Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, is charming, but is it worth reading?

click the image to buy now or pick it up at your local library

click the image to buy now or pick it up at your local library

Paris.  There is something about that word that evokes more than just the idea of a city.  There is an air of mystery and possibility about that word, of romance and wonder; it means old art and new fashion, and food. Paris, it can make you think about the bustle of life, passion, all which is good and bad in us flowing through that city.  That’s the kind of Paris that you’ll find in this latest book by Liam Callanan. 

The book is about the Eady family.  Robert is a novelist, not particularly successful, and his wife, Leah, has put her film dreams on hold to raise their two daughters.  They do well as a family; they have a good love story between them and dote on their daughters.  Robert takes little writing getaways every so often to work on his fiction, and the family has learned how to operate as a unit.

Except that Robert doesn’t come back.  Leah realizes he hasn’t been getting much writing done lately, and there is tension between them.  He’s gone so long the family doesn’t know if they should grieve him as one dead or continue looking.  Eventually, while looking for Robert, they find plane tickets to Paris and begin a new life there as booksellers. 

Paris is not only a land of discovery for them, it is also the home to Leah’s dreams of film-making and the fulfillment of a promise Robert once made to her.  Add to that an unfinished manuscript of Robert’s set in Paris, and Leah is left wondering: Is he still alive? In Paris? Or is he long dead? And if alive, why would he have left them?  There are mysteries in this book as well as new beginnings.

Many passages of the book, and, in particular, the ending, are well-written.  There is a lot to like in this story and the setting is well-used as a backdrop to help build atmosphere.  Parts of the book are quite charming, and I did find myself wondering what had happened to Robert.  Book groups will find plenty to keep discussions lively.

However, in the end, I couldn’t accept what the reader needs to accept in order to be charmed by the whole book.  There are characters and choices in the novel which are designed to help me understand certain situations, to empathize with the reasons motivating some of our characters.  I didn’t buy it.  The quality of the writing is good, the story is often engaging, but, ultimately, I can’t recommend the book because I can’t buy into romanticizing choices which are weak and self-serving.

Gods of Howl Mountain is a robust and rowdy read.

Gods of Howl Mountain Cover Picture by andhereads.jpg

Gritty, hot-blooded characters dominate this story and the North Carolina mountains on which they live.  It is a tale to quicken your pulse and have you hoping that a little backwoods justice will be dealt to the deserving. 

Rory Docherty has returned from the Korean War with a wooden leg and a desire to know who attacked his mother and killed her young lover all those years ago, leaving her unable to speak and in an institution.  Rory runs whiskey in his 1940 Ford, Maybelline, powered by an ambulance engine.  Granny May, a former prostitute, is the local folk healer, a wood witch trying to raise her grandson, Rory, and ensure he doesn't succumb to the darkness he saw during the war which still gives him nightmares. 

The book is well-written; the prose is vivid and leaves intense impressions.  Occasionally, you'll bump into a sentence that tries too hard, that may have one too many descriptors or use a word in a way that is just a little too clever, but everyone who has tried to write descriptively has done the same.  

My one word of caution: if the opening chapter is off-putting, ignore the feeling and keep reading.  This chapter isn't indicative of the rest of the narrative; the chapter feels overworked, and the insistent references to Rory's car as "the machine" serves as an example of a section which tries to be too clever and becomes annoying.  

The rest of the book displays Taylor Brown's skill in exposition.  There are many examples of how he uses language to really paint a picture and bring the story to life; one which stands out describes the butchering of a pig.  Brown handles the scene deftly, using just the right language to make something somewhat gruesome verge on, if not quite beautiful, the poetic:

...They dragged the fatted animal across the yard, each holding a leg. They spread the hind-legs and pierced the ankle tendons on the outer hooks of a singletree, then threw a rope over a low-hanging branch and hauled the animal off the ground like they would an engine.
     Granny stepped forward with her razor and sliced the big vein in the neck, just back of the jawbone. She set out a stone jug to catch the streak of blood, life-bright in the gray dawn. She used it for making blood sausage. Once it was bled, they lowered the animal into the near-boiling water of the pot, going to work on the bristles as they heaved it streaming from the water. They dunked it again and again this way, scraping down the hide.
     ...The sun found the bare skin glistening over the wash pot, pink-scalded and ready for the knife. Granny made the cut, a long red vent from nethers to chin, careful not to puncture the organs. She cut the entrails out, letting them fall glistening and ropy in the tub at her feet...They salted the meat white, their red-stained hands leaving little prints on the icelike shapes and hunks...They talked little as they worked, and Granny didn't know if it was the nature of the work or something else.
Click the image to buy now or get it at your local library or bookstore

Click the image to buy now or get it at your local library or bookstore

This is a book twisting with tension.  The action scenes could easily be taken right off the big screen, and will likely be there someday soon (I'd be surprised if this wasn't made into a move; I just hope they get the nuances right).  Something about Rory brings to mind Cool Hand Luke, and the vengeance that burns inside him seems to hint at old-school Charles Bronson violence.

Gods of Howl Mountain is Taylor Brown's third novel, but the first book of his I have read.  Now, I'll need to find his first two books.

A character-driven, historical fiction, Manhattan Beach proves Jennifer Egan can write a traditional novel.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan Cover.jpg

Jennifer Egan is a writer at the top.  Her work appears in prestigious magazines like The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and Granata. Her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  Her newest, Manhattan Beach, is a work of historical fiction set in WWII era New York with a strong female protagonist, a missing father, and gangsters.  It is a good read and well-written; it will also require patience as it is a bit of a slow-burn.

Three characters dominate this book, Anna Kerrigan, her father, Eddie, and Dexter Styles.  In fact, the book opens with Anna and her father in the car on their way to meet Dexter Styles at Dexter's house on the beach.  Anna is eleven at this time, and the two men are meeting about a business matter.  Anna is a great character; bold, astute, and ambitious.  This paragraph, on the second page of the book, describes an interaction between Anna and her father; it is a great summary of Anna:

She thought he might slap her. He’d done it once before, after she’d let fly a string of curses she’d heard on the docks, his hand finding her cheek invisibly as a whip. The specter of that slap still haunted Anna, with the odd effect of heightening her boldness, in defiance of it.

Anna and her father adore each other.  He takes her on his "business" trips often, but when the book opens we learn that he believes it is time to stop this practice mostly because Anna is so perceptive and getting older.  Also, her father is having to find other means to make money in order to buy a special chair for his other daughter, Lydia. Eddie's story is as interesting as Anna's own.  He worries sometimes if his family isn't happier when he isn't home. He also worries about his relationship with Lydia. Knowing how he thinks, what he intends, and and what he goes through for his family, endears him to the reader.  The following is a good description of the Eddie and where he is in his life at the start of the book. Interestingly enough, you'll hear echoes of this paragraph from Anna as she becomes an adult:

He was aware of having reached an end. He shut his eyes and remembered today: the beach, the cold, the excellent lunch. A white tablecloth. Brandy. He thought of the chair. But it wasn’t just the chair that had driven him to Dexter Styles: it was a restless, desperate wish for something to change. Anything. Even if the change brought a certain danger. He’d take danger over sorrow every time.

Add to this the gentlemanly, smooth-moved Dexter Styles, and you've got a good story.

Manhattan Beach Cover.jpg

Talking about the characters' stories brings me to the one problem with this book.  There is a stretch of more than a hundred pages where the book develops slowly. One of the characters is dropped for a large portion of the book (in Egan's defense, it is done for a reason...I won't say more as it could be a spoiler, but it is that same frustration you get when your favorite character isn't even mentioned in a particular book in a series like A Song of Ice and Fire, which Game of Thrones is based on).   Anna does develop during this portion, but even her story seems to crawl a bit. Maybe this is designed to build tension, because you know in your gut that something big is going to happen: it is just delayed longer than you want to wait.

And something big does happen. The payoff is worth the wait, if you are a patient reader. Those readers who only like thrillers because they burn through pages like lit matches nipping at fingertips will find themselves growing impatient and, likely, put the book down. If you don't mind a little longer exposition, then you'll forget about your impatience as you ravenously finish the story. it is a satisfying book and will be considered one of the bests of this publication year.

Dangerous Curves Ahead: The Woman in the Window is the thriller you want.

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Get it at your library or bookstore or use the button for Amazon

The Woman in the Window is the thriller you’ve been wanting for this year’s exciting reads list.  This is an extremely quick read, with short chapters and just enough scene description to keep the story rooted in a specific place.  The agoraphobia adds a good twist, with the protagonist’s psychologist profession giving the story an added layer.  Add in an affair, a car accident, alcohol, multiple prescriptions, the neighbor’s secrets, and a handsome tenant in the basement, and you have the recipe for a …well, you know where this is headed.

The writing is comprised of short, quick sentences; in fact, there are few real paragraphs.  This propels the book at great speed.  Also, the author, AJ Finn, uses the language of time a lot.  For fun, I flipped through about a dozen pages and saw multiple descriptions of a minute passing, a moment, half an hour, a reference to a certain time, etc…  When you put that together with the terse sentences, you become acutely aware of the mechanics behind how Finn makes the book work.  Here is one example based on the chiming of a grandfather clock:

    As he does, I watch his face. The grandfather clock starts to toll ten o’clock. I’m holding my breath.
    For a moment, nothing. He’s impassive. “Our street. At sunrise,” he says. “Or—wait, that’s west. So it’s sunse—
    He stops.
    There it is.
    A moment passes.
    He lifts his wide eyes to me.
    Six tolls, seven.
    He opens his mouth.
    Eight. Nine.
    “What—” he begins.
    Ten.
    “I think it’s time for the truth,” I tell him.

And then, three page turns later, we have the clock fill the silence right after a revelation, the sound adding more tension to a weighted silence:

    “And then?”
    “She left.”
    “She went back to her hotel?”
    Another shake of the head, slower.
    “Where did she go?”
    “Well, I don’t know then.”
    My stomach twinges. “Where did she go?”
    Again he lifts his eyes to me. “She went here.”
    The tick of the clock.
    “What do you mean?”

It’s quite well done, really, Finn’s use of the seemingly banal, unassuming tick of a clock, that one tick out of them all, which becomes so loaded.

In many ways, this book felt like a reflection of The Girl on the Train.  In one sense, disappointingly so; still, there are enough differences that you’ll mostly forgive the similarities and enjoy the ride.  There are twists you should see coming, and twists you may not.  I guessed the crux of the main plot long before it happened, but I was totally surprised by a twist I would normally see chapters ahead.  The pace of the narrative is so quick you sometimes don’t have time to think it out.  In addition, I had a real hard time accepting one action by the antagonist during the denouement, but otherwise enjoyed the book and it’s “dangerous curves ahead” plot line.  This book will land on the best thrillers of 2018 list and may be the book people start saying about their next thriller, “it’s like The Woman in the Window.”

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The Great Alone: 2018's First Book of the Year Nominee

The Great Alone photo taken by andhereads.jpg
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Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Kristin Hannah has written numerous bestselling books.  Her 2015 release, The Nightingale, reached even new literary heights, and the movie is set to be released this August. If you haven’t read The Nightingale, you need to read it as soon as you can; new books from this year can wait.

This February (on my birthday, in fact, the 6th) her new novel, The Great Alone, will be released. I just finished an advanced readers edition and want to tell you why you should not miss this book; in fact, this book will be in discussion for book of the year eleven months from now (I won’t reveal any spoilers). 

Most of The Great Alone takes place in the nineteen-seventies. The book is the story of the Allbright family.  The family consists of Leni and her parents, Cora and Ernt. We meet Leni on the first page, along with the central tension of the novel:

     Leni felt edgy, too.  She was the new girl at school, just a face in the crowd; a girl with long hair, parted in the middle, who had no friends and walked to school alone.
     Now she sat on her bed, with her skinny legs drawn up to her flat chest, a dog-eared copy of Watership Down open beside her. Through the thin walls of the rambler, she heard her mother say, Ernt, baby, please don’t. Listen…and her father’s angry leave me the hell alone.
     They were at it again. Arguing. Shouting.
     Soon there would be crying.
     Weather like this brought out the darkness in her father.

With simple language, the author has deftly laid out the story right there on page one.  Two pages later, she completes the underlying story that will carry the reader through this complicated, emotional, and conflicted novel:

     It hadn’t always been this way. At least that’s what Mama said. Before the war, they’d been happy, back when they’d lived in a trailer park in Kent and Dad had had a good job as a mechanic and Mama had laughed all of the time and danced to “Piece of My Heart” while she made dinner. (Mama dancing was really all Leni remembered of those years.)
     Then Dad got drafted and went off to Vietnam and got shot down and captured. Without him, Mama fell apart; that was when Leni first understood her mother’s fragility…
     When Dad had finally come home, Leni barely recognized him. The handsome, laughing man of her memory had become moody, quick to anger, and distant. He hated everything about the commune, it seemed, and so they moved. Then they moved again. And again. Nothing ever worked out the way he wanted.

So now you understand the family dynamic. All we need is a location for the story to unfold. The Allbrights will receive that through a letter from a man whose son Ernt served with in Vietnam: Alaska.  It is there, in that wide, wild land full of darkness and danger, community and isolation, that this story of love and survival will take hold of you.

Kristin Hannah does a remarkable job creating an Alaska vast and deadly and still full of wonder and beauty. The supporting characters in the book can be as large as the land itself; the Allbright’s neighbors, the Walker family, are well-written, and their story is complex and nimbly interwoven with the Allbright’s; Large Marge is nothing less than a force of nature and will be a reader favorite; and the off-the-gridders, the conspiracy-theorist group, add an element of entanglement and realism that mirrors sectors of our modern lives.

The Allbrights do find a home in Alaska.  Ernt Allbright finds people who are like-minded and listen to him as well as a largeness of space which lets him feel less trapped.  Leni learns hunting from her father and self-reliance from necessity which gives her the confidence and strength she had been lacking.  And Cora, Cora learns how weak love can make you, and the strength it can give you to do anything to protect it.  

The family finds a routine in Alaska.  They learn how to survive there and make a place for themselves.  But underneath it all, the cancer of domestic violence is spreading.  All the dark, the isolation, the constant fight for survival, takes its toll:

     The sudden wildness in his eyes, the showing of the whites, scared Leni. She took a step backward…
     “It’s the weather,” Mama said, lighting a cigarette, watching him drive away. Her beautiful skin looked sallow in the headlight’s glow, almost waxen.
     “It’s going to get worse,” Leni said. “Every day is darker and colder.”
     “Yeah,” Mama said, looking as scared as Leni suddenly felt. “I know.”
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Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

There is a certain chilling beauty to that passage, both in the description of the mother and the connection of the father’s temperament to the weather.  In places, the reflection of the violence and fury in the natural world in the Allbright father reminds me of Wuthering Heights.  I haven’t read that book in decades, but I remember the natural world being a mirror to the character’s internal struggles in that book as well as in this one. 

This book will grab you and twist your insides.  You will get angry; you’ll feel frustration, pity, and love.  I was surprised at how tangled my emotions were toward the mother, Cora.  I got so mad at her and wanted to wake her up, and yet there were times I just wanted to hug and soothe her.  The toll love takes in her life is tremendous.  Leni you’ll cheer for, but there is a sadness within her that will always give you pause.

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Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is a five-star book.  The only thing that bugged me about that book was the neatly-tied, pretty ribbon at the story’s conclusion.  It and Anthony Doer’s All the Light We Cannot See were side-by-side stellar historical fiction about the WWII period: I preferred how Doer let his story have its own ending rather than making sure it ended in a way to appease readers.  (I also think I may be in the minority with that preference.) The Great Alone had a little of that same issue for me, as well as one twist toward the end which caught me by surprise, but then unraveled too easily.  It made the final twist feel unnecessary and a little like a late addition to the novel.

Still, this will be one of the books of the year.  It is a wonderful book. Most writers will spend their life trying to write one book this good and fail.  Thank you, Kristin Hannah, for giving up law and turning to writing.  Readers, enjoy.

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Little Fires Everywhere is a very good book; here are three reasons why Celeste Ng’s previous novel is better.

Landing on most of the best of 2017 reading lists is Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.  It deserves to be on those lists.  It is a good family drama and will satisfy many readers.  However, her lesser-known, 2014 release, Everything I Never Told You, is an even better book.  Without spoiling either story, let me detail three reasons why the earlier book is superior.

First, the interracial issues that are a part of each book are handled with more depth, impact, and precision in Everything I Never Told You.  In Little Fires Everywhere, the racial drama concerning the adoption of a Chinese baby, and the decision about which woman has more right to raise that baby, feels less intense and genuine than the manner similar issues were dealt with in her previous book. In this latest novel, the issues feel like a plot device to move the story along and juxtapose the views of the characters, specifically Elena Richardson and Mia Warren.  However, the previous novel presents the interracial issue with many more layers; we see its impact on the Lee family throughout the entire book.  It shows how some issues, including race, popularity, and opportunity, never really go away. It shows the depth of these feelings and how they must be considered throughout a lifetime.  It reminds us how easily old hurts can resurface years after first appearing.

Also, the character depth and development in the earlier novel is more robust.  Little Fires Everywhere does have Mia and Izzy, both vibrant, interesting characters.  However, the Richardson father and, in many ways, the older son, Trip, are both rather flat.  Even Elena Richardson, one of the principle characters of the novel, feels a bit type-cast.  In contrast, Everything I Never Told You has an entire family, and a neighbor, with complex, well-rounded personalities.  Throughout the novel, the characters are dynamic; they change and grow. The skill and subtlety of the author drawing these characters and having them live their story is more artfully displayed.

Finally, Everything I Never Told You is just a more enjoyable book with greater emotional impact.  Not only does it hook you with the opening lines, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” but it also keeps you hooked with the question of what really happened to Lydia and why did this happen.  You will remember the characters and the story longer and feel more invested in the lives of the characters.  You’ll understand their failures and triumphs more fully, and you’ll hope for a better future for them all. Even the conclusion of the book is more thoughtful and skillfully wrought than in her latest novel. With Little Fires Everywhere, you will root for a couple characters, but you won’t think of them as much nor give their future’s but a moment’s thought as you close the last pages. 

I recommend that you read both these books. Little Fires Everywhere is a very good read: Everything I Never Told You is just a better read.

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The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

“Once upon a time—for that is how all stories should begin—there was a boy who lost his mother,” opens this intriguing book, The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly.  It is an interesting opening sentence especially due to how much it reveals about the book.  David, the protagonist of the book, is a pre-teen who is the “boy who lost his mother.”  He is a quiet kid who loves his mother and the stories they read together.  When he loses her and his family life is dramatically changed, it is to stories that David looks for comfort.

Stories are at the heart of this book; more specifically, as the first four words indicate, fairy tales are at its center.  David, who is prone to seizures and exhibits obsessive-compulsive behavior, finds that he can hear books whispering to each other and speaking to him.  As the story progresses, he literally steps from his World War II home in the English county-side into a world of fairytales.  However, these are not the brightly-colored fairytales you plaster cheerful pictures of on the walls of your baby’s nursery; these are the tales from the dark woods behind your grandmother’s house that you were afraid to enter. 

As in most fairytales, David has to undergo a journey and learn a few things about his self and his place in his now altered family picture.  David is confronted by real dangers and faces decisions that could mean life or death not only in the world he finds himself in, but also in the world he left behind.  This book should be considered a fairytale for adults.  It isn’t a perfect book, or even a great book, but if you delight in story itself and are looking for something a bit unexpected, then this book is a very good read.  

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What do you get for a boy named Bat? A skunk named Thor, of course!

Last year I read a book titled Rain Reign, by Ann Martin, which was selected for the 2017 Oklahoma Children's Sequoyah list. It was the story of Rose, her father (struggling on his own to understand and raise Rose), a stray dog, a hurricane, and Rose's uncle. It was a very well-written book and dealt with some difficult topics that had the book hovering between an upper elementary read and a YA selection. I highly recommend it to 5th-7th grade readers.

However, this left me wondering: what can I recommend as a good book with a neurodiverse character for those younger elementary-aged readers? Now I have one; A Boy Called Bat, by Elena K. Arnold. This book is charming. You will love how all the characters in this book are dynamic; there are no cookie-cutter characters with standard, stereotypical traits. The book is so good because of this. In addition, its simple, though surprisingly, elegant language makes it accessible to readers as early as 2nd grade. This book is going to be great as a class set to get those younger grades talking and thinking about what they read.

Bat's mom is a veterinarian and she has brought home an orphaned baby skunk. She tells Bat they are only keeping it for a month so it can get strong enough to be released. Bat has other plans. He decides to prove to his mother that he is the skunk's best option for a good future, and that a skunk will make a great pet. Along the way, he also has to deal with his exasperated older sister and the back-and-forth of alternating weekends with Dad, an experience relatable to many children.

You'll fall in love with Bat and his family; you will also get frustrated along with them as they deal with the same lessons all families deal with. This is a great book about learning to respect each other's differences. It also shows how every family has struggles, and no matter how ordinary the struggles, what's extraordinary is the amount of love, respect and understanding each family finds to hold itself together.  

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The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

My favorite aspect of The Golden House is Salman Rushdie’s clear enjoyment of writing a story.  His sentences, the little diversions he takes with the plot, the side streets of language he travels down, pointing out literary and pop culture landmarks along the way; all these avenues of fiction were enjoyable to visit with him.  I haven’t read Rushdie since he wrote The Satanic Verses.  I don’t recall that book being as playful with language as this current selection. The plot, however, is more of an American epic than a playful tale. The Golden family is large in the scope of their reach and influence. The patriarch is a powerful man with three diverse sons and a past he has tried to escape.  Besides the family, the primary players include a Russian seductress and a young man named Rene (think Nick Carraway) who wants to be a filmmaker and views the family as source material.  He is not, however, an aloof watcher.  He becomes deeply involved in the life of the Golden's.

There are a number of interesting literary references the reader can make.  I’ve already mentioned Nick Carraway and there are definitely flavors of The Great Gatsby in this book.  There are also ties to both Roman emperors and, I’d say, Greek drama.  And Rushdie makes it clear he is playing with the Slavic myths involving Vailisa and Baba Yaga.

I was also amazed at how current this book is. Not only are there timely cultural references, but the political climate is ultra current.  The shape of our current social and political America plays as an unseen, yet influential hand indirectly impacting all aspects of the story and the characters in it.

The characters (and the mythologies they can bring to the story) were interesting to me, and I was involved in all their stories,  However, it was those same characters which kept me from loving the book.  I didn’t really like any of them. The narrator was the most likable, but some of his actions, which had resounding impacts, seemed to be done without any sense of personal integrity.  Then again, maybe that was part of the point; maybe Rushdie wanted the reader to be a little sickened by the whole thing.  But don’t get too upset; Rushdie does leave us with hope, maybe that is the ultimate takeaway from The Golden House.  

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Two Books We Should All Read and Discuss

Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper, like R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, is one of those books that everyone needs to read. It is a great book for upper elementary or even early intermediate grade discussions. Kids at that age are beginning to understand injustice, see the good and bad in the world around them, and sense that they will be able to make a difference in it.

This book tells Melody’s story. She is a brilliant eleven year old. In fact, she’s one of the smartest students anyone will ever meet, but she is treated by most teacher’s like a toddler and repeatedly subjected to the same alphabet and nursery rhymes year after year. When you have Cerebral palsy, are unable to speak up for yourself, are stuck in a pink wheelchair, and have very limited control of your limbs, it is hard not to feel like a prisoner in your own body. Fortunately for Melody, she does have Mrs. V. Mrs. V realizes Melody’s abilities and uses technology to allow Melody to truly communicate with others. This opens Melody’s world and enables her engagement with her peers unlike she has ever experienced. It even offers Melody an opportunity to show everyone her intelligence.

Not everyone is comfortable with her newfound voice. My daughter read this book a few months after I. She told me this book made her mad. Hearing that assured me that she understood the book. There are few books out there that can completely change how you think about the world and how you view those around you. This is one of those books.

Stella by Starlight is a great book for book discussion. There are readers who don’t like historical fiction because it seems too far removed from the life they are living now. Closer inspection reveals that the story of the past can offer great insights into the struggles of the present. Stella’s story takes place in North Carolina during 1932. She and her brother JoJo are out in the middle of the night when they stumble across a meeting of cross-burning KKK members. JoJo is confused about the purpose of the men in white hoods, but Stella knows they mean trouble.

This book deals with some of the harsh realities of segregation. Stella and her community are going to have to determine what is worth fighting for and how to fight for those things. There is a great scene in this book where Stella goes with her father so he can register to vote. The scene is affecting and understated, and one of the most moving in the whole book. Discussing this book with kids, it is easy for them to see how unequal segregation was and how terribly people can be treated because of prejudice. That is a great place to transition the conversation into one about bigotry and prejudice in America today.

The great thing about Sharon’s books is that they don’t conclude with pretty resolutions where all the world’s wrongs are put right. Although they are children’s books, they don’t shy away from real world situations. These books allow children to grapple with and discuss issues of substance and give adults a great platform from which to begin these conversations.

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Memory by Phillippe Grimbert

If you’re looking for a book that is a quick read but will linger in your thoughts long after you’ve returned it, Memory, by Phillippe Grimbert, may be the book for you.  I read this book in two short afternoons, but have been thinking about its little nuances for months, resulting in this review.

The story involves the unraveling of a families’ past through the eyes of a quiet, reserved boy of fifteen.  The secrets he seeks to unlock involve his parents and their lives as Jews during WWII France.  Our protagonist has always had a sense that there was something else about his family, some silent “other” thing that was never discussed but was always present although not quite tangible.  This struggle to figure out what that “thing” is leads the boy to seek answers from family friends and journey into the past.  If you are thinking to yourself, “I’ve already read Night by Elie Wiesel” or “I’ve seen Schindler’s List, I don’t need to revisit that,” I ask that you think again.  This isn’t the same kind of work.  It isn’t as heavy in the same way, although it is haunting in its own right. 

What’s really interesting about this book is the way space works.  The book is full of short revelations and insights, often just a couple pages, some even less.  The space at the end of each of these acts almost as a breath, allowing you a chance to, in a sense, inhale the experience and think on it in the same manner as when you take a conscious breath.  This is one of those simple, concise works that pulls you in and then never quite lets you go…highly recommended.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

I gravitate to books about bookstores and libraries. So, when I first heard about Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan, I knew I had to read it. However, I’d mostly forgotten about it by the time it arrived and had somehow got the premise confused and was expecting a quirky love story, something along the lines of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, (a delightful book I’ve got to review).

Wrong; this is a literary thriller. I’m sure there are a thousand different ways to describe what that actually means, but for our purpose let’s just say it is a smart thriller not only concerned with keeping the pages turning and the suspense high, but also with developing a cast of characters whose motivations and lives are complex, confusing, empathetic, and mirror our own.

When Lydia finds Joey, one of the lost boys whose only solace is found in the Bright Ideas Bookstore, literally hanging in the stacks with a childhood photo of her in his pocket, she has unknowingly just begun a journey to unravel Joey’s past and what, if any, connection it could have to her own.

And Lydia has secrets; her last name isn’t really Smith. Running from a childhood trauma that put her on the cover of Time magazine, she has been hiding her true identity for over a decade. She doesn’t even share her secrets with her boyfriend, David.

And Daddy issues? What about Dad? Why does she refuse to answer his phone calls? What is he hiding from in a remote cabin in the woods.

If that isn’t starting to excite you, let me tease you with this: text puzzles. Joey has left Lydia clues that she has to decipher cut into different books in the bookstore. I was extremely pleased that our author didn’t just tell us about the puzzles, he presented several to us so we could see what Lydia sees and experience a little of the thrill of discovery she felt unraveling them.

There were a few things that bugged me. I’ll try to cover them without giving major spoilers, but if you want a reading experience unencumbered by my own quibbles, you might skip the rest of this paragraph. I couldn’t wholly accept the sibling relationship that is revealed to us. I can’t even tell you why, and the twist it provides leading to the books revelation I enjoyed tremendously. Also, the tension created during the confrontation and confession section was well-done, but it left me feeling like the book’s resolution could have been stronger, somehow. 

Still, this is a solid book; a genuinely good read. If you want a smart thriller with great characters in an interesting setting with the bonus of little plot puzzles made out of books, I think you will enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed it.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Several people told me,”Since you loved The Rosie Project (by Graeme Simison), you’ll definitely love Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant.” Well, not so much.

Don’t get me wrong. I was laughing out loud (giggling, my wife might say, but I don’t giggle) during parts of the book. I really enjoyed the pace and the character as the book opened and Eleanor was fleshed out and endearing herself to me, the reader. I love quirky books and quirky characters (this reminds me, I need to review a little book titled love in lower case by Fransesc Miralles). Also, the book is well-written; Eleanor’s conflicts feel genuine, and there is a weighty burden from her past that counters the books humor and balances well.

Still, something happened to me along the way. I got tired of Eleanor. The pace of the book slows, the humor feels a little more forced, and she just started getting on my nerves. I’m not saying this is a bad book; my wife enjoyed it cover to cover and excitedly gave it to me knowing how much I would enjoy it based on what she knows I like. But the book wasn’t able to maintain the level of enjoyment throughout that it promised from the beginning. I had a similar experience with Nabakov's Lolita and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Both books have some of my favorite lines, and display openings of such force, speed, and exquisite writing that I’d have to say they are excellent books. But the latter parts of each cause me to lose the awe they initially elicited.

The book is still a good read. There is a lot to enjoy, and you may be one of those readers whose affections for Eleanor does not wane over time. For you, my friends, I hope that will be your experience.

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Out Stealing Horses

The English translation of this Norwegian novel, Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, was published in 2005 and was highly praised. However, I just recently found this book seemingly unloved on our shelves and thought I would give it a try. The story is about the life of Trond Sander and mainly takes place during two distinct moments of time in his life. At sixty-seven, Trond has lost his wife and sister to cancer, and his daughters are grown. He decides to live out the rest of his life in a determined manner in a small cabin. There are definitely threads of Walden here, especially early going, but only to the extent that the scene is set and our main character begins to have his personality revealed to us. The other portion of his life we see quite a bit of is Trond as a boy, just on the verge of becoming a young man. Through this we see a lot of Trond interacting with his father; moreover, we really get to see the events and decisions which shaped the sixty-seven year old Trond we are getting to know.

There is a lot to love in this novel, but two things really stood out in this novel for me. First, the credibility that the reader feels towards the author’s slow unraveling of Trond’s adult life into the sometimes cautious, sometimes manic boy that he was, is exceptional. Everything Trond is as a grown man seems directly related to how he handled the life and situations presented him in his formative years.

Secondly, and I really loved this about this book, Trond is not a victim. His determination is admirable in his older self, and seeing the formulation of it in him as a boy is masterfully done. He is told early in the novel, "You decide for yourself when it will hurt." Seeing how this germ of an idea is handled throughout the novel makes for great reading. Truthfully, the last chapter of the book was fantastic, it managed to drive the central thematic experience of the entire novel straight into me. This novel has a lot to enjoy: a determined life, parent-child relationships, the coming-of-age-experience, friendship, and even Nazi occupation. After reading this book, it feels like it will be part of your life for a long time. 

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