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.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena


A crippled hospital, an orphaned young girl, and two heroic doctors provide the axis for a powerful story set in the war weary Russian province of Chechnya during a decade of tension that begins in 1994.  "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" allows the profound despair saturating the intersecting lives of inhabitants in a small Chechen village to come alive one character, one page at a time.  Author Anthony Marra also weaves a spellbinding, historical narrative to accompany his story of loss, betrayal, love, and hope.  

Though Marra presents memories collected over a period of ten years, the actual story timeline highlights five days in 2004.  When Akhmed witnesses the brutal kidnapping of his good friend and neighbor Dokka by Russian soldiers, Akhmed's future is forever changed and forever challenged.  Driven by an inherit kindness and fear for Dokka's abandoned eight year old daughter Havaa, Akhmed rescues the young girl, along with her blue suitcase, from the grips of war threatening her very existence.  They embark upon a journey to a spartan hospital unrecognizable as a place of healing except for the one remaining doctor: Sonja.   

The intimidating Sonja is reluctant to shelter Havaa until Akhmed, himself a doctor, offers his assistance in exchange.  Due to the overwhelming needs in the trauma and maternity wards, the suspicious doctor accepts the arrangement.  She soon realizes his incompetence yet recognizes his compassion.  And though she is addicted to amphetamines and suffers from hallucinations, Sonja is very gifted in her relentless pursuit to save lives.  The overworked doctor is haunted in her personal life by the disappearance of her sister Natasha.  She is determined to find her younger sister and take back what the war has stolen from her.  Sonja's search for Natasha is a continual thread placed expertly throughout the book to possibly represent the aspect of loss experienced by so many ravaged by war in "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena."  Amidst the insanity permeating the hospital, nurse Deshi offers some humor and temporary lightness.  

Marra's compilation is thick with history, but the telling does seem necessary in order to give the plight of his characters the justice they deserve.  Akhmed's friend and neighbor Khassan has written an almost 3000 page manuscript of Chechen history, and the author cleverly uses pieces from the masterpiece to establish a historical background.  Khassan records the rich history of his homeland partly to escape the shame he feels due to the help his son Ramzan gives a brutal government denying Chechnya's sovereignty. 

The book has many strengths.  The characters are well developed;  the devastating effects on the people of Chechnya struggling to survive a long, tedious second war are clearly illustrated; and the plot builds towards a satisfying conclusion without losing its focus.  "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" is a phenomenal read. 







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I loved this book. Joyland is about characters, more than anything. Granted, there are a couple ghosts, but they are incidental characters. Since it is published by Hard Case Crime, there is a murder too, but it happened before the timeframe of the book and is peripheral until near the very end, where action takes over and we find out “whodunit”.

The narrator, Devin, is a kind, open soul with a lot of heart. We see all the other characters through his eyes. In spite of his naturally sunny disposition, the start of the book finds Devin with his heart broken by the woman he thought he was going to marry. She throws him under the bus for an Ivy League guy and he starts spending his nights listening to the Doors playing “The End”.

He takes a job in amusement park (selling “fun”) and is encouraged by coworkers who care about him and by his employer who sees his potential. The “carnie folks” have their own “talk”, which is almost a character in its own right. Everyone takes turns doing all the jobs at the carnival, including the dreaded “wearing the fur”. This refers to the dog costume for Howie, the park mascot. It turns out that Devin is as good with kids as he is with adults and he actually likes this part of the job.

To save money, he walks to work. His route takes him by a mansion where a young serious looking woman and a boy in a wheelchair (and a Jack Russell Terrier) live. These characters will play a predominant role in this story.

I can’t add a lot more without giving out spoilers (it is only 288 pages). But more than one person has stated that they were moved to tears by the ending. If you are looking for another “The Shining” this might disappoint. But I hope it would simply satisfy on another level.

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The art of cookbooks

Modern Art Desserts
The Geometry of Pasta

I love looking at cookbooks.  Though many of the recipes have the same basic background, each cook or chef can give them a little twist to make them new again.  Sometimes cookbooks are also art.  There are even awards for artistic merit in cookbooks.  Two recent additions to the Appleton Public Library cookbook collection fall into the "art + cookbook" niche.

Caitlin Freeman is a baker at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  She and her coworkers take inspiration from the works of art in the museum, creating masterpieces of flour and sugar to feed hungry people in the museum’s café.  In her book Modern Art Desserts:  Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art she showcases some of her creations.

The first part of the book discusses how she came to be a pastry chef, and how SFMOMA became her baking home.  A section on the basics of baking, as well as photos showing how to manage some of the more unusual processes, help the average baker understand how to create their own masterpiece.  Reproductions of the inspirational works of art are juxtaposed with the cakes and other treats produced from their bakery.

Two of the most fascinating works to me are the Mondrian cake from the cover of the cookbook and the Lichtenstein cake.  They are beautiful to look at, reflect the art that inspired them, and sound delicious.

 If you are looking for a challenge in your baking, this would be a good place to start.


The Geometry of Pasta, by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy, falls into this category.  Striking black and white illustrations use simplified pasta shapes to form black and white geometric patterns.  Each pasta shape has a brief description of how the pasta is shaped, the size, and other names for the shape.  There is also a bit of history--for example, if the pasta was usually eaten on a special day, or where it was developed. 

Recipes for the pasta and accompanying sauces are included, along with suggestions for serving.  While there are some unusual recipes, such as Dischi Volanti con Ostriche e Prosecco (Oysters, prosecco and tarragon sauce on “flying saucer” pasta), there are also variations on macaroni and cheese, eggplant lasagna and Alfredo sauce.  If you love pasta, this would be a good book to check out.



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When Thunder Comes

Poems for Civil Rights Leaders (2013)
When Thunder Comes


"I was a typist, nothing more. I loved my life, I hated war.

But it was war that stole from me my job, my life, serenity."

This poem, "The Captive", is about Mitsuye Endo, a woman who protested the removal of her civil rights during World War II when all Japanese-Americans were moved into relocation camps.   All of the poems in J. Patrick Lewis' book are about civil rights activists, and are illustrated by five different illustrators.  Most of the illustrations consist of muted tones, but a few are bright and colorful. People honored with poems include Josh Gibson, Emmett Till's mother, Harvey Milk, Nelson Mandela, and Jackie Robinson.   Author's notes at the end of the book fill in details about who each person is and how they made a difference. 

Publisher's Weekly and Booklist gave this book starred reviews, and I give it high praise as well.

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Jane Eyre & Wuthering Heights

A Counting Primer (2012) & A Weather Primer (2013)
Jane Eyre
Wuthering Heights


The Little Miss Bronte series, part of the BabyLit book series published by Gibbs Smith, are an elegant way to introduce the youngest child to the world of classical literature.  Jane Eyre is a counting primer, and counts drawings, trees, pearls, and books, with quotes interspersed, such as "this book I had again and again perused with delight".

Wuthering Heights is a weather primer, so for breezy, the quote is "the weather was sweet and warm" and for stormy we read, "the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury." 

Oliver's art is charming in its complicated simplicity.  These books are first purchases for fans of the originals who just can't wait to share their love of the classics with their child.

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I’m your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen


From the very beginning, the persona of Leonard Cohen has been somewhat of a contradiction. He’s a gentleman but also a ladies man and he was fond of saying he was “born in a suit” in Montreal 78 years ago.  Simmons has written a comprehensive account of the charismatic Cohen who is sometimes considered the Canadian Bob Dylan. Along the way, Cohen mingled with the star folk singers of the day including, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. One of his albums was produced by Phil Spector, a harrowing experience. Cohen was born a Jew but he spent several years in a Zen Center in Los Angeles and he became an ordained Zen Buddhist monk.
His best-known song came late in his career. His masterpiece, Hallelujah, appeared on the Shrek soundtrack and it was covered by nearly 200 musicians. Cohen finally gained the recognition he deserved. Fascinating story.

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The Song of Roland

Song of Roland cover

I love Paul. I love the black-and-white, curvy casual style in which his stories are illustrated. I would learn to read French if I were to learn that the Paul stories would no longer be translated into English. I've read Rabaliati's other semi-autobiographical stories, and have enjoyed following Paul's life in Canada from his summer job as a camp counselor to moving into his first place with his fiance in the city to his becoming a father. Rabagliati adds a new dimension to Paul's story by focusing on his in-laws, with emphasis on his wife's father, Roland.

The story opens with Paul and family gathering with his wife's two sisters and their families at his parents-in-law's home, and Rabagliati captures little truths in this reunion that will bring smiles to readers as they identify with the experience. There's the burst of joy and excitement at seeing everyone followed by an evening of first finding a place to sleep and then attempting to sleep through the night in a basement filled with adults and children.

As I read this opening and felt it ring true to my own experience, I reveled in the connection I felt to this story and to its author. Thus engaged in the story, I read on, not expecting to repeatedly experience such a deep connection. Any reader whose watched a loved one grow old and weak with age and disease is likely to experience a similar connection.

Paul's father-in-law Roland is diagnosed with prostate cancer, prompting a move from that home where the family gathered early in the book to an apartment in the city. Paul joins Roland for a walk (and a secret, forbidden cigarette), and is treated to a brief biography of his father-in-law, from his youth to his retirement and terminal diagnosis. Eventually, Roland's wife is struggling to take care of him by herself and the family decides to move him to hospice. Roland has company from the family every day, but his condition deteriorates and he gradually becomes less able to communicate with them. Inevitably, Roland dies.

I was reminded of my grandfather's final months in hospice, and I appreciate the realism with which Rabagliati infuses his story--from the sad moments to the unexpectedly hilarious ones so needed while families grieve the loss of one who has yet to die. I recommend this story to anyone (whether they've read any previous Paul stories or not) and I believe that it has the power to help those grieving similar losses.

I suppose I'm resorting to pleading here, but take an hour or so to read and enjoy this book, and then tell your friends about it. Paul and Rabagliati ought to be at least as well known as the Charlies Brown and Schultz, and better loved.

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Act One

An Autobiography (1959)
Act One

Moss Hart was an enormously successful playwright (“You Can’t Take It With You,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner”), screenwriter (“A Star is Born”), and stage director (“My Fair Lady,” “Camelot”), but this classic memoir deals not with those masterworks, but with his beginnings.  It tells the tale of his impoverished New York childhood and the steps leading to his first success, a collaboration with the legendary George S. Kaufmann.  This is one of the great memoirs of the era and a must read for anyone interested in theater.

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Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why

You can’t stop the future,

you can’t rewind the past

the only way to learn the secret

…is to press play.


          Clay Jensen returns home from high school and finds a mysterious package waiting for him.  Inside there are thirteen cassette tapes made by Hannah Baker, his high school crush who committed suicide two weeks earlier.  The package was sent with the tapes and a highlighted map of the town so the people on the tapes can relive her last days.  Those that have been chosen to receive a copy of the tapes are warned that they must pass it on to the next otherwise a second copy of the tapes would be leaked to the entire school.  If that happens some of the students could face ridicule or even jail time.  Clay’s journey to understand the whole story of Hannah’s death is a psychological ride that leaves you thinking about all the “what ifs” that happen in life. 

          This story has an interesting dual narrative that moves back and forth between what Hannah and Clay are doing and thinking at the same time.  It can be a bit confusing but that is what makes this book so interesting.  The story is a little dark but it is a fascinating journey that proves how everything that you do or don't do has a consequence.  

          Universal Films has bought the rights to the movie and is currently in the planning stages.  Selena Gomez has been cast to play the lead role of Hannah Baker. 

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The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door

Oh I loved, loved, LOVED this book! Celia Door, aka Celia the Dark, is just starting high school after a horrific end to 8th grade...she loses her best (and only) friend, her parents have separated and the school mean girls, Sandy & Mandy, have targeted her to be their next prey. Needless to say, Celia is NOT looking forward to 9th grade. Then she meets Drake. Drake is the new kid, the super good looking, ultra-cool New Yorker who apparently hasn't received the memo that Celia is "Weird" with a capital "W" and the two develop a wonderful friendship.

Of course, there is A LOT more going on here, but I don't want to give anything away. There is a lot of humor and the characters are very realistic teenagers. In fact, the only thing I didn't like is the neatly packaged "After School Special" ending. Mostly, this book was a delight and I would like to comment on the amazingly perfect cover. So many YA covers don't capture the essence of their book --- this one does just that.

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Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013)
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach

I had long heard of Mary Roach's titles but never tried one. Gulp fell into my lap when a coworker heard about it and placed it on hold for me, figuring I would like it. I can see why Mary Roach's writing is so popular: she mixes great, science-y information with a fantastic sense of humor that is typically presented in tongue-in-cheek or dry asides as well as side-splitting footnotes. Gulp explores the digestive and excretory systems and some of the little-known research and researchers working in these areas. If you like science and also think a book like "What's Your Poo Telling You" is funny, chances are good that you will love this, too. I laughed and laughed and cringed and laughed.


Mary Roach's other titles are

She is also editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2011

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