Hot off the presses: ten great titles from independent publishers that we highly recommend.
It’s (almost) spring, and there are tantalizing new book titles popping up all over the place. In this selection, you’ll find a children’s book that teaches the value of healthy living; a fascinating history of the Dead Sea; a YA fantasy title; and an eye-opening memoir from a journalist who’s been to Afghanistan and back. Try one–or all!
The Dead Sea is a unique subject, located as it is at the intersection of three major religions. Its history is as rich and combustible as might be expected. Students of the Middle East will doubtless find this exhaustive report on the history and geopolitical details of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River indispensable.
Throughout, the book remains tightly focused on the Dead Sea and its surrounding areas. Its focus is history, not only of pilgrims and tourists and governments, but of water levels and the ecological impact of this important body of water. The tight focus gives the book a local, almost claustrophobic, feel and profound depth. A wealth of accounts of the Dead Sea dating back to the Middle Ages help to enliven what might otherwise be a work dominated by political history. The prose often waxes lyrical over the lake’s many wonders and intricacies. Geology, geography, religion and ecology all combine in this thorough review to produce a picture of the Dead Sea that is rarely seen by outsiders.
The book is scholarly, though often poetic, and is an excellent resource for all things Dead Sea.
ANNA CALL (February 29, 2016)
Learning to share and play nicely with other children can be a challenge. In Salad Pie, Maggie finds the playground deserted when she arrives. This, she feels, is the perfect environment for making salad pie. She is not happy when Herbert shows up to help her. However, when her beautiful salad pie takes an unexpected tumble, Herbert is there to save the day, and Maggie realizes that salad pie is even better when shared. Colorful, energetic depictions of the children at play support and illustrate the story’s important lesson. Ages 1 - 8.
CATHERINE REED-THURESON (February 29, 2016)
Barrett’s fresh and irreverent voice demands to be heard in this riotous and biting satire.
A. Igoni Barrett’s stunning debut novel, Blackass, provokes laughter, tears, guilt, and rage as it plumbs the depths of racist and sexist attitudes.
In a clever marriage of two satirical masterpieces, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Barrett’s protagonist, Furo Wariboko, awakens to discover that he has been transformed into a white man. He must navigate the once-familiar landscapes of teeming Lagos seeing everything through the sea-green eyes of a red-haired man who is Caucasian in every respect—except for the gleaming blackness of his buttocks, his black family, and his Nigerian name. How can Furo fabricate a story that explains away these curious anomalies?
Unable to find work for several years after attending university, Furo believed that the only purpose of being unemployed was “to show him how easy it was for hope to shrivel.” Yet, as “Frank Whyte,” Furo discovers that the world is his oyster, and virtually any job can be his for the asking. So, forsaking family and friends, Furo ventures into a world that feasts on greed and self-indulgence, an upside-down world in which no one is who he or she appears to be, a world in which “we are all constructed narratives.”
Barrett is adroit at describing life in complex Lagos, and he has a flair for creating distinctive yet credible characters: the beautiful, flamboyant, and generous Syreeta; the inscrutable writer, Igoni; Furo’s father (a failed chicken farmer); and Furo’s sister (@pweetychic_tk), who is intent upon solving her brother’s mysterious disappearance.
Through sardonic humor that scorches even as it tickles, Blackass illuminates the uncomfortable contemporary message broadcast daily: “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”
Barrett’s fresh and irreverent voice demands to be heard—not only via his creative first novel, Blackass, but, one hopes, again and again, as this exciting young author spins new tales to awaken the conscience through biting social commentary made palatable by humor.
NANCY WALKER (January 26, 2016)
Explorations of a Young Filmmaker, Feminist and Spiritual Seeker
A poignant and informative feminist memoir that spans world landscapes, wars, and spiritual quests.
At twenty-two, Melissa Burch headed to Afghanistan with a camera and a vague internal directive, determined to film a war for CBS and to find herself in the process. She would have to traverse desert sands, Soviet landscapes, and several decades, though, before being fully ready to declare herself awake in the world. My Journey Through War and Peace is the dizzying and dazzling account of that journey.
The feminist underpinnings of Burch’s work have parallels in sister biographies, particularly Gloria Steinem’s: her mother was determined to have both a career and a family, and her father was better at dreaming than accomplishing. Family tensions informed her sense of well-being, and by adulthood she was ready to vacate home. Afghanistan, its war stories then only freshly unveiled by Dan Rather, called.
Her book puts her courtside for explosive battles between Soviet and Afghani forces, as a guest of the mujahedeen and in the company of leaders who would go on to shape Middle Eastern history. Uncomfortable treks across dangerous landscapes lead to blurry ethical questions and heady sexual encounters.
But disillusionment followed, particularly when no one back home wanted to buy a nuanced portrait of the Afghanistan conflict. Burch traded the Middle East story for Cold War landscapes, accompanying a friend-cum-lover to Russia to highlight the humanity of those declared America’s sworn enemies. When an intricate account of Soviet life proved no more salable than her previous ventures, Burch traded in showing for telling, helping to initiate a woman’s speaking collective which gave her and fellow feminists a literal stage from which to declare their truths.
Yet the particular enlightenment at the end of Burch’s Journey proves to be one that even those traveling with her may fail to anticipate: reconciliation with the mother who once seemed to make her life hell. As Burch grows into a woman who learns to embrace her particularities, she draws closer to understanding her mom, and to appreciating the pressures placed upon women both pre- and post-Friedan. Her conclusions, and spiritual awakening, serve to poignantly bely the notion that we must travel to the ends of the earth to find ourselves. A lovely and enlightening feminist memoir.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (February 29, 2016)
A Geneticist’s Search for Modern Apemen
This is a massively entertaining investigatory quest to pinpoint the science behind Bigfoot claims.
An engaging look at the history, mythos, and science of Bigfoot and company, Bigfoot Yeti and the Last Neanderthal is a fascinating investigation and a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
Brian Sykes brings his geneticist’s expertise to the undertaking of a serious, scientifically guided effort to determine, once and for all, whether or not Bigfoot and the Yeti exist. As Sykes engages with the Bigfoot spotter community and runs genetic samples through endless laboratory tests, he also relates the rich, colorful history of the search for these human-like creatures. He also espouses his own theory that if ape-like humans still hide in the wild, they may be relatives or descendants of lost human species, such as Homo neanderthalensis.
The book begins with the history of Yeti and Bigfoot searches, from the rich eccentrics who originally funded ventures to Nepal to modern people who claim to have psychic connections to Bigfoot. Later, the author performs DNA analysis on possible Bigfoot hair samples. Despite some cringe-inducing moments with them, Sykes never disrespects Bigfoot enthusiasts in any way. On the contrary, according to this book, Sykes may be one of the only scientists in the world who is willing to pursue their interest seriously. His efforts to apply the scientific method to the existence of Bigfoot is laudable and will endear the geneticist to many a Bigfoot researcher.
Bigfoot, Yeti, and the Last Neanderthal is highly readable. The style is lively, utilizing rhetorical questions and declarations of amazement to communicate the extent of the author’s personal enthusiasm for the subject. Unfortunately, this can undermine the text as a serious scientific piece. Considering all of the real work done for the book, writing it in such a dramatic manner seems like a wasted opportunity.
That said, Bigfoot enthusiasts may never see more validation from the science world than they will here. The author seems sympathetic to their cause, even eager to prove them right, albeit in a way that will also validate his own ideas. Finally, above all, Bigfoot, Yeti, and the Last Neanderthal is massively entertaining. Ideal mostly for cryptozoologists, but definitely a good pick for the casually interested or curious.
ANNA CALL (February 29, 2016)
Friends is the story of a little girl who comes to a new school from very far away and is unsure about how to make friends. Gradually she becomes accepted, and when another new student from even farther away joins the class, the little girl knows just how to welcome her new classmate. The book uses minimal text, relying more on soft and appealing illustrations to share the story. The book is appropriate for children ages 3 to 8.
CATHERINE REED-THURESON (February 29, 2016)
Set in Chicago during the Prohibition era, Black City Saint offers a wickedly unprecedented twist on the legend of Saint George and the Dragon, mixing history and mythology with mobsters, flappers, and Feirie. Supernatural gumshoe Nick Medea and his ragtag gang of shapeshifters, changelings, priests, and a reincarnated lover find themselves caught up in the middle of an age-old battle when a deadly war between the reigning queen and exiled king of Feirie threatens to destroy the city.
Brimming with authentic vernacular and a glimpse into the world of Al Capone and his cronies, Black City Saint is historical fantasy at its best. From bootleggers and shadow goons to ancient enchanted swords and tommy guns, the unique combination is exhilarating. This is a fast moving tale of power, love, loss, and redemption. Reluctant hero Nick Medea interacts with mysterious shoe-shine men and royalty while vanquishing kelpies and kobolds, proving that he is, indeed, the cat’s pajamas.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (February 29, 2016)
A diverse group of cops handle a murder, as well as squad politics, in this engrossing mystery.
Based on the experiences of police chiefs John Cutter and Robert Nivakoff, The Squad Room is an intriguing murder mystery with a bit of romance.
Cutter and Nivakoff create a realistic and believable squad of detectives, led by Capt. William Morrison. This book is not for the squeamish. The squad investigates the deaths of several upscale women murdered in a brutal manner, and the scenes are described in graphic detail. Morrison, flawed but likable, is depicted as a “good guy” among a department of officers and detectives who mostly respect him. Rogue cops and an inept and unscrupulous chief complicate matters. Political maneuvers among departments, police corruption, and the bending, sometimes breaking, of rules are explored.
Events reinforce the difficulties and dangers that law enforcement officers face daily. Decision making that takes place on the job, at all levels, is depicted as challenging and subjective. Some decisions are portrayed as heroic, while others are shown to be blatantly unethical and illegal. At times, the bending of rules is condoned as a means to an end.
Several long passages of monologue recount past events. Scenes that include more back-and-forth dialogue, and those depicting action, are more engaging.
Morris faces his own challenges, as his personal life is in disarray: he’s distraught over the death of his son in the line of duty, he struggles with alcoholism, and he has no emotional connection with his wife. When he meets a woman in a bar, he quickly starts an affair that is invigorating for him, though not integral to the story or the character.
Dispelling the myth of the “blue wall,” this mystery shows how officers self-police, to an extent, to expose corruption. The officers are loyal to each other, but not blindly. Further, diversity among the department—in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and personality—is highlighted, and a progressive message is established, particularly with the captain’s acceptance of a newly transferred female detective to the squad.
Throughout, there is an emphasis on how only a cop can understand another cop, but this compelling murder mystery offers everyone a small glimpse into life in law enforcement.
MARIA SIANO (February 29, 2016)
A Critical Look at the Military’s PR Machine
This is a damning look at the deficiencies of the Iraq War by a veteran with a firsthand account.
The preface to retired Army Reserve Major Steven Alvarez’s new book, Selling War: A Critical Look at the Military’s PR Machine offers a scathing indictment of America’s communications strategy in post-invasion Iraq. Conscientious Americans on both sides of the political aisle will gasp at some of the dysfunction, pettiness, and downright dereliction of duty that Alvarez exposes as he systematically and forcefully supports his initial claims.
Alvarez focuses on his time as a public-affairs officer in the Green Zone of Baghdad circa 2004. He pulls back the curtain on a pompous coalition headquarters composed of opportunistic contractors, corrupt Iraqi bureaucrats, Bush administration lackeys, and politically motivated military officers more interested in “cannonballing” in Saddam Hussein’s royal pool and drumming up support for the war back home than in winning Iraqi hearts and minds.
Alvarez argues that America’s communications strategy should have focused on fledging Iraqi security forces and engaged with Arab more than Western media in order to gain credibility among the Iraqi people and to counter insurgent propaganda. He shows how even General David Petraeus’s best efforts to do this were stymied by the political jockeying of higher-ups. Thus an insulated, self-protective military became its own worst enemy: “Security and collateral damage both proved to be issues that were never appropriately addressed publicly in Iraq and ultimately led to the Iraqi public’s acceptance of the insurgency, passively and actively.”
Alvarez also succeeds as a memoirist. His reminiscences about the men and women he served with, particularly the Arab journalists he befriended, are haunting and heartrending. “And all of those who fell during my watch seem to follow me. Ghosts I’ve never met, they follow me and linger over my shoulder,” he writes in his epilogue. “More than anything I remember how we stuck together and how together we were stuck.”
Alvarez’s thorough critique of military public relations isn’t a partisan reading of the Iraq War. He shines a damning light on deficiencies wherever he finds them. Selling War effects a sobering lesson on the human cost of miscommunication and misinformation. It should be required reading for military personnel and civilian policymakers.
SCOTT NEUFFER (February 29, 2016)
For Kelsey Dupuis, a refined scientist from New Mexico with a fear of water, past and present are about to collide. Incarnation is a metaphysical thriller in which Kelsey’s dreams turn into nightmares. She experiences life through the eyes of Iriel, a daughter of Atlantis with an affinity for dolphins and sea creatures, all while attempting to thwart an international environmental disaster, escape an enraged lover, and decipher a message from 10,000 years in the past.
Thought provoking and visceral, Kelsey’s journey from the dry BioVenture labs of Santa Fe to the troubled waters of Belize is fraught with visions and answers just out of reach as Iriel’s own trials and choices are mirrored from beyond. Karma and reincarnation are explored alongside science and logic in a magical, mystical fusion as two enigmatic women, born worlds apart, face startlingly similar ordeals and temptations both professional and romantic. Cerebral and introspective but spiced with action, danger, and passion, Kelsey and Iriel are sure to captivate preternatural believers and skeptics alike.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (February 29, 2016)
Michelle Anne Schingler