Barbara’s Picks, Jan. 2014, Pt. 2: From Ishmael Beah to Richard Powers

Beah, Ishmael. Radiance of Tomorrow. Sarah Crichton: Farrar. Jan. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780374246020. $25. ebk. ISBN 9780374709433. CD: Macmillan Audio. LITERARY FICTION
In 2007, Beah woke us from our slumbers with A Long Way Gone, a lacerating first-person account of civil war in Sierra Leone and the child soldiers forced into battle. Here, in his first novel, the UNICEF Ambassador and Advocate for Children Affected by War revisits his homeland after the fighting is done. Friends Benjamin and Bockarie return to their desecrated village, intent on rebuilding the community by taking up their old posts as teachers. Hunger, retaliation, scattered acts of violence, and a foreign mining concern’s depredations slow their progress and precipitate some soul searching, but our heroes (like Beah himself) stay radiant to the end. Hugely featured at BookExpo America, where Beah was a breakfast speaker; with an author tour and reading group guide.

Doyle, Roddy. The Guts. Viking. Jan. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780670016433. $27.95. LITERARY FICTION
You bet Jimmy Rabbitte has guts. In the 1980s, he aspired to bringing soul music to Dublin by forming a band called the Commitments, a rough-and-ready blue-collar bunch whose escapades figured in Booker Prize winner Doyle’s eponymous debut novel, the basis of a musical opening in London this fall. Decades later, he’s happily married but undone by a recent cancer diagnosis, so he journeys to the past, reuniting with Commitments guitarist Liam “Outspan” Foster and eye-catching backup vocalist Imelda Quirk, as well as a long-lost brother. And he learns to love being a father again. I can’t resist a Goodreads review that calls this “stonkingly good.”

Golden, Tim. The Secret History of America and Its Enemies in Guantánamo. Viking. Jan. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9781594203961. $26.95. HISTORY
For this probing history of the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, New York Times senior writer Golden pulls out the investigative tools that have led to his sharing two Pulitzers. Starting before the January 2002 arrival of prisoners, already dubbed “the worst of the worst,” he moves from Afghanistan to Cuba to Washington, DC, from the interrogations to the hunger strikes and terrible suicides (sometimes by prisoners already cleared), to reveal the camp as a huge intelligence failure. Often, personnel have known little about the detainees, unsure of why they were sent to Guantánamo; some prisoners have been released to join jihadists, while others who remain have demonstrably no ties to terrorism. Meanwhile, a dangerous new legal framework for dealing with suspected terrorists has been put in place. Bad secrets, indeed.

Johnson, Diane. Flyover Lives: A Memoir. Viking. Jan. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780670016402. $26.95. MEMOIR
Johnson hardly has to whip out her writing credentials, having been a two-time finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in three different genres—essay, biography, and fiction; I mean, how juicy smart is Le Divorce? Long a resident of France, she was surprised when a friend there accused Americans of being indifferent to history, saying “you don’t really know where you’re from.” That inspired Johnson to investigate her own past in small-town Moline, IL—hence the “flyover” in the title—which led to her discovering a rich lode of information about her intrepid pioneer ancestors. Many readers will identify, and more will enjoy.

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Invention of Wings. Viking. Jan. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9780670024780. $27.95. CD: Penguin Audio. POP FICTION
Kidd’s six-million-copy best-selling The Secret Life of Bees lasted on the New York Times trade paperback best sellers list for more than 220 weeks (and let’s not forget the movie), so you can expect interest in her new work, a tale of two girls growing to maturity in the antebellum South. Ten-year-old slave Hetty “Handful” Grimke is given to Sarah Grimke (a real-life figure) on Sarah’s 11th birthday, and the narrative follows them over the next 35 years as Handful suffers loss but finds herself and Sarah finally breaks away from her wealthy Charleston family to join in the abolitionist and women’s right movements. The 15-city author tour might bring Kidd your way.

Mead, Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. Crown. Jan. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780307984760. $25. MEMOIR
In a memoir of a different sort, New Yorker staff writer Mead doesn’t simply discuss her passion for George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which Virginia Woolf notably called “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” She shows how repeated readings (begun when she was a child in an English coastal village) have given her deeper insight into her life while actively shaping it. She also considers the many lives the novel itself has gone through, showing how Eliot’s ideas of love, marriage, morality, and aspiration have grown with the times, and how her own life experiences mirror those of Eliot. With plenty of galley giveaways and library marketing; note the big push at BookExpo America.

Ness, Patrick. The Crane Wife. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Jan. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9781594205477. $26.95. POP FICTION
Ness is an American-born, London-based author with dual citizenship known primarily for his children’s books (e.g., Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls, both winners of the Carnegie Medal given by British librarians). So it’s no surprise that the protagonist of this adult novel, the publisher’s lead fiction title for winter, is an American in London who owns a small print shop. What’s enchanting is that Ness bases his story on a Japanese folktale. Divorced, lonely George Duncan rushes to the backyard one night upon hearing a terrible wailing and finds a huge white crane, its wing stuck through with an arrow that he removes before the bird flies away. Then the beautiful but reticent Kumiko comes to his shop, asking for help with her artwork. Gently infused with humor, this work has already been called “special” (the Telegraph), “highly accomplished” (Financial Times), and “magical and beautiful” (Herald on Sunday), so don’t miss.

Powers, Richard. Orfeo. Norton. Jan. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9780393240825. $26.95. LITERARY FICTION
Once again, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Powers combines an elegant appreciation of music with the examination of crucial social issues. When composer Peter Els’s home microbiology lab sets off alarms at Homeland Security—never mind that he’s using it only to find music in unexpected places, a lifelong interest—Els goes on the run, visiting the people he’s met on his long journey through music. Dubbed the Bach bioterrorist on the Internet, he decides to fight back, plotting to turn his head-on collision with state security into a work of art that will truly make people listen to the sounds around them. Bravura stuff; with a six-city tour to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Portland (OR), Seattle, and Chicago.

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.