The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly
Pamela Dorman • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670022403
On sale January 10, 2011
In this excerpt, Karen has just met and agreed to tutor the captivating Biba, sister to Rex, and they've gone to seal the deal in the university bar. Kelly sets the scene while maintaining suspense, never letting the reader forget that the book is moving toward a dark revelation:
"Can you buy a bottle of red, darling? A Merlot if they've got it," she said, and I wondered how someone whose voice and bag suggested an expensive education and a credit card could be too poor to afford student bar prices. "It's so much cheaper than by the glass, and we won't have to keep going to the bar." Red wine had always given me headaches, but I ordered it then, and because Biba and Rex drank little else, I trained myself to like it that summer. I have never had a sip of it since, though. For me, the bouquet of rich red wine is now indivisible from another smell, metallic and warm and meaty all at once, one that summons up a slideshow of frozen images in my mind like a series of photographs in a police incident room.
Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City
by Jay Jennings
Rodale • $25.99 • September 14, 2010
Much like Friday Night Lights, Carry the Rock is about a specific football season—in this case, the 2007 season. In Little Rock, this season was significant because the year marked the 50th anniversary of the Central High Crisis.
Carry the Rock juxtaposes the football season with Little Rock's (sometimes ugly) history, touching on how much—or little—things have changed since the school was forced to integrate. The numbers of black and white students may look good today (close to 50-50 when I was a student), but is there real community? As reviewer Pete Croatto notes in the October issue of BookPage, "[Jennings] shows that a sweeping social change does not guarantee acceptance—that many courageous, selfless acts must still be performed year after year, and there are no assurances that those acts will be acknowledged."
Although Carry the Rock will likely find its largest audience within Central Arkansas, anyone interested in the history of Civil Rights, the politics of an urban public school or the inner-workings of an underfunded football team will enjoy this book.
To give you a taste, here's a short excerpt that describes a problem with the 2007 players:
Through most of the season, the 2007 Tigers had frustrated all the coaches' attempts to foster passion and unity in them. Some years it came pretty easily, and the players did most of the work for the coaches. The championship teams of 2003 and 2004 were like that; the players, black and white, had hung out together, spent time at each other's houses, formed deep and lasting friendships. "Any really good team is made up of guys who are friends," Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight once said, "guys who want to help each other and play together." Nancy Rousseau, the principal of Central, remembered the school's atmosphere around those teams as "electric, absolute magic." The excitement during that time, her second and third years as principal, "permeated everything." Those teams had bonded, this one had not.
By the way, for all you readers who'll be at SIBA this weekend, Jennings is speaking on Friday at 11 a.m. (Carry the Rock is a 2010 Fall Okra Pick.)
What are you reading today?
Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
by Donald Sturrock
Simon & Schuster • $30.00 • September 14, 2010
I admit that after Trisha blogged about Storyteller, the authorized biography of Roald Dahl, I expected the book to be rather ho-hum. How dishy can an authorized biography really be?
But then a line in an Independent article about the dark private lives of children's authors caught my eye: "The creator of Willy Wonka, the Twits and Fantastic Mr Fox was often less than fantastic as a human being. He was an anti-Semite, a chronically unfaithful husband and a raging bully to business associates, teachers and friends." This can apparently be gleaned from Sturrock's book. So, I've picked it up and am enjoying the biography. (I'll confess that I haven't gotten to the parts that reveal the unappealing parts of his personality, although I have flipped to the center photo spreads to look at pictures of Dahl with his first wife, the movie star Patricia Neal. )
If Dahl's memoirs Boy and Going Solo left you eager for information, or you want to know about the man behind Matilda and The BFG--Storyteller is definitely worth a read. A teaser:
The Edwardian children's writer Edith Nesbit thought that the most important quality in a good children's writer was an ability to vividly recall their own childhood. Being able to relate to children as an adult, she believed, was largely unimportant. Roald Dahl could do both. His seductive voice, the subversive twinkle in his eye, and his sense of the comic and curious gave him an ability to mesmerize almost every child who crossed his path--yet he could also remember and reimagine his own childhood with astonishing sharpness. The detail might sometimes be unreliable, but what never failed him was an ability instinctively to recreate and understand the child's point of view. It was something of which he was very proud. He knew he could do it and that a great many others could not. Sitting in his high-backed faded green armchair by the fire at Gipsy House, a glass of whiskey in one hand, he once talked to me about it with considerable pride. "It's really quite easy," he would say. "I go down to my little hut, where it's tight and dark and warm, and within minutes I can go back to being six or seven or eight again." Or, as his alter ego, Willy Wonka, put it in an early draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: "In my factory I make things to please children. I don't care about adults."
Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
NAL Trade • $15.00 • First published in 1992
Waiting to Exhale is about Savannah, Bernadine, Robin and Gloria—four successful black women living in Phoenix and looking for love. When it was published in 1992, it was a huge hit. Terry McMillan's website explains the significance of the novel's reception:
Waiting to Exhale took the publishing world by storm. No one predicted the droves of women and black people who would line the streets hoping to hear Terry read and sign their books. Nobody in main stream publishing got the memo that these were demographics who not only read books, but paid good money too.
Here's an excerpt from Waiting to Exhale—which I would recommend if you haven't already read it: it's funny, lively and a page-turner.
Times have damn sure changed.
And I can't lie. Now I worry. I worry about if and when I'll ever find the right man, if I'll ever be able to exhale. The more I try not to think about it, the more I think about it. This morning, I was drinking a cup of coffee, when it occurred to me that my life is half over. Never in a million years would I have ever believed that I would be thirty-six years old and still childless and single. But here I am.
It's also interesting to read an interview with McMillan about her 2005 novel The Interruption of Everything, in which she reflects on Waiting to Exhale more than a decade after it came out:
"Waiting to Exhale alone, that was 13 years ago! I mean, my goodness, I was in my 30s and the concerns I had then . . . I mean, those women make me sick! They seem like such whiners, except for one," she says. "But the thing was, at that time, there were so many women that I knew, myself included, who looked up and realized, gee whiz, what happened to those husbands we were supposed to be getting? Not only husbands, we didn't even have dates! Back then, it was kind of important because we were in it, but then it kind of came and went. But they don't let you forget! My goodness!"
Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich
St. Martin's Press • $27.99 • September 14, 2010
Wicked Appetite stars Lizzy, a cupcake baker with a certain skill important to two different men: Diesel (imagine an "unkempt ruler of the pride") and Wulf ("scary in a sexy vampire sort of way").
The dialogue is snappy and the action fast-paced. You'll just have to read the novel yourself to figure out why Lizzy is special! (Although there's a hint in the excerpt below.)
"I work for that governing body," Diesel said. "I'm commissioned to pull the plug on Unmentionables who abuse their power."
I saw this as registering high on my bull-crap-o-meter, but I was curious all the same.
"How do you pull the plug?" I asked.
"I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you," Diesel said.
I'd heard that line before and always knew it was a line. This time I wasn't sure.
"Why do you need my help?" I asked him.
"You're one of us. You're an Unmentionable, and you have a skill I lack. I can find people. You can find empowered objects."
I was speechless. He actually looked serious. "That's ridiculous," I finally said.
Diesel turned off Lafayette Street. "Yeah, and I'm stuck with it. Nothing personal, but you're not my first choice for a partner."
What are you reading today?
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic • $17.99 • August 24, 2010
I know that many fans are afraid of spoilers, so all I'll say is that Mockingjay is a page-turner (duh); I am not disappointed with what I've read (aren't you always worried you'll be disappointed after looking forward to a series conclusion for so long?); and I love Katniss Everdeen—our heroine—more than ever.
You can listen to our staff's reactions to the story's twists, turns and surprises in a podcast we'll be posting later in the month. In the meantime, read a short excerpt from the novel:
"Katniss, I'm not arguing. If I could hit a button and kill every living soul working for the Capitol, I would do it. Without hesitation." He slides the last pencil into the box and flips the lid closed. "The question is, what are you going to do?"
It turns out the question that's been eating away at me has only ever had one possible answer. But it took Peeta's ploy for me to recognize it.
What am I going to do?
I take a deep breath. My arms rise slightly—as if recalling the black-and-white wings Cinna gave me—then come to rest at my sides.
"I'm going to. . . "
By the way, so far I've managed to avoid reviews of the novel—although I am happy to say that BookPage's review is a satisfying read, yet contains no spoilers.
Have you already managed to finish Mockingjay? What'd you think? Please avoid posting major plot twists (and if you're unsure of whether your comment is a spoiler, write "spoiler alert" before your note). Happy reading!
The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove by Susan Gregg Gilmore
Crown • $23 • ISBN 9780307395030
August 17, 2010
Susan Gregg Gilmore's second novel (after Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen) is brimming with charm. From the first page, you'll be captivated by the voice of the novel's fascinating heroine, Bezellia, named after an ancestor who was one of the first Nashville settlers. The original Bezellia Grove, it is said, killed the Native American who killed her husband during a raid on Fort Nashborough. This particular story is all Gilmore, but pretty much all of the other Nashville details will ring true to residents like me (for one, Bezellia eats at Rotiers!).
Stories of coming of age in the South during the Civil Rights movement are myriad, but Gilmore's addition to this literary tradition feels fresh and is a real page-turner. Bezellia's voice is as unusual as her name, and her life story will capture your imagination.
Here's a taste of that voice:
Long before I had memorized the details of my family's story, I understood that I was a girl unlike most others. I had a pony to ride and a closet brimming with neatly pressed dresses. My bedroom was decorated with teddy bears that were handmade in Germany and dolls with porcelain heads that I was only to admire and never to touch. And, most important, I was always cooked for and attended to by people other than my mother, by people with dark skin and families of their own.
Are you intrigued? What are you reading today?
Just yesterday, BookPage contributor Stephenie Harrison interviewed Nicole Krauss for our October print edition. Steph enjoyed the conversation—and its subject, the forthcoming Great House—so much that we begged her to give us a preview in a guest blog post. She kindly agreed!
Great House by Nicole Krauss
W.W. Norton • $24.95 • October 12, 2010
This reviewer called "dibs" on a copy literally seconds after BookPage received news that galleys were heading their way (just ask my editor; she'll confirm it!), and I dug in with a vigor and single-mindedness that I’m sure made the rest of my teetering tower of TBR books envious.
Rather than a single story, Great House shares the tales of four individuals who are linked in a variety of ways, some subtle, some less so. Initially, a rather imposing desk which has held a prominent place in all of their lives—an ark for all their sublimated frustrations and desires—forms the point of intersection. Through a lens that shifts across time and space, readers will dip into the lives of writers, parents and lovers, slowly furrowing deep into their very cores, where universal fears and the crux of identity are laid bare, serving as the true foundation that unites this colorful cast of memorable characters. Of course, characters and plot are but one portion of any successful novel; perhaps Krauss' great genius is her ability to populate novels of ideas with such vivid people, all cloaked in the most exquisite language. Here one of the characters, reeling from the removal of the desk from her life, finds herself questioning her skills as a writer:
The next day I did not go out to look for a new desk, or the day after that. When I sat down to work, not only was I unable to muster the necessary concentration, but when I looked over the pages I’d already written I found them to be superfluous words lacking life and authenticity, with no compelling reason behind them. What I hoped had been the sophisticated artifice that the best fiction employs, now I saw was only a garden-variety artifice, artifice used to draw attention away from what is ultimately shallow rather than reveal the shattering depths below the surface of everything. What I thought was simpler, purer prose, more searing for being stripped of all distracting ornament, was actually a dull and lumbering mass, void of tension or energy, standing in opposition to nothing, toppling nothing, shouting nothing.
What are you reading today?
Annexed by Sharon Dogar
HMH, October 4, 2010
Curious to see what the fuss was all about, I took the book home with me and read it over the weekend. Annexed is told from the point of view of Peter van Pels, whose family hid in the Annex along with Anne's. I dimly remembered Peter from my own reading of Anne's diary, years ago. Dogar imagines what it would have been like to be Peter—to have to hide in the Annex, of course, but also to come to know Anne and her family, and to wonder what Anne was writing about him in her diary. I found that I wanted to know more about Peter and to think about what his experience of the Annex might have been.
As for the novel's sexual aspects, it spoils very little to say that Peter and Anne only share a few brief touches and kisses. Although I don't know whether or not the real Anne and Peter ever kissed each other, I do remember that Anne wrote about gradually developing feelings for Peter over the course of the two years they lived in the Annex together, and she also wrote about wanting to grow up, wanting to menstruate and to fall in love and to become a woman. Anne Frank was an adolescent girl, a young woman, and I can readily believe that she could have shared the kind of experiences with Peter that Dogar describes.
Dogar says she tried to stick as closely as she could to events that actually happened and were recorded in Anne's diary, such as the following scene, which takes place shortly after Peter's family arrives in the Annex:
I want to stretch out my arms and knock the walls down. I want to run so far and fast that I remember what it's like to feel my breath burn in my body. I want to move. I want to live. I want to . . .
I whistle. I whistle so loud that I imagine the whole of Holland could hear me. I'm a Jew. I'm a Jew! And I'm right here in the middle of Amsterdam. Hiding. See me! I take a big, deep breath and shout as loud as I can down the chimney.
"I won't come down!"
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
FSG • $25 • September 28, 2010
Readers have been waiting five years for another Cunningham novel, and I suspect they will be immediately drawn into the world of Peter and Rebecca Harris, a "happy" middle-aged couple in New York City. The word happy is in quotes because of Peter's constant, questioning interior monologue—"What if she is falling out of love with him? Would it be tragic, or liberating?"
Peter is a successful art dealer and Rebecca is an editor at an art magazine. Their world gets a jolt when Rebecca's younger brother, Mizzy (for "the mistake") comes to visit, eager to find work—"Something in the Arts." Mizzy's youthful presence causes Peter to question his life even more . . .
The excerpt below provides an example of Peter's thoughts early in the novel. He and Rebecca are on their way home from a party.
The cab stops for the light at Sixty-fifth Street.
Here they are: a middle-aged couple in the back of a cab (this driver's name is Abel Hibbert, he's young and jumpy, silent, fuming). Here are Peter and his wife, married for twenty-one (almost twenty-two) years, companionable by now, prone to banter, not much sex anymore but not no sex, not like other long-married couples he could name, and yeah, at a certain age you can imagine bigger accomplishments, a more potent and inextinguishable satisfaction, but what you've made for yourself isn't bad, it's not bad at all. Peter Harris, hostile child, horrible adolescent, winner of various second prizes, has arrived at this ordinary moment, connected, engaged, loved, his wife's breath warm on his neck, going home.
Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me, doop doop de doop . . . .
That song again.
The light changes. The driver accelerates.