The Writer's Life
Delia Owens: Survival, Nature and Isolation
Delia Owens is well-known for her books about her experiences as a wildlife scientist in Africa, working with endangered species:
|photo: Dawn Marie Tucker
Secrets of the Savanna,
The Eye of the Elephant and
Cry of the Kalahari. She recently shifted her focus to fiction while remaining rooted in the natural world with her debut novel,
Where the Crawdads Sing (Putnam, $26), which is reviewed below. Owens lives in Idaho.
You describe the North Carolina coastal marshes in such gorgeous and loving detail in the novel. Have you lived in that region?
I haven't lived in that region, exactly. I've visited quite a bit--often as a child and when I started writing the book, I took several trips to do a bit of research. I grew up in South Georgia, and I went canoe camping with my mother in the Okefenokee Swamp and other areas. So I know the ecosystem and the habitat quite well.
Kya is a strong, likable heroine. Was she based on anyone from your life?
Kya partly comes from my own background. I grew up as a tomboy--a lot of my friends were tomboys and my mother was a real outdoor girl. So, my life was similar in the sense that I spent a lot of my time outside with my friends, and I knew a lot of girls who lived like that. I got the expression in the title from my mother. She would say to us, "Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing." Maybe she was just trying to get us out of the house! But she wanted us to get out into nature and learn about wildlife.
Where did you get the idea for the novel?
I studied wildlife in Africa for 23 years and was particularly taken by the fact that mammals live in tightly bonded social groups--a pride of lions, a troop of baboons, a herd of elephants--the groups are made up of females. Males lead the groups, but they emigrate to other groups for mating. Females stay in their natal groups all of their lives. We as a species have a very strong propensity to live in our groups, especially females. I lived in isolation in Africa for years, and I felt the impact of not being with my "troop." Growing up, I had this amazing group of girls--my novel is dedicated to three of them--and we are still close to this day, but I was isolated from them for years. I wanted to write a novel about a young girl growing up in isolation and how that would make her different from other people.
The other side of isolation is that Kya is self-reliant and independent, and that grows into wonderful things. She educates herself, she has ambition and she's determined. Even though Kya is in extraordinary circumstances, there is some of Kya in all of us, and that's what I wanted readers to feel. She's one in a million, but she's also all
What made you decide to write a novel, and how was that different from writing nonfiction?
I just wanted to write this particular story. I love the freedom of fiction. With nonfiction, you're always restricted by the timeline and the facts. I ride horses out here in the West. I can get out and ride my horse in the mountains and go anywhere. To me, writing fiction is the same feeling. You can ride your horse inside the corral, around and around, and that's nonfiction, but when you go through that gate and get your horse into a nice lope and run across the meadow and up the mountains, you can go anywhere you want... that's fiction! It's like soaring.
What do you hope readers take away from reading Where the Crawdads Sing?
I want people to understand the importance of knowing where our basic behavior comes from. A lot of what we do evolved while we were back on the savannas, eons ago where we had to protect ourselves and search for food, and a lot of those things are still in us. Until we understand who we were back then, we will never understand who we are now.
And my mother was right--it's important for us to go out, way out yonder where the crawdads sing, because that's where our secrets are. Spending time in nature is so important--it's our original home. I also want people to appreciate the value of a group. We need to reach out and find our "troop." When you're in a troop, you are giving to them, they are giving to you and you are sharing. Only good comes from that. --Suzan L. Jackson
, freelance writer and author of Book By Book
Anne Tyler's Clock Dance traces the formative events in the life of generous Willa Drake. From watching her tempestuous mother intimidate her pushover father to picking a bully-husband of her own, Willa's life has always been defined by the underlying power dynamics of intimate relationships. After her husband dies in a road rage accident, Willa marries another bossy man, Peter. When she receives a call begging her to take care of her son's ex-girlfriend and her daughter, Willa can't help but agree. Peter may not approve, but she is drawn in by the warm, outspoken young woman and her pragmatic daughter. Soon, Willa begins to realize that while Peter and the other men around her may be loud, they don't have a monopoly on her life.
Tyler is no stranger to crafting slow-burn narratives that illuminate concealed family dynamics. Clock Dance
is a perfect addition to her oeuvre, offering all the intimate insights and cleverness of her past work while still displaying her ability to experiment with form. The novel opens with a series of snapshot moments throughout Willa's life that showcase Tyler's instinctual ability to pinpoint her characters' soft spots. With its strong, clean prose and evenly paced storytelling, Clock Dance
nimbly captures the rhythm of an overlooked woman's life. But buried within this personal story is a larger question about who the world chooses to discount and what will happen when those who quietly hold the world together finally decide to walk away. --Alice Martin
, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A finely tuned piece of social commentary, Clock Dance is full of wit and charm for a broad audience of readers.
$26.95, hardcover, 304p., 9780525521228
Where the Crawdads Sing
Nonfiction author and wildlife scientist Delia Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, Cry of the Kalahari) makes her fictional debut with Where the Crawdads Sing, a compelling, original story of a girl who grows up alone in the marshes of the North Carolina coast. In 1952, Kya is just six years old when her mother leaves the family without a word. One by one, Kya's siblings soon move on, until it's down to just her and her father. Disappearing for weeks at a time, the hard-drinking man eventually abandons Kya, too, leaving her on her own. She'd learned a lot from him and her brother over the years about fishing and local plant and animal life, but Kya still finds it challenging to support herself deep in the unforgiving marshes of Barkley Cove.
The story moves back and forth between Kya growing up in isolation, passionate about the nature surrounding her, making only a few tenuous connections with other people and learning to love, and later, in 1969, when a body is found and the townspeople--and soon the police--suspect Kya, known to most only as the Marsh Girl. A mystery, a courtroom drama, a romance and a coming-of-age story, Where the Crawdads Sing
is a moving, beautiful tale. Readers will remember Kya for a long, long time. --Suzan L. Jackson
, freelance writer and author of Book By Book
Discover: An engrossing story of a girl, abandoned by her family, who survives alone in the North Carolina coastal marshes--with a murder mystery and a courtroom drama woven in.
$26, hardcover, 384p., 9780735219090
Mystery & Thriller
Half Moon Bay
Someone is abducting and murdering girls from Half Moon Bay, a small town south of San Francisco. While resident Jane O'Malley, who works at a plant nursery, insists that she's no murderer, she admits to the accusing mother of one of the girls, "I do odd things sometimes." (For one, Jane calls random strangers on the phone and then hangs up, just to make what she thinks of as a human connection.) Doing odd things comes with the bereaved-parent territory: in Berkeley the previous year, a reckless driver killed Jane's teenage daughter, Angela. Jane's husband left her for another woman not long afterward.
Darker examples of Jane's behavior following Angela's death precipitated her move from Berkeley to Half Moon Bay, where, like everyone else, Jane obsesses about the murders. Meanwhile, the FBI, which has established a temporary office in town, considers her a suspect. It's not just that Jane has no alibis for the times of the abductions and that the FBI thinks the killer is female (the corpses are found dolled up with makeup); it's also that those who have learned about Angela's death find it easy to interpret Jane's emotional shakiness as moral depravity. The way that Alice LaPlante finesses this witch hunt-like thread gives the absorbingly macabre Half Moon Bay
its underpinning of compassion. If Jane's behavior is sometimes baffling, it's also true that LaPlante (Turn of Mind
) hints that the character's psychological damage began long before she lost her child. --Nell Beram
, author and freelance writer
Discover: A mother recovering from her teenage daughter's death becomes a suspect when girls in her small town are being abducted and killed.
$26, hardcover, 272p., 9781501190889
Science Fiction & Fantasy
Rich Larson began writing short stories in 2011 and quickly established himself as a prolific wunderkind of speculative fiction. Larson's full-length debut, The Annex, is an ambitious and energetic coming-of-age thriller in which a group of orphans fight to survive in a town devastated by alien invaders.
The aliens have turned adults into catatonic zombies. They also imprison children in warehouses to serve as hosts for parasitic "keys" that, when fully mature, will open a dimensional door to other invaders. The parasites endow some children with varying abilities to "shift" objects; these kids must be sedated by their robotic overseers. A group of warehouse escapees known as the Lost Boys, led by Wyatt and Violet, rebel and attack the robotic "othermothers" sent to recapture them. When Violet encounters new escapee Bo on a foraging mission, she invites him to join the group, where his presence threatens to upset its balances of power and allegiance.
The first in a projected series, The Annex
alternates between Violet and Bo, highlighting the fluctuating dynamics in their complicated relationship: their yearning for belonging, fear of abandonment and struggle to develop a post-invasion identity. Larson's creatures draw inspiration from H.R. Giger (Alien
) but evolve into something more sinister. And while Larson's plot follows many genre tropes, he infuses the story with his own spin to create a moving alien invasion narrative that captures the joys and cruelties of adolescence in a rapidly changing world. --Nancy Powell
, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: An electrifying and satisfying debut from a fresh new voice in speculative fiction ponders the value of friendship and loyalty in a world devastated by war.
$15.99, paperback, 368p., 9780316416542
Heart of Glass
When Staff Sergeant Henry Harris is killed in action, his grieving family is shocked to discover he left behind a daughter, Etta. And they are especially appalled to learn that he had walked away from the girl, leaving her to be raised by her mother, Morgan. Henry's brother, Trevor, can't believe that the kind boy he knew growing up turned out to be a deadbeat dad, but he's determined to make it up to Morgan and Etta.
When he meets them, he is blown away by how much sweet little Etta looks like her late father, and by how much he's attracted to Morgan. Trevor and Henry were nothing alike physically--Trevor is black, Henry was white, both adoptees--but Morgan finds in Trevor the same sense of humor that attracted her to his brother. In addition to being super sexy, he is sweet and earnest, and seems to be committed to being there for her and Etta. But Morgan's life has been full of abandonment. Can she trust that Trevor is really in their lives for good?
Nicole Jacquelyn (Unbreak My Heart
; Change of Heart
) has created a thoughtful romance with flawed yet genuine characters who are trying to start again. Morgan and Trevor both have past baggage to get over, but Jacquelyn's exploration of their emotions and feelings is believable and gripping. The large, eclectic Harris family includes a wealth of interesting side characters, adding depth to the central love story. Readers are sure to adore Heart of Glass
. --Jessica Howard
, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.
Discover: In this intriguing romance, a man finds himself attracted to his late brother's girlfriend, as he tries to help her raise her daughter.
$14.99, paperback, 368p., 9781538711859
Travelers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism: 1919-1945
After spending several months touring the Third Reich in 1936, W.E.B Du Bois wrote: "It is extremely difficult to express any opinion about Germany today which is true in all respects without numerous modifications and explanations." With World War II and the Holocaust in hindsight, Du Bois's comments seem soft. How could an intelligent academic, himself a persecuted minority, divorce the German economic progress that impressed him from the horror of Hitler's regime? That Du Bois had mixed opinions, rather than outright condemnation, shows the beguiling nature of the Third Reich to outsiders prior to World War II.
In Travelers in the Third Reich, British author Julia Boyd collects dozens of accounts from foreign tourists, diplomats, students, journalists and more between 1919 and 1945. The years just after World War I were full of famine and hardship, when Quaker activists brought food relief for millions of German children. Hyperinflation and feelings of humiliation over the Versailles Treaty deepened Germany's misery. For tourists, the exchange rate was excellent, and the loose social mores of the Weimar Republic proved irresistible.
After Hitler and the Nazis took power, foreign accounts turned more toward the ambiguous sentiments of Du Bois--the country had regained its footing, but at a terrible sociopolitical cost. It seems that until Kristallnacht in 1938, most visitors were blind to the depths of Jewish suffering. Travelers in the Third Reich
is an intriguing new slant on well-trod ground, with especially fascinating accounts from Du Bois and Ji Xianlin, a Chinese postgraduate student who grew to hate the Germans but was trapped in Germany by the war. --Tobias Mutter
, freelance reviewer
Discover: A fascinating collection of accounts from foreign travelers in Weimar and Nazi Germany.
$28.95, hardcover, 464p., 9781681777825
The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America's Law Enforcement
, Ron Harris
Matthew Horace, security expert and news commentator, has worked at almost every level of law enforcement. He is, at his core, "just a cop." But he's also "male black," police shorthand for African American, always viewed as threats, armed with an inescapable weapon--"the very skin we're in."
Horace and former Los Angeles Times editor Ron Harris interviewed law enforcement professionals, elected officials, community advocates and survivors of police violence of every race, gender and political affiliation. The goal? To profile police forces and how they affect violence, particularly as perpetrated against African Americans.
The Black and the Blue exposes systemic misconduct that plagues law enforcement, stretching the implicit biases we all carry to more than just a few bad apples. Unacceptable procedures are "woven into the fabric of local policing," creating "a culture of disregard... for the people [police] are paid to serve." Horace highlights cases where cops went wrong without accountability, while recognizing officers are sent into a cultural divide lacking proper tools.
In the end, "[t]he question isn't whether we have racism, it's what we're going to do about it." Horace's work is more light-shining than problem-solving, but cultural change requires recognizing the existence of a problem. It is a start to push back against the idea that "it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because he is black. And because you fear him, it is okay to kill him." If anger and sorrow haven't flooded to the surface when the last page is turned, go back and start again. --Lauren O'Brien
of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: A black law enforcement officer reveals the inherent racism and political culture that plague police forces.
$27, hardcover, 256p., 9780316440080
Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man
Thomas Page McBee
Thomas Page McBee (Man Alive
) continues writing about modern masculinity in Amateur
. After a brush with an aggressive man on the street, McBee begins training as an amateur boxer. His sights set on a charity fight several months away, he's driven by a desire to hone his skills in protecting himself, but more so by a burning question about why violence is so entwined with masculinity. Sociology professor Michael Kimmel suggests to him, "Men tend to fight when they feel humiliated.... You don't fight when you feel really powerful."
Furthermore, McBee observes, "I assumed that fighting for my right as a trans man to be seen as 'real' would be a big part of this story," and yet the social idea of what "real men" are, and how they behave, is more insidious than that. Men have their gender performance regularly policed with admonishments to "man up." Vulnerability is discouraged and turned into a reason to fight. And while that may explain the common male posture toward violence, it most certainly doesn't excuse it.
McBee ponders these sociological implications with refreshing care and empathy, untangling a positive depiction of masculinity from the toxic strains paraded through contemporary discourse. His writing is marvelous, pinning ideas that could so easily be abstract to the visceral, physical poetry of boxing. He displays tenacity on the page and in the gym, sizing up formidable concepts and engaging them with savvy and sensitivity. Amateur
is more than a boxing story, just as it's more than a trans narrative. It's a highly recommended case study in manhood. --Dave Wheeler
, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: While training as an amateur boxer, Thomas Page McBee grapples with the complex relationship between masculinity and violence.
$26, hardcover, 224p., 9781501168741
Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World
If global warming continues to raise earth's temperatures and disrupt its natural systems, how will the animals living in the planet's most remote regions adapt to the changes? That's the question at the heart of Joel Berger's fascinating Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World. The conservation biologist travels to remote and frozen landscapes to collect as much data on the animals and their changing environments as conditions allow.
In clear and accessible prose, Berger (The Better to Eat You With: Fear in the Animal World) describes his trips to the frozen Chukchi Sea to study the diminishing population of musk oxen; to the Bhutanese Himalayas to observe a rare goat-antelope species called takins; and to the Gobi Desert to learn what he can of the critically endangered saiga antelope. He encounters extreme temperatures, dangerous wild animals and, sadly, further evidence that climate change is on track to leave many ecosystems uninhabitable for the already imperiled animals that live in them.
Berger's tales are as compassionate as they are exciting to read. For example: when his experiment involving putting tracking collars on Arctic musk oxen results in the death of some of the herd, he considers the possibility that they're sentient, and seeks to find more humane means of gathering data. Extreme Conservation
is a moving and necessary look at what the Earth will lose if climate change is left unchecked. --Amy Brady
, freelance writer and editor
Discover: This is a fascinating and compassionate look at endangered animal life in the planet's most remote and dangerous regions.
University of Chicago Press,
$30, hardcover, 368p., 9780226366265
If They Come for Us
The word "partition" occurs over and over in Fatimah Asghar's book of poetry, If They Come for Us. The idea of being riven, of families, identities and even bodies broken into parts, populates the world of her poems. But these smaller, sometimes quieter partitions are ripples from a larger, cataclysmic one: the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Asghar's poems probe her own identity, tracing its history while at the same time creating a ground for her present and future.
The poems in If They Come for Us are jarring and passionate. But, intriguingly, Asghar matches her forceful portrayals of violence, Islamophobia, misogyny and more with a sense of playfulness. One of the first poems, "How We Left: Film Treatment," may be the best example of this interplay. In it, Asghar uses the structure of a film treatment to depict her family's escape from political genocide. Literally beginning with "[Establishing Shot]," she drives a conceptual wedge between the horror and the telling of it.
Later pieces structure themselves after a floor plan, a bingo game and a crossword puzzle to achieve similar results. Not every experiment works as well as "How We Left
: Film Treatment," but each shows a talented voice using almost absurdist constraints to highlight injustice and terror. Responding to the past and present, Asghar is happy to wield structures however she sees fit, perhaps as a tool against the many partitions her work portrays. --Noah Cruickshank
, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: Poet Fatimah Asghar's If They Come for Us is a forceful look at history, identity and form.
$16, paperback, 128p., 9780525509783
Children's & Young Adult
A Festival of Ghosts
, illust. by Kelly Murphy
Rosa Diaz is a ghost appeasement specialist, just like her mom. The two live in a "cozy basement apartment underneath the Ingot Public Library," where their official job is to deal with books that are "too haunted." But ever since the "huge circle of copper" placed around Ingot by its founder, Bartholomew Theosophras Barron, was broken, Rosa and her new friend, Jasper Chevalier, spend a lot of time traveling around town, quieting ghosts and restless spirits.
The previously "library-schooled" Rosa begins attending classes at Ingot Public School to perform the "emergency appeasements" her mother is certain the school will need. She's not worried when, on her first day, small hauntings become evident, including a chalkboard that displays "[e]very mark ever made on it." But when the voices of six students--and the principal--are stolen by ghosts in the water fountain, Rosa and Jasper know they have to find the key to appeasing Ingot's restless dead. As if that weren't enough work for two middle-graders, Rosa worries that she's being haunted by the spirit of her dad, and Jasper is determined to reopen the Ingot Renaissance Festival, even though the grounds have been taken over by dueling ghosts.
A Festival of Ghosts
, Alexander's follow up to A Properly Unhaunted Place
, is as strong as the first, with Murphy's dynamic pencil illustrations scattered throughout. Rosa and Jasper have all the makings of a terrific literary duo and as the pair grow more comfortable with each other, they affectionately banter their way through all the supernatural tasks, whether they are communicating with ghosts or keeping one step ahead of the people who believe in banishing ghosts forever. Here's hoping for a third book that's just as good! --Lynn Becker, blogger
and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
Discover: The ghosts are back in Ingot, and Rosa and Jasper have their hands full trying to appease them in William Alexander's follow up to A Properly Unhaunted Place.
Margaret K. McElderry,
$17.99, hardcover, 272p., ages 8-12, 9781481469180
Allie All Along
Sarah Lynne Reul
When a little girl named Allie breaks her blue crayon, she is "furious, fuming, frustrated, and so, SO, SOOO ANGRY!" So angry, in fact, that she turns into a stomping, smashing furry red monster. Her big brother works to help her calm down, giving her a pillow to punch, a toy to squeeze and suggestions to take deep breaths and count backward. As she successfully applies each tactic, gradually reducing her rage, she sheds the brightly colored fur skins that represent her feelings. By the time "the rest of the angry [falls] away," there's just one slightly forlorn little girl in pigtails standing in the room, asking her brother for a hug. "I knew she was in there all along," he says.
Sarah Lynne Reul's (The Breaking News) illustrations are brilliantly evocative of each mood as Allie cools down, and the language she uses provides readers with a veritable thesaurus of vocabulary words for angry feelings: "ferocious," "fierce," irritable." And the labels on the crayons in the inside front cover give a poetic flavor to emotions: "fire fury explosion red," "raging flame orange," "simmering green storm" and the infamous broken "deep down blue." Children who are still trying to find words for their own powerful feelings will love seeing Allie's moods reflected in colors and should even pick up a few anger management tips from her wise, loving older brother.
Inside the back cover the venomous crayon color labels are no longer visible, and the previously broken blue crayon is now taped together. Almost as good as new, just like Allie! Allie All Along
deserves a spot on the shelf with Where the Wild Things Are
, When Sophie Gets Angry--Really, Really Angry...
and My Mouth Is a Volcano
. --Emilie Coulter
, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A little girl turns into a multi-layered, many-colored monster when she becomes angry over a broken crayon, and her older brother helps her shed the furry coats of rage.
$16.95, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-7, 9781454928584