This week, we highlight new books from Kurt Vonnegut, Melissa Weller, and Jane Haddam.
The late Huff (Mississippi Quilts), a quilt expert, and King, a museum curator (who completed the book after Huff’s death in 2019), deliver a beautifully illustrated and lovingly written history of Alabama quilts. As Steve Murray, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, writes in his introduction, the book examines both “styles and fabrics” and “change and continuity in the culture of a Deep South state.” The coauthors start with the first known Alabama quilt, brought into the state (long before statehood) from New England, and end in 1950, when quilting fell out of fashion because it reminded folks of “making do” during the Depression. In between, they highlight creations from different communities, including a colorful Chariot Wheel of red and blue checks against a green cotton background contributed by a Native American, and an examples of the Pig Pen design popular with African American quilters, in which “rows of horizontal and vertical bars” surround a central block “of four or six patches in alternating light and dark values.” They also illuminate historical context, as with Civil War–era gunboat quilts (made during a fund-raising drive to build the Confederate fleet) and WWII-era feed-sack quilts (an adaptation to wartime rationing). History and craft buffs will be enthralled with this superb overview.
Kurt Vonnegut toiled in obscurity before 1969’s Slaughterhouse-Five made him a household name, but the artist he would become is already present in this revelatory collection of letters to his first wife, Jane Cox, from 1941 through the end of WWII. Edith Vonnegut, their daughter, discovered the letters, presented here as facsimiles, in her childhood home’s attic. In them, her father writes vividly of love (“I saw the Northern Lights for the first time tonight. It was pretty much like kissing you, and just as rare”), the army (“My new job is to cover my face and hands with soot and crawl into enemy lines to see what in hell they’ve got”), existential despair (“This is a destitute, hating, bleeding world”), and worries about a nuclear future (“Ten years from now, how many men will know how to turn Earth into a blazing lesser Sun?”). Near the collection’s end, Kurt writes Jane that “you scare me when you say that I would have been Shakespeare had I lived then... Angel, will you stick by me if it goes backwards and downwards?”—a poignant question given that he was the one who left their marriage in 1971. Literary buffs will relish this fascinating, intimate glimpse of a renowned writer’s formative years.
A Good Bake: The Art and Science of Making Perfect Pastries, Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and Breads at Home: A Cookbook
Weller, a chemical engineer-cum-baker who worked at Babbo and Per Se before opening Sadelle’s in New York City, takes a scientific approach in this tight collection of intriguing recipes. A clever format separates tips and instructions with various font colors in running subheads along the left margin, making recipes exceptionally accessible. Instructions are professional—ingredients are measured in both volume and weight—and bullet-pointed. Numerous master class and tutorial sections transform this from a cookbook with excellent recipes into a series of baking lessons. Weller underlies each decision with logic: strawberry jam and hazelnut rugelach are rectangular rather than triangular because they bake more evenly, and a pâte brisée contains less water than the standard version to stem shrinkage. Each chapter includes recipes both traditional and experimental: one on cakes offers yellow layer cake with chocolate buttercream, as well as an artful stack of orange-scented crepes interspersed with green tea pastry cream. Weller takes every opportunity to fine-tune the process for even the most familiar options: chocolate chip cookies, for instance, incorporate confectioners’ sugar along with granulated and brown sugar for improved texture. This will thrill home bakers who want to bake like the pros
The excellent 30th and final series whodunit from Edgar winner Haddam (1951–2019) featuring the brilliant but all too human Gregor Demarkian, who frequently consults for the Philadelphia PD, finds him still dealing with the fallout from 2014’s Fighting Chance, in which he was shot by someone he trusted. Senator John Jackman and Police Commissioner Bill Jefferson ask Demarkian to help investigate an attempted murder. Someone bludgeoned an elderly woman into unconsciousness and placed her in a garbage bag, which accidentally fell out of the back of a van onto a Philly street, an incident witnessed by Demarkian’s close friend, Fr. Tibor Kasparian. Jackman and Jefferson suspect the assault may be connected to Cary Alder, an unscrupulous real estate magnate believed to have bribed “the mayor and half the building inspectors in the city,” because the woman had a gold coin in her possession that’s accepted as legal tender in some of Alder’s properties. As always, Haddam cleverly integrates political issues such as illegal immigration and affordable housing into an intricate and gripping plot. This is a fitting coda to the career of one of America’s best contemporary fair play authors.
Eriksson’s exceptional eighth ensemble police procedural to be published in the U.S. (after 2016’s Stone Coffin) spotlights Ann Lindell, who has quit the Violent Crimes Unit in Uppsala, Sweden, and started a new career as a cheese maker in the village of Rasbo. Then an unknown man calls Lindell’s former office and insists on speaking with her. He says she’s “the only one who listens,” adding, “someone may die.” Before a former colleague can pass on the message to Lindell, a woman dies in a fire that burns down an old school in Rasbo being used to house political and war refugees. Though the investigators don’t find conclusive proof, the consensus is that it was arson. Lindell is drawn to the case, even as she’s the target of an unknown enemy, who leaves a dead badger in her bed, its belly slit open. When she finally listens to a tape of the caller, the voice sounds familiar. Eriksson adeptly teases whether there’s a connection between the call and the fire, even as violence claims more lives. This artful blend of mystery and psychology is sure to please Scandinavian noir fans.
Turano (Diamond in the Rough) opens her Gilded Age–era Bleecker Street Inquiry Agency series with this lavishly imagined tale set in the upper-class homes of New York City. No one is who they seem in this upstairs-downstairs story featuring Gabriella, an outspoken seamstress in her early 20s who moves into a Bleecker Street boardinghouse after aging out of the orphanage where she was living. After fellow boardinghouse resident Jennette Moore is wrongfully accused of stealing jewels from the Linwood family estate, Gabriella teams up with the other young ladies of the residence to catch the real thief. Their plans, though, go outrageously, hilariously awry, as when, among other bungles, Gabriella ruins the Fairy Tale ball with her clumsy eavesdropping and pick-pocketing. During her sleuthing, Gabriella runs into an old friend from the streets, Nicholas Quinn, who is now a member of the city’s elite and a sought-after bachelor. Old friendships are rediscovered and secrets from the past revealed, leading Gabriella and Nicholas to rediscover their faith and recognize the defenses each had built around their own heart. Readers will laugh out loud at the witty dialogue and cheer when justice gets smartly served. This is Turano’s best yet.
The late Beaton’s superb 31st outing for Agatha Raisin (after 2019’s Beating About the Bush) finds the witty and irascible Agatha, who runs a private detective agency in the Cotswold village of Carsely, fuming about the upcoming nuptials of her friend and former lover, Sir Charles Fraith, to his “vile fiancée,” Mary Brown-Field. No stranger to gate-crashing, Agatha shows up at an extravagant postwedding masked ball held at Charles’s grand house, where a shoving match takes place between Agatha and the new lady of the manor. When Mary is later found dead in the estate’s stables, both Agatha and Charles come under scrutiny by the police. Agatha’s investigations take her into the competitive world of horse show-jumping, as well as on a couple of edifying trips to a château in Bordeaux. This lively entertainment includes an elegantly amusing introduction by Beaton (1936–2019), outlining her road to becoming a writer, as well as an affectionate foreword by longtime friend and journalist Green, who collaborated on this book. Beaton’s fans will sorely miss her.
Yoon’s (Frankly in Love) endearingly winning coming-of-age novel begins when 17-year-old self-described nerd Sunny Dae, who is Korean American, meets the girl of his dreams: Korean American Cirrus Soh, the well-traveled daughter of commercial real estate developers. After her family moves to Rancho Ruby, a “99.6 percent” white community in Southern California, tongue-tied Sunny doesn’t correct Cirrus when she mistakes his older brother Gray’s room for his, leading Cirrus to believe that Sunny is a budding rock star. Desperate to impress and avoid being caught in the lie, Sunny recruits his best friends to join his fake band, the Immortals. Together, they learn to play instruments and work on perfecting one of Gray’s unperformed songs. But when Gray moves back home, and the bully who has tormented Sunny for years figures out the scheme, Sunny’s plans may all come tumbling down. Through Sunny, who feels conflicted about his parents’ obsession with money and his older brother’s choices to abandon music for a more stable career, Yoon challenges stereotypes and tackles the age-old theme of being true to oneself, whether that self is a rock star or a nerd.