folklore and fairy tales.

When the "troublemaking" youngest child and only daughter of Kiata's emperor, Princess Shiori, jumps into the Sacred Lake, she meets a dragon and misses her own betrothal ceremony. Shiori eventually will have to marry Lord Bushian's son, a "barbarian lord of the third rank," and be banished to his home in the North. This, she believes, will mark "the dismal end of [her] future." As for the dragon... magic is forbidden in Kiata--at the bequest of the humans' gods, the dragons sealed it, along with thousands of demons, inside the Holy Mountains. But Shiori has a talent for magic, and (unbeknownst to the princess) her stepmother does, too. Shiori spies on her stepmother and the powerful sorceress turns Shiori's brothers into cranes, then sends the young woman to a faraway island. If Shiori speaks, her brothers will die. The princess, struggling to free her brothers from their terrible curse, receives help from the dragon Seryu, Kiki, a paper bird she brought to life, and Takkan, the thoughtful and kind "barbarian" to whom she is betrothed.

Elizabeth Lim's richly wrought world, filled with myth and magic, is delightfully complex. Her plotting is suspenseful: many twists and turns come full circle by the end, while others leave room for a sequel. Shiori's ingenuity and escapades should win her many fans--this is one novel lovers of fantasy and fairy tale retellings will not want to miss. --Lynn Becker, reviewer, blogger, and children's book author

Discover: When Shiori's stepmother transforms her six brothers into cranes and banishes her to a remote northern island, she's determined to break the curse in this entrancing YA novel.

Knopf, $18.99, hardcover, 464p., ages 12-up, 9780593300916

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