Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New This Week: Delta Girls by Gayle Brandeis

There’s something spirited and satisfying in Gayle Brandeis’ prose. She pushes at language with a poet’s heart and skill, leaving us breathless and always wishing for more.

All of that was certainly the case with her astonishing The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize. And it’s true again in Delta Girls (Ballantine), a rich and gorgeous ride with two very different women: a single mom making a living as a migrant fruit picker and a figure skater, intent on the heights. A series of unlikely events cause their two worlds to collide, with unexpected results. This is not a plot that does well with over-explanation. Brandeis’ books are all about the journey. And this? It’s a glorious one: well worth the effort.

This edition is a trade paperback original, so take your copy to the beach. However, be prepared to be surprised. Delta Girls exceeded my expectations, in every way. I suspect it will exceed yours, too.

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Non-Fiction: Leave the Light On by Jennifer Storm

Las Vegas-based Central Recovery Press publishes books with a very tight focus. As their name implies, all of CRP’s titles deal with issues of addiction and recovery. While this might seem an almost impossibly esoteric publishing mandate, CRP’s narrow focus ensures that the message they send to the world is measured and deliberate. “Central Recovery Press is committed to offering exceptional published material for addiction treatment and recovery.” And that’s just what they do.

Considering the topics CRP deals with, it seems possible to me that some of these books have saved lives. Take, for instance, a very recent CRP release, Leave the Light On by Jennifer Storm who is also the executive director of a Pennsylvania-based victim/witness assistance program.

Storm shoots straight from the hip and some of what she shares here is heart-breaking. Storm’s drop into addiction was covered in her 2008 memoir, Blackout Girl: Growing Up and Drying Out. In this new book, we get to see the light with her: but there are some painful passages here to go through, first, including not only her recovery, but her coming out.

Those dealing with similar challenges are likely to find strength and light here. Those who are not will find the tone evangelical, at best. That’s okay, somehow though. It seems to me to be worth knowing that, for recovery reading, I don’t think anyone is doing it better than CRP.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Art & Culture: The Art of Toy Story 3 by Charles Solomon

With Andy safely bundled off to college, presumably, Toy Story 3 will be the final installment in what has been a phenomenally successful movie franchise. It’s difficult now to remember that the first movie, 1995’s Toy Story, revolutionized the way animation was both made and seen. But I remember that movie being huge and ground-breaking. The latest film seems to me to have broken less ground, but it endures at the box office, as recent opening weekend ticket sales will attest.

In The Art of Toy Story 3 (Chronicle Books) author and animation historian Charles Solomon takes us through all of the technical challenges, adventures and misadventures that the platoon of animators encountered on their way to making the third film in the series. One of the challenges for the team was using technology that had moved light years ahead in 15 years to create characters that would still be familiar to the moviegoers who had initially fallen in love with them.

The book includes a detailed look at how the new film was imagined and created as well as character studies and maquettes, concept art, an overview of all three Toy Story films and a great deal more. The Art of Toy Story 3 is an intimate look behind the scenes of one of the most beloved and enduring animated features made in the last half-century.

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Non-Fiction: The Zero-Mile Diet by Carolyn Herriot

From the very first, The Zero Mile Diet (Harbour Publishing) makes the 100 Mile Diet seem like last week’s news. That’s no accident. Bestselling author and accomplished seed grower and vendor Carolyn Herriot has pushed the idea of sustainability right to the very edge. Never mind being able to find everything you eat within a 100 mile radius. What about finding everything you need right in your own backyard?

For obvious reasons, actually living off your backyard garden plot -- or apartment balcony -- won't be viable for everyone, but there is thoughtful, well-documented material here that is widely useful and deeply interesting. Herriot describes the problems that exist as she sees them: urban crawl driving prices up, an aging agrarian class due, in part, to rising land costs, and the fact -- most disturbing of all -- that we’ve mostly lost the ability to even see that there is a problem.
Help! We have been depending on a system that provides such an abundance of cheap food that it has become unnecessary to grow it for ourselves.
So from there, where? In Herriot’s case, the response is entirely grassroots:

Imagine where we could be in five years if we had a plan? What would it be like if suddenly “edible landscaping” became de rigueur, and everyone started growing plants in their gardens they could eat?
I imagine that, in certain ways, where we’d be is Harriot’s backyard, a rich and gorgeous oasis capable of feeding not only ourselves, but -- as Herriot stresses -- our neighbors, as well.

The Zero Mile Diet takes us through a year in Herriot’s garden. And it’s a gorgeous, eventful year, filled with great photos -- some illustrative, some instructive -- recipes, hints, tips and plans. It’s an astonishing, eye-opening book, destined to be a modern classic. Anyone who has given even half an hour’s thought to these important issues would do well to add a copy to their library.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Fiction: Sweet Misfortune by Kevin Alan Milne

There’s a certain dependable niceness about Kevin Alan Milne’s storytelling. You understand that there will be upset and dissent, perhaps some confusion. But no one will spend a year tortured and locked in a mountain cabin and if there’s any blood at all, it won’t be the sort that’s cheaply spilled. And you won’t need to skip ahead to see how it all turns out as you can be confident that there’s to be a happy ending.

Now some people will read that paragraph and feel disdain or despair. Those are not the people who should read Kevin Alan Milne, a writer whose books are very like chick lit so gentle it’s cozy -- without any real mystery -- and yet written by a man.

Sweet Misfortune (Center Street) is Milne’s first novel of full length, though two novellas (The Paper Bag Christmas and The Nine Lessons) have done very well. In Sweet Misfortune we meet Sophie Jones, a woman whose misfortune-filled life has left her with one big success: a chocolate shop, Chocolat’ de Soph, where she turns her misery into all-out creativity, concocting wonderful desserts.

In a frenzy of inspiration, she creates a a line of chocolate dipped fortune cookies filled with cynical messages like “You will soon fall in love. Caution: when people fall, something usually breaks.” Despite this negative note, the cookies are big hit with her clients. They are less of a hit with her ex-finance, though. And when he would take issue with them, Sophie challenges him to show her sustainable happiness. If he can, she’ll entertain giving him a chance to explain why he inexplicably broke up with her the year before. Surprises and illumination result.

This is a sweet, predictable and gentle novel. Author Milne lives in Oregon with his wife and five children. One imagines them walking around holding hands and singing at inappropriate times. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

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Non-Fiction: Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction by Marcia Reynolds

Even women who don’t consider themselves to be high achievers will find consolation and potential direction in Wander Woman (Berrett-Koehler). Organizational psychologist and certified master coach Marcia Reynolds here explores some of the feminine myths woven through the modern corporation.

Reynolds posits that there is a new generation of women in the workplace: they are both driven and disoriented; confident and anxious; ambitious and disconnected and, more than anything, they are restless.
The paradox is that although the women feel confident about their choices, they are plagued by their restlessness. This “soulful agitation” leads them to accomplish great things but it leaves them aching for what’s missing.
Part workbook and part manifesto of a new generation, Reynolds takes her readers through the realities and the steps to a kind of recovery. “We are heroines on a journey better walked together than alone,” Reynolds writes at one point. On words such as these, revolutions are begun. Monica Stark is an American writer and editor and a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.◊

Monica Stark is an American writer and editor and a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Art & Culture: The Art of McSweeney’s

There’s a great deal to like about The Art of McSweeney’s (Chronicle Books). It is dense with ideas, stuffed with creativity and practically choked by talent. But the thing to like best, at least from where I’m standing, is that The Art of McSweeney’s is like a single volume celebration of the book and a thumb of the nose at the sky-is-falling crowd. Did you say the book has no future? Well The Art of McSweeney’s? It says something else.
This book is being published at a time when there are some rumblings about the dire future of the book, and of the printed book in particular.

There are various rumors that people read less now, and that people will read still less in the future. And that, even if they do read at all, it will be on screens, and not on paper....McSweeney's is a small company dedicated to these physical books that purportedly have no future. We spend a good deal of time editing books, and producing books of the highest quality we’re capable of, in the hopes that in doing so, we’ll keep people mindful of the pleasures of the book-as-object.
And, in a way, those pleasures have all been bound into The Art of McSweeney’s, a coffee-table-style book that takes us through McSweeney’s various publications since -- and including -- the company was hatched out of then bookish wunderkind Dave Egger’s super creative noggin. Included here are art and comments from David Byrne, Sarah Vowell, Michael Chabon, Chris Ware and many others. It’s a fantastic book: a celebration between two covers, one that should mature to become a gorgeous momento from one of publishing’s strangest hours.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

New This Week: Shadow of the Swords by Kamran Pasha

We loved Kamran Pasha’s debut novel, 2009’s Mother of the Believers. Shadow of the Swords (Washington Square Press) delivers the same rich voice, this time in an epic tale of the Crusades from a perspective you’ve likely never seen before. But though seeing this story from the Muslim viewpointmay be a different place for a Western reader to stand, it is not mere novelty that makes Shadow of the Swords so compelling. Pasha is a genuinely good storyteller. Star-crossed lovers -- a Muslim sultan and a beautiful Jewish girl -- at the eye of a storm, the ravages of war as well as the various ebbs and flows of love and loss. It’s a rich and deftly imagined story, very well told.

Like Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) Kamran Pasha is offering us beautifully written glimpses into a culture those of us in the West have seldom seen depicted in quite this way. Shadow of the Swords is first a very good story. Just don’t expect it to leave you untouched.

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Before Book Publishing Slides Into the Sea

Not sure how I missed this piece in The Baltimore Sun by the wonderful, thoughtful Garrison Keillor but, despite a dateline nearly one month old, the story has held up very well.
Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn't work anymore, alas.
Interesting thoughts, as are many in the piece.
I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself. These are anti-elitist times, when mobs are calling for the downfall of pointy-head intellectuals who dare tell decent people what to think, but I admire the elite. I'm not one of them — I'm a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it — but I'm sorry about their downfall. And this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.
As much as I always adore Keillor’s wordplay and his dances with light and literacy, there are places here where he misses the mark.
Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it's all free, and you read freely, you're not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you're like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.
The thing is, text messaging, blogging and even tweeting all have their places in the modern world, it’s true. And Keillor’s point about the arrival -- in full -- of literacy for the masses is well made and taken. However comparing that type of reading with books is... well... silly. It’s like saying you don’t need apples because you already have cheese. Because, of course, not only are cheese and apples both delicious on their own, they’re also terrific together.

In this space I’ve often talked about the full immersion experience of reading. Reading a novel offers an entertainment experience absolutely not duplicable by other mediums. Like virtual reality -- better -- only without all the dumb-ass headgear. And kids today? They know this. It’s why they swallow up all those Twilight and Twilight-like books as quickly as they can be spat out. And, as almost anyone will tell you, once you’ve been seduced by a sexy vampire, you’re only a very few steps from reading of other kinds: just immerse me, dammit! Just... you know... literally take me away.

In a world where that kind of youthful vibrance is echoing through the stacks, the hummingbird and flower analogy simply doesn't hold up. Those of us who are passionate about reading fiction want our fully immersive reading experience. We want wonderful stories, properly told and text messages are never going to do that.

But where does the publishing machine fit into this picture of passionate readers reading immersively? They’ll do it by thinking brightly and lightly and by landing on their feet. They’ll do things differently and thoughtfully and give us -- in the end -- what we need. Will the future look the way the present does? Or, rather, will it even look like 2008? I doubt it. We’ve gone miles since then. And we’ve got miles to go before we’re done. The book publishing industry might look very different before we’ve got anything in hand that looks like a solution, but there will be books and someone will be publishing them. There’s no question about any of that. The only one is “how?”

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Biography: When I Came West by Laurie Wagner Buyer

A college student and former army brat hooks herself to a man she’s never met who is 13 years her senior and crosses the country in order to be his companion. Along the way to a life filled with hardship, deprivation and riches she discovers the physical strength to deal with her uncertain reality as well as the spiritual strength to handle challenges beyond any her sheltered upbringing had prepared her for. While all of that may sound like the plot of the sort of romance meant to keep you nailed to your lawn-chair for a whole weekend, it’s actually a personal memoir so riveting it reminds the reader that the truth really can be much stranger -- and more compelling -- than fiction.

Over the course of When I Came West (University of Oklahoma Press) Laurie Wagner Buyer is transformed from a squeamish college student to a toughened frontiers-woman reminiscent of the western women of yore. Wagner Buyer has a light touch with even the more emotional parts of her story and the subtext is one of hope and growth. The west she describes seems at times unbelievable: virtually unchanged, in many ways, for over a hundred years.
The second spring came early. The snow line retreated each day and left miniature, majestic lakes on the meadow. Wild swans glided in late in the evening; they came for last summer’s seeds and their calls sounded dusk-soft, eternal. The crazy cries of loons echoed back and forth across the land, drifting high, lonesome, and eerie in the night skies.
Wagner Buyer shifts the physical and the emotional effortlessly, painting a picture of raw beauty, sometimes painted over with pain. It’s a lovely little book. ◊

Monica Stark is an American writer and editor and a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

SF/F: The Wildkin’s Curse by Kate Forsyth

The Wildkin’s Curse (Macmillan) a so-called “companion volume” to The Starthorn Tree, can be read as a stand-alone story, though it takes place some years later.

The novel is set in a world in which there are different types of people -- the aristocratic starkin, the lower-class hearthkin and the wildkin, who are more or less human, but with an elvish feel about them -- pointed ears and magical abilities. There are faerie-type beings in the forests and the air, who are associated with the wildkin.

In the first novel, a group of teenagers set off on a quest to rescue the brother of one of the characters, who was in an enchanted sleep. This time, the children of those characters are on a quest to free wildkin Princess Rozalina, whose starkin father is keeping her locked up in a tower and has plans for her. The fate of the entire country depends on what they do -- but Princess Rozalina is dangerous, though not intentionally. Her prophecies always come to pass. Always.

Kate Forsyth is the author of a large number of award-winning children’s fantasy novels and it’s not hard to see why they won prizes. She creates characters you can care about. I don’t generally enjoy quest novels, but this one is not about an elf, a long-lost prince, a bad-tempered dwarf and a couple of bickering warriors going after a magical object. The characters are human. They love and hate, they get tired and cold and hungry.

Forsyth has also worked carefully on her cultures and background. The society is a strange mixture of Middle Ages and 18th century France. She uses whatever bit of history is convenient for her story. Somehow, it works. And it works, also, as a cracking good adventure. ◊

Sue Bursztynski lives in Australia, where she works as a teacher-librarian. She has written several books for children and young adults, including Crime Time: Australians behaving Badly, and, most recently, YA novel Wolfborn. Her blog The Great Raven, can be found at

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Crime Pays

The Australian’s Graeme Blundell muses on the overwhelming popularity of crime fiction, making some interesting observations along the way:
A generation ago, crime writing was a minority taste, for many a puritan pleasure, not always admitted to in public; reading mysteries was a sabbatical for the serious-minded. The blockbusters of the ’60s and ’70s, for example, the novels of Irving Stone, Harold Robbins, John O’Hara, Jacqueline Susann and Herman Wouk, preferred to deal with sex, movie stars, religion and exotic foreign places rather than crime. Robert Crichton, Mary Renault, James Clavell were among those who followed and still no big time crime. Best-seller lists were subjugated by literary writers and masters of sex and junk.
That was then, Blundell reminds us. These days, it’s a whole new deal.
Fine crime writers are no longer being dismissed as merely genre hacks but it’s been a bloody transformation as categories of the mystery novel continue to fragment; there is mayhem in the mainstream. For many publishers, crime writing is now like a form of natural selection -- throw out enough mutations and you know that some will get saved and endure. The reading public is fickle; what it loves today it may well ignore tomorrow.
There’s a lot more and it's here. Meanwhile, if you’re in the mood for a heavy dose of information about crime fiction, check out January Magazine’s sister publication, The Rap Sheet.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Non-Fiction: The Circumference of Home: One Man’s Yearlong Quest for A Radically Local Life by Kurt Hoelting

You begin expecting one thing and come upon something entirely different. Unexpected. That describes both Kurt Hoelting’s life of late and it describes his book, The Circumference of Home (Da Capo) an unexpectedly poetic story of one man’s personal mission for change.

Hoelting states his mission plainly enough when he describes The Circumference of Home as “one man’s attempt to confront his own complicity in the climate crisis and to do so out of freedom rather than fear.”

In a nutshell, then: Hoelting vowed to devote a year of his life to a relatively simple sounding experiment. He would eschew his car, forgo air travel and completely reduce his carbon footprint to the point where he wouldn’t go anywhere not reachable by foot, bicycle or kayak. For a year. The big surprise in The Circumference of Home: Hoelting found it easier than anticipated to accomplish this mission. In the course of relaying a year of oil-free adventure, he shares words all of us can take to heart:
Everything we need to be happy really is near at hand. I keep meeting others who have found the same to be true and they’ve made similar shifts in lifestyle. It’s almost never as hard as people expect, and the benefits always seem to outweigh the costs.
Words to live by? And, perhaps, a surprisingly convenient truth.

Aaron Blanton
is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Fiction: The Promise of Rain by Donna Milner

What sort of impact does war have on the human psyche and experience? That's the territory Donna Milner tackles in her lovely sophomore novel, The Promise of Rain (McArthur & Company).

The author’s 2009 debut, After River, was quietly published and widely lauded, including a nomination for the IMPAC Award and publication in a dozen countries.

The Promise of Rain, covers territory that is different yet similar, with echoes of secrets, loss and that hand of a stunning matriarch. Connected story-lines tell the tale of Howard, interred in a Hong Kong prison during World War II and his daughter Ethie, 11-years-old in 1962.
My mother died on the same day as Marilyn Monroe, August 4th 1962, and just like the movie star her body would not be discovered until the following day.
Milner’s voice is quiet, but she tells her tale compellingly, weaving a story of family secrets and the horrors of war that echoes chillingly through the years.
It wasn’t right that the sun was shining that morning. I believed the whole world should be crying. Heavy raindrops should soak the earth, splash up from the pavement, run down the windowpanes like endless tears.
Does Milner occasionally approach the maudlin? Maybe she does. But there’s no denying the power of her storytelling or the fact that this is a writer with something to say. ◊

Monica Stark is an American writer and editor and a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.

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Harry Potter Theme Park Opens Today in Orlando

After a wait of nearly five years, the Wizarding World of Happy Potter opens today. Harry Potter fans from around the world are expected to flock to Orlando, Florida for an up-close-and-personal look at the world of J.K. Rowling’s fictional characters come to life. From The Telegraph:
The attraction officially opens today, and to say early visitors are beating the rush is a vast understatement. For the Florida mini-theme park enjoys the revered blessing of JK Rowling, consulted apparently on everything down to the plastic plates in the Three Broomsticks restaurant. With the books long over and the films all but done, hardened fans of the young wizard simply have nowhere else to go.
The full piece is here. We previously wrote about the theme park here.

Britain’s Best 20 Under 40?

Never ones to take a list sitting down, today The Telegraph responds to The New Yorker’s list of top novelists under 40 with a list of their own:
Given the fact that it has been nearly a decade since Granta’s last “Best of Young British Novelists” list, we set ourselves the challenge of coming up with a selection of novelists to rival the New Yorker’s. In compiling our list we have taken suggestions from a range of contributors and staff – and we offer it up to you in turn as a challenge. If the exercise gives us a snapshot of what our most exciting young novelists are doing right now, it also raises questions about what any list might say about a country’s writing, and about the differences in fiction on each side of the Atlantic.
Somewhat predictably, The Telegraph’s list includes a few names you’d expect, some you might anticipate and a whole bunch you’ve probably never heard of and it’s here.

All right then, before we get tired of all the list making and call it done for another 10 years, why are the Canadians and Australians so quiet? When are we going to have their best of the decade lists?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Non-Fiction: The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth by Charles Wohlforth

There is something heartbreaking and prescient about The Fate of Nature (Thomas Dunne Books) even though, despite the subtitle, it isn't actually about cleaning up the Earth. Rather award-winning author Charles Wohlforth (The Whale and the Supercomputer) uses his native Alaska as a lens of possibility. Still, while over 100 million gallons of crude has poured into the Gulf of Mexico, doing untold damage to... well... everything, it’s difficult not to take some of Wohlforth’s lovely words to heart:
The ocean is so vast, it’s everything -- the source and sustenance of life, the birthplace of rain and cleanser of air, the plaent’s essential medium, upon which all land is but an island. Yet on and within the ocean every wave is different and every birth is new.
There are times, while reading The Fate of Nature, I just felt like weeping. It’s a beautiful book. A painful reminder. A unforgettable journey: one that ends in hope.

I won’t heal quickly, though. Perhaps none of us will.


New Commercial Imprint Brings Good News

In the slash and burn atmosphere that the book business has been of late, it’s great to have some good news. Today that was announced in the form of Mulholland Books, a new imprint of Little, Brown and Company that seems determined to bring highly readable fiction to as many readers as possible.

Our sister publication, The Rap Sheet, has the full story here.


Fiction: The Passage by Justin Cronin

OK, I’ll put it right out there: The Passage (Ballantine) is certainly the best read of the summer -- and possibly the best read of the year. To all of you who haven’t had the pleasure, don’t believe it when anyone tells you this is another vampire book. Because (a) it’s so very much not. And (b) it’s not “another” anything.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books are not in the same universe as The Passage.

If there’s a vampire novel it has any relationship to, it’s Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire -- but it’s not the vampires that make the connection. Rice’s 1976 novel took a character we thought we understood (Dracula) and turned him inside out. She transformed him into something new: two “modern” vampires, one a homosexual blood sucker riddled with guilt and one a passionate, rock-star type (also homosexual) who saw food standing in every pair of shoes. Justin Cronin has done something similar with The Passage: he’s turned the modern techno-thriller inside out. He’s given it a 1,000-year timeline; characters who are distinct, each one crystal clear on the page; and sure, vampires, but they’re not of the Bram Stoker or Anne Rice variety. Cronin’s vampires -- called virals -- are manufactured, the unfortunate by-product of a government experiment gone horribly wrong.

The virals’ attacks are brutal, ultra-violent, unforgettable. But even so, the virals aren’t really this novel’s bad guys. In a way, they’re victims too. The real bad guys, the scientists whose experiment to create the ultimate military weapon backfired on a global scale, are all dead, killed by their own creation (Frankenstein, anyone?). The core group, a “family” of 12 virals who broke loose and changed the world forever by ending it, supplies half the drama; the other half is created by the survivors left to deal with the new reality imposed by the virals’ behavior.

I think the most remarkable thing about this book is Cronin’s ability to create an entire world that’s both recognizable and alien at the same time. The world of The Passage is one we know intimately, except we really don’t. The people who live in it are people we know, except they really aren’t. And some of the things you’d think they would understand -- movies, say, or photographs -- they don’t. In other words, our world has ended and theirs has begun. In every way that matters, we are gone. What’s more, everything we take for granted, Cronin has rethought, reimagined and recrafted, like a kick-ass car made purely from spare parts.

While reading The Passage, I found myself thinking about the oil spill in the Gulf. I know, I know, this is a book review, not a news story. But still. I saw creepy parallels between the government that made the virals and British Petroleum: Both tampered with something they didn’t fully understand, and both failed to create reliable fail-safes, should something go wrong. And although I’m jumping the gun a little, both have done a pretty good job of placing large segments of our culture -- and certainly our environment -- at risk. My point is, in The Passage and in real life today, something small has become something that irrevocably alters our history.

Anyway, The Passage is not a political thriller. It’s a fright-fest with soul, a 775-page exercise in relentless forward motion. Best of all -- or worst, depending on your point of view -- it’s the first part of a trilogy; the second installment (reportedly called The Twelve) is due in 2012, the third (The City of Mirrors) in 2014.

There is a great deal here that’s captivating. Intense characters whose emotional volume is always dialed up to 11. Set pieces so finely tuned you can actually see them. Turns of plot so surprising you won’t mind having been taken in. The Passage is a nonstop, intelligent story of an apocalypse, and it’s unlike anything you’ve read before. Sure, there are comparisons; I’ve cited some myself. I’ve read many comparisons to The Stand, but even Stephen King is over the moon about The Passage.

Here’s the thing: As I was reading this book, I found myself caught, perplexed by conflicting feelings. I wanted to read and read and read, just to see what would happen next. But at the same time I was desperate to slow the hell down, to prolong the book’s many pleasures. When I finally reached the end, I slowed to a crawl even as the story itself hurtled forward. The subtleties of the final lines left me stunned -- and hungry for more. Much more.

The Passage is an original. 2012 has never seemed more distant.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Would-Be Canadian Authors Hit the Cafes

Want to write a novel? A coffee shop might be just the place to do it, at least that was part of the rationale behind Canada’s first Coffee Shop Author contest, which saw determined Canadian writers hunkering down with lattes and laptops all across the country. From The Toronto Star:
Forty-two Canadians entered the online contest, promising to write most of their submissions -- poetry, novels, teen fiction -- in coffee shops. A few bent the rules and created in local libraries, and in one case, in rural Saskatchewan, an ice cream parlour.

Writing is a lonely pursuit and has always driven writers out of their houses to find companionship -- or distraction or inspiration -- in public places.
The Coffee Shop Author website is here.

Another Read of the iPad

January Magazine contributing editor Ali Karim takes another run at reading electronically and on Apple’s iPad for our sister publication, The Rap Sheet:
There are many people in publishing who are bewildered by the rapid technological advances that are having an impact on their troubled industry. Despite being a “techno” guy, I have been equally resistant to the lure of digital e-books. I simply love the feel of paper on my fingers and the excitement of turning the pages of a wonderful work of fiction. However, I finally determined I was being too much like King Canute, resisting the electronic tide. So I decided to check out what it’s like to read on a tablet computer.
The full piece is here.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Art & Culture: Bee by Rose-Lynn Fisher

Photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher’s Bee (Princeton Architectural Press) is an other worldly look at one of our most important species: the bee. There is little in Fisher’s book beyond bee: these are macro photographs -- some of them magnified as much as 5000x -- that show us bees as they have never before been seen. The resulting book is more like an art installation than a book about bees: you come away from it feeling as though you’ve experienced something you thought you knew in an entirely different way.

“The first time I looked at a bee’s eye magnified,” Fisher writes, “I was amazed to see a field of hexagons, just like honeycomb. I wondered, is this a coincidence or a clue?”

Bee is a fantastic, unexpected book. There are secrets here. Surprises. And you’ll never see bees in quite the same way.

Non-Fiction: Animal Factory by David Kirby

In Animal Factory (St. Martin’s Press) David Kirby (Evidence of Harm) asks some thought-provoking questions. One of the scariest of them is this: will anyone want to listen?
Many Americans have no idea where their food comes from, and many have no desire to find out .... The willful ignorance of our own food's provenance is curious, given our Discovery Channel-like fascination with the way in which everything else in our modern world is made.
As Kirby himself points out, this is beginning to change. Certainly anyone who manages to read even part of Animal Factory will find themselves unable to look at many things in the same way.

Kirby uses all his skill as a crack investigative journalist to tell his story through the lens of three families -- and their communities -- whose lives have been horribly impacted by the factory farms in their neighborhoods.

Considering the passionate feelings Kirby uncovers in his travels, Animal Factory is a surprisingly level book. It’s clear what side of the fence he stands on, but it’s not difficult to see why he’s standing there. From the introduction:
Everywhere I went, the story was the same: [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] had fouled the air. spoiled the water, threatened property values, changed the face of local agriculture, and made life miserable for thousands of people, though certainly not everybody.
Even if you’ve never given a thought to the welfare of the animals raised in factory farms, recent public health crises -- swine flu, bird flu, mad cow and others -- have been forcing us to pull our collective heads out of the sand. Animal Factory will give you a close look at many aspects you might not previously have considered. It is a book that is capable of changing you. The question is: are you ready to change?

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Fiction: The Hypnotist by M.J. Rose

The prolific and talented M.J. Rose has long been known to January Magazine. To us, sometimes she feels like a personal discovery. Back in the late 1990s, we were among the first to review her self-published novel, Lip Service. So it’s pleasing to be able to report that, more than a decade on, this author just keeps getting better and better.

We see this clearly in her latest outing, The Hypnotist (MIRA Books), the most recent book in her bestselling Reincarnationist series that was also the inspiration for Past Life, the Fox television series that aired this spring.

The Hypnotist is the third of this series, after The Reincarnationist and The Memoirist. Of the three, The Hypnotist is far and away my personal favorite. This is due in one part to the fact that Rose is a writer who seems committed to sharpening her voice and her skills: every book really is better than the last. The other part, for me, is thematic. In The Hypnotist Rose returns to some of the themes I really enjoyed in her earlier works -- notably 2002’s breathtaking Flesh Tones -- a book that was never given the attention it deserved. These are themes that Rose does as well as anyone currently writing, notably art and love and how those things can impact one upon the other.

In The Hypnotist we again meet Dr. Malachai Samuels, director of The Phoenix Foundation, dedicated to the examination and evaluation of past lives.

FBI agent Lucian Glass can’t forget the murder of the young painter who was his lover. When a crazed art collector begins destroying masterworks, Lucian goes undercover at the Phoenix Foundation where he is taken on an incredible journey that vaults him to ancient Greece, 19th century Persia and more modern destinations. In the process, Lucian discovers a plot to steal Hypnos, the 1500-year-old sculpture of the Greek God of sleep: a work of art that is rumored to hold an incredible secret. Along the way, Rose fans a controversial flame: is art owned by a museum or the country in which the piece originated?

The Hypnotist is a stunningly satisfying read. Thoughtful, fast-paced and subtly sensual, this is one of the best books thus far from a really terrific writer.

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Cents and Sensibilities

Lovers of mass-market literature, take note: Today marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first “dime novel”: Maleaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens. As The Writer’s Almanac observes:
Most dime novels were filled with crime, violence, and romance. They were mostly set in America during romanticized periods in the nation’s short history -- the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or on the frontier. There were mistaken identities, villains, love stories, daring escapes, and sudden wealth. Outlaws like Jesse James and Buffalo Bill were heroes, women were swept off their feet by ne’er-do-wells, the life of frontier settlers seemed much more exciting than that of regular people stuck in nice towns, and violence was glorified. Dime novels were perceived as dangerous, especially for young people, on whom they might have a bad influence.

The content of Malaeska was no exception. Malaeska is a Native American, and her husband is white. And although he adores her, he makes no attempt to introduce her to any of his friends or relations, and has dramatic internal struggles over his son’s biracial identity. Then the settlers and the tribe become hostile, and Malaeska’s husband and her father end up killing each other. As her husband is dying, he orders his wife to take their son and have him raised a Christian by his white grandparents. They take in the boy, but force Malaeska to become a servant, and the boy grows up believing he is white, and gets engaged. But just before he is married, Malaeska reveals that she is his mother, and her son is so upset at the idea that he almost disgraced a “pure” white woman by marrying her, that he kills himself, and Malaeska dies of grief.
The Library of Congress offers its dime novel collection here.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Art & Culture: Intellectual Devotional: Biographies by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim

Back in 2006, the whole January Magazine crew liked David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim’s original Intellectual Devotional, a book intended to offer a sort of gymnasium for the mind where a reader would come, on a daily basis, for a new and refreshing piece of information.

Intellectual Devotional: Biographies (Rodale) is the fourth book in the now popular series. “Revive your mind,” a cover line entices, “complete your education, and acquaint yourself with the world’s greatest personalities.”

And so, every day for the next year, you will find yourself face-to-face with a historical great. Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Erasmus, Jezebel, Henry the Navigator, Nikola Tesla, Winston Churchill: it’s an eclectic, interesting mix.

In an introduction, the authors let us know that Biographies is the final entry in this series. “We’ve chosen to conclude the series with a collection of short biographies, offering intimate portraits of some of the world’s most fascinating people, past and present.”

Like other entries in this series, Intellectual Devotional: Biographies is a well-crafted, worthwhile and surprisingly down-to-earth collection. It feels like a healthy slice of all of the world’s learning right in the palm of your hand.

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Monday, June 07, 2010

Crime Fiction: The Girl Who Kicked the
Hornet’s Nest
by Stieg Larsson

And so we come to the end, the third book in Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. First came The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then The Girl Who Played with Fire and now The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Larsson, who died after submitting Nest, did not see his books take the world publishing stage by storm, and what a shame. In a way, these novels -- with their tight, outrageous plots and bombastic (and equally outrageous) characters -- have become a sort of Harry Potter series for grown-ups. Knowing that Larsson had ideas for as many as 10 books, and that there is a large portion of a fourth in existence, only makes the story more disappointing. Unless another author takes up the task, as other writers have taken up the James Bond franchise in the years since Ian Fleming's too-soon death in 1964, this is the last we’ll see of magazine editor Mikael Blomqvist and hacker/ingénue/enigma Lisbeth Salander. (Sigh)

Hornet’s Nest has all the signature elements that have made this series so magnetic and unforgettable. The dark government plot. The twisty action sequences. The crisp, abrupt dialogue. The technology. But most of all, this book is all revenge, all the time. During most of the story, Salander lies in a hospital bed, recovering from the nasty, nearly fatal injuries she sustained at the end of Fire. In fact, this book picks up at the moment that other one ends; they could, quite convincingly, have been published as a single volume called The Girl Who Played with Fire and Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Here, Blomqvist is working feverishly to gather evidence that will clear Salander’s name, now that she’s been accused of attempted murder. The tar-black political environment and the painfully detailed tiptoeing Blomqvist must do to uncover a decades-old government plot are great fun. (OK, maybe “tiptoeing” is too soft a term for what he does.) Although Salander can’t participate very much at the beginning, she does get involved -- along with her mysterious hacker posse -- and amazingly, makes things happen using just a smartphone.

The action moves swiftly, crosscutting among several strands of plot, though perhaps not at the breakneck pace of the previous books. The inevitable trial, when all hell breaks loose, is fantastic. For me, this is the highlight of the novel, and watching the bad guys face the music is about as much fun as I’ve had reading a book in a long, long time. But you won’t see any spoilers about that here.

I do think Larsson stood one step too high on his soapbox this time around, venturing into areas that would have been fine if left out. There’s also a lengthy subplot about Blomqvist’s partner, Erika Berger, involving office-based sexual harassment and threatened violence. This happens once she’s left Millennium magazine to take over Sweden’s large daily paper -- but the emotional toll it takes on her is somewhat of a distraction, and on the whole this subplot is a digression that adds little to the marquee story. She (and we) could have learned those lessons in a way that kept the action at Millennium and our focus on learning the fate of Lisbeth Salander.

Despite this, there should be no doubt that the book is an amazing read. But having said that, and even though Salander’s story is interesting, I was far more taken when Blomqvist and Salander weren’t the center of the mystery. I was perfectly happy, and a bit more satisfied, when they were occupied with solving a crime that had nothing to do with either of them personally, as they were in Dragon Tattoo. That first book’s intricate details -- the hacking, the sex, the dark motivations, the delicious politics and twisted secrets of the wealthy Vanger family -- were (and remain) unforgettable. The conceit here of having Blomqvist and Salander solve Salander’s own mystery, while it certainly has its rewards, left me in the end wishing their world were a bit wider, less tightly focused on themselves. Since finishing The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, I’ve thought, now and again, about a 007 novel in which the case Bond tackles is all about him and not about stopping some cleverly named megalomaniac off to destroy the world. I wonder if, in his next seven books, Larsson would have returned to the format of the first novel, with Blomqvist and Salander solving crimes like a modern-day, Swedish version of Holmes and Watson. Alas, we’ll never know.

What we do know is this: The man, a true master of his genre, gave us three indelible novels that left us absolutely breathless. What more could be want? Bravo!

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Saturday, June 05, 2010

Cookbooks: Ribs, Chops, Steaks & Wings by Roy “Dr. BBQ” Lampe

A couple of years ago, we liked The NFL Gameday Cookbook quite a lot, even though it was clear that the book didn’t focus precisely on author chef Roy Lampe’s area of expertise. However Lampe’s Ribs, Chops, Steaks & Wings (Chronicle) focuses on just that and very tightly. Before very long it’s clear that this is the book that Dr. BBQ was meant to write. Vegetarians can run for cover, but Fox does’t mince words or ideas. Lampe states his bias right off:
Ribs, chops, steaks and wings are the star attractions at any meal they are part of. These are simply the most revered and tastiest parts of the cow, pig, and chicken.
As one would expect, Ribs, Chops, Steaks & Wings focuses very tightly on the topic at hand. Forget the dishes that might accompany BBQ. Forget anything you might do with potatoes. Or rice. Or even grits. Lampe's book never forgets its mandate and meatlovers are the richer for it.

Lampe begins with the necessary technical matter, including that burning question: “Charcoal? Or gas?” As might be expected, Lampe’s answer is not cut and dried, although he’s clearly interested in nuance, and he offers some of that up here.

There are words about tools and rubs and sauces, but the bulk of the book is given over to the food itself. Apricot-Glazed Baby Back Ribs. Coffee-Rubbed Pork Chops. Back Wrapped Chicken Wings and Filet Mignon Stuffed with Blue Cheese. Many, many more.

In a sea of books about barbecue, Ribs, Chops, Steaks & Wings is a standout. Well illustrated, Well designed. Well executed. Make no mistake: this is one book that is just as concerned with the steak as it is with the sizzle.


Friday, June 04, 2010

Fiction: The Vera Wright Trilogy by Elizabeth Jolley

One of Australia’s best loved authors, Elizabeth Jolley (1924-2007), was widely read and celebrated internationally, but has had limited exposure to American readers. Persea Books is trying to change that with the publication of a trilogy of autobiographical novels in one handsome volume.

My Father’s Moon and Cabin Fever have been out of print in the United States for a long time, but the third book in the trilogy, The Georges’ Wife, has never been published in the U.S. at all.

First published when she was in her early 50s, Jolley was the author of 15 novels, four collections of short stories and four books of non-fiction. During the years of her active publication, she won every major Australian literary award and was nominated for the Booker Prize.

Jolley’s style managed to be both sparse and lush, as we can see from these few lines from early in My Father’s Moon:
The constant sound of television might be for a great many people what a mountain stream was to Wordsworth. Instead of these, I have the sound of doves.
The Vera Wright Trilogy deals with issues of love, sensuality and family from a perspective that many Americans will find exotic -- being a woman in England and Australia in the early middle part of the last century. What one also finds, however, is a deep humanity -- often shot through with a dark and resonant humor -- that is easy to respond to, regardless of continent.

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Teach Your Children Well

Having grown up in a household filled with books, and with parents and grandparents who were dedicated readers, it seems so obvious to me that having written works around promoted my boyhood interest not only in reading, but in learning, in general. However, it may take myriad academic studies to convince other people of the same thing. If so, they should look to these findings, reported in Salon:
A study recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility found that just having books around the house (the more, the better) is correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete. The study (authored by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikorac and Donald J. Treimand) looked at samples from 27 nations, and according to its abstract, found that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.” Children with as few as 25 books in the family household completed on average two more years of schooling than children raised in homes without any books.

According to USA Today, another study, to be published later this year in the journal Reading Psychology, found that simply giving low-income children 12 books (of their own choosing) on the first day of summer vacation “may be as effective as summer school” in preventing “summer slide” -- the degree to which lower-income students slip behind their more affluent peers academically every year. An experimental, federally funded program based on this research will be expanded to eight states this summer, aiming to give away 1.5 million books to disadvantaged kids.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the USA Today article comes at the very end, where one Chicago schoolteacher tells the reporter that the importance of getting books into the house “seems so simple, but parents see it differently.” They’re as “excited” as their kids are when the books come in the door. It’s not that the parents are hostile or even indifferent to books. Most likely, books and reading feel like the privilege and practice of an unfamiliar world: a resource that’s out there somewhere, but not entirely accessible.
I started out reading comic books, then progressed quickly through teenage novels to adult works (science fiction first; later, general fiction and crime novels), and have since amassed thousands of volumes -- and read many more besides. Don’t even bother trying to tell me my family’s bookish example didn’t make me the voracious reader I am today.

Parents who make books available to their young children are seeding their desires for lifetime learning and promoting rich imaginations. There’s absolutely no substitute.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40

The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list of fictionists worth watching is likely to become a who’s who in publishing over the next decade. At least, that’s what happened in 1999, the last time the magazine put together a similar list. The list that The New Yorker cooked up that year really were watching: in fact, a lot of us have been watching most of them ever since. It included Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, David Foster Wallace, Nathan Englander and Junot Díaz. According to The New York Times:
The process began in January, when editors in the fiction department started brainstorming. By e-mail they asked literary agents, publishers and other writers to suggest potential candidates.

The editors eventually whittled the possibilities down to a shortlist of roughly 40 eligible writers. A few prominent fiction writers, including Colson Whitehead and Dave Eggers, were slightly too old to make the cut, Ms. Treisman said.

“It’s a little agonizing,” said Willing Davidson, associate fiction editor at The New Yorker. “We’re trying to think of what has this person already done, but also, what are they doing right now that we can put in the magazine?”
According to The New York Times, here’s the 2010 list:
They are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32; Chris Adrian, 39; Daniel Alarcón, 33; David Bezmozgis, 37; Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38; Joshua Ferris, 35; Jonathan Safran Foer, 33; Nell Freudenberger, 35; Rivka Galchen, 34; Nicole Krauss, 35; Yiyun Li, 37; Dinaw Mengestu, 31; Philipp Meyer, 36; C. E. Morgan, 33; Téa Obreht, 24; Z Z Packer, 37; Karen Russell, 28; Salvatore Scibona, 35; Gary Shteyngart, 37; and Wells Tower, 37.
The list will be published in The New Yorker’s double fiction issue on June 7th. Meanwhile, The Observer offers up several lists of people who, for various reasons, you won’t be seeing in The New Yorker’s list.

Postscript: I love that Ward Six has put together their own list: The Top Ten Authors Over 80! Some significant names missing -- Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez among them. Still, a terrific idea.


Fiction: Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro

Broadcaster and art historian Carole Enahoro's debut is darkly, wickedly funny and deeply thought-provoking. In that regard -- in many regards -- it is a perfect book.

In Doing Dangerously Well (Random House Canada) a dam collapses in Nigeria and kills thousands of villagers. The tragedy sets the stage for a different kind of flood as all sorts of people put out a hand to try and collect on the disaster. The Minister of Natural Resources makes a run at the presidency while environmentalists use the disaster for their own green ends. “Loss can always be transformed into profit for those able to envision reconstruction” Enahoro writes early in Doing Dangerously Well. “Indeed, the greater the calamity, the more seductive the prospects.”

Enahoro grew up in Nigeria, Britain and Canada. At present, she is working on a PhD at University College London, researching satire and Nigerian urbanism.


Art & Culture: Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum

There’s something deliciously industrious about Globish (W.W. Norton), novelist, journalist and premature curmudgeon Robert McCrum’s take on how English took over the world. McCrum sums things up in the prologue:

Globish is a book about a phenomenon so obvious and all-pervading that it is sometimes taken for granted. It begins with the origins, and examines the basic elements of Early English that remain so remarkably functional today. From the founders to the pioneers in just one perilous transatlantic crossing, a voyage that millions completed in hope, degradation or despair: the making of American and African-American English is a vital turning point.

Compared to the density of thought McCrum establishes in the prologue, the book itself is surprisingly lively. Clearly, the author has a passion for his subject. McCrum takes us through the rise to prominence -- nay: dominance -- of the English language in our modern world. In that way, Globish sometimes feels like a biography -- in this case, of a language. At other times it reads like passionately shared history. At all times, though, Globish is a deeply fascinating book. McCrum brings history -- and language -- to vibrant life.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Art & Culture: Weddings by Tara Guérard

Anyone who ever dreamed of a wedding, dreamed of one of these weddings: society confections quite beyond the means -- and perhaps even imaginations -- of mere mortals. Yet somehow, the perfection and expense displayed in the dozen weddings profiled here does nothing to detract from both the usefulness and beauty of Weddings (Gibbs Smith).

Author Tara Guérard calls herself an “event designer” and, if Weddings is any indication at all, she’s a pretty good one. Her creds indicate the same thing: in 2005 Modern Bride Magazine selected her as a Top Trendsetter and her work has been featured in every magazine one would think it would be important for her to be featured in: Food & Wine, Southern Living, InStyle Weddings, Martha Stewart Weddings and many others.

Guérard’s sense of style and what's right for every occasion shows up again in Weddings, a book quite unlike any other I’ve seen on this topic. Absolutely absent are the endless worrying lists that clutter other wedding books: when to book, when to send, when to fret and -- most worrisome of all -- how much the whole thing might cost. Guérard’s book is about none of that. What we have here are gorgeous photo spreads -- magazine and modern album quality -- of weddings in progress.

Included are telling detail shots: letterpress name-tags, perfectly coordinated gift bags, stylishly careless centerpieces, perfect food, perfect food, perfect food. There are hints at how some of the wedding transformations were accomplished: yards of fabric here, spray-painted boxes there, ribbon and gift-wrap fetchingly placed: Guérard shares her secrets and some of her sweetest moments in a way that is both unobtrusive and highly instructional. Included are a few recipes and countless great ideas.

If you’re a wedding planner or even planning a single perfect wedding, I’d recommend Tara Guérard’s Weddings. It will give you some hard and fast ideas and -- even more importantly -- a firmer grip on possibilities.

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Non-Fiction: Halifax: Warden of the North by Thomas H. Raddall

In some ways, having a crisp new copy of Thomas H. Raddall’s Halifax: Warden of the North (Nimbus) in hand seems like something of a miracle. First published in 1948, Halifax: Warden of the North won the Governor Generals Award for non-fiction in that year and, in editions in the years between, it has always been a standard text and research tool on the history of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The book chronicles Halifax’s birth as a city and its evolution: right up until the time Raddall died in the early 1990s. This new edition has been updated by award-winning Halifax journalist, Stephen Kimber who adds key historical chapters to Raddall’s classic, including the G-7 economic summit, in 1995 and the sewage treatment controversy of 2009.

The resulting book is both fresh and seamless. An important part of Nova Scotia’s written history, newly updated.