Sometimes you come across a book that appeals to you on so many different levels that it’s hard to say goodbye when you finish it. “Dear Mr. Knightly” by Katherine Reay is one such book I’ve found.dear

From the book blurb I could tell it was about a book-loving girl who has her college paid for in exchange for letters to her anonymous benefactor. As such, I knew it must be a homage to “Daddy-Long-Legs” by Jean Webster which ranks as one of my10 all-time favorite books. But this book is so much more.

Samantha Moore has always lived more in the books she loves than in the real world. But as a survivor of the foster system, she feels that books have been the one thing that never let her down. Sam has a chance to attend Northwestern University’s journalism program, with her expenses completely covered, but in exchange she must write letters to the anonymous donor.

While Sam is hesitant, and at times almost throws the opportunity away, she soon finds herself in a strange new world that is not only uncomfortable but also frightening at times. She tends to close herself off from people using quotes from her beloved books to push them away instead of letting them see beneath her protective façade. But Sam finds that if she wants to have anyone in her life she must be willing to chance being hurt.

While attending college, Sam also meets one of her favorite novelists, the reclusive Alex Powell. She finds their paths crossing more than once and is quickly attracted not only to the writer but also the man behind the books. The question remains, though, if Sam is willing to open her heart if it means a chance of it being broken.

I fell in love with the character Sam from almost the first page. She has a passion for some of my favorite books, including anything by Jane Austen and “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas. Watching Sam and Alex trade book quotes back and forth was one of my most enjoyed parts. At times, I felt like it was a new version of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s courtship.

The author did a great job of bringing the foster system alive. The reader not only gets to see the challenges faced by youngsters in the foster system but also those who have been aged out of the system with few resources to enter adulthood successfully.

Each character in the book was richly developed and a great addition to a well-crafted plot. The highs and lows of the novel had me savoring each new page, and I even found myself arguing with Sam and her decisions, a sign that I was sunk deep into the book.

While the happy ending of the book may strike some as unrealistic, I found it a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes you just want a read that makes you cry because of how much it touches you and makes you happy at the end. I even found myself reading this book a few chapters at a time, to savor how much I was enjoying it and to delay the inevitable bittersweetness of reaching the end.

I was shocked to discover that this is Katherine Reay’s first novel. It was such a pleasure to read that I am eager to see what this author writes next. This book was a treat that I’m sure I will be pulling out to enjoy time and time again in the future, joining my ever-growing list of favorite reads.

liarsCadence Sinclair Eastman comes from a seemingly perfect, wealthy family. Hers is a family where appearances matter more than individual feelings or even the truth. Her grandfather, Harris Sinclair, is the patriarch of the beautiful Sinclair family, and he and his wife own a secluded, private island—Beechwood—off of Cape Cod. Each summer, Cadence’s family—her grandparents, her mother, her two aunts, and her cousins—vacation on Beechwood.

Since the age of eight, she, her cousins Mirren and Johnny, and their friend Gat have all been inseparable. She looks forward to seeing them all year and has affectionately dubbed them her “Liars”.

During summertime, the “Liars” hang out on the beach, play board games, discuss their futures and, once in awhile, thanks to Gat’s less-than-privileged-perspective, have an argument about what is important in the greater scheme of things. However, during the summer of her fifteenth year, Cadence has an accident that causes her to be unable to remember most of what transpired that summer.

Over the course of the next two years, during the time the book is set, her amnesia never abates, and she has frequent headaches and bouts of debilitating pain that cause her to consume prescription painkillers like they were candy. It is in this hazy fog that she spends the majority of her time trying to figure out what happened during summer fifteen.

While she missed her sixteenth summer on the island, due to her mother sending her off on a European trip with her father, she is adamant that she will not miss another. In her heart, she feels that if she is allowed to return to Beechwood, she will be able to piece together the mystery that surrounds her accident. So after much pleading, she finally gets her mother to agree to let her return to the island the summer of her seventeenth year.

This book broadsided me. I had no idea where Lockhart was headed and her decision to tell the story from Cadence’s viewpoint and alternate from past to present tense was brilliant. The conclusion was clever, raw, so real, and completely heartbreaking.

A review from Jenny Berggren, from School Library Journal, described the ending as “a stunner that will haunt readers for a long time to come” and that is exactly how I felt upon finishing the story. I finished it several months ago and I still find myself thinking about it at random times. It is one of those titles that you immediately want to start reading again just to see how you missed all the important clues during your first reading. If you are looking for a fast-pasted, character-driven story, add this one to your must read list.

True crime is not my favorite genre but how could a librarian pass up a book titled “Murder in the Stacks”? The complete title of this whodunit by David DeKok is Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away.

In the library world, stacks are the rows of shelving that hold a library’s books. In 1969 Penn State’s library had thousands of stacks, many in dark secluded spaces. It was a security nightmare for library administration. Graduate student, Betsy Aardsma, went into those dark secluded stacks Thanksgiving weekend and came out on a gurney. Her killer was never identified.

The author grew up in the same town as Aardsma — Holland, Michigan — and graduated from the same high school six years after Betsy. Fascinated by the unsolved murder, he wrote an investigative piece for the Harrisburg newspaper in 2008 — just before the 40th anniversary of the murder.

In his story, DeKok wrote about how he had amassed enough clues to implicate a killer. That suspect died before the book was published; people didn’t come forward while the suspect was alive. A cold-case officer told Aardsma that they had the killer, but state police never charged him.

However, this is more than the story of a crime. It is dual biographies of an innocent victim and a predator without a conscience. It is also a cultural history of an institution and of a turbulent time in the history of the country.

all of 1969 from the University of Michigan, ironically, to escape the Coed Killer who targeted brunette coeds at Michigan universities. Love was another draw to Pennsylvania. Boyfriend David Wright was enrolled at the medical school in Hershey.

After spending Thanksgiving in Hershey with David, Betsy returned to Penn State to work on an English paper. Several of her classmates were also venturing into the gloomy stacks of the library.  Not long after Betsy turned down an aisle looking for a book a thump was heard, followed by a crash and the sound of books hitting the floor.

Three people close to the area saw a man run from the aisle. He slowed long enough to tell them “someone had better help that girl”. Joao Uafinda thought the running man was going for help and followed him.  He soon lost him and went home.

Richard Allen saw what was happening and could provide a general description of the man but he did not offer assistance. Only Betsy’s classmate Marilee Erdely ventured into the aisle to check on the girl who needed help.

Marilee found Betsy lying motionless in a pile of books. Kneeling beside Betsy she began straightening Betsy’s hair and dress and putting books back on the shelf. Her cry for help was answered by library staff who began CPR and checked for a pulse. The assumption by them and the ambulance attendants who responded was fainting or a seizure.

The stab wound through Betsy’s chest into her heart was not discovered until after she had been pronounced dead.  Meanwhile the library staff returned the books to the shelf and had a janitor clean up the mess. Campus police had responded to the call for help but made no attempt to secure the scene or the library.

Chief of criminal investigation for the Pennsylvania State Police Rockview Barracks, Sergeant George Keibler, was recalled from vacation to take the case. He began a decade’s long search for a killer with virtually no evidence, no murder weapon, and no reliable witnesses.

The social unrest on campus, against the Vietnam War and the lack of diversity at the university, complicated an already challenging case.  Plus Penn State officials didn’t seem to care about finding the killer; they just wanted it out of the headlines.

The description of the investigation gives us a glimpse of how a criminal investigation was done fifty years ago. Betsy’s life and that of her named killer are detailed showing a stark contrast between an all-American girl and a man portrayed as a psychopathic pedophile.

This isn’t a lock your doors, sleep with your lights on true crime thriller. It is a detailed, thoughtful examination of an unsolved case. However, if only one or two citizens had come forward at any point, it may have been a case solved by Sergeant Keibler.

A movie is never as good as the book. This aphorism remains true with this movie/book combo. Released on Christmas Day, “Unbroken” was a good way to spend a couple of hours. However, there is no comparison to the book itself.

There is so much that does not come through in the movie. I was reading some of the comments about the movie on The Internet Movie Database, or http://www.imdb.com. One viewer said (and others agreed) that there was nothing particularly heroic about “not dying.”

The book makes clear that the lead character’s “unbrokenness” is not about not dying. It is about his spirit remaining unbroken and his will to live remaining intact despite incredible odds.

Louis Zamperini was a delinquent, incorrigible and without purpose. From the moment he could walk he was uncontrollable, smoking at five and drinking at eight. He stole. He vandalized. He had a short temper: punching girls, pushing teachers, being pursued by the police – all before high school!

Running away from home in 1932, he rode the rails, only succeeding in being chased by railroad detectives, being forced at gunpoint to jump off a moving train, and ending up “filthy, bruised, sunburned, and wet, sharing a stolen can of beans.”   He had an epiphany and headed home.

Once at home, he put all his energy that had been spent thieving into running (emulating an older brother), attending college on a track scholarship and winning a berth on the 1936 Olympic Track Team. Louis was on “track” to be the first person to break a four-minute mile. The 1940 Olympics were cancelled, and shortly thereafter Louis Zamperini was drafted and became a bombardier.

Sent on a rescue mission one May morning in 1943, his plane had mechanical trouble and had to ditch in the ocean with only three of 11 crew members surviving. For the next 46 days, the story of their survival is unthinkable – from being stalked by sharks to being strafed by Japanese war planes as they fought the elements, the thirst, the hunger and hopelessness.

After drifting all this time, they eventually “made land” on a Japanese-occupied island, thus becoming POWs. They endured humiliation and torture with bravery, ingenuity, rebellion and humor until, when they were almost dead, the war was declared over and they were freed. (Their treatment is a stark contrast to what Danya Walker’s book review described about POWs in Missouri a couple weeks ago.)

Freed in body only, Zamperini returned home and struggled to put together the pieces of his life, dealing with alcoholism and what is now understood as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The movie glosses over almost all of this struggle, giving only token lip service to the fact Zamperini became a Christian and returned to Japan, forgiving them for his treatment and freeing himself in the meantime.

“Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Lara Hillenbrand is definitely one to read. It reminded me of “Ghost Soldiers” by Hampton Sides and “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw. This generation of men will soon be with us no more. Reading their stories not only educates us about the past, but inspires us for the future.

Joplin Public Library has “Unbroken” in print, ebook and downloadable audio format. The DVD is on order. Prepare to be on a waiting list, but even with a wait, this story is worth it.

But the book is still better than the move.

Teen Fiction

Adam and his girlfriend Lizzie have pretty good seats to the concert that sets off a chain of events only the revolutionary Zealots could have predicted. Jimmy Earle, a rock star at the height of his career and popularity, has taken the drug Death. Jimmy has accomplished his elaborate and very public bucket list and is putting on one last concert before the best, drug-induced week of his life ends in his equally public death.

Because that’s what this new drug, Death, does. You take a little white pill, have the most fantastic week-long high, and then die. Very simple. Once the drug has bonded with your brain, there’s no going back. There’s no antidote. No cure for Death. Once you’ve taken it, you’re dead after seven days.

After Jimmy dies on stage in front of thousands of fans, the riots begin. The undercurrent of tension between the haves and the have-nots in Manchester suddenly boil to the surface. Adam and Lizzie get to watch it all unfold making Adam feel like he and Lizzie are bound together by this night. Nothing could be better.

Then Adam’s life begins to unravel. His parents get a mysterious letter from the Zealots telling them his brother, Jess, is dead. Lizzie seems disinterested and angry with him. Suddenly, Adam’s view on his life is much less positive. In a moment of self-loathing and despair, Adam decides to take Death.

Now he’s got a week left to do as much living as a teenage boy can. Like Jimmy Earle, he begins with an extraordinarily complicated and elaborate bucket list. To accomplish this list, his first task has to be to make up with Lizzie and spend his last days with her.

After he and Lizzie reconcile, they become enmeshed with a dangerous drug-dealer’s even more dangerous son. Lizzie gets kidnapped and Adam has to decide whether to use his remaining days to help her or to accomplish his bucket list.

Burgess has created a near future dystopian adventure in “The Hit.” The gap between rich and poor is so insurmountable that home-grown terrorist groups like the Zealots find strongholds with Manchester’s young people and, for some, taking Death seems like a viable option.

Adam and Lizzie deal with a lot of heavy issues in “The Hit.” Burgess does a good job of focusing on the issues his characters face without being too heavy-handed or preachy. The action scenes make you sit forward in your seat. The twists and turns the plot takes are realistic as are the characters.

Every characters’ flaws are exposed and explored to a degree that makes you wonder whether you really like these people. Ultimately, the selfishness and insecurities revealed by Adam are so uncomfortable because they are so true-to-life. Adam behaves exactly as a teenager would–he is at times self-absorbed, reckless, heroic, kind, a genius and a complete idiot.

The premise of “The Hit” is intriguing–what kind of mental process would you go through if you knew in 7 days you were going to die? Especially if the world is about to change and you realize you won’t be around to see or help the change happen. Would the self-loathing and hopelessness you felt when you first took the pill last through your 7 days or would you find a reason to regret that choice?

With sexual content, drug use, and mature themes, this is a good choice for mature teens and adults who like near-future dystopians and flawed characters wrestling with Life’s big questions.

“Die Again” is the eleventh installment in the excellent Rizzoli and Isles popular crime/thriller series by Tess Gerritsen, featuring medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles and Boston police Detective Jane Rizzoli. It has been approximately two years since the previous novel in the series, “Last to Die,” was published, so I have been eagerly awaiting this latest installment.

A postman spots a dog in the window of a house with a human finger in his mouth and calls 911. Maura and Jane are summoned to a grisly crime scene where they discover the victim, famous hunter and taxidermist Leon Gott. The man is unrecognizable in his present condition.

Gott had been gutted and mauled and was hanging from his feet in his house among the animal trophy heads that lined his walls. Jane and Maura determined that the man had been dead for several days. Gott had been commissioned to stuff a local zoo’s rare snow leopard that had to be euthanized. Gott was preserving the pelt of the snow leopard, but that valuable pelt is missing.

Rizzoli and Isles learn that local shock jock Jerry O’Brien, who frequently brags about his hunting trips to Africa, had contacted the zoo when he heard the snow leopard was going to be euthanized. He offered a huge sum of money for the pelt on the condition the transaction is kept quiet.

The case gets even stranger when at the same zoo, a worker is killed by another big cat. Then another victim is discovered with similar parallels to the first case. Can the deaths be connected? Is there a serial killer on the loose?

The novel alternates between the present investigation in Boston and a past seven-day safari in Botswana, Africa. Six years ago eight persons met to go on the safari. Thriller writer Richard persuaded his girlfriend, Millie, to accompany him on the safari. Millie had no idea what she was in for when she agreed to go on the trip. She only went to please Richard in hopes of rekindling the romance they once had.

Millie was not enjoying the experience at all. Just a couple of days into the trip, things started to go horribly wrong. When their vehicle broke down the group became stranded in the bush with no means of communication with the outside world.

Millie begins to wonder if they will even survive as members of the safari start vanishing. Is it wild animals, or is a human behind the disappearances?

Meanwhile, back in Boston Jane and Maura are beginning to believe the murders in Boston are linked somehow to the disappearances in Africa. There’s a killer out there, and one of them must travel to Africa to uncover the truth.

I enjoy the way the novel alternates between Boston and Africa, with Millie narrating the chapters set in Africa. Gerritsen’s descriptions of Africa, the natural beauty together with the dangerous elements, are superb.

The crime thriller has a brilliant storyline with its intricate and compelling plot twists. Gerritsen’s character development is always great, and this novel is no exception. If you are a fan of the series, you already know Jane and Maura and their fantastic interaction. Millie and Johnny, the safari guide, are powerful characters as well in this novel.

Tess Gerritsen’s novel was definitely worth the wait; it’s her best, in my opinion. Despite being part of a series, “Die Again” can be read as a stand-a-lone. This novel is available in regular print and MP3 sound recording at the Joplin Public Library.

I’m a movie and tv buff from way back, so I was intrigued by the new documentary recently added to our collection, “Casting By.” It is a history of casting for film and television going back more than fifty years, focusing on the amazing career of Marion Dougherty in particular. There is some coverage of other casting directors, particularly Lynn Stalmaster. If you’ve watched much television from the 60’s through the 80’s, you’ve seen his name numerous times. He also did the casting on lots of movies in the 60’s and 70’s. Juliet Taylor, who has been casting Woody Allen’s films since the mid-70’s, was a protégé of Dougherty and appears in the film as well.

Most people have very little idea of what casting directors actually do. In the early days when the movie studios had hundreds of actors under contract and the “star system” was in place, it was generally a matter of seeing which wholesome ingénue or dastardly villain-type on the roster was available to slot into a production. Things changed when television began big-time in New York in the 50’s. There were no actors under contract to most of the television studios in New York, so they needed a new way to find actors. Marion Dougherty was one of the pioneers in the art of casting, interviewing actors and going to plays (on and off and off-off Broadway) in search of talent. She gave many an actor, including James Dean, Christopher Walken, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, and Jeff Bridges among many others their first jobs in television as well as first movie roles for Glenn Close and Danny Glover among many. Of course, the television or film director always has the last say on casting, but often leaves the casting director in charge of lesser roles entirely, so a great many actors owe their starts almost entirely to Dougherty and a lot of them appear in the documentary relating anecdotes about their early casting experiences with, primarily, Dougherty.

Dougherty was renowned for her tenacity in casting. If she thought someone was really right (or wrong) for a part, she could be a real bulldog. When “Midnight Cowboy” was being cast, she sent Jon Voight in, but he was rejected. The director and several others has Michael Sarrazin in mind for the role, but Dougherty kept lobbying for Voight. Fortunately for movie fans, she got her way.

When Richard Donner was casting “Lethal Weapon”, Dougherty suggested Danny Glover. The result was a big break for Glover and a life-changing moment for Donner. Donner replied to Dougherty when she suggested Glover, “But he’s black.” Since the script did not specify a race, he had assumed “white.” The realization of his own inherent racial assumptions had a profound effect on Donner, and possibly helped other directors become more amenable to “color-blind” casting.

Sadly, not everyone is forward-thinking or willing to share the credit along with the work. Taylor Hackford appears in the film and does himself no favors. Casting directors still get less respect than many others in the business, and Hackford is a leader among the disparagers. He is apparently among the movers-and-shakers who prevent film credits from reading “Casting Director” (hence “casting by”) because he feels the film’s director is the be-all and end-all of the film. “There’s only one director.” I would think most filmgoer’s are smart enough to figure out the difference between the movie’s Director and people like “Director of Photography” or “Casting Director.” Apparently, Mr. Hackford does not.

It is also sad to note that, among the major contributors to a film, there is no Academy Award for casting. A few of the people (like Hackford) in the film would point out that the Director has final call on casting. However, as others point out, the Director also has last say on costumes, sets, cinematography, and everything else but the people in charge of those things (and lots of others) get Oscars.

A fascinating look at the other side of the camera, with the quibble that the DVD does not have closed-captioning, which is almost universal these days. By the way, we have over 500 other documentaries for your viewing pleasure, so feel free to come check some out.

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