Blue Willow Bookshop Issue for Tuesday, July 18, 2017

From the Shelf

Gambling on a Summer Read

All in. Maybe the gambling theme initially drew me to Swimming with Bridgeport Girls by Anthony Tambakis (recently published by Simon & Schuster), which Jonathan Tropper called "a sad, smart, funny-as-hell novel with a broken heart that beats powerfully between the lines of every page...." But I stayed because it's irresistible, the perfect bookend (exacta?) to pair with another recent favorite, Jonathan Lethem's A Gambler's Anatomy.  

Swimming with Bridgeport Girls begins on the cusp of July 4th, and Ray Parisi is on a precipitous losing streak. Divorced from the woman he still loves, he's also lost his ESPN job, owes his bookie $52,000 and has maxed out his last credit cart "on a cash advance that led to a disaster at the blackjack table," which devolved into a brawl, a broken wrist and Ray's banishment from the Mohegan Sun casino. Then there's the unfortunate incident at Belmont Park with a losing jockey.

Time to get out of town. Time to get even. From Connecticut to Vegas to Memphis, Ray seeks the big score that will give him back his life. "Even when the dream of winning is gone, it's easily replaced by the dream of getting even, which can be almost stronger than the dream of winning," Tambakis writes. "After all, winning involves imagining what you don't have, while getting even merely requires you to remember what you did."

In addition to an entertaining, sometimes incendiary, cast of characters, the novel adeptly deals some well-played literary references. Ray buys Dostoevsky's The Gambler (mistakenly shelved in the "Games" section) and reflects: "No normal person could read that book and think gambling was anything but a dead end, but you're not a normal person." Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby figures prominently. Even poet Stevie Smith makes a cameo appearance: "I was much too far out all my life/ And not waving but drowning."

Here's a hot summer tip: Take a chance on this sharply drawn tale of winning and losing... and the chasm in between. --Robert Gray, contributing editor

Atria: A Game of Ghosts (Charlie Parker Mystery) by John Connolly

St. Martin's Press: The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

In this Issue...

Reviews

What Goes Up

by Katie Kennedy

No science knowledge--or even interest--is necessary to appreciate this cheeky YA novel about whiz kid teens competing for trainee spots at a NASA space agency.

Read this review >>

The Essex Serpent

by Sarah Perry

In this quiet, beautiful novel, a young widow searches for the mythical Essex Serpent and finds unexpected friendship in its wake.

Read this review >>

A woman from the untouchable level of India's caste system tells her family's history as it relates to the country's gaining independence from Britain.

Read this review >>

Review by Subjects:

Fiction Mystery & Thriller Graphic Books Biography & Memoir Science Children's & Young Adult

Book Candy

Anatomy of a Book

The Chronicle Books blog presented "the anatomy of a book."

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"Only a true bookworm has read 45/66 of these young adult novels," Buzzfeed challenged.

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"There's a Harry Potter supper club opening in London this summer," Cosmopolitan magazine reported.

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Poetic open house: John Ashbery's Nest is "a website and virtual tour of the American poet's home."

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Bustle showcased "12 unique bookshelves that will bring you one step closer to the library of your dreams."

Great Reads

Rediscover: The Bookshop

English author Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) didn't begin her writing career until age 58, when she published a biography of 19th-century painter Edward Burne-Jones. Her life to that point was one of promise turned to hardship. Her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, put his legal studies on hold to fight in North Africa during World War II. He returned with a Military Cross and alcoholism. The Fitzgeralds briefly co-edited a literary magazine called the World Review before Desmond was disbarred for forging checks and cashing them at pubs. The family, now with children, faced poverty, homelessness, many years in public housing, and even lived on a houseboat that sank twice. Penelope worked various jobs to keep them afloat, mostly as a teacher, though briefly as a bookseller. She published her first novel in 1977, a comic mystery about the 1972 King Tut exhibit at the British Museum called The Golden Child. Penelope initially wrote it to comfort her terminally ill husband, who died in 1976.

Fitzgerald's other works of fiction were loosely autobiographical. Offshore (1979), winner of the Booker Prize, follows several houseboat residents living on the Thames. Human Voices (1979) looks at wartime life at the BBC, where Fitzgerald worked during World War II, and At Freddie's (1982) takes place in a drama school. The Bookshop (1978), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is set in 1959 in a fictional coastal town where middle-aged widow Florence Green opens a bookstore. Florence revitalizes an historic, though run down property and runs her store successfully for a year, until business and political problems threaten the shop. For more information on the upcoming film adaptation (and other insights), see Robert Gray's recent column. The Bookshop was last published by Mariner Books in 2015 ($14.95, 9780544484092). --Tobias Mutter

Shelf Sampler

Excerpt: The Epiphany Machine

David Burr Gerrard received his MFA in fiction from Columbia University and teaches creative writing at the New School in New York City. The Epiphany Machine (just published by Putnam), his second novel, is an alternative history of New York City, set from the 1960s to the near future, in which a tattoo machine predicts the future with irrevocable consequences. Here's an excerpt:

The first time I asked my father about the epiphany machine was also the only time that he hit me. What made an impression on me was not the actual physical contact, a gentle slap only slightly more abrasive than the wind that was blowing very hard for an October day. My father seemed no more likely to slap me than to slit my throat and watch me bleed out into the leaf-clogged gutter, so for all I knew that might come next. In my young mind, for him to have hit me at all meant that something must have been unlocked in him, something that would have remained boxed up had I not liberated it with the magic words "the epiphany machine," and that would now never cease to pursue me until it had achieved my destruction.

He knelt down and looked me in the eye. "You have no idea how much I've gone through to protect you from that horrible thing."

This made me sob.

"If you're old enough to know about the epiphany machine, then you're too old to cry."

This only made me sob harder.

"Venter, you need to tell me who told you about the machine. Was it your grandmother? She promised me she wouldn't say anything about it until we both agreed that you were old enough."

"It wasn't her. I just heard about it on TV."

This was not technically a lie. One night, after I was supposed to be asleep, I had heard my grandmother weeping while watching an eleven-o'clock news report suggesting that the epiphany machine might be responsible for the spread of HIV, another thing I had never heard of. I connected this to the time when my father had made an excessively big show of not freaking out over the cover of a copy of a magazine that had been left on the table at a coffee shop: "Did a Tiny Cult in New York City Help Spread HIV?" But these events had happened weeks earlier--which might as well have been decades according to my sense of time--and were not why I had asked about the device. I had asked because, at recess that morning, I had heard one teacher whisper to another as I passed by, "His mother got a tattoo from the epiphany machine." Now I wanted to know what it was. I was also wondering whether the epiphany machine had something to do with the tattoo on my father's forearm--SHOULD NEVER BECOME A FATHER--that he had sat me down to talk about shortly before I was old enough to read it, claiming he had gotten it as a stupid prank when he was very young, long before I was born.

"On TV!" my father said, laughing. "My brilliant boy, I'm sorry I slapped you. Let's take a walk." We walked past the crematorium across from our house to the cemetery two blocks away. (Queens was and remains a city of the dead with some half-hearted gentrification from the living.) The wind continued as we maintained silence for several rows of what my father and grandmother called "nails on a sum," aping what they said had been my attempt, at the age of three, to say that gravestones looked like thumbnails. I got myself together and stopped crying, but then I suddenly realized that my father must be taking me to see my mother's grave--that this was how he was going to tell me that my mother was dead, and had not merely run away. I started sobbing again. This time my father did not scold me, but he did not comfort me either. He just looked out at the traffic. Finally, he spoke.

"Do you know why your grandmother and I think that 'nails on a sum' is funny?"

"Because it's silly?"

"Because it's not silly. Because it's actually exactly correct. They've told you in school what a sum is, right?"

"That's in adding."

"Exactly. Can you give me an example of a sum?"

"In two plus two equals four, the sum is four."

"Good, my brilliant boy!"

This made me feel very, very good, as the fact that I hated him at the moment did not make me long any less for him to think that I was a genius.

"The sum is what things add up to," my father continued. "Everyone wants his or her life to add up to something. All the people in this cemetery, all the people that we're walking on, they all did lots of stuff, hoping to make the sums of their lives go higher and higher and higher. Maybe a few of them had sums that were very high, most of them had sums that were not so high. In every case, the gravestone is like a nail on that sum--not like the nail on your thumb, actually, but like the nails in a roof, the nails that say: no, house, you're not going any higher. Gravestones are like nails on a person's life, keeping the sum from getting any higher."

Often, he couldn't tell exactly at which level to speak to me, and so said things that made no sense on any level.

"I don't understand," I said.

"Okay. In a baseball game, there's a score, right? At the end of the game, each team has gotten a certain number of runs. The sum that I'm talking about in a person's life, that's like a score."

Something was stirring in me, a mature and morally serious version of the most childish emotion of all: impatience.

"Dad," I said. "What is the epiphany machine and where is my mother?"

"I'm getting to that," he said. "So the sum of one's life is the sum of everything you've done. And as you get a little older you start to realize that sooner or later you're going to end up here, in this cemetery or one exactly like it, and you want to make sure that your sum is as high as possible. The problem is that life is more confusing than a baseball game. In a baseball game, a run is a run and that's that. In life, sometimes you're not sure what counts as a run. Also, you don't know what the teams are. Or whether you're even playing. Sometimes you think you're playing and you're actually just sitting in the stands, watching other people play."

"Dad."

"Okay. All this means that you have to make up your own way of scoring. You have to decide what's important. For a lot of people, it's money. For a lot of other people, it's some kind of religious fulfillment. You know what the most important thing is to me?"

I shook my head. I knew what he was going to say, but I wanted to hear him say it.

"You are the most important thing to me. So whenever something good happens to you, or whenever I see you smile, or whenever you learn how to do something, that's like a run for me. When something bad happens to you, that's like a run for the other team. That's why I had to do what I did just now. Even though I didn't really hit you--it was really just a love tap, wasn't it?--I still felt horrible while I was doing it. I felt much worse than you felt, believe me. But the epiphany machine is very bad and I have to do whatever it takes to keep you safe from it. It's the sort of thing that could cause you to lose the whole game."

"What?"

"I'm saying that figuring out what's important in life and how to go about getting it is very difficult. Sometimes you get confused and you get tempted to just let other people make the rules. And some people are really happy to make the rules for other people. Adam Lyons, the man who runs the epiphany machine, is one of those people. There was a time when I let myself get confused enough that I let him write those words on me that you know aren't true."

"The epiphany machine writes things about people on their arms?"

"Exactly, my brilliant boy! I figured out that the machine was wrong. Your mother, on the other hand... well, Venter, it told her that she ABANDONS WHAT MATTERS MOST. You weren't born yet so she didn't know what matters most. Then you were born and she abandoned you."

"Why did she listen to the machine if you didn't?"

"That's the first question you should ask her if you meet her."

"I don't ever want to meet her."

"That shows that you are a very smart boy."

If I had actually been a very smart boy, I probably would have kept asking questions. At the very least I would have recognized his persistent flattery as a shutting-down of my curiosity no less violent than the slap. But I wanted his praise more than I wanted the truth.

Book Reviews

Fiction

The Essex Serpent

by Sarah Perry

Following her husband's death, Cora Seaborne leaves London in search of the dirt, earth, fossils, rocks and trees that once entertained her as a young girl. Her arrival in Essex coincides with growing rumors of the return of the Essex Serpent, a great beast living in the Blackwater that is said to claim human lives. A budding naturalist whose passions were squashed by her cruel husband, Cora sets off in search of the mythical beast, but finds instead a local parson, William Ransome, with whom she forms an unlikely friendship.

Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent transpires over 11 months in the late 19th century, told through the stories of vibrant supporting characters. But the novel is much larger than a single year, person or place as Perry explores questions of science and faith, passion and reason, good and evil, friendship and animosity, past and present, humor and fear. This complex and beautiful novel perfectly captures the tension that exists between opposing forces at every moment of a life, be it large or small. With a quietude that reflects the beauty of the landscapes she describes, and a fortitude that captures the power of a woman's mind, Sarah Perry has proven herself a writer who can dazzle with luminous prose in The Essex Serpent. Here is a novel that will remind readers that they can be, like Perry's perfectly flawed characters, "children of the earth and lost in wonder." --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: In this quiet, beautiful novel, a young widow searches for the mythical Essex Serpent and finds unexpected friendship in its wake.

Custom House/HarperCollins, $26.99, hardcover, 432p., 9780062666376

Everybody's Son

by Thrity Umrigar

Thrity Umrigar (The Story Hour) is best known for her moving novels that delve into class, privilege and family. In Everybody's Son, she also tackles issues of race and identity. At its heart, though, it is a story about the bonds between children and parents--both biological and adoptive--and the struggle to be true to oneself.

Ten-year-old Anton lives in the projects with his mother, Juanita. After she leaves him alone for seven days with no food, Anton breaks a window to escape the oppressive heat in their apartment. Police find Juanita in a crack house where her drug dealer left her, half-naked and barely conscious.

Anton's new life with his foster parents is the exact opposite of everything he has ever known. Judge David Coleman and his wife, Delores, are thrilled to have a child in their home again, after the tragic death of their son. David uses his power and connections to adopt Anton.

Though Anton comes to love his new family and grows up with incredible advantages, he always feels, deep inside, torn between two worlds. His college girlfriend, Carine, tells him, "I can't decide if you're the blackest white man I've ever met or the whitest black man." The truth of these words crushes Anton, who will eventually have to come to terms with his history.

Umrigar's gorgeous language creates a vibrant world. She has crafted another emotionally intense and compelling novel that explores difficult moral questions as well as family bonds. --Suzan L. Jackson, freelance writer and author of Book by Book blog

Discover: A poor black child adopted by a wealthy, powerful white couple grows up torn between two worlds.

Harper, $26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9780062442246

The Lost Letter

by Jillian Cantor

Katie Nelson never shared her father's passion for stamp collecting. But as she tagged along with him on countless Sunday-morning drives around Los Angeles during her childhood, she came to understand the reason for his never-ending quest--or so she thought. Their trips to yard sales, thrift shops and estate sales yielded hundreds of old letters and sheets of yellowed stamps, and Katie always imagined her father, Ted, simply loved the thrill of the hunt. However, when she moves Ted, now widowed, to a memory-care facility, she sorts through his collection and finds an intriguing item: an unsent letter with a highly unusual German stamp from the 1930s. Jillian Cantor (MargotThe Hours Count) unravels the story of the stamp alongside Katie's family history in her third novel, The Lost Letter.

Cantor shifts back and forth between two eras: that of the Anschluss (Hitler's annexation of Austria) and Katie's quest to find out more about the stamp's provenance in 1980s Los Angeles. The World War II narrative follows the journey of Kristoff, a young artist working as an apprentice to stamp engraver Frederick Faber in the mountain town of Grotsburg. Faber's skill has brought him professional recognition and a comfortable living, but his abilities and his Jewish heritage also attract the unwelcome attention of the Nazis.

Both stories offer glimmers of hope, whether through small acts of resistance or larger stories of redemption. Cantor's conclusion skillfully draws together two sets of world events--including the fall of the Berlin Wall--and her characters' intertwined personal histories. The Lost Letter is a poignant story of love, sacrifice and the bravery of everyday resistance. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Jillian Cantor's third novel tells the story of an unusual World War II-era German stamp and its connection to an American family.

Riverhead, $26, hardcover, 336p., 9780399185670

How to Survive a Summer

by Nick White

Will Dillard, a Midwestern graduate student in film studies, is jolted from his quiet life upon learning about a new horror movie called Proud Flesh. His friend Bevy describes the slasher flick as "Friday the 13th meets Sleepaway Camp meets I don't know what." But for Will, the terror is far worse.

Proud Flesh, grotesquely twisted from a memoir written by one of the volunteer counselors, transports Will back to the fateful summer his father sent him to Camp Levi, a program whose aim was to cure homosexuality. Contrary to its objective, Camp Levi did no curing, instead leaving its participants with gaping wounds. As the movie begins to take on a cult-like popularity in gay clubs, Will is surrounded by reminders of the summer he'd rather forget--and the camp's victim who didn't survive. He realizes he can no longer run; he must confront his ghosts.

How to Survive a Summer, Nick White's debut, adeptly carries readers between the past, as Will recounts the weeks spent in the Mississippi woods, and 10 years later, as he comes to terms with the camp's devastating effects. White's language is soulful, creating a heavy atmosphere that mimics Will's burdens, weighing him down with internal conflict and overwhelming guilt.

White's theme of acceptance, especially self-acceptance, is at times painful and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he embeds sparks of hope throughout, making How to Survive a Summer a heartbreaking novel with the potential to leave the reader's heart stronger along the break lines. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: A victim of a gay conversion camp must confront his traumatic experience when a popular movie is based on his summer there.

Blue Rider Press, $26, hardcover, 352p., 9780399573682

Mystery & Thriller

Pendulum

by Adam Hamdy

Adam Hamdy's high-octane novel Pendulum is the very definition of addictive reading. This taut cat-and-mouse thriller throws readers immediately into the action when photojournalist John Wallace awakens in his apartment to discover he's been drugged and bound. His hulking captor is a cunning serial killer in black armor whose face is hidden with a black mask and black goggles. The killer has put a noose around Wallace's neck, tied it to a rafter and is intent on making this murder look like a suicide. Through sheer luck, John is able to escape (albeit with some broken ribs and collarbone), but the murderer is constantly on his heels as he attempts to hide and piece together who is after him and why.

John Wallace is an interesting protagonist, withdrawn and adrift. While shooting photos in Afghanistan, he witnessed the massacre of innocent women and children, but though he testified against the men responsible, the case was lost and the stress from the trial ruined many relationships. Pendulum, the first book in a proposed trilogy, outpaces most psychological thrillers with the richness of its lead character and the abundance of strong, interesting supporting characters.

Some of the action is a bit far-fetched, but the pacing is relentless in a way that allows readers to suspend disbelief easily. Pendulum has so many twists, turns and surprises that the less readers know about the story, the more they'll enjoy the ride. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Adam Hamdy's high-octane cat-and-mouse psychological thriller offers relentless suspense, quicksilver pacing and characters with surprising depth.

Quercus, $26.99, hardcover, 496p., 9781681441351

Graphic Books

Hype

by Jimmy Palmiotti , Justin Gray , Javier Pina

Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray collaborated eight times previously to publish comics like Power Girl. While Hype involves the common story of a physically gifted superhero combatting evil forces in the world, the concept borders on pure genius.

Amanda Marr is a behavioral psychologist focused on preserving human compassion with emergent technologies. She has been coerced by the Department of Defense into socializing and teaching empathy to a super soldier named Noah Haller (called "Hype," for his hyperawareness of situations and conditions around him), but he can maintain consciousness for only 45 minutes before his body completely breaks down. Hype's first mission was a public relations disaster; his inability to decipher a cult member's reaction resulted in the fiery death of children. Amanda has just six weeks to prepare Hype for his next mission, preventing biological warfare, but she must first quell her own developing feelings for him.

Palmiotti and Gray's script is fast-paced and intelligent, rooted in believable scientific, philosophical and psychological reality despite its superhero setting. The art by Javier Pina and Alessia Nocera, while advancing the action, has a frozen quality that does not give quite the impact one would expect with such clever writing. However, this is the team's first installment, and the combined star power of Palmiotti and Gray is enough to merit a continued run. Hype has the right mix of mojo and fun to become the next big hit. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant

Discover: An emerging superhero must learn empathy from a behavioral psychologist in order to battle the terrorists threatening the world with biological war.

Adaptive Books, $12.99, paperback, 64p., 9781945293177

Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home

by Nicole J. Georges

Lambda Award-winning artist Nicole Georges (Calling Dr. Laura) adopted a scrappy Shar-Pei mixed-breed when she was 16 years old. Her boyfriend named the dog Beija because, he said, "It means 'stranger' in Polish." It doesn't, but the name stuck, and so did the pup.

In Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home, Georges details her 15-year friendship with Beija, through relocating from Missouri to Oregon, unstable housing, shattered dreams and finding a place to call home. Rescued from the pound, Beija is temperamental, protective and loud, but over time Georges figures out how to care for her. The rules are eventually distilled to these: don't bend at the waist, don't touch her sides, don't pick her up, don't sit near her bed and don't be a man, a child or another dog.

Eventually, in Portland, Ore., Georges cultivates a reputation as a zinester and artist in the punk scene, with Beija always nearby as her erratic sidekick wearing a warning scarf: Don't pet me. Together they weather breakups, coming out of the closet, a stint at an animal sanctuary and the overzealous attention of a pet psychic. In the process, Georges begins to recognize the needs and neuroses she shares with her dog, and how they can better care for one another.

Fetch is beautiful. Georges's artwork is inviting and frank as she tells a touching story of companionship and personal growth. A dog pack of two, she and Beija form a special bond, a friendship that hits home. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Portland artist Nicole Georges didn't know what she was getting into when she adopted Beija the dog at 16, but their friendship changed everything.

Mariner, $17.95, paperback, 328p., 9780544577831

Biography & Memoir

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

by Sujatha Gidla

Sujatha Gidla was born into the lowest level of India's caste system, the untouchables. She compares it to anti-black racism in the United States, and then goes on to explain, "Each caste has its own special role and its own place to live.... The untouchables, whose special role--whose hereditary duty--is to labor in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all." She goes on to list some of the thousands of restrictions placed upon this unit of society that, if violated, are often dealt with by violence or death.

In Ants Among Elephants, Gidla tells her family's history, of her great-grandparents, grandparents and parents who came of age when the caste system was still in full force, when India was becoming an independent nation, shaking off the mantle of British rule. Most of the story is dominated by Gidla's uncle Satyamurthy, who became a famous poet and leader of a Maoist guerilla group in the early 1970s, a position that forced him to go into hiding for most of his life.

Throughout, Gidla does not hide the atrocities of the caste system. She discusses how untouchable women are forced to clean public toilets using their hands, a broom and a tin plate to fill baskets to carry away the waste on their heads; how they are forced to become mistresses to those higher on the social ladder. Gidla's family history is intertwined with the evolution of Indian society, yielding a moving portrayal of one family's struggle to live. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: A woman from the untouchable level of India's caste system tells her family's history as it relates to the country's gaining independence from Britain.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9780865478114

The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness

by Jennifer Latson

To Eli D'Angelo, everyone is a friend. With his exuberant and highly sociable personality, the teenager greets strangers with affectionate hugs and rapid-fire chatter. While these qualities may seem positive and endearing, Eli's trusting nature makes him particularly vulnerable for potential harm from others.

Eli is among an estimated 30,000 people in the United States who have Williams Syndrome, a genetic neurological condition characterized by developmental delays, cardiovascular issues, visual-spatial challenges and distinct, elfin-like facial features. People with Williams often have above average musical and language abilities with certain fixations. Eli, for example, is particularly obsessed with twirling objects and floor scrubbers.

For three years, journalist Jennifer Latson followed Eli and his mother, Gayle, to explore the impact of Williams on their family. The Boy Who Loved Too Much offers a scientific overview of the condition and an easy-to-understand explanation of the genetic and hormonal factors involved. It also draws the reader into Eli and Gayle's everyday interactions and gatherings with other families affected by Williams. Latson effectively parallels Eli's emotional growth with Gayle's as she shows how the diagnosis intensifies the typical push-pull parental desire of wanting to protect a child from the world while also encouraging self-sufficiency and learning to let go.

"He'd probably be happier if he stayed a child forever. Then again, she thought, wouldn't everyone? Adolescence might be the most challenging stage of life with Williams, but it's also a challenge for every human being. Growing up is never easy. The reward isn't necessarily happiness; it's independence. But what Gayle wanted for Eli--what parents everywhere want for their children--was both." --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com

Discover: This book shows how parenting a teenager with Williams Syndrome presents challenges and growth for both mother and son.

Simon & Schuster, $26, hardcover, 304p., 9781476774046

Science

Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us

by Sam Kean

Journalist and frequent NPR guest Sam Kean (The Disappearing Spoon) has made a living out of deciphering science and making clever and entertaining what is often dry drudgery. In Caesar's Last Breath, he takes on the science of gases in his trademark effervescent, loopy style--kicking it off with the emergence of Earth from a fiery, uninhabitable atmosphere, a "dragon's breath of volcanoes."

From the planet's hellish beginnings, Kean works his way through the evolution of the atmospheric building blocks of life: oxygen and nitrogen. Biology, chemistry and geology turn quickly into comedic stories, wordplay and metaphors. The search molecularly to combine nitrogen with hydrogen to make ammonia ("the gateway to fertilizer") leads him to the eccentric 20th-century German scientist Fritz Haber and his engineer countryman Carl Bosch. The two succeeded at producing commercial quantities of ammonia and supplied the world with its agricultural bounty, but they also became the fathers of German chemical warfare in World War I and developed synthetic gasoline to fuel Hitler's war engine.

In a similar vein, Kean highlights the other key elements of Earth's atmosphere and the unusual and downright freaky stories behind their discovery. If he occasionally gets a bit corny in his search for colloquial humor, Kean can also put a metaphor right on the money--such as his description of the birth of the Earth's volatile moon as "glowing like a blackened, bloodshot eye." Irreverent, lightly scientific, Caesar's Last Breath is nonetheless a lively, rewarding journey through the evolution of Earth's gaseous atmosphere. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: Sam Kean takes on the science and evolution of Earth's atmosphere and the history of the scientists who unraveled its mysteries.

Little, Brown, $28, hardcover, 384p., 9780316381642

Children's & Young Adult

What Goes Up

by Katie Kennedy

Rosa Hayashi is a "science princess" from New Mexico whose parents expect great things of her. Eddie Toivonen is from Oolitic, Indiana, and doesn't have the luxury of living with parents; the only one he has is a jailbird. Eddie and Rosa are among 200 brainiac high schoolers who have traveled to Iowa to compete for two trainee spots at a NASA space agency. Both want to succeed, but Eddie must do so: "It was either exploring the cosmos for the Interworlds Agency or handing people fries back in Oolitic."

The competition is a mind-and-body workout that requires defusing a live (well, sort of) bomb and free-associating about the physical laws of the universe while in a plummeting elevator. Then comes an unplanned challenge: the Interworlds Agency's scientists perceive a gravitational anomaly, and Rosa and Eddie must travel to a parallel Earth in order to save the real one.

Katie Kennedy (Learning to Swear in America) has invented a young cast so sympathetic and disarmingly funny that even science-indifferent readers will resolve to understand the laws of physics and other geeky topics of conversation that come up alongside more typical teen concerns. What Goes Up isn't so much about what's out there as about what's down here: the miracle of unlikely friendships, the mixed blessing of privilege and the stigma of social class. As Rosa says to Eddie, "How do we know who we are under the weight of all the expectations?" --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: No science knowledge--or even interest--is necessary to appreciate this cheeky YA novel about whiz kid teens competing for trainee spots at a NASA space agency.

Bloomsbury, $17.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 13-up, 9781619639126

The Scariest Book Ever

by Bob Shea

"BOO!" A spooky ghost tells the reader it "sure can't wait to find out" what monsters are hiding in those "dark woods" a few pages back. "Hope I don't spill this orange juice on my nice white-- Whoops!" it exclaims as the orange juice mysteriously upends itself directly onto its sheet. "Well, would you look at that. I'm so clumsy.... I guess you'll have to go into the scary dark woods without me." With the page turn, the reader is shown the "scary dark" woods: yellow, orange and blue pointed trees with long, black shadows, a bright yellow flower and a blue hole, all on a pink background.

The now-naked ghost peeks out from behind a chair: "Well? What did you see? A dark hole? Nothing good ever comes out of a dark hole! It's okay, you don't have to go back." The next page turn reveals a tiny white bunny in a hooded sweatshirt leaping from the hole. The bunny hops along, delivering party invitations to all the happy woodland creatures. In the house, the ghost hides, trying to use housecleaning and doughnuts to convince the reader to stay inside. "Can't you just stay here on this page?"

Young readers will see right through the fraidy-cat ghost's bravado as the cutesy animals of the "dark woods" (all depicted in bold yellows, oranges and pinks) get together to pick pumpkins and make costumes for their Halloween party. With accessible second person text and a creeped-out, naked ghost, Bob Shea's The Scariest Book Ever is a super fun, super funny read for the brave and the fearful alike. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A very spooky ghost is (definitely not!) afraid of the dark woods in Bob Shea's amusing The Scariest Book Ever.

Disney/Hyperion, $16.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-7, 9781484730461

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