Though there are several food-related adult mysteries to blog about (my favorite is  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by C. Alan Bradley, which Ann blogged about earlier) I’m choosing instead to highlight a delightful childrens book with a food theme — Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco.

Polacco has written (and also beautifully illustrated) many fine stories for the younger set, and some of those, such as Pink and Say, have some pretty weighty underlying themes.  But Thunder Cake is just a fun, family story which not only “teaches” about rain and thunderstorms, but also about how to put a cake together.  By ignoring the thunder and keeping busy gathering ingredients, Grandma effectively dispels her granddaughter’s fear of thunderstorms.  At the end of the story, you’ll find the recipe, which includes a surprise ingredient — tomatoes!  I used this book back when I was a school library-media specialist and I’m looking forward to the time when I can use it again when my own granddaughter is old enough to want to make cakes herself.

In the searing debut novel The Lotus Eaters, author Tatjana Soli captures the devastation of war-torn Vietnam from 1963-1975, but also beautifully balances it with complex relationships and passionate romance.

Helen Adams has dropped out of college to come to Vietnam to work as a freelance photographer and to find answers about her brother’s death.  She soon falls in love with a charismatic Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, who takes her under his wing.  As a female covering combat in this age of new-found womens liberation, Helen’s gender draws as much attention as does her cover-quality work.  But Helen,  just like the lotus eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, finds herself unwilling or unable to leave, even in the final chaotic days of the U.S. military’s evacuation from the conflict.

There’s romance (with two very different men) —  there’s danger (with every mine-filled step) and there’s that anxious tension that keeps you hoping for their survival right up to the very end.  The book is thoroughly researched (it includes a lengthy bibliography) with a perspective that only 40 plus years of history could provide.

This book is written by a dog.  Granted, a very special dog —  a golden retriever named Trixie.  And even though Trixie passed away in 2007, she is still, remarkably, writing books.  Of course, it probably helps that she was owned by bestselling author Dean Koontz, who may still have a little something to do with her success.   In fact, Koontz states that the Trixie  page on his website is one of the most visited features.

Trixie has inspired several books, including A Big Little Life, in which Koontz wrote about his relationship with his beloved pet.  But she’s also inspired some new children’s books, such as I Trixie, Who Is Dog , the rights to which have recently been purchased in order to create a new family comedy show.  But her speciality is definitely books such as Life is Good or Bliss to You, which are written in dog-speak, as is if Trixie is narrating the story.  Though for the most part, this is utterly charming, I’ll warn any ex-English teachers out there (myself included) that dogs apparently do not always use correct syntax.  Still, the book is warm, funny, inspirational and short –you can easily find bliss in one short sitting — making it an ideal gift for dog-lovers come Christmas time.

One other reason to support these books:  since Trixie originally served as a Canine Companions for Independence (before she went to live with Dean and Gerda) all royalties are donated to this organization.

Following her memoir, An Italian Affair, travel writer Laura Fraser shares an intimate peek into her private life, which includes traveling to exotic places and interviewing eccentric personalities in All Over the Map.

On one hand, I was at once envious, wishing I had the means to travel, seemingly at whim, to such intriguing locals (Italy, Provence, Peru, Samoa, etc.) but on the other hand, sympathetic to what dangers she may have faced (Rwanda) and to what her career and lifestyle choices have forced her to forego — a lasting marriage and children of her own.

She is open about her love affairs, poignantly honest about an assault in the South Pacific, and appreciative of her large network of friends.  In all, the book achieves the desired result and illustrates why she is successful in her field — readers may have seen her work featured in O, the Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, and many other publications.  Those who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love will also enjoy this; plus it’s also an excellent example of how a non-fiction work can read like fiction.

Based in part upon her own life experiences, author Jean Kwok has hit the mark in her debut novel, Girl in Translation.  Much like her character, Kwok also emigrated from Hong Kong and starting working  in a Chinese sweatshop at a young age.  She and her family also lived in a roach and rat-infested apartment — without heat!   Still, this story is not so much about deprivation, but more of a story about hope and about overcoming adversity — in short, it’s today’s version of the American dream.

Ah-Kim Chang (translated to Kimberly once they moved to New York) had always excelled in school.  After her father died, she and her mother are indebted to Aunt Paula for financing their trip to America, so they both begin working long hours in a Chinatown clothing factory for much less than minimum wage.  On top of this, they live in a condemned apartment (think roaches, no heat, and garbage bags covering the window) and Kimberly must also attend school, where language and cultural differences abound. As she begins to master English, she again begins to show academic promise, eventually earning admission to an elite private high school, and thereby paving the way for her ticket out of the slums.

The author sometimes spells out conversations phonetically — an effective technique –especially since she  wanted the English-speaking reader to understand life on the “other side of the language barrier.”  She also incorporates a few surprising plot twists at the end, which helps makes the story even more personable and endearing.   Highly recommended.

Idella and Avis are The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay; the girls learned early on to fend for themselves.  In 1916, their family is barely scraping out a living on a rocky potato farm in New Brunswick, when their mother unexpectantly dies in childbirth. The girls, ages seven and five, are left in the care of an overwhelmed father who turns to alcohol for comfort.  Though Dad tries to create a semblance of normalcy by hiring  a series of French Canadian housegirls, none stay for long, and after a few years, he ships the girls across the border for a short stay at a boarding school in Maine.

Idella grows up to be the responsible older sister — always caring for someone.  First, it’s for her father, after he is accidentally shot when hunting deer out of season;  later, she cares for her very contrary mother-in-law.  On the other hand, Avis is the wild one — a free spirit who likes to drink and who runs through men,  but often pays painful consequences for her impulsive choices, including a stint in prison.  Still, all is not heartbreak in this story of family ties and remarkable resilience — there are equal doses of humor and hilarity as well.

What I found most intriguing about this book is that the author, Beverly Jensen, died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, never having published a word of her writing.   So how did this book come to be?  Well, a group of supporters gathered around her work, initially getting one of the chapters of this book published as an award-winning short story.  Amazingly, the stories all fit together with convicing continuity and the author’s voice comes through loud and clear, even beyond the grave.  Every writer should have such friends.

Banned Books Week is an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association; it’s purpose is to celebrate the freedom to read. At the Davenport Public Library, we’ve got displays up at our three locations showing some of the many books that have been challenged, banned or restricted over the years.  You might be surprised to find some of your favorite titles on the list!  Here are a few of my favorites that someone, at sometime, deemed inappropriate:

Come check out our display and accompanying brochure with titles of even more banned books.  Maybe this would be the perfect time to read one!

This is not the type of book I would typically choose.  Turns out, I couldn’t put it down.

When I go on vacation, I often look for books that take place in the same locale.  Since I was heading out on a vacation to Maine, this one fit the bill.  Granted,  it had also received several excellent reviews, so I wasn’t just going by the title or the picture on the cover, though I’ve  selected books that way a time or too, as well.  Popular authors such as Nelson DeMillie, Tess Gerritsen, John Lescroart and C.J. Box were all singing the praises of this debut novelist, whose day job just happens to be editing Down East: The Magazine of Maine.  Plus, the book also landed on Booklist’s best crime novels of 2010 list.

The Poacher’s Son opens with Mike Bowditch, a game warden in Maine, receiving an alarming message on his answering machine from his estranged father, Jack, whom he hasn’t seen in two years.  The next day, Mike discovers that his father is the prime suspect in the murders of a beloved cop and a lumber executive.  Though Mike knows his alcoholic father makes his living poaching illegal game, he cannot bring himself to believe that the man is capable of murder.

What distinguishes this book from more plot-based suspense thrillers is the realistic no-one-is-perfect characterizations.  Also, the author seems to have a natural knack for pulling the reader into the setting, be it the rocky coasts or the forested wilderness that makes up much of Maine.

No, I won’t tell you the ending.  But I will recommend that you read this book and that you keep a lookout for the series of other Mike Bowditch mysteries to come.

On any hot, humid August day, what better way to cool down than by reading about cold? Real, icy 40-below cold.  Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places may send shivers down your spine as it easily entertains and educates about all aspects of this little four-letter word.  Author Bill Streever uses a loosely organized style — almost blog-like — to share all sorts of trivia, including stories from doomed Arctic expeditions as well as amusing anecdotes and easily understandable scientific explanations. Whether you’re curious about seals or snowflakes, igloos or icebergs, hibernation or helium, you’ll likely discover some new tibdit of information with which you can regale your friends. 

To give just one example of these rather obscure tidbits, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written in 1816, in what was known as the “Year Without Summer.”  She and other guests were staying at Lord Byron’s Geneva retreat, but the weather was so bad, the guests were forced to stay indoors, so Lord Byron challenged them all to come up with ghost stories.  Her novel, published two years later, actually starts with letters from an Arctic explorer and ends with the creature drifting away on an Arctic ice floe. 

Each chapter in Cold is a different month of the year, each with its own location and corresponding temperature.  July is the opening chapter, with a temperature of 51 degrees, as he describes his five-minute experience in the 35-degree water of Prudhoe Bay, located 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.  September finds him climbing Scotland’s highest peak, and January finds him back in Anchorage, where he lives and serves as the chair of the North Slope Science Initiative’s Science Technical Advisory Panel.  For people like me, who most likely will never get to the Arctic Circle, this book provides an insight — and yes, even an appreciation of — all things cold.

Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835. 

Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives;  Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt.  Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States.  Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government.  In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.   

In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent.  Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing  most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception). 

As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude.  Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives.  I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.  And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!