Book Reviews

Kansas City Noir

If you’re a fan of shadowy crime fiction, local authors, and well-written literature, then Kansas City Noir is a book you’ll definitely want to add to your library reading list.

Just published in October as part of a noir series by Akashic Books and edited by Steve Paul, senior writer and arts editor for the Kansas City Star newspaper, Kansas City Noir is an anthology of 14 new stories by some of this area’s fiction masters.

Contributors include Daniel Woodrell, the seasoned author of Winter’s Bone and several other novels; Mitch Brian, a screenwriting and film studies professor at UMKC; and Nadia Pflaum, a former reporter for The Pitch newspaper who now works as an investigator for the Midwest Innocence Project.

With such an eclectic group of talent, the variety of stories and writing styles showcased in Kansas City Noir is exceptional.  Even better, the collection does not have the regurgitated feel of  "typical" noir.  Instead, each piece, with its specific setting and distinctly twisted characters, leaves its own unique gritty impression on the reader.

Sweet Invention

Most people enjoy eating sweets, especially around this time of year. Michael Krondl in Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert shows how sweets have been a part of our diet since ancient times.

Krondl portrays six countries or regions in this narrative. They include India, the Middle East, Italy, France, Austria/Vienna and the United States. Desserts first started out as a treat for the wealthy but have evolved for the masses. A sweet can be a concoction of sugar, eggs, and milk; a fruit pie; a layered cake; or any other confection that completes a meal.

Not surprisingly, desserts have developed along with the cultivation and use of sugar around the world. Ancient civilizations offered confections to their gods seeking favor. These most likely were of bread-like consistency made with honey and dates.

Other religious traditions continue to incorporate sweets into their observances. Hindus offer them to their gods. Muslims make them part of Ramadan feasting. For Christians, no Christmas or Easter would be complete without sweets. Weddings and other special occasions also require something sweet.

Some desserts become associated with a particular region. Baklava is claimed by Turkey, although other countries make it as well. Austria is known for its tortes.

Carter's Big Break

No one ever said high school was easy, and Will Carter found that out the hard way in 2009's Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford. But did Carter really learn anything? We find out in the sequel, Carter's Big Break.

Will Carter returns with his hilarious observations and disastrous ideas as he tries to sustain his success, his relationship with Abby, and become a big star all at the same time.

When we first met Carter in Finally Gets It, he was trying to survive his freshman year of high school and win over the previously “chubby” Abby. In Big Break, Carter has somehow managed to navigate his way to the end of the year, and we join him as he starts the summer off. Carter is hanging out with his friends, trying to avoid helping his dad build a deck, and hoping not to scare off Abby.

Once again, we find Carter stumbling through life. At one point, he lands on his feet with a surprise role in a movie being filmed in his town. Another time however, he crashes his bike while trying to look cool in front of his friends and gets a face full of concrete.

Brent Crawford writes Carter’s story with the same fast pace that we sometimes experience in life – events tend to blend together, and before you know it the summer is over.

Blue Monday

Since becoming a mom, I find it difficult to read novels where crimes are committed against children. Blue Monday by Nicci French is a story so compelling and well-written that it made me break out of my mold.

Blue Monday is set in present-day London, a boisterous and modern city. At the heart of the novel is not just one lost child, but two, the first one having been taken over 20 years ago. The book opens with a close-in flashback of the abduction of a girl named Rosie. She was never found and her family eventually settles into the loss of a complete person being stolen from their lives.

Then the book begins and we shift to meet Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist in solo practice. She is no one terribly remarkable, although gifted at her chosen profession, and she treats people who are neither villains or saints, but individuals simply seeking to make sense of their lives and to feel whole.

She begins to treat Alan, a man tortured by dreams of a child he doesn’t have being taken from him. As she and Alan meet and discuss his feelings of despondency, Frieda begins to realize that Alan’s visions — his dreams — are eerily like the abduction of the young boy in the news, of small Matthew Farraday.

Heart of the Sea

The sinking of the Titanic has captured people’s imaginations for the last hundred years. In the 19th century another ship disaster became a legend in the United States and even left a mark on American literature.

In In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Nathaniel Philbrick relates the story of this ship and what happened in the Pacific Ocean in 1820. In the 19th  century, men set out on long voyages to hunt whales for their oil. Nantucket, Rhode Island became a center for the whaling industry. Many of those who sailed on the Essex came from there.

Twenty men set out on the ill-fated trip. It almost did not happen as a bad storm damaged the vessel several days after leaving port. The crew made the necessary repairs and the trip continued.  The crew did not have much luck finding whales and went deeper into the Pacific. On November 20, the Essex faced an attack by a large sperm whale destroying the ship. The men retrieved what supplies and belongings they could before the Essex sank to the deep and set out in three smaller boats. They looked to reach the coast of South America several thousand miles away.

How to Cook Everything: The Basics

Whether you are a beginning cook or just looking for a collection of simple, delicious, everyday recipes, How To Cook Everything: The Basics by Mark Bittman is a staple for any kitchen.

Published in March, this newest offering from New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, is a pared down version of his 1998 classic, How to Cook Everything. A condensed and updated version of the massive original blockbuster, it contains 185 easy-to-follow recipes that are straight forward and, for the most part, a snap to put together.

The ingredients are inexpensive, easy to find, and combine for tasty dishes that you might find yourself serving to family and friends over and over again.

For the person who has absolutely no experience in the kitchen, this book is a food bible. It breaks down the process of cooking step-by-step, complete with photos, so that the kitchen no longer feels like an intimidating place to be.

HTCE: The Basics starts at the beginning of “Cooking 101” and patiently demonstrates the process of becoming a self-assured, competent cook. Bittman tackles kitchen equipment and tools, stocking a pantry, kitchen vocabulary, food preparation skills, creating a menu, and everything else you need to know to be successful in the kitchen.

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

When people hear the name Mark Twain, they likely think about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But Twain had written a lot before either of those works came out. 

For many years he had been a newspaper correspondent and commentator, often writing humorous pieces, or “slice of life” stories with a humorous twist (think of someone like Dave Barry).  In 1867, Twain set off on a pleasure cruise to Europe and the Holy Land aboard the Quaker City with the intentions of sending back dispatches about his travel to the Daily Alta California of San Francisco; he also sent dispatches to the New York Tribune and the New York Herald.  

The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck

President Woodrow Wilson charged Americans with remembering “those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.” The following books offer small tokens of remembrance and thanks.

Blue Nights

Blue Nights by Joan Didion is a book of memories. In 2003, Joan Didion’s daughter went into the hospital with pneumonia, eventually slipping into a coma. While her daughter was unconscious, Didion’s husband died. Within a year, Quintana had died, also.

Jack Finney - Time and Again

How do we learn to read? For many, picture books are the foundation of our reading skills. We look at the illustrations and follow the stories of Harry the Dirty Dog or the Very Hungry Caterpillar or Alexander and his Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The drawings and paintings enhance the tales told in the text running along the bottom of the pages.

God's Jury

The word inquisition is bandied about as people use it to discuss persecution of one sort or another. However, the Inquisition as a historical event still has ramifications today.

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy traces the history of the Inquisition. The Roman Catholic Church started the process because they did not want the spread of heresy, a belief that differed from established church teaching. It lasted for 700 years with church archives only now available for scholars to sift through miles of documents.

The Church began its crackdown on heretics in 13th century France against a group known as the Cathars. This group held a dualist view of God and rose up primarily in southern France. The orders of Dominicans were sent by the Pope to wipe out the Cathars in what is known as the Albigensian Crusade. The brute force and punishment became known as the Inquisition, the first of many through the years. This method of terror and punishment left no remnant of Catharism.

Watership Down

Richard Adams' classic novel Watership Down isn't just about rabbits. Tackling the big ideas, including the importance of storytelling to society, Adams weaves an adult tale of human struggle cloaked as a book about bunnies.

When I was at college, a fellow student told me that I had to read Watership Down. When I asked what the book was about, I remember him telling me “rabbits on the move trying to find a new home.”


My eyes started to glaze over. He started to summarize the story, but all I recall was that the main rabbit was named Hazel, and that there were some other rabbits named Bigwig, Dandelion, Fiver and Pipkin. The glazing process was complete – the rest of the pitch came across as blah, blah, blah blah.

This year, as I had decided to read and write about books involving travel, “rabbits on the move” came immediately to mind and I added it to my to-read list for KC Unbound. And I must say that this book has probably been the biggest pleasant surprise I’ve had in reading in the past decade.

Every Last Secret

Kansas City author Linda Rodriguez offers readers a strong female protagonist, an intriguing mystery, and a local setting in her debut novel Every Last Secret.

On the Road

Concerned that an uncoordinated road system would get in the way of American growth, President Eisenhower advocated for and got Congress behind the idea of such coordination, and in his second term, the Highway Act of 1956 was passed and signed by him into law. 

Juliette Gordon Low - Cordery

Think of Girl Scouts, and girls selling cookies comes to mind. But how did they become synonymous with these tasty treats? Who is the person behind Girl Scouts, USA?

In Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, Stacy A. Cordery traces the life of Low, known as “Daisy” to her family and friends. Born before the start of the Civil War to Savannah aristocracy, Daisy grew up surrounded by a large family.

She attended schools in the North, forming lifelong friendships. Society expected her to become a wife and mother with few other options for her background. After finishing her formal education, she studied art in New York.

For several years, Daisy pursued her art, traveled to and with family and friends, and met eligible suitors. During this time, she suffered ear infections that left her partially deaf. She fell in love with Willy Low, a Savannah neighbor, and the couple married in 1886.