Current Picks: Book Reviews

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary (2019)

This uplifting novel got me out of my reading slump! The Flatshare features a perfect blend of delightfully quirky humor and lovable characters. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Leon and Tiffy, who share an apartment but haven't met (Leon works overnight and is home from 9am to 6pm; Tiffy has an opposite schedule). The pair begin a correspondence via post-it notes and slowly are drawn into each other's lives.

Beth O'Leary's charming debut is my favorite read of 2019. It's perfect for fans of romantic comedies, Sophie Kinsella, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, and One Plus One by Jojo Moyes.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (2019)

No sophomore slump here! Following The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang delivers another sparkling gem of a romance. Khai is autistic, doesn't think he can love, and avoids relationships. So his mom returns to Vietnam and finds Esme: a hardworking single mother with a limited education and fewer opportunities. I loved watching this nuanced pair grow as individuals and as a couple--and learning about Vietnamese culture. The Bride Test presents a modern twist on the arranged marriage trope.



Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson (2019)

Artist Henrietta "Hen" Mazur is convinced her next-door neighbor Matthew Dolamore is a killer. While at Matthew's home for dinner one night, Hen sees a fencing trophy that she believes belonged to murder victim Dustin Miller, who lived down the street from Hen when she lived in Cambridge. Hen isn't sure what to do because she has bipolar disorder and is doing well now, but while in college she had an episode and was arrested for attacking another student because Hen believed the student was a murderer. Hen feels the police won't believe her now, but when Hen begins to follow Matthew, she becomes a witness to his violence and her and Matthew's lives become forever intertwined.

I always look forward to a new Peter Swanson novel and this one doesn't disappoint. Before She Knew Him is a page-turner in the style of Alfred Hitchcock.



Series Spotlight: The Critter Club by Callie Barkley

Four friends – Amy, Ellie, Marion, Liz – have created a club to help "critters" such as pigs, puppies, mice, chickens, and cats. Amy's mother, a veterinarian, is instrumental in helping the girls with their adventures at the Animal Rescue Center in Santa Vista.

Each book features one of the four friends but all four girls are in each book. The Critter Club has problems to solve and they always find a good solution. In Amy on Park Patrol, the girls work to keep the town park for animals—not more stores. The girls help find a home for Plum the Pig in Ellie and the Good-Luck Pig. The girls start a pet sitting service – Critter Sitters – in Liz Learns a Lesson.

This is a great series for a reader who loves helping animals! Each book in the series of 18 books (so far!) is about 120 pages with black and white illustrations on most pages (book 1 is Amy and the Missing Puppy). Sparkles on some of the paperback covers add to the charm of the stories. The Lexile scores range from 460-630.

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Elevation by Stephen King (2018)

Stephen King takes us back to the fictional town of Castle Rock in his latest novella, Elevation, where we are introduced to Scott Carey, a good-hearted, hard-working man, who, as is the case in all of King's works, discovers something rather unusual is happening.

What's most disturbing to Scott is that the unusual thing is happening to him. He's losing weight at a rapidly increasing rate, yet his size doesn't change, ever. No matter how Scott tries to weigh himself down, the number on the scale continues to decrease. As Scott's journey toward weightlessness progresses, the lightness he feels helps him see things more clearly, which inspires the town to go through a kind of lightening as well.

This odd little tale lacks the usual Stephen King horror, so makes for a pretty, quick, dare I say, fun read.


Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King (2018)

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes travel to Fascist-controlled Venice to find a patient (Lady Beaconsfield) missing from the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem (Bedlam). Mary finds it to be a great lark mingling with the idle rich on Lido beach while Sherlock takes a more serious slant to their search and considers the finer points to their investigation. Yet Mary prevails as Lady Beaconsfield and her nurse attendant also enjoy La Doce Vita and often venture from their island hideaway to join the gang at Lido. Mary concocts a clever scheme to rescue Lady B from her Fascist older brother who is more interested in the Lady's inheritance than her welfare.

Follow the latest adventure of this pair in Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King (and to see where it all starts, check out my review earlier this month of The Beekeeper's Apprentice).



Fumbled by Alexa Martin (2019)

Another smart sports romance from newcomer Alexa Martin. This second chance romance is filled with sparkling wit and vivid characters (along with serious discussions of brain injuries in football). Fumbled is engaging and memorable. For fans of Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jasmine Guillory, and Rachel Gibson.




Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly (2019)

Martha Hall Kelly's newest novel, Lost Roses, focuses on Eliza, the mother of Caroline Ferriday (who you may remember from Lilac Girls). Kelly brings to life the story of Eliza traveling to St. Petersburg with Sofya Streshnayna, a cousin of the Romanovs. The two met years before and Eliza is excited to see Sofya's home, but Austria declares war on Russia and the Imperial dynasty starts to fall. Eliza escapes back to America while Sofya and her family flee to their country estate, putting themselves in mortal danger. Eliza tries to assist fleeing white Russian families to resettle, but fears the worst when she stops hearing from Sofya.

Lost Roses is a beautiful, well-researched tale of women's strength and friendships and surviving perilous times. Excellent choice for fans of historical fiction.



Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016)

Trevor Noah has a gift for storytelling (which makes it no surprise that he is now a comedian). I would have liked this book more if it were told in chronological order, but ultimately, I assume the order in which it is presented goes back to the fact that he's a comedian and likely thinks anecdotally vs. chronologically. That said, Noah tells such fascinating stories of his childhood, teen years, and young adult life, all while intertwining the cultural setting of South Africa while he was growing up. I highly recommend the audio to fully appreciate both the variety of languages Noah references and the emotion and humor in his storytelling.

Check out Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood and other titles on this year's 2019 Lincoln Award (PDF): Illinois Teen Readers' Choice nominee list.

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (2018)

Whether your personal beliefs are pro-life, pro-choice, or undecided, you will find this book captivating, heartbreaking, and impossible to put down. A Spark of Light is told in reverse chronological order. A distraught father storms into an abortion clinic in Mississippi, opens fire, and takes everyone inside hostage. Hostage negotiator Hugh McElroy is called in to try to defuse the situation. He quickly finds out, via text, that his own daughter is inside.

The strong bond between fathers and their daughters is a constant theme throughout this book. Also, expect a few surprises at the end. A very good read. Jodi Picoult has once again done extensive research in preparation for writing this thought-provoking novel.



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Golden Child by Claire Adam (2019)

In her debut novel, Claire Adam takes us on a tragic, thought-provoking journey to rural Trinidad. The Deyalsingh family struggles financially, but father, Clyde, finds it hard to accept help and feels suffocated by his wife's extended family. Their twin sons, Peter and Paul, are at the difficult age of 13. Peter is the 'golden child,' both academic and diligent, while Paul has always been deemed mentally challenged due to complications at birth.

The story revolves around the sudden disappearance of Paul when Clyde is faced with a parent's worst nightmare. Claire Adam's Golden Child is an emotional roller coaster of a book!



The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton (2018)

An unforgettable, haunting, and especially inspirational memoir by Anthony "Ray" Hinton, an innocent man who spent almost 30 years in solitary confinement on death row. What makes The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row so powerful is his enduring faith, hope, and compassion while living in the depths of "hell."

His friendships, family, and capacity to forgive are on display in this compelling work. His best friend, Lester, visited him every week for 30 years! Ray adopted the other death row inmates as his new family. He brought inspiration, laughter, and faith to them, and started a book club, which encouraged many of them to read.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, eventually became Ray's lawyer and was instrumental in getting his release. I especially appreciate Stevenson's quote: "I believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done." Listen to his TED Talk to get an inspiring and personal glimpse into his motivation for his life work. 

There are many disturbing and heartbreaking elements to this story as well – deep-seated racism and discrimination, inhumane treatment of prisoners, and our damaged, and often corrupt, judicial system, to name a few. However, Hinton's positive inspiration definitely outweighs the negative details. I highly recommend this book, which was also one of Oprah's Book Club Picks.




The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (1994)

In the first entry in Laurie R. King's series featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Homes, the reader is introduced to 15-year-old Mary as she encounters the retired Sherlock at his country home where he tends to his honeybee hives. Sherlock is amazed at the intelligence of this young girl and soon brings her in as an apprentice for disguise and deduction. Soon the game is afoot as the two work together to find a kidnapped daughter of an American senator and then encounter a descendant of an old foe eager for revenge.

Start with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and check back later this month for my review of the latest entry in the series.



A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler (2018)

Alva Smith's family's declining fortunes have ruled out marrying for love. With the help of friend Consuelo Yznaga, Alva settles on rich William Vanderbilt and they soon marry. The Vanderbilts are happy for the union because the Smith's standing in society is long-established and could help elevate the Vanderbilt name.

A Well-Behaved Woman chronicles Alva's life over thirty-five years, from newlywed and mother as she navigates upper-class hierarchy in New York, through her efforts to find a good marriage match for her daughter, ultimately showing how Alva finds love and happiness for herself. A fascinating novel by Therese Anne Fowler that had me intrigued and researching the Vanderbilt family.



The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (2019)

I loved this epic high fantasy from Samantha Shannon. Yes, it is a big book, but it is a standalone novel, so no waiting for a sequel and the nonstop adventure will make the reading quick.

Taking inspiration from old legends, Shannon has created a world with hints of our own and includes a wonderful collection of mythological creatures. This world is currently facing the imminent return of  'the nameless one,' 1000 years after he was trapped in the abyss. Will Sabran, Queen of Inys, produce an heir to protect her country from this threat? Ead Duryen has been sent from the South to infiltrate the court to protect the Queen, but can she maintain her anonymity whilst attacking cutthroats and wyrms? Across the abyss in the East, Tane is preparing for her trials in the hope of becoming a dragon rider, but will the appearance of a stranger put her future in danger?

The Priory of the Orange Tree is an incredible tale full of assassins, religious differences, legends, ancient magic, political intrigue, dragons and pirates. And it has a fantastic cover too!