Archives for category: Book Reviews

bestdayWhile I was reading BEST DAY EVER by KAIRA ROUDA, I made a Facebook post that said “Only 50 pages in and I want to strangle the narrator.” A friend advised that I was “allowed to put it down” and I realized I couldn’t. Just like when I tackled Flynn’s GONE GIRL, I knew I was going to have to finish this book. I needed to know what happens to the characters. I needed to know that Paul Strom was going to be punished for being truly awful.

Everything about Paul is perfect. He has the perfect life: a high-powered job, a beautiful stay-at-home wife, Mia, and two young sons. And he has planned the perfect weekend getaway with Mia at their second home in an exclusive gated community. He even assembled the perfect playlist as the soundtrack the their weekend. (Paul is prone to repetition; maybe it affected me a little.) But if everything is so wonderful, then why does Mia seem so unhappy? Why are Paul’s thoughts so dark? What are they both hiding?

As the day’s events intensify, Mia seems to know more about Paul’s darker half than he realizes. She asks questions about his work life that make him incredibly nervous. Of course, he thinks he’s too smart to be found out. She’s just a silly housewife, no threat to him whatsoever. But Paul’s overconfidence may end up being his downfall.

Written primarily from Paul’s perspective, this book is very character-driven. He is an intense, brooding, and flawed person. In many ways, he reminded me of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Is Paul a psychopath or just creepy and controlling? Or both? Or is he just an exaggerated character who is created to tell a story?

I think that Paul, while perhaps a bit embellished, is a very realistic character. He’s overly concerned with status and brand (he mentions a least a dozen times that he drives a Ford Flex). Maintaining a picture-perfect life is what he strives for. And maybe that’s what felt over the top about him. If he’s a psychopath, would he care about creating an illusion? Or would he just try not to get discovered? Regardless of these nitpicks, the story is both disturbing and compelling.

Even though I was angry at the narrator, I think that’s the mark of a successful book. Rouda managed to evoke incredibly strong emotions from me. I was filled with disgust for Paul. I rooted for Mia to confront her controlling husband. I wanted answers to all the questions brought up by Paul’s unsettling internal monologue. For the most part, I got those answers. But can you really trust the answers of someone as suspicious as Paul?

Sometimes, it’s fun to explore the scary things in the world. I think I prefer the more impossible side of scary, though. Give me vampires, werewolves, and Ancient Ones any day. Knowing that there are really people like Paul out there made Rouda’s book more unsettling for me. But, if you don’t mind getting inside the head of someone who is, frankly, unlikeable and unreliable, then BEST DAY EVER might be for you.

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Gizelle's Bucket ListPerhaps it was too soon, I told myself as I picked up the book from the new non-fiction shelf here at the Joplin Public Library.

A little more than a month earlier, we’d had to put the family Collie, our beloved Molly, to sleep at the estimated age of 12. The house still felt quieter without her sweet presence, and my dog, Buster, seemed to miss her. But the book seemed like it would be a fast read, and the cute photographs were enticing. Determined to be strong, I grabbed it and headed to the library’s self-checkout machines.

“Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog” was a mixed experience for me. I found myself smiling at the familiarity and ugly crying by the time I reached the final page.

From the moment 19-year-old Lauren Watt and her mother meet the female brindle English mastiff puppy, it’s love.

“The puppy felt so right in my lap,” Watt writes. “I looked down at her and couldn’t believe this was real. Years later, I’d recognize this look as the way a few of my friends gazed at their shiny engagement rings, like they are about to start their lives, like their adventures were about to begin. … I felt as though I’d fallen under a spell, enchanted.”

(I felt a similar emotion when I first saw a picture of my current dog. I’d spent nine long months grieving the loss of my first dog, but the moment I saw a picture of Buster, I just knew he was the one. It was time to move on.)

A handful of cash and one check later, Watt and her mother head home, having named the puppy Gizelle, after the innocent princess in the movie “Enchanted.”

Gizelle fit right into the family pack, and she started to grow. And grow. Watt grows up with her, eventually graduating from college and heading to New York City, giant dog in tow. Somehow, she finds an apartment big enough for herself, her canine companion and a human roommate.

Life in the Big Apple is an adventure for Watt and her giant dog. Daily walks turn into encounters with colorful strangers, thanks to Gizelle’s attention-getting presence. The duo go for night-time runs in Central Park, Watt feeling totally safe in the dark with her dog by her side. Gizelle shows off superstar moves in a costume contest at a dog park.

When Gizelle develops a mysterious limp at the age of six, Watt begins to face the fact that her best friend won’t be around forever. The limp eventually leads to a devastating diagnosis: Gizelle has bone cancer. Watt is heartbroken: “Never, ever could I have imagined this news would hurt so badly, that it would take my breath away, that finding out would feel like I could not ever go on. I sat down, and I sobbed.”

Always a list maker, she resolves to write down things she wanted to do with Gizelle, as well as things Gizelle loved to do. She creates Gizelle’s Bucket List.

The pair take road trips. They eat the best lobster rolls and doughnuts. They enjoy ice cream while sitting on a wooden boat dock. They visit the beach. They ride in a canoe. They play in piles of autumn’s colorful leaves.

All too soon, Watt resolves that it’s time to say goodbye and make that final vet visit. The last pages of “Gizelle’s Bucket List” are difficult to read, especially if you’ve ever lost a pet. Watt doesn’t shy away from the realities of putting her dog to sleep.

Ultimately, “Gizelle’s Bucket List” is about learning to live in the moment and love as unconditionally as a dog does, lessons we all could benefit from. Take a journey with Lauren Watt and Gizelle; you won’t regret it.

 

With the opening of the new building it was a busy summer. I did however manage to find time to read some fun, relaxing cozies.

Cozies or cozy mysteries are crime fiction with amateur detectives. Usually they are set in small towns, involve a dastardly deed, contain a bit of humor, maybe a little romance, very little violence and have a satisfying ending. In my experience with the genre the ones in series also feature an interesting cast of characters.

Gone Gull   Donna Andrews pens the bird themed Meg Langslow series. This is a long running series and #21, Gone Gull, just came out. Artist Meg and her extended family are spending the summer teaching at her grandmother’s new craft center on Biscuit Mountain.

When random acts of vandalism turn deadly Meg has plenty of suspects. There is the rival art academy, a developer with designs on Biscuit Mountain, and seekers (including her grandfather) of a rare gull. If you are new to cozy mysteries, this amusing series is a good place to start reading.

The titles in the Dixie Hemingway series by Blaize Clement also have an animal theme. Dixie is a pet sitter in Siesta Key, a barrier island off the west coast of Florida. She starts her days early taking care of cats, dogs, birds, fish and other assorted pets.

Dixie’s first career was as a deputy in the Sarasota County Sheriff’s office. The tragic death of her husband and daughter ended that career. In an attempt to ease her grief and depression her brother volunteered her services as a pet sitter and Dixie found a new vocation.

cat sitterThe first in this 11 book series is Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter. Early one morning Dixie arrives to feed and groom Ghost, an Abyssinian cat, only to find a man seemingly drowned in the cat’s water dish. Lieutenant Guidry is handling the murder case but Dixie starts snooping when her client doesn’t return and can’t be reached. Dixie goes from snooping to investigating when she becomes Guidry’s prime suspect.

This book sets the tone for the series, somewhat darker than most cozy mysteries but still with touches of humor. Dixie is a complex but likeable character and the pets have personality. As the series progresses you may notice some subtle changes as authorship changed. Blaize Clement passed away in 2011 which is when #7 was published and her son John took over the series. Despite some differences the quality of the series was not affected.

The latest book, The Cat Sitter and the Canary, came out in 2015. In this one murder becomes personal when a note left on the victim indicates Dixie is next. This book had a surprise ending so I hope it’s not the last in the series.

skating     Joelle Charbonneau’s cozy series is centered on a skating rink. Rebecca Robbins grew up at the rink owned by her mother but escaped small town life to become a mortgage broker in Chicago. In the series debut, Skating Around the Law, the death of her mother makes Rebecca the new owner. Her return to Indian Falls to manage the business is only temporary. As soon as the rink sells, it’s back to the big city.

Selling suddenly becomes complicated when the local handyman is found dead in the ladies locker room. His head in the toilet, Mack Murphy has apparently drowned. The death is ruled a homicide but the sheriff is more interested in gardens than crime. Rebecca becomes determined to find the killer before her plan for the rink is as dead as Mack.

Rebecca is the central figure in this series but she is surrounded by a delightful cast of characters. There is her grandfather or “Pops” who helped raise her and is now the Romeo of the geriatric set. Lionel Franklin, the local vet, is very easy on the eyes and a distraction to Rebecca’s plans to sell and get back to Chicago. In addition there is George who teaches skating, Deputy Sean Holmes who finds her snooping to be very annoying and Elwood. Elwood is a hat-wearing retired circus camel with as much personality as he has hats and he has a hat for every occasion.

So far there are only 4 titles in the Rebecca Robbins’ mysteries and all are entertaining light reading. They are a good read-alike for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels. If you are a Plum fan, you might enjoy these while you’re waiting for Stephanie’s next adventure to publish (mid-November 2017).

As someone with a subterranean-level threshold of all things scary or grotesque (the sharks in Finding Nemo are about my limit), I still can’t believe I read To Stay Alive by Skila Brown.  This book is billed as historical fiction written for teens.  However, it is a compelling rendering of a real-life American horror story—the plight of the Donner Party.

The story of the Donner Party is one of harrowing survival and a fixture of American history.  This group of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, consisted of multiple families and individuals traveling west to California from Missouri in the spring of 1846.  Delayed by multiple mishaps and unfortunate decisions (including an ill-conceived “shortcut”), they found themselves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in mid-October, low on supplies and weakened by previous efforts crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert.  The group, ill-prepared for surviving winter, was forced to hastily make camp when snow blocked the mountain pass.  Exposure, starvation, and illness heightened the nightmare.  A small detachment of the group set out in December 1846 attempting to cross the mountain and send back help; its remnants made it to safety on January 17, 1847.  The first rescue party made to the pioneers’ camp on February 18; the final person out of the camp made it to safety on April 29.  Only 48 of the approximately 90 members of the original group survived. Fewer than 100 miles from their target, many of them had to resort to cannibalism to live.

The Donner Party’s experience has fascinated and horrified audiences for over a century.  Skila Brown’s book To Stay Alive is an intriguing departure from past efforts to explore the topic.  It’s a novel in free-verse form, consisting of over 200 short poems, told from the point-of-view of 19-year-old Mary Ann Graves who made the trek.  Real-life pioneers, Mary Ann along with her parents and eight siblings left Illinois in April 1846; their hideous journey ended nearly a year later.  The poems describing Mary Ann’s experience blend narrative with inner reflection, their forms advancing the story while mirroring her emotions.  The book is divided into the four seasons of the journey, the final chapter jumping ahead to four months after Mary Ann’s life-changing hike over the mountain.

Brown’s verse doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the subject matter.  She wields it like a camera, panning exterior and interior landscapes.  In places, it reads smoothly like the easy part of Mary Ann’s journey—text is almost like prose, and the character’s thoughts are fluid, sequential.  Further in, the economy of verse reflects the hardships faced by Mary Ann; here, words are spaced out to reflect the wide expanse of country or peppered with pauses the length of a hard swallow while crossing the desert or tumbled about the page mimicking the bump wagon ride.  Brown’s sparse poetry conjures up the horrors experienced by the Donner Party without resorting to sensationalism.  Reading the poems depicting Mary Ann suffering from starvation and exposure, the desperation is vivid and the terrible solution becomes apparent.  It begs the question, “What would you do to survive?”

As the author notes, “Historical fiction requires a careful balance of real and embellished, a base of facts with a sprinkling of supposition and imagination”. Skila Brown has done her research.  Her details are spot on whether describing the pioneer experience in general or situations specific to the Graves family.  In addition to the story, the author offers some helpful resources.  An epilogue adds a postscript of Mary Ann’s life.  An author’s note summarizes the events befalling the Donner Party, analyzes the literal and metaphorical wrong turns they took, and offers multiple perspectives on the consequences of manifest destiny.  Here, the author relates what drew her to this story and why she believes it relevant over 100 years later.  An easy-to-read map shows the group’s path compared to the routes traditionally taken by pioneers.  The author also provides a photograph of Mary Ann Graves and a list of the entire Donner Party, noting deaths and survivors.

While a departure from the usual fare of historical fiction, To Stay Alive has a great deal to offer.  It doesn’t give up its gifts easily though.  The topic is difficult—it’s not for everyone.  And, although this one is much more accessible than most, novels in verse may require more effort from readers than narrative prose.  Move past these challenges, and the rewards are apparent—powerful messages of perseverance in the face of overwhelming circumstances, survival amidst suffering, heart-breaking sacrifice.  To Stay Alive is a great choice for mature secondary students and lends itself more to discussion than pleasure reading.  Beyond that, give this one to teens who are hardcore fans of historical fiction, have the patience to follow a narrative in free-form verse, and can handle the subject matter.

matchup  More than 3800 suspense writers are part of an organization known as International Thrill Writers. They don’t pay dues but support the organization by publishing an anthology every few years. In 2014 the Faceoff anthology pitted popular characters from some of the most read male writers against each other.

The sequel published in June, MatchUp, pairs male and female writers together. The Booklist description says “Think Dancing with the Stars, but with mysteries.” The task for each pair of writers was to create a suspenseful short story starring their well-known characters.

Lee Child was the editor and also gives an introduction for each story. This information on the authors/characters and insight into the writing process is an interesting addition to an entertaining collection.

I am not familiar with all the characters depicted but for the most part that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the stories.  I saw the movie but have not read the Rambo series by David Morrell.  I was also unfamiliar with Gayle Lynds’ character Liz Sansborough but I thought their collaboration, “Rambo on Their Minds”, one of the best in the book.

“Midnight Flame” by Lara Adrian and Christopher Rice not only had characters I was unfamiliar with but also a genre I don’t usually read, the paranormal. The authors did an excellent job of taking two characters, Lucan Thorne and Lilliane, from different time periods and creating an entertaining tale. I probably won’t delve any further into the world of vampires and Radiants but I enjoyed this foray.

Child’s partner in prose was Kathy Reich with his character, Jack Reacher, coming to the rescue of Temperance Brennan. Brennan is charged with murdering a reporter who was going to expose her as inept or corrupt in her examination of the death of Army Colonel Calder Massee. As soon as he hears the news report Reacher knows she is being framed and heads her way to help.

In “Deserves to Be Dead” John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers is (to no one’s surprise) on a fishing trip when he becomes involved in a murder. Lisa Jackson’s Regan Pescoli is the investigating officer. In the intro Child’s identifies Sandford as the main author but surprisingly Regan Pescoli is the driving force for this dark tale.

Karin Slaughter and Michael Koryta teamed up for the longest and in my opinion the best tale in the anthology called “Short Story”. The two authors take their characters back in time to younger days hinted about in the series.

Slaughter’s Jeffrey Tolliver has just received his shield and is in the north Georgia mountains for a romantic getaway. He is stood up but that doesn’t mean he goes without female company. His companion for the night tries to steal his car and winds up dead. Tolliver, who had given chase wearing his t-shirt, Auburn underwear and one shoe, is arrested.

At the same time Koryta’s Joe Pritchard and Lincoln Perry are sent to the same place to find a Detroit drug dealer who is in Georgia to meet his supplier. It doesn’t take long for Joe and Lincoln to get involved and determine Tolliver’s innocence. The three team-up to find the killer and the drug dealer during an all-time record snowstorm.

There are 11 total entries with something for everyone in this engaging collection of short stories. You may even find some characters and authors to add to your reading list. The library has both regular and large print editions of it as well as the eaudiobook for download.

“Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car…Maybe, I could do the same thing with my music.  Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown…and come out another door, a star.”          –Berry Gordy, Jr., Motown founder

After seeing this quote from Berry Gordy, Jr., I couldn’t resist the chance to read Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound.  It’s a nice introduction to the story behind one of America’s iconic record labels and an interesting contribution to non-fiction written for teens.

Rhythm Ride provides an overview of Berry Gordy, Jr.’s career from his roots in an entrepreneurial family in Detroit through the height of Motown’s success to his relocation to the West Coast and the sale of the company.  The book digs into the history of Motown Records beginning with Gordy’s desire to bring African American music to the forefront of American culture.  The author explores Gordy’s influences and how he, in turn, influenced a wide variety of artists.  She details the early years of Motown with its nurturing, family atmosphere when a teenager could literally answer the phones then turn right around to become one of its hit-makers. (Martha Reeves!)

While she takes her readers behind the scenes at Motown, Angela Davis Pinkney doesn’t delve into gossip.  Instead, she summarizes prevailing opinions just enough to show how public opinion and employee perceptions led to artists departing the record company.  Despite her generally positive approach to Gordy, she isn’t afraid to point out when his judgment or actions weren’t in Motown’s best interest.  She also puts the label’s story into context by relating it to events of the time such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.  Rhythm Ride lures readers with the 1960s vibe of its cover and offers a variety of vintage, black and white photographs inside its pages.  An informative timeline and discography round out its resources.

For the most part, Rhythm Ride is written as an accessible introduction to a pivotal time in America’s cultural history.  The author, however, adds an unexpected layer to her researched text.  The first chapter introduces an imaginary narrator named The Groove who proceeds to address the reader throughout the book, acting as a transition between chapters and offering commentary on historical events, on the premise that it and the reader are on a road trip together through music history.  The effect can be disconcerting as the book vacillates between approaches, and it could make or break the book for some readers.  Those who enjoy this extra voice will enjoy the whole package.  Those who are able to look past this technique will find an interesting, readable book.

Whether you appreciate the author’s approach or not, Rhythm Ride offers a solid history of Motown Records as well as a glimpse into a pivotal time in American history.  Offer this title to teens who are deeply interested in pop music history or the 1960s and ‘70s.  Or, read it yourself while enjoying the Motown sound.  It’s a great excuse to enjoy some amazing music!

index.aspxWorking at the reference desk I often learn about books by readers asking for help – either in locating the desired title or finding the next title in a series. Some titles peak my interest but with so many good books to read I lose track of the title/author.

Such was the case with Jill Eileen Smith’s historical fiction books on women of the Bible. Fortunately, I spotted the latest on the New Fiction shelves reminding me of my interest.

Redeeming Grace: Ruth’s Story is actually the third in the Daughters of the Promised Land series. However, the series is a theme not a continuation so you can read out of order and not feel as though you are missing anything. If you are a stickler for order, the library has the first two in the series “The Crimson Cord: Rehab’s Story” and “The Prophetess: Deborah’s Story”.

Ruth’s story is also the story of Naomi. Naomi lived in Bethlehem with her husband Elimelech, sons Mahlon and Chilion, and their extended family. In 1296 B.C. Bethlehem and Israel were suffering through drought and eventual famine. Elimelech’s brother Boaz had convinced him to keep working the land despite the drought.

But after 2 years he stopped listening to Boaz and gave up hoping and praying for rain. He made the decision to take his sons to Moab and work the fields there. Naomi did not want to leave Bethlehem but would not let them go without her so the whole family made the journey to Dibon. Ruth and her friend Orpah were at the marketplace when the family arrived and were the first to offer a welcome.

Elimelech was able to secure land from the governor and soon prospered in Moab. His crops flourished and he was able to build a home for his family. Naomi remained true to her faith but her husband and sons were seduced by the festivals and lifestyle of the Moabites spending more and more evenings in Dibon. One such evening Elimelech didn’t come home. Naomi found his body in the road; he had been mauled by a bear.

With the death of her husband Naomi tried to convince her sons to return to Bethlehem. However, the beauties Ruth and Orpah had caught the eye of her sons and they declared their intention to stay and marry.

The custom in Moab was for fathers to choose husbands for their daughters. Ruth and Orpah had both lost their fathers in the war with Israel meaning they could make the choice of who they would marry. Ruth’s mother and the governor planned for Ruth to marry his son, Te’oma. She wanted no part of that arrangement and readily accepted Mahlon’s request to marry.

Ruth’s story truly begins when she marries and becomes Naomi’s daughter-in-law.  Ruth’s devotion to her new family and the growth of her faith sustain her through the many trials she faces. Heartache, loss and hardship test both women but Ruth remains hopeful for a better life and a second chance for love.

This dramatization of Ruth’s life is well done and an engrossing read.  Smith’s research on life and customs of the Israelites and Moabites offers readers a glimpse into what life was like during Ruth’s time.

You can enjoy it without ever having read Ruth in the Old Testament. If you have read it, you’ll find that Smith has crafted a novel that captures the lesson of love exemplified by Ruth in the book.