Current Picks: Book Reviews

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander (2019)

In 1962, in the Soviet Union, eight-year-old Katya is given a Blüthner piano. She brings this beautiful instrument with her when she later marries an engineering student and settles in California with their young son. Katya's life is difficult and her marriage brutal, but her piano remains an escape throughout it all.

Clara receives a Blüthner from her father for her 12th birthday. Her parents die in a tragic fire soon after, but she clings to the piano, even though she cannot play it. As an adult, she impulsively rents the piano to Greg. Then, she has second thoughts, causing her to follow him and the piano to Death Valley, where he is using it in a series of photographs.

Their time together results in the unburdening of their family stories and links them in ways they never dreamed. It's a compelling story that features a piano as both a gift and a burden. You'll want to keep reading to see how the parallel stories connect in Chris Cander's The Weight of a Piano.



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The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Igguldon (2019)

More than 100 years before Alexander, Greek mercenaries from Athens and Sparta join Cyrus, younger brother to the Persian ruler Artaxerxes in an attempt to gain Cyrus' rightful place in the Kingdom. Events do not go well for Cyrus nor the mercenaries and they are left with only Xenophon, a young Greek officer to lead them away from the Persian hordes seeking their destruction. Xenophon reminisces about his earlier conversations with Socrates as he leads the remnants of his army out of reach of the Persians and into the mountains controlled by savage tribes. During their flight, both the Persians and mountain tribes gain great respect for the skill and ferocity of the Spartan warriors.

In his latest epic historical adventure, The Falcon of Sparta, Conn Igguldon explores war in ancient Persia. Readers may also enjoy novels from Bernard Cornwell.



From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (1967)

I first read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in fifth grade, so when my son, now a fifth-grader himself, said he needed a Newbery Prize winner for his book report, I was quick to suggest it to him. The adventures of Claudia and her younger brother Jamie are what childhood dreams are made of. After running away from home, the siblings live on their own in a strange and wonderful new city. They uncover a mystery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that they're determined to solve. Their clever sleuthing leads them to discover much more than clues however — it leads them back home.

I enjoyed reading this classic children's book by E. L. Konigsburg just as much as an adult as I had as a child. The audiobook would be great to listen to on a family road trip as well. Check out this article from Smithsonian Magazine for a glimpse behind the story and its author. 


Cop Town by Karin Slaughter (2014)

Set in 1974 Atlanta, Cop Town follows rookie police officer Kate Murphy and her partner Maggie Lawson. In this gritty suspense, the women investigate The Shooter—a marksman picking off police officers—despite not being detectives because of their gender. Karin Slaughter's standalone novel is not for the faint of heart, featuring derogatory language and violence (along with racism, sexism, and homophobia). With flawed yet sympathetic main characters and a compelling story, you'll keep reading to solve the case alongside Kate and Maggie.

The novel won the 2015 Ian Fleming Steel Award from the British Crime Writers' Association.



Grace After Henry by Eithne Shortall (2019)

Grace is devastated when her partner Henry dies in a bicycle accident. She keeps thinking she sees him as she goes around Dublin, and her only solace is remembering their times together and visiting the cemetery where he's buried. One day she's stunned to discover that Henry had an identical twin brother, Andy, that he didn't know about (both men were adopted by different people). When Grace is with Andy, it feels as if Henry is still with her--but is having Andy in her life the best way to move forward and heal?

Grace After Henry is a warm, emotional, at times humorous tale of moving on after loss. Eithne Shortall's novel is a great readalike for Jojo Moyes.



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Swatch: The Girl Who Loved Color by Julia Denos (2016)

In this story, we follow a free spirit who can't help but want to tame all of the beautiful colors she sees. We join her wild and wonderful world and hunt for colors along with her. Swatch soon encounters an ethical challenge and we see how our heroine resolves her dilemma.

As picture books go, I think Swatch: The Girl Who Loved Color is a perfect example of the power of illustrations and how beautifully and creatively they help tell a lovely story. Additionally, the overall layout and design of the book is great and helps capture the energy of it all.

This is the first book both written and illustrated by Julia Denos. She also wrote and illustrated Windows.


Series Spotlight: Peachy and Keen by Jason Tharp

The cat, Peachy, and the dog, Keen, are best friends. The series, Peachy and Keen, feature the two friends in stories of their school adventures at Happy Trails School.

In the first book, A School Tail (2018), Peachy wants to work on the school newspaper but discovers there is no longer a print newspaper. Peachy has the idea to replace the newspaper with an online magazine. With Keen's help, Peachy finds four classmates to work on the PURRFECT9: Rue, the high fashion kitty, Connie the octopus, Nanner the monkey, and Gertie the unicorn. Of course, they need a faculty sponsor and recruit Rocco the llama, who is the janitor. Principal Trunx, an elephant, is not helpful to Peachy but in the end… the PURRFECT9 staff wins him over.

These books by Jason Tharp are full of puns. To enjoy the stories, a reader will need to understand (and enjoy) puns. Even the title – Peachy Keen – is a pun.

Each book is 96 pages. There are full color, cartoon-style illustrations on each page and these add to the story and are fun in themselves. There is a significant amount of text, which makes the books look harder than they are. The Lexile is 590-770.



The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez (2014)

There are several layers to this novel. It starts with the Rivera family, who moves to the U.S. to get help for their teenage daughter, Maribel; she suffered a traumatic brain injury in Mexico. They settle in Delaware, in an apartment complex that houses many other immigrant families from Latin American countries. They befriend the Toro family from Panama. Narration alternates between Alma, the mother of the Rivera family and Mayor Toro, a teenager who develops a close relationship with Maribel. This storyline is inspiring and heartbreaking, with engaging characters and plot twists.

The other layer provides an insightful exploration into the immigrant experience. Interspersed throughout the book are brief chapters narrated by other immigrants, who live in the same complex. They relate their experiences, including the reasons for leaving their home countries and the many struggles they endure after arriving in the US.

The Book of Unknown Americans is an eye-opening tale of the challenges and barriers people often face when coming to America with hopes and dreams for a better life. And there's a local connection—author Cristina Henriquez wrote part of the book at the Hinsdale Public Library.



Are You Scared, Darth Vader?

Fellow parents and Star Wars fans, this is sure to please! Adam Rex writes this book in a conversational style, so I highly encourage reading in your best Darth Vader voice for an extra fun experience. Parents (and Star Wars buff kiddos) will appreciate nods to the movies and characters throughout.

All in all, Are You Scared, Darth Vader? (2019) is a hilarious book with a special twist ending. So, are you ready to find out if there is actually something frightening enough to scare Darth Vader?

Check out this book in print or digitally via Hoopla.



River of Teeth

In an alternate reality set in the early 20th century, the U.S. government has released wild hippos into the marshes of Louisiana as an alternative meat source. To no one's surprise, it is a ludicrous and disastrous idea.

The main character, Winslow Houndstooth, has lost everything and is driven by one thing: revenge. After the government hires Houndstooth, mercenary and part time hippo-wrangler, to clear the ferals from the marshes, he assembles a ragtag team of degenerates to help him out. Each member has their own specialty, hippo they ride on, and serious issues. The group must set aside old grudges and actively avoid being eaten alive to collect their payday.

This novel is as absurd as the summary makes it out to be, and I loved every second of it. From the first page, you can tell the author understands how ridiculous the story is and embraces it. I never knew I needed hippo-riding cowboy mercenaries in my life until River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey (2017) was put in my hands. It's a fantastic mix of classic western tropes with science fiction elements. It's a short novel, only about 175 pages, but it's long enough to fall in love with the characters and keep you laughing.


The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

Kvothe is a legend, a man whose tales have grown bigger than himself. He's Kvothe the bloodless, slayer of kings, master swordsman, caller of the wind, and most recently, Kote the innkeeper. Hiding in a small town, he's given up his life for reasons unknown. When the Chronicler finds him and realizes his true identity, he manages to convince Kvothe to let him collect his story to separate fact from myth. Kvothe agrees and begins his three-day retelling of his life.

Told through his perspective, The Name of the Wind is a tale of a small nomadic boy who becomes the most powerful Arcanist the world has ever known. We follow him from his childhood with the nomadic Edema Ruh to his eventual arrival at the university for Arcanists. His tale is full of struggle, triumph, and personal folly that will have you rooting for him while simultaneously cursing his stupidity.

Patrick Rothfuss' writing is poetic and descriptive, allowing for elaborate world building and thought provoking passages. Some may find his writing to be slow, but if you can get through the first few chapters, the payoff is worth it. This is the first book of a trilogy. The second title is The Wise Man's Fear and the third still forthcoming.


Boy Swallows Universe

A coming of age story set in the gritty, drug-ridden streets of suburban Brisbane, Australia in the 1980s. Despite the ugly background of criminals, violence, and poverty, this is a beautiful story of a boy finding his voice and destiny.

Twelve-year-old Eli Bell is surrounded by drug addicts and dealers. His brother, August, is selectively mute, his babysitter is an ex-con renowned for multiple jailbreaks and his stepfather Lyle is involved with the local heroin dealing business. Eli has a big dream to become a journalist on the crime beat. He's honing his writing skills by exchanging letters with a criminal in jail and practicing being observant while accompanying Lyle on his drug deals. When everything starts to go wrong, Eli will rely on his skills and contacts to survive.

With secret rooms, heroin deals, a jail break-in and missing people, this book doesn't lack for action. It also shines a light on the strength of parental and sibling relationships. A tough upbringing can result in unbreakable bonds.

Boy Swallows Universe (2019) is an entertaining debut from Trent Dalton, loosely based on some of his real life experiences.



The Flatshare

After Tiffy breaks up with her boyfriend, she is finding it hard to locate somewhere to live in London on her limited budget. She decides her best option is to share a flat with a man named Leon. Leon, with his job as a palliative care nurse, only needs the apartment from 9am-6pm weekdays, since he spends weekends at his girlfriend's house. This arrangement suits Tiffy perfectly with her job as an assistant book editor at a small publishing house. Even though they are never at the flat at the same time, their lives begin to intermingle as they learn about each other through their possessions and notes to each other, which are at first pithy and humorous, then turn caring as they get involved in their respective lives. Soon, both Tiffy and Leon realize they have feelings for each other. Will they end up as more than just flatmates?

Beth O'Leary's The Flatshare (2019) is a light, fun debut novel similar to Jojo Moyes and Jenny Colgan.



The Radium Girls

Be prepared: this book is heartbreaking and infuriating. But it is so worth the read. The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women (2017) tells the true story of a tragic time in American history. In the early 20th century, advertisements touted radium as a miracle cure. During World War I, factories in the U.S. were employing women to paint watch faces. Their method? Lip, dip, paint.

The constant exposure to radium eventually led to workers' horrific pain and suffering—and the companies denied any wrongdoing. Author Kate Moore shares the personal stories of these women, their fight for justice, and the impact their perseverance had on workers' rights and labor laws.

There is a local thread about a radium plant in Ottowa, Illinois. Check out the NPR Illinois article for more details.

If you enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or The Girls of Atomic City, try this book. It has a mix of hidden history and compelling characters—and it's great for book clubs.



The Montessori Toddler

Are you already a follower of Montessori principles, or are you curious to find out what it's all about? In The Montessori Toddler: A Parent's Guide to Raising a Curious and Responsible Human Being (2019), Simone Davies, a parent and Montessori teacher, gives background on the Montessori philosophies that you can apply at home. Even if you aren't ready to adopt the whole lifestyle and education, you'll find great information about toddlers and their development, as well as activity guides and resources to encourage creativity, cooperation, and responsibility.