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Archive for the ‘Bluesocks’ Picks’ Category

Bad-Taste-In-Boys This debut novel by Carrie Harris is fun—if, like me, you enjoy the occasional zombie book!

High school junior Kate Grable is the football team’s student trainer. She is hoping that the experience will help her get into a good medical school, but up until now she’s pretty much just been in charge of the Gatorade cart.

One afternoon she notices a bunch of unlabeled bottles in the coach’s cabinet. She suspects they are steroids until one of the players collapses at a party. Kate swears the boy is dead, until he lurches to his feet and walks away. He can’t be dead if he walked away, right?

After a few more players show the same grayish skin and dead-like symptoms (like trying to munch on other students), Kate is ready to think the unthinkable. Something has turned these players into zombies.

Before the whole town comes down with the zombie infection, Kate has to find a cure. And if she manages to get a date to the homecoming dance in the meantime—so much the better!

The books are fast-paced and easy to get into. It isn’t particularly scary reading about zombies running loose in school. And while there is a certain “ew, gross” factor, even that is handled with humor. Add that to the usual high school angst, and friendships, and crushes…. it makes a great introduction to a series of books about geeky Kate and her high school adventures.  I wonder what will happen next to this aspiring medical student!

Check the WRL catalog for Bad Taste in Boys.

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incognegroThe best fiction is often that which is built on a foundation of truth. In the early 20th century, Walter White, a former head of the NAACP, went undercover as a white man in the Deep South in order to do investigative reporting on lynchings that were not being reported by the local newspapers. That journey served as an inspiration for writer Mat Johnson, who grew up as a light-skinned African American when you could be white or black, but not both.

The story follows Zane Pitchback, a Harlem-based reporter for the New Holland Herald. The light-skinned Zane, writing under the pseudonym “Incognegro,” has gained anonymous infamy for his blistering exposés on racial violence in the South. Frustrated that he’s not getting appropriate acknowledgement of his work, Zane seeks to shelve his investigative reporting and get recognition under his own byline. But when his own brother gets wrongly arrested for killing a white woman, Zane once again travels south for a story. Desperate to save his brother, and disguised as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Zane tries to find the real killer before his brother gets lynched.

Zane is accompanied by his similarly light-skinned friend named Carl, who is experiencing the injustices of the South for the first time. Zane finds his brother alive but under constant threat from the local population. Even if Zane can discover the truth of what happened, he’s not sure he can get his brother free and safely back to New York. Meanwhile, Carl has taken on a British accent and is playing poker and drinking with the locals, but keeping from being discovered is a tricky and dangerous game.

An absorbing and compelling tale, this story brings to life the blurred and impermanent lines that are used by society to separate one group of people from another. Recommended for readers of historical fiction, especially those who are interested in social justice.

Check the WRL catalog for Incognegro.

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SHARKAre you searching for a beach read?  Look no further… I have just the book for you! Michael Capuzzo’s Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence will keep you on the edge of your seat (and perhaps out of the water!) This page-turning drama chronicles a series of fatal shark attacks that occurred off the coast of New Jersey during the summer of 1916.

Capuzzo paints a vivid picture of the post-Victorian era, where the nouveaux riches escape the sweltering summer heat of the city and head to the Jersey Shore. It is a genteel time, when ladies and gents dress for dinner, and ocean swimming is a new form of recreation.  The idyllic seaside is suddenly transformed to a scene of unexplained terror when the son of a prominent physician from Philadelphia becomes the first victim of a mysterious aquatic beast. (Shark attacks were unheard of in the United States until this event.)

The current ichthyologic knowledge of the time, newspaper accounts, interviews, medical journals and other historical documents, interwoven throughout the book, put the reader in the moment of this terrifying summer. The momentum builds as subsequent victims are taken during the course of twelve long days. How the victims, their families, the community at large, as well as the community leaders cope with the tragedies and the unexplained source of the terror and work together to attempt to put a stop to the seemingly uncontrollable water beast provide an interesting and heart pulsing read. Don’t miss Close to Shore… and I imagine after reading it, you may remain “close to shore”!

Check the WRL catalog for Close to Shore.

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LIONSIn 1898, the British began construction on a railway line in East Africa that was to run from the port of Mombasa up to Lake Victoria. Nicknamed the “Lunatic Line” by critics, this huge and difficult project became even more so when:

“Two most voracious and insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over nine months waged intermittent warfare against the railway and all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December 1898, when they actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete standstill for about three weeks.”

John Henry Patterson was the engineer in charge of construction, so, by default, it became his responsibility to put an end to the depredations. The book relates his efforts to do just that and despite his understated prose, it’s a nail-biting read. These lions were smart, fearless and vicious. It’s not known exactly how many people they devoured, but Patterson affirmed 28 railway workers and they are traditionally credited with 130 kills before finally being stopped.

First published in 1907, this non-fiction thriller is rightly considered a classic of Africana and hunting literature and is recommended for people who like true tales of adventure and don’t mind a little gore… OK, maybe more than just a little gore.

Check the WRL catalog for The Man-eaters of Tsavo.

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Kakapo rescue

Some book titles exaggerate to attract readers, and the subtitle of this book, “Saving The World’s Strangest Parrot,” sounds like hyperbole, but in the case of the kakapo, it is simple fact. The New Zealand Kakapo is the world’s only nocturnal parrot. It is also the heaviest parrot, often weighing eight pounds. Of course, a bird that heavy can’t fly, so it climbs trees using its claws and beak, only to spread its wings and drop to the leafy forest floor like a stone when it is time to get down. To attracts mates in the dense New Zealand forest the male kakapo digs himself a bowl and booms like a drum. And if that isn’t enough, they smell so strongly from a fungus that grows in their feathers that humans can easily pick up their musty, honey-like scent. Sounds like the world’s strangest parrot? It does to me!

Not only is the kakapo strange, but the combination of flightlessness and friendliness mean that it is extremely vulnerable to predation by carnivorous mammals that have been introduced to New Zealand, such as dogs, cats, weasels and stoats. Unwilling to allow the extinction of the bird that once thrived in millions all over New Zealand, the New Zealand government and private charities are scrambling to save it. Kakapo Rescue describes a thrilling story with the bird going from a population of millions in the 1800s to presumed extinction in the 1950s. Over sixty expeditions searched for kakapos in the 1970s, and they found eighteen birds, which was great news for a bird assumed to be extinct, but they all turned out to be male. Finally in 1977 scientists found a surviving population of two hundred on Stewart Island, to the far south of New Zealand. But kakapos breed slowly and they were still struggling, until  by 1995 there were only fifty-one kakapos left. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a remarkable breeding program on tiny Codfish Island, off the coast of Stewart Island. Up to fourteen people live in a hut year-round solely to help the birds. The happy news is that according to the Kakapo Recovery website there are now nearly 150 kakapo, although the number goes up and down a little as some kakapo die while some eggs hatch.

In our library, both copies of Kakapo Rescue are shelved in the children’s department. This book is definitely interesting and detailed enough to capture the attention of bird- and nature-loving adults, while being accessible to older children. Every page has dazzling photographs by renowned wildlife photographer Nic Bishop. I strongly recommend Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot for people enraptured by dramatic conservation stories and those fascinated by bizarre birds, such as penguins. It will also grab travel buffs who want to learn about the soggy and windswept beauty of southern New Zealand.

Check the WRL catalog for Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot.

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The Sugar Queen

I enjoyed Sarah Addison Allen’s first book, Garden Spells, so I picked up her second title, The Sugar Queen, to see if it continued to delight with quirky characters and interesting plot lines. It does!

Josey Cirrini is trapped by guilt and fear in the house she has grown up in – torn between her sense of obligation to her cold, demanding mother and fear of change. She finds comfort in her secret stash of sweets and travel magazines hidden in her closet.

One morning Josie wakes up to discover a woman, Della Lee, hiding in that closet. Josey wants Della Lee to leave – but Della threatens to tell Josey’s mother about her sweets (it’s an embarrassing mountain of bad-for-you food). Her fear of being a bigger disappointment to her mom and the hint of desperation in Della Lee’s voice, convince Josey to let Della Lee stay until she can get herself together. What really happens is Della Lee helps Josey get herself together.

With the encouragement of this odd adviser, Josey makes a good friend, finds true love and gains the courage to leave the past behind her.

Allen weaves interesting magical elements through out the story – in addition to Della Lee living in Josey’s closet, there’s a man who is able to steal women’s souls, a family that must keep any promise made, and (my favorite) a woman to whom books appear out of nowhere.

If you can suspend your disbelief, you’re in for a real treat.

Check the WRL catalog for The Sugar Queen

Check for The Sugar Queen on audio CD

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Unaccustomed Earth

Short story collections generally don’t circulate well. I’m not sure exactly why, but I can certainly theorize. Personally, I enjoy immersing myself in a detailed, involved story, with well-thought out characters and vivid settings, but the very nature of short stories (They’re short!) seems counterintuitive to achieving those lofty goals. Honestly, If I’d known Unaccustomed Earth was a collection of short stories, I don’t think I would have bothered to pick it up. Fortunately for me (and I hope, by extension, you), the cover of this advance reader’s copy wasn’t very clear about the nature of this book, so I took it home and was several pages in, before I realized I was “duped.” Having frightened you away, let me lure you back in by saying that I really loved this collection of short stories, and Lahiri gave me almost everything I was looking for in a work of fiction.

Lahiri is the daughter of Indian immigrants, and her cultural background and life experiences figure prominently in her stories. The main character is usually an educated woman, almost always a second-generation Indian, and often involved with a non-Indian love interest. The consistency of her characters has led several reviewers to characterize Lahiri’s work as repetitive, but I think most of her stories transcend their characters’ origins. I, for instance, am an educated woman of mostly German ancestry (many generations removed), and while my love interest is non-Indian, that’s hardly remarkable since I am not Indian myself. Yet even so, there was much in Lahiri’s writing to which I could relate. (I found myself thinking about one story for days, even weeks after I read it. I don’t even feel comfortable sharing it here, because it hit way too close to my personal life.) While the Indian culture provides an interesting backdrop for the stories and occasionally produces conflict, in the end, I think what Lahiri is really writing about the complexities of life itself. What could be more universal?

Lahiri’s writing style is simple, but elegant, and is well-suited to the short story format. (I did not find her novel, The Namesake, quite as engrossing as her short story collections.) Sometimes the stories end on a sadder note, sometimes, a happier, and occasionally the reader is left uncertain how to feel. In fact, to say that her stories ever really end is perhaps misleading. Each conclusion features a transitional point in the main character’s life, a turning point with considerable implications. While the writing ends, the reader can’t help but be aware that the characters’ lives continue to go forward, and I have to say, if there was one frustration I had, it was that I wanted to follow them further. Ultimately I still found the stories satisfying, because I was encouraged to think long and hard about what had happened and what it might mean. Even so, those readers who appreciate tight, neat endings, with all the loose ends wrapped up in a neat little bow, might be frustrated by Lahiri’s technique. Otherwise, I would say Unaccustomed Earth is an excellent choice for both fans of multicultural fiction and those who simply enjoy good stories about the ups and downs associated with being alive.

Check the WRL catalog for Unaccustomed Earth

Or try Unaccustomed Earth as an audiobook

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The Prince of Frogtown

Connie from our Bluesocks reading group brings us this entry:

Anyone who is a Rick Bragg fan will want to read this third installment of his family history. Simply put, his first book, “All over But the Shoutin’,” was a tribute to his mother. His second book, “Ava’s Man,” was about his mother’s father’s life. This book mostly deals with the author’s alcoholic father, Charles, the “Prince of Frogtown,” who was all but a footnote in his other books.

Bragg pieces together a portrait of his father from his childhood through his death from alcoholism and TB. He relates stories from family and friends that show a cycle of alcoholism with devastating effects on the author’s family. While researching his father’s story, Bragg becomes acclimated to fatherhood for the first time.

Alternating chapters let the reader glimpse Bragg’s developing relationship with the 10 year old son of the woman he has just married after 20 years of single life. The humor and insight in these sections was a welcome contrast to his father’s sad story. One of the things I enjoy most about Bragg’s books is his way of telling a tale. He is so descriptive that you can picture the setting and begin to feel as if you know these people. And in the chapters about his relationship with his own boy, I loved his self-deprecating humor, which made me just laugh. People who enjoy fiction with the setting and characters in the southern states may also like this book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Prince of Frogtown

The Prince of Frogtown in large print

The Prince of Frogtown on audio CD

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The following entry is by Cheryl, our fearless Bluesocks reading group leader.

The Billionaire\'s Vinegar, by Benjamin WallaceIn 1985 at Christie’s auction house in London, Kip Forbes, son of Malcolm Forbes, paid $156,000 dollars for a bottle of Chateau Lafitte. This is the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine, but this was not just some lowly flagon of ale. Supposedly, the Lafitte dated back to 1787 and was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. The bottle was engraved with Jefferson’s initials and in good condition. The contents might even be drinkable.

Supposedly is the key word here because doubts about the legitimacy of this “Jefferson Bottle” form the basis of an enjoyable non-fiction book entitled The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace. The story is an intriguing blend of history, true crime, social commentary, and wine appreciation.

The tale opens with the sale of the Jefferson Bottle and then details the twenty-year period that follows. This was a period in which wine collecting became a popular and expensive hobby among the wealthy. This in turn spurred the sale of notable historic wines by luxury auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. As the value of the antique vintages spiraled ever higher, numerous bottles, many extraordinarily rare, began cropping up with troubling regularity.

One wine aficionado in particular seemed to have a bottomless trove of spectacular spirits. Hardy Rodenstock, a German collector, was renowned for his ability to locate and obtain rare varieties of wine. The original Jefferson Lafitte came from his collection and through the years he introduced many, many other vintages of great age and value including a couple of dozen more Jefferson Bottles.

Rodenstock was wealthy, secretive, haughty and a vengeful hot-head. He refused to provide information on the provenance of his wine and vehemently attacked anyone who questioned his integrity or the authenticity of his finds. He also had some dubious habits. He would collect all the corks and empty antique bottles from his tasting events. Now why did he do that? What could you do with ancient empties? Refill them with counterfeit wine and resell them perhaps? Hmmmm.

Because he was considered one of the world’s leading experts on archaic alcohol, few people had the courage or expertise to confront him. It didn’t hurt that he had staunch support from the head of the fine wine section at Christie’s. So for years doubt and suspicion about counterfeiting swirled around Rodenstock but nothing was done until some of the Jefferson Bottles ended up in the hands of a billionaire named Bill Koch.

Koch was a passionate collector of wine and owned four of Rodenstock’s Jefferson Bottles. He was notoriously litigious and hated being defrauded. When Koch approached some renowned experts on the life of Thomas Jefferson about authenticating his purchases, he was surprised to find that they doubted the authenticity of the Jefferson Bottles and had publicly stated as much many years before.

Incensed, Koch assembled an expert team of detectives. The resulting investigation exposed all manner of fraudulent practices in the wide world of wine, shattering reputations and leading to a call for reforms to curb the distribution of counterfeit vintages. Koch ended up suing Rodenstock in a court case that is still playing out.

This book is enjoyable if you have an interest in the mild side of true crime but there are other pleasures to be found along the way. Wine lovers in particular will find a wealth of information on how their favorite drink is created, from the cultivation of the grape to the bottling, labeling, corking, storage, opening and pouring of the lovely bubbly. The snobby world of wine elitists is amusingly described. You also get some historical information on several of France’s most famous vineyards and learn of Thomas Jefferson’s role in introducing wine to the U.S.

The only criticism I have lies with the ending, which is a bit abrupt. But that can’t really be helped because, as mentioned earlier, Koch’s lawsuit against Rodenstock is still being litigated with no end in sight. But, all in all, this is an interesting and entertaining story and I recommend it.

Check the WRL catalog for The Billionaire’s Vinegar

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Breath, by Tim WintonIt’s a sign of a good book when an author can take subject matter that is completely alien and render it in a way that immerses you, fascinates you, moves you. The Australian Tim Winton did that for me with Breath, a coming-of-age tale about surfing and other extreme adventures.

In Breath, two boys in their early teens growing up in Western Australia find companionship in one shared interest: holding their breath underwater. Bruce Pike (or Pikelet, our narrator) is a quiet boy from a quiet working family whose parents want him to stay away from the water. Ivan Loon (Loonie) is a reckless daredevil from poor and abusive parents.

Although they have nothing else in common, their love of the water makes them almost inseparable. This bond tightens when they fall under the sway of two Americans: Sando, a larger-than-life, vagabond surfer and extreme sports adventurer, and his wife, Eva, a mysterious woman who seems to be stoked by anger.  Under their tutelage, Pikelet and Loonie follow a lifestyle that leads them into ever-escalating risks and find that their friendship has a dark rivalry at its base.

Winton’s description of the ocean will leave even non-swimmers feeling like they have just been pummelled by a giant wave. Visits to Sando and Eva’s remote house take on an almost mystical pull. 

The story is framed at start and finish by a few scenes from Pike’s later life as an EMT. Although not destroyed, he’s clearly haunted by a past that has given him wisdom, but a sad kind of wisdom. Ultimately, this is a book about how the instinctual decisions and obsessions of youth can have dramatic, far-reaching impacts–impacts that can define a life.

There is some dark content here: fear, betrayal, recklessness, and some extreme sexual conduct, but Winton handles these subjects with respect and gravity. I heartily recommend this powerful little novel.

Check the WRL catalog for Breath

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Cheryl writes:

I prefer True Crime to fiction, but since our staff book group decided to read an international mystery I was forced to dive into the genre. Surprisingly, I found a “cozy” book that I enjoyed.

Monsieur Pamplemousse on the Spot is by British author Michael Bond. Bond is best known as a writer of children’s fiction and the creator of Paddington Bear. His Pamplemousse series of humorous culinary mysteries is for the adult market.

Aristide Pamplemousse, once a detective with the Paris Surete, was forced into retirement because of a scandalous incident with some showgirls from the Follies Bergere. He now works as a gourmet food critic for Le Guide and travels throughout France, dining well and investigating the mysteries that inevitably crop up whenever he’s around.

Assisting him in these endeavors, playing Watson to his Holmes, is a large, drooling, personable, bloodhound named Pommes Frittes, also retired from the Surete where he worked in the Division Chiens.

For those who are not bilingual, Pamplemousse is the French word for grapefruit and Pommes Frittes is French Fry. So whenever crime rears its ugly head, Mr. Grapefruit and his dog French Fry are on the case, ready and able to solve the mystery while knoshing on Quenelles de veau washed down with a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem ‘45.

The plot of this book, third in the 16 volume series, takes place at a luxury resort where Mon. P is on vacation. Unfortunately, the resort’s master chef has gone missing, which means that there will be no Souffle Surprise on the menu that night. Quelle disaster!

Pamplemousse reluctantly strolls into action and while searching for the kiboshed cook uncovers an additional mystery at a local private school, which has a disturbingly high accident rate among its pretty female students. However, the investigation is hampered by the fact that Pommes Frittes is literally sick as a dog. Unfortunately, during a midnight meander the chow-loving hound happened upon the restaurant’s trash bins and ate himself into a stupor. Bad Dog!

The plotting of the mystery is rather haphazard and occasionally confusing, but plot is not really the point in books like these. The characters are likeable, especially the dog. It’s easy going and the dialogue is amusing with our not-so-dynamic duo getting into situations that are gently humorous but not maudlin or excessively cutesy. As a bonus for food fans there are some delectable descriptions of glorious gourmet goodies.

The only criticism I have lies in the resolution of the mystery. The comic storyline suddenly goes dark with a denouement that involves white slavery and a cynical application of Realpolitik in international relations. It’s incongruous with the souffle light tone previously established by the book.

Despite the disconcerting ending I enjoyed Monsieur Pamplemousse on the Spot and would recommended it for food fans, dog lovers or anyone looking for a funny lightweight mystery with international flair.

Check the WRL catalog

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Anne Holt is a former minister of justice, lawyer, and journalist, and one of Scandinavia’s successful crime writers. What is Mine is her American debut.

In this story former FBI profiler Johanne Vik is working on a paper about the media coverage of serious crimes. She is asked to look into an old case where a man, Aksel Seier, was convicted of raping and murdering an 8-year-old girl, then is inexplicably released from prison without media fanfare or receiving an official pardon. While she’s probing this old case, which looks to be based on mostly circumstantial evidence, a kidnapper is abducting children and returning them, dead, to their parents with a sinister note. The police are at a loss for clues. As the media attention intensifies, inspector Adam Stubo consults with Johanne for advice on what type of person could be motivated to commit this heinous crime.

Holt brings all these seemingly unrelated pieces together in a clever knot that had me racing to see what happens in the end.

The story takes place mostly in Oslo, Norway. And there are a couple of interesting comparisons as to how that country differs from the United States. During a television interview about the missing children, one of the panelists says “It’s time people woke up. Only a few years ago we thought that the sexual abuse of children didn’t concern us. It was something that only happened out there, in the U.S., far away.”

It’s not a pretty picture of the U.S., but it’s not randomly bashing either. The comparison gives Norway a small town feel, an innocence. It wasn’t unusual for kids to take the bus alone to another town to visit family or to walk unsupervised from school. Though, even in innocent times, some people will go to extremes to protect “what is mine.”

As Stubo and Vik spend time together exploring profiles of the killer and trying to get a handle on the case, an attraction builds. Holt has two other books planned featuring this duo — and by the looks of the book summary, their relationship develops into a marriage in the next book, What Never Happens, which is also in the library collection.

Check the WRL catalog for What is Mine

Check the WRL catalog for What Never Happens

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Connie shares her review of The Tenderness of Wolves which takes place in Ontario, Canada, 1876:

Let me start by saying I am not much of a mystery reader, although I do enjoy character-driven stories in different settings and time periods. That is probably why this book appealed to me so much. There is a basic mystery at the core, but it seems secondary to the people, place, and time.

A French trapper has been murdered in a small settlement and a neighbor, Mrs. Ross, finds the body at the same time her 17-year-old son goes missing. Mrs. Ross, along with many others, sets out tracking her son and trying to discover who killed the trapper and why. Along the way, the reader learns a bit about the Hudson Bay Company and the peopling of the northern territory of Canada in the 19th century.

The story is told from the point of view of several characters as they traverse a cold, brutal environment, although Mrs. Ross’ story is the most developed. I found her a fascinating character and although the reader is given bits and pieces of her life, I wanted to know more. The author has said she wrote this, her first novel, as a sequel to a previously written screen play. The murder is solved by the end, but the characters’ lives aren’t resolved so neatly, leaving me — as a reader — hoping for another sequel!

Check the WRL catalog for The Tenderness of Wolves.

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Bangkok 8I’m probably not ever going to make it to Thailand. The majority of you who read this will never get there either. That’s what makes a book like Bangkok 8 so exciting to find.

Yes, it’s an exciting mystery with a good puzzle: Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep must solve the murder of an American marine by drug-crazed snakes (which also killed his partner and best friend). Yes, it has a great lead character: the son of a sex worker, Sonchai has a love of Western fashion but a Buddhist purity that leaves him as the only cop in Bangkok with no extra income.

But the best reason of all to read this book is the way that it immerses you in Thai culture, particularly in sleazy parts of Bangkok that may seem alien to western values but still thrive on the influx of western money. You’ll make a vicarious visit to a fascinating place where you’d probably never go in real life. As Sonchai tracks a killer through brothels, drug deals, sexual reassignment clinics, alligator farms, and masochistic horrors, you’ll feel you’re there. Burdett doesn’t just use these story elements for cheap thrills. He leaves you with plenty to ponder about the difference between western and eastern values.

If you like this book, continue the adventure in Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts.

Check the WRL catalog for Bangkok 8

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Cela shares her comments about Jar City, a mystery from Iceland:

Jar City is a complex mix of mystery, dysfunctional family interactions, and travelogue. Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson is introduced in the first chapter investigating the scene of a murder. As he surveys the crime scene, he finds a cryptic note with the message, “I am Him” written on it. Based on this message, and the condition of the crime scene (no forced entry, no obvious property damage, etc.), the police determine that the crime is not random, but in fact, a planned murder.

Erlendur and his crew learn many intriguing facts as they follow one lead after another. They discover several old crimes that may have been committed by the murder victim, the puzzling death of a child with a rare genetic disease, and the existence of rooms in hospitals, and possibly in private “collections,” housing thousands of jars containing various organs removed from bodies without permission in the name of science and research.

Although the mystery is interesting enough, with many twists and turns, the real center of the story is the combination of the city of Reykjavik, Icelandic weather, and Erlendur. The city is present in almost every chapter, either indirectly, as a background providing character development, or directly, providing a historical and ecological puzzle that must be solved to learn more about the victim. As Erlendur trudges through the constant rain from one lead to another, he is haunted by his personal failures, especially his relationship with his daughter Eva Lind, an addict who drifts in and out of his life when her need for shelter and/or money overwhelms her. The almost uniformly gloomy weather is the background for his equally gloomy life.

Foreign writers often must rely on the skills of their translators to make their books appealing to other readers. In this case, Bernard Scudder does an outstanding job of translating the material to American tastes. As I learned more about Erlendur, through his musings about his personal and professional life, as well as the thoughts and conversations of those around him, I started to appreciate his amazing resilience and his essential humanity. An intriguing regular cast of characters, an interesting premise, and spare, lyrical writing made me want to read the next book in the series, Silence of the Grave.

Check the WRL catalog for Jar City.

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For some, Christmas is a time of joy; for others the holidays are difficult. For me the holidays are a big mix of nostalgia, stress, annoyance, confusion, and sheer wonder at the bizarre extremes of behavior that I see this time of year. That, in a nutshell (with emphasis on the nuts), is why I can really appreciate a novel like Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel: a Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror.

Moore rounds up the wacked-out residents of Pine Cove, California (several of his books are set there) for another ridiculous adventure. When Lena Marquez accidentally kills Santa in self defense (a Santa played by her rotten ex-husband, the town’s resident Evil Developer) she gets help from helicopter pilot Tucker Case and his pet, the giant fruit bat Roberto, in hiding the body. Unfortunately, a video-game obsessed boy named Josh has witnessed Santa’s slaying. Raziel, the screw-up angel of the title, has been sent from heaven to perform the annual Christmas miracle, and when he hears Josh wish for Santa to return to life, he raises the Evil Developer and the rest of the town’s dead from the grave as ravenous zombies.

Meanwhile, Former B-movie actress Molly “The Warrior Babe” is off her meds and hearing voices again and husband Theo, the town constable, has fallen off the wagon and is back to his pot-smoking ways. In a hilarious parody of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Molly gives Theo a bong (to celebrate his success in giving up pot) and Theo gives Molly a samurai sword (to commemorate her career). Neither realizes that the other has a dubious use for the symbolic gifts.

These are just the main characters in Moore’s fast-moving, funny story. It’s vulgar, it’s profane, and it all ends with a standoff between the zombies and the town residents they surround in a church during the annual Christmas party for the single and lonely. What fun! It reminds me of my family Christmas parties, but that’s another story

Try this or any of Moore’s delightful satires when you need a break from serious reading or the stress of daily life.

Check the availability of The Stupidest Angel in the WRL catalog

The Stupidest Angel

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Cheryl reminds us of why it’s worth returning to this Christmas classic:

Christmas may be a humbug to Ebenezer Scrooge but it certainly wasn’t a humbug to Charles Dickens who wrote several fine tales of the holiday season. His best and most famous Christmas story is of course, A Christmas Carol. People have grown up watching this holiday perennial on TV and know the story by heart so is there anything to be gained by reading it? Well, yes there is.

The well-known tale concerns a bad-tempered miser named Ebenezer Scrooge who finds enlightenment and redemption one cold Christmas Eve through the intercession of his dead former partner Marley, and three holiday spirits. Dicken’s wondrous way with words is evident in the delightful dialogue present in any of the better films, and by that I mean the Alastair Sim (1951) and George C. Scott (1984) versions, but the movies lack much of the evocative exposition found in the book.

Dickens LOVED to describe things in extravagant detail. There are long passages delineating everything from people’s moods to how a building looks at night or even the weather. I suspect his publisher paid him by the word. In some of his other holiday stories this plethora of prose can be confusing and even annoying, but in A Christmas Carol, he strikes just the right balance and his verbosity greatly enhances the story. Take this typical passage about Scrooge’s personality:

Oh! But he was tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold from within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

The written version of A Christmas Carol is rife with passages like this that vividly bring Scrooge and his Victorian world to life and make it a pleasure to read. In addition, the story’s message of mankind’s interconnectedness, that we are all, as Scrooge’s nephew says, “fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys…” and the importance of sympathy and compassion for others is always timely but especially so during the Christmas season.

Happy holidays to all and in the immortal words of Tiny Tim, “God bless Us, Every One!”

Check the availability of A Christmas Carol (print version) in the WRL catalog

Audiobook of A Christmas Carol in WRL catalog

A Christmas Carol film (1951) with Alistair Sim in WRL catalog

A Christmas Carol film (1984) with George C. Scott in WRL catalog

A Christmas Carol

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Connie brings us this well-reviewed piece of contemporary holiday fiction available in both print and audiobook formats:

The lobster in the title refers to the chain restaurant, Red Lobster, where the story takes place four days before Christmas in Connecticut, off highway I-9, next door to a run-down mall.

It’s the last day the Red Lobster is open, before corporate closes down the restaurant for good. The main character, manager Manny DeLeon is trying to hold everything together, and I mean everything. A snowstorm descends while Manny tries to keep his workers from deserting him AND satisfy each customer; from the difficult two-year-old, to the unexpected office party, to the busload of Chinese tourists. He also tries to figure out his complicated personal life-he’s in love with a waitress but has a pregnant girlfriend- and buy the perfect Christmas gift.

This is not your typical Christmas story, with a big happy ending. This is a perfect little snapshot of a day in the life of an ordinary working man who is just trying to hold things together and figure things out. I throughly enjoyed
listening to this story, especially after reading “Kitchen Confidential”, by Anthony Bourdain. Characterization of the restaurant help was dead on and the narrator’s portrayal was wonderful. (A note of warning- the language contains four letter words, which fit the characters, but may bother
some listeners).

Check the WRL catalog for availability of Last Night at the Lobster in print

And as an audiobook

Last Night at the Lobster

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