Book Reviews

Terry Pratchett Snuff cover

As we ring in a new year of adventures in reading, Kansas City Public Library staff members look back on their favorite books from the past year – not all of which were published in the past year.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

As we ring in a new year of adventures in reading, Kansas City Public Library staff members look back on their favorite books from the past year – not all of which were published in the past year.

Amazing Grace by Steve Turner book cover

Of all the English hymns written in the 18th century, “Amazing Grace” stands out as the most popular and the most performed hymn of all time. The song reaches out across cultures and nations and was translated in various languages.

I recently started to attend a Laotian church in Kansas and was surprised that the congregation sang this song in Lao, not in English. As a native Thai, I am familiar with this hymn in Thai language, which is often sung in churches in my country.

The story behind the song “Amazing Grace” might not be as well-known as the composition itself. Most people know it was composed by John Newton, an English clergyman. Newton was a captain of slave-trading ships, but after his dramatic religious conversion while he was at sea, he forsook the lucrative trade and became a parish priest of the Church of England and later, a staunch abolitionist. It was during his overseeing of the church in Olney that he began penning “Amazing Grace” and other hymns to be accompanied with his sermons at religious and social gatherings.

Bad Taste in Boys book cover

Kate Grable is your typical teenager with aspirations to be a doctor in her post-high-school career. She is the student trainer for her high school’s mediocre football team, and she has just discovered that the coach may be giving the players steroids. 

In Bad Taste in Boys by Carrie Harris, life isn’t so bad for Kate until this unethical finding. But after some close calls with a few of the players, Kate does some investigating, and her worst fears are confirmed. It’s actually not steroids that the coach has been injecting in the players. Turns out, it’s a zombie virus.

Bayview High School is soon under attack from football playing zombies, and no one realizes it but Kate. Everyone else chalks up the players’ odd behavior to fatigue and poor manners, while she is sure that something else is going on.  Why else would a football player bite her on the face while crooning longingly, “Mmm…Brains…”?

Things get out of control when Kate and her younger brother are attacked by the coach. The attack leaves her brother as the next possible victim, while Kate finally has the evidence she needs to go the authorities and hopefully put a stop to the mayhem: the coach’s severed zombie foot.

There’s something about this season that brings out a little misanthrope in some readers. They’re not Scrooges, just a little cynical regarding the forced merriment. For those readers, I’ve got a list of books that fall on the not-so-nice side.

For all the writers in The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales merry Christmases are all alike, but the unmerry ones are unmerry in their own unique and hilarious ways. A family on their way to a Christmas ski vacation hits a deer (“Donner is Dead”), and the mother begins to contemplate Darwinism and why it hasn’t kept deer from crossing the road to get to the other side. An off-kilter gift-of-the-magi scenario has two poor New York artists trying to please each other with the worst gift imaginable (“Gift of the Magi Redux”). Don’t look in this book for decorating tips or delicious holiday recipes.

Walter Mosley Ptolemy Grey

At the end of each year I review my book log to see what I’ve read this year. All I write down is the year, month and the title and author of the book I finished and in what format I read the book, print, electronic or audio.

I don’t take any notes or make any comments. Just keeping a list is enough to bring back a memory of whether or not I liked a book. The only guideline I have is to list only books I’ve completed.

This year, I’m going through the list looking for the best 11 books I read this year. Not all of them were published in 2011, but they were all read in 2011.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I received a much-coveted galley of this first in a trilogy about a young academic witch who uncovers a magic book in the Bodleian Library and becomes romantically involved with a handsome vampire-scientist as they try to investigate the genetics of their families. I remember gobbling this book during those wretched snowstorms in January.

Forgotten Founding Father cover image

The Founding Fathers of the United States had a vision of how the government should work for the new country. Another American felt the same way regarding the English language.

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall examines the life of Noah Webster, a man who became obsessed with words. Webster came from Connecticut attending schools including Yale College in that colony. He started his career as an educator and writer. He contributed to the field of education by producing a grammar book, a reader, and a speller. Many American schoolchildren learned their spelling from this blue-backed book.

Webster’s main object with the speller focused on getting Americans to adapt their version of the English language to make it their own. “Webster’s speller also gave rise to America’s first national pastime, the spelling bee,” Kindall writes.

Winter Solstice

From time immemorial, humans have eased the encroaching darkness of winter with gatherings and celebrations involving light, food, and sacred rituals. Holidays and traditions vary from culture to culture, but often these traditions involve recipes, crafts, and decorations for the home.

Christmas is my tradition, and I particularly love the decorated trees and lights, and gatherings with family and friends. But sometimes I need ideas for how to spice up my Yuletide celebrations so it’s not the same box of ornaments, turkey recipe, and tinsel every year.

The Kansas City Public Library (and its consortium libraries) have a wide selection of books to help you come up with ideas to enhance your celebrations in a variety of traditions. Here are a few titles to give you some practical suggestions for unique ways to celebrate the holidays:


Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth by Dorothy Morrison presents a wonderful potpourri of holiday lore from around the world and throughout history, along with fun crafts, delicious recipes, and a calendar of celebrations for every day in December.

Sarah's Key cover

As French police force their way into her family’s Paris apartment, a frightened 10-year-old Sarah desperately locks her little brother, Michel, in the secret bedroom cupboard and shoves the key deep into her pocket. 

Calming her scared sibling by promising to let him out when it was finally safe, Sarah has no idea that nothing will ever be safe again.

Part historical fiction and part family drama, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a compelling novel that tells two emotional stories.  The first is the story of Sarah, a young Jewish girl in Occupied France who is arrested with her family on July 16, 1942, in the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup, an event which eventually led to the extermination of thousands of French Jewish men, women and children at Auschwitz.

The second story takes place 60 years later and centers around Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who lives with her French husband and daughter in Paris. Julia is asked to write an article about the Velodrome d’Hiver incident and learns that she is much closer to the story than she ever realized.

Little Women book cover Penguin

Your classics reviewer got to this book in a rather roundabout way. I made the decision to review this title after I had bought my Nook this past January. But first, I had watched two film productions of Little Women (one with Katherine Hepburn, the other with June Allyson as Jo) on TCM.

My wife was puzzled as to why I was watching not just one, but two versions of Little Women. I pointed out my fondness for remakes and explained that to appreciate (or hate) the remake, you have to see the original. She shook her head in dismay and left to watch a different Christmas movie (I think it was Die Hard) elsewhere in the house.

And then, when I got my Nook, I noticed that it had three titles already loaded, one of which was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I figured it was fate, and you can’t fight fate, and so it became my December book this year. Another reason for reading: the book starts as the March women get ready for their first Christmas without Mr. March, making it a suitable holiday title.

Buddha in the Attic Julie Otsuka

With simple sentences that say so much and read almost poetically, Julie Otsuka in The Buddha in the Attic delivers an emotional novel about Japanese picture brides who came to the United States in the early 1900s. 

They numbered in the thousands; each had her own story. Otsuka skillfully and with great economy of words tells the collective story of this group of women while at the same time giving voice to the individual. The novel starts with their boat ride to America and ends as they are bused to World War II internment camps.   

We hear about the hardships, the disappointments, the moments of kindness, the bouts of sickness, and the struggles with marriage. We read that the first English word they learned was “water” and how they raised children in a multicultural environment. We are told about the Caucasian women who employed them as maids and taught them about American culture. We learn how the Japanese woman learned to survive in a non-sensitive, white American culture. 

I’ve never had the desire to serve anyone in a restaurant setting. After listening to Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica, I want to even less. I do, however, have a greater respect for people who work in the food service industry, and I’ll think twice before I send my order back to the kitchen.

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip – Confessions of a Cynical Waiter undoubtedly lives up to its name. We meet the author after he’s served a short stint in the corporate health care industry. Dublanica had high hopes for his career, but soon became disenfranchised with the events of his life.

After being laid off from his job, Dublanica takes a “temporary” position as a waiter in a restaurant where his brother works. He eventually finds himself staying in the restaurant industry well into his late 30s. In order to deal with the stresses of waiter life, Dublanica starts a blog called Waiter Rant. Writing anonymously as “The Waiter,” he blasts unfriendly customers, complains about the daily grind, and unveils the inner-workings of an upscale restaurant. 

Sisters of Sinai Janet Soskice book cover

In the late 19th century, few women received a good education and fewer still experienced extensive travel. Women also did not leave their mark on academic scholarship.

The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice tells the remarkable story of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlap Gibson, twin sisters who located an ancient manuscript of the four Gospels.

Born in the mid-19th century, the twins received a good education, but they did not attend a university. Their father encouraged their study of languages and then arranged for them to travel to use their language skills. After their father’s death, the twins went to Egypt and the Holy Land.

After this year-long adventure, the twins settled in London seeking more opportunities than offered in their small Scottish village. They continued to study foreign languages, especially modern Greek and Arabic. Both women had brief but happy marriages. They moved to Cambridge and became acquainted with many in the academic community.

Most Dangerous Man In World book cover

Who is the real Julian Assange, the man behind whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks? How did he become one of the most feared and championed whistle-blowers in history? In a new unauthorized biography, award-winning Australian investigative journalist Andrew Fowler separates the man from the myth.

With interviews from members of the WikiLeaks entourage as well as Assange himself, Fowler traces Assange’s life from a turbulent childhood in Australia and his teenage-computer-hacker days, through his current personal legal battles and continued Internet publishing of sensitive documents.

The Most Dangerous Man in the World: The True Explosive True Story of Julian Assange and the Lies, Cover-ups, and Conspiracies He Exposed is at times a gripping page-turner with globetrotting narratives from Australia to Iceland as Assange and his associates hold covert meetings and plan the release of materials exposing government cover-ups and corporate corruption in the face of ominous government intelligence agencies and intimidating multinational corporations.

The Amish Midwife book cover

Mindy Starns Clark and Leslie Gould's new inspirational novel, The Amish Midwife, is about a search for one's identity and a place to belong. Depicting little-known America’s subculture with a unique outlook, this fiction combines adventure and mystery with a hint of romance.