Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

One of My Favorite Book Characters is Eighty (80!) Years Old This Year!!

I hope I look this good when I am 80! The character I’m referring to is Nancy Drew, who made her debut in 1930, at the tender age of 16 years. Nancy Drew lived “the life” in Midwestern River Heights, a town I always thought might be a Chicago suburb, but I have no proof that it could be. Nancy had it all: an understanding father who gave her free rein, a dashing blue convertible roadster (this morphed into a Mustang-type car in later editions, and then into a hybrid in very recent updates), a housekeeper who was a great cook and who took the best of care of Nancy and her widowed father, lawyer Carson Drew, and two friends, cousins Bess Marvin and Georgia (George) Fayne who supported Nancy in all of her adventures. Speaking of Nancy’s friends, I remember a very early story where Nancy visited her friend Helen Corning, at a lake resort/campground/association type place. There was a definite suggestion of affluence in these stories. There was also the element of boyfriends for each of the girls.

I always thought that the “author” of the Nancy Drew books was Carolyn Keene... a single, female type person with a wonderful gift for writing. As an adult, I learned that Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym, often for a team of ghostwriters employed by the actual creator of the series, Edward Stratemeyer. It seems that Stratemeyer himself wrote outlines and plot summaries for the stories, and then found writers to complete the stories, for a one-time fee of $50-$250. All copyright remained with the syndicate. Stratemeyer also owned the pseudonyms.

I began reading Nancy Drew after I finished the Bobbsey Twins (also a creation of the Stratemeyer Syndicate). I would get the books as gifts, and devour them quickly, and often. I would trade with girl friends so that I didn’t have to wait for the next occasion to get another book. So, I was about in third or fourth grade, and was already an avid library user. But, I couldn’t find my newest favorite books at the library! An article I read by Meghan O’Rourke in an issue of The New Yorker from 2004 said that “the Stratemeyer Syndicate came under attack from educators and librarians from the start.” The article continues with calling series published by the Syndicate “tawdry, sensationalist work taking children away from books of moral or instructional value.” I knew that my teachers didn’t allow me to do required book reports on Nancy Drew titles, but sure didn’t understand why.

I have always said that if I hadn’t read series books (Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames [not a Stratemeyer series]) that I wouldn’t be the reader that I am today. I see these books as stepping stones to more sophisticated literature…and I’ve read them all from Treasure Island to Tom Sawyer to Gulliver’s Travels to... I could go on and on. I’ve read biographies, and loved them. I’ve read romances, mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy (Brian Jacques’ Redwall series was wonderful)… I’ve read Newbery Award winners and nonfiction and...

Nancy Drew titles have been updated, and modernized and have had mentions of racism/sexism removed. Why have they survived? Back to Meghan O’Rourke’s article, it’s because of the re-writes, and because “as Nancy has aged, children’s book publishing has become more sensitive to psychological issues”, and Nancy now “acknowledges her flaws, and shows herself to be a more inclusive soul than the old Nancy.”

I sure wouldn’t hesitate to re-read these books, even now. And, to me, it would be a good way of saying to Nancy Drew and friends, “Happy Birthday”!


Nancy Drew

Come Back, Como

This true story of a San Franciso family features Steve and Sally Winn and their 12 year old daughter Phoebe. Steve’s accounts of life with Como, the 12 pound white terrier they adopt from an animal shelter, takes the reader on an up and down Frisco streets bare-foot running bathrobe flapping chronicle of how they learn to adjust to life with Como who, horrifically, had been abused by a male.

Como, named after a lake in Italy where the family had vacationed, naturally distrusts decent Steve who painstakingly and patiently attempts to win the dog’s trust and affection. Life with Como is difficult for Steve and the reader has empathy for both Steve and for Como. Steve deserves tremendous praise for his endurance for Como. Steve, Sally and Phoebe eventually uncover the dog’s true personality and appropriately christen him “Z” because he is Z: the oddest, zingiest, zaniest letter in the alphabet … elusive and zigzagging!


Come Back, Como; Winning the Heart of a Reluctant Dog

The Lock Artist

Compelling from the first sentence, this stand alone thriller by veteran Edgar Award winning author Steve Hamilton grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

The narrator, Mike, is mute from a childhood trauma that also left him orphaned. As a teenager, Mike discovers he has a decided knack for opening locks, and narrates his tale as he’s ending a term in prison. Blackmailed by his girlfriend’s father, who is in debt to mobsters, Mike is trained as a “boxman” by the mysterious longtime Detroit lock artist known as “The Ghost.” Hamilton creates memorable characters in this intricately plotted, intense novel, and keeps the reader guessing to the very end. Steve Hamilton is the author of the “Alex McKnight” series, set in upper Michigan, and they’re also well worth your time.

I listened to the audio version of The Lock Artist, and reader MacLeod Andrews is very convincing as Mike, with his voice reflecting a combination of both innocence and world weariness. If you’re looking for an exceptional listening experience, give this one a try!


The Lock Artist


I love to immerse myself in a good family saga so I picked up Leila Meacham’s new title Roses to read. Meacham’s family saga follows the three most wealthy and powerful families of a small east Texas town from 1914-1985. The Toliver family owns a large cotton plantation, the Warwick’s are timber barons, and the DuMont’s are merchants. The story follows three generations of these families through war, depression, forbidden love, betrayal and a family curse with the focus on the middle generation of Mary Toliver, Percy Warwick and Ollie DuMont . The book is divided into three sections and told through three different character’s point of view. 

Mary and Percy’s drive and ambition, and their heartbreaking romance are at the center of this captivating story. It is reminiscent of Colleen McCullough’s fabulous title The Thorn Birds which I love to this day. Roses is a great summer escape read for any vacation or staycation! If you enjoy family sagas, I would like to also recommend these titles available at the Library: The Sight of the Stars by Belva Plain; Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; The Woodsman’s Daughter by Gwyn Hyman Rubio; No Angel by Penny Vincenzi; The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan; The Assassin’s Song by M. G. Vassanji; The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis; Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh; Bloodroot by Amy Green; The River Wife by Jonis Agee; and of course The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough.



Visions of Paradise

I found the National Geographic publication Visions of Paradise while I was shelving a book right next to it.  I was struck by the photograph on the cover and decided to take it home to enjoy with my family.

National Geographic asked its many photographers, "Where - or what - is heaven on earth?"  Visions of Paradise is a compilation of the photos taken to answer this question.  Some have very short descriptions and others have longer explanations of where the photo was taken and why. 

My favorite picture is what appears to be a tree submerged in otherworldly blue-green water on page 166.  The caption explains that it was taken in the Jiuzhaigou Valley in China and that "Jiuzhaigou" means Fairyland. 

My kids loved the brightly colored emperor shrimp crawling on a sea cucumber near the Fiji Islands on page 177.

Check this one out and choose your favorites.


Visions of Paradise
Steve S

A Southern Cook’s Companion

In the early 20th century, many a Southern housewife relied on weekly cooking column of one Henrietta Stanley Dull.

Mrs. S. R. Dull’s recipes in the Atlanta Journal were so popular they were first published in 1928 as the book Southern Cooking. The book of 1,300 recipes has been reissued by the University of Georgia Press.

Mrs. Dull died in 1964 at the age of 100, which means her life and career spanned a time of great societal change. Just think of how kitchens changed during those 100 years. Damon Lee Fowler writes in the foreword: “Family lore holds that Mrs. Dull cooked her first corn pone on an open hearth at the tender age of six, and she cooked her last one, nearly a century later, on a modern range.”

Of course, books about regional Southern cooking are plentiful. One recent favorite is A Gracious Plenty by John T. Edge. How do these books compare? Mrs. Dull’s book contains an amazing 1,300 recipes and is valuable for its breadth but also for its history — the language of the text and the types of dishes reflect an earlier day. Edge’s collection, though smaller, contains heritage recipes in a more colloquial vernacular. Its dishes are on the rural side, while Mrs. Dull’s book has a slight city edge. Both, however, have worthy places on the bookshelf.

When Southern Cooking was originally published, some households still employed cooks, but more wives were learning to make their way in a kitchen. Mrs. Dull’s book, then, would’ve been an authoritative companion for a new cook of any age. As such, it begins with a discussion of kitchen organization, utensils, caring for the refrigerator and other appliances. Considerable attention is given to the importance of learning how to prepare a meal so that all dishes are finished on time.

This book is charming as well as useful, and will make for fine reading and tasty meals.


Southern Cooking

The Universe is Alive

As a convincing philosopher of science once argued, Thomas Kuhn, our scientific understanding of the world works within a paradigm, or model, or set of assumptions that unifies our view of it. The paradigm is supported by the discoveries it predicts, and vice versa. All scientists know, and almost everyone feels, that our latest scientific model of the world is that of the machine, given to us by the philosopher Rene Descartes (pronounced "Day Cart") and expressed in the revolutionary science of Newton. According to this model, the physical world is a giant mechanical clock, running and built on fully predictable and necessary laws, discoverable mostly through mathematics.

Many scientists today are realizing that, considering the discoveries in quantum physics, the machine model is leaving things out, is incomplete. Interestingly, The Matter Myth is an attempt of two scientists (professor of mathematical physics; astrophysicist) to overthrow the world as machine and replace it with the world as organic and living; which, they realize, is reminiscent of the old Aristotelian model of the world--the paradigm that was overthrown to begin with!

What I loved about this book is that, at the same time it argues for its' general thesis, it gives the reader a grand tour of the most difficult concepts in science--Einstein relativity, quantum theory, the big bang, evolution, cosmology--in a way that makes sense for people like me...people who cannot read Einstein, but want to check out a book at the library that explains him in a way I can understand.


The Matter Myth

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

I recently listened to The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, a first novel by Heidi W. Durrow. I was intrigued by this book for several reasons. Having just re-read Snow Falling on Cedars as part of KPL’s Reading Together program this year, I was interested since one theme in this book is the treatment of minorities in our society; in this case the protagonist is the daughter of an African-American G.I. and a white Danish mother. I am also a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver, and not only was this book cited somewhere as being one a Kingsolver fan would enjoy, but it was the winer of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction in 2008 AND Snow Falling on Cedars was a previous winner. The Bellwether is a financial prize established by Barbara Kingsolver, herself an author who writes “socially responsible” fiction, and encourages authors with this prize who do the same.

“Fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader’s heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous. Throughout history, every movement toward a more peaceful and humane world has begun with those who imagined the possibilities. The Bellwether Prize seeks to support the imagination of humane possibilities.”

—Barbara Kingsolver, founder

This touching book begins with tragic circumstances, and successfully explores a number of large themes. The story is revealed in the “voices” from several different characters, which I have always appreciated in Kingsolver’s books and which lent itself perfectly to an excellent audio version.

I am still thinking about this book although I finished it a couple of weeks ago. That’s always a good sign.


The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
Martha C

Here Comes Jack Frost

Although April shouldn’t put a reader in mind of frosty winter days, the weather this week has felt more like winter than spring!

One day in early winter a child yearns for a friend and finds a surprising one outside. Jack Frost, with his spiky features and daredevil challenges, is the perfect cold-weather companion. “Never mention anything warm in front of me,” Jack warns. The child, the dog, and Jack play all winter long, until someone spots a snowdrop pushing up through the snow. And, just like that, Jack’s gone for another year.

Take a look at the woodcut illustrations... the colors are crisp and the design clean and simple. Also look at another book by Kazuno Kahara... Ghosts in the House.


Here Comes Jack Frost

Death by Design

It is always gratifying to emerse oneself into a totally alien culture and become so absorbed into that world that one feels that one could navigate with ease any twists and turns that might come up while one is there. That is the feeling that I get when I read the wonderful series of mysteries by the British author Barbara Nadel featuring Turkist police inspector Cetin Ikmen. I know in the back of my mind that I would be completely out of my element in the palaces and the back alleys of Istanbul, but Nadel paints such a complete picture of these places that I feel that I would be right at home, and her policeman is such an ethical and competent detective that I feel that I would love to bump into him and have a conversation about his latest case or his large family (9 children) or his Albanian mother who is reputed to have had magical powers which Ikmen has inherited, or any number of topics about which he is knowledgeable.

The Ikmen series runs to at least 9 titles and I am sure there are more to come. They are in cronological order but it is possible to wade in anywhere and navigate the story without getting lost and wishing that you could have read the series in order.

A particularily delightful story which shows off all the talents of Cetin Ikmen is Death by Design. The action takes place in both Istanbul, Turkey and London, England.  The plot involves the smuggling and enslaving of illegal aliens to work in nightmarish conditions producing counterfeit goods. The descriptions of the conditions of these illegal workplaces and of the efforts to close them down are some of the most compelling fictional narratives that I have read in a long time.

When I look for "something to read" I want a character and a setting that I would like to spend a good deal of time with.  Nadel's Inspector Ikmen series meets that standard in every way.


Death by Design
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