Shelf Life

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sarah Vowell trawls in Atlanta for 'Unfamiliar Fishes'

Posted By on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 3:14 PM

TITLE: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell.

GENRE: Downbeat history with a light-hearted touch

THE PITCH: Pop historian Sarah Vowell explores how the early 19th century culture clash between New England missionaries and Hawaii’s natives established tensions that culminated in 1898 when America annexed Hawaii and other Pacific islands in a fit of Imperialism.

OPENING LINE: “Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken in my plate lunch? Because the ship Thaddeus left Boston Harbor with the first boatload of New England missionaries bound for Hawaii in 1819.”

SORT OF A SEQUEL: Vowell’s previous nonfiction book, The Wordy Shipmates, breezily recounted the 17th century founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its influence on America’s self-image in the present-day. Unfamiliar Fishes takes up nearly two centuries later, but traces similar challenges of transplanting Puritan idealism into inhospitable soil.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Shelf-Life: Kraken by China Miéville

Posted By on Fri, Aug 20, 2010 at 1:54 PM

  • Ballantine Books
GENRE: Urban horror-fantasy, with laughs

THE PITCH: When a giant squid specimen disappears from the London Museum of Natural History, young curator Billy Harrow discovers London's underground community of magical black marketeers, spellbound crime lords, police witches and kraken cultists, all of whom believe it's the end of the world as they know it. Can Billy — dare I say it? — "Return the kraken!" ahead of the apocalypse?

OPENING LINE: "An everyday doomsayer in sandwich-board abruptly walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum. The sign on his front was an old-school prophesy of the end: the one bobbing on his back read FORGET IT."

POP GOES THE WORLD: Compared to Miéville's more baroque, horrific books like his genre-busting Bas Lag trilogy, Kraken takes pleasure in light-hearted pop references, including enchanted "Star Trek" memoriabilia that actually accomplish their 23rd century functions, not to mention an iPod possessed by a protective spirit that warbles along to Amy Winehouse and Public Enemy.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shelf Life: Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

Posted By on Tue, Jul 20, 2010 at 7:55 AM

Genre: Alternate history adventure

The Pitch (series): In her Temeraire series, Naomi Novik envisions an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars, with the added wrinkle of flying, sentient dragons who serve simultaneously as fighters and aircraft. William Lawrence, formerly a captain in the Royal Navy, is both pilot and beloved companion to the giant dragon Temeraire. Think “Master Monster and Commander.”

The Pitch (this book): In the series’ sixth outing, published July 13, Laurence and Temeraire begin their exile on the fledgling colony of Australia, where they deal with the original Captain Bligh, revolting colonists, a hostile wilderness, the surprising fate of three dragon eggs and evidence of a powerful nation working against England’s interests.

First line: “There were few streets in the main port of Sydney which deserved that name, besides the one main thoroughfare, and even that bare packed dirt, lined only with a handful of small and wretched buildings that formed all the permanence of the colony.”

Geek factor: Sky-high, but as much for military-history obsessives as the Dungeons and Dragons crowd.

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Shelf Life: Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

Posted By on Fri, Jul 9, 2010 at 1:54 PM

Genre: Coming-of-age comedy with dark linings

The Pitch: Husky private school outcast Seymour Herson becomes a special project for classmate Elliott Allagash, possibly the world’s richest and most Machiavellian teenager, who uses his fortune and conniving ways to make Seymour the most popular boy on campus.

First line: “My parents always took my side when I was a kid, no matter how much a screwed up. When I smashed my brand-new Sega Genesis during a temper tantrum, they blamed the game ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ for getting me riled up.”

It’s like, you know: Think P.G. Wodehouse or early Paul Rudnick penning a mash-up of Richie Rich and the young supervillain from the Artemis Fowl books.

Don’t hate him because he’s young and connected: Born in 1984 to New York Times editorialist Frank Rich, author and Harvard Lampoon president Simon Rich received a two-book contract from Random House before graduating in 2007. Elliot Allagash is his third book, after the thin humor collections Ant Farm and Free Range Chickens. Oh, and he was hired out of college as the youngest writer in the history of "Saturday Night Live:"

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