Book Reviews

Red Harvest book cover

It’s harvest time again, so what better time to look back at Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Hammett is credited with taking the private investigator story out of the popular pulp magazines and transforming the genre into something of literary value.

The Last Werewolf book jacket

“For one second of clarity, I felt it all. The speed and bulk of him, the scourging claws, the meat stink of his breath, the ice of the bite and a single glimpse of the beautiful eyes - then he sprang away into the darkness and I lay winded, one arm in the rushing stream, my shirt gathering the weight of my own blood."

HeartSick by Chelsea Cain

There’s something about October that draws readers to the scary books. Which are the scary books? That’s up to the reader because horror is anything that takes the reader out of his or her comfort zone.

Cat illustration from Tom Sawyer by Thomas Hart Benton

Oh Tom and Huck, the scourges of childhood befall you with astonishing regularity. Whether it’s Injun Joe, dark caves, or an endless parade of preachers, teachers, and other interfering adults, the children of St. Petersburg can handle it all. But there’s something even more sinister lurking in these pages.


Zombie cats to be specific.

“What?” You may say, “There are no zombie cats in Tom Sawyer!” But this is where I will say, “You are mistaken, my friend.” And let me tell you why. 

Mark Twain was a writer who knew his craft. He was incredibly forward thinking. He knew that while the zombie phenomenon was to be an important development in the literature of the future, his audience in the 1880s had no interest in reading about zombies.

So, in order to work the undead into his novel of 19th century rural life in Missouri, he initiates a cover up. He disguises the plague. He puts a veneer of civility over the whole ugly mess. He uses euphemisms.

Alert readers will notice that there’s a plethora of dead cats in Tom Sawyer. Expired felines appear on virtually every other page. This could be explained away as just the characters’ boyhood fascination with dead animals. But the real explanation is zombies.

Tom Sawyer cover

If readers were doubting that Tom Sawyer was the quintessential boy’s book, the final three chapters will dispel any doubt. Twain folds in every fantasy any boy has ever entertained in the conclusion to his first solo effort to write a novel.

Why, looky here:

Chapter XXXII

Right after being praised for his ingenuity and bravery while lost in the cavern, Tom is told that no other child will ever get lost in the cave. Judge Thatcher has had the entrance blocked with a boiled iron door.

Tom gets to play knight to the rescue again as he breathlessly informs the Judge that Injun Joe is still in the cave. Once the Judge, Tom, and several men arrive to pry the iron door open, they are met with a gruesome sight. Injun Joe lies dead at the entrance to the cave. Since he died alone, our narrator speculates, in typical hyperbolic boy-language that Injun Joe had hacked away at the iron door with his Bowie knife “in order to be doing something.” The lack of candle stubs and the remains of bat claws must mean that Injun Joe had done the best he could to keep from starving, but in the end, it wasn’t good enough. It was a grisly death worthy of an active imagination.

Kepler's Witch book cover

In a book about a 17th century astronomer the reader expects to learn something of the stars and planets along with the standard biographical details. Religious wars and witchcraft, both prevalent at that period, might show up as well.

Kepler’s Witch by James Connor examines the life of German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Born in the late 16th century, Kepler first noticed the wonders of the heavens when his mother showed him the comet of 1577 at the age of six.

Because of his inquisitive nature, his family saw that he received a good education. Religion became another early influence for the young astronomer as his family embraced the growing Lutheranism of the German states. Astronomy became a vehicle to try to work out the mind of God.

While mathematics and the heavens held an interest, Kepler pursued his studies intending to enter the ministry. He also became skilled in astrology by writing horoscopes, which he continued throughout his life. He took his first professional position as a teacher of mathematics in Graz, Austria.

Tom Saywer 1st Edition Cover

Whether you are a child or an adult, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a wonderful read. But isn’t it amazing how different the experience is reading the book as a child versus reading it as an adult?

Looking back on reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a youth, it rejuvenates memories of a spooky graveyard, playing pranks on adults and exploring life and everything in it to its fullest. There was danger, adventure, and great mysteries to be solved within its covers.

As an adult, much bolder issues blot the story’s pages – discrimination based on social class, the effects of alcoholism, and slavery, to name a few. While these deeper social elements embedded within the text don’t ruin the second reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, they do add a few pounds of emotional weight and a few layers of literary meat to its juvenile bones that didn’t come with the original childhood reading.

As a mature reader, Chapters XXIX-XXXII become particularly interesting as several characters stop being one-dimensional and begin to develop outside of their stereotype. Huck is a perfect example. For the first time in the story, he is seen without Tom, making his own decisions and choices. Twain finally allows readers to see Huck as not just the poor kid in the village who everyone pities and avoids, but as a secret hero who helps save the Widow Douglas’s life.

Winter's Bone book cover

Many of us have fallen on hard times in this economy. We see the effects all around us, yet most of us still have our basic needs met. In the novel Winter’s Bone by Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell, Ree Dolly is not afforded the same luxuries that some of us take for granted.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer book cover

Good golly gracious, is there anyone who has not enjoyed reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? To the last person, everyone I have talked to fell in love at first sight (or first read) with that boy; although most have been quick to add that they are glad he is not their son!

Many of us lead double lives. There’s our “actual” life, the one that requires showing up in person, and our “virtual” life, the one that requires opposable thumbs and a high-speed internet connection.

In the winter of 2009, Australian Susan Maushart declared her household an iFree zone. She unplugged herself, her three teenagers, and their domicile from the Internet, the television, computers, cell phones, and even electricity. Maushart called it “screen-free living” and chronicled her family’s experiences and observations in The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale. She wanted to rediscover her “actual life.”

Her teenagers, Bill, Anni, and Sussy, went bananas. They are digital natives. They’d never lived in a time when they weren’t permanently attached to a laptop or cellphone. But they went along with their mother’s experiment in “cave dwelling” as one termed it.

It took a great deal of getting used to. Sussy decided she needed to spend more time with her father (who had wi-fi) and packed herself off to spend the season with him. Eventually she returned to Home Unplugged and her brother and sister. 

Injun Joe escapes the courtroom.

Much like my fellow reviewer, Bernard (Chs. IX-XII), one of my earliest encounters with Tom Sawyer was in a class play. In 9th grade, I got to play Injun Joe in a stage adaptation written by my school’s librarian.

Of course, growing up in the Great Plains, there was some worry about offending the Native Americans in our community so the character got renamed “Cajun Joe” (I guess no one was worried about offending any French-Canadian exiles from Louisiana). Aside from awakening in me a passion for the theatre, this was the first time I had read the unabridged novel. Previously, I’d only read a couple of children’s adaptations.

I was astounded by the richness of it! It’s been noted that one of the great strengths of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that Twain wrote it for both children and adults. Being a freshman in high school, I was at last at an age to appreciate the novel in a whole new way. In particular, I found that Injun Joe was a far more frightening character than the sanitized versions I’d been presented with as a child.

Frankenstein cover

As we are now in October, it seemed a good time to revisit a classic of the horror genre, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Those of you into whose minds flash Boris Karloff as the monster, in James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, are in for a shock. In the first movie, the monster speaks not a single word, but simply growls and howls; in the second film, the monster learns a few words, which he grunts out. Who can forget the memorable “Friend … Goood!”?

Well, if that’s the monster you’re expecting, you won’t find him here.

Karloff and Whale both felt that the monster was to be played like an innocent, a child who doesn’t understand the world into which he has come. In other words, the monster is something like a baby – a big, scary, grunting baby, but a baby nonetheless – and so, it does not have language, but must learn it, a word or two at a time.

Crossing Oceans Gina Holmes

Going home means different things to different people. For some, it is an expectation of warm, exciting conversations and laughter with families and loved ones. For others, returning home conjures up painful memories of broken relationships and unexpected loss.

In Crossing Oceans by novelist Gina Holmes, the protagonist, Jenny (short for Genevieve Lucas) returns to her quaint hometown in North Carolina with her five-year-old daughter, Isabella. She is about to face her stern and detached father, Jacob Lucas; her ailing grandmother, Peggy; and the man she both loves and hates, Isabella’s father, David Preston.

After Jenny left home, David married the love of his life, Lindsey. David and Lindsey dream of a blissful future together. Jenny dreads telling David about their daughter. What will David react to the news after years of Jenny’s disappearance? Unknown to anyone, Jenny harbors a secret bigger than having an illegitimate child—a terminal disease that is spreading through her body. She is told that she has only months to live.

Denying herself any chance of a new love, Jenny meets an old friend, Craig, who rents her father’s home. Craig has deep affection for Jenny, but her impassiveness to him is transparent.

"Tom Dreams" illus. by True Williams, from the 1876 1st. ed.

Although I have never caught a real murderer or found a real stash of gold, in many ways, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer reminds me of my own childhood. (I’ve been a pirate, and I’ve come back from the dead...)

Being the eldest of four, I was often the mastermind trying to see the adventure through to the end when I myself was secretly tired of it. And, being a sister, I feel jealousy deeply and I am a master instigator. Put like this, I wouldn’t like to claim these traits as an adult, but deep inside I know they are still there.

One thing that strikes me about this chapter of Tom’s life is the way that the world around him mirrors the world within him. The mood at the pirate camp had gone between high and low quite rapidly, with only the secret to balance it out in the end. Relations between Tom and Becky switch from hot to cold without a moment’s notice.

Then there is the see-saw between Tom and Aunt Polly: with Tom not thinking of the consequences of his mischief until they are too late and then being truly penitent, and Aunt Polly switching between stern and loving in the same breath.

Family Vegetarian Cooking book cover

Whether you’re adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, making an oath to eat healthier, or are just looking for some delicious new recipes to try, Family Vegetarian Cooking from Good Housekeeping is exactly the cookbook you’ve been looking for.

To begin with, don’t let the word “vegetarian” turn you off from this great new addition to the Library’s culinary collection. Of the 225 recipes offered in this book, there are literally dozens of dishes, like the Spinach and Potato Gratin or Blueberry Pancakes with Warm Blueberry Sauce, that even non-vegetarians will devour.

Almost all of the recipes use every-day, inexpensive ingredients that can be found easily in any grocery store (with the exception of a few items – like Gruyere cheese), and each dish includes the total time to complete, serving size, and most importantly, nutrition information.

While Family Vegetarian Cooking is not a beginning cookbook, most of it can still be used by someone with even minimal cooking experience because of the easy-to-follow instructions. And although this is not a microwave cookbook, occasional recipes, including the Creamy Parmesan Twice-Baked Potatoes, explain how they can be completely prepared in the microwave.