The World Until Yesterday

world until jacketThe World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

How is our modern, high-tech, industrial culture both better and worse than life in a traditional hunter gatherer or subsistence agriculture group? That is the question explored in this book by Diamond, who spent decades in Papua New Guinea first as an ornithologist and later as an anthropologist. Traditional societies on several continents are covered. Some of the chapters I found more interesting or easier to read, but overall this is a thought-provoking read. Who is a friend, a stranger, or an enemy? Sometimes it depends on degrees of relationship, a common language, or the potential as a trading partner. Are large scale wars worse than frequent small battles? Is the lessened risk of dying from an infected insect bite offset by the frequency of diabetes and heart disease as people adopt modern diet and medicine? Chapters explore child rearing, justice, diet, the benefits of multilingualism, religion, warfare, responses to perceived and actual dangers, and how traditional societies cooperate differently when there is drought or an overabundance of food. The author’s experiences in New Guinea would be of interest for readers of Lost in Shangri-La.



nightshade jacketNightshade by Susan Wittig Albert

This is the third book in a trilogy within the larger China Bayles mystery series. The other two books are Bleeding Hearts and Spanish Dagger. China is a former attorney who owns an herb shop in the Texas hill country, and does a lot of detecting on the side, often with Ruby, who runs the new age store next to the herb shop, and Sheila, who’s in law enforcement. Mike McQuaid, China’s partner, is a former cop and university professor turned private detective. This trilogy is about a mystery from China’s past; her father’s death in a car crash 16 years earlier, and the introduction of a previously unknown half-brother, Miles. China wasn’t close to her father, who was also a lawyer, and resists the idea that his death wasn’t an accident. This is a good point to jump into an excellent ongoing mystery series. There is a strong sense of place, which makes me want to visit the Texas hill country. The characters develop and change from book to book, and subplots often carry over as well. Susan also writes the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, the Darling Dahlias books, and collaborates with her husband Bill on the Kate and Charles Sheridan mystery series as Robin Paige. Learn more at their website, along with information about herbs, recipes, and the Texas hill country.


Red Velvet Cupcake Murder

red velvet jacketRed Velvet Cupcake Murder by Joanne Fluke

This is the latest book in the Hannah Swensen cozy mystery series, which begins with Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. They are set in fictional Lake Eden, Minnesota, where Hannah owns The Cookie Jar, a cookie bakery and coffee shop, frequently finds bodies, and tries to decide which boyfriend she likes best: Mike the detective or Norman the dentist. Her mother and two sisters along with her friend and baking partner Lisa help her solve cases, in between baking and enjoying cookies and other desserts. Recipes are included, but I like to listen to Joanne Fluke’s books on compact disc, so I haven’t tried the recipes yet. There is a cookbook available, Joanne Fluke’s Lake Eden Cookbook. Unlike most mystery series, you can start with any book, as Hannah shows no signs of settling down with either boyfriend, and the main characters continue from book to book. If you’re looking for a light, cozy mystery, Hannah Swensen mysteries are perfect. Appealing characters, small town setting, and a suspenseful scene or two make for enjoyable reading.


Night Train to Lisbon

night train jacketNight Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

“The real director of our life is accident—a director full of cruelty, compassion and bewitching charm.

It’s an unrecognized form of stupidity, you have to forget the cosmic meaninglessness of all our acts to be able to be vain and that’s a glaring form of stupidity.

How boring and stale it must be to know that what happens today, this month, this year, doesn’t matter, endless more days, months, years will come.

A feeling is no longer the same when it comes the second time.  It dies through the awareness of its return

In the immortal soul, a gigantic weariness and a flagrant despair must grow in view of the certainty that it will never end, never.  It is death that gives the moment its beauty and its horror.  Only through death is time a living time.  Why does the Lord, the omniscient God, not know that?  Why does he threaten us with endlessness that must mean unbearable desolation.”

Had enough?  Can you tell this novel was written by a Professor of Philosophy?

These and other rantings are on full view in Night Train to Lisbon.

This is a story with two main protagonists.  First is Raimund Gregorius,   He has led a dull, unfulfilling life as a teacher of classic languages at a private school in Bern Switzerland.   He learns of his exact opposite in Amadeu de Prado, a brilliant student who goes on to be a brilliant doctor and also a leader in the Portuguese Resistance to Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, whose dictatorship dominated Portugal for 1932 to 1974.  Gregorius spends most of the novel  pursuing information about the life of Amadeu  who has been dead for a while, first through an obscure book  that Amadeu published and then by tracking down and talking to most of the people that knew him.

Both Raimund and Amadeu are angsty people.  Both suffer from life threatening, chronic ailments that may be their undoing.  To my disappointment, not much is mentioned about the resistance other than showing the effects on some of the characters, such as deformed hands and broken minds.

I made it through this book and it had its redeeming qualities but on the whole was a real downer. The book is now a movie, starring Jeremy Irons. It was filmed in Germany, and has not yet been releases in the United States.


That’s how he was, the godless priest: He thought things through to the end.  He always thought them through to the end.  No matter how black the consequences were.

The House Girl

house girl jacketThe House Girl by Tara Conklin

A recent book that’s been getting rave reviews and that’s being compared to “The Help” is “The House Girl”. Set in both present day New York and 19th century antebellum Virginia, it follows the story of 17 year old slave Josephine Bell, and her artist-mistress, Lu Anne Bell. We’re also introduced to a determined present day lawyer, Lina Sparrow, who is up for the trial of a lifetime in her attempt to find the perfect plaintiff for a multi-million dollar lawsuit in reparations for the descendants of American slaves. In her research, Lina stumbles upon Josephine Bell’s story, and the big question everyone wants to know is this: did Lu Anne Bell create art, or did her slave? Filled with impeccable historical scholarship and multi-layered character development, this is an important and fascinating read. I believe this book has that same magic effect “The Help” has had for so many readers. It also calls up some nagging questions that need to be answered. For instance, how many generations does it take to repair wrongs done to a people group? Are there current repercussions for descendants of slaves today that the American people are not aware of? How would the US government count the cost of so many unnamed lives, over 246 years of American history? This book grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. I’ve been recommending it everywhere, and the plot is a great conversation starter, too.


Bad Blood

bad blood jacketBad Blood by Dana Stabenow

Have you met Kate and Mutt? They have now appeared in 20 Alaskan mysteries by Dana Stabenow. Kate Shugak is an Aleut homesteader near the fictional village of Niniltna who occasionally works as a private investigator. Mutt, her sidekick, is half wolf and half Siberian husky. Her partner, Trooper Jim Chopin, asks her to help him investigate the death of a young man, Tyler Mack, from the small traditional village of Kushtaka, just down the river from the more prosperous Kuskulana. The villagers have been bitter rivals for a while, and no one is telling Jim or Kate the whole truth. When another body is found, and someone sabotages a boat, the suspense really begins. Add a young couple with ties to both villages, and Kate really has her hands full. If you want to start at the beginning of the series, read A Cold Day for Murder. For the funniest book in the series, try Breakup. If you read Bad Blood, know that the author is continuing the series, but it will be two years before you find out what happens next. Here’s a recent interview with the author about her background and Kate’s origins.


April Book Discussions

April Book Discussionsquiet jacket

The Tuesday morning group will be discussing Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain on Tuesday April 16 at 10 a.m.

Susan worked as a corporate lawyer for many years but found herself envious of college classmates who became writers or psychologists. In exploring and writing about introversion, she found her calling. Cain writes about how our current culture favors extroverts at work and in school, how many introverts struggle to find their strengths, and introduces us to successful introverts. As an introvert married to an extrovert, she gives advice on working and living with people of different personality types.

The Tuesday evening group will be discussing the contemporary novel The Unlikely pilgrimage jacketPilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce on Tuesday, April 23 at 7 p.m.  Harold has recently retired and is all but estranged from his wife Maureen. A letter from a former colleague Queenie upsets Harold and he goes out to mail her a card. The card seems inadequate, so he keeps walking while he thinks about it, and unexpectedly decides to walk the length of England to visit Queenie, without discussing it first with his wife. My review is here.

The Crime Readers will be discussing High Country by Nevada Barr on Thursday, April 18 at 7pm at Home Run Inn Pizza. This group is co-sponsored by the Indian Prairie Public Library.

Copies of all three books are available now at the Adult/Young Adult Reference Desk. Enjoy!


Jane Austen Made Me Do It

jane austen jacketJane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress

I really enjoyed reading this collection of stories inspired by the work of Jane Austen. There is a wide variety of settings, characters, and styles. A story by mystery author Stephanie Barron led me to the collection, and I was pleased to see stories by bestselling authors Adriana Trigiani, Lauren Willig, and Jo Beverley. In a few, Jane is a character, in others the main (or minor) characters from her books are featured. There are historical and contemporary settings, mystery, ghost stories, romance, and even adventure at sea, featuring Jane Austen’s brother as a character. In one story, Jane is haunted by her characters. If you like Regency romance, witty dialogue, or Jane Austen’s books, movies, or mini-series, you might enjoy this collection.


Bring Up the Bodies

mantel jacketBring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall won a major literary award and is a memorable, rewarding book to read. Its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, might be even better. Shorter by 120 pages, it’s certainly a faster read. Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, and both won the Man Booker Prize for best novel in English by a writer from Great Britain or the Commonwealth. Even though it’s shorter, Bring Up the Bodies has more about Cromwell’s earlier life and family, including his father the blacksmith. The storytelling is magnificent and the book is quite readable, something I don’t expect in a literary award-winning novel. I don’t know how it would be to read it without having read Wolf Hall first, but if your time is limited, jump in. When the book opens in 1535, Thomas Cromwell is secretary to Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn is queen, and her daughter Elizabeth is a toddler. Anne becomes pregnant, and hopes for an heir for Henry VIII. Anne’s predecessor Katherine is in failing health. The reader knows that Elizabeth will later become queen, and that Anne Boleyn’s life will be cut short, but Mantel still makes the story absorbing, poignant, and occasionally suspenseful. Thomas Cromwell is still good company, looking to the future of his son Gregory, nephew Richard, and protégé Rafe, while doing his best for king and country. It becomes clear that Henry is also looking ahead, and hoping that quiet Jane Seymour is part of his future. A third book, The Mirror and the Light, is planned.


A Killer Read

killer read jacketA Killer Read by Erika Chase

Book discussion groups can be more fun and interesting then you’d expect if you haven’t yet joined one. But I’ve never been to a book discussion as exciting as the first meeting of the Ashton Corners Mystery Readers and Cheese Straw Society. Reading specialist Lizzie Turner has organized the book group, which is meeting at the mansion of her friend Molly. Lizzie finds an intruder inside the mansion, who asks to use the phone to call a tow truck, but shortly afterwards, his body is found outside. Everyone in the book group is a suspect. The new police chief, Mark, grew up in Ashton Corners and shows special interest in Lizzie, who coordinates the book group’s sleuthing when not working at the local schools. The small town Alabama setting is appealing, and Lizzie, who sings, teaches reading, and works with young adults studying for the G.E.D. when not visiting her mother at a retirement home, is a fairly complex character. Ashton Corners is well worth visiting if you’re in the mood for a cozy contemporary mystery. A sequel has just been published; Read and Buried. Learn more at the author’s website.