Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Recommended Reading

I’m just back from a meeting of the Board of Directors of the American Booksellers Association (Idie Bookstores United!). One of the things I look forward to at these meetings is the “reading lunch,” where we spend a half hour or so going around the lunch table talking about books we’ve been reading.

This is a great chance to hear book recommendations from some of the best booksellers in the country, so last Tuesday I jotted down the titles that my fellow board members were enthusiastically recommending. What follows is a short list of some of the books that sounded especially intriguing. The book descriptions come from our web site.

(My own recommendations included The Book of Dads and Jill McCorkle's fantastic forthcoming story collection, Going Away Shoes, due out in September. More on this at a later date)

The Board of Directors Recommends:
Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys. (Delacorte Press, $22.00)
“In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river."
So begins this breathtaking and original work, which contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the historic Thames froze solid. Spanning more than seven centuries--from 1142 to 1895--and illustrated with stunning full-color period art, The Frozen Thames is an achingly beautiful feat of the imagination...a work of fiction that transports us back through history to cast us as intimate observers of unforgettable moments in time.

Whether we're viewing the magnificent spectacle of King Henry VIII riding across the ice highway (while plotting to rid himself of his second wife) or participating in a joyous Frost Fair on the ice, joining lovers meeting on the frozen river during the plague years or coming upon the sight of a massive ship frozen into the Thames...these unforgettable stories are a triumph of the imagination as well as a moving meditation on love, loss, and the transformative powers of nature.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana DeRosnay. (St Martin’s Press, $13.95)
A "New York Times" bestseller. Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On Vel' d'Hiv's 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. (Algonquin Books, $23.95)
Rural Wisconsin, 1909. In the bitter cold, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for "a reliable wife." But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she's not the "simple, honest woman" that Ralph is expecting. She is both complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed. Her plan is simple: she will win this man's devotion, and then, ever so slowly, she will poison him and leave Wisconsin a wealthy widow. What she has not counted on, though, is that Truitt - a passionate man with his own dark secrets -has plans of his own for his new wife. Isolated on a remote estate and imprisoned by relentless snow, the story of Ralph and Catherine unfolds in unimaginable ways.

With echoes of "Wuthering Heights" and "Rebecca," Robert Goolrick's intoxicating debut novel delivers a classic tale of suspenseful seduction, set in a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis.

Genesis by Bernard Beckett. (Houghton Mifflin, $20.00)
A novel set on a remote island in a post-apocalyptic, plague-ridden world, destined to become a modern classic.

Anax thinks she knows her history. She'd better. She's now facing three Examiners, and her grueling all-day Examination has just begun. If she passes, she'll be admitted into the Academy--the elite governing institution of her utopian society.
But Anax is about to discover that for all her learning, the history she's been taught isn't the whole story. And that the Academy isn't what she believes it to be.
In this brilliant novel of dazzling ingenuity, Anax's examination leads us into a future where we are confronted with unresolved questions raised by science and philosophy. Centuries old, these questions have gained new urgency in the face of rapidly developing technology. What is consciousness? What makes us human? If artificial intelligence were developed to a high enough capability, what special status could humanity still claim?

Outstanding and original, Beckett's dramatic narrative comes to a stunning close. This perfect combination of thrilling page-turner and provocative novel of ideas demands to be read again and again.

Free Range Chickens by Simon Rich. (Random House, $13.00)
From the book:
--Hey, look, the truck’s stopping.
--Did they take us to the park this time?
--No…it’s a fire. Another horrible fire.
--What the hell is wrong with these people?

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart (Algonquin Books, $18.95)
A tree that sheds poison daggers; a glistening red seed that stops the heart; a shrub that causes paralysis; a vine that strangles; and a leaf that triggered a war. In "Wicked Plants," Stewart takes on over two hundred of Mother Nature's most appalling creations. It's an A to Z of plants that kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend. You'll learn which plants to avoid (like exploding shrubs), which plants make themselves exceedingly unwelcome (like the vine that ate the South), and which ones have been killing for centuries (like the weed that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother).

Menacing botanical illustrations and splendidly ghastly drawings create a fascinating portrait of the evildoers that may be lurking in your own backyard. Drawing on history, medicine, science, and legend, this compendium of bloodcurdling botany will entertain, alarm, and enlighten even the most intrepid gardeners and nature lovers.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry (Penguin Press, $25.95)
In this tightly plotted yet mind- expanding debut novel, an unlikely detective, armed only with an umbrella and a singular handbook, must untangle a string of crimes committed in and through people's dreams

In an unnamed city always slick with rain, Charles Unwin toils as a clerk at a huge, imperious detective agency. All he knows about solving mysteries comes from the reports he's filed for the illustrious detective Travis Sivart. When Sivart goes missing and his supervisor turns up murdered, Unwin is suddenly promoted to detective, a rank for which he lacks both the skills and the stomach. His only guidance comes from his new assistant, who would be perfect if she weren't so sleepy, and from the pithy yet profound "Manual of Detection" (think "The Art of War" as told to Damon Runyon).

Unwin mounts his search for Sivart, but is soon framed for murder, pursued by goons and gunmen, and confounded by the infamous femme fatale Cleo Greenwood. Meanwhile, strange and troubling questions proliferate: why does the mummy at the Municipal Museum have modern- day dental work? Where have all the city's alarm clocks gone? Why is Unwin's copy of the manual missing Chapter 18?

Bruno: Chief of Police by Martin Walker (Knopf, $24.95)
The first installment in a wonderful new series that follows the exploits of Benoit Courreges, a policeman in a small French village where the rituals of the cafe still rule. Bruno--as he is affectionately nicknamed--may be the town's "only" municipal policeman, but in the hearts and minds of its denizens, he is chief of police.
Bruno is a former soldier who has embraced the pleasures and slow rhythms of country life--living in his restored shepherd's cottage; patronizing the weekly market; sparring with, and basically ignoring, the European Union bureaucrats from Brussels. He has a gun but never wears it; he has the power to arrest but never uses it. But then the murder of an elderly North African who fought in the French army changes everything and galvanizes Bruno's attention: the man was found with a swastika carved into his chest.

Because of the case's potential political ramifications, a young policewoman is sent from Paris to aid Bruno with his investigation. The two immediately suspect militants from the anti-immigrant National Front, but when a visiting scholar helps to untangle the dead man's past, Bruno's suspicions turn toward a more complex motive. His investigation draws him into one of the darkest chapters of French history--World War II, a time of terror and betrayal that set brother against brother. Bruno soon discovers that even his seemingly perfect corner of "la belle France" is not exempt from that period's sinister legacy."

Tom Campbell