Book Reviews

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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.