Book of the Week: Gutenberg’s Apprentice – Alix Christie

I did a little sneak peek mention of this back in July when the starred reviews started coming in. A glance at the cover locates this for readers as a historical novel. And it definitely works on that level: 15th century metropolitan Germany and its power constituencies—the Church, the merchant class, the guilds–come vividly to life.

What’s really thrilling to me about this book, though, is the way it feels like I could be reading the story in Fast Company. It’s about a visionary tech genius and a sharp-eyed entrepreneur who scrabble and scheme to bring to market a previously inconceivable technology that is so disruptive it changes the world.

No, I’m not talking about Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. But that’s how revolutionary the invention of moveable type was. We all know the name Gutenberg and have an idea that moveable type was a big idea. But the story of how that actually happened is filled with intrigue and is necessarily also the story of the man who, like Jobs, was able to force something so revolutionary into the marketplace—Johann Fust. And it’s the story of his ward, Peter Schoeffer, a scribe positioned to have power in the old-world order he helps to end.

When Fust requires Peter to collaborate with a seeming madman named Gutenberg, the stage is set. As the editor says, this is a story of “[n]ewly wealthy merchants in their Kaufhaus angling for power, a brand new council of working men from the guilds flexing their collective muscle, a corrupt Archbishop dueling with the Pope, scribes copying both religious and secular texts while priests milk a deeply religious populace for indulgences, women and children at home and at work–in short, a small medieval town permeated by religion, commerce, and art in a turbulent Holy Roman Empire.”

Fans of contemporary classics such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring will likely be drawn to this. It arrives as an Indie Next pick with and review in the New York Times Book Review to start.

“[Readers] experience the frustration and exhilaration of designing, typesetting, and rolling the first printed Bible off the press….For unhappy Peter, printed texts seem less sacred, and certainly less artistic, than hand-copied manuscripts. Demanding and sometimes devious, Gutenberg proves a difficult boss; worst of all, the equipment still has bugs to work out. Only when Peter comes up with his own innovation does he appreciate print’s artistry and power. Despite obstacles posed by the Church, guilds, family, and friends, Fust, Gutenberg, and Schoeffer’s tenuous collaboration culminates in the Gutenberg Bible. Contemporary readers suspicious of digital texts will sympathize with Peter’s mixed feelings towards print. History buffs will savor the moment the inventor, the scribe, and the merchant make a decision that leads them out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Journalist Christie’s fiction debut descriptions of technical processes and medieval society are enthralling…[a] meticulous account of quattrocento innovation, technology, politics, art, and commerce.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Christie masterfully depicts the time and energy required to print the first Bibles, a years-long process of trial and error, tinkering with ink and type, lines and paper, guilder after guilder spent without return, all against a catastrophic backdrop of plague, the fall of Constantinople, the violent superstitions of the peasantry, and a vested intelligentsia fearing the press would generate ‘crude words crudely wrought…smut and prophecy, the ranting of anarchists and antichrists’…A bravura debut.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This gorgeously written debut, set in the cathedral city of fifteenth-century Mainz, dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible in a story that devotees of book history and authentic historical fiction will relish…An inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation based on actual events and people, this wonderful novel fully inhabits its age.”
— Booklist (starred review)

Gutenberg’s Apprentice (9780062336019) by Alix Christie. $27.99 hardcover. 9/23/14 on sale.

New Fiction: Rooms – Lauren Oliver

YA readers will be very familiar with the prolific and bestselling Ms. Oliver. Now she joins our adult list with a well-paced ghost story in which two ghosts inhabit the walls of an old house and steer the lives of one family. Both the living and dead are haunted by their choices in an inventive twist on the classic “haunted house” story that should appeal to both genre readers and the legion of YA crossover readers Oliver has cultivated. The media coverage should be great; the line-up kicks off with Seventeen, O, The Oprah Magazine and Cosmopolitan.

[This] assured adult debut skillfully weaves an innovative ghost story into a nuanced domestic drama….Oliver makes vivid use of both dead and living characters—all of whom are trapped in the past and striving toward a happier existence—to narrate her intricate, suspenseful story. The house’s breathing residents and ghosts alike find freedom, and the story culminates with an ending that arrives in dramatic and surprising ways.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A smoky and realistic ghost story that subverts cliché. …This satisfying novel will be enjoyed by Oliver’s fans and bring new ones to the fold.”
Kirkus Reviews

“[A]s haunting as it is haunted.”
– Booklist

“With poetic prose, Oliver weaves a satisfying story arc for each character, and readers will be left with a feeling of peaceful acceptance.”
Library Journal

“Although there are ghosts and hauntings, Rooms really isn’t a horror story but a nice mystery with a few great surprises.  The ghosts living in the house are all there for a reason, and we discover each reason as the novel goes on, and they all make sense, so the story isn’t some crazy supernatural story about spirits and what lurks in the corners.  Instead, it’s a look into our choices and how our choices sometimes trap us.  I liked it quite a bit.”
— Bill Carl, The Booksellers at Fountain Square, Cincinnati, OH

 Rooms (9780062223197) by Lauren Oliver. $25.99 hardcover. 9/23/14 one day laydown.

New Nonfiction: Insurrections of the Mind – edited by Franklin Foer

I’m always on the lookout for interesting nonfiction that looks at American history slantwise. Narrative nonfiction is usually a slam dunk but I also like anthologies that can be dipped into a bit at a time. I enjoyed this well-priced paperback original—and it may fit the bill for all sorts of fans of American history, politics and culture.

In 1914 Teddy Roosevelt assembled a team of editors to found a magazine that would provide a voice for progressive political reform. This year, The New Republic is 100 years old. To mark that anniversary, editor Franklin Foer selects several emblematic voices for each decade of the last century. The result charts the fluctuating influence of American liberalism in a really unique and interesting way. (I find myself curious about whether The New Republic will be mentioned in Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts starting tonight.)

A sparkling anthology. . . . Scintillating reading. . . . A rich volume full of penetrating insights into this country and-for better or worse-its liberal tradition.”
— Booklist (starred review)

“Taken as a whole, the book’s selections, organized by decade, represent the magazine’s mission to serve as a mouthpiece and conscience for liberalism….Foer provides brief intros that set the context for each piece, and also sometimes acknowledges the magazine’s failings, such as the support it offered Stalin in the 1930s. The rigorous analysis and thoughtful philosophizing otherwise displayed by the politically-minded essays extends to cultural criticism that includes Nabokov on translation, Margaret Talbot on Martha Stewart, and Zadie Smith on Kafka. Taken individually, the essays are often prescient (Andrew Sullivan’s 1989 gay marriage piece ‘Here Comes the Groom’)…Considered as a whole, they sculpt a model of journalistic sophistication that honors George Orwell’s dictum, in ‘Politics and the English Language,’ that ‘to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.’”
— Publishers Weekly

Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (9780062340399) edited by Franklin Foer. $17.99 trade paperback original. 9/16/14 on sale.

New Mystery: To Dwell in Darkness – Deborah Crombie

Writers—especially genre writers—can labor for many years, book after book, without really breaking out in a big way. So it’s very gratifying when someone as accomplished as procedural writer Crombie finally “arrives,” which she did several years ago after a dozen novels. She now makes regular makes the national bestseller lists. But I also judge the level of her success by the number of booksellers who write me for an advanced copy of any new book the day they see it in the sales catalog. Let me just say: There are a lot of them.

This newest entry in her popular Kincaid/James series involves a seeming act of terrorism at a British railway station. As you might expect, nothing is quite what it seems—and the pleasures of the plot are managed by the excellent characterization. In fact, Louise Penny observes that “We can always count on her for fabulous plots, …But what puts Deborah Crombie among the greats is her sure hand in raising her characters off the page.”

“Early in bestseller Crombie’s exciting 16th Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery, a white phosphorous grenade—initially mistaken for a harmless smoke bomb—fatally hits a street protester at London’s St. Pancras International railway station. Others in the station crowd suffer injury, including some of Duncan and Gemma’s police colleagues. The search for the victim’s identity leads to the mysterious Ryan Marsh, an ex-cop gone underground for reasons that are never made clear. As usual, Crombie thoroughly immerses the reader in the crime solving, as well as the home lives of those trying to solve the crime, including friends, children, dogs, and a litter of stray kittens. As the protest at St. Pancras was against the destruction of London’s architectural heritage, the city’s tube and train stations, as well as various other landmarks, figure prominently in the story. Best of all, the eerily open ending sets the stage for the next installment.”
Publishers Weekly

To Dwell in Darkness (9780062271600) by Deborah Crombie. $25.99 hardcover. 9/23/14 on sale.

New Mystery: Angel Killer – Andrew Mayne

Andrew Mayne is an interesting guy. A professional magician who has worked behind the scenes for David Copperfield and Penn & Teller, he’s probably best known as the star of the A&E reality show Don’t Trust Andrew Mayne. He also started a program that uses magic to teach critical thinking skills in public schools. His Wizard School segments, teaching magic and science to children, have aired nationwide on Public Television.

I guess that leaves him another hour or two every day to also write novels. Angel Killer originated as an e-book that sold over 100,000 copies. It initiates a new series featuring a female FBI agent who has left behind a complicated life as part of a family of illusionists. Now a series of murders seems to involve impossible illusions. Now a past Jessica Blackwood wanted to leave behind becomes necessary to solving the murders.

[Great Lakes booksellers, there’s a bonus: Part of the story takes place in Michigan.]

“Mayne…combines magic and mayhem in this delightful beginning to a new series starring Jessica Blackwood, a talented fourth-generation magician, who has left the family business to work for the FBI…. Faced with a seemingly impossible crime, a high-ranking FBI consultant has Jessica assigned to the case, hoping her expertise in magic can help unmask a killer who seems determined to build his own cult through ‘miracles.’ Initially reluctant to draw on her past, Jessica quickly becomes engrossed in debunking the Warlock’s increasingly flamboyant demonstrations and anticipating his next moves. Readers will look forward to Jessica’s future adventures.”
Publishers Weekly

“Professional illusionist Mayne introduces a fresh angle to serial-killer hunting.… Mayne forgoes gimmicks, instead dissecting illusions with human behavior, math, and science without losing sight of the story’s big picture.”

Angel Killer (9780062348876) by Andrew Mayne. $14.99 trade paperback original. 9/23/14 on sale.

Halloween: I Am a Witch’s Cat – Harriet Muncaster

This picture book came out in July–but as I was wandering around bookstores this week seeing Halloween tables I remembered that this beguiling, sweet-hearted book is a perfect addition. The cut out collage illustrations are sublime; the story is a comic tale mother/daughter tale complete with a black cat and a witch.

“In Muncaster’s tongue-in-cheek debut, a girl dressed in a head-to-toe cat costume explains how she knows her mother is actually a witch. For starters, she keeps ‘strange potion bottles in the bathroom that I am NOT allowed to touch,’ and ‘when her friends come over, they sit in a circle and cackle and swap spell books.’ The gentle ‘witch’ in question has bouncy red curls, and Muncaster’s illustrations—photographs of delicate miniature models with cut-out props made from cloth, paper, and other media—often reveal the truth behind the girl’s statements; the ‘bubbling, hissing potions’ cooking away in the kitchen look more like vegetable soup. Muncaster’s miniatures create an alluring backdrop for this ode to creative, capable mothers and their adoring familiars… er, children. And the story doesn’t shut the door to the possibility of real magic, either.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This heartwarming look at the close bond between mother and daughter stands out for its clever twist and stunningly detailed artwork.”
Kirkus Reviews

 I am a Witch’s Cat (9780062229144) by Harriet Muncaster. $15.99 hardcover.  7/22/14 on sale.

Video: Horns – Joe Hill

This horror bestseller by Indie fave by Joe Hill is about to get new life as a movie that looks like a stylish scarefest. The film is out October 31st starring Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, and Heather Graham.


Horns Movie Tie-In Edition (9780062364647) by Joe Hill. $15.99 trade paper. 9/30/14 on sale. [Also available as a $7.99 mass market (9780062360021).]