Just in time for spring comes this alluring crop of new books—titles ranging from a dark fairy tale for young adults to a young mole’s search for companions. Learn about Western waters as you look forward to beach weather, or read up on the health advantages of soaking in nature. There’s plenty here to encourage fresh new passions and pursuits.
With a dark, fairytale quality, A Fierce and Subtle Poison works like an ethereal spell, weaving together the story of a young man and a mysterious, cursed girl. “I met Marisol on a Sunday night,” the first chapter begins, “two days before her body washed up on Condado Beach.” Lucas, the narrator, is the seventeen-year-old son of a developer in Puerto Rico, who spends his summers on the island in a cocoon of privilege. Just days after beginning to date Marisol, she disappears, and Lucas begins receiving mysterious letters from Isabel—the cursed girl from the haunted house nearby. Soon, Lucas is drawn into a strange and magical world, one that it becomes increasingly hard to escape.
A Fierce and Subtle Poison is a young adult novel with elements of magical realism, romance, and even horror, which subtly touches on issues of wealth, race, and privilege even as it focuses on the haunting story of Isabel and Lucas. The work is for more mature audiences, with some cursing and mild explicit material.
With lyrical and evocative prose—author Samantha Mabry likens cracks in exterior plaster walls to “the veins in an old woman’s legs”—A Fierce and Subtle Poison is sure to appeal to readers who appreciate their romances with just a touch of magic … and poison.
STEPHANIE BUCKLIN (February 29, 2016)
The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life
If you’re seeking a pill-less way to reduce ADHD, prevent obesity, boost immune systems, and radically improve other health conditions in your young patients, order them to sit beside a rain-swelled creek, roll in the springy moss and myrtle beneath an old oak, or just lie in a meadow of wildflowers. Indeed, these were the prescriptive recommendations given at the keynote address of the 2010 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference. Yes, this is a radical change in allopathic care, but the developing research is conclusive. Call it Vitamin N (for nature)—prescribe it widely.
MATT SUTHERLAND (February 29, 2016)
A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare
This banquet of words and recipes invites all chefs to slow down and enjoy the seasons.
In the introduction to Cooking With the Muse, Myra Kornfield and Stephen Massimilla describe the project as a “cookbook for all book lovers and lovers of food.” The veritable brick contains over 150 recipes inspired by global cuisine and bold flavors. It is also part literary anthology, including commentaries, micro essays, poems, and historical notes, with “emphasis … on the richness and abundance of foods and words with which we can nourish our bodies, our senses, our hearts, and our minds.”
Myra Kornfield is a nutritionist and chef; Stephen Massimilla is a poet and critic. They’re also husband and wife, and their personalized notes following each recipe give their book a feeling of intimacy. They dedicate thirty pages to a history of food-inspired poetry, from Homer to Shakespeare to Wendell Berry. There’s also a section called “Returning to Real Food,” where they dash off a locavore plea—fresher is better; try to buy sustainable meat; everything in moderation.
The recipes, though unafraid of salt, butter, red meats, and sweeteners, contain a refreshing balance of sweet-salty and surprising subtle twists on classics. For instance, brussels sprouts cooked in ghee and dusted with caraway and fennel replaces the tired bacon-Parmesan preparation.
The range will teach the novice cook how to properly chop onions, make bone broth, and preserve pickles, but there are also plenty of classic French techniques for the experienced home cook, like how to make a duck-leg confit and properly cook skate wings.
The book is organized by season, beginning with autumn. It is further organized by individual ingredient—pears, apples, corn, etc. Some recipes are complex; others are simple. The blackberry parfait calls for a layering of blackberries, sugar, crème fraîche, and cream. Get good ingredients, a French chef might say, and try not to screw them up. The heart of this big, beautiful book beats with that philosophy, but also this: respect the food, and please, slow down, and don’t forget to read some poetry along the way.
JOSH COOK (February 29, 2016)
A Pacific Ecosystem and Its Fliers, Divers, and Swimmers
This celebration of Pacific ecosystems encourages conservation and an appreciation of biodiversity.
The California Current: A Pacific Ecosystem and its Fliers, Divers, and Swimmers is an exceptionally well researched and engaging examination of a vital 2,000-mile ocean community that extends along much of the Pacific Coast. Author Stan Ulanski, a geology and science professor at James Madison University, has written similar works on the Gulf Stream and fly fishing, and he is an informed and passionate guide to these watery environments.
The California Current examines myriad aspects of the Pacific coastal ecosystem, from microscopic phytoplankton to the massive humpback whale. Each chapter is informative and enlightening, layered with intriguing details about these creatures and illustrated with helpful maps and photos.
In the chapter on seabirds, for instance, we learn about the breeding and migratory patterns, physiology, and feeding habits of a variety of birds. That includes the kleptoparasitism of certain gulls and frigate birds, who will cunningly steal meals from other birds, even nestlings. The chapter describes how an extended wingspan and unique flight patterns enable the albatross to spend weeks or even months aloft over ocean waters and then contrasts that with the astonishing diving prowess of the Galapagos cormorant. The chapter’s concluding paragraphs note how global warming, commercial fishing, and other impacts are threatening seabird populations, while refuges like the Channel Islands and Farallones provide essential breeding grounds for dozens of important species.
Although his tone is urgent when describing man’s impact on this ecosystem, Ulanski is never alarmist. When reviewing the history of the fishing industry on the Pacific Coast, for instance, he recognizes the economic challenges of fostering sustainable fishing practices that also protect populations of turtles and dolphins. The book celebrates developments, such as species mapping and fishing nets lit with ultraviolet light, that have the potential to significantly reduce mortality rates for threatened species while allowing for viable fishery.
Spend several hours with this accessible, engaging book and emerge with a deeper understanding of these amazing animals, their life cycles, adaptations, interdependencies, food webs, and migratory patterns. At the same time, appreciate the important conservation research and work underway to help preserve these magnificent creatures for generations to come.
KRISTEN RABE (February 29, 2016)
The many forms and ways of reading are joyously celebrated in Mom, Dad, Our Books, and Me. One child observes all of the forms of reading in his world—from novels to cookbooks to sheet music to street signs—and all of the ways that reading can enrich life. Whimsical paper collage illustrations show life filled with reading, including a variety of real world landscapes with touches of the imaginary springing from books to add flavor and fun. Ages 3 - 7.
CATHERINE REED-THURESON (February 29, 2016)
This collection is the perfect introduction to the erudite and entertaining work of a prolific essayist.
Noted writer Joseph Epstein offers a smorgasbord of wit in the collection Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays.
With Wind Sprints, Axios continues its series of Epstein essay collections, following Essays in Biography and A Literary Education. This time, the collection consists mostly of essays originally written for the Weekly Standard over the course of nearly twenty years. In Wind Sprints, Epstein’s essays run approximately 800 words each, and while that might not leave as much room for details, expansion, and tangents as some might prefer, it’s perfect for the less consequential, but by no means less entertaining, topics addressed. Even limited in length, Epstein has plenty of opportunities to showcase his distinctive, erudite style.
Considering the number of essays included (143 in all), there’s surprisingly little repetition of subjects or verbiage. Reading these essays is like listening to a relative with loads of experience, who manages to take every story or opinion and boil it down to the bare necessities.
Reading these essays in succession also provides a portrait of the author that might be otherwise unavailable: his preferences, his peccadilloes, and the adaptations of a literary man to such 21st-century phenomena as the cell phone and the Kindle, to say nothing of changes in language itself. Other topics range from food to politics to childhood recollections. In the essay “It’s Only A Hobby,” Epstein examines the integration of writing into the rest of his life:
A writer’s life tends to be seamless, and he doesn’t divide it between work and leisure … The writer’s work and his play, if he is lucky, are one.“
These lines serve as a good summary of Wind Sprints: free-flowing Epstein, on the subjects that arise in everyday life, merging the literary with the quotidian in inimitable fashion. Wind Sprints would make an enjoyable read for fans of Epstein’s other essay collections, and for the uninitiated, it is a perfect introduction.
PETER DABBENE (February 29, 2016)
A Sally Solari Mystery
This is a zesty literary amuse-bouche that will leave readers salivating for more.
Leslie Karst’s debut mystery, Dying for a Taste: A Sally Solari Mystery, brings a mix of quirky characters, culinary references, and scenic California locales that is as fresh as the organic produce arriving daily at Sally’s Aunt Letta’s restaurant, Gauguin.
Letta is the iconoclast in her big extended family. She didn’t want to work at Solari’s, the family’s pasta-and-red-sauce Italian restaurant in Santa Cruz, but headed north to live in San Francisco for many years before returning home to open her own fine-dining establishment. When Letta is killed at Gauguin’s, Sally, a former attorney, finds herself torn between continuing to help out with the family business, trying to keep Gauguin’s afloat, and finding her aunt’s murderer. It doesn’t help that the police view Gauguin’s sous chef, Javier, as the prime suspect, but Sally is convinced that he is innocent and enlists her oenophilic district attorney ex-boyfriend to find the real culprit.
Karst’s deft dialogue and well-developed characters make this a satisfying mystery. She is generous with sensual descriptions of local scenery and restaurant kitchen doings, and her mouthwatering accounts of Sally’s home cooking, restaurant meals, and one memorable farm-to-table event really add zest. Karst appends four recipes featured in the story at the end of the book and lards this culinary mystery with topical information about humanely raised meat, as well as sustainable seafood and agricultural practices.
Even with all these plot threads and serious asides, Karst writes with a light, often humorous style. Sally’s inner thoughts accentuate the prose, as when she discovers that Javier has been in love with Letta: “That sure threw a spatula in the works.” Or when she describes her much-revered grandfather’s homemade wine as really just “plonk.”
Dying for a Taste is a successful blend of mystery and foodie novels. Karst does an excellent job of tossing in interesting tidbits about mixology, menu planning, opera, botany, cycling, lesbian culture, small farms, and even accounting. This amuse-bouche will leave readers salivating for the next Sally Solari mystery sometime very soon.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (February 29, 2016)
A medical crisis challenges a transatlantic friendship in this understated dual account of betrayal and disability.
Michèle Halberstadt is a film producer as well as a journalist and author. In her latest novel, Mon amie américaine, she draws on her professional experience to present a pair of friends, one from Paris and the other from Brooklyn, who meet through their work in the film industry and come up against the limits of their relationship when one suffers a debilitating illness.
“There was a bomb in your head, my darling ostrich,” narrator Michèle laments to her American friend, Molly. After years of heavy smoking and migraines, a brain aneurysm plunges forty-year-old Molly into a coma. The novel is presented as Michèle’s confessional letter to Molly, addressed in the second person. During Molly’s coma and after she wakes up, Michèle ponders their unlikely friendship and also frets over her threatened marriage.
Halberstadt paints a compelling picture of close friends who seem to have little in common. Michèle calls Molly “my incorrigible opposite … so wonderfully unreasonable,” while in one of the most notable chapters she chants a list of reasons they are friends, beginning, “because you make me laugh, because you move me.” When Molly wakes up, their differences are even more pronounced. Molly is partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair, and her short-term memory is now so poor that she cannot concentrate on full-length films.
This is a subtle, melancholy story about making the most of a diminished life and an inevitably altered relationship. The same goes for Michèle’s marriage to Vincent, which appears doomed after she finds evidence of his infidelity. The prose is unshowy, yet small bursts of wordplay and creative metaphors keep it from feeling dull. For example, Michèle enjoys the similarity between “comma” and “coma,” conceiving of the latter as a pause “between two territories: sleeping and waking.”
The novella is like a cross between Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, and bears tantalizing traces of deliberate homage to Pedro Almodóvar’s coma-themed Talk to Her: an understated dual account of betrayal and disability.
REBECCA FOSTER (February 29, 2016)
Lost love and complex human nature are at the center of this novel about recovering from the past.
Nikki and Mark are initially drawn together when their significant others die together in a tragic accident. Their budding friendship is tested even further when a man from Nikki’s troubled past threatens her new life and her young teen daughter in Samuel Ligon’s unsettling novel, Among the Dead and Dreaming.
Their story is told from the unique perspectives of multiple characters—most living, but several deceased, who chime in with their thoughts from the periods that they were a part of Nikki and Mark’s lives. Such interesting literary devices are not difficult to follow; names precede each section of text, and words from dead characters are italicized.
The “voices” depicted are distinct and easily distinguishable from one another. Thirteen-year-old Alina is combative, always questioning her mother’s motives. Mark reflects on his past political career and is torn with regret related to his girlfriend. Burke Chandler, the shadow of Nikki’s past, is seeking revenge for his brother’s murder.
Nikki herself displays compelling fortitude: “I didn’t know how to do anything but run, and I wasn’t going to run. Not this time.” At the same time, it’s chilling to watch Burke spiral downward. He is drawn convincingly as a self-righteous man following a “guiding hand.”
There are adult situations, adult language, and more than one scene of brutal violence in the novel. Themes repeat throughout: of first love, lost love, and searching for love in the arms of another, and of children left to search for their true paternity. In the last quarter of the book, the focus is solely on four pivotal characters, and other story lines sadly fall away.
Ligon’s is a convincing presentation of human nature. Nikki laments at one point, “We’d end up getting married … and I would shrink a little every year and lose pieces of myself until there’d be nothing left. But wasn’t that what happened to everyone?” Fear is what’s driven Nikki in the past, and now her past has caught up with her with a vengeance.
ROBIN FARRELL EDMUNDS (February 29, 2016)
When Mole gets lost outside of his burrow, he is scared. When he meets a young wolf who is just as scared as him, the two decide to help one another and quickly learn that a friend can help make things better. Everybody must learn to overcome fear, and A Friend for Mole, written for children ages 2 to 6, teaches children that it is okay to ask for help. Mole and Wolf come alive in the enchanting illustrations, making for an endearing story that will be read over and over again.
CATHERINE REED-THURESON (February 29, 2016)
Michelle Anne Schingler