This week, we're bullish on new books from Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gilbert, A.S. King and more. Plus, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gets into Sherlockia.
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (Norton) - Lopez-Alt, the managing culinary director of the Serious Eats website and author of the James Beard Award–nominated column that informs this massive investigation into the best methods for preparing a litany of foods, takes a deep dive into classic recipes and their best preparation methods. Lopez-Alt’s experience as test cook and editor at Cook’s Illustrated magazine clearly comes in handy, as he recounts the many steps he took in order to determine the best way to pan-sear a steak, whip up a quick tomato soup, scramble an egg or make the best French fries. Given the book’s breadth and depth, this is a remarkable piece of work that stands up to its culinary comrades, and is a terrific starting point for home cooks interested in perfecting their techniques.
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Little, Brown) - In her first solo outing, Benjamin (coauthor of Positive with Paige Rawls) composes a moving portrayal of loss and healing. Franny Jackson and Suzy Swanson had been best friends for years until Franny joined a middle-school clique and began to drift from Suzy and her penchant for scientific facts. As seventh grade begins, 12-year-old Suzy channels the conflicting emotions surrounding Franny’s drowning death into silence, shutting out her divorced parents, her older brother and his boyfriend, her psychologist, and a caring science teacher. Reminiscent of works by Jennifer L. Holm and Sharon Creech, Benjamin’s novel is a shining example of the highs and lows of early adolescence, as well as a testament to the grandeur of the natural world.
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, illus. by Chris Riddell (Harper) - Gaiman presents a filigreed elaboration of Sleeping Beauty that, before long, reveals itself as something more. Three dwarves discover a realm in which everyone has fallen asleep, and they cross into the next country to warn its queen of the great plague that threatens her people. Traveling to the cursed kingdom, the queen and dwarves encounter threatening zombie sleepers and more, but the storyline is still recognizable underneath the new details. It isn’t until the travelers penetrate the castle that things tilt sideways. Something new is going on, and readers will be carried to the end by the whirlwind force of Gaiman’s imagination. Riddell draws in pen and ink, eschewing color—save for select gold accents—and pouring his energy into myriad, spidery lines and delicate cross-hatching that recall Aubrey Beardsley’s eerie set pieces.
The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow (S&S/McElderry) - In this gripping dystopian adventure, Bow explores the price of power. Four centuries after an AI known as Talis took over the world to prevent humanity from wiping itself out, civilization has splintered into smaller territories, held in line through Talis’s orbital cannons, AI agents, and one simple philosophy: make it personal. Every would-be ruler must send a child to one of Talis’s Preceptures as a hostage, to be slain if his or her country acts up. One such hostage is Greta, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. Her daily routine is thrown into confusion when a new hostage joins her Precepture. Bow continually yanks the rug out from under readers, defying expectations as she crafts a masterly story with a diverse cast, shocking twists, and gut-punching emotional moments.
I Crawl Through It by A.S. King (Little, Brown) - If a story about two teens escaping from testing week in an invisible helicopter at the direction of a naked sculptor who hides in a bush sounds like something spun from a bad acid trip, this may not be the novel for you. But those who already feel that high school is an absurdist farce designed to make everyone crack under the pressure of AP exams, bomb threats, intruder drills, and peer judgment will easily relate to King’s latest. All the novel’s action can be read as metaphor for modern ills: these are teens crying for help with no one, least of all their parents, listening. It’s bizarre, compelling, and not like anything else.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead) - Gilbert offers an empathetic and inspiring guide to mustering the courage to live a creative life. That doesn’t necessarily mean a career in the arts, she’s quick to point out (“If you’re alive, you’re a creative person,” she states); instead, she proposes a life fueled by curiosity rather than fear. Gilbert, more than most, can understand how a big success can make one feel as if the follow-up must not disappoint, writing that “I can’t tell you how many people said to me during those years [of Eat Pray Love’s bestseller status], ‘How are you ever going to top that?’ ” She notes that this kind of pressure can be an instant creativity killer and encourages readers to let go of perfectionism and embrace being good enough. Nearly anyone who picks up this self-help manual should finish it feeling inspired, even if only to dream of a life without limits.
The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet (Candlewick) - Philip Murdstone has written five quiet books in the “Sensitive Dippy Boy genre,” which his agent—the curvaceous, ferocious Minerva Cinch—insists he must abandon if he (or, more importantly, she) is ever to make any money. Cinch wants high fantasy, and she even draws him a hilarious template. Murdstone has no aptitude for this, but Peet is certainly up to the task, alternating the writer’s story with a summary of the epic fantasy he produces after a fateful (and highly drunken) encounter on the moor with a dwarfish creature named Pocket Wellfair. Whether the story Murdstone turns in is actually his or he is merely taking dictation from Wellfair will depend on what readers conclude about Murdstone’s sanity/sobriety. Either way, the fantasy is a big hit, which means Murdstone has to come up with the next book in the trilogy—quick. Peet’s book is enormous fun, especially for those familiar with the literary conventions it skewers, and it’s a brilliant valedictory for the author, who died in March.
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (Greenwillow) - Carson launches her Gold Seer trilogy with a winning story set in 1849 gold rush America. Fifteen-year-old Leah Westfall lives a happy life with her parents in Georgia during the waning years of that state’s gold boom. Leah has a magical ability to locate the precious metal, but her gift becomes a liability when she is forced from her home by a villain determined to control her and make himself rich. Disguised as a boy, Leah—now Lee—decides that her best chance for freedom is to travel to the newly discovered gold fields of California; to get there, she must make a long, hard trek across the country with few resources. Carson’s story is simply terrific—tense and exciting, while gently and honestly addressing the brutal hardships of the westward migration.
Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse (Titan) - Basketball legend Abdul-Jabbar makes his triumphant adult fiction debut with an action yarn that fills in the backstory of Sherlock Holmes’s older and smarter brother, Mycroft. In 1870, the 23-year-old Mycroft, who has a reputation as a daredevil, is serving as a secretary at the War Office when word reaches London of a series of unusual deaths in Trinidad. Someone, or some thing, has been killing children and draining their blood. The tragic news stuns Mycroft’s fiancée, Georgiana Sutton, who immediately sails home to Trinidad. Disobeying her request to stay behind, Mycroft follows Georgiana to Trinidad, where he must exercise his intellect and his innate diplomatic skills to solve the crimes and remain alive.
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook) - Sheinkin has done again what he does so well: condense mountains of research into a concise, accessible, and riveting account of history. This time he focuses on the turbulent Vietnam War era, using as his lens Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers. Divided into three sections, the book’s short chapters detail Ellsberg’s transformation from U.S. Marine, government analyst, and “cold warrior” to antiwar activist and whistle-blower. Chapters dealing with Ellsberg’s clandestine leak of a top-secret government study of the war, as well as the Nixon White House’s response, read like the stuff of spy novels and will keep readers racing forward. On the 40th anniversary of the evacuation of Saigon, the book’s themes still resonate, as the epilogue about whistle-blower Edward Snowden points out.
Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville (Soho Crime) - At the start of this searing, deeply affecting psychological thriller set in Belfast from Edgar-finalist Neville, 19-year-old Ciaran Devine (aka the schoolboy killer) is released from prison after serving seven years for the murder of his foster father, David Rolston. Det. Chief Insp. Serena Flanagan always believed that Ciaran, then 12, confessed in order to protect his two-year-older brother, Thomas, who was convicted as an accessory and alleged that their foster father sexually abused Ciaran. Try as she might, Serena couldn’t break Thomas’s powerful hold on Ciaran. Now Thomas is also free, and Serena hopes she can put the case behind her once and for all. Neville demonstrates once again that he’s a literary force to be reckoned with.
The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients' Lives by Theresa Brown (Algonquin) - Books about nurses abound, but this meticulous, absorbing shift-in-the-life account of one nurse’s day on a cancer ward stands out for its honesty, clarity, and heart. Brown, a former Tufts University English teacher who later became a nurse, juggles the fears, hopes, and realities of a 12-hour shift in a typical urban hospital with remarkable insight and unflagging care. Brown’s shift on one cold November day is focused on four patients. Dorothy, whose leukemia is in remission, is waiting to go home. Sheila’s excruciating abdominal pain turns into a life-threatening surgical emergency. Richard will get a drug that will help his body kill its cancer cells—unless the drug kills him first. Candace, enduring a long hospital stay for an intravenous infusion of her own cancer-free cells (an autologous transplant), says it “feels like an emotional chess game.” Her memoir is a must-read for nurses or anyone close to one.