IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Books that slipped through the cracks

They arrived too late for our various deadlines, but we recognize them here
/ Source: msnbc.com

Since our book guides are quarterly, we often receive or discover books too late for review in that season's roundup. Books are published all year long, of course, and it's disappointing to stumble upon a deserving book that arrived just too late to make our deadlines.

As books editor, I've carefully saved some of the books that fell in between our seasonal book guides. Some are fiction, some nonfiction, some garnered major media attention, others seemed to slip into the void. All come highly recommended. May you find something among them that you'll enjoy.

On the road again
After being laid off from his job, Phillip Wilson lit out after a longtime dream and trained to become an over-the-road big truck driver. In "Driver: Six Weeks in an Eighteen Wheeler" (Lyons Press, $23), readers ride in the cab with the affable Wilson and his grouchy but lovable instructor, "Trainer." Though Wilson's supposed to be the newbie, he finds himself often saving Trainer's bacon, as when they're lost in New York City, or Trainer smokes the brakes on California's Grapevine. Wilson's not your stereotypical trucker ("driver" is the preferred title, by the way). While he fills readers in on the mundane details of trucking life, from picking up loads to mechanical problems, he takes time to notice the beauty of a nearby stream or the joy of that first morning coffee. And he and Trainer are on the road on Sept. 11, 2001, when news of the terrorist attacks begin to spread. "Driver" meanders a bit, like a road trip in no particular hurry, but the journey is solidly enjoyable.

Murder in the familyRachel Howard was just 10 in 1986 when her father, Stan, was stabbed to death in his home. In The Lost Night: A Daughter's Search for the Truth of her Father's Murder" (Dutton, $25), Howard dives back into the details of that horrible night. She's always vaguely suspected her father's girlfriend as knowing more than she lets on about the crime. Yet she fights to be fair, to determine if her suspicions are grounded or just the imaginings of a child. Reading the police report, she notes "the points where the report and my memory differed felt like vast canyons that I might plummet into." Not all crimes are solved in the quick 60 minutes, minus commercials, that television dramas or true-crime shows may lead us to believe. But if Howard has not discovered her father's murderer by the end of the book, she has perhaps rediscovered her father.

Marching as to warPut E.L. Doctorow's "The March" (Random, $26) right up there next to "Gone With the Wind" and "Cold Mountain" as a reminder that this nation remains forever fascinated with the Civil War. The title refers to, of course, Sherman's march to the sea, beginning in captured Atlanta in November, 1864, and ending with the capture of Savannah a month later. Some have complained that Doctorow's novel is too scattered, featuring too many voices. He does follow numerous characters, from freed slave girl Pearl to army surgeon Colonel Wrede Sartorious to Confederate pals Arly and Will, who escaped from prison and will use any con game to stay alive. Admittedly, some of the points of view Doctorow selects are weaker than the others, and some characters appear only briefly. But the book is worth a read for Pearl's story alone, as she marches from slavery to freedom, childhood to adulthood, moving forward with her changing country.

Teenage wastelandThe inside covers of Charles Burns' "Black Hole" (Pantheon, $25) say it all. The frontpapers show normal 1970s yearbook photos, kids smiling, some looking slightly stoned. The endpapers show the same kids, horribly deformed — with tumorous growths and bulges covering formerly healthy faces. Burns' amazing 350-plus page graphic novel tells the story of a bizarre sexually transmitted disease ravaging 1970s Seattle. Those who get it are shunned, many living homeless in the woods. Yet life goes on around them, as if they're given up for dead. The disease in "Black Hole" can be taken to be whatever the reader wants it to be — a strange Martian virus, AIDS, drug addiction, simply an amplification of the agony of puberty — but it wouldn't matter if we didn't care so much for the awkward teens both pre- and post-infection. Burns' book will stay with you long after you put it down.

Lost boys foundEarly on in "They Poured Fire On Us From The Sky" (PublicAffairs, $25), young Benjamin Ajak's father warns him that if their Sudanese village is attacked, the child must run and hide. "It did not sound difficult," Benjamin thinks. "I had run from lion and hyena." He was five years old. Shortly thereafter, he and his young cousins, Alephonsion and Benson Deng, had become three of the child refugees known as the Lost Boys, trekking thousands of miles in extreme conditions to reach refugee camps and finally, find a home in San Diego. The three alternate chapters in this inspirational compilation of their essays. Their memories of the horrors they faced — from hunger, thirst and desert conditions to the constant terror and death they witnessed — tumble forth, raw and fresh, on the pages.

Get your kicksHigh-school football is almost a religion in Texas, as H.G. Bissinger sketched out so well in the wonderful "Friday Night Lights." But the team in Carlton Stowers' "When Dreams Die Hard" (DaCapo, $23) plays a game that shares only the word "football" with "Dreams" and its Permian Panthers. Stowers, who's written some of the better true-crime tomes out there, looks at the six-man football team in tiny Penelope, Texas (pop. 211). Six-man is played at schools with enrollments of 99 or fewer students. Stowers calls it "Texas's athletic stepchild." The Penelope Wolverines rarely win, but there's something in the simplicity of their sport that, when compared to the excess of giant high schools that play the sport's traditional version, is at once refreshing and a little inspiring.

Kitchen queen
Is there a wedding today in which a Betty Crocker cookbook isn't among the gifts? In "Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food" (Simon & Schuster, $23), Susan Marks offers a biography of sorts of General Mills' kitchen diva. Want to know where Betty's name and signature came from? Wondering why chiffon cakes are so trumpeted in Betty Crocker's cookbooks? Interested in the famous red-clad portraits and how they evolved over the years? It's all here, presented in a straightforward and fun-to-read style. One quibble: An index would have been useful.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Books Editor.