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This year's best books take readers on journeys from Hawaii to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In between are tales of hippos and dragons, zombies and sleuthing cowboys and a lion afraid of making too much noise at the library.
Joni Kohagen at the West Valley Library recommended Brothers by Da Chen (Shay Areheart, $25), about two 20th-century Chinese brothers whose lives take very different paths. "This sterling book has a true Dickensian quality, juxtaposing the modern history of China on every page," Kohagen said.
For a historical take on another part of the world, Tessa Epstein at the Sprague Library recommended Malinche: A Novel by Laura Esquivel, translated from Spanish by Ernesto Mestre-Reed (Atria Books, $22.95). Malinche was a translator for Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés as he fought to overthrow the Aztecs. "Since the 15th century, Mexican history and folklore have interpreted her actions as traitorous to her people, but in Esquivel's book, we learn of Malinche's rich cultural heritage," Epstein said.
Epstein's colleague Ranae Pierce called Arthur and George by Julian Barnes (Knopf Publishing Group, $24.95) "a fictionalized account of the actual events that brought two singularly intriguing late Victorians together: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the renowned creator of Sherlock Holmes, and George Edalji, a quietly dignified, half-Indian son of a vicar."
Kathy Smith at the city library's Browsing Library liked Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $23.95). An old man is "engulfed in memories that take him in and out of the moment, all the while very sharp and articulate," Smith said. "This book spans the decades with historic facts in a fictional tale of life with the circus."
Bruce Christensen at Sam Weller's liked Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris (William Morrow, $24.95). "The plot changes and twists so often in this exciting thriller that even if you guess the ending you will still be wrong. The characters are believable, the plot is strong and the ending is breathtaking," Christensen said.
He also liked Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith (St. Martin's, $22.95). "It's 1893 and two young cowboys - after reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - attempt to solve a baffling case of murder and cattle rustling on a Montana ranch. This book is hilarious." Christensen said.
Dragon tales get a new twist with His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik (Del Ray, $7.50). A captain in the British Navy adopts a dragon, who helps him and the Brits battle Napoleon. Cherie Bitter at the Bingham Creek Library called it "an alternative history, reminiscent of the Horatio Hornblower books, with dragons as part of the military arsenal." De Peterson at the Park Library said, "I thought, 'Oh no, another dragon book - what else is there to tell?' This is a great twist on the normal dragon fantasy."
Darlene Dineen at the Columbus Library couldn't pass up Moon Called by Patricia Briggs (Ace Books, $7.99), with "one sassy female shape-shifting mechanic, a vampire neighbor and a newly changed werewolf that has been kidnapped, drugged and experimented on," all coming together for "an exciting read full of twists and turns."
Dineen's other supernatural selection is Headstone City by Tom Piccirilli (Spectra, $5.99), which she called " 'The Butterfly Effect,' 'Medium' and 'The Sopranos' all rolled into one book." Johnny Danetello has unfinished business with his former friend turned mob boss, Vinny Monticelli, with whom he shares access to alternate realities no one else can know.
Wendy Foster Leigh at The King's English recommended Messenger of Truth: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear (Holt, $24). London sleuth Maisie tries to find out the truth about a World War I artist's death. "As a nurse during that war, she experienced the trials of the soldiers, and now in her role as private investigator/psychologist, she experiences the physical hardships facing London's poor," Leigh said.
Risa Ashment at the Park Library recommended Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season (Harcourt, $25), recalling a childhood on a homestead in Montana in a town with a one-room schoolhouse. "Doig eloquently makes his characters believable and realistic. It's full of nostalgia and the ache of growing up," Ashment said.
Sam Weller's Debra Evans got caught up in Ruins by Scott Smith (Knopf, $24.95). In the long-awaited second novel from the author of A Simple Plan, a group traveling in Mexico gets involved in a mystery that takes it into the depths of the jungle's ruins. Evans called the book "a creepy atmospheric page-turner."
Evans' colleague Courtney Martin recommended Last Cato by Matilde Asensi (Rayo, $14.95). A nun is asked to decipher the tattoos on a murdered Ethiopian dealer in forbidden Catholic relics. "I happily skipped school and all other responsibilities one day to read this book through. Pure sluglike pleasure," Martin said.
Martin and colleague Catherine Weller liked World War Z by Max Brooks (Crown, $24.95). "This oral history of the zombie invasion sucked me in from the first chapter," she said. Brooks "does an excellent job of re-creating the scenery and vocabulary of life during wartime, even if it is zombies we're fighting." Martin adds: " I found myself thinking what I would do in a similar situation. I am currently working on my zombie emergency preparedness plan."
Lee Alexander, Columbus Library, Marco Hernandez at The King's English and Ken Sanders of Ken Sanders Rare Books all recommended Cormac McCarthy's The Road (Knopf, $24). In the latest from the author of All the Pretty Horses, a father and his young son travel through a post-catastrophic United States in hopes of finding food, warmth and other survivors. While Sanders called it "the author's darkest and most bleak novel yet," Alexander said it's "a beautiful tale of hope and love in the midst of desolation."
Laura J. Berube at the Sandy Library and Judy Yaka at the Park Library liked The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (Atria Books, $26). A reclusive author asks a bookseller to write her biography, and both discover long-held secrets. "It's one of those books I couldn't put down until I finished the last page," Yaka said.
Park Library's Daniela Jancovic said House of Many Gods by Kiana Davenport (Ballantine Books, $24.95) "delivers a powerful story of love and forgiveness." Raised by her aunts and uncles after her mother abandons her, Ana is determined not to end up like her underachieving cousins. She leaves Hawaii, falls in love with Russian filmmaker Niki, then brings him back to Hawaii in "a story full of Hawaiian culture and traditions."
Marco Hernandez at The King's English recommended The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin, $27). "Occasionally funny, often scathing, always informative, Dawkins does not mask his disdain for religion, the proponents of religion, agnostics . . . or the "Neville Chamberlains" of the scientific community," Hernandez said. "Dawkins' grave warnings about religion are particularly poignant in today's religiously saturated political scene."
On a related theme, Park Library's De Peterson said Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (Knopf, 16.95) is important for understanding our times. "We need to start having calm, rational discussions on the topics of religion, terror and rational thought. I hope people will give this book a chance. The message is real and important."
Before you max out your credit card with holiday shopping, Salt Lake City assistant director Chip Ward said, read Capitalism 3.0 by Peter Barnes (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $22.95). With no thought for the greater good, corporations destroy the environment and communities in their way, Barnes argues. Ward calls the book "a short, lucid and thought-provoking treatise."
Similarly, small-business advocate Betsy Burton identified with Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses by Stacy Mitchell (Beacon Press, $25.95). "For anyone who's interested in community and wants to protect and preserve it, Stacy Mitchell's new book is a must read. Rich in research, laden with quotable facts and reasoned argument, it's as eloquent as it is information packed, as compelling as it is eye-opening," Burton said.
Annie Eastmond at the Whitmore Library listened to Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Viking, $25.95) on CD. In this book about an American who decides to build schools in remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Eastmond found "hope and encouragement for how individuals really can make a difference in the world through their own small resources and connections, as long as they don't let their good intentions die before fruition."
Catherine Weller recommended Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, $26.95). "Sides, an editor for Outside Magazine, has brought his journalistic writing style to an important and colorful piece of American history: Kit Carson's role in the settling of the American West, particularly the roundup of the Navajo tribe and the forced march to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico," Weller said.
Ken Sanders at Ken Sanders Rare Books called Rivers of America, with photographs and text by Tim Palmer (Abrams, $40), a "sumptuous" 223-page coffee-table book with full-color photos of rivers in 10 regions of America. "Of course, it includes the Colorado and Green River drainages and their tributaries," Sanders noted.
Marissa Hagen at the Kearns Library called Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) "a thinking person's true-crime book." Jentz goes back to the Oregon spot where she and a friend were attacked decades earlier and tries to find the culprit. "This book really made me think about the nature of justice and why we hunger for tales of blood and gore (but it isn't a tale of blood and gore - not really)," Hagen said.
West Valley Library's Joni Kohagen called Thunderstruck by Erik Larson (Crown, $25.95) "a fascinating story of the race to invent the wireless telegraph and the recounting of a famous murder in Edwardian London - a riveting and interesting read."
Nathanial Philbrick tells the true story behind a national symbol in Mayflower (Viking, $29.95). Bonnie Bradford at the Sandy Library said she found it "an exhilarating read."
In Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country by Steve Hendricks (Thunder's Mouth Press, $27.95), "first-time author Hendricks picks up where Peter Matthiessen left off in In Search of Crazy Horse some 20 years ago," Ken Sanders said, with the story of "the aftermath of Wounded Knee, AIM, the FBI and all the other players that converged in the Badlands of South Dakota."
Sanders also recommended the biography of local spiritual icon France Davis: An American Story Told by France Davis and Nayra Atiya (University of Utah $24.95). Davis is pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City and, Sanders said, "one of our leading spiritual citizens."