Writing yesterday about Michael Pollan’s Cooked got me thinking about other great books about food and its preparation. In my mind, Harold McGee’s masterful On Food and Cooking is the best writing I have found on food, covering chemistry, preparation, taste, individual fruits, vegetables, fish, cheese, meats, and pretty much anything else you might eat—algae anyone?
Whether you want to know about sugar substitutes and their qualities (p. 660-661), how baking pans affect the qualities of the item being baked (p. 563), what drinkers mean when they talk about the “tears” in strong wines or spirits (p. 717), or how you get from tea leaves to black, Oolong, or green tea (both Chinese and Japanese) (p. 438) there is something here for you.
Along the way, McGee includes recipes, food lore, quotations, and more, but the heart of the book is the comprehensive exploration of how cooking, fermenting, and other forms of processing affect the taste, texture, and edibility of food stuffs. An obvious appeal here is for readers who are cooks themselves and are perhaps developing new recipes. McGee is a great source for figuring out how to best combine and prepare ingredients. The book also is a useful compendium of cultural histories of food and ingredients. For instance, the chapter “Cereal Doughs and Batters” begins with a section on the evolution of bread from prehistoric to modern times (concluding with a section on “The decline and revival of traditional breads.”
On Food and Cooking is best read by dipping into an chapter that looks interesting, but be forewarned, McGee is an addictive writer, and, like a bag of potato chips, you will find yourself wanting to read just one more section. For readers who have forgotten their chemistry, there is a helpful “Chemistry Primer” at the end of the book that covers atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, energy, and the phases of matter. Any food lover will find a banquet of topics here to feast on.
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Ever since purchasing On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee back in the 1980s, I have been a fan of books that explore the scientific and cultural aspects of food and its preparation. I recently picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s wonderful Cooked and was delighted to discover another title I need to add to my permanent collection of food books.
Pollan is probably best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he explores in sobering fashion how we eat in the 21st century. In Cooked, he looks at the four elements—fire, water, air, and earth—and how humans use these elements to transform animals and plants into food. Pollan has a clear affection for food and food preparation, and his enthusiasm and passion drive the stories here. In each of the sections of the book Pollan seeks out experts in the field—a barbeque grill master, a master baker, wheat growers, brewers, cheesemakers, and more—and talks with them about their work. Like John McPhee, another of my favorite writers, Pollan gives his characters the stage and lets them talk about their own passions in their voices.
Pollan also writes engagingly about his own attempts at cooking. Pollan writes about grilling, making liquid-based dishes, baking bread, and brewing not only as an observer but also as a participant. In doing so, he makes clear the value in preparing your own food from scratch, rather than purchasing processed meals. Cooking forces us to slow down, think about things closely, and then to share with family and friends the results of our work.
Cooked also provides a somewhat bleak picture of contemporary eating habits and commercial food preparation. In exploring the concepts of taste, Pollan relates how the processed food that makes up a disturbing percentage of our diet relies on unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar, and salt to make up for the lack of careful, and slow, preparation. After reading Cooked you may come away wanting to spend a bit more time in the kitchen, baking a loaf of sourdough bread, making a hearty stew for a cool fall evening’s meal, or appreciating a well-aged cheese. At least I hope so.
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Possum Come a-Knockin’ is a rhyming-text book that shows a family in the country going about their business when they get an unusual visitor.
Granny and Pappy, Ma and Pa, and Brother and Sis are all too wrapped up in their activities to notice someone knocking at the door, but Tom-cat, Coon-dawg, and the narrator (who calls herself “me”) all know something isn’t right. They all hear someone knock-knock-knocking on the door.
You’ll watch through the window as each member of the family goes on knittin’ and whittlin’ and cookin’ taters, until finally the pets cause such a ruckus that they go to investigate. But when they open the door, the mischievous possum is nowhere to be found!
This book, written by Nancy Van Laan, is fun to read aloud, and you and your children will laugh at the great illustrations. Grab a copy and have fun watching this zany family!
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Charlotte shares this review:
You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst. Unless you’re me. I came here because my mother said I had to.
The original setting is the first great thing about this book: it’s 1935, and Moose Flanagan’s family has just moved to Alcatraz. His father works as an electrician and part-time guard on the famous prison island. Between his father’s long work hours and the family’s ongoing troubles trying to raise his special-needs sister Natalie, no one seems to have much time for Moose. So maybe no one will notice this scheme cooked up by the warden’s daughter, a 12-year-old femme fatale named Piper, to market Alcatraz laundry service—the only laundry service run by convicted felons!—to kids at school.
In 1935, no one used the word “autistic” yet, which makes it even harder for Moose to explain why his 16-year-old sister needs babysitting, or throws tantrums, or has such a phenomenal gift for numbers. Mrs. Flanagan has tried everything she can imagine to break through Natalie’s isolation. Her last hopes are fixed on a progressive, experimental boarding school, the Esther P. Marinoff. But if the school won’t let Natalie enroll…
I expected this book to be funny, but I did not expect it to bring tears to my eyes, which may have happened. Sure, the gangster legends and the rules of life on a prison island are interesting. Did you know Al Capone started the first soup kitchen in Chicago?
But this is not a one-gimmick book; it’s a compassionate story about an ordinary, likable family under a lot of stress. There are tensions in every relationship, especially between Moose, a kid shouldering the responsibilities of an adult, and his mother, who can’t enjoy her son’s accomplishments without resenting the things her daughter will never have. The character of Natalie was inspired by the author’s sister, Gina, who had a severe form of autism; maybe that’s why both the strengths and the weaknesses in this family seem so true.
And it’s funny. If you’ve already enjoyed this book, head straight for the sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, in which Piper continues to be a real piece of work, Moose finds it difficult to be best friends with everybody, and J. Edgar Hoover gets his pocket picked during dinner. Now with more gangster action!
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Or try the audiobook.
Blackberry Banquet is a delightful treat for young summer readers. Perfect for expressive shared reading between adults and children, this story infuses elements of sequence, patterning, rhyme, and characterization, making it a great story for young readers.
Set in the forest, Blackberry Banquet tells the story of different animals that visit the blackberry bush to enjoy some fresh, sweet berries. A new animal and its accompanied sounds appear on each new page, and each page features an animal slightly bigger than the previous one until finally, a BEAR appears at the blackberry bush and frightens all of the animals away.
Besides writing a delightful story, the author has included non-fiction information on the back pages, including a recipe for blackberry ice-cream, a diagram to introduce food chains, and other factual information about the animals in the book.
This colorful book with bright, engaging illustrations by Lisa Downey reminds me of Jan Brett’s stories The Mitten and The Hat. To experience it for yourself, be sure to check out a copy of Blackberry Banquet!
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Jennifer D. shares this review:
Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror is a volume of short stories told within the framework of a great uncle sharing scary tales with his young nephew. These are not terribly terrifying tales, but they are just eerie enough to capture a wide audience. They are also good for those of us who like a good scary shiver, but do not want to be kept awake all night with fright.
Among my favorites of Uncle Montague’s tales are “The Un-Door”, about two con-artists performing a séance which goes very wrong, “The Gilt Frame”, in which a girl is offered three wishes and is not very careful with them, and “A Ghost Story”, which tells the story of a girl attending a wedding to which she was invited, but at which she is not really welcome. “The Demon Bench End”, and “Offerings” are fine stories, as well. The impetus for telling these tales comes from items decorating Uncle Montague’s study – artifacts from the lives of those whose stories he now tells. We come to learn that Uncle Montague has a story of his own to tell.
For those looking for more just-spooky-enough stories, this book is followed by Priestley’s Tales of Terror from the Black Ship.
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My final film review this week is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, the French horror classic that influenced Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster of a run-down boarding school for boys. He’s a mean-spirited and petty man whose cruelty extends to his long-suffering wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot), and his mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), both teachers at the school.
After Michel beats her the night before a school break, Nicole decides to take action. She enlists Christina’s help in a plan to drug then murder Michel. Although she is initially reluctant, Christina agrees to help Nicole. The two women leave the school and travel to Nicole’s apartment, where Nicole laces a bottle of wine with a powerful sedative. Christina then calls Michel and tells him she is making plans for a divorce. Enraged, Michel goes to Nicole’s apartment to confront his wife. During the course of the argument, he drinks some of the wine and passes out. With Christina’s help, Nicole drowns Michel in the bathtub. The two women take Michel’s body back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool. When his body rises to the surface, it will appear that his death was an accidental drowning.
Although the plan is seemingly foolproof, Christina becomes concerned the following day when Michel’s body does not surface. When the women finally have the pool drained, they make a shocking discovery: Michel’s corpse is not in the pool. Christina launches a search for her husband, following up on stories of unidentified bodies and hiring Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), a retired detective. At the same time, bizarre clues and sightings of the deceased Michel test Christina’s fragile health and her alliance with Nicole.
Les Diaboliques is a cunning thriller that relies on surprise twists and unusual clues to generate suspense. The pacing is particularly effective; Clouzot gradually builds the tension as Christina comes to realize she’s not sure if her husband is dead or alive. The acting is first-rate. Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret give strong, nuanced performances. I also enjoyed Charles Vanel’s supporting performance as Fichet. On the surface, Fichet appears to be a good-natured, if occasionally bumbling, detective; however, he has a sharp mind and keen insight that helps further the investigation.
Equal parts murder mystery and ghost story, Les Diaboliques should appeal to fans of classic horror films and detective stories.
Les Diaboliques is in French with English subtitles.
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Life is relatively uneventful for high school student Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale). When he’s not spending time with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), or best friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), he’s watching horror films. He’s particularly enamored of a late night horror film series called Fright Night, hosted by Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a one-time star of Hammer-style vampire films.
Charley’s routine life is interrupted when the Victorian mansion next door is purchased by a man named Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon). Although Charley’s mother insists Jerry bought the mansion because he restores houses for a living, odd incidents around the house convince Charley that Jerry may be a vampire. One night, Charley sees Jerry and his housemate Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) carrying what looks like a coffin into the basement. A few nights later, a young woman who visited Jerry’s house turns up dead. Charley starts watching the house through his bedroom window and soon gets the proof he needs when he sees Jerry biting a woman’s neck.
Convinced he needs to do something to stop Jerry, Charley first turns to his local police department. Billy offers plausible explanations for everything Charley saw and the officer ultimately dismisses Charley’s story, believing he has an overactive imagination. Amy and Ed are skeptical of Charley’s story as well, and in desperation he turns to the one person he thinks will believe him: Peter Vincent. This turns into yet another dead end as Peter informs him that Fright Night is being cancelled because, “The kids today don’t have the patience for vampires. They want to see some mad slasher running around and chopping off heads.” Thinking Charley is an obsessed fan, Peter speeds away from the station.
Concerned that Charley’s belief that Jerry is a vampire is affecting his mental state, Amy and Ed contact Peter and offer to pay him if he will demonstrate to Charley that Jerry is not a vampire. Peter agrees, and a meeting is arranged with Jerry. The meeting is intended to be a harmless way of putting Charley’s mind at ease; however, the lives of Charley, Ed, Amy and Peter are put in grave danger when Peter accidently discovers that Jerry really is a vampire.
What I enjoy most about Fright Night is the way Holland (who also wrote the screenplay) deftly mixes humor with horror. The scenes from Peter Vincent’s show, particularly the clips from Vincent’s films – complete with Roddy McDowall in a bad wig – gently parody the Gothic vampire films popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Not surprisingly, the Peter Vincent character has some of the best lines in the film and McDowall gives a wonderfully droll performance. The rest of the cast deliver solid performances, particularly Chris Sarandon as the charming and seductive Jerry Dandridge. The elaborate visual effects are effective and creepy, but don’t overwhelm the story.
A remake was released in 2011, with Colin Farrell playing the role of Jerry Dandridge and David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who) as Peter Vincent, a Las Vegas magician and vampire expert. I recommend the original film, but fans of Colin Farrell and David Tennant might enjoy the remake.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) enjoys a prosperous career as a banker with all the trappings of success; however, he has few personal connections and is estranged from his former wife Elizabeth and younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). On Nicholas’ 48th birthday, Conrad pays him a surprise visit and gives him a voucher from a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). If Nicholas redeems this voucher, he will receive a virtual reality game custom designed for him. Conrad refuses to describe the game in detail, but insists that it is a life-changing experience.
Intrigued, Nicholas visits CRS and meets with a man named Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn). Like Conrad, he offers few specifics about the game, telling Nicholas that it’s like an “experiential Book-of the-Month club.” Nicholas decides to fill out a lengthy application for the game as well as undergo a series of physical and psychological examinations. Shortly after applying for the game, he receives a message from CRS informing him that his application was rejected. However, this message actually turns out to be the first move in Nicholas’ game.
Nicholas continues to go about his daily business, but soon cracks start appearing in his orderly world that may or may not be a part of this game. These range from the mildly annoying and inconsequential – a leaking pen and a locked briefcase – to the bizarre – a trashed hotel room filled with photos that appear to show Nicholas in compromising positions.
Along the way, Nicholas discovers clues to the game, and one of these clues leads him to a waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), who may be an innocent victim of the game or one of its key figures. As Nicholas continues to play the game, the stakes get higher, and soon the game threatens his career, finances, and life.
The Game is a fascinating portrait of a man whose carefully constructed life is completely upended by forces beyond his control. Nicholas is being manipulated, but by whom and for what purpose? Is the game a harmless, if occasionally inconvenient, diversion, or a sinister plot to gain control over his life and his fortune? Nicholas’ attempts to find answers to these questions lead him down the rabbit hole to a surreal nightmare that tests his patience and sanity.
I especially enjoyed the performances in the film. Michael Douglas is perfect as the successful but distant Nicholas, and Deborah Kara Unger brings an intriguing icy reserve as the mysterious Christine. Director David Fincher keeps the pacing sharp and focused, gradually ratcheting up the tension as the game becomes more intense and dangerous.
A complex thriller filled with unpredictable plot twists and moments of dark humor, The Game is a good choice for anyone looking for a surreal thriller this Halloween.
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Looking for the perfect “good-night” book? Try Hillside Lullaby by Hope Vestergaard, a good night lullaby that is sure to evoke the sweetest dreams.
Hillside Lullaby tells the story of a “wild child not ready to close her eyes” and the mother who tucks her into bed. All around her, the animals outside are preparing for their night of slumber, too: the frogs, raccoon, deer, and rabbits.
Told in rhyme, Hillside Lullaby shows different views of mothers getting their children ready for bed. Children reading this book will be able to predict what animal’s bedtime routine is featured next, as each page reveals a small picture of the animal that will be detailed on the next pages. This picture book includes sweet, vibrant illustrations of the hillside and its creatures at night, making it impossible to fear the dark.
After all of the animals drift off to sleep, so too does the little girl “with the song of the hill in her head.”
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Barry shares this review:
Neil Gaiman is probably best known for his writing for adults, the superb graphic novel Sandman or carefully crafted fiction such Anansi Boys or his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. I think though that Gaiman deserves to be equally well known for his writing for children and young adults. Coraline is a sublimely creepy tale that is a perfect read on a rainy autumn evening.
As in so many tales of the supernatural, our heroine, Coraline, finds herself at loose ends. She and her parents live in an old ramshackle house that has been turned into flats. She has explored the grounds, and had encounters with the other inhabitants of the place (a pair of aging actresses and an old man who says he is training a mouse circus). On a rainy day, while exploring indoors, Coraline discovers an locked door, whose entrance, when opened, has been bricked over. The door holds a strange fascination for her though, and one day she unlocks the door to find that the bricks are gone.
Of course she goes on through, and there finds a strange version of her own world. Coraline meets her “other” parents and her strange neighbors are apparently there too, as well as a disturbing community of talking rats, who seem to have dreams of domination. Coraline quickly discovers that there are other children trapped in this seemingly pleasant, though skewed version of her home, and she takes it on herself to save them and to restore the balance of her world. She faces some horrifying creatures in her quest, and finds help where she least expected. Through his use of language and his power of description Gaiman creates a world that is both believable and chilling.
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The films of French director Claude Chabrol are often compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s, and in his film Merci Pour le Chocolat (based on the 1948 novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong) there is a similar level of suspense and craftsmanship.
The film opens with the wedding of Marie-Claire “Mika” Muller (Isabelle Huppert) and André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc). Mika runs her family’s successful chocolate company in Lausanne, Switzerland, and André is a famous concert pianist. This is the couple’s second chance at love. They were previously married and divorced years earlier, and reunited after the tragic death of André’s second wife, Lisbeth, a photographer. Mika’s relationship history with André is the subject of lively gossip at the wedding, with one guest telling another, “She hates losing.”
The couple lives in an elegant mansion in Lausanne with André and Lisbeth’s son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Shortly after the wedding, a young woman named Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis) pays the family a visit. Jeanne was born at the same hospital as Guillaume, and when André came to the hospital to see his wife and child, the nurse mistakenly brought Jeanne to him instead of Guillaume. Although Jeanne’s mother, Louise, insists that the error was immediately corrected, Jeanne is struck by the curious coincidence that she’s a pianist just like André. The purpose of her surprise visit is twofold: she would like additional coaching before an upcoming competition and she wants to see if it’s possible that she and Guillaume really were switched at birth.
André is impressed with Jeanne’s talent and offers to help her practice for the competition. He welcomes the chance to help an aspiring concert pianist since his son Guillaume is not musically inclined. Guillaume, however, is distant, suspicious of Jeanne’s motives for visiting his father. Mika is warm and welcoming, but an incident causes Jeanne to wonder if there’s more to Mika than meets the eye. While admiring some of Lisbeth’s photographs, Jeanne sees Mika deliberately spill a flask of hot chocolate she’s prepared for Guillaume. Jeanne asks her boyfriend Axel to help her investigate Mika and her reason for spilling the chocolate.
As Jeanne becomes more involved in the lives of André, Mika and Guillaume, long buried family secrets begin to emerge and Mika’s behavior grows increasingly unpredictable. Is Mika’s charm and elegance merely masking sinister intentions, and what is in the chocolate she always insists on preparing herself?
At the center of this gripping psychological thriller is a compelling performance by the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert. On the surface, Mika appears to be generous and caring. She opened her home to André, Lisbeth and Guillaume when they needed a stable place to live and she uses the profits from the chocolate company to fund anti-pain clinics. Although her behavior appears to be good, she secretly delights in doing things to catch people off guard, like spilling a pot of boiling water on Guillaume’s foot. Huppert’s performance captures the enigmatic nature of Mika and the compulsions that drive her behavior throughout the film.
Chabrol establishes a strong tone that perfectly fits the plot and characters. The film moves at a steady and deliberate pace as the secrets are gradually revealed. Music also plays an important part in the story and Chabrol’s use of Liszt’s Funérailles is effectively quite chilling.
Hitchcock fans looking for other well-crafted suspense movies should consider trying the films of Claude Chabrol.
Merci pour le Chocolat is in French with English subtitles.
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Elsie’s Bird, a perfect read for young fans of historical fiction and/or for children who have recently relocated, tells the story of a young girl named Elsie from Boston. Elsie loves the sounds of Boston: the sounds of horses’ hooves clopping on the sidewalk, the sounds of the skip-rope songs she and her friends would sing, the sounds of fisherman, the sounds of birds, the sounds of the church bell. When Elsie’s Papa decides to move them out west to the Nebraska prairie after her mother dies, Elsie feels lonely and misses the sounds of the city.
Afraid of getting lost in the tall prairie grass, Elsie chooses to stay inside most of the time and comforts herself by singing songs to her canary, Timmy Tune. When Timmy Tune escapes, Elsie abandons her fear to search for him in the tall prairie grass and ends up making unexpected friendships.
Elsie’s Bird showcases the companionship that animals can offer to humans, especially to children, and encourages children to believe that they can overcome new and difficult situations. The illustrations by Caldecott award winner David Small will transport readers to a time long ago where they can “skip-rope” on the streets of Boston and overlook the vast prairie land of the west.
Jane Yolen’s creation is a great addition to studies of the past that even children today will be able to relate to.
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Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is a wealthy and free-spirited socialite living in San Francisco. One afternoon she visits a pet shop, where she meets a man named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) who’s looking for a pair of lovebirds for his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Mitch has met Melanie before, but she does not recognize him. Knowing her propensity for practical jokes, Mitch decides to play one of his own and pretends to mistake her for a sales clerk. Melanie’s anger at Mitch over his joke quickly turns to interest. She makes a few inquiries and discovers he lives in Bodega Bay with Cathy and his widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Determined to see him again, Melanie purchases lovebirds as a surprise gift for Cathy and travels to Bodega Bay to visit Mitch and his family.
Once she arrives in Bodega Bay, Melanie discovers that Mitch’s house is only accessible by boat. She also meets several of the local residents, including Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), Cathy’s teacher and Mitch’s former lover. She rents a boat, goes to the house while Mitch and his family are out, and leaves the birds along with a note for Cathy. Just as she’s heading back, Mitch sees her on the water and watches as she’s inexplicably attacked by a seagull. He offers his assistance and invites her to dinner that evening. Melanie wasn’t planning on spending the night in Bodega Bay, but she’s interested in Mitch, so she rents a room in Annie’s house for the night and accepts the dinner invitation.
While at the Brenners’ house for dinner, Melanie bonds with Cathy over the lovebirds, and enjoys Mitch’s company. Lydia, however, is less concerned with Mitch’s new love interest than she is about the chickens she keeps on her property. The chickens won’t eat and, curiously, the neighbors’ chickens are refusing to eat as well. The dinner ends on a sour note after Mitch teases Melanie about a scandalous escapade that made the society pages. Once she returns to Annie’s house, Melanie learns more about Mitch and Annie’s ill-fated relationship, and why Annie relocated to Bodega Bay. Mitch later calls to apologize and invites Melanie to Cathy’s birthday party. After accepting the invitation, Annie and Melanie hear a thump at the front door. They open the door and discover a dead bird on the porch.
The unusual behavior of the chickens, the seagull attack, and the dead bird on Annie’s porch are not isolated and unrelated incidents: they portend dark and sinister events involving birds, including the strange death of Lydia’s neighbor and an attack on a group of schoolchildren. Melanie’s romantic getaway quickly turns into a fight for survival as the town of Bodega Bay is inundated by scores of birds whose attacks only grow in frequency and viciousness.
The Birds is frightening because the villain is not your average horror film creature. Instead of a vampire, werewolf, or ghost, the citizens of Bodega Bay are facing a threat from the natural world whose motive is unknown and whose behavior is violent and unpredictable. Hitchcock builds the tension slowly, starting with odd but seemingly random events that culminate in a harrowing night for Melanie and the Brenners.
More than 50 years after its release, The Birds remains a classic of the horror genre and one of Hitchcock’s finest films.
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Charlotte shares this review:
Wisecracking brothers with swords and guns, on the run from the demons that killed their father. This could have been a run-of-the-mill teenage urban fantasy with demon hunting and chase scenes, but first-time author Brennan also gives us an intriguing, sardonic narrator who hooked me into a story I didn’t expect.
Sixteen-year-old Nick Ryves is a man of few words and many weapons. His priorities are simple: to protect his brother, Alan, at any cost, and to protect their mother, but only because Alan has some weird, sappy attachment to her. In general, other people and other people’s emotions are a waste of Nick’s time.
The Ryves brothers have stayed one step ahead of the demons for years, but this time, they’re slowed down by two kids from school: Jamie, who’s unwittingly gotten himself marked for demon possession, and his devoted sister Mae, who’s willing to do anything to get him un-marked. They’re messing up the uneasy balance of Nick’s family triangle. They’re throwing off his priorities. Alan’s taking stupid risks just to help Jamie, or maybe to impress Mae, and for the first time in their lives, he’s hiding secrets from his brother. This cannot end well.
I loved Nick’s point of view. I loved watching him try to interpret the world through his brother’s reactions and facial expressions. (And then he would cross the line from grumpy and laconic to really, truly, take-the-knives-away-from-this-boy scary, and I’d wonder what I’d gotten myself into.) Brennan springs surprises throughout the fast-paced plot. Even while I was congratulating myself on predicting some plot twist, a character would sneak around my mental blind side and do something completely unexpected.
While the focus is on brothers Nick and Alan, there’s a solid ensemble cast in which each of the characters gets a moment and some Buffyesque one-liners. The Demon’s Lexicon wraps up without a cliffhanger, but it’s also the setup for what should be a fun and unconventional series.
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Harvard’s extraordinary Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon, returns as the central character in this fast paced, intellectual, thriller. As the story opens, Langdon is waking up, disoriented, in a hospital. The people around him are not speaking English, but Italian. While it makes one wonder if Langdon actually keeps office hours on campus (he never seems to be there), it also grabs your attention. From the initial scene there are twists, turns, surprises, danger, and discoveries. Inferno introduces readers to an entirely new cast of characters including Dr. Sienna Brooks, Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, The Provost, and Bertrand Zobrist, who keep readers turning pages late into the night.
This is Dan Brown’s fourth Robert Langdon novel. With each book the stakes seem to grow, and as this plot unfolds the potential consequences of not solving the puzzle quickly expand beyond the lives of a few people. As the title will suggest for some, crucial to Inferno’s story is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The author has Langdon using his unique knowledge of symbols to examine and analyze Dante’s work, extracting clues, revealing truths, and saving lives. Langdon’s expertise and his eidetic recollection of art serve as key factors in the story.
Dan Brown’s smooth writing and attention to detail make for exciting story-telling. Brown engages his reader with vivid descriptions of historic architecture, art, geography, and society. The places, art, and history he includes in his novel are largely factual. The narrative Brown weaves into the fact is a big part of what makes Inferno so entertaining for me.
Another part is the protagonist. I find myself awed by Langdon’s superhuman personality. He embodies a combination of being unpretentious, ethical, brilliant, driven, analytical, and confident. Because Langdon has no significant character flaws, I think we need the suspension of disbelief that fiction allows to make the character convincing. I still can’t quite visualize Dr. Langdon, since I’ve never met a middle-aged, brilliant academic who also is extremely physically fit, and stands firm in the face of certain death. Indiana Jones showed us that archaeology and adventure are inseparably linked but, before Robert Langdon, who among us had included symbology in that cosmology? Is it a leap to expect that someone will soon write about the exciting exploits of a suave, globe trotting, death-defying librarian? After all, librarians are pretty cool too.
Why someone wouldn’t want to be friends with a lemur is beyond me, but the young boy in How to Lose a Lemur certainly wants to get rid of the lemur friend he has accidentally acquired. You know what they say: “Once a lemur takes a liking to you, there is not much that can be done about it.”
But he tries! He travels on bike, by train, and over mountains to lose his lemur, but his lemur just follows right along! Once he realizes that he is lost and can’t get back home, it’s up to his lemur friend – the very friend he’s been trying to escape from – that can help him find his way back!
Perfect for a discussion about friendship, How to Lose a Lemur tells an imaginative story with engaging, collage-like illustrations. The text on each page is large enough for the youngest eyes, and many high-frequency words appear throughout the book, making it a perfect interactive read-aloud for emergent readers.
To enjoy an interactive read-aloud with your little ones, share this story with them soon!
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Andrew shares this review:
So, what would you give for the chance to see a dead loved one again? How about seeing them at the significant times in their lives, times you couldn’t possibly have known about? What about the chance to talk with them in their afterworld? Sixteen-year-old Zoe discovers that the price may be far more than she believed possible.
Zoe’s father died unexpectedly. Not only has she lost her beloved dad, his life insurance company has declared that he never existed (at least in their files). She and her mom are forced to move from their familiar home to a cramped urban apartment while Zoe’s mom searches for work. Zoe has a history of cutting and drug use, so her mom is always on her back.
Her sole consolation is a young man she regularly sees in her dreams. Valentine is like a brother to her, and the tree fort they hang out in is a refuge from the bizarre world beneath their feet. He listens to her, offers good advice, and is genuinely present and concerned for her. But she doesn’t have any idea if he’s real or a manifestation of something else.
While skipping school and mindlessly wandering through San Francisco, she winds up in front of an old record store specializing in punk music on vinyl. But the weird store owner has another room, one only certain people can see. Inside the room are discs that have captured the lives and souls of the dead. Zoe gets a taste of her father’s life, but she’ll have to pay with something more precious and talismanic if she wants more. When she decides she won’t pay and is cut off, she must summon her wits and her courage to find a path to the underworld.
But that underworld is a hellish landscape, a purgatory without hope of either redemption or judgment. Zoe has to negotiate her way through a bizarre parody of a city, evading vengeful spirits whipped up by hatred of the living, and searching for an exit known only to ones who would kill her, or worse.
Kadrey has created a resourceful, determined young woman who is surprised by her own strength, and set her in an eerie world filled with disturbing imagery. It reminded me of the classic Greek stories of Orpheus and Odysseus’ journeys, and indeed the book has many subtle allusions to Greek myth. This is definitely a dark book with some heavy themes, but a good read.
Check the WRL catalogue for Dead Set
In a feat of near-superhuman endurance, Benjamin powered through and finished The Bully Pulpit. Here’s his review:
Including the endnotes, this is a tome of 900 pages (30 CDs). Starting with the book on CD, I knew I would not have enough time to listen to the whole book before its due date, so I put a hold on the printed copy also. Shortly after returning the CDs, I checked out the printed version and finished the book. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit concurrently provides detailed biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, exploring their fundamental contributions to American history from the end of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Woven into the narrative is the fascinating history behind the rise of McClure’s Magazine, complete with intricate biographies of S. S. McClure and his famous journalists: Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William A. White. That all of these characters converge is not coincidental. These men and women were at the pinnacles of talent, dedication, and intelligence of their age.
Theodore Roosevelt is a household name. TR, as he is often referred to, had a tremendous influence on this country. William Howard Taft, although not as well known, also used his prodigious knowledge and skills to impact the direction of America. Contemporaries, both men rose above their peers with growing reputations, responsibilities, and national recognition. Although different in temperament and style, they were close friends for many years. Both were moderate progressives who enjoyed affectionate marriages, and were utterly dedicated to their families. However, after Taft became President in 1909, the men became estranged.
Taft did not crave the limelight. If it were not for his wife, who aspired to live in the White House, he would have served as a distinguished Federal judge most of his career. He sought equanimity and impartiality in his judicial decisions. His colleagues loved his amicability, intelligence, and fairness.
Roosevelt was a born leader. Anxious to excel and adoring attention, he held interests in every topic under the sun, and was knowledgeable about most of them. He had boundless energy and enjoyed a good debate. Unlike Taft’s spouse, TR’s wife shied away from civic life. Yet, Roosevelt was happiest when he was inordinately busy and extraordinarily public.
Goodwin’s scholarship is excellent. In The Bully Pulpit, she brilliantly combines all the lives of the characters to retell this fascinating history of the triumphs and tragedies of two American presidents. Goodwin’s title reflects her underlying thesis that Roosevelt’s rise to prominence was aided by this masterful stewardship of and relationships with journalists. However, this book goes a great deal beyond that one focus. Goodwin provides an amazing biographical history of Taft and Roosevelt that not only illustrates how these men lived, but also sheds light on the birth of modern politics.
Today, we get Benjamin’s take on one of the most talked-about biographies in recent years:
Zealot was a number one New York Times bestseller. The book has been vilified by some and praised by others. This comes as no surprise, as Zealot looks for the historical Jesus, a search that invariably causes uproar.
Aslan produces a readable exegesis on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. He informs his reader at the start that he is not writing to question anyone’s faith or beliefs. He is, however, presenting a view of Jesus as a man who lived at the beginning of the Christian Era. Jesus gained a following in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, went to Jerusalem to rail against the establishment, and was executed on a small hill named Golgotha.
Alsan methodically explores who the man Jesus of Nazareth was in the context of the world in which he lived. This is possible because a great deal is known about how the Romans treated criminals, what constituted a crime against the Roman Empire, who had power, and who did not. There has been extensive discussion and analysis about the Temple in Jerusalem and the Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes (the major Jewish sects during that time). Numerous narratives of Jewish messiahs exist, including accounts of their anti-Romanism, aversion to the hypocrisy of Temple priests, nationalism, and executions. Despite this, there is limited hard evidence for many portions of the history to draw on, so Aslan spends much of his book reaching conclusions based on interpretation and correlation. Aslan carefully and systematically forms his thesis based on what he can suppose, infer, and theorize.
Zealot does not actually contain much history that has not previously been explored. The difference between this book and other discussions of the historical Jesus may be one of style and accessibility. As a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, it is cogent, clear, and understandable.The author’s extensive research is documented through his 50 pages of endnotes.
For me, Zealot is a book primarily about a man who lived two thousand years ago and what that person’s experiences may have been, given the culture, political reality, and existing religious environment. Aslan has crafted a well researched, thought provoking history. While Zealot is not a book for everyone, it does offer an interesting perspective that will lead many readers to contemplation the topic and perhaps some lively discussion.