Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Reviews for “Ripper: a novel” by Isabel Allende intrigued me, since this is a total departure from all of her previous work. I’m a fan of Allende and have read other novels by her, which fall more into the magical realism and historical fiction categories.
But this is a mystery, and much more besides, and it’s definitely hard to put down. The main characters are both strong and striking. Amanda, a brilliant high school senior, is something of a misfit who plays an online game called “Ripper” (as in Jack) with several other like- minded teenagers around the world, as well as her grandfather. Amanda’s parents are divorced but still very much in her life. Her mother, Indiana, is a good hearted healer who’s involved with two very different men- one a Navy SEAL with a past, and the other an independently wealthy man about town. Amanda’s dad is San Francisco’s deputy chief of homicide. When Amanda and her cyber friends start investigating a series of murders they believe are related (but no one else thinks so) things really heat up. Richly drawn and engaging characters add a lot to this fast paced thriller.
I hope that author Allende gives us more like this one!
Ripper: a novel
I saw A star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith on a recommended list, and I’m so glad that I did. Historical fact skillfully blends with fiction to make a story that’s hard to put down.
It’s the story of five very different women, brought together in 1930 by a single shared experience- each of them had a son who was killed in World War I. That heartbreaking fact made each of them each a “Gold Star Mother”, an actual United States government designation. Thousands of women all across the country were offered the chance to travel to Europe to visit the final resting place of their sons, with all expenses paid by the United States.
In Smith’s novel, the five “Gold Star” women who are the focus couldn’t be more different. Cora, the youngest, is a librarian from rural Maine. Then there is Minnie, wife of an immigrant Russian Jewish chicken farmer; Katie, an Irish maid from Massachusetts; Wilhemina, the emotionally fragile wife of a banker, and Bobbie, a rich socialite from Boston. Joining hundreds of other Gold Star women, they travel by ship to France, where unexpected experiences and chance meetings will change their lives forever.
I did a little research and discovered that in 1929, Congress passed legislation that allowed mothers and widows of sons who died in service between the years of 1917 and 1921 the right to make a “pilgramage” to Europe to visit the resting place of their son. By 1933, when the project ended, almost 6,700 women out of an eligible 17,389 had made the trip.
It’s a fascinating story, and well told. For a change of pace, also try author April Smith’s mystery series featuring FBI agent Ana Gray. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed in those, either.
A star for Mrs. Blake
Reading a book by Jack Gantos can be a wild and crazy ride, in a good way- you never know what’s coming up next. That’s one of the things I like about his books. He doesn’t talk down to kids, either, or try to sugar coat the world. And he’s funny.
His book for kids and young adults, “Dead End in Norvelt”, won the Newbery Award. Now Gantos has written a sequel, “From Norvelt to Nowhere”. Twelve year old Jack lives in a small Pennsylvania town, with his mom; it’s the Cuban missile era. Jack’s mom arranges for him to accompany slightly mad old Miss Volker to New York City. She’s ostensibly going to pay homage to Eleanor Roosevelt, but Jack and Miss Volker are also on the track of an elusive murderer. And that’s just the start of this road trip story, filled with eccentric characters and lots of action.
From Norvelt to nowhere
I love cookbooks. I just enjoy looking through them, even if I never make any of the recipes. With Mollie Katzen’s newest cookbook, though, I can almost guarantee that you will want to try some recipes. The book is called “The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a new Generation”.
The recipes I tried were delicious and used ingredients that are easily available. The pictures alone are enough to make you want to get started ASAP, and you really don’t have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the recipes. I don’t usually buy cookbooks, but this just may be an exception!
The heart of the plate: vegetarian recipes for a new generation
This title immediately piqued my interest, since it was about both Italy and train travel. The author Tim Parks is British, and he has lived in Italy for over 20 years. He regularly travels by rail from his home in Verona to Milan for his work, as well as having travelled to other regions of Italy by train, so he’s well placed to give his thoughts. Whether he’s commenting on the passengers or staff, the history of railroads in Italy, or his views of modern Italy and its politics, it makes for entertaining and informative reading.
If you’re planning a trip or just enjoy travel writing from the comfort of home, give this a try!
Italian Ways: on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo
Does my dog know what I’m thinking? It always fascinates me to ponder the possibilities of communication between animals and humans. That’s just one reason why I found “We are all completely beside ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler so mesmerizing.
When we meet eighteen year old Rosemary, she’s a college student drifting through life. Rosemary meets bad girl Harlow, and it forces her to confront events in her past. It’s only part way through the book that we discover Rosemary’s dad was a famous psychologist, and Rosemary’s twin sister was a chimpanzee named Fern. They were raised together as an experiment, along with older brother Lowell, and it profoundly affects all their lives, in ways none of them could have expected.
This book raises a whole host of unsettling and provocative issues, told in Rosemary’s words. The story is by turns funny, poignant and totally readable, and I really cared about the characters in this book. It's one of those stories that you find yourself thinking about later at random moments- it stays with you.
We are all completely beside ourselves
I’m very much enjoying a mystery by a new (to me) author, that a work colleague recommended. The title is “The Dogs of Rome” by Conor Fitzgerald. Actually, this is the first book in the series featuring Commissario Alec Blume. Set in Rome, Blume is an ex-pat American who’s lived in Italy for 22 years, long enough to understand its inner workings. When he and his department investigate the murder of an animal rights activist, it opens up possible connections to the Mob.
What I like best about this book is the setting, and the characters. Blume is something of a world weary loner, but he hasn’t entirely given up on the human race. If you like police novels, especially ones set in European locales, this provides a new series to look forward to. I’ll be reading the others when this one is finished, for sure.
The Dogs of Rome
Looking for a great audio book? I loved the audio version of “Dodger” by Terry Pratchett. On a dark and stormy night (what else) in Victorian London, a young 17 year old man named Dodger happens upon a young woman who is being kidnapped. He rescues her, and being a young man who makes his living from the streets, knows how to survive and protect her. It fast becomes apparent that some very bad men are trying to get Felicity back. Whirlwind action, mystery and history combine to make great listening. I’ve listened to lots of audio books over the years, and the reader can make or break a story. The reader here does a great job, and sounds as though he’s thoroughly enjoying himself.
Pratchett has some real life people make appearances, such as Charles Dickens as a sharp newspaper reporter, and also Sweeney Todd, the famous barber murderer. Dodger interacts with them, in what Pratchett calls “historical fantasy.” It’s so well done that it seems perfectly natural.
I really enjoyed this audio version from start to finish, and hope Pratchett does a sequel, preferably soon!
For the month of April, I chose a teen title to blog about, and the one I picked was a lucky choice.
“Ship Breaker” by Paolo Bacigalupi is set on the United States Gulf coast following an unnamed apocalyptic event. It’s pretty much every person for themselves, and life is hard and cruel, although small communities have sprung up. Nailer, a teen age boy, is a scavenger of huge cargo tankers, along with crews of other young people who can fit into the small spaces of the ships to search for prized copper wire. A devastating hurricane upsets the already delicate balance of life, and after the storm has passed Nailer and a friend find a large passenger sailboat that has been wrecked. Amazingly, one person has survived, a teen age girl who claims to be from a very wealthy family. She says they will pay richly for her return- but does she really want to go back, and is she telling the truth?
What I really liked about this book was the imagined look at what life could be in the United States if there was a total breakdown of modern life as we know it. It’s a world where living by your wits and skills are the main keys to survival, and trust is not given lightly. “Ship Breakers” is a National Book Award finalist, and fortunately there is a sequel, which I definitely am going to read.
A co-worker recommended the book A Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie to me. What a great suggestion! In 1950’s era England, eleven year old Flavia de Luce finds a body in the family’s cucumber patch. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened in my entire life.” She attempts to solve the mystery ( sometimes to the consternation of the local police) using her intelligence, advanced knowledge of chemistry, and just plain persistence. A quirky family- two older, literary sisters and a widowed father who is an avid stamp collector-also figure in the story. Canadian author C. Alan Bradley won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel for this delightful mystery, the first in a series featuring memorable Flavia.
Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris first came to my attention on a “Best Mystery” list. It is a mystery, and much more. Set in modern day Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Nayir al-Sharqi is asked by his friend Othman to go with him into the desert to try and discover the whereabouts of Othman’s sixteen year old fiancé, Nouf. The young woman has disappeared into the desert three days before their wedding, seemingly without a trace. Nayir tries to discover what has happened to Nouf, with the help of Katya, a young woman working in the state medical examiner’s office.
What I found particularly fascinating about this book was the glimpse into modern Saudi Arabian life. The author has lived in Saudi Arabia and so has a unique perspective and insight into the lives of both men and women living and working there. I recommended this book to a friend. Her book group chose it as their monthly read, and she said it resulted in a lively discussion.
If you’re looking for a mystery with a different slant, give this a try!