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Weekend Reading

Beware the Ides of March! Only there is nothing foreboding about the crop of titles being released in a month or so, many of The Summer Before the Warwhich are featured in this edition of Weekend Reading. There's the latest from the likes of Helen Simonson, Helen Oyeyemi, and National Book Award winner, Timothy Egan, a debut that's generating a lot of in-house buzz, and an old standby from one the world's most beloved chefs. Feast on these, and more.

Sara Nelson: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. I was a huge fan of Simonson's debut, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand,and can't wait to check out the new one: a comedy of manners set on the eve of WWI.

The Man Who Gave Away His Organs by Richard Michael Levine. From tiny Capra Press, these are stories by a journalist about love and obsession in middle age. 

Jon Foro: Tim Egan has written some of my favorite books: Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, The Big Burn, The Good Rain. And I haven't even gotten around to his National Book Award-winning Dust Bowl epic, The Worst Hard Time. But since we're always scrambling to keep up with the new books, that one will have to wait a bit longer. Instead I'll be looking at his latest, The Immortal Irishman, the story of Thomas Francis Meagher's journey from Ireland's Great Famine to the Civil War and finally to the post of territorial governor of Montana, where he died under mysterious circumstances. "Haunting, conclusive new evidence" is promised!

Seira Wilson: Wink Poppy Midnight: this YA novel is said to appeal to fans of We Were Liars, which means me. Two girls and a boy, a mystery, some possible supernatural element--or not? Sounds twisty and unexpected and a potential day killer if I can't stop reading...

Welcome Thieves: Stories: I'm pretty tough on the old short story, mostly because on the whole I tend not to like them much. This month American Housewife pulled it off and I'm jumping back in, mostly because I liked the authors YA book from a couple years ago.

The Nest: The other editors who've started this are loving it and it sounds right up my alley--dysfunctional family saga with interesting characters. Plus, since it's on my Kindle, it'll be my 3am book for when I wake up and can't fall back asleep.

Adrian Liang: I've been hearing good things for months about Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman, and as a rodeo fan, I'm looking forward to diving into this novel about family, nature, nurture, and (maybe) destiny. I also have plans to start The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin, which is what we're reading for my food-and-travel book club.

Erin Kodicek: I'm going to finish A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. This novel, loosely based on a true story, is about a well-to-do husband and father in turn-of-the-century Edwardian England whose gay affair completely upends his life. So far I'm a little dubious of the protagonist's subdued reactions to catastrophe (seriously, the family's fortune was made in the horse-drawn omnibus business, and I think if one ran over this guy it would barely register a wince), but it's a page-turner just the same. I also can't wait to check out Helen Oyeyemi's new one, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. If it's anything like her much lauded Boy, Snow, Bird, then this collection of interconnected stories should impress.

Chris Schluep: I've got Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs and From Silk to Silicon, which is about globalization, but for me it's really all about The Nest, which I think could be a big, big deal when it publishes on March 22nd.

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Miss Moon's Manners

MissMoon200Some picture books defy a childhood expiration point and this applies to the recently released Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess.   What makes this book so special is both Janet Hill's beautiful painting-like illustrations of French governess, Miss Wilhelmina Moon, with her canine charges and the short life lessons that make up the book's text. 

The lessons Miss Moon imparts are very good to learn as a child but perhaps even more relevant as an adult when the innocence and freedom of childhood is long gone and we may have forgotten even the most basic of lessons like "never stop learning."  Below are a few samples from the book, I think you'll see what I mean...

MissMoon_Lesson2    MissMoon_Lesson9 MissMoon_Lesson11 MissMoon_Lesson16


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The Author of "The Geography of Genius" Talks About the Importance of Place

Eric Weiner's first book, The Geography of Bliss, found him in search of the happiest places on Earth. Now, in The Geography of GeniusThe Geography of Genius*, he endeavors to find out why certain places and times in history produced an inordinate number of geniuses--from philosophers to scientists to artists, to that guy who invented the iPhone. The book—an irreverent and surprisingly entertaining blend of historical biography, travel essay, and sociological study is packed with fun facts: Why was Michelangelo such a jerk to Leonardo da Vinci? Why was the QWERTY keyboard popularized despite the fact that it's not an intuitive or efficient way to type (an argument I repeatedly had with my Junior High typing teacher). So, basically, this book will keep you supplied with enough conversation fodder to animate boring dinner parties for years.

Here, Mr. Weiner talks about his fascination with place, especially when it comes to finding the right place to write.

There are dog people and there are cat people. There are numbers people and word people. I'm a place person. Place matters to me. I view the world—and the world of ideas—through the prism of place.

This explains a lot. It explains my fierce wanderlust. It also explains why I'm so finicky about where I write. Finding the right place, the perfect place, to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, is a passion of mine that often crosses that thin line into obsession.

Before you judge me, let me point out that I am not alone. Many famous writers were equally picky. Proust, sensitive to even the slightest disturbance, wrote in his cork-lined bedroom. Dickens always slept facing north, believing it would improve his writing. The poet Friedrich Schiller always kept a carton of rotten apples under his desk when he wrote. He said it reminded him of the countryside. Mark Twain would often pace, sometimes for hours, until inspiration arrived, "as if a new spirit had flown into the room," as his daughter once said.

For me, there's a long list of places where I can't write. I can't write in libraries. I find the silence deafening. I can't write at home. Not a word. There are too many convenient excuses for procrastination: doing the dishes, alphabetizing the spice rack, redoing the dishes, checking up on the cats. There's too much food available, too, and that is dangerous. When facing a blank page, I turn to serial snacking. I've been known to gain five pounds when working on a particularly tricky chapter.

A fellow author told me he finds writing in bookstores inspiring—if all of these people could finish a book so can I. Not me. I find them intimidating. If all these people could finish a book, what the heck is wrong with me? There is one exception, though, to my no-bookstore rule: a wonderful shop in Coral Gables, Florida called Books & Books. There's something about its clean lines, its almost austere minimalism, that inspires. I wrote several chapters of my first book, The Geography of Bliss, ensconced at one of its café tables.

I do like to write in coffee shops. We writers, after all, are really machines that convert caffeine into words. More than that, I like the anonymity of the coffee shop, being alone in crowd. I enjoy having other people around, but not necessarily interacting them. I wouldn't go as far as Sartre who declared that "hell is other people" but on those rare occasions when my muse is speaking to me, I don't want anyone else interrupting her.

I like to write in coffee shops but not any coffee shop. Overly elegant ones don't work for me (too much pressure to justify my eight dollar latte) nor do ones that are too shabby. Ambient noise is crucial too. It must be precisely 70 decibels. That, you see, is what researchers at the University of Illinois-Champaign found is the ideal sound level for creative thinking: not too loud but not complete silence either. It's called the "Starbucks Effect," and explains a lot about why you find so many writers camped out at coffee shops.

Oddly, I prefer coffee shops with few AC outlets. Why? Because creativity requires constraints, and there is no greater constraint than time. Knowing that the clock is ticking on my battery power motivates me to make the best use of that precious commodity.

Even if a coffee shop meets all of my criteria, I never remain there for too long, though. I'm a restless writer. It's as if there is only so much creative pixie dust in each place, and, once depleted, it's time to move on.

When that happens, I often retreat to a shared writers' space. The one I belong to, in Washington, DC, is close to perfection. Yes, there are other writers present (sorry Sartre) but I'm under no obligation to speak with them. There is unlimited coffee (good) and a dearth of tempting food (also good). If the words aren't flowing, I can always retreat to the designated "Procrastination Zone," and commiserate with fellow stuck writers.

If all this fails, there is always my writing space of last resort: the airplane. The thin air loosens my inhibitions, the bad food fails to tempt, and the knowledge that, soon, I will find myself in some new and possibly magical locale, never fails to inspire.

*The Geography of Genius was chosen as one of the Best Books of January.

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"A Long Lineage of Wanderers": Q&A with Shilpi Somaya Gowda

GowdaOne of our favorite fiction picks of the month is The Golden Son, a novel about family responsibility, love, honor, tradition, and identity. It inspires tears, hope – and lots of thought. We asked author Shilpi Somaya Gowda a few choice questions.

You have written two novels that explore Indian tradition and identity: Secret Daughter and The Golden Son. What draws you to these themes?

I come from a family of immigrants, a long lineage of wanderers. My grandfather left India to set up a trading business in East Africa. My parents left India and eventually settled in Canada, where I was born and raised. I came to the U.S. for university and have lived here ever since, where my children have been born. The idea of being from more than one place, of having multiple cultures as part of my identity and family is very much my own experience. I'm drawn to stories of characters who have to navigate these types of cross-cultural issues, because there are an infinite number of ways an individual can react to the particular opportunities and challenges of being an immigrant, and it's a very universal theme. Almost everyone can point to a story in their family history that features a personal uprooting and resettling.

How was the experience of writing these books the same or different?

Secret Daughter was not only my first novel, it was my first serious writing effort, and that came after fifteen years working in the business world. I had a strong idea of the story I wanted to tell, but very little knowledge of the craft of writing, so I had to learn how to build and structure a novel as I wrote. I was uncertain whether I would even be able to write a full manuscript, but I was very driven to tell that story, and finished it within two years, which seemed like an eternity to me at the time.

Amazon Book Review: The Golden SonThe Golden Son was a very different writing experience for me. The whole idea for the story arc came to me at once, and since I already knew I could write a novel, I believed the rest would happen relatively quickly. Boy, was I wrong: it took over five years to finish, and I rewrote it many times, throwing out several full drafts and starting over – from different points of view, over different time spans, with major changes to plot and characters. It turns out that first idea that came to me was just a suggestion, and as I began to write into it, I discovered the story was much more subtle and nuanced, and much harder to write well. It took many drafts to figure out how to best tell the story that had captured my imagination. Writing from a male perspective and about the medical field also presented its own set of challenges and both required research that took time.

Some authors like to read books that will influence their own work and others prefer not to read anything too similar to what they are writing. What have been some books you've read recently that have inspired you or that you have loved for their refreshing departure from your own work?

I read widely and enjoy all kinds of books, but the ones I find the most inspiring in terms of my own writing are those that are more ambitious in terms of scope (e.g. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese), structure (e.g. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan) or emotional intensity (e.g. Room, Emma Donoghue). Some other recent books like these I've found inspiring are:


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Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

Amazon Book Review: FloodpathYou might have read "Ozymandias" in high school. In part:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Published in 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley's sonnet describes the ruins of an ancient statue of Ramesses II (Ozymandias to the Greeks), using "despair" as a double-edged comment on hubris in the face of impermanence and inexorable time. You can always count on the Romantics.

I was reminded of the old pharaoh's fate while reading Floodpath, Jon Wilkman's tale of a more modern ruin: the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis dam, part of William Mulholland's ambitious plan to siphon water to the young, burgeoning metropolis of Los Angeles. The dam had developed cracks but had been certified safe by Mulholland himself, when it suddenly disintegrated and released a wall of water that obliterated everything in its path, including 500 victims. The story has been told before, but Wilkman is the first to separate the calamity from its larger, desert-conquest/drought context, collecting contemporary reporting, eye-witness accounts, and interviews with Mullholland's descendants to construct a comprehensive, factual-yet-compelling narrative that resonates today.

To better illustrate the sheer scale of the tragedy, Wilkman has provided a timeline of images and captions of the landscape before and after, as well as some of the principals. Floodpath is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month for January 2015.

Floodpath: Timetable for a Tragedy



William Mulholland (1855-1935), arrived in Los Angeles in 1877. As a 22 year-old common seaman from Ireland, he began his long and distinguished career as a ditch digger for the city's privately-owned water company. Reading books checked out from the library, Mulholland taught himself the principals of hydraulic engineering. In 1902, twenty four years later, his command of water issues and skills as a leader led him to be chosen Chief Engineer and General Manager when Los Angeles launched what would become the largest municipally owned water and power operation in the United States. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)

Faced with unprecedented population booms, dating from the 1880s, in 1902, former City Engineer and Mayor Fred Eaton (center) come up with an audacious plan to give Los Angeles a man-made river – a 233 mile-long aqueduct from the Owens Valley, below the watershed of the Eastern Sierras. Topographical studies had shown it was possible for gravity to carry the flow, with the use of expensive pumping systems. Working with Mulholland (right) and surveying engineer J.B. Lippincott, the men shared the idea with city leaders, who eagerly signed on. All agreed to keep the scheme secret to avoid Owens Valley land owners from jacking up prices for water rights Los Angeles needed to purchase. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)


November 5, 1913, opening day of the 233-mile long Owens River Aqueduct, carrying water from Northern California, an engineering feat compared at the time to the Panama Canal, providing the water that made modern Los Angeles possible. As independent communities voted to be annexed by L.A., in order to share the torrent flowing from the north, the city's borders ballooned from 43 square miles in 1900 to 442 square miles in 1930. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)


March 26, 1927. Angry Owens Valley residents weren't willing to accept L.A.'s vision for the future. After attempts at negotiation broke down, they resorted to more direct means – dynamite attacks to stop the flow heading south. This blast in No Name Canyon was the most expensive to repair. Los Angeles sent armed law officers with orders to shoot to kill. The legendary California Water Wars entered a new and violent phase. (Photo credit: J.E. Phillips)


The Fall of 1926, construction is underway on the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon, 50 miles north of Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)

A photo taken shortly after the completion of the St. Francis Dam on May 4, 1926. The curved concrete barrier was 208 feet tall, and held back 12.4 billion gallons of water -- the largest lake in Southern California. Power plants, above and below the reservoir, driven by the flow from the Owens River Aqueduct, supplied 90% of L.A.'s electricity. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)


Early March, 1928. The St. Francis Reservoir is filled to capacity, only inches below the spillways. Wind-blown water streams down the concrete structure's stair-stepped face. (Photo credit: Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society)

8:00 AM, March 12, 1928. St. Francis Dam watchman, Tony Harnischfeger, seen with his wife and son and daughter while he was working earlier as a guard on the Owens River Aqueduct, sees an ominous-looking leak, coming from the west abutment of the dam. The seepage appears to be muddy, a possible indication that the foundation of the structure is dissolving. He calls his boss in Los Angeles, William Mulholland, who agrees to investigate. (Photo credit: Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society)


Around 10:30 AM, March 12, 1928, Mulholland arrives with his assistant, Harvey Van Norman. They take a close look at the new leak, somewhere in the area circled in this photo. To them, the water appears to be running clear. They return to Los Angeles convinced the St. Francis Dam is safe. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)


March 12, 1928. Near midnight, the St. Francis Dam collapses catastrophically, releasing a towering flood that rushes west toward thousands of sleeping people in homes and towns below, on the way to the Pacific Ocean, 54 miles away. When dawn arrives on March 13, all that remains of the St. Francis Dam is the center section, soon known as the Tombstone. (Photo credit: Author's collection)


At the power plant, a mile and half below the dam site, nothing remains of homes of 67 city employees and their families. There were only three who miraculously survived, along with the shells of two turbines. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)


Farther downstream, the lives of the children who attended the San Francisquito school, and their teacher, were taken in the onrush of mud and debris. (Photo credit: Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society)


Even more lives were lost at a camp of electrical workers, sleeping in tents 15 miles from the dam site. Of 145 only 50 survived. The wreckage of their cars was left piled in tangled heaps along the flood path. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)

Mulholland arrives at ruins of the St. Francis Dam before dawn on March 13. Two days later he is photographed with his assistant, Harvey Van Norman. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Examiner)


A desperate search for survivors most often turned up dead bodies, recovered and carried to make-shift morgues. Although a final death count remains uncertain, at least 468 people died. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)


Poor Mexican-American agricultural workers, who lived near the path of the flood, are especially hard hit. They received assistance from a Mexican charitable organization, La Cruz Azul, along with the American Red Cross. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Times)


On March 21, only eight days after the flood, the Los Angeles County Coroner launches an Inquest to determine what happened and who are what was responsible Here jury members explore evidence at the ruined dam site. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)

March 21, 1928. William Mulholland testifies at the Los Angeles County Coroner's Inquest. In the end, he takes full responsibility for the disaster, although he refuses to accept conclusions about the collapse presented at the Inquest, and other official investigations at the time. "If there was a human error, I was the human," he said, adding "The only ones I envy about this thing are the ones who are the dead." (Photo credit: Author's collection)


May 10, 1929, the St. Francis Dam "Tombstone" is dynamited and the ruins buried beneath a road along the floor of San Francisquito Canyon. The forgetting of the St. Francis Dam disaster had begun, but the story was far from over. (Photo credit: Author's collection)

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What to Read if You Love (or Hate) "Making a Murderer"

Netflix's "Making of a Murder" certainly has gotten people's attention. Much of the publicity around the show has focused on Steven Avery's possible innocence, but the people I've talked to (and I realize this is anecdotal) have voiced a little more doubt about the situation than, say, those who petitioned the White House for a presidential pardon. Truth is, we really don't know what happened.

Whichever side you fall on--he did it, or you're not so sure--"Making of a Murderer" is riveting television. For those who'd like more, here are two lists of books to appeal to two different types of true crime connoisseurs:




People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo--and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up - A young woman--tall, blond, and English--sets off to work in a Tokyo bar where she disappears into the darkness, only to be found much later, chopped up, her body parts hidden in a seaside cave. This is a fascinating exploration of different cultures and the potentially black depths of the human soul. You'll meet the killer here, and he's chilling.



The Stranger Beside Me - This one is a classic that launched Rule's career as a writer. Ann Rule knew the serial killer Ted Bundy in Seattle in the 1970s, when they worked together at a suicide crisis center. In the book, she writes about his crimes and her slow grasping of the fact that he was indeed the serial killer people said he was.



In Cold Blood - Although billed as a nonfictional account, In Cold Blood appears to have scenes and dialogue that were added by Truman Capote to heighten the narrative. Nonetheless, the book really broke open the genre of true crime, and there's no denying that the majority of the story told in this book is true. In late 1959, a wheat farmer, his wife, and two young children were found bound and gagged and shot to death in their home. Capote headed out to Kansas to learn more, and while he was out there the perpetrators were caught. He proceeded to interview both of them, to research and write, and the book wasn't published until 1966, after both men were hanged for the quadruple murder.



Helter Skelter - Here's the best-selling true crime novel of all time. And boy did he do it. Vincent Bugliosi--the author of Helter Skelter--prosecuted Charles Manson for the 1969 crimes that made Manson infamous. In this book you can learn everything that Bugliosi learned about Charles Manson and the Manson family murders of the late 60s that captivated the country.



The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America - Set during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, this book took author Erik Larson's career to a new level. The book combines the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the mastermind behind the spectacular 1893 World's Fair, and Dr. H.H. Holmes, who built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium.




And the Sea Will Tell - Two couples set sail on different boats in the South Pacific. Only one of the couples makes it to their island destination... arriving on the other couple's boat. In two trials, the surviving husband is found guilty of murder and the surviving wife is exonerated. What really happened?



Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - The question here is not so much did he do it? It's more a question of was it murder? Local antiques dealer Jim Williams definitely shot Danny Hansford, a prostitute, in his home. But was it self-defense, as he claimed. Williams was tried four times. Set in Savannah, there's lots of local personality and southern gothic atmosphere in this book.



An Innocent Man - John Grisham published this book, his first piece of nonfiction, in 2006. The story is a defense of Oklahoma's Ron Williamson, a former baseball standout who was drafted by the Oakland A's. After bottoming out in baseball--a bad arm, drugs, drink, and women--he returned home. Then in 1982 a local waitress was raped and murdered. Five years later Williamson was charged without any physical evidence, sentenced and put on death row. Grisham presents an impassioned and reasoned examination of the case, the death penalty, and fairness under the law.


A Death in Belmont - In the spring of 1963, the quiet suburb of Belmont, Massachusetts, is rocked by a shocking murder that fits the pattern of the infamous Boston Strangler, still at large. Hoping for a break in the case, the police arrest Roy Smith, a black ex-con whom the victim hired to clean her house. Smith is hastily convicted of the murder, but the Strangler's terror continues. And through it all, one man escapes the scrutiny of the police: a carpenter working at the time at the Belmont home of young Sebastian Junger and his parents—a man named Albert

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“Witch Vs. Mad Scientist”: Charlie Jane Anders on Her Novel "All the Birds in the Sky"

I'm not being overly dramatic when I say that All the Birds in the Sky is one of the best novels I've read in months. It mixes magic and science, coming-of-age and truly growing up, talking cats and time machines, absurdity and philosophy, and love and fear in a stunning tale of a witch and a tech genius who grow up together, grow apart, and finally have to save the world.

All the Birds in the SkyAward-winning author Charlie Jane Anders answers our questions about her novel, how she seamlessly blended two genres together, and what books she's looking forward to reading.


Amazon Book Review: It's challenging to describe your new novel in a few sentences, partly because there's no box it easily fits in. Patricia is a witch (maybe fantasy?) and Laurence likes to build time machines (maybe science fiction?). What inspired you to meld these two genres together?

Charlie Jane Anders: I've always been fascinated by stories of people who come from very different worlds and learn to understand each other. I think that one of the coolest ways to build a story is to focus on one relationship and see how it changes as both of the people in it grow and evolve. Especially if there's some conflict between the two people that they need to work out—so originally, I thought of putting a witch and a mad scientist together as a way to generate some really exciting sparks, because they have such different ideas about the world. I loved the idea of watching them fight each other. Early on, my working title for the book was "Witch vs. Mad Scientist." I sort of thought they could be rivals, trying to defeat each other using magic and science. But then I realized it worked better if they were actually friends, and maybe more. I began to think of it as less of a straightforward conflict and more of a complicated bond between two people who care about each other. And that started to click.

Amazon Book Review: Books that are genre-bending like yours are frequently described as "A love child between [Book A] and [Book B]." Which two books would you like to consider your book the love child of? Be bold!

Charlie Jane Anders: I guess it's kind of Frankenstein meets Tiffany Aching—but then they go and get sandwiches together. 

Amazon Book Review: Magic and science are traditionally opposition forces, but you've chosen to make them more compatible, at least in the figures of Patricia and Laurence. Why?

CJA_Credit Tristan Crane-smCharlie Jane Anders: I think there's a lot of fertile ground in the opposition of magic and science—as I said earlier, the two naturally lend themselves to conflict. And they are opposing mindsets in some ways: magic is all about mysterious, unknowable forces that we underestimate at our peril, while science is about empiricism, control and replicable results. But having Laurence and Patricia actually be friends allowed me to get at the idea that even though they're very different in their approaches to problems, they still have a lot of very important stuff in common. They're sort of the two weird kids at their middle school, and they bond over being outcasts. But when we catch up with them again as adults, they just turn out to be the only ones who can really understand each other and see each other for who they really are. Once I stopped seeing Laurence as being defined by his role as a mad scientist, or Patricia as defined by her magic, I started to see all of the things that they actually have in common. And I started to see their relationship as more than just the meeting of two worlds—they each have a whole history that they bring to their relationship, which is just as much as part of them as their special gifts.

Amazon Book Review: As I was reading All the Birds in the Sky, I kept being pulled into mini philosophical moments, such as when Laurence and Patricia debate whether it's better to be able to control how you appear or to control how people perceive you, and Patricia says, "But you'd know what you really were. And that's all that matters." Did those moments naturally spring out of their dialogue as you were writing the book, or were those moments that you deliberately built scenes around?

Charlie Jane Anders: I wrote pages and pages of Laurence and Patricia geeking out together, and most of that stuff didn't make it into the book. I had a whole section where Laurence imagines what he would do if he had a time machine that could travel more than two seconds, and then he says that if he ever builds a time machine, he will come back in time and visit himself, and appear just a few feet away from where they're sitting at school. And then he sits and waits—in vain—for his future self to appear. One of the things I loved about writing the two of them, just talking to each other, was the way they geek out about stuff. I automatically buy into any relationship between people who geek out together. It just feels both real and exciting to me, as a reader. In the end, I whittled the stuff where they are geeking out down to just the parts that felt the most entertaining, or else the stuff that lays some track for things that happen later in the book. For Laurence, the question of being a shape-shifter versus being able to create illusions gets to the heart of some of the things he struggles with, because he really wants to have more control over how other people perceive him. So that conversation helps to set up some stuff with his character that keeps coming back later on. And the issue of trying to deal with all your relationships with other people, and your connections to the world, is a thing that becomes really important once Patricia and Laurence are grown-ups, dealing with all the many relationships and interactions that an adult has to cope with.

Amazon Book Review: Given the depth of the story, this doesn't seem like a book that got written in a few months. How long were you working on All the Birds in the Sky?

Charlie Jane Anders: Ha, thanks. I have been working on it for years and years. I was working on it feverishly for most of 2011. One of the things that really pushed All the Birds in the Sky in the direction of being a relationship story was that I wrote the novelette Six Months, Three Days about the relationship between two clairvoyants (one sees a single fixed future, the other sees a choice of many possible futures). And when I wrote that story, it changed my ideas about what I might be able to do with Laurence and Patricia, because I started to think of this novel as being a similar story of two people who have very different, maybe contradictory, viewpoints, but they still come together. Once I had written that story, I started looking at this novel in a new light.

Amazon Book Review: And finally, what books are you looking forward to reading this spring?

Charlie Jane Anders: I've heard amazing things about Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and on the strength of his previous books, I'm inclined to expect greatness from him. After being wowed by V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic, I am freaking out with excitement about the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows. Peter Tieryas' United States of Japan sounds like an amazing take on Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Oh, and I've been waiting ages and ages for Madeline Ashby's warped post-singularity novel Company Town, and it's finally almost here!


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky, the Hugo Award-winning novelette Six Months, Three Days, and the Lambda Award-winning novel Choir Boy. Anders is also the editor-in-chief of, the Gawker Media site devoted to science fiction and fantasy.


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It's Not Dark Yet, But It's Getting There.

Road-Little-DribblingIn preparing this piece, I was struck by the sheer heaviness of the list. I shouldn't have been surprised: I picked much of it myself. But how did I miss it? And make no mistake, this list is heavy. Anyway. Rather than examining my headspace at that particular moment, I'll start with one of the lighter books--which I didn't pick--before moving into the shadows.

Some 20 years ago, Bill Bryson published Notes from a Small Island, a hilarious and loving farewell of sorts to Great Britain, where he had happily lived as an expatriate writer before the siren song of the colonies beckoned him home. His follow-up, The Road to Little Dribbling, finds him back on the isle of Albion, a little bit older but as funny as ever. In his review for Amazon, our Chris Schluep says:

Those who read the first book will enjoy a welcome sense of the familiar—even if Bryson appears to have grown a little more cynical and angry with age. But give the guy a break: the world is changing, even his beloved "cozy and embraceable" island. And as he writes in the book, "I recently realized with dismay that I am even too old for early onset dementia. Any dementia I get will be right on time."

See more of our selections for the Best Biographies & Memoirs of the Month below (as noted above, there's some heavy stuff--the full list is here), or browse all of our picks for January. including your favorite happy categories.

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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
In her recent piece, Amazon Editorial Director Sara Nelson said, "If you pick it up, you'll likely see right away what all the fuss is about. Granted, it's a very sad story and for whatever reasons, sad stories appeal to readers. But what makes this particular sad story particularly strong is that it's emotional without being sentimental."

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The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner
Ruth Wariner's father had 42 children, of which Wariner was Number 39. As an only child, I can't say that I relate, but her strange, gripping, and ultimately triumphant account of growing up in a polygamist cult takes readers as close as they can possibly get.


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Stories I Tell Myself by Juan F. Thompson
Juan F. is the son of Hunter S., so here is another situation that I can't relate to. And as you might expect, the behavior described in Thompson père's work isn't the stuff of a storybook childhood. But while fils pulls no punches in describing his tumultuous relationship with his father, Stories is ultimately a redemptive tale of a man coming to terms with the man his father was. As they say, you can't choose your parents.

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The Gilded Razor by Sam Lansky
As I move through this list, I am starting to sense a bit of darkness. Well, here we have the story of an aspiring prep school student whose life blows up in a mushroom cloud of narcotics and associated bad decisions. It's honest and gut-wrenching and as funny as it can possibly be, and even optimistic in the end.

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