Current Picks: Book Reviews

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates (2004)
This coming of age novel is a wonderfully written, unique and imaginative, first novel. Set in the 1960s, this is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a small Ontario town’s solitary Chinese family, over the course of a summer.

Told through Su-Jen’s eyes, the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Café unfolds. Su-Jen’s elderly father and beautiful young mother are unhappy in their marriage. Su-Jen’s mother is miserable in this new small town.

Su-Jen is rapidly adapting to life in Canada and goes through all the ups and downs of a typical 1960s childhood. She develops a friendship with Charlotte, a spirited girl who behaves in a way that is older than her years. There is also tragedy, foreshadowed, yet still a shock when it finally occurs.

The first and last paragraphs of Midnight at the Dragon Café are poignant and are Su-Jen’s reflections on a fate she thinks should have been hers.

Blood on the Tongue by Stephen Booth

Blood on the Tongue by Stephen Booth (2002)
Narrated by Christopher Kay, this mystery stars the “everyman” of hometown detectives, Ben Cooper. The heart of the story hangs on an airplane that crashed during World War II. The intertwining threads of the plot create a great audio experience.

John Adams by David McCullough

John Adams by David McCullough (2001)
One of America’s best loved biographers, David McCullough, gives us an intimate picture of one of America’s overshadowed presidents. Adams’ life of integrity, heroism, and warmth shine through is this personal story.

Starting on Sunday, March 16, HBO will air a seven part miniseries based on the book. The drama stars Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, with Tom Hanks serving as executive producer. Go to the movie's website to watch video previews, listen to conversations with the actors or with Tom Hanks and David McCullough, and read descriptions of each of the seven parts of the series.

For more on this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, visit the publisher's website to read a Q&A about the book, listen to a podcast, check out a reading guide, read an excerpt, and much more. The News Hour on PBS has video, audio, and text of McCullough's July 4, 2001, appearance. The New York Times website includes a book review and a list of articles and books about John Adams.

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (2007)
A novel that succeeds as both historical fiction and crime-thriller, the story contains fascinating details of historical forensic medicine, entertaining notes on women in science (the medical school at Salerno is not fictional) and a wonderful plot with lots of twists.

Four children have been found dead and mutilated. The Jews of Cambridge have been blamed for the murders, the most prominent Jewish moneylender and his wife have been killed by a mob, and the rest of the Jewish community is shut up in the castle under the protection of the sheriff.

King Henry I is invested in their fate because without the taxes received from Jewish merchants, his treasuries would go bankrupt. Hoping to exonerate the Jews, he appeals to his cousin, the king of Sicily, to send his best master of the art of death: a doctor skilled in “reading” bodies. Enter Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, 25, the best mistress of death that the medical school at Salerno has ever produced. Adelia, along with Simon of Naples (a Jew) and Mansur (a Moor), must find the murderer before he can kill again.

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)
A spare, yet poignant, first novel about the ordeal of a Japanese family sent to an internment camp during World War II. Never melodrama— the novel's honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power.

Them by Nathan McCall

Them by Nathan McCall (2007)
Interesting human introspection story about a changing neighborhood. It makes suburbanites think about other places. As western suburbs of Chicago tear down houses and neighborhoods change, it is everywhere and good to hear about other places and circumstances. It makes the reader think.

Read a review from the Los Angeles Times or check out the official website for fun extras like reading guide questions, an excerpt, a Q&A with the author, or a video.

The Geisha's Granddaughter by Chayym Zeldis

The Geisha's Granddaughter by Chayym Zeldis (2003)
This novel provides readers with a taste of how Japanese Americans felt while adjusting to a new world, when WWII shatters that world with the accompanying internment.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (1994)
A courtroom drama provides the framework for this tale of the legacy of racism following WWII in the northwestern United States.

The reading group guide for the winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award contains historical background for the  novel, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading. You can also compare the novel to the 1999 movie starring Ethan Hawke.

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt (2005)
A “must read” for every teacher and for anyone wanting a rich, well written story of classroom life in the trenches in the New York school system. My favorite Frank McCourt book.

Check out the author's appearance on CBS' The Early Show, or listen to an interview or read an excerpt on NPR.

Our Mother’s War by Emily Yellen

Our Mother’s War by Emily Yellen (2004)

An excellent history of WWII and women’s roles in the United States – all phases of society. Visit the author's website for more about the book, a discussion guide, and further resources. Read a New York Times review or listen to an interview with the author.

Our Mother's War is suggested as related reading to this year's Big Read -- Dream When You're Feeling Blue. Do you have tickets yet to see Elizabeth Berg? She's speaking at Ashton Place on Thursday, May 8. Go to the Readers Services desk to get your tickets before we run out!

It's Superman! by Tom De Haven

It's Superman! by Tom De Haven (2005)

Coming of age in rural 1930s America with unusual skills like X-ray vision and the power to stop bullets, Clark Kent takes us along on his coming-of-age journey of self-discovery. Covering years (May 1935 through February 1938), the story takes him from Smallville to New York (Metropolis). A Young Clark Kent, newly hired "Daily Planet" reporter; Lois Lane; and evil criminal mastermind Alexander "Lex" Luthor come to life in It's Superman! This is a fascinating idea. The story is as inventive and thrilling as it is touching and wise.

See what Powell's and the New York Times said about the novel. Other books by Tom De Haven include Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies (1996), Dugan Under Ground (2001), Funny Papers (2002), and the graphic novel Green Candles (1997).

The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (2008)
Present day, Beijing. A detective story that goes to the heart of modern China. Mei Wang, our first Chinese female detective, is more than just a pretty face. Hired by her uncle to find a rare piece of jade, she slips into the dark side of Beijing as well as the extremely affluent world of her younger sister, Lu.

As the plot unwinds, Mei also reveals her own inner core of isolation from her family, from her lost love, and from her former job in the Ministry of Public Security. In her quest for justice, she uncovers dark secrets and darker choices.

After reading so many novels that lack that special touch of author style, this book is as refreshing as a real spring day. Read an excerpt, other reviews, and an interview with the author.

The Soul of a Doctor

The Soul of a Doctor: Harvard Medical Students Face Life and Death (2006)
This book of poignant stories show doctors (really, doctors-to-be) to be so human… conflicted, drawn in by the drama of life and death, and constantly learning from the situations they face daily. This is a must read, especially for doctors, others in the medical profession, and for all of us who at some time are their patients. The stories draw you in and make you hope that these medical students remember the “heart” lessons they learned as a medical students at Harvard and that the medical profession works to connect with the human side of their patients. This book is fascinating. Dr. Jerome Groopman, author of How Doctors Think, another of my favorite medical books, does the forward for this book.

The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers

The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers (1998)
A well written novel of Christian faith. This is the story of an old Welsh custom of symbolically removing the sins of the deceased by eating a meal placed on the coffin. 10-year-old Cadi Forbes, growing up in the Smoky Mountains in the 1850s, is a child of Welsh immigrants whose old country beliefs require a sin eater when someone dies. The child becomes enthralled with this idea when she is present at the accidental death of her much beloved sibling.

Cadi looks for the sin eater, but her search is really a search for Jesus, and eventually she leads the community away from the notion of a sin eater and toward a fundamentalist faith in Jesus the redeemer.

Visit the author's website for an excerpt, a reading guide, and the author's responses to frequently asked questions. In 2007, The Last Sin Eater was made into a movie. You can request it from another library.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982)
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." If you can resist an opening sentence like that, you have more willpower than I. The Gunslinger begins The Dark Tower series, which follows Roland’s quest to reach the nexus of all universes. Since King finished the seven volume series in 2004, it’s safe to start reading! I also would highly recommend George Guidall or Frank Muller’s narrations.

(Nota Bene: This is NOT a horror series or story. King may be best known for writing horror novels, but he is a masterful storyteller and writer in other genres too!)