Book of the Week: Free Men – Katy Simpson Smith

This second novel by Katy Simpson Smith bears out the promise of her well-received first, The Story of Land and Sea. Trained as a historian, Smith brings not only verisimilitude to the table but a richly imaginative empathy and a strong sense of narrative structure–making her a triple threat when it comes to historical fiction. NPR pointed to this in its review of her first book saying that “Smith has a real gift for describing both hope and despair, which is one of the hardest things for an author to do well. She’s also gifted at drawing realistic, three-dimensional characters…absolutely a writer to watch.”

This new novel takes place in late 18th century Alabama and, as Kirkus comments, she “deftly evokes the swamp heat, fetid woods, and pitiless inhabitants of a barely settled region of the nascent United States. European immigrants run sugar plantations with the sweat of slave labor while running rum in a precarious partnership with the native Creek Indians…”

Free Men is the story of three strangers on the run and the European tracker bring them to justice. Smith tells the story in the alternating voices of these four men–and one of the many things I admire in this book is how completely original each voice is. It opens in the voice of Bob, a runaway slave and this part of the story has all the jazzy, hyped-up relentlessness of The Good Lord Bird. But when it shifts to the story of Cat, a white man caught in an initially unnamed despair, the tone becomes darkly musical, surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Add the wounded indignation of Istillicha, a Creek warrior looking reclaim lost standing in his tribe, and we are offered a kaleidoscopic perspective on life in that early, swampy frontier America.

The French tracker, LeClerc, has an interesting role in the story. He is an educated Old World European who fancies himself an anthropologist and student of the human heart. He aims to uncover what it is that binds these strangers from three very different cultures. My bookseller friend Bill Cusumano of Square Books in Oxford, MS, sums up a major theme of the book very eloquently:

I am totally impressed by her knowledge that this was always more of a multicultural society than history has admitted, that disparate groups were constantly forced together and learned from each other and assimilated so much from various cultures. She also has a very good grasp on how early American society was composed of so many people who prized individual freedom, in contrast to the structural world of Europe. It is wonderful how she uses LeClerc as a conduit for this phenomenon. Whether it was because America was populated by so many people from the lower strata who yearned for more, I do not know, but it was certainly unique for the time and, obviously, an outgrowth from the Enlightenment. Yet these groups could also be cooperative, if only to protect their own interests….

“The European countries either allowing or forcing their alienated people to populate the colonies helped to create a new type of thought and in certain psychological ways those enslaved or threatened, like the Native Americans, had much in common with them. She gives great voice to this and reveals a new world in the making.”

Initial reviews are set for the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World with more to come.

 “Set in 1788 and drawing from a historical incident, Smith’s searching second novel probes connection and isolation, forgiveness and guilt. In an American South where control shifts among American, European, and Native American presences, three men rob and kill a group of travelers….As the paths of pursuer and prey intersect, all four men face unexpected lessons about the nature of freedom and the need to belong. Like Smith’s debut, The Story of Land and Sea, this novel evokes the complexity of a fledgling America in precise, poetic language….rich with insights about history and the human heart.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Illuminating…An uncommon story of three men on the run as well as a complex tale about freedom of the individual and justice in society. There’s much to ponder after reading the last page.”
 — Library Journal

Free Men (9780062407597) By Katy Simpson Smith. $26.99 hardcover. 2/16/16 on sale.


Kids Book of the Week: The Dead Bird – Margaret Wise Brown, Illus. Christian Robinson

Kudos to Harper for reissuing this profound little classic by Margaret Wise Brown. I remember this this book from my own childhood–bumping across it in the library and bringing it home. While I’ve gotten some push back from buyers for the stark title and subject matter, that title was exactly what made me pick it up as a kid. Death is mysterious curiosity to kids, too little discussed by adults and integrated into our lives. Brown’s sensitive handling of the story puts the bewildering melancholy of death and the rightness of celebrating life in a sensible, reassuring context.

New artwork by the award-winning illustrator Christian Robinson not only freshens the visuals but adds to the storytelling. Both Kirkus and PW have welcomed it back with starred reviews. Booksellers, I urge you to give this one a little face time on display before shelving it in your issues sections.

 The sad news arrives on the first page: ‘The bird was dead when the children found it.’…They solemnly bury the bird under the leafy trees, improvise a mourning song, and surround a stone marker with summer flowers, behaving ‘the way grown-up people did when someone died.’ Even as the children imitate grief in response to the wild bird’s death, they genuinely grieve the joy that has been lost: ‘You’ll never fly again,’ they realize. Robinson’s illustrations hint at how the improvised funeral enables the children to acknowledge impermanence, his close-ups capturing their concentration as they assemble the memorial. Brown takes a direct approach to a difficult subject, suggesting how community rituals provide solace. Robinson concludes with a wide-angle view of growing trees and the children flying a kite, implying a return to carefree fun and putting a poignant distance between the tiny figures and readers.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Brown’s lovely, gentle, and reassuring text remains the same…. Robinson stays true to the intent of the original text and illustrations but elegantly improves upon it with cinematic storytelling. His setting is a lush urban park filled with trees, bridges, and ponds, framed by a city skyline. And his characters are diverse in gender and ethnicity but universal in their emotions, curiosity, and playfulness (one wears fairy wings and another a fox costume). While simply rendered, with basic shapes and few brush strokes, the design of the spreads and the progression of images are spatially sophisticated….[T]he artist’s characters and environments have a realness to them, perhaps because Robinson portrays them with such respect, love, and ease. A story about the importance of ritual and the ability for renewal, itself magnificently renewed by Robinson.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

The Dead Bird (9780060289317) by Margaret Wise Brown, illus. Christian Robinson. $17.99 hardcover. 3/1/16 on sale.

Short Take – Fiction: Under the Influence – Joyce Maynard

With her ninth novel, Maynard garners yet another Indie Next Pick and continues to prove herself a bookseller favorite. Her twisty, suspenseful novels always come with a strong dose of moral complexity that also makes them great for book clubs.

In this story a divorced mother and recovering alcoholic is taken up by a glamorous couple. She has lost custody of her son due to a DWI and when the couple offers to help her regain custody, the favor comes with some very dark strings attached.

Advance reviews praise the plotting and suspense. National review coverage is coming in the NYT and Boston Globe. Wally Lamb calls it “a riveting read.”

What begins as a seemingly altruistic friendship on the part of the Havillands turns into a quid pro quo when a disastrous accident involves Ollie and Helen, forcing them to tell the police the Havillands’ versions of events or else become victims of their vicious threats. Maynard’s latest is illuminating and mesmerizing, highlighting not only differing definitions of friendship, but the shades of gray between right and wrong and the lengths to which some will go to protect their self-interest.”
Publishers Weekly

 “Maynard’s expert narration and plotting plant the seeds for the explosive events at the end of her tale.”
Kirkus Reviews

Under the Influence (9780062257642) by Joyce Maynard. $25.99 hardcover. 2/23/16 on sale.

Short Take – Nonfiction: Raising Ryland – Hillary Whittington

Readers—parents especially–who were drawn to the bestseller Becoming Nicole, will also find a model for supporting trans kids in the Whittington’s story. The family’s original homemade video about Ryland has garnered over 7.7 million views on YouTube.


And here’s a shorter piece specifically about making the book:

“Whittington, a mother of two, poignantly chronicles the transformative journey of Ryland, her young son who was born female…Both the author and her husband struggled with…his gender identity, and childhood development, while their greatest ‘fears came from how the world would view our child.’ The road was arduous, yet it began with a simple haircut and proper pronoun use…[T]he Whittingtons proactively educated themselves, posted videos online, and emerged as a consistently supportive and nurturing unit. Sensitively handled and written in breezy prose that doesn’t linger too long on the expository details of their ordeal, the author sets a fine example for other parents either imagining or personally experiencing a similar situation….An uplifting testimonial to the power of unconditional familial love and acceptance.”

Kirkus Reviews

Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached (9780062388889) by Hillary Whittington. $15.99 trade paper original. 2/23/16 on sale.


Short Take – Suspense: What Remains of Me – Alison Gaylin

Gaylin’s first hardcover novel is preceded by several bestsellers in mass market. She’s won a Shamus Award and was an Edgar Award nominee. So she arrives with a fan base ready for more of her top-notch twisty psychological suspense.

This standalone is a tale of the secrets and betrayal behind lives of Hollywood glamour. It’s got a great set up: In 1980, seventeen year old Kelly Michelle Lund shoots and kills an Oscar-nominated director in his home making her an instant media sensation. But Kelly goes to prison keeping her secrets to herself. Flash forward 30 years to her release. Another Hollywood heavyweight is found dead, killed the same way as the director, and of course Kelly is the prime suspect.

Constructing the tale in both the past and present proves a tantalizing way to tease out the connection between these dead men and details of Kelly’s story. Per the requirements of this genre, there’s a great twist at the end.

Gaylin is excellent at reproducing the TMZ-style blog posts and news articles that surround sensational crimes. Also strong are the flashbacks in which former misfit Kelly starts hanging out with cool kids Vee and Bellamy, learning how to do drugs and cruising around in their fancy cars with a perfect 1980s soundtrack. A rich read.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Gaylin smoothly alternates between past and present in this melodramatic Hollywood whodunit.…The path to the truth—both about Sterling’s murder and McFadden’s—takes many surprising twists….”
— Publishers Weekly

What Remains of Me (9780062369857) by Alison Gaylin. $25.99 hardcover. 2/23/16 on sale.

March 2016 Indie Next Picks

Complete list here.

# 1 Pick: The Opposite of Everyone (9780062105684) by Joshilyn Jackson. $26.99 hardcover. 2/16/16 on sale.

Now in Paperback

  • Epitaph (9780062198778) by Mary Doria Russell. $16.99 trade paper. 2/16/16 on sale.
  • The Harder They Come (9780062349385) by T.C. Boyle. $15.99 trade paper. 3/1/16 on sale.

Video: The Glass Sword – Victoria Aveyard

It’s here! Book two in Red Queen Series lands Tuesday. For your get-the-word out efforts…

Praise for The Red Queen: “A sizzling, imaginative thriller, where romance and revolution collide, where power and justice duel. It’s exhilarating. Compelling. Action-packed. Unputdownable.”
   — USA Today

Glass Sword (9780062310668) by Victoria Aveyard. $19.99 hardcover. 2/9/16 one day laydown.