Featured book review by Janet Heston, retired Librarian, Livermore Public Library

The Snowman (Harry Hole Series, #7) by Joe Nesbo

Jo Nesbo, the winner of numerous book awards, is a Norwegian crime writer, who has written nine titles in his Harry Hole mystery series. Police Inspector Harry Hole is a graduate of Police College and LawSchool, and has taken a one year course with the FBI, specializing in serial killers. The Snowman is the seventh in the series. Nesbo’s Harry Hole is based in Oslo, Norway.

Terrifying, suspenseful, crime novels are my genre of choice. Since I have become a fan of Scandinavian crime novels, author Henning Mankell has written his last in his Wallander series (I also recommend the films) and Steig Larsson, of the dragon tattooed girl fame, is deceased; The Snowman is a first-rate book to introduce the reader to the Scandinavian crime genre and Jo Nesbo is surely to be a favorite. The Leopard, number 8 in the series, is also excellent. Phantom, number 9, is not yet available in the U.S. I have read this series out of order, but have had no trouble understanding the history of the characters. I have gone back to the beginning of Harry Hole because of a curiosity for more specifics of his past.

The Snowman is a dark, chilling suspense thriller, and it takes the reader on a frightful journey that ends with a bang. Harry Hole is a troubled man, who is a struggling alcoholic, but a champion for crime victims. He is not well-liked by his superiors or coworkers, but he still insinuates himself into the investigations of felonious crimes. Harry has a tendency to get into messy situations while trying to solve these crimes. This time, a wife and mother is unaccounted for and instead of this being a missing persons case, it turns out to be a case of serial murder.

Women have gone missing over the course of many years, coinciding with the first snowfall and the manifestation of a life-sized snowman. The description of the sudden appearance of the snowman is creepy and leaves the reader on edge. The feeling of dread that accompanies these scenes makes the reader push for Harry Hole to hurry up and solve the case.

So many different suspects come into view, but not until the very end of the book, does the true killer come to light. Despite his flaws, Harry Hole is an admirable character, who has built a loyal following for this critically acclaimed Norwegian author.

Goodreads book reviews by Margot Hanson, BayNet Board of Directors member and Web Services Librarian at Golden Gate University

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

After reading this I actually understand the basic concepts behind credit default swaps, asset-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations! Michael Lewis has a knack for narrative nonfiction that breaks down financial scenarios for the average reader, drawing us in with simple metaphors that he hits us over the head with repeatedly throughout his books. He is somehow able to make sympathetic characters out of those few people who were able to see the logical outcome of financial structures based on subprime mortgages, and basically made giant bets against the economy. If I were more savvy to finance and economics principles, I would most likely tire very quickly of Lewis’ narrative technique, but in this case I didn’t mind too much being treated like an uneducated child.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

Interesting peek at the evolution of toxicology in New York during the beginning decades of the twentieth century. Very intriguing tidbits about Prohibition, including the increase in deaths by alcohol, the intentional poisoning of alcohol products by U.S. government chemists (as a supposed deterrent, but really just resulting in more death), the rise of organized crime related to bootlegging, and another point I hadn’t considered before–it made hard drinkers out of everyone who drank, since lower-alcohol-content drinks like beer and wine weren’t available.

Livermore Public Library staff picks for April 2012

Janice Perkuchin reviewsThe Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama

Hiroshi and Kenji are being raised by their wise and loving grandparents in prewar Tokyo. The young brothers are very different, Hiroshi and his grandfather are fans of sumo wrestling, Kenji is enthralled with the art of Noh Theater. As the war ramps up all of their lives begin to change dramatically. They must let go of many things that seemed important to them in peacetime. When the war ends life slowly begins to return to normal but even decades later some wounds cannot heal.

Gail Tsukiyama tenderly tells the tale of one ordinary family’s journey through a life that includes the trauma of war. They face their difficulties with dignity and maintain their devotion to one another. Along the way the reader is drawn into the tradition, ceremony, and honor of both Sumo wrestling and Noh Theater.

John Stack reviews The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor by Robert Kirkman

Whereas I am a huge fan of the Zombie Genre, I found myself struggling through The Walking Dead Graphic Novel Series. Frankly, the term “graphic novel” is an oxymoron to me. Let’s face it, they are glorified comic books. I like to read and imagine the world I am reading, not have it laid out for me. But if you like graphic novels, The Walking Dead series is okay.

With that in mind, when I heard that Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead series and writer for AMC’s hit series, Jay Bonansinga, a horror writer in his own rite had collaborated on a “real novel” about the origins of one of the worst villains in The Walking Dead world; I had to check it out. In the graphic novels, The Governor rules the barricaded town of Woodbury. He forces people to battle zombies for sport, amputates the limbs of those who oppose him, and has “pets” for his own demented pleasures.

In Rise of the Governor, we join two brothers, the young daughter of one of them and a few of their lifelong friends. The world, along with rule of law, common decency, and any resemblance to happiness or joy has been snuffed out by what else, a zombie apocalypse.

The novel studies the relationships of Philip Blake, his older brother Brian, and Phillip’s daughter Penny. Phillip is your basic backwoods biker type, rugged and tough, while Brian, even though older, must rely on his younger brother’s strength as he himself is metropolitan, soft, small and somewhat of a wimp. In a world gone crazy, the band meets challenges of survival not only against hordes of zombies, but of other survivors. Some of these survivors are decent but like all humans are flawed, others are ruthless renegades out to exploit others and kill them. All are stressed and stretched to maintain their own humanity. Most fail.

There are almost no characters in this novel that you can sympathize with aside from Penny, a child who provides a common bond for the two brothers who until the world fell apart were estranged. It is up to the reader to decide who is the least of all evils in this brutal, horrific tale.

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor is definitely not for children, or the squeamish. The novel has very disturbing themes of violence, human degradation, and terror all mixed up with good old fashioned suspense and unexpected twists. It is a quick read and entertaining enough to grab the reader in the first few pages and keep them hooked.

If you are a fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I highly suggest you read this book before season three comes out this fall. It is highly rumored at this point that the Governor will be making his television debut in October 2012.

Janet Heston reviews Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Jussi Adler-Olsen is the fourth award winning author from Scandanavia I have had the pleasure to read. After reading and enjoying Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, I would say that Adler-Olsen is now my favorite. Shocking and extremely suspenseful, this book takes the reader on a thrilling roller coaster ride. This is the first in the Department Q series. So far, Adler-Olsen has written four more in the series, but the translations will be years in the making.

Carl Morck, Copenhagen’s best detective, has just come back from medical leave after being almost killed in a shoot out with wanted felons. Carl is not the same person he was before his near-death experience. His ability to do his job is lacking, so what do his superiors do? Promote him. Now Carl is the head of a new agency called Department Q, also known as the cold case file department.

The first case Carl chooses is the five year old cold case of politician, Merete Lynggaard, who disappeared from a cruise ship, leaving her mentally challenged brother, Uffe, on the ship. This is not something Merete would ever do, but there were no clues found as to her whereabouts. Carl must really start from scratch, as his predecessors did a shoddy job of investigating.

What a likeable character Carl Morck is! He is intelligent, interesting and humorous. His sidekick, Hafez el-Assad or just Assad, as Carl calls him, is from Syria and has a mysterious past of his own. Assad is considered to be in a clerk-like position in Department Q, but his talents and skills take him on a much broader path. The investigation Morck and Assad take on is complicated and unsettling. Just when the reader thinks there is no hope for them to find out what happened to Merete, the plot twists. A resolution to the mystery of the disappearance of Merete Lynggaard is found, but not until the very last page, is the outcome revealed.

Blanche Angelo reviews Slow Cooker Revolution: One Test Kitchen, 30 Slow Cookers, 200 Amazing Recipes by Editors at America’s Test Kitchen

When I peruse slow cooker recipes, I am sometimes reminded of the old computer science adage “garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO). After all, one can hardly expect to toss a hodgepodge of questionable ingredients into a glazed ceramic pot, cook it at 170 degrees for nine hours, and turn out a delicious dinner. But some cookbook authors would have you believe otherwise.

In her Chicken and Rice Soup recipe, Stephanie O’Dea, author of Make It Fast, Cook It Slow: The Big Book of Everyday Slow Cooking, gushes, “This is a fantastic way to clean out the produce drawer of your refrigerator–it’s perfectly fine to use vegetables that are a bit past their prime.” To be fair, Make It Fast, Cook It Slow was inspired by the year O’Dea spent using a slow cooker every day. I don’t know about you, but after Day Four, I would have a decidedly cavalier attitude toward ingredients and technique. Still, there must be an approach to slow cooking that strikes a balance between saving time and making food actually worth a nine-hour wait.

Leave it to the lovable fussbudgets at America’s Test Kitchen to save the day. True to form, they rewired the test kitchen, plugged in more than two dozen slow cookers, and produced Slow Cooker Revolution, a phenomenal collection of 200 bombproof recipes. Slow Cooker Revolution lays down eleven rules for slow cooking success, including cooking on low whenever possible and using a panade to keep ground meat tender. Recipes are heavy on aromatics and often include key ingredients to make up for the slow cooker’s tendency “to mute flavors.” For instance, tomato paste makes an unexpected appearance in Old-Fashioned Chicken Noodle Soup, but it adds a “meaty flavor usually achieved only by browning meat.” Ingredient reviews appear throughout the book, and “Quick Prep Tip” inserts demonstrate the best way to seed jalapenos, grate ginger, and expertly execute other tasks. The “Eggs and Brunch” chapter is heavy on stratas and casseroles, and much to my dismay, the America’s Test Kitchen crew has decided one should cook Irish oatmeal for no more than four to six hours on low because it becomes “mushy and blown out” if cooked overnight. Now I have to figure out how to train the cats to turn on the slow cooker at 1:00 a.m.

I’ve made many white bean soups, but none of them have turned out as well as the Tuscan White Bean Soup from Slow Cooker Revolution. The recipe calls for a whopping three minced onions and eight minced garlic cloves to compensate for ten hours of cooking on low, and rosemary is only added during the final 15 minutes of cooking to avoid a “bitter, medicinal taste.” I cranked up the rosemary flavor by leaving it in for 30 minutes, and garnished with chopped Italian parsley and a drizzle of Hojiblanca olive oil to brighten the soup and counter the pancetta’s richness. Black Bean Soup and Split Pea Soup are other winners, and both recipes showcase the innovative technique of blooming onions, garlic, oil, and herbs together in the microwave before adding them to the slow cooker.

Slow Cooker Revolution is the leader of the pack of the New Breed of Slow Cooker Cookbooks, but other stars include Lynn Alley’s The Gourmet Vegetarian Slow Cooker and Anupy Singla’s The Indian Slow Cooker. Both cookbooks stress the importance of purchasing whole spices in small quantities and grinding them with a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle for maximum flavor. Singla discusses the masala dabba, the spice box that “is one of the qunitessential tools in the Indian kitchen,” while Alley recommends using a suribachi and “playing around” with specialty salts to “elevate” simple foods. Alley also offers beverage suggestions for each recipe. For Cracked Wheat Berries with Honey and Ricotta, she writes, “You could conceivably kick-start your day Italian style with some grappa in your coffee, but I’m thinking a nice espresso or cappuccino after breakfast would do the trick–and make focusing on the drive to work a whole lot safer.” Perhaps straight grappa is the perfect beverage pairing for Irish oatmeal that has cooked for eight hours overnight. Thumb your nose at America’s Test Kitchen. You won’t notice the mushiness of your oats.