Book Review—Secrets of the Book

Secrets of the Book Cover

If you are looking for a fun middle-grade novel filled with adventure, danger, and sly humor, you should take a look at Secrets of the Book by Erin Fry. I thought the author’s choice of lead characters was interesting. Typically, you give the hero a flaw, like Superman and his sensitivity to Krypton. Which I never really understood because isn’t that where he’s from? Never mind. In this story, Spencer Lemon (pronounced leh-MOHN) suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, which means he is slowly going blind. His best friend Gregor is on the spectrum and, as a result, occasionally has episodes when things disrupt his routine and become overwhelming, which essentially defines the entire book, so you can imagine. In lesser hands, these guys would have been relegated to the role of sidekick. But not today.

Now, add a cute, smart girl named Mel and a sketchy old man who goes by “Ed,” and you have the makings for some real excitement. Oh, I almost forgot—there’s this book, and you really shouldn’t mess with it unless you know what you’re doing, which of course, no one does. I mean, the thing has the name Pandora in it. Kind of says it all, don’t you think?

I had a great time reading Secrets of the Book. Fans of KidLit and history should check it out. I’m confident it will have you hooked after the first couple of pages.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
You don’t choose the book—the book chooses you.

Sixth grader Spencer Lemon has a degenerative eye disease—and he’s rapidly losing his eyesight. So he has no idea why he was chosen to guard Pandora’s Book. When Ed, the old guy at the nursing home, hands over the book, he doesn’t get a chance to explain any of the rules to Spencer. Spencer only knows that the book contains famous dead people—people who can be brought back to life. Spencer and his autistic best friend, Gregor, soon figure out how to get people out of the book, but not how to get them back in. Then Ed disappears, and a strange man shows up on Spencer’s doorstep—and he seems to know a lot about Spencer and about Pandora’s Book. Is he one of the bad guys? Or is here to help Spencer unravel the secrets of the book? But there are others interested in Pandora’s Book, others who might use its powers to take over the world. And it’s up to Spencer, along with Gregor and Ed’s mysterious (and cute) granddaughter Mel, to protect the book—and save the world.

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Book Review—The Infinite Pieces of Us

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The more I read YA fiction, the more I realize just how hard it is to be a kid nowadays. I won’t bore you with idyllic memories of roasting marshmallows around a campfire, but I will say that for many kids—and parents—today the world is a harsh, unforgiving place fraught with consequences. And this reality was never more evident than in the wonderful new novel by Rebekah Crane entitled The Infinite Pieces of Us. In it, she has given us Esther Ainsworth, a smart, soulful sixteen-year-old girl who has already lived far beyond her years and who is now forced to live in a dry, brittle desert that serves as punishment for something she did and whose secret must never be revealed.

As adults, we are well versed in the notion that we must accept the consequences for our actions. But we also lie—to ourselves and to others—to avoid those consequences, even if only for a while. In this story, Esther learns just how willing adults are to lie to keep the consequences at bay so we can live our lives as though nothing had happened. In such a world, Esther can’t rely on adults for guidance and must turn to her peers, hoping they can help. A touching subplot explores how Esther has fallen away from her sister, Hannah, who blames Esther for ruining her life by making the family move, even though it was their parents’ decision to do so. I found Hannah tragic and vulnerable and could easily picture a sequel starring her.

If you are a parent raising teenagers, read this book. Because these honest, hurt characters will tell you truths that your children will not—that what you see on the surface doesn’t begin to describe the pain and anxiety they carry inside like an even smaller hurt child.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
From the author of The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland comes a hilarious and heartbreaking novel about coming apart, getting it together—and moving on. It’s just a two-hour drive…

Pondering math problems is Esther Ainsworth’s obsession. If only life’s puzzles required logic. Her stepfather’s solution? Avoidance. He’s exiled the family to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to erase a big secret from Esther’s past. So much for the truth. Now for the consequences: an empty swimming pool, a water-sucking cactus outside her window, a goldfish rescued from a church festival, and Esther’s thirst for something real.

Step one: forget about her first love. Step two: make allies. Esther finds them in Jesús from the local coffee bar; a girl named Color who finds beauty in an abandoned video store; Beth, the church choir outcast; and Moss, a boy with alluring possibilities. Step three: confess her secret to those she hopes she can trust. Esther’s new friends do more than just listen. They’re taking Esther one step further.

Together, they hit the road to face Esther’s past head-on. It’s a journey that will lead her to embrace her own truth—in all its glory, pain, and awesomeness.

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Three Things I Learned from Anne of Green Gables

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I suppose if I had been an English Lit major, I would have read this beautifully crafted classic years ago. But I never got around to it until recently. I don’t know what drew me to Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery’s tale of an extraordinary orphan who, by her very nature, continually amazes and confounds everyone in her path. Maybe it was because I have two daughters? Sure, let’s go with that.

What struck me more than anything is Anne’s indomitable spirit. And let me tell you, it’s so contagious that after finishing the novel, I realized that in some ways I had changed, demonstrating once again the power of words to move the human heart. I want to talk about three things I learned, and I hope that for those of you who have not read this lovely book, you will set aside the cozy mysteries and historical romances for a time and introduce yourself to Anne Shirley. Okay, let’s begin.

The Human Spirit Can Soften Even the Most Hardened Hearts
By the time Anne arrives at Green Gables, she has charmed the socks off Matthew Cuthbert. This man is the classic strong, silent type, but in his heart burns an eternal child who, in some ways, longs to see the world as Anne does—a wondrous place full of mystery and promise. He had actually gone to the train station to collect a boy from an orphanage to help out at Green Gables now that he and his sister, Marilla, are getting on in years. But due to a mix-up, Anne was sent, and she is the one Matthew finds waiting for him at the station. At first, worried that he would now have to return Anne to the orphanage, he quickly decides that it might not be a bad idea to keep the girl. But he knows his sister, and Marilla surely won’t have it.

Marilla is interesting. Though she and her brother manage a small farm with all the work that entails, I really couldn’t see that things were that bad. There was always plenty of food, a warm house, and beauty all around them in Avonlea. Yet we find that Marilla is a dour woman who never permits herself even a smile. She acts severely, and to meet her, you would think circumstances were much worse. What’s interesting, though, is that secretly Marilla has a sense of humor she keeps to herself.

Despite Marilla’s temperament, Anne manages to convince her to let her stay and then, over the course of the novel, proceeds to soften Marilla’s heart to the point where the old woman can express love outwardly. No one—not even her brother—could do that. Anne’s incredible spirit has triumphed.

Never Underestimate a Girl
Though only eleven when she arrives at Green Gables, Anne has already been through a lot. While being passed around from family to family, she learns some useful skills. But adults don’t believe children know anything, which is best illustrated by Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s attitude toward the girl at the beginning of the story.

At one point, Anne is forbidden to see her dearest friend Diana because, through no fault of her own, she served Diana homemade currant wine instead of raspberry cordial. When Mrs. Barry finds her daughter incapacitated, she ends the relationship on the spot, thinking Anne is a wicked, irresponsible girl who has gotten her daughter drunk on purpose.

Later, Diana’s little sister, Minnie May, comes down with croup, leaving the clueless babysitter “helpless and bewildered.” Mr. and Mrs. Barry are away and, as the child’s condition worsens, Diana panics and runs to Green Gables for help. Marilla is also away, and while Matthew goes to get the doctor, Anne accompanies Diana back to her house. Having babysat her share of children, Anne knows well how to treat croup and takes charge, administering regular doses of ipecac. By the time the doctor arrives, the child is sleeping comfortably.

When Mrs. Barry learns that it was Anne who saved her daughter, she happily agrees to allow Diana and her to stay friends.

Recognizing That Mistakes Are Necessary Is Very Grown Up Indeed
Anne Shirley makes lots of mistakes throughout the book, exasperating Marilla and making her wonder how she ever let the girl stay. Some of them are funny, like the time Anne leaves a pie in the oven to burn because she is daydreaming. Others are more serious, as when Anne meets the judgmental Mrs. Lynde and screams in her face for insulting her. But in each case, the girl learns something. Take a look at this exchange between Anne and Marilla later in the novel when Anne is older:

“But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla? I never make the same mistake twice.”

“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Marilla? There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them. That’s a very comforting thought.”

I’ve known plenty of adults who never figured that one out.

Wrap-Up
In a way, Anne Shirley has changed my outlook. I tend to get stressed easily and constantly miss the everyday beauty around me because I’m always focused on getting the next thing done. After finishing the novel, I decided I am going to take more time, enjoy family and friends, and notice things. Yeah, I know. Corny, right? Well, it’s already made a difference. The trick is to keep it up, though. Often, I find myself slipping into old patterns—especially while driving. I sometimes wonder what kind of driver Anne would make. I mean, she does tend to daydream a lot.

Back to the big lesson I learned from reading Anne of Green Gables. It’s about finding joy in everyday things and sharing that joy with others. Not a bad way to live, if you ask me. Peace and love.

Book Review—The Replacement Crush

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This is the story of a high school girl named Vivvy—sorry, she hates that—Vivian, whose heart is broken by an attractive, thoughtless jerk named Jake. Viv is smart and funny. She loves romance books and the original Star Trek series—especially Mr. Spock. Any decent guy would be lucky to have her. But because of what happened with Jake, she has taken herself off the market. From now on, she plans to focus on boys who frankly do nothing for her. No sparks, no chance of another broken heart.

I enjoyed this story very much. Each of Vivian’s friends is unique and, like dueling Greek choruses, happily expresses their opinions about true love, raging hormones, and revenge. Of course, it takes two to make a romance, and Dallas is the mysterious newcomer who represents everything that threatens Viv’s plans. He, too, is smart and loves Star Trek—especially Captain Kirk. Also, he is computer-savvy, and plays the cello—the cello! Didn’t see that coming.

If you enjoy breezy romantic comedy with lots of snappy dialog, quirky townsfolk, and a nice beach setting, then this book is for you. And don’t let yourself get too upset with Jaz. She means well.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
True love can’t be strategized.

After book blogger Vivian Galdi’s longtime crush pretends their secret summer kissing sessions never happened, Vivian creates a list of safe crushes, determined to protect her heart.

But nerd-hot Dallas, the sweet new guy in town, sends the mission and Vivian’s zing meter into chaos. While designing software for the bookstore where Vivian works, Dallas wages a counter-mission.

Operation Replacement Crush is in full effect. And Dallas is determined to take her heart off the shelf.

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Book Review—The Wendy

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The Wendy is a delight—beautifully written and funny. Loosely based on characters created by J.M. Barrie, I sensed a bit of Dickens in the troubled upbringing of a modern girl named Wendy Darling who was just not at home in the eighteenth century. It seems men were not kind to women back then, the majority seeing them as suited for nothing more than matrimony and motherhood—if they had to be put up with at all. Then, this headstrong girl with grand ideas of captaining a ship enters the stage, and not only are the Neanderthals incensed at her boldness but astonished that she has skills.

Wendy is smart and accomplished and can hold her own against anyone—even the eternally pompous and mean-spirited Captain Hook. And she’s wise, considering she is only sixteen. Though I found her irresistible—especially her eyebrows—my favorite aspect of the novel is the voice of the narrator. I mean, it’s just so wonderfully witty. In fact, some parts made me laugh out loud. Good thing I was alone at the time.

For those who enjoy fantasy with their historical fiction, I highly recommend this book. It’s perfect for kids and highly entertaining for adults. A real gem.

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Book Description
THE WRONG KIND OF HERO.

“Girls can’t be in the navy! Girls take care of babies! You’re so stupid, you don’t know anything!”

London. 1783. Wendy Darling is an orphan, living in an overcrowded almshouse, ridiculed for believing in a future she can never have. More than anything in the world, she wants to be the captain of a ship. But that’s impossible. Isn’t it?

By 1789, she’s sixteen, old enough to be sold into service as a dressmaker or a servant. When she learns the Home Office is accepting a handful of women into its ranks, she jumps at the chance, joining the fight against the most formidable threat England has ever faced. Magic.

But the secret service isn’t exactly what she had hoped. Accompanied by a reimagined cast of the original Peter Pan, Wendy soon discovers that her dreams are as far away as ever, that choosing sides isn’t as simple as she thought, and that the only man who isn’t blinded by her gender… might be her nation’s greatest enemy.

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Book Review—Nora & Kettle

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At first, I had trouble getting into this book because it deals with violence against women and girls. I am the father of two daughters, and stories of physical abuse at home—in any time period—really set me off. Fortunately, Nora & Kettle is a beautiful novel and demonstrates in intense, sometimes lyrical prose, the sheer power and majesty of the human spirit. I felt Lauren Nicolle Taylor’s characters were well drawn and personable, and the setting believable. Her decision to contrast the life of a “rich girl” and her little sister with two homeless Japanese-American boys was the right one and proves to be very effective.

The terror behind the walls of Nora’s home echoes what was happening in a major city in post-war America in the early 1950s. Kettle and his “brother” Kin are just as much victims as she is. Like Nora, they must find a way to survive in a world that doesn’t want them. They must, at all costs, remain invisible and avoid confrontation. In Kin’s case, though, his anger gets the better of him, bringing more bad luck.

As a young adult novel, this story is pretty dark. But the lessons it teaches to a new generation are well worth repeating and make Nora & Kettle a book worth reading.

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Book Description
After World War II, orphaned Kettle faces prejudice as a Japanese American but manages to scrape by and care for his makeshift family of homeless children. When he crosses paths with the privileged but traumatized Nora, both of their lives are forever changed…

Lauren Nicolle Taylor’s Nora & Kettle is a heart-wrenching historical fiction novel that will appeal to fans of books by John Green and Ned Vizzini, novels such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Beginning of Everything, Eleanor & Park, The Book Thief, and classics like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye.

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Book Review—Opening Belle

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For me, the best part about reading fiction by female authors is getting a clue as what women are really thinking when men make fools of themselves—unfortunately, a daily occurrence in most places. And reading about the highly paid boors, rakes, and mansplainers who inhabit the corridors of Wall Street, well. Let’s just say I am genuinely impressed at the depths to which my fellow knuckle-draggers can stoop.

That said, Opening Belle by Maureen Sherry was a lot of fun. Following a stressed-out protagonist making boatloads of money while fending off the advances of the less evolved—not to mention contending with an entitled husband who cannot seem to comprehend the meaning of work—and you have the makings of sheer, page-turning mayhem. If you like reading about harried women professionals determined to blow up the glass ceiling, then grab this book. As a bonus, you’ll learn a lot about the inner workings of Wall Street—unless of course, the author was making the whole thing up.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
Maureen Sherry’s funny insider novel about a female Wall Street executive also trying to be a mother and a wife is a “compulsively readable…cheeky—and at times, romantic—battle-cry for any woman who’s ever strived to have it all and been told by a man that she couldn’t” (Entertainment Weekly).

It’s 2008 and Isabelle, a thirty-something Wall Street executive, appears to have it all: the sprawling Upper West Side apartment; three healthy children; a handsome husband; and a job as managing director at a large investment bank. But her reality is something else. Her work environment resembles a frat party, her husband feels employment is beneath him, and the bulk of childcare logistics still fall in Belle’s already crowded lap.

Enter Henry, the former college fiancé she never quite got over; now a hedge fund mogul. He becomes her largest client, and Belle gets to see the life she might have had with him. While Henry campaigns to win Belle back, the sexually harassed women in her office take action to improve their working conditions, and recruit a wary Belle into a secret “glass ceiling club” whose goal is to mellow the cowboy banking culture and get equal pay for their work. All along, Belle can sense the financial markets heading toward their soon-to-be historic crash and that something has to give—and when it does, everything is going to change: her marriage, her career, her bank statement, and her colleagues’ frat boy behavior.

Optioned by Reese Witherspoon who called it “smart, biting, and honest,” Opening Belle is “funny, relevant, and often shocking….Even if your own life is far from a fairy tale, it will allow you to laugh, learn, and maybe even lean in—to hug your own family a little closer.” (The Washington Post).

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Book Review—The Thinnest Air

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Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction featuring female protagonists. And I was delighted to learn that The Thinnest Air by Minka Kent has two. Meredith and Greer couldn’t be more different. The former is beautiful and, to be truthful, a little ditzy. She’s not sure what she wants to do in life and, by some stroke of cosmic luck, has managed to marry a wealthy investment banker. Greer, on the other hand, is practical and focused—even hard. She’s looked after her sister since they were little and apparently has zero sense of humor, not to mention a talent for winding people up. Each, however, is strong in her way.

The book is organized into chapters that alternate between Meredith and Greer, which I found to be compelling as a storytelling device. By the midpoint, I actually found myself preferring Greer’s story to Meredith’s. Maybe it’s because the older sister is a no-nonsense kind of gal. Overall, this novel works as a fun, taut thriller. But I have to say I was somewhat disappointed in the ending, which I won’t reveal here. Suffice it to say that the author set up a path that needed to lead to its logical conclusion but retreated at the end. Nevertheless, fans of the genre will find the story entertaining and the characters appealing.

Now, If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to enjoy a nice glass of Merlot and contemplate whether to name my next kid Isabeau.

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Book Description
A woman’s disappearance exposes a life of secrets in a twisting novel of psychological suspense from the author of The Memory Watcher.

Meredith Price is the luckiest woman alive. Her husband, Andrew, is a charming and successful financial broker. She has two lovely stepchildren and is living in affluence in a mountain resort town. After three years of marriage, Meredith’s life has become predictable. Until the day she disappears.

Her car has been discovered in a grocery store parking lot—purse and phone undisturbed on the passenger seat, keys in the ignition, no sign of struggle, and no evidence of foul play. It’s as if she vanished into thin air.

It’s not like Meredith to simply abandon her loved ones. And no one in this town would have reason to harm her. When her desperate sister, Greer, arrives, she must face a disturbing question: What if no one really knows Meredith at all? For Greer, finding her sister isn’t going to be easy…because where she’s looking is going to get very, very dark.

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Book Review—Lucky Jim

I’m pretty sure most readers today have never heard of Lucky Jim, that crazed, lunatic’s cry of literary rage against the sheer boredom of academic life in the early 1950s. I read the novel decades ago and recently picked it up again, having decided to take a break from nail-biting stories of horror and suspense. And I must say, Kingsley Amis’s excoriating masterpiece is just as hilarious the second time around.

When you first meet Jim Dixon, what strikes you is not only his penchant for mockery but his incredible ability to pull the most inventive faces. In fact, I counted no less than ten throughout the book, my favorite being his shot-in-the-back face. Those coupled with his irritatable mumblings, drunken ramblings, and blatant ignorance about women make for an antihero par excellence. And the highlight of these antics? A leaden, uninspired speech he must deliver to hundreds of students and faculty entitled “Merrie England,” whatever that means.

If you love scathing, satirical stories featuring romance, give Lucky Jim a try. And don’t worry that the book was published more than sixty years ago. Its razorlike humor is as fresh as ever. Try to decide which is your favorite Jim Dixon face. And imagine you had to deliver that ill-fated “Merrie England” speech. Hint: a few pulls of good Scottish whiskey and you will indeed be merry. Good luck.

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Book Description

Regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century, Lucky Jim remains as trenchant, withering, and eloquently misanthropic as when it first scandalized readers in 1954. This is the story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university who knows better than most that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” Amis’s scabrous debut leads the reader through a gallery of emphatically English bores, cranks, frauds, and neurotics, with each of whom Dixon must contend in one way or another in order to hold on to his cushy academic perch and win the girl of his fancy.

More than just a merciless satire of cloistered college life and stuffy post-war manners, Lucky Jim is an attack on the forces of boredom, whatever form they may take, and a work of art that at once distills and extends an entire tradition of English comic writing, from Fielding and Dickens through Wodehouse and Waugh. As Christopher Hitchens has written, “if you can picture Bertie or Jeeves being capable of actual malice, and simultaneously imagine Evelyn Waugh forgetting about original sin, you have the combination of innocence and experience that makes this short romp so imperishable.”

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Book Review—Twist of Faith

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Twist of Faith is a stunning story that turns on the eternal question, “Who Am I?” And it’s something that the heroes—if you think one of those exists in this novel—and the evildoers have in common as they go about their daily business. For me, the book reads like a madman’s dream where photographs can come alive, and the dead can speak. It’s a well-thought-out tale of intrigue and revenge—mostly revenge—that surprisingly leads to a high body count for a book that is not really a police procedural.

There’s a lot of anger in this tale, and I think the author was able to channel it in the lissome, paradoxical character of Ava. Though she defies reason, we want her. Bad. And maybe it’s the allure of danger that surrounds her. Or it could simply be that she was raised French and Catholic. Either way, watch out.

If you like the strange and mysterious, then grab this book. And you might want to crack open a nice Château Lafite Bourdeaux to put yourself in the mood.

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Book Description
When family secrets are unearthed, a woman’s past can become a dangerous place to hide…

After the death of her adoptive mother, Ava Saunders comes upon a peculiar photograph, sealed and hidden away in a crawl space. The photo shows a shuttered, ramshackle house on top of a steep hill. On the back, a puzzling inscription: Destiny calls us.

Ava is certain that it’s a clue to her elusive past. Twenty-three years ago, she’d been found wrapped in a yellow blanket in the narthex of the Holy Saviour Catholic Church—and rescued—or so she’d been told. Her mother claimed there was no more to the story, so the questions of her abandonment were left unanswered. For Ava, now is the time to find the roots of her mother’s lies. It begins with the house itself—once the scene of a brutal double murder.

When Ava enlists the help of the two people closest to her, a police detective and her best friend, she fears that investigating her past could be a fatal mistake. Someone is following them there. And what’s been buried in Ava’s nightmares isn’t just a crime. It’s a holy conspiracy.

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