ALTAFF’s “First Author, First Book”: ALA Annual 2012

Anderson, Howard. Albert of Adelaide. Twelve: Hachette. Jul. 2012. 240p. ISBN 9781455509621. $24.99.
When I first spoke to my contact at Twelve about this novel, he told me that I would love it and that it was absolutely charming. And I do love it, and it is charming, and inventive, and attentively written, and it broke my heart. But that’s a good thing; who wants a book that’s here today, gone right away. When we first meet Albert he is trudging along an animal track somewhere in Australia. He’s hot, he’s thirsty, he’s covered with red dust, and his bill is sun-burned. Yes, his bill, because Albert is a platypus who’s escaped from the Adelaide Zoo, where people sometimes threw things at him and where his tank was all scummy, and what he really wants is to find the Old Australia, where things haven’t changed and there are no people and no zoos.

But, alas, you can’t go home again. The Old Australia has changed, it’s not the paradise he hoped for, and while Albert is befriended by a wombat named Jack in a drover’s coat and slouch hat, he’s mostly an object of distrust, even hatred, because the other animals he’s encountered have never seen a platypus. Howard Andersen has done everything from flying with a helicopter battalion in Vietnam to writing Hollywood scripts, and he is currently a defense attorney in New Mexico. I don’t know how he can deliver such an authentic sense of animals and Australia, but he does understand life. Is Albert a better platypus for all he’s been through? Read the novel.

Howard, Beth M. Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pi., Harlequin. 2012. ISBN 9780373892570. $24.95.
Anyone who bakes pies knows that piecrust cannot just be thrown together but must be treated with respect, attended to carefully and yet handled with a light touch or the dough will be lumpy and stiff. Beth Howard is a pie baker par excellence, pie blogger at the world needs more, and proprietor of the Pitchfork Pie Stand, where she sells pies to the tourists who come by to see the American Gothic House of Grant Wood fame, which is where she actually lives (and is not open to the public). So it’s no surprise that her memoir is attended to carefully, thoughtful and forthright in its admissions, and that it’s written with a light touch‚ honest, engaged, engaging, un-self-pitying, and hopeful.

Pies have always been an intimate part of Beth Howard’s life‚ her parents got married because of pie, and baking pies kept her going after she walked out on her numbing job. And, after the death of her husband, Marcus, who she loved but was divorcing because of different expectations, provoking guilt and confusion that is so affectingly and effectively described, making pies is what saved her.

Hruska, Bronwen. Accelerated. Pegasus. Oct. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9781605983790. $25.
There’s nothing more terrifying than being a parent. So says Walt to fellow Bradley parent Sean Benning, protagonist of Soho Press publisher Bronwen Hruska’s thought-provoking and relentlessly absorbing first novel. Walt may be talking about Calvin, a student rushed to the hospital after collapsing at the stratospherically upscale Manhattan school, but Sean has plenty of reasons to be terrified.

His wife has inexplicably abandoned the family, leaving son Toby uncertain and sad; Sean is trying to balance single parenthood with the demands of the rather scummy editorial job he’s taken as he waits for his ship to come in as an artist; and, worst of all, the school is suggesting rather too pointedly that Toby has behavioral issues and should be put on medication. What starts as a story of frustrated parenthood quickly becomes a fierce and pointed examination of what we are doing to our children, and particularly how we overmedicate our children, in the race to the top. The text reads like a thriller, but in this socially engaged work, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Percer, Elizabeth. An Uncommon Education. HarperCollins. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9780062110961. $24.99.
Some coming-of-age novels are sentimental journeys, others wishful thinking, or hairshirts worn by the author, or a settling of scores, but few have the steel-hard delicacy and exacting revelations of Elizabeth Percer’s first novel. As a child, her heroine, Naomi Feinstein, worries over her father’s weak heart, regrets her depressed mother’s failures as a mother, is kept from best friend Teddy first by his suspicious mother and then by the family’s move after his father’s death, and demonstrates both a sharp intelligence and memory and, in her urgency to tend those around her, a desire to become a doctor.

At Wellesley, from which the author, a three-time Pushcart nominee, also graduated, Naomi feels isolated among the college’s smart, polished go-getters until she is introduced to the Shakespeare Society, whose members perform the Bard’s plays and construct passionate, complex, and sometimes exploding relationships. Here Naomi experiences both closeness and betrayal, here she finds her true purpose, and readers live every moment with her.

Williams, Beatriz. Overseas. Putnam. 2012. 464p. ISBN 9780399157646. $25.95.
Kate Wilson may been the hard-working analyst who put together the report that Capital Markets is about to present to the 20-billion-dollar hedge fund Southfield Associates, but when Southfield comes calling, she’s shoved out of the room. Why, then, does the utterly beautiful, elegant, and extremely wealthy Julian Laurence, the British head of Southfield, seek her out after the meeting to apologize? Why does he insist that she hand-deliver a report to his East 74th Street house?

Why does he come to her rescue when she’s dirty-dealed out of her job? What’s with his manners and unaffected gravitas? And why, as this story unfolds, do we keep encountering a British soldier named Julian Laurence in 1916 Amiens, who’s being sought out by a desperate young American named Kate? As you can imagine from this description, Beatriz Williams has crafted a sparkling time traveler that will keep readers glued to their seats, but what’s especially impressive here is the elegance and sheer logic with which the novel unfolds. And it’s all for a purpose. When Kate first meets Laurence, she expresses longing for an era when people had principles for which they’d give their lives. As events unfold, we see that for some people that era isn’t over.


Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.