Current Picks: Book Reviews

Lora

The Dearly Beloved

In the 1950s, we meet four characters whose lives will be intertwined for the next 50 years. Charles is from a wealthy Boston family and the son of a Harvard professor. Lily's parents are killed when she is a teenager and their absence leaves a void inside her for the rest of her life. James grows up poor in Chicago, the son of an alcoholic. Nan is the daughter of a southern minister, and sees firsthand the inner workings of being part of a family where faith and helping others is an integral part of life.

When Charles and James decide to take jobs as the co-pastors of the Third Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village, the men, along with their wives, Lily and Nan, must live their lives amid the turmoil of the 1960s. They find their beliefs challenged by their circumstances and the other individuals in the quartet. In The Dearly Beloved (2019) by Cara Wall, the reader is immersed in the four characters' lives as revealed through moving, emotional writing.

Heather

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates

Poor Penelope Rex. It's hard enough starting at a new school, but then to be told all of your classmates are children and that it's socially unacceptable to eat them? Well, those slobbered up kids aren't excited about their new dinosaur classmate, either. Ultimately, Penelope learns a very important lesson about making friends from the class goldfish, Walter: it isn't fun to be seen as someone else's snack.

Check out We Don't Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins (2018), a 2020 Monarch Award Nominee, in print or digitally via Hoopla.


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Mary P.

Meet Me in Monaco

The novel begins with Grace Kelly in Cannes, being pursued by James, a British photographer. She ducks into a perfume boutique where Sophie gives her refuge. Over the next 30 years, James and Sophie form a friendship and mutual admiration, though life sometimes pulls them in opposite directions. Meanwhile, Grace meets and becomes engaged to Prince Rainier, returning to Monaco for the wedding. Grace has never forgotten Sophie and orders the perfume for her wedding from the boutique. The publicity causes business to pick up.

In Meet Me in Monaco: A Novel of Grace Kelly's Royal Wedding (2019), Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb have written an amusing and delightful novel with a light romance amidst the wedding of the century. 

Catherine T.

The Chestnut Man

Brutal murders are taking place around Copenhagen and it's not long before investigators realize that they have a serial killer on their hands. The most intriguing clue left behind at each murder scene is a small toy man made of chestnuts and matchsticks, placed on or nearby the body.

Things get even more interesting when a fingerprint is found on each of the chestnut men, and it belongs to the daughter of a government minister who was kidnapped and murdered a year ago. The lead investigators, neither of whom wants to be in their current job, get caught up in the hunt for this twisted, brutal killer, while he always seems to be watching and taunting them. With twists and red herrings, this gruesome police procedural was an entertaining, fast-paced read.

Add this author to the growing list of exciting Nordic crime writers to read. The Chestnut Man (2019) is Soren Sveistrup's debut novel, but he's had plenty of screenwriting experience in this genre. The Killing book series by David Hewson are adapted from an award-winning TV series written by Sveistrup, from which an American version of the TV series was also made.

Jennifer

The Mars Room

This beautifully written and moving novel opens with Romy Hall serving a double life sentence after she murders her stalker. Her difficult life is unveiled in a nonlinear timeline. The Mars Room is a bleak story, filled with characters who have so much working against them—but the author deftly includes comedic moments to enhance the story.

Rachel Kushner writes about the forgotten members of society in such a way that you'll be thinking about this book long after you've finished the novel. The Mars Room is an excellent choice to discuss with your book club. Topics include class and privilege, gender and sexism, incarceration, and writing and symbolism.

This is not Orange is the New Black. If you enjoyed An American Marriage by Tayari Jones or Evicted by Matthew Desmond, try this novel. Kushner adeptly narrates her novel, putting the reader in the mind of Romy—definitely worth a listen!

Denise

The Water Dancer

It's impossible to do justice to The Water Dancer (2019) in a book review. The story is powerful and haunting and the characters are expertly and thoughtfully portrayed throughout. The time period and settings are drawn so vividly that I felt I was living the horrors of slavery on a Virginia plantation and experiencing the terrifying dangers of the flight to freedom. Ta-Nehisi Coates' writing is brilliantly inspiring and lyrical.

I couldn't help but become emotionally invested in the life of the main character, Hiram Walker, a highly intelligent young slave whose white father is the owner of the plantation, and whose mother was a slave who was sold away when Hiram was 9 years old.

I typically like fast-paced novels, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book with its slow, deliberate pacing and elegant, detailed descriptions along the way. Magical realism is another element that Coates uses as an intriguing aspect of the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman is a fascinating character as well. I was motivated to learn more about her life after reading this book. I highly recommend this incredible heartbreaking, yet hopeful novel!


Joan

Summer of ‘69

The Nichols/Foley/Levin/Whalen families have always spent summers on Nantucket with Grandma Nichols, their controlling matriarch. The summer of 1969 is a year of change, not only for our nation, but for this family. Many of its members are caught up in the history-making events of the time. Kate Nicholas Foley Levin started drinking heavily when her son Tiger was drafted into the Vietnam War. Oldest daughter Blair's husband is a professor working with NASA on the Apollo launch, while Blair, pregnant with twins, is bedridden. College student Kirby gets a job on Martha's Vineyard at the hotel where Ted Kennedy has a room the night of the Chappaquiddick incident. Youngest granddaughter Jessie stays with Grandma and uncovers family secrets.

Historical fiction at its best, in Summer of '69 (2019), Elin Hilderbrand weaves a great family story filled with secrets, romance, and numerous historical references.


Heather

Pocket Full of Colors

Explore the colorful and magical world of Mary Blair in this junior biography told with beautiful pictures. While we can now find Blair listed among top Disney artists, animators, and designers, we get to see how her childhood love of colors and sketching led to that future working with Walt Disney himself. It is not an easy journey, trying to compete with men as well as color cynics (perhaps somewhat surprising for the world of Disney we know today). Ultimately, though, Blair receives an invitation to help create arguably the most recognizable and nostalgic theme park ride of all time—and my personal favorite—It's a Small World, truly epitomizing Blair's talent and vibrant imagination.

Check out Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire (2017) by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville. For more information, visit Oh My Disney for The World Behind "It's a Small World" and The Life and Work of Mary Blair.

Jez

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Ashby Santoso flies a ship through the universe with his crew, drilling holes in space to create wormhole passages between planets. When they're offered an exclusive contract on the far reaches of the Galactic Commons, the crew of the Wayfarer can't say no, even though the trip will be long and dangerous. During the long haul, the humans and aliens aboard the beat-up ship will encounter space pirates, intergalactic politics, and more than one kind of forbidden romance.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2016) is the first book in the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers and is a must-read for fans of Firefly, Doctor Who, and Star Wars. You'll love this book if you enjoy space operas, slice of life narratives, multiple perspectives, found families, diverse casts, LGBTQIA representation, humorous adventures, or any combination of these.

When the last page is turned, you'll be heartbroken to leave the ragtag space travelers and even though you will leave the Wayfarer, you'll find comfort in knowing you can continue to explore their world in book two: A Closed and Common Orbit. Check back next month for the review of the sequel.

Mary P.

The Dutch House

After WWII, Maeve and Danny's father buys a large house in Pennsylvania, which appalls their mother who believes it's too big of an expense. After a couple of years, their mother disappears and the children are never told why. Their father finds a new wife, with two daughters of her own, who move into the house. Their new stepmother is never kind to Maeve and Danny and, years later, when their father dies, she throws them out of the house. The stepmother has put her name on everything the father owned—the only thing she can't claim is a trust fund that was set aside for his children's education. Maeve decides to use up as much of the trust fund as possible to keep her stepmother from getting any of it and informs Danny that he will be a doctor, although he wants to be a real estate investor like his father.

Over the years, the siblings visit their old house, sitting outside in their car, never allowed inside. The house binds Maeve and Danny together, even when their lives start to separate, and they always remain dependent on each other. The Dutch House (2019) is an interesting story about what families do to each other and learning to forgive. Ann Patchett's detailed writing will keep you turning pages and thinking about the novel long after it is over. 

Jennifer

Evvie Drake Starts Over

Evvie (rhymes with Chevy) is a loveable character, who is trying to figure out what's next. She is struggling in her mundane life in small town Maine after the death of her not-so-great husband. Dean is a former Major League baseball player whose career ended quite dramatically. He's looking for a place to disappear, and rents Evvie's spare apartment.

The novel is divided into seasons. Over the course of a year, Evvie's relationships with those around her change—in both challenging and rewarding ways. At times, the book is laugh-out-loud funny; at others, it's heartbreaking.

Linda Holmes, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, has written a heartwarming and satisfying debut novel. Pick up Evvie Drake Starts Over (2019) for authentic characters overcoming life's obstacles. 

Catherine T.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

I was feeling the need for a good book to escape into and Alix E. Harrow really delivered with whimsical prose and a fantastical story in The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019).

Set at the turn of the 20th century in Vermont, we follow the story of January, a young mixed race child in the care of a wealthy collector, Mr. Locke. Her guardian employs her father to travel the world searching for and obtaining rare treasures and curiosities, which are then added to Mr. Locke's extensive collection or sold at secretive auctions.

At the age of seven, while on a trip to rural Kentucky with Mr. Locke, January opens a dilapidated blue door amongst some ruins in a field and is briefly transported to another world, a world that smells of salt and stone, a world that feels strangely welcoming. Her few short moments there leave her wondering if it was a real memory or just her imagination. Then, at the age of 17, her father disappears while on one of his trips and a book mysteriously appears in a treasure chest in Mr. Locke's collection—a book that carries the scent of adventure and other worlds and tells of ten thousand 'doors'. And so begins an upheaval of January's life and the opening of new doors.

Lovers of Narnia and The Time Traveler's Wife will enjoy this beautifully written book, full of the power of the written word, love, and strong female characters.

Lora

The Right Sort of Man

In London after World War II, Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge operate The Right Sort Marriage Bureau, which is a matchmaking service. When one of their clients, Tillie, is murdered, and Dickie, the man they set Tillie up with, is arrested for the crime, Iris and Gwen take it upon themselves to find the killer because they know Dickie is innocent. They also know the scandal of the crime could ruin their business. Luckily, Iris worked undercover during the war, and those skills come in handy, as can having a partner like Gwen, who also can think fast on her feet.

The Right Sort of Man (2019) is a breezy, cozy mystery with colorful characters. Allison Montclair's debut is excellent for people who enjoy Jacqueline Winspear, Susan Elia MacNeal, and Alexander McCall Smith.

Heather

The Bad Guys

I read this book in one sitting with a three year old: I'd call that an accomplishment and give a lot of that credit to author Aaron Blabey. We follow Mr. Wolf and his associates, Mr. Snake, Mr. Piranha, and Mr. Shark, on a mission to turn around their longtime reputations as bad guys. They hit just a couple bumps along the way, but are determined to make amends.

This early chapter book is part of a series, so get caught up in Blabey's sketchy characters' silly escapades. The Bad Guys (2017) is a 2020 Monarch Award nominee, recommended for grades 2-4.


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Mary P.

Woman with a Gun

Aspiring author Stacy Kim visits an art museum showing the photography of Kathy Moran. She is stunned when she sees "Woman with a Gun," which won the Pulitzer Prize and made Moran famous. It shows a woman in her wedding dress, standing at the shore, facing away from the camera and towards the sea, holding a six-shooter.

The photo captures Stacy's imagination and sets her on a quest to uncover the story behind the woman and the circumstances that lead to the photo. She learns that Megan Cahill—the woman with the gun—was suspected of killing her husband on their wedding night. It was never proven and the murder remained unsolved. Woman with a Gun by Phillip Margolin is a stunning, suspenseful story full of twists and turns.