Red Chamber

Red Chamber, by Pauline Chen

18th Century Beijing, China comes to life in this retelling of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber. Much of the book is set at the Rongguo mansion, owned by the Jia family. Lin Daiyu comes from the south of China to live with her uncle, cousins, and grandmother for a season. She meets her cousin Baoyu, the pampered son of the household, who is studying for exams, and Baoyu’s cousin Baochai, who befriends Daiyu. Baochai and Daiyu are both fond of Baoyu. Back in Beijing after caring for her father, Daiyu finds the atmosphere greatly changed, affected by family secrets, affairs, and marriage arrangements. Food, clothing, and daily life are all richly described, but some of the characters are not well developed, especially four young adult grandchildren of the family. The emperor’s death brings tragedy to the family, and some of the characters are disgraced, while others die from illness. This is not an especially happy book, but it is vividly written and memorable. Readers looking to immerse themselves in a different time and place will find this book hard to put down.


The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters

This is not another post-apocalyptic novel. Instead, it is set in Concord, New Hampshire six months before a very large asteroid will collide with Earth. Many people have left their jobs to check off the items on their bucket lists, while others have gotten married or moved somewhere with a better climate than Concord. Sadly, some people have given up and died. Rookie detective Hank Palace, known as Stretch, senses something suspicious about the recent death of Peter Zell, a quiet man who worked as an actuary at an insurance company.

Many of Hank’s colleagues don’t see why Hank is trying so hard, and are reluctant to help. Hank’s sister Nico asks him to track down her missing husband, and Peter Zell’s sister keeps avoiding Hank. This is a fine, melancholy police procedural. The next Hank Palace book will be set three months later.


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

will be discussed on Tuesday, September 25, at 7pm. Meet Flavia de Luce, amateur sleuth and aspiring chemist, age 11. The Flavia de Luce mystery series is set in the early 1950s in a small English village, and at Buckshaw, the family estate. Flavia lives with her two older sisters, and her father, an avid stamp collector. Mrs. Mullet, the cook and housekeeper, finds a dead bird on the doorstep with a rare stamp stuck on its beak. Later Flavia hears her father arguing with someone in the garden, and finds a man dying in the cucumber patch. Inspector Hewitt arrests Colonel de Luce, so Flavia, aided by their shell-shocked gardener/handyman Dogger, investigates.

This is the award-winning first book in an ongoing series; see my review of the latest book here. For more about Flavia, visit the author’s website. For a real treat, Jane Entwhistle narrates all of the audiobooks.


Iron Druid series

The Iron Druid Series by Kevin Hearne

A series about the last living Druid who has spent most of his 2,000 years avoiding an angered god by moving constantly and leaving behind everyone he cares about other than a goddess of death may sound dark and gritty. But when the Druid is Atticus O’Sullivan, you’re in for a lot of action, laughs, and tugging of heart-strings. Hounded introduces Atticus and his current life in Tempe, Arizona. He owns a rare book store where he also serves up specialty tea blends to his customers. They don’t know that there’s a bit of magic that makes his Mobili-tea really help with their aches and pains and they certainly don’t know that Immortali-tea has kept him looking like a man in his early 20s for 2,000 years. He’s also been giving the tea to his Irish wolfhound Oberon who he shares a telepathic bond with thanks to Druid bindings. Oberon is a riot and he helps Atticus stay upbeat as well as stay alive in fights. Atticus has learned to treasure life’s small pleasures and he truly cares for the people close to him while he can be with them. He mows the lawn of the widow MacDonagh and looks after her like a dedicated son and her spirit and acceptance when she finds out he’s not just a kind young man help keep him going.

Atticus’ troubles stem from a long-ago conflict with the Celtic god of love, Aenghus Og. He moves around to avoid the god and to keep his friends from being caught in the crossfire. Atticus would rather avoid a fight and until the events in Hounded he’s mostly been able to do that. In his travels, he’s learned more about Druidic magic and is able to bind cold iron—which repels most magic—to his aura and has crafted a number of charms to help him out of tight spots. But eventually his connections to allies and friends lead him down a road to a confrontation with Aenghus Og as well as witches, werewolves, and Norse gods. The Iron Druid has to deal with no longer being unknown, the eventuality of leaving a town (and his friends and store) that he loves, and the possibility of taking on an apprentice and doubling the number of Druids in the world.

The series started out as three books released in three months and has happily been picked up for at least another three. I really enjoyed how Kevin Hearne brought so many mythologies into modern times. Atticus doesn’t often come off as an old man, but more frequently as the 20something he looks like. As the series goes on, Atticus stops being so flippant and we start to see him acknowledge what he’s lost over the years and how he has to cope to move on. Those dark times are needed to show he isn’t totally shallow but they’re thankfully rare. It leaves more time for action, silliness, and for supporting characters to shine.

If you’re a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or urban fantasy at all, you’ll want to give the Iron Druid series a try.


Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

will be discussed on Tuesday, Sept. 18 at 10am to open our fall book discussions. Late 1930s New York City comes to life from the point of view of Russian American Katey Kontent, a secretary from Brooklyn who rooms with Midwestern Evelyn Ross. They meet banker Tinker Grey on New Year’s Eve, 1937, at a jazz club, and both roommates are smitten. Katey’s New York City is full of jazz, art, parties, work, love and loss; partly inspired by the stories of the author’s grandmother. The book is framed by Walker Evans’ photos of subway riders and Tinker’s fascination with George Washington’s Rules of Civility, a booklet of moral and social codes. The trio are involved in an accident that injures Eve, and Tinker feels some guilt and takes care of Eve, even taking her on a cruise to Europe. Katey gets a chance to leave her secretarial job and become a publisher’s assistant, and makes some connections among New York City’s upper class. As the year progresses, the friends grow apart, each charting their own path. Reviewers have compared first novelist Amor Towles’ writing to Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Truman Capote, but I think he has his own unique voice. George Washington’s rules are at the end of the book, and you can view the subway photos of Walker Evans here. For more about New York City in the 1930s, visit the author’s website.


Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think

Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I expected the book to be an optimistic look at the future, but I didn’t expect it to be so engaging and readable. My husband also read this book, and we kept sharing interesting facts as we read. The news we see and read is often depressing; apparently there’s a lot of good news that hasn’t been highlighted by the media. Did you know that the rate of extreme poverty in the world has decreased greatly from 1981 to 2008? In Mexico alone, the rate dropped from 19% to 5%. The poorest people in the world, formerly 1.94 billion and now 1.29 billion, are now known as the rising billion. About $11 a month will get all the power of a smartphone to an African family; better communication and computing power than President Reagan had 25 years ago, and even access to banking and microloans in areas without banks.

The authors look at how exponential growth in new technologies can help provide an abundance of clean water, food, energy, health care, and education within a couple of decades. By the end of this decade, solar powered electricity is expected to cost less than coal powered electricity. And with improvements like LED bulbs, we won’t need as much power. There are many brilliant, creative, and generous people working to make the future bright and exhilarating. Learn more, and read the first chapter here.


A Simple Murder

A Simple Murder, by Eleanor Kuhns

Are you looking for a new mystery author? I’m happy to recommend Eleanor Kuhn’s outstanding debut, A Simple Murder. Late 18th century Maine is an uncommon setting for fiction, and that much of the book is set in Zion, a Shaker community, makes it even more unusual. William Rees has been a traveling weaver for five years since his wife died, leaving his sister and brother-in-law to manage his farm and raise his son, David. During an unexpected trip home, Rees learns that the farm and David have both been neglected. David, 13, has run away to live with the Shakers. Rees is allowed to stay at Zion for a while and set up his loom because a young Shaker woman has been killed, and Rees investigated crimes in the Continental Army.

A former Shaker, Lydia Jane Farrell, is assigned to help Reese question the women and they visit nearby farms and the local sheriff. Horse theft, flying musket balls, and the unsolved disappearance of two Shakers on a trip two years earlier make for a lively mystery. Rees tries to repair his relationship with David, and puzzle out the motive for all of the crimes.


Award-Winning Cookbooks

2012 James Beard Foundation Book Awards

Book Talk tends to feature reviews and booklists of fiction and narrative non-fiction books, so I thought it was time to highlight another big part of our library’s collection: cookbooks. Here is a list of some of the best cookbooks published in 2011:

Cookbook of the Year:

Modernist Cuisine

by Nathan Myhrvold with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet

[We do not own this 6 volume, $625 set, but have ordered the 2 volume Modernist Cuisine at Home, to be published in October, 2012.]

Cookbook Hall of Fame:

Home Cooking and More Home Cooking

by Laurie Colwin

[We don’t own these classic cookbooks from 1988 and 1993, but they are available for interlibrary loan from libraries in our area.]

American Cooking:

A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen

by Hugh Acheson

Baking and Dessert:

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home

by Jeni Britton Bauer


Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, & Formulas

by Brad Thomas Parsons

[Available for interlibrary loan]

Cooking from a Professional Point of View:

Modernist Cuisine

by Nathan Myhrvold with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet

General Cooking:

Ruhlman’s Twenty

by Michael Ruhlman

Focus on Health:

Super Natural Every Day: Well-Loved Recipes from My Natural Foods Kitchen

by Heidi Swanson


The Food of Morocco

by Paula Wolfert

Reference and Scholarship:

Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920

by Andrew P. Haley

[Available for interlibrary loan from several college libraries in Illinois]

Single Subject:

All About Roasting

by Molly Stevens

Writing and Literature:

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

by Gabrielle Hamilton

Prisoner of Heaven

Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Translated from  Spanish by Lucia Graves)

This is the third in a cycle of novels that began with The Shadow of the Wind and The Angels Game.  I would recommend that you read the first two books before reading this one.

This novel is set like the others in Barcelona, Spain. The main character is Daniel Sempere, who, together with his father runs Sempere and Sons Bookshop.  There is also another fascinating place, “The Cemetery of Lost Books” a huge library of old forgotten books protected by an elite of old bookkeepers.  According to tradition initiates are allowed to select one book from the collection and must protect it for life.

The saga starts with The Shadow of the Wind and then is continued in The Angels Game which is actually a prequel. There are a lot of doings and plots and run ins with the Fascist authorities under General Francisco Franco.

Prisoner of Heaven recounts the imprisonment of Fermin Romero de Torres in a notorious political prison run by the Franco regime during the Spanish Civil War.  Fermin is a character in the first two books, but not the main character.  He is something of a rogue, a bon-vivant, and protector of Daniel.  He escapes from the wretched prison using a technique gleaned from The Count of Monte Cristo.

There is romance, intrigue and shadowy forces in these books.  I highly recommend them.


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

If you look at the book cover of Rachel Joyce’s first novel, you may be expecting a happy, quirky, light read. While a very good read, this is not a light or happy book. It’s about a journey taken by Harold Fry, whose life is rather empty. His wife Maureen cleans obsessively; Harold does yard work. He gets a letter from former coworker and friend Queenie Hennessey with news that she is very ill with cancer. Harold writes a brief note and goes to post it, but is troubled that a note is inadequate. Harold was a brewery sales representative who traveled with bookkeeper Queenie to visit pubs. So he keeps walking while he thinks about it. A talk with a young woman at a gas station’s convenience store inspires him to keep walking, the whole length of England, to visit Queenie.

His wife Maureen is flabbergasted, and can’t decide if she’s more angry, worried about him, or lonely. Harold is not much of a walker, and gets lots of blisters. He sends postcards to Maureen and Queenie, and buys souvenirs for them along the way. His wife is concerned that he will empty their retirement savings account on such a long journey, so Harold starts camping instead of staying in hotels. Harold is very shy, and has always felt akward because he’s tall, but people like to tell him their stories. His walk to save Queenie inspires some fans and even gets some publicity, leading to some funny parts of the story. Harold’s long pilgrimage gives him lots of time to think, and to reflect on his life. The journey eventually answers some questions for the reader. Why did Maureen move into the spare room, yet they stay married? Why does their bright, troubled son David never come to visit? Why did Queenie leave the brewery, and why doesn’t Harold drink? Will Harold’s walk for Queenie make a difference?  And, finally, will Harold be able to finish his pilgrimage? A memorable journey for Harold and the reader.