Staff Picks

 Comment on a review by clicking on its title. You can also write your thoughts about any book on our Facebook Wall. When you're in the Library, be sure to browse the "Staff Picks" display for additional staff suggestions.

You can still access reviews from pre-September 2012 for Adults and Children.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

(2009)

Jamie Ford creates a poignant recollection of history with his debut novel, "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet".  Henry Lee is a recent widower living in Seattle's Chinatown.  The year is 1986, and yesterday's memories have assumed a place in the present with the re-opening of the majestic Panama Hotel.  Artifacts found in the basement of the old hotel transport Henry back to 1942 when he was a student at Rainier Elementary serving lunch to his classmates alongside his Japanese friend Keiko Okabe.  The twelve year olds attend the school on scholarship, and their respective ethnicities result in teasing and bullying by some of the other students.  Meanwhile, World War II threatens freedom on the homefront as Keiko's family faces relocation to a Japanese internment camp. 

While a young Henry Lee struggles to fit in at school, he also faces turmoil at home.  As the United States enters the War, Henry's Father, a proud Chinese man, wages his own war of the heart with the Japanese.  In spite of a fierce disagreement with his Father's position, Henry must keep his friendship with Keiko a secret.  And though his parents speak Catonese, Henry's Father requires his son to speak only English at home.  This further compromises any effective communication between father and son.  Loyalties are challenged as Chinese traditions and American culture collide.     

Japanese family treasures long hidden in the darkness of the Panama Hotel force a 56 year old Henry to confront devotion to the memory of his deceased wife Ethel alongside the strong memories pulling him back to the past. The richness of history contrasts with modern day regrets, and Henry cannot help but wonder if his own past can be rewritten.  Meanwhile, he seeks to strengthen the weak relationship he has with his own son Marty so mistakes of the last generation are not repeated.  The tapestry of Ford's story is further enriched by Henry's love of jazz music, Keiko's life behind barbed wire, Mrs. Beatty, and a street performer named Sheldon.    

The split narrative used by the author to connect the story between the decades spanning 1942 and 1986 is effective.  The memories are relayed from Henry's perspective, and readers will quickly realize little effort is required to be immersed into the lives of such engaging characters.  "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" is reminiscent of a vignette highlighting a nostalgic piece of history stemming from the bigger story that is World War II.  The elements come together successfully to spin a tale that is more sweet than bitter.   

 

 

 

 

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Delicious

2014

Billie Breslin decides to leave college and move to New York City, where she has an interview for a job as an assistant to the editor of the prestigious food magazine Delicious.  Billie’s amazing ability to name all the ingredients in a dish by only tasting it, amazes the staff and secures her the position.  It doesn’t take long for Billie to realize that she not only loves her job, but is also beginning to love the large, eccentric magazine family.  Sadly, not long after she is hired, the magazine is abruptly shut down by the current owner. Everyone is let go except for Billie, who is kept on as a hotline operator. It is during this time that she discovers a long ago abandoned library in one of the upstairs rooms. In it she finds old file cabinets filled with letters and note cards containing recipes dating back to WWII. By following clues and notations she finds on the cards, Billie is able to follow a correspondence between a 12 year old girl named Lulu and the famous Chef James Beard. These letters take Billie back into wartime America, where food was rationed and people had to get very creative when preparing meals. For example, did you know if you add milkweed to rice, it tastes as if you added cheese? The more letters Billie reads, the more intrigued she gets; so much so that she begins to wonder if perhaps Lulu is still alive and if so, could she find her?  There are so many things Billie would love to ask her if she had the chance. Pick up this book and find out where Billie’s search leads.

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The Wooden Sea

(2001)
The Wooden Sea

There aren’t that many authors that I love. Jonathan Carroll is one of them.

 Carroll writes what inevitably ends up being labeled fantasy, but is really simply our lives and emotions expressed more clearly and intriguingly than our workaday world allows for. The mutable nature of reality and the down-to-earth approach to cosmic revelations recall the works of Philip K Dick.

The Wooden Sea is eminently readable and engaging, mainly because of the warmth and humor of the main character, a Vietnam veteran and former bad boy named Frannie McCabe. Frannie is clever, self aware and curious, which might lull one into thinking that this novel is no more than a pleasant diversion. But that would be a mistake; Carroll is not a frivolous writer.

As the novel proceeds, Frannie encounters a number of doubles, versions of himself at various ages, and meets up with an otherworldly figure, a black gentleman named Astopel, who sends Frannie hurtling into the future. He also travels back in time to his favorite Crane's View diner for a poignant and revelatory meeting with his long-dead father.

The book is wonderfully bizarre and contains tons of great quotes. Although as with most Carroll novels, those who prefer neat wrap-ups would do well to look elsewhere.

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Nothing daunted

the unexpected education of two society girls in the West (2011)
Nothing Daunted

An interesting story of two wealthy girls who, after doing their grand tour of Europe, were not ready to marry and settle down.  Though they had no experience of "roughing it" or of teaching, they applied to become frontier school teachers in the Elkshead mountains in Colorado.

After a crash course in teaching and review in a few subjects they headed out west.  They boarded with a family and traveled every day by horseback to the schoolhouse--in pouring rain, blinding blizzards and sunny spring days where the slippery mud was almost knee-deep.  The book tells of the difficulties the subsistence-level farmers faced in the arid, cold climate; students who came in rags and bare feet because they wanted to learn; and history of the area, including the building of the Moffat Trail, a railroad through (literally) the mountains.

This snapshot of life in 1916 made me appreciate what we have now--labor saving devices like washing machines and nearby grocery stores, but also what our society often is missing: friends who would go to great lengths to lend a hand, farmers and ranchers who would welcome strangers with a meal and a bed.

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John Adams

He was honest, witty, loyal, brilliant, and indefatigable.  He was also pompous, arrogant, insecure, petty, and cranky.  He probably did more than anyone else to persuade Congress to declare American independence, but he did so at the cost of alienating almost every one of his colleagues.  He was jealous of George Washington, distrusted Benjamin Franklin, despised Alexander Hamilton, and alternately loved and loathed Thomas Jefferson.  He was a loving husband who spent years apart from his wife, and as a father left a great deal to be desired.  He was a man of contradictions, but was always in the thick of the action during the first years of the American nation.  This book almost singlehandedly revived John Adams’s historical reputation, and is already considered a classic.

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Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage.

2014

Richard Nixon graduated number three from his Duke University Law School class. Thelma (Pat) Ryan was an orphan in Depression-era California yet she attained the equivalent of a master’s degree in merchandising and she taught high school typing and shorthand classes. Swift tells the story of the Nixon courtship, political life and death after 53 years of marriage. Along the way we read about Nixon’s involvement with the Communist scare, 1960 presidential election footing Nixon against John F. Kennedy which he lost by a mere 40,000 votes, his triumph in1968 when he beat Hubert Humphrey by ½ million votes which enabled him to reach his dream of becoming the President of the United States.  Pat Nixon overcame the label “Plastic Pat.” She was named the nation’s ideal wife by the Homemaker’ Forum in 1957 and Good Housekeeping’s most admired woman in the country from 1974-75. Richard Nixon became embroiled in the Watergate scandal and he was forced to resign the presidency in August of 1974. He attempted to re-establish his reputation as an elder statesman while fighting severe bouts of phlebitis. He wrote eight best-selling books from 1983-1994. Pat suffered a stroke which left her speech slightly slurred. She died at the age of 80 and Dick followed her 10 months later. Swift brings out the human side of the Nixon marriage, including their daughters, Julie and Tricia while presenting a well-rounded story of a turbulent time in U.S. history.

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Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach

(2013)

 

Before Watchmen is a DC series of prequels featuring eight characters from the wildly popular series The Watchmen by Alan Moore.  The volume I’m reviewing is the collection of The Comedian and Rorschach’s “origin stories.”  Luckily for me, these two are my all-time favorites, so I was pleased they were sharing a book.

Despite the fact that this series was not given the green light by Moore (he called it “completely shameless”), I felt that it was at least an interesting character-building addendum to the series.  While it’s unfortunate that the big publishing houses have a tendency to steam-roll their writers and artists, they do often have a stable of extraordinary talent to turn to for their projects, and this one is no exception.  The artwork in both stories is some of the best I’ve seen.  Even if you pick this comic up just to page through it, it’s worth it.  J.G. Jones’s work on The Comedian’s story is slick, action-packed, and amazingly accurate in its depictions of actual figures from history, like the Kennedys.  Lee Bermejo's art in Rorschach's story is by contrast much more old-school, with a hand-painted look that really suits the story, a pulpy tale set in the 70's.

Neither of these are stories for the faint of heart.  The Comedian’s tale depicts a close relationship with the Kennedy family that grows strained when the loose cannon of a superhero makes some gruesome, inhuman choices during his time in the Vietnam War.  In Rorschach’s story, everyone’s favorite zealot vigilante has more depraved criminals on his hands than he can handle and as a result, terrible atrocities occur on his watch.  Both of these stories are real character pieces that don’t shy away from showing these mainstays at their most vulnerable and down-and-out—the total antithesis to the typical superhero comic.  But what can be expected for a story about these two standout antiheroes?  Give Comedian/Rorschach a try if you’re ready for a dark, gritty, but fresh graphic novel.

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The All You Can Eat Dream Buffet

Barbara O'Neal

This story is about four “food bloggers”, each with their own personal struggles. The four women met through their blogs and have become good friends, each helping the other get through traumatic events in their lives. Soon they will all be meeting for the first time face to face at Lavender’s birthday party.

Lavender is the 85 yr old owner of the thriving Lavender Honey Farm, in Washington State. With failing health, Lavender is struggling to find someone to take over her beloved farm. Someone who will love it as much as she has and keep it going after she is gone.

Ruby, is a survivor of childhood leukemia. She became a Vegan to help heal from her disease. She now writes a Vegan blog and runs a Vegan food truck. After a painful breakup, she finds herself pregnant and unsettled. Ruby needs to find a place to finally settle down, especially now that she has the baby to consider.

Ginny is an unhappily married cake decorator from Kansas. She finds an outlet for herself in writing a popular cake decorating blog. Finding little support from her husband and family, Ginny purchases an Airstream trailer and decides to venture out on her own for the first time in her life.   

Valerie, a retired ballerina, lost her husband and two of her daughters in a tragic plane crash. After the accident she created a wine blog to distract her from her grief. Val seeks a fresh start for her and her remaining daughter. They head out on a cross-country road trip hoping to find their new home along the way.

Together these women learn that leaning on others is not a sign of weakness. What they are missing in their lives is found during their journey to the farm and during their stay at the farm. It is a beautiful story, filled with sadness and joy. Love lost and love found and the true meaning of friendship.

I came across Barbara O’Neal’s books while browsing the library’s shelves for a new book to read. I was instantly hooked by her stories. Each story is somehow rooted in food culture, yet the way she manages to personalize each character’s struggles and accomplishments, draws you in and keeps you anxiously waiting for the next book to come out.

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Memoirs of Lady Trent (series)

(2013-2014)
A Natural History of Dragons
The Tropic of Serpents

A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents are the first two books in Marie Brennan's A Memoir by Lady Trent series. The cover art on the first title drew me in, and I was surprised by a very enjoyable read. This is a light fantasy told in the style of a Victorian memoir. Lady Trent pursues her lifelong passion to study and document dragons, and to become the world's first dragon naturalist. Pursuit of this goal brings travel and adventure, with great obstacles to overcome and mysteries to solve. Hopefully there will be more titles forthcoming in this series.

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Someone Knows My Name

(2007)
Someone Knows My Name

Sweeping tale of an African woman, Aminata Diallo, who is kidnapped near her village, at the age of 11, and sold into slavery in the United States. The story spans 60 years of Aminata's life from Africa to the US, then Canada, back to Africa and ending in England, where Aminata writes down her story for the Abolitionist movement in 1803, hoping to bring an end to the slave trade.

This tale is rich in history - I learned many things I never knew and Meena is the perfect narrator. Her strength and resilience are inspiring as she never gives up hope after all she endures. I had never heard of this novel before and, apparently, it has different titles around the world. In Canada, the home of the author, it is known as The Book of Negroes and, according to another reader, it is also known simply as Aminata elsewhere.

Regardless of what it is called, this is a fantastic book. I highly recommend it.

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The Rosie Project

(2013)

"The Rosie Project" by Graeme Simsion is best described as delightful, funny, and quirky.  The central character, Don Tillman, has a reputation for being a rigid, highly scheduled, socially inept, and brilliant genetics professor at an Austrailian university.  Tillman is single, 39 years old, and due to his social limitations, sees himself with no prospects for love.  He moves to solve this dilemma through the development of an idea he dubs The Wife Project.  The Wife Project involves a 16 page, double sided questionnaire designed to screen dating candidates for compatibility as a suitable partner.  Don's expectations are at best unreasonable.  Though he enlists the help of friends Gene and Gene's wife Claudia, the quest to find a qualifying woman does not go well.  Results from the questionnaires actually prove to be more helpful for Gene.

The lonely Professor's image of the perfect woman is turned upside down when he meets Rosie.  Rosie walks into his life with endless contradictions to conflict with Don's idea of a life partner.  And though he finds her faults difficult to accept, he has an immediate attraction to the friendly, loud, and uninhibited woman.  They develop a friendship, and Rosie challenges the Professor's loyalty to nonconformity by introducing him to a sensory world reaching far beyond his structured environment.    

Rosie is interested in finding her biological father.  Because the quest to find Rosie's father involves the testing of DNA, Professor Tillman volunteers his expertise in genetics to help the psychology student who also moonlights as a barmaid.  This leads to the birth of the Father Project, and some of the story's most hilarious moments involve the attempts to capture and test DNA samples.  In one scenario, the duo work as bartenders and undertake a mass DNA collection at a medical student class reunion where they believe Rosie's Father is one of the attendees.                 

The author writes with a wry humor about elements of life ordinarily regarded as serious and complicated.  The occasional use of salty language may seem unnecessary to the storytelling, yet does not distract from the telling of a wonderful story. The Wife Project questions whether compatibility is a necessary ingredient for romantic love.  The Father Project asks how knowing the identity of a biological father relates to happiness.  "The Rosie Project" is a "can't put it down" book destined to keep the most discriminating reader up at night; well past a time the sun has gone down and the stars have come out.  In fact, Graeme Simsion has written a story worthy of a bright, gold star.         

 

    

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