Staff Picks

When you're in the Library, be sure to browse the "Staff Picks" display for additional staff suggestions.

A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley

2013

Some books are so interesting, you hate to see them end. A Curious Man fits the bill. Most of us have heard of Ripley’s Believe it or Not but how many know the back story of LeRoy Robert Ripley, the bucktoothed, eccentric, self-taught ethnographer and anthropologist, who grew up in Santa Rosa, California? His story is of the rags to riches variety. The reader is taken on a journey through the late 1800s, the devastating San Francisco earthquake, World Wars I & II, Prohibition, The Great Depression, and Ripley’s many travels abroad where he collected curios and women friends with a passion. Ripley got his start drawing cartoons for newspapers. He eventually had a popular radio show and delved into early television in the 1940s. Ripley became a household name that endured. There are Ripley museums at Niagra Falls, Times Square, and other locales. Today’s reality shows continue his legacy with the “weirder the better” mentality. P.T. Barnum left his mark during the 1800s and Ripley’s name will forever be enshrined in American culture. You will not want to put this down.

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My name is Parvana

2012
My name is Parvana

I’ve been very interested in Afghanistan since the 1980s and I eagerly devour as much non-fiction as I can on the diverse cultures, complex history and natural beauty of the country. Ellis’s My name is Parvana was created to be a realistic fiction novel  based on the lives of multiple children that the author met during her time in Afghanistan.  The importance of education and its positive impact on the lives of girls is readily apparent throughout the book. At the same time the author also emphasizes the trauma of war as it permeates every aspect of life for these Afghan teens. The natural dialogue between friends and family members is both compelling and endearing as it moves the story along. Other scenes from the book do not feel as authentic because the author provides Parvana with reactions that are distinctly American. For example when Parvana smells onions on someone’s breath she mentally references a hamburger not bolani, which is a common Afghan dish. 

This book is a good introduction into Afghanistan because it captures the emotions of some of the war-weary populace. For a more Afghan perspective on life in Afghanistan I would recommend Zoya’s Story by John Follain or Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane

2013

I have been a Neil Gaiman fan since reading my first Sandman graphic novel many years ago, his book American Gods is the only reason I ever went to House on the Rock and he writes Dr. Who episodes – so enough said, I’m an fan boy. His latest work certainly doesn’t hurt his legacy. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short book, if you get sucked in like I did you can knock it out in a night. It is written for adults but would likely be okay for teens, though there is one scene in the story that is not for kids but even that is not too graphic.

The story follows a seven year old boy, or more accurately a middle-aged man looking back on his seven year self. Through the boy’s eyes we see his world(s) coming apart, both the world we all know (his family is dealing if financial issues that cause turmoil on a number of levels) and the magical world he has just learned of, yet might mean his doom. In the course of the story he meets Lettie Hempstock who becomes his friend, protector and guide in this new mysterious world where trouble is brewing.  

I love the world Neil Gaiman has created, a world that is consistent in its depths across all of his stories. You recognize the world we all know, but there is always a shadow world laying just underneath, filled with supernatural people and beings, doing shadowy things. His world seems utterly plausible because of his characters and the settings; reality never manages to push its way in and ruin the fun. It’s almost a shame to finish the book and realize that his magical world, where anything can happen never existed.   

 

I would highly recommend The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s a good story and a great way to ease into his work. If you find you like it I would check out American God’s, Coraline and Graveyard Book

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Game of Thrones (Graphic Novel)

2012
Game of Thrones. Graphic Novel. Volume 1
Game of Thrones. Graphic Novel. Volume 2

Game of Thrones is the story of seven noble families that fight for control of the mythical land of Westeros.  Fans of the HBO television series, Game of Thrones, and fans of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy books series will be sure to love this graphic novel.  If you have read George R.R. Martin’s series you’ll appreciate the way that Daniel Abraham (the adapter) and Tommy Patterson (the artist) have kept to the authenticity of the book. 

Some of the things that were written out of the movie adaptation are carefully depicted in the graphic novel.  One example is that the Dothraki wear their hair in long braids and when they are defeated they must shave their heads.  Khal Drogo has long braids because he has never been defeated in combat and in the book he wears bells in his braids so that his enemies can hear him coming.  The television series didn’t include the bells because they caused too much of a distraction during the performances.

I admit that I fell in love with the movie first but I’m ready to tackle the science fiction novels now.  There are so many characters and storylines that it is hard to keep them all straight but having the graphic novel actually helped me put names to faces and to become more attached to the characters.  If you like science fiction and medieval times, this is the story for you.

Warning:  This is an adult graphic novel and does contain some scenes of nudity not intended for children.     

 

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The Other Typist

(2013)
The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell

If you like musing over a book's not-so-clear-cut ending for days afterward, you may love The Other Typist, too.  The entire story is presented from Rose’s first-person perspective.  Rose works as a typist at a New York City police precinct during Prohibition, transcribing criminals’ confessions.  Alone for most of her life, she eventually begins a surprising and close friendship with the appealing and attractive new hire, Odalie.  Rose, who values and self-describes herself as mousey and plain, is fascinated by everything about Odalie; she recounts being drawn into Odalie’s world: one fraught with glitz, deception, and, ultimately, murder. You will definitely want to talk about this book with someone else who has read it.

I loved the writing and pacing in The Other Typist.  This is Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel, and I look forward to more from her. 

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Death by Darjeeling

(2001)
Death by Darjeeling

Theodosia Browning owns the charming Indigo Tea Shop, located in the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina.  Local business owners fear that a real estate developer is attempting to buy their properties for redevelopment.  Then the developer is found slumped over a cup of Theodosia’s tea—dead.  The police suspect that Theo and her staff of caused his demise, despite a lack of evidence, so Theo must track down the killer to clear her name and regain the excellent reputation of her shop.

The Tea Shop Mystery series is enjoyable, with interesting characters and a touch of Southern flavor.  The detailed descriptions allow you to picture narrow cobbled streets, local women creating sweetgrass baskets, and historic buildings.  While the mystery itself wasn’t particularly difficult to unravel, the book would be especially enjoyable to read during a cold Wisconsin winter.

If you like tea you will enjoy learning more about where tea comes from, imagine tasting the delicious tea blends served at the shop, and perhaps try some of the recipes for delicious desserts that are served at the tea shop. 

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Sworn to Silence

(2009)
Sworn to Silence

I have found a new favorite mystery writer/series (unless the author tanks it in book 2 of the series...highly unlikely)! Kate Burkholder is the Police Chief in the small town of Painters Mill, Ohio, where she grew up in an Amish family. Some pretty dramatic and traumatizing events (detailed in the book) cause her to leave the Amish culture and join English society. She is placed under the bann by the Amish and ends up leaving home for Cleveland, where she eventually becomes a police officer. She spends 8 years there, first as a patrol officer, then a homicide detective before she is hired as Chief of the Painters Mill PD.

She has been in her role as Chief for 2 years when we meet her in this captivating crime story. One of her officers has stumbled across a body while rounding up some loose cows near the Stutz family farm. The body is of a young woman who has been brutally tortured and killed, and the killer's m.o. is eerily similar to that of "The Slaughterhouse Killer", a serial killer that terrorized Painters Mill sixteen years before. Could the killer be back or is it a copycat crime? In either case, the questions begs to be answered "Why now?"

Through the course of the investigation, we learn of Kate's past and the secrets she is keeping. Secrets that can affect the investigation, her life, and her career. The characters are well developed and the story so effectively told. I had never heard of this author before, until a patron I was engaged in a reader's advisory transaction with recommended this series to me.

Apparently, Linda Castillo is best known, or was previously, as a romance author (which explains why I never heard of her --- romance novels are not my cup of tea). I would never in a million years have guessed that! Castillo is a natural in this role. If you like a good, well-written mystery -- think Sue Grafton, Kathy Reichs, or Lisa Scottoline, give this series a try. I can't wait to read more about Kate Burkholder!

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The Waters of Star Lake

2012

For the first time since her husband’s death, Natalie Waters is returning to her family’s cabin in the secluded north woods of Wisconsin.  She expects to be surrounded by her memories and solitude, but what she finds is something altogether different.  After her dog is attacked by a wolf, Natalie finds herself in the middle of the heated conflict between local advocates of the Timber Wolf population and local hunters. Her once peaceful retreat is now threatened by violence. Natalie turns to some old friends for support and ends up on another little adventure.  Natalie grudgingly joins her friends on a hunt for the fortune believed to have been buried in the woods by notorious gangster John Dillinger after the shootout at his local hideout decades earlier. This story is surely to be enjoyed by anyone who has visited or owns a cabin in Northern Wisconsin. A very enjoyable story.

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

(2013)

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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Joyland

(2013)
Joyland

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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