STEVE INSKEEP, host:
OK. A reading guru, librarian Nancy Pearl is back with us this morning, and she has another stack of what she describes as under the radar books. Nancy, I should mention it's not really a stack here. It's more of a pile. I've just thrown them all over the place. Welcome back to the program.
NANCY PEARL (Author, "Book Lust", TV Show Host, "Book Lust with Nancy Pearl"): Thank you. More of a slump.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PEARL: A slump of books in front of you.
INSKEEP: A slump of books. Let me take the one that's largest in square - square footage here. It's called, "Previously," and it looks like the kind of book that I get to read to my three-and-a-half year old.
PEARL: And that's an absolutely perfect book for that, because it's Allan Ahlberg's book called "Previously." And in this book we learn what happened before the obvious event of each nursery rhyme or fairy tale. So, this is…
INSKEEP: You mean like "The Three Bears" and things like that.
PEARL: So, what happened before Goldie Locks got to the three bears house. How she ran into Jack and Jill and what happened before they fell down the hill. And what happened with the frog prince. And the wonderful thing about this picture book is, as in the best picture books, I think, the text and the pictures really have to be of the same spirit, and here they are. And there's just a wonderful picture of the frog - remember before he becomes the prince and he has to be kissed by a princess.
INSKEEP: He looks a little grumpy, this frog.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PEARL: Well, I thought he looked bebused(ph).Sort of like, what am I doing in this frog costume when I am really a person?
INSKEEP: OK. Children's book there. Let's go in a different direction. You know what, let's pick the pick that appears to have a bite out of it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PEARL: It makes a lot sense when you know that the hero of "Firmin" by Sam Savage...
PEARL: Yes, the eponymous hero of that book is really a rat. But Steve I mean, it's really, a rat.
INSKEEP: Ah ha.
PEARL: One of those with four feet and a tail. And Firmin grows up in the basement of a bookstore in Boston. And he ingests along with very little of his mother's milk a lot of books. He reads and digests literature...
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: So, what happens to Firmin?
PEAR: Well, Firmin really wants a destiny that he can be something and be meaningful. And this is what he says: Could it be that I, despite my unlikely appearance have a destiny? And by that I meant the sort of thing people have in stories where the events of a life, no matter how they churn and swirl, are swirled and churned in the end into a kind of pattern. Lives and stories have direction and meaning, even stupid and meaningless lives like Lennie's in "Of Mice and Men" acquire through their place in a story at least the dignity and meaning of being stupid, meaningless lives. The consolation of being exemplars of something. In real life you do not even get that. I think anyone who loves to read would really like to get to know Firmin.
INSKEEP: The next book in our stack here is "The Broken Shore: A Novel" by Peter Temple.
PEARL: This is the shore of Australia, and the way I would best describe "The Broken Shore" is that it's a great mystery with a social conscious. And when I read this actually, Steve, I thought if you would read a mystery this might be one you would very much enjoy.
INSKEEP: Mm hmm.
PEARL: The main character is…
INSKEEP: I got a weakness for mysteries I have to tell you.
PEARL: Oh you do?
INSKEEP: Of course I do. Raymond Chandler. I grew up reading Raymond Chandler stuff.
PEARL: This has a little bit of that noirishness of Raymond Chandler. But the main character is policeman named Joe Cashin who lives in suburb outside Melbourne, and he's on a leave of absence because of a terrible accident that's occurred in the course of duty. But a very wealthy man in his district is attacked and left for dead, and the two suspects appear to be two aboriginal young men. So, Joe Cashin takes on the case.
INSKEEP: And if you think about Australia's really grim history of coming to terms with aborigines and what Australia did to them, this must be…
INSKEEP: Where the social conscious part comes.
PEARL: Absolutely. The interesting thing is that when I was in Brisbane a few years ago I kept asking people well what Australian mystery writers should I read? Who's really great? And the consensus was - the grand consensus was Peter Temple.
INSKEEP: OK. Couple more books here. "The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service" by Andrew Meier.
PEARL: This is non-fiction, and it's a fascinating story of a man named Cy Oggins who really fell in love with Soviet communism at a young age and was betrayed by those ideals.
INSKEEP: We should mention the guy compiling this information, writing this book, Andrew Meier is somebody who is a well respected journalist on Russia. He's been on our air before. And just very briefly who was Cy Oggins?
PEARL: Yes. Cy Oggins was a spy for the common turn(ph) and was evidently killed directly on Stalin's orders after spending 7 or 8 years in Siberia.
INSKEEP: Was he an American who then fled to the Soviet Union?
PEARL: Yes. He was an American who - he and his wife Nerma had such strong ideals about what communism could do for the world. They were sent as members of the common turn - sent to China, did spying in China, some in Europe. Then Norma came back to the United States, and Cy was taken to the prison camps in Siberia.
INSKEEP: We're getting to the end of this slump here - the book slump, the pile, the slag heap of books that we have here - "The Ghost in Love" by Jonathan Carroll.
PEARL: Jonathan Carroll has written many books before this. But this is actually the first one that I picked up and read. And the beginning of chapter nine - I'm going to read the first couple of sentences of chapter nine, and then depending on how you respond that will give you a signal as to whether you should read the book or not.
PEARL: A man, a dog, and two understandably disgruntled women were walking down a side walk. One woman was a ghost. The man should have been dead. The dog was a reincarnation of the should-have-been-dead's girlfriend. And the last, the tall woman, was an innocent bystander who had the bad fortune of loving two of the others. If that's a sentence that you can embrace with joy, I think you oughta read the book.
PEARL: So, in this book the main character named Ben Gould(ph) falls and hits his head, and by all reasonable things that happen should have died. But he doesn't die, and the ghost who has been sent to take him back, wherever, is flummoxed, doesn't know what to do. I would call this really a loopy heartwarming novel with a philosophical bent.
INSKEEP: How do you think a lot of these books drop below the radar? Are there just too many of them out there or what?
PEARL: I think there are probably too many of them out there. I think that all of these books need somebody to love them and to put them in people hands.
INSKEEP: Nancy, thanks very much. Thanks for at least putting them into my hands, and we'll see if they get into somebody else's as well.
PEARL: (Laughing) Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl is author of "Book Lust," "More Book Lust," and "Book Crush." You can find a list of the best books of 2008 at our website npr.org. It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Happy New Year, I'm Steve Inskeep.