Book reviews |

Book reviews

“Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West” by Ethan Rarick. In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year’s westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is well known: By spring of the next year, the Donner party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. Drawing on fresh archaeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and its unimaginable ordeal.

“Duma Key” by Stephen King. In bestseller King’s well-crafted tale of possession and redemption, Edgar Freemantle, a successful Minnesota contractor, barely survives after the Dodge Ram he’s driving collides with a 12-story crane on a job site. While Freemantle suffers the loss of an arm and a fractured skull, among other serious injuries, he makes impressive gains in rehabilitation. Personality changes that include uncontrollable rages, however, hasten the end of his 20-year-plus marriage. On his psychiatrist’s advice, Freemantle decides to start anew on a remote island in the Florida Keys. To his astonishment, he becomes consumed with making art – first pencil sketches, then paintings – that soon earns him a devoted following. Freemantle’s artwork has the power both to destroy life and to cure ailments, but soon the menace that haunts Duma Key begins to assert itself and torment those dear to him.

“Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring” by Richard Preston. The book revolves around botanist Steve Sillett, an exceptional athlete with a tormented soul who found his calling while making a borderline suicidal “free” climb to the top of an enormous redwood in 1987, where he discovered a world of startling complexity and richness. More than 30 stories above the ground, he found himself surrounded by a latticework of fused branches, hung with gardens of ferns and trees that bore no relation to their host. In this Tolkienesque realm of sky and wind, lichens abound while voles and salamanders live and breed without awareness of the earth below. At almost the exact moment that Sillett was having his epiphany in the redwood canopy, Michael Taylor, the unfocused son of a wealthy real estate developer, had a revelation in another redwood forest 200 miles to the south. Taylor, who had a paralyzing fear of heights, decided to go in search of the world’s tallest tree. Their obsessive quests led these young men into a potent friendship and the discovery of some of the most extraordinary creatures that have ever lived.

“Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult. Popular and prolific Picoult (“My Sister’s Keeper” and “The Tenth Circle,” 2006) now tackles the troubling topic of a school shooting. Picoult considers the tragedy – in 19 quick minutes, 10 are dead and 19 are wounded – from several different perspectives, including that of the shooter, a troubled boy named Peter who was mercilessly picked on at school. The small town of Sterling is rocked by the carnage. Two characters from previous Picoult novels are also involved. Every bit as gripping and moving as Picoult’s previous novels, “Nineteen Minutes” will no doubt garner considerable attention for its controversial subject and twist ending.

“Angelica” by Arthur Phillips. From the best-selling author of “The Egyptologist” comes a spellbinding Victorian ghost story that is an intriguing literary and psychological puzzle and a meditation on marriage, childhood, memory and fear. Set at the dawn of psychoanalysis and the peak of spiritualism’s acceptance, “Angelica” is also an evocative historical novel that explores the timeless human hunger for certainty.


Compiled by owner Stacey Colin at Harmony Books, 231 Broad St. Nevada City, 265-9564. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

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