A Veritable Smorgasbord

November 28, 2012

Here at The King’s English, booksellers have been gathering and devouring the new fall books like squirrels gorging on nuts in preparation for winter. In the process we’ve gathered some wonderfully hearty treats for you and those you love, whether what piques your interest is fine fiction or picture books, espionage, humor or history.

Well-written fiction for the middle reader that steers clear of young-adult content is rare, and an author that is as smart and funny as Rebecca Stead is rarer still. Stead’s new novel, Liar & Spy, one of our booksellers first recommendations this season, was an instant New York Times bestseller. Like the dazzling Newbery Medal book When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy will keep readers guessing until the end. Creepy, gritty, edgy, disgusting, and fascinating—all words that describe book two of Ilsa Bick’s Ashes trilogy, Shadows. Bick is laying the groundwork for book three, drawing a picture of a dark and scary world in which readers will not find redemption or resolution (at least not until later) but will be engrossed (or is it grossed out?) by this fast-paced monster-filled novel. Daniel Handler, who also writes under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, has collaborated with acclaimed artist and designer Maira Kalman, to create an extraordinary book about an ordinary event: Why We Broke Up. In her new novel for middle readers, The Great Unexpectedby Sharon Creech, Lizzie and Naomi struggle to figure out their own relationship and how they fit into their families, into their community and Finn, a mysterious and charming boy, drops out of a tree and into their lives, while Mrs. Kavanaugh, who lives in the south of Ireland and loves a good murder, looks for revenge. Creech alternates these two seemingly disparate stories, throwing in a Dingle-Dangle Man, a crooked bridge, three mysterious trunks, and several rooks. Our list of picks for the middle readers and young adults wraps up with The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, and What Came From the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt.

And if amazing picture books are what you are in search of, look no further than This Is Not My Hat, by Jon Klassen. Visual humor swims to the fore as the bestselling Klassen follows his fabulous first book, I Want My Hat Back, with another seriously funny tale. We did not think that Doreen Rappaport could ever write a better picture book than Martin’s Big Words until we read Helen’s Big World! In 48 pages, the reader receives an unforgettable picture of this American icon as the authors mix Keller quotes with biography and compelling artwork. Helen Keller’s lifelong courage and tenacity are celebrated in this amazing book. In this gentle and joyous board book with an environmental theme, Hug Time by Patrick McDonnell, Jules proves a hug is the simplest–but kindest–gift we can give. The Christmas Quiet Book, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska is a lovely little book that celebrates the hushed moments of a season that too often shouts. Like its bestselling companions The Quiet Book and The Loud Book, The Christmas Quiet Book is especially notable for its warm and lovely illustrations. (Plush toys available!)

And for the fiction-lover in your life, be prepared for treats beyond your wildest expectations. We are not exaggerating… Starting with a joyride of a read, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train follow the Queen, yes, of England, in current day, as she slips out of her royal residence in a hoodie and embarks on a truly entertaining excursion, bringing the reader along. And there’s a good reason The Round House, a novel by Louise Erdrich, won the National Book Award this year. Like all of Erdrich’s novels, The Round House taps into the history, the mythology, the collective wisdom of past generations, yet she is as concerned with the past’s connection to the present as she is with the tale’s action, and her lyrical investigations of life involve much more than immediate reality. Combine the ebullient erudition of Lawrence Norfolk’s Lempiere’s Dictionary with the sensory engagement and passion for food of John Lancaster’s infamous A Debt to Pleasure, stir in a soupçon of myth and history, and sprinkle liberally with the romance and narrative verve of The Night Circus and you’ll have some idea of Norfolk’s new confection of a novel, John Saturnall’s Feast. And Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a terrific read and a great reminder that books are here to stay…forever! Kevin Powers, a veteran of Iraq, has etched a powerful picture of reality in his new novel The Yellow Birds, and created a compelling awareness of what our military men and women have been subjected to for the past decade. And there are plenty of great novels published earlier in the year, including Canada by Richard Ford, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, and The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, and new in paperback fiction including The Marriage Plot, Salvage the Bones, What It Is Like to Go to War, American Dervish, To Be Sung Underwater, We the Animals AND State of Wonder. A plethora of delights!

If you’re still not sure what you want for your Aunt Sally or your 10-year-old niece, or for that plane ride you’re not looking forward to, we have a host of knowledgeable booksellers on hand who will not only recommend the right book, but also wrap it, mail it, or, if you’re doing your shopping by phone or e-mail, deliver it—the same day!

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

August 5, 2012

Editor’s note: Peter Heller will read from and sign his novel, The Dog Stars, Wednesday, August 15, 7 p.m.

“The Dog Stars is a book that has everything.”
—Betsy Burton

The opening pages of The Dog Stars are as fragmented, fractured, as the world in which the novel is set. Two men and a dog are holding the perimeter of an airport somewhere in Colorado, backing one another up in an obviously uneasy alliance. It’s been nine years since the narrator, Hig, lost the wife he adored to a flu that killed millions.  Nine years since he and his dog, Jasper, made a home at the airport with their unlikely companion, nine years since he began using his plane to spot intruders. Nine years is too long. Dangerous as it is, Hig leaves, chasing a radio voice he’d heard beaming from Grand Junction three years before, willing to pass the point of no return to find its source… The Dog Stars is a book that has everything. A Cessna bouncing off clouds, an old dog as fierce as he is faithful, several firestorms of combat, sweeps of brown forest just beginning to green again, a love story that blossoms slowly and sweetly against a dystopian backdrop. The reader is pulled in willy-nilly, first intrigued by the mystery of the situation, then taken by the characters, then swept into the story headlong. I think I’ll start The Dog Stars over again tonight. I have a feeling it will read as well the second time around. – Betsy Burton, Knopf, $24.95

World Book Night=Pure Joy

April 24, 2012

by Betsy Burton

I just got back from the Indian Walk-in Center in downtown Salt Lake City where I gave away 20 copies of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie in a little over 20 minutes. I would have given anything to have twice as many books—there’s a youth program there that would have cheerfully taken 30 and a new book club of Junior High kids who would have given anything to have enough copies to make it their first “read.”  They want to read all Native American writers—especially people writing now (so if there are any extra copies of Alexie’s book in the warehouse please send them their way!)

But the best part was handing copies of the book to people who had nodded doubtfully to the question, “would you like a free book I think you’re going to love” (or, in the case of the mothers who were there, “that your older children are going to love—and probably you too”)? One “customer” was a grizzled biker who said cheerfully, “Ya, I’ve got a kid in Junior High I’ll give it to.” Then he flipped through it, read part of the first page, and grinned. “I think I’ll read it first, though.”

I left feeling pure joy—at being part of something that can help spread this contagion of book love around the world, at being allowed to connect a specific book with a person who will love it and whose life it might change (over and over again—twenty times over), and for being part of the world of books. Who could have guessed, all those years ago when we started our store, that it would lead to such a life? Thank you Jamie and Carl and the ABA and the ALA and all you wonderful authors and publishers and booksellers and librarians! We did it.

All That I Am by Anna Funder

February 2, 2012

by Betsy Burton

Once in a while a novel comes along that rocks your world. All That I Am rocked mine. I picked it up expecting a WWII thriller and in terms of suspense and believability it’s exactly that. But it’s also much more than just that. It begins in Berlin in the ‘20s. The glamorous and decadent Weimer Republic is in full swing, feminism is a proclaimed ideal, the left is on the ascendant, and their journalists skewer the nascent Nazi movement mercilessly. Hans is one such journalist. And when 18-year-old budding photographer Ruth Becker visits her cousin Dora, the three friends, Hans, Ruth, and Dora, work in tandem to secure the release of a political prisoner, Ernst Toller.

Wait a minute, Ernst Toller, I think. I know that name. Toller has a voice in the book, as do Ruth and Dora, and as I read on, as Toller meets Auden I’m sure I’ve remembered correctly. Toller was a famous intellectual, a poet and playwright, bitterly anti-fascist, friend of Auden, Erika Mann, and other  intellectuals of the time. And suddenly I’m not just reading a thriller. If Toller is real, then so, presumably, is Dora. And Ruth. And Hans.

I flip to the Afterword and it’s true—they were real. The action isn’t plot manipulation in an effort to create suspense. All of this actually happened. All at once I’m above as well as in the narrative, bearing witness. But why this reaction? I’ve read plenty of so-called  historical fiction before. What makes this seem so different?

The Nazis come to power and Toller is exiled. Dora, displaying breathtaking bravery, rescues his manuscript and his papers. Hans and Ruth are by now married and they, too, are ordered to leave. And so we get a picture of German émigrés who have fled to London in the early ‘30s and who are trying desperately to convince a disbelieving country—a disbelieving world—of the evils of Nazism, all three taking unbelievable risks to do so. In their respective voices we hear the boundless courage and determination of Dora, the deeply intellectual and as deeply depressed world view of Toller, the confusion and growing awareness of the observer, photographer Ruth, as she watches those she loves struggle with their fear and their inner demons, struggle with the closer and closer incursions of the Nazis on their London haven while the world remains willfully blind. What might, in a typical thriller, be predictable, becomes, in this slow, lethal unlayering of character, both inevitable and unbearable.

Perhaps herein lies the answer to my question about the difference between mere historical fiction and the act of bearing witness. Because bearing witness is more than just seeing—as Toller himself says, it is an act of imagination. One that creates understanding.  Funder has, in All That I Am, wrested four characters from history, in the process pulling us back and forth from their realities to their memories so convincingly that the reader knows all from the inside, is witness to what they bear, what they can no longer bear, and what it makes of them. Oh, suspense, suspicion, abound, but All That I Am is more than merely spellbinding. Like Hillary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall, Funder’s new book is not just a novel or thriller, and is also far more than mere history. Because thanks to the characters she’s brought to life, and to the opportunity she’s granted us to bear witness to their lives, we understand our own in a different way, understand history in a new way.

Anna Funder is an Australian write who grew up in Melbourne and worked as an international lawyer and in public relations for a German overseas television service in Berlin. Her first book, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, won the UK’s most prestigious award for nonfiction, The Samuel Johnson Prize.

On February 7, this book is available for immediate download. CLICK HERE

Recently aired on KUER, 90.1 fm

The Night Circus & Ashes

October 25, 2011

By Betsy Burton

Once in a while a book appears that is what we in the book business call a crossover—a book that sells to adults and to young adults as well. The Night Circus, a new adult novel, has the magic and romance that make it a natural for young adults and we probably sell as many copies of Ashes, a so-called “young adult” novel to grownups as we do to kids.

Erin Morganstern’s glittering The Night Circus is the story of two young people raised to be competitors in an unwilling game of magical mastery. The game’s board is a black and white circus which travels the world and is open only at night, each of its tents its own magical universe, one more astounding than the next. The tale’s players are the circus creators and denizens, colorfully imagined and artfully wrought; around the edges of this magically imagined world lurk two grey men who pull the strings of the couple at the tale’s center: Celia and Marco. Are they destined for the competition for which they have both been trained almost from birth? Or are they meant for the love that likewise seems their fate? Who can they trust and to whom should they be loyal?

In Ashes that same issue haunts Alex. On a hike in the northern woods to mourn her dead parents, she encounters a belligerent young girl and her grandfather. The grandfather dies, suddenly and violently and for some reason everything that is digitally powered goes dead as well. As Alex, the child she adopts, and a young soldier team up, it is hard to tell not just who can be trusted but worse, who is or is not human.

In their very different ways Ashes and The Night Circus are prototypical fairy tales, full of dark undercurrents that delve into hidden recesses of the human psyche. Both are tales of survival in a world gone mad. But the real magic in each is a story that holds the reader in thrall from one luminous, terrifying page to the next.

ERIN MORGENSTERN is a writer and multimedia artist who describes all her work as “fairy tales in one way or another. She lives in Massachusetts and this is her first novel.

ILSA J. BICK is a child psychiatrist, film scholar, former Air Force major, and full time author. She also wrote the award-winning, Draw the Dark and lives in rural Wisconsin.

Previously broadcast on KUER, 90.1.

We the Animals & The Cat’s Table

October 17, 2011

By Betsy Burton

Almost all those who love fiction and poetry revere Michal Ondaatje. Justin Torres, a newcomer to the world of fiction, has just published a book, We the Animals, that bears comparison to Ondaatje’s—at least to his most recent novel, The Cat’s Table. That’s a large claim to make, but the similarities between the two novels are striking, and the differences work to open up both books to the reader. In each, three feral boys savage the landscape in which they find themselves. In both books the three boys study the adult world, trying to make sense of it, and in each their perceptions and misperceptions color their eventual fates.

In We the Animals three boys run wild in their own home, alternately savaging and loving their mother, their neighbors, the landscape in which they reside. Their father, who drinks, and skips in and out of their lives, loves his sons ferociously but is also capable of ferocious cruelty. Their mother loves joyously—when she’s not too depressed to love at all. The boys themselves are three untamed puppies, growling and biting, licking and panting, running in mad circles. The narrator, the youngest, gradually gains a more distinct voice, separating out from the pack in this beautiful, mad, wilderness of violent familial love.

In The Cat’s Table three preadolescent boys vaguely supervised but essentially alone, also run wild, this time on the deck of a ship. In the place of family they have their fellow passengers. One of the boys, Myna, narrates, his voice skipping seamlessly from present to future and back again. He and his friends are also puppy-like in their manic energy and their curiosity, unattended as they slip from deck to deck, cabin to cabin. Like the boys of Torres’ imagination they weave the fragments of the lives they witness, the bits and pieces of conversation they overhear, into a mysterious tapestry of their own design—a design that turns out to bear only partial relationship to reality.

In The Cat’s Table, however, the journey and the tale proceed at a deceptively quiet pace, suddenly coming to a full boil as the boys engage in surprising escapades and encounter characters in shocking situations, then quieting again as Myna views these startling events through the hindsight of memory. The misperceptions of youth, its ardent loyalties and heedless heroics, the distant, bloodless vistas of adult recall, the unexpected connections and the missed chances are all stitched together with vivid threads of love, whether that love be boyish adulation or adult passion.

Such love is even more viscerally evident in We the Animals, the language so immediate that I laughed and wept, cringed and occasionally shut the book to breathe. For the reading experience of a lifetime, read them back-to-back. Both blend passion and adventure, metaphor and memory, into blindingly good and unforgettable works of fiction.

JUSTIN TORRES’ writing has appeared in Granta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He’s worked as a famhand, a dog walker, and creative writing teacher and a bookseller. He will appear along with poet Alberto Rios at Westminster College on Friday, October 21, 7 p.m. in an event sponsored by the Utah Humanities Book Festival and the Anne Newman Sutton Poetry Series.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE is the author of five previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil’s Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Scotiabank Giller prize and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, he now lives in Toronto.

Previously broadcast on KUER, 90.1.

A Covert Affair: An Interview with Jennet Conant

April 8, 2011

By Betsy Burton

Betsy Burton: Although A Covert Affair details the lives of Julia and Paul Child, it is in some ways as much about their fellow OSS compatriot Jane Foster. Jane’s life twines through theirs from the time they join the OSS where Paul is first attracted to her, through their years in Paris. And it is Jane’s past that makes Paul of interest to the FBI during the McCarthy years. Was the idea for this book generated by all three friends or did you begin researching the Childs and discover Jane’s impact on their lives along the way?

Jennet Conant: From the start I was fascinated by what happened to the three friends. From the time they all joined the OSS to the dawning of the Cold War and rise of McCarthyism, the world they inhabited was fissured by divides. I wanted to explore the nature of friendship and loyalty and honor in those fraught times, and to be able to have two such trusted narrators as Julia and Paul made the story all the more compelling. The frenzied Communist witch hunts of the 1950s literally turned their world upside down. Many of their closest friends and colleagues– loyal OSS and State Department officers—suddenly found themselves accused of being Red spies. That two people as good, and decent and altogether unimpeachable as Julia and Paul somehow got entangled in a major spy scandal seems incredible today, but they were both thoroughly investigated and Paul came perilously close to having his career ruined. I wanted to unravel the whole complicated story, beginning with their volunteering for the OSS all the way through their time in Ceylon and China, so readers could judge for themselves what really happened: whether or not Julia and Paul were duped by Jane Foster (had she really crossed over and was leading a clandestinely divided life all along?) or whether they were all victims of a poisonous time in American politics.

BB: Julia sprang from a right-wing California family, as did Jane. War taught them both to question their parents’ politics, to think for themselves, and to view Asia through the lens of their hard-won experience. Yet as the U. S. broke promises and bungled policy, Jane was radicalized in a way that Julia never was. After your research, do you think Julia might have ended up more radicalized herself had she not met Paul and discovered her passion for food? I guess I’m asking if the differences in their responses to history can be explained more by the differences in their characters or their differing experiences?

JC: I would have to say character is destiny in this case. Jane was radicalized well before the war began. Although she and Julia were both bright girls from conservative, well-to-do California families, the similarity really ends there. Julia was very close to both her parents and basically enjoyed her “social butterfly” years before the war in Pasadena.  Jane, by contrast, was a restless malcontent and in full rebellion by her late teens. Raised in convent schools by very controlling parents, Jane went out of her way to provoke them: taking up abstract painting, joining San Francisco’s avant garde art scene, adopting a bohemian lifestyle—lovers, liquor, late nights, etc.– spouting utopian ideals, supporting socialist and Communist causes… She finally rejected her parents’ lifestyle completely by running off to Java with a Dutch diplomat. Jane wanted a life of excitement and high drama and in the end got all that she asked for and more. Julia never felt the need to rebel in the same way. She came into her own during the war, but I would say she emerged a more educated and independent thinker rather than radicalized. Her politics were shaped by her romance with the very liberal Paul and reaction against the right wing extremism and demagoguery of the post-war era. By the late 1950s she was a committed Democrat and would remain one the rest of her days.

BB: Julia, Paul, Jane, and their sidekicks in and out of the OSS are fascinating characters, but it seems as if history itself is the true protagonist in A Covert Affair. As your cast of then-young characters open their eyes and their hearts to the cultures they’re working in, we see the Indonesia of the 40s and watch the machinations of the Allies as the war winds down fueling the nationalist movements throughout Asia. As readers, we marvel at our own bumbling State Department, exasperated and amused—until the creep of suspicion and distrust that marked the 50s begins to take on the un-amusing shape of McCarthyism. The true narrative arc of the book might well be the mistakes we made as a government back then, and its theme the consequences of those long ago decisions. Despite your eye for the fascinating, quirky characters and the details that bring history to life and keep the reader riveted to the page, do you see A Covert Affair as an historical cautionary tale at its heart?

JC: I do see it as a cautionary tale. Exploiting the public’s fear –either of war, enemy infiltration or terrorist attack–is a dangerous business. Episodes of demagoguery—along with the accompanying domestic repression and censorship and detainment—have occurred periodically throughout history. Just think of the discreditable acts committed in this country in the summer of 1798, when the Federalists passed the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts and condoned waves of searches and arrests of anyone critical of the government. The Federalists were absolutely paranoid about the inroads being made by Jefferson’s Republican Party and more or less suspended the First Amendment in their efforts to defeat the opposition.  I am always interested in that kind of official hypocrisy—the gap between this country’s professed ideals and rhetoric and actual behavior. I think any student of human affairs can detect the parallels between the McCarthy era and some disturbing political trends we see today. The same motifs repeat—smug ideologues, unswerving fanatics, accusations of disloyalty and guilt by association. And it’s important to remember that the abuse of power is not particular to the Right or Left, both sides have pursued such tactics when it suited them.

BB: Your tales of derring-do and of the ever-changing relationships among your characters are so vivid that sometimes it seems as if you were there. I know Paul’s often revealing letters to his brother provided a good deal of insight into their lives, but there were obviously other first-hand sources. Can you talk about them?

JC: I wanted the book to have a very intimate tone so that readers could experience the characters’ growing anxiety about their situation, and understand what it was really like to live in fear that even the slightest rumor about Communist sympathies could stop their chances of getting a promotion or a new passport, let alone trigger an investigation that could end in disgrace and ruin. What made it possible to maintain that tone was the huge number of first-hand sources.  Paul Child’s diaries and Julia’s letters provided me with their intimate commentary on events from the beginning of the war all the way through to the end of the 1950s. I was able to weave in Jane’s thoughts and reactions throughout, based on her memoir, letters and personal papers, as well as interviews with her family. Above all, I had a built-in narrator in the person of on Elizabeth McIntosh. She was an invaluable source: not only did I have her wartime memoir as a contemporaneous chronicle of day-to-day events, but I had her at the other end of a phone every time I had a question or needed help with a scene. I would call her to ask about the weather—I’m not kidding. Elizabeth was close to Julia, Paul and Jane, entered the OSS at the same time and was with them every step of the way, so she was my touchstone. I dedicated the book to her out of gratitude for the many hours she gave to this project, and the wealth of insight and emotional truth she provided.

BB: Your portrayal of the relationship between Paul and Julia themselves is moving—its tentative nature at first, the growing attachment, the eventual bonding that seemed to grow stronger and stronger. What struck you, as you were doing your research, as the true cement that held them together? The most moving and perhaps romantic thing about them?

JC: What struck me most forcefully was that these were two very different people who were both profoundly lonely. Their romance was built, very hesitantly and over many months, on the foundation of their friendship– on their basic need for human warmth and companionship. Paul did not believe they had much in common and worried endlessly about their disparate family backgrounds, but in the end he missed Julia’s company so much he allowed his heart to overrule his head. I thought it was very touching that as the years went by they never forgot how miserable they were when they were single, and never stopped being grateful that they had found love. What made them seem like such a romantic pair was that they were always celebrating their relationship, and toasting their togetherness.

BB: If, indeed what you have written is a cautionary tale, can you talk about the lessons from history we ought to have learned and whether or not we’ve learned them? If we haven’t, can you talk about consequences in today’s world? Or is that another book?

JC: Surely the answer to those questions could fill another book! There are so many worrying trends, not the least of which is our old habit of promising democracy to people in distant corners of the globe and then failing to deliver it.  To me it seems a naïve, dangerous and delusional style of leadership. But enough said. The point I’d like to emphasize is that the reason for writing history is that there is always a chance we will learn from our past mistakes. I have enormous faith in our resilience as a country, in the strength of our Constitution, and in the ability of future generations to chart a better course.