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Melissa's Picks

Book Cover for The Bees Paull, Laline
The Bees

Fiction
Accept, Obey, and Serve. These are the cardinal rules of the hive. Flora 717 knows this, but longs for experiences outside those performed by her kin-sisters who are relegated to the tasks of sanitation workers. Because 717 is strong and shows the abilities of other worker bees, she is given special permission to feed the larvae in the nursery, make wax for the Treasury, and also to forage for pollen and nectar. When she saves the hive by fighting and killing an invading wasp, Flora 717 even gets to meet the Queen. But when she starts laying eggs, the trouble really begins, for the most holy law of the hive is this — Only the Queen may breed. The domineering religious overtones, examination and challenging of class and caste systems, preferential treatment of males, even in this most matriarchal of societies, and the inherent desire of a single individual to overcome all of these factors, make this a captivating story. This is one book your book group must read. The topics for discussion are almost endless.
Recommended July 2014

 
Book Cover for That Night Stevens, Chevy
That Night

Fiction
I was introduced to Chevy Stevens a few years ago with her debut novel, Still Missing. I devoured that first book in one sitting. I liked the way the story unfolded; each chapter was a session in the therapist’s office for Annie. She was abducted and held for over a year by her captor, suffering unspeakable horrors on a daily basis. You meet Annie after her return. You might think that knowing the end of the story before it even begins would make the book boring, but you would be so wrong. Having the story doled out in sections made it more compelling and I often got chills while Annie was recounting her past and talking about its impact on her present. The ending included a curve ball I never saw coming. Ms. Stevens’ next two thrillers, Never Knowing and Always Watching, were also full of suspense, masterful use of flashbacks and clever plotting. I liked the connecting thread between the two novels. Sara Gallagher is visiting a psychologist, Nadine, to talk about her experiences when trying to reconnect with her birth mother in Never Knowing. Nadine then becomes the main character in Always Watching and you get to understand, through her history, why she became a psychologist. I found myself lost in the world Ms. Stevens created and time flew by as I was absorbed in her stories. I was often surprised by how many pages I had read when I thought that hardly any time had passed. In That Night, once again you meet the protagonist at what you think is the end of the story. Toni Murphy and her boyfriend, Ryan, were convicted 16 years ago of killing Toni’s younger sister, but they didn’t do it. Now that they have served their time and been released, will they be able to move on? Will they finally be able to prove their innocence? Back were Ms. Stevens’ signature flashbacks, compelling characters, suspense-building storyline and unforeseen twist at the end. You may think you know how the story will end, but rest assured, there will be a surprise. I finished this book in record time and am now regretting that I'll need to wait at least another year before meeting up again with Chevy Stevens.
Recommended June 2014

 
Book Cover for I Would Die 4 U Touré
I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon

Nonfiction
This book could be titled “Get to Know Prince (As Much as Anyone Can) in 150 Pages.” It is a concise and thoughtful treatise, establishing what makes a popular musician an actual icon, rather than just a rock star, and then, explaining why Prince qualifies. But the majority of the book is about how Prince’s life, experiences, and religious beliefs influenced his music, especially the lyrics. As much as he is known for pushing the envelope sexually, there is actually as much, if not more, religious content in his various songs. I feel like I learned so much about the man and his myth through this book – his difficult, but driven, adolescence, and his quirky work habits and song lyrics that I always thought said something completely different. (There’s nothing like finding out those words you’ve been belting out in the car all these years are totally wrong!)
Recommended May 2014

 
Book Cover for The Last Girlfriend on Earth Rich, Simon
The Last Girlfriend on Earth: and Other Love Stories

Short Stories
This collection of stories is laugh-out-loud funny. The book is divided into 3 sections: "Boy Meets Girl" (stories about trying to start a relationship), "Boy Gets Girl" (stories about being in a relationship), and "Boy Loses Girl" (once the relationship is over). You'll never forget the story told from the point of view of a condom, or the canine "missed connections” — and why would you want to?
Recommended September 2013

 
Book Cover for Stories from Jonestown Fondakowski, Leigh
Stories from Jonestown

Nonfiction
Stories from Jonestown is all about the survivors. “Survivors” include those few who escaped into the jungle that fateful day, the Peoples Temple members who were elsewhere in Guyana and California, and family members of those who died. For many, these interviews were the first time they spoke of their experiences. Some chose to share how their lives have been since that day in November 1978. Some talk about the family members that they lost, who they were and what they believed in. Many tell about their experiences in the Peoples Temple, both before and after the move to Guyana. Every single story is riveting and emotional. According to most books, the story of Jonestown and Jim Jones ended on November 18, 1978. For Stories from Jonestown, that date is the beginning of the story.
Recommended July 2013

 
Book Cover for Becoming Sister Wives Brown, Kody with Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn
Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage

Nonfiction
Everyone is fascinated by polygamy. The idea that a man could marry more than one woman and that those women could be happy about the situation is almost unthinkable to most of us who are struggling to maintain a "simple" monogamous relationship. In the last few years, television executives have finally decided to capitalize on the allure of polygamy by introducing series such as HBO’s Big Love and TLC’s Sister Wives. I’ll admit it; I have been watching Sister Wives since the beginning. I started off, like many others, looking for the prurient details of the lives of Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn and waiting for the train wreck that never happened. It turns out that these women, who all just happen to love the same man, also respect each other and dote on each other’s children as if they were their own, because, in more than one way, they are. This book nicely supplements the television show, providing the back stories for the relationship each of the four wives has with Kody. It also discusses those hardships and rearrangements in priority that each wife had to endure whenever a new wife or child was added to the family or their living situation was altered. I liked the way the book was organized. Each person had their own chapter in the sections of Matrimony, Sorority, Family, and Celebrity. This way, just like on the show, each of the wives had her own voice and could tell her story in her own words. Then you get to hear Kody’s take on it as well. I’ve continued to watch the show and looked forward to reading this book for the same reason; I like how normal their family is. I am awed by how self-aware they all are, how well they communicate with each other and their children, and what genuinely nice people they seem to be. I want to be their friend. Even if you never plan to watch the show, you’ll enjoy the story of how these five people make their relationships and family work, and you might even find a tip or two for your own life in there as well.
Recommended February 2013

 
Book Cover for Livwise Newton-John, Olivia
Livwise: Easy Recipes for a Healthy, Happy Life

Nonfiction
Eat fresh fruits and vegetables in season. Eat whole grains. Eat organic. Eat good proteins and fats. Limit red meat. Don't eat processed foods. Exercise daily. This is the advice we hear over and over again in almost every mainstream diet/healthy lifestyle book published nowadays. Are we more likely to listen when we're being told by breast cancer survivor and "Let's Get Physical" singer Olivia Newton-John? If you’re a woman of a certain age, the answer might be "yes". Olivia shares with us some of her favorite healthy recipes that help keep her, at age 62, feeling fit and looking like a woman 25 years younger. All of the recipes looked very easy to prepare and almost all of the ingredients can now be found in any large supermarket. (You might have to visit a health food store for a few.) These delicious dishes, such as chicken with ginger, orange stuffing and cashew, macadamia and raspberry tart, have me re-thinking my food and cooking choices.
Recommended January 2013

 
Book Cover for Escape from Camp 14 Harden, Blaine
Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

Nonfiction
He was born and raised in Camp 14, one of the roughest of the labor camps in North Korea. Despite satellite photos that prove their presence, the North Korean government still denies these camps exist. No one who spent their whole life in a camp is known to ever have escaped, except for Shin Dong-hyuk. Shin grew up in an environment that none of us could even begin to understand. In order to survive, he was required to snitch on his family, classmates, and co-workers. Everyone around him, even his own mother, was competition for food, clothing, and shelter. Shin never developed the bonds with other people that most of us take for granted. There was no unconditional love from his parents or amusing times shared with friends. His life was all about back-breaking work and scrounging for food. Shin’s first memory, at the tender age of 4, is of an execution of a fellow prisoner. This book kept my attention the whole way through because even though I knew he would escape, I wanted to see what happened next. Shin’s story is hard to read and just because he escapes, it does not necessarily mean that his life gets easy. But this is an account worth reading and the continued struggle of the North Korean people is important for people to realize is still very much an issue.
Recommended October 2012

 
Book Cover for Winged Obsession Speart, Jessica
Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World's Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler

Nonfiction
Butterfly collecting is big business. The black market players earn tens of thousands of dollars a month selling rare specimens to collectors, while species get closer and closer to extinction. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent Ed Newcomer finds himself working deep undercover to catch one of the world’s biggest butterfly smugglers. But Yoshi Kojima is no fool. He is wily, distrustful of others, and demanding of his “business” partners. Newcomer has a hard time keeping up with Yoshi and he slips through Newcomer’s net more than once. Will Newcomer ever be able to set up the sting to bring down Yoshi or will he continue to evade authorities and contribute to the further decimation of the worlds’ butterfly population? This book is nonfiction but reads like a good suspense/thriller/crime novel. The protagonists, although completely real, are over-the-top characters, almost comical in their stereotypical-ness. If you like to read about environmental issues and like a good legal/police procedural, you will enjoy Winged Obsession.
Recommended , August 2012

 
Book Cover for Rules of Civility Towles, Amor
Rules of Civility

Fiction
“That’s how quickly New York City comes about – like a weather vane – or the head of a cobra. Time tells which.” Katey Kontent (pronounced like the state of well-being) may be young, female, and working as a secretary in New York City, but she is not naïve. She is sharp, witty, insightful. Katey understands how the world works and uses that to her advantage. Or does she? This novel about the ebbs and flows of friendship paints a picture of 1930's New York that is hard to resist. You see vivid landscape and buildings covered in the mist of evening light, like a black and white film, as you get caught up in Katey’s story. The main focus is a love triangle between Katey, her best friend, and Tinker Grey, handsome member of New York's elite. Just when Katey is about to get the upper hand with Tinker, fate intervenes in a dramatic way. The scenery, wardrobe, and snappy dialogue scream out to be made into a film. I certainly would see it. But first, I'd read the book again.
Recommended May 2012

 
Book Cover for Once Upon a Secret Alford, Mimi
Once Upon a Secret

Nonfiction
“Everyone has a secret. This is mine.” In 1962, nineteen-year-old Mimi Beardsley lucked into a prime position as a summer intern in the White House press office. On her fourth day, she slept with President Kennedy and began an affair that lasted until his death in November 1963. It’s hard to imagine the effect this situation had on a naïve college girl from the upper-middle class. This secret made a lasting, devastating impression on her first marriage and her life. The author explains the choices she made and the reasons she made them, from the perspective that hindsight gives. One of the major insights this book provides is an insiders view of the 1960’s White House and the culture that supported the President, basically allowing him to do whatever he pleased. Prurient details are few, but they are juicy. This is a quick, thoroughly interesting read, which may also teach you a thing or two about the impact of decisions made and words left unspoken.
Recommended April 2012

 
Book Cover for Habibi Thompson, Craig
Habibi

Graphic Novel
In this beautifully illustrated graphic novel, themes of female sexual abuse and indifference to the plight of the poor are skillfully woven with parables and stories from the Qur’an. The artistry of the frames is dense. Symbolism abounds. The stories of Dodola and Zam also provide lessons in Arabic script, religion, and tradition. These lessons do not detract from the plot, which is focused on the development of their relationship, but allow the reader a deeper understanding of the context and meaning behind the choices the characters make during their time together and apart. This hard-hitting graphic novel may be difficult some for readers due to adult themes, but the masterful storytelling is well worth reading.
Recommended March 2012

 
Book Cover for The George Carlin Letters Wade, Sally
The George Carlin Letters: The Permanent Courtship of Sally Wade

Nonfiction
George and Sally met in a bookstore. They were both wearing sweatpants and baseball caps. Actually it was her dog, Spot, that introduced them. George invited Sally to see him perform in Las Vegas. After the show he thanked her for coming and said he would call her to go out for coffee in four months. Four months would mark one year since his wife’s death. George did call Sally after four months passed. He came over for coffee and never left her home again. This is the beginning of a beautiful story of love, companionship, and humor. George and Sally spent the last ten years of his life together. This book is a collection of the notes, doodles, sketches, jokes, and stories written by each for the other. The pages are covered with artfully arranged, colorful scraps of paper, and each chapter covers a theme: items pertaining to Spot, stories about their true home of Jupiter, food and dining, and wordplay are just a few examples. This tangible history of their love and relationship lets you get to know George and Sally on a personal level. You get to peek at their thoughts and dreams. You follow along as they adjust to living with each other, squabble, make up, and make love. Everyone wants to be loved like this and it’s refreshing to see that people actually are. “There’s no better place in the world than the room where Sally Wade is located.” — G. Carlin
Recommended November 2011

 
Book Cover for Amaryllis in Blueberry Meldrum, Christina
Amaryllis in Blueberry

Fiction
Exquisite language and phrasing are hallmarks of this novel. This story of a family who leave everything they know in Michigan to be missionaries in Africa reveals that though you are related, you can’t be sure what another person is thinking or feeling. We often think we know someone, when we really don’t know them at all. This becomes apparent as each chapter of this book is told from a different family member’s point of view. But since the tale is told in chronological order, you never lose the story or have to backtrack. You’ll want to understand each character's motivation, you’ll empathize with them all, in different ways. I initially picked this book up because of its beautiful cover, but what I found inside was even better.
Recommended October 2011

 
Book Cover for What to Cook and How to Cook It Hornby, Jane
What to Cook and How to Cook It

Nonfiction
This has everything I want in a cookbook. The recipes span a wide range, from an omelet to BLT sandwich to Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding. Each recipe begins with a list of ingredients next to a photograph of each in its proper amount, stunningly laid out in neat rows. Besides being simply beautiful, these photos show exactly what plum tomatoes or shallots look like before you shop for them. Step by step instructions follow, with a color photo accompanying each step. You'll know what that dough is supposed to look like once it has risen, been punched down and stretched out on the sheet pan. Each recipe concludes with a photo of the finished dish. (“Yes, it’s supposed to look like that!” or “No, I don’t think that turned out quite right.”) I have no doubts about succeeding with this fabulous cookbook.
Recommended September 2011

 
Book Cover for Cats Are Weird Brown, Jeffrey
Cats Are Weird: And More Observations

Graphic Novel
If you’ve ever been owned by a cat or been friends with someone owned by a cat (or two or three or twelve), much in this graphic novel will look eerily familiar. You’ll wonder how Mr. Brown was able to get into your house, observe your cat’s adventures, and draw pictures of exactly what occurs in your domicile on a daily basis. The expressions he creates on the cats’ faces are precisely animated and precious. You know exactly what they think and feel. This is a quick read, mostly sequential picture frames with few words, which makes it accessible to young readers as well. This wholesome and hilarious graphic novel can be shared with your entire family, and you’ll find yourself passing it along to your cat-loving friends. Then you’ll look for the prequel, Cat Getting Out of a Bag.
Recommended August 2011

 
Book Cover for Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That?: Fabulous Recipes & Easy Tips Garten, Ina
Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That?: Fabulous Recipes & Easy Tips

Nonfiction
Cooking can be just that easy. Ina shares many tricks to simplify weeknight dinners and entertaining. She's a fan of shortcuts and describes them exactly. Her recipes aren’t complicated, and don't include lots of steps and ingredients. I appreciate that when she likes a product, she specifies the exact brand. (Heinz ketchup is a pantry must-have.) Every recipe is accompanied by a full color photo. The introductions for each recipe are interesting, too. I've been a fan of Ina’s recipes ever since her roasted brussel sprouts made me a family legend (in a good way, of course), and I imagine these recipes would increase my status as the family cook. In particular, I'm eager to try French mussel bisque, roasted shrimp salad, baked fontina, caeser-roasted swordfish, couscous with toasted pine nuts, and easy cranberry & apple cake. If you are also a fan of Ina’s television show, you might recognize several recipes. When I originally saw them on the show, I thought, “Oh, I should make that.” Now they are here in print, I will. Maybe you will too.
Recommended January 2011

 
Book Cover for Still Missing Stevens, Chevy
Still Missing

Fiction
A young real estate agent is kidnapped during an open house. This is the story of her journey back to "real life" after the year-long ordeal is over. Each chapter deals with a session in her therapist’s office, where she recounts what happened during and after her captivity. An insightful and deeply moving look at her recovery process. I couldn’t put it down.
Recommended October 2010

 
Book Cover for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Skloot, Rebecca
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Nonfiction
This tale is an interesting mix of science, social history, and ethics. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer. While being treated and without her knowledge, doctors took a sample of her cells and sent them to a scientist attempting to cultivate the first immortal human cells, cells that would continue to live and divide outside of a human body. No other cells had done this before, but hers did. Known as the HeLa cells, they continue to live, and have aided in such medical breakthroughs as the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, and cloning. They have also gone into space and were the first human cells to test the effects of an atom bomb. The entire cell and tissue culture business was based on the reproduction of the HeLa cells. Her family found out thirty years after she died and have never received financial compensation, even though others have profited from the cells' sale and distribution. The juxtaposition of Henrietta’s and her family’s life stories with the scientists and scientific discoveries makes for a varied and entertaining read.
Recommended August 2010

 
Book Cover for Michael Symon’s Live to Cook: Recipes and Techniques to Rock Your Kitchen Symon, Michael
Michael Symon’s Live to Cook: Recipes and Techniques to Rock Your Kitchen

Nonfiction
Michael Symon, Iron Chef and James Beard Award Winner, presents his first cookbook. With his background, we might expect fancy food out of reach of the average cook. But no. He explains in detail fundamental cooking techniques. Most recipes include a photo to either illustrate the finished dish or highlight one of the steps. Helpful “Symon Says” tips appear throughout the book. I recommend Live to Cook for those ready to try a twist on a standard dish or to branch out into something slightly unusual, but still within reach.
May 2010

 
Book Cover for Far Arden Cannon, Kevin
Far Arden

Graphic Novel
This was my first graphic novel, and I chose a good one. The artwork is simple but effective. The writing is believable and laugh out loud funny. I especially liked the placement of words for sound effects and other wordless happenings, which reminded me of the old Batman television show. This adventure comic features characters with hidden pasts, conflict, intrigue, a touch of romance, a mythical island, and circus sideshow performers. In short, Far Arden has a bit of everything for everyone.
Recommended February 2010

 
Book Cover for Wishful Drinking Fisher, Carrie
Wishful Drinking

Nonfiction
Have you ever had lunch or drinks with a friend who tells great stories, but doesn't necessarily tell them in chronological order? Stories that are funny, revealing, a little disjointed, eminently entertaining. That is what this book reminds me of. I felt like I was having a personal conversation with Carrie Fisher as she told me about her life in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way. I enjoyed insights about her famous parents. Her tales of the making of the Star Wars movies are priceless. She talks about all of the failed relationships she has witnessed and in which she has participated. But her willingness to discuss her addiction and mental health problems is what moved me the most. Plus, she provides a list of other famous people who have had similar issues. It always softens the blow when you can see that others have walked the same path before you. This is a quick, entertaining read.
Recommended December 2009

 
Book Cover for Confessions of a Closet Master Baker Bullock-Prado, Gesine
Confections of a Closet Master Baker

Nonfiction
This light, satisfying read reminds me of a good pastry. It has multiple layers, comforts and delights you, and leaves you wanting just a little bit more. Through an hour by hour account of her day as master baker and owner of a patisserie in Montpelier, you learn about the author’s past and present -- connections between her childhood and family, experiences in soulless LA, and the formation of her sweet treats. At the end of each chapter is a recipe so you can recreate one of her decadent pastries. I read four chapters before I figured out the author’s sister, Sandy, was that Sandra. Bullock, that is. Part anti-Hollywood exposé, part diary of a Vermont baker and shopkeeper, and part cookbook, I thoroughly enjoyed it all.
Recommended November 2009

 
Book Cover for The 19th Wife Ebershoff, David
The 19th Wife

Fiction
The 19th Wife contains chapters that alternate between the historical story of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's many wives, and a young man, Jordan Scott, who was kicked out of his fundamentalist sect in present-day Utah. Ann Eliza left her powerful husband and then gave many notable speeches against the practice of polygamy in the late 1800’s. Her chapters trace her childhood, marriage, subsequent "divorce," which was hotly contested, and her mysterious later life. The chapters on Jordan constitute a modern-day murder mystery and center around his efforts to vindicate his mother, the nineteenth wife of a polygamist, who is accused of killing her husband. If you’re interested in the private lives of those who practice plural marriage, this book will not disappoint.
Recommended October 2009

 
Book Cover for Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea Handler, Chelsea
Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea

Nonfiction
If you watch E! late at night, you'll be familiar with the author of this collection of personal essays. Chelsea Handler is the star of Chelsea Lately, Girls Behaving Badly on the Oxygen network, and is an accomplished stand-up comedian. If you've seen Chelsea’s shows or routines you won't be shocked by her subject matter (her own life), and the language she uses. After reading these essays, you won’t be surprised that Chelsea became a comedian. With her penchant for spinning outrageous lies, it was either that or become a criminal. None of her family members or friends escape her sharp tongue and sarcastic view of life’s events. You'll likely recognize someone from your own past or present in her colorful collection of characters. And no doubt you'll laugh out loud. If you're looking for a quick read to pass an amusing afternoon, Are You There, Vodka? is a good contender.
Recommended September 2009

 
Book Cover for Culinary Boot Camp: Five Days of Basic Training at the Culinary Institute of America Shulman, Martha Rose and The Culinary Institute of America
Culinary Boot Camp: Five Days of Basic Training at the Culinary Institute of America

Nonfiction
If you’ve ever dreamed of going to culinary school, but reality got in the way, one answer might be to attend a CIA Boot Camp. These sessions introduce food enthusiasts to basic cooking techniques, combined with fine dining at award-winning campus restaurants. Part cookbook, part memoir, part campus restaurant review, Culinary Boot Camp is the result of the author’s attendance at two such camps. I enjoyed reading about the personalities and quirks of the chef instructors, as well as their sometimes contrasting procedures for creating the same dish. Recipes for most of the menus created in the author’s camps are included. But the real heart of this book is the explanation and understanding of primary cooking methods: simmering, braising, poaching, roasting, frying, searing, etc. Each technique is covered fully, in language familiar to non-chefs – no exclusive techie terms here. The lesson is that good food doesn’t have to be fancy, even when coming from one of the premier cooking schools in the world. Inspired by a short paragraph on how the author’s group prepared scallop appetizer, using the same simple technique, I pan fried scallops in butter for only minutes on either side. They were, in my husband’s opinion, the best scallops he'd ever had. You can never beat easy and delicious!
Recommended August 2009