Current Picks: Book Reviews

The Queens of Animation

In this eye-opening, fascinating, and heartbreaking account, author Nathalia Holt takes readers through the history of female animators at the storied Walt Disney Company. Women faced great obstacles personally and professionally (harassment, intimidation, abuse), making this story difficult to read at times. And yet, it's gripping. The stories of Mary Blair, Sylvia Moberly-Holland, and Bianca Majolie intertwined with the detailed history of the studio and the larger world make for a compelling read. While the focus is on the early years, the author takes readers through the studio's renaissance of the early 90s and the 2013 blockbuster Frozen. Warning: life at Disney wasn't always a fairy tale.

If you enjoy hidden histories (such as Hidden Figures), you'll appreciate The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History (2019). The engrossing story is well worth a listen, thanks to the fantastic performance by Saskia Maarleveld.



Series Spotlight: Eerie Elementary

Strange events are happening at Eerie Elementary School (note the name of the school). Third graders Sam, Lucy, and Antonio find themselves in very scary situations as they work together to keep the school safe from the evil Orson Eerie. Their job as hall monitors is to protect the students of Eerie Elementary School by using their magic sashes. Mr. Nekobi, the janitor, knows what is happening and why, and aids the children with clever ideas. Illustrations of Orson Eerie show that obviously he is a scary, evil man!

Children who can suspend disbelief, believe that the physical Eerie Elementary School is alive, who likes "scary" books, and who are ready for unusual adventures will enjoy this series. Start with The School is Alive! (2014).

Each of the 10 books in the Eerie Elementary series by Jack Chabert is 90 pages with black and white drawings on each page. It is clear from the covers that the books are scary, strange, unusual…for sure. The final page of each book has discussion questions and sometimes craft ideas. Lexile range is 430-600.



The Family Upstairs

Libby Jones has long known that when she turns 25, she inherits something from her birth parents' trust, but she is stunned to discover that it turns out a be a decaying mansion in one of the most expensive areas of London. It also is where her birth parents, Henry and Martina Lamb, died in a cult-like situation when she was ten months old.

The Family Upstairs (2019) recounts Libby's journey of discovering what happened in the family home all those years ago, interspersed with Henry Jr.'s retelling of the years when his family's status went from wealth and privilege to being prisoners in their own home. In the novel, the reader also meets Lucy, who lives a meager existence in France with her two children, but longs to get back to Britain, now that the baby (aka Libby) is now 25. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell is a creepily unputdownable read. Perfect for those who love Ruth Rendell's psychological novels, Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent, and the books of Erin Kelly.

The Poppy Wife

A hauntingly beautiful book dealing with the aftermath of the Great War. Set in 1921 with flashbacks to the war years, The Poppy Wife follows the story of war widow, Edie and her brother-in-law Harry, the only surviving brother of three. Edie's husband, Francis, was an avid photographer during the war, faithfully documenting his wartime experience. But when Edie is sent a photo of him with no note attached, 3 years after he was reported missing in action, she latches on to the possibility that he may still be alive somewhere in France and recruits his brother Harry to help look for any sign of him.

Harry's job is as a photographer, taking photos of graves or places of import for bereaved families who are in need of closure. It takes him back to all the places he was stationed throughout the war, villages that have been wiped out or are struggling to rebuild, locals attempting to come to terms with all their loss, and widows searching for any information about their lost husbands. The Poppy Wife (2019) delivers vivid imagery and raw emotion as it follows both Edie and Harry's travels across France.

Caroline Scott is an historian specializing in WWI and The Poppy Wife is an expertly rendered portrayal of the postwar period. Her writing is beautifully atmospheric and the characters are well-drawn, evoking strong emotions.


The Worst Best Man

Wedding planner Carolina (Lina) Santos doesn't advertise the fact that she was left at the altar three years ago. So when she walks into the biggest meeting of her career and sees her ex-fiancé and his brother Max, she impulsively pretends she doesn't know them. When she must work with Max to pitch to a potential boss, the forced proximity makes them see each other in a new light.

The Worst Best Man (2020) is a romantic comedy full of heart, humor, and awkward situations. It also has fabulous characters: Lina's strong Brazilian family plays a large role, as do her girlfriends. If you enjoyed Nora Roberts' Bride Quartet (start with Vision in White) or Lauren Layne's Wedding Belles (start with To Have and To Hold), you'll enjoy Mia Sosa's story of weddings, family, and friendships. For another romance featuring strong family ties, try His Perfect Partner by Priscilla Oliveras.

Find more romantic comedies (we made a list!).

Join us on Tuesday, February 18 at 7pm to Celebrate Romance Reads. Hear about recent releases, books into movies/TV shows, and more. Whether you're a voracious reader or a romance newbie, there will be something for you.



A Single Thread

In 1932 England, Violet is considered a surplus woman, a 38-year-old doomed to spinsterhood after the Great War. She doesn't accept her fate and tries to live her life despite her mother's constant harping. She leaves home and moves to Winchester to work as a typist.

While attending church services, Violet discovers a group of women who embroider seat cushions and kneelers. She joins this group of broderers, learning the stitches and the meaning behind the designs. She meets Arthur, who rings bells at the cathedral.

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (2019) features a strong female character with an unapologetic approach to life. She defies convention and charts her own course. While there is a feeling of despondency, the reader learns that not all women accepted their fate. Violet builds a meaningful life. Chevalier provides a great sense of place with her setting in a small English village. 

The Little Blue Kite

Author Mark Z. Danielewski is known for writing complicated and challenging books (House of Leaves, The Familiar Vol. 1-5) that not only require an abundance of time, but also a strong mental fortitude to finish reading. With his new book, The Little Blue Kite (2019), Danielewski breaks from his norm in an attempt to write something short and simple, but still with his familiar style of deep literary meanings and mesmerizing typography. But ultimately, what Danielewski ended up creating is a children's book that offers the reader more to take away from it as the reader grows older.

The Little Blue Kite tells the story of Kai and his little blue kite, both of whom love to fly. The story is accompanied by colorful, sprawling artwork that ranges from beautiful to foreboding. While the story may be simple, Danielewski tells it in three different ways, each growing more detailed and deep than the last. While all three stories are told on the same pages and through the same text, they're separated from each other by being written in different colors. Danielewski challenges the reader to first read the book by reading only the rainbow colored words in the book, followed by only reading the blue, red, and rainbow words, and then finally by reading every word from front to back cover.

What this does is quite extraordinary, as a story unfolds that can be enjoyed by small children, teenagers, and adults alike. While this book may be appropriate for all ages, the ones with the most to gain from it are adults: particularly those that might feel lost in the doldrums of living their adult lives.

Ultimately, this books attempts to remind its readers that life is only as bleak as we let it be and that sometimes in order to be happy and live our lives to the fullest, all we have to do is make the time to do the things we love. For some of us, that might mean playing guitar or piano. For others, perhaps it means to paint on a canvas or take a hike through a beautiful forest. And for others yet, maybe it might be as simple as flying a kite in a big blue sky.

Series Spotlight: The Last Firehawk

Owls are determined to save their home – the island of Perodia – from the evil Thorn, a vulture who is destroying the island with the help of his army of tiger bats and prickle ants. Rivers are dry, trees are being destroyed, and no flowers are blooming. Heroes of this animal fantasy early chapter book are Tag, an owl who uses a magic map; Skyla, a squirrel who uses a slingshot; and Blaze, the last surviving firehawk who uses his wings. When Tag, Skyla, and Blaze are successful in the quest to find all the pieces of the ember stone, their home might be saved.

The first page of each book explains where Tag, Skyla, and Blaze are in their search for the ember stone so the books do not have to be read in order…but in order would be best. Start with The Ember Stone (2017).

A map of Perodia, which is a copy of the magic map used by Tag, is on the next page after the introduction. The reader will want to refer back to the map while reading the adventure. On the last page of each book are questions and activities suggestions, which will add to the enjoyment of the reader and extend their learning. Each of the 10 books (so far) in The Last Firehawk series by Katrina Charman are 90 pages. There are black and white illustrations on each page. Lexile range is 550-640.



Get a Life, Chloe Brown

In this sweet and steamy romantic comedy, a near-death experience spurs Chloe into action. After years of being stuck in a rut, chronically ill Chloe makes a list to "get a life." That, of course, doesn't go as planned and leads her to Red, the local handyman and a secret artist. The snarky banter and the warm characters make Get a Life, Chloe Brown (2019) a delightful read. Talia Hibbert gracefully handles portrayals of living with disability and surviving emotional abuse.

This own voices enemies-to-lovers rom com is perfect for fans of Jasmine Guillory and Helen Hoang. Discover more romantic comedies (we made a list!).

Join us on Tuesday, February 18 at 7pm to Celebrate Romance Reads. Hear about recent releases, books into movies/TV shows, and more. Whether you're a voracious reader or a romance newbie, there will be something for you.


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.

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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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. 

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.

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!

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!