Beyond The Best-Sellers: Nancy Pearl Recommends Under-The-Radar Reads NPR's go-to books guru has sent Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep a stack of books — titles she thinks deserve more attention. Here are her fiction picks, to kick off your summer reading.
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Beyond The Best-Sellers: Nancy Pearl Recommends Under-The-Radar Reads

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Beyond The Best-Sellers: Nancy Pearl Recommends Under-The-Radar Reads

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Book Reviews

Beyond The Best-Sellers: Nancy Pearl Recommends Under-The-Radar Reads

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I have here in the studio a shopping bag full of books. They're books that had been sent me by Nancy Pearl, who's a librarian who is often on this program giving us under-the-radar recommendations. And she's sent this incredible stack of books, and she's on the line to talk about them. Hi, Nancy.

NANCY PEARL, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Would you just remind people why it is that you arrange for a bag full of books to be sent to me from time to time?

PEARL: (Laughter) Well, Steve, I just think it's so important that readers learn about books that haven't been heavily promoted, what we would call mid-list books, both fiction and nonfiction.

INSKEEP: Or not "Fifty Shades Of Grey" books, is that what you're telling me basically?

PEARL: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Not necessarily best-sellers, but something of really high quality that you want to call attention to, new or old. And the first book on the stack is "The Revolutions" by Felix Gilman. What is this?

PEARL: Well, this is really a 21st-century example of Victorian science fiction, but with a little bit of steam punk or mixing the present into the past. And it's set in 1893, and the main character, Arthur Shaw, is caught between two warring magicians. So Arthur and his fiancee, Josephine, are separated when she takes part in a scientific experiment in the occult. And Josephine's consciousness becomes stranded among the celestial spheres.

INSKEEP: That could happen to any of us on any day.

PEARL: (Laughter) It could. This book owes a lot to the Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter books. And it's just - was fascinating to read. I'm a big fan of Felix Gilman's books, and I highly recommend his earlier books, which are science fiction/Westerns, I suppose, would be a good way of categorizing them.

INSKEEP: OK, and the next book on your stack here is described - at least in the blurb - as comparable to the best of le Carre. It's "The Swimmer." It's a novel by Joakim Zander. What's happening here?

PEARL: So "The Swimmer" - there are two main characters and one is a retired spy who comes out of retirement because a young woman is in trouble and he's actually the only one who can help her. And what happened with the young woman - a woman named Clara - is that she's involved in government, and she sees something that really endangers her life. She sees a laptop screen that she shouldn't have seen, and the race is on. Who's going to win?

INSKEEP: This is a classic thriller device - the unwilling witness to some event that immediately puts their life in danger.

PEARL: Absolutely, and it has to be a thriller rather than a le Carre-type spy novel because if you see something that you shouldn't and you go on the run then that's going to involve panting 'cause you're running so much - out of breatheness. And the pages are going to turn much faster than they would in a John le Carre.

INSKEEP: Now, do the pages turn quite the same way in the next book in our stack? This is "Etta And Otto And Russell And James."

PEARL: The pages do turn quickly in this book, but for a different reason. Not so much because you're following that breakneck speed of the plot, but because in "Etta And Otto And Russell And James" - a first novel by Emma Hooper - you're very interested in the characters and you want to find out more about them. So as you turn the pages you delve deeper into their lives, into their hopes, and it's a much different page-turner in a sense, but this is a lovely, lovely book. It's set partially around World War I and partially in the late 20th century. And it's about a woman named Etta who comes to this small town in Saskatchewan. She's only a little bit older than the students that she's hired to teach. And she ends up marrying Otto, who goes off to fight in World War I and comes back a damaged man. Russell is someone who was Otto's best friend - almost foster brother - and he has always loved Etta. Now they're in their 80s and Etta feels bereft because she has never seen the ocean, and she decides at the age of 83 that she is going to walk to the ocean. Well, if you live in Saskatchewan, you could go either west to the Pacific or east to the Atlantic. Etta decides...

INSKEEP: And not a short walk either way, yeah.

PEARL: (Laughter) No, right, right. One is not noticeably shorter than the other. And this is the story of her journey. Now, you might have noticed, Steve, that I have not said anything about James and that's because I really want people to meet James as the author intended with no preconceived anything.

INSKEEP: OK, and then there is "The Strangler Vine" by M.J. Carter.

PEARL: OK, Steve, this is your book.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

PEARL: This is a book that I think you would really, really...

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm already in. It's about British India. There's a map of India in 1837. I'm in; go on, go on.

PEARL: Yes, yes, so as you said, it's set in 1837. A member of the East India Company, William Avery, is in India buying into everything wonderful that the East India Company is doing. He's a proud representative of the British Empire.

INSKEEP: I guess we better explain that for a long time the British did not formally rule India. They had a company for that, and it was the East India Company, which effectively ran a lot of the subcontinent. Go on, go on.

PEARL: OK, so William is asked to track down a missing writer, and he is supposed to work with a kind of mysterious loner, a guy named in Jeremiah Blake, who used to be a political agent, but he's now, as the saying goes, gone native. And they have to work together to find this writer, and their journey to find this writer takes them all over India - hence the map - and meets rajas and thugs. So there is a lot in this book about the growth and the ending of the Thuggee movement, which is where we get the term thug. And these were bandits and murderers who preyed primarily on travelers. And it was a huge cult in India and caused a lot of death and damage. And, of course, the Brits were extremely eager to wipe them out. It's the first of a projected series. I personally cannot wait for the second one.

INSKEEP: You have pegged me, Nancy Pearl.

PEARL: (Laughter) As soon as I saw this book I thought I have to talk about that because Steve will love it.

INSKEEP: Under-the-radar books from Nancy Pearl. Nancy, always a pleasure.

PEARL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Our theme music was composed by B.J. Leiderman and arranged by Jim Pugh. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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