Current Picks: Book Reviews

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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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.

Meet Cute

Kailyn literally collides with former child star and crush Daxton on their first day of law school. This meet cute seems picture perfect, but nothing materializes other than a betrayal. Fast forward to five years after law school when circumstances bring the pair together again: Kailyn is appointed as guardian to Daxton's 13-year-old sister.

Meet Cute (2019) is full of heart, humor, and family. This witty romantic comedy from Helena Hunting is perfect for fans of Julie James (especially Practice Makes Perfect) and Sally Thorne (The Hating Game).


A Darker Shade of Magic

Kell possesses the rare ability to jump dimensions, one of the last of his kind. Using blood magic to travel from Red London to White London to Grey London, he is tasked with being a diplomat between the cities. As a member of the Red London royal family, he wants for nothing. In his free time, he likes to smuggle items from one London to another, an act that is highly illegal and incredibly dangerous.

Before Kell's gift was so rare, there was a Black London. When corrupt magic overtook Black London, the doors were sealed to prevent it from spreading. Only those like Kell were left to travel the remaining cities. When a piece of the corrupt magic threatens the remaining worlds, Kell and Delilah Bard, a surprisingly talented pickpocket from Grey London, must work together to save their realities.

This book had everything I was looking for: a well-written female lead, an interesting magic system, and crossdressing thieves. The audiobook did not do the characters justice, and I recommend reading the book. A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab (2015) is the first in the Shades of Magic trilogy followed by A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light.

Drawing Home

Penny lives with her mother, Emma, in the Hamptons and treasures her time with Henry Wyatt, a famous artist who has made Sag Harbor his home. When Henry dies and leaves his estate, most importantly, his home Windsong, to Penny, Henry's old friend, Bea, is furious. Years ago, she and Henry agreed that when he passed away, Windsong would be turned into a museum. Bea also wonders why Henry would give his estate to a teenage girl. Leaving Manhattan, Bea arrives at Windsong, vowing not to leave until the home is in her hands. Emma is not happy with Bea's appearance, but has her hands full. She is helping Penny manage her OCD, has a job at the American Hotel and must adapt to their newfound wealth.

Drawing Home by Jamie Brenner (2019) is the story of Emma, Penny, and Bea and how Henry's bequest changes their lives. It's a perfect read-alike for the novels of Elin Hilderbrand.

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How We Disappeared

Set in 1940s Singapore, How We Disappeared grapples with the tragic history of 'comfort women' in World War II. These young local girls were taken from their families at gunpoint and subjected to years of brutal rape by the occupying Japanese forces. If they managed to survive the war and return home, instead of being welcomed back with open arms, they were often shunned by their family and neighbors.

We follow the story of Wang Di, who was taken from her village by the Japanese army in 1942. Almost 60 years later, she is now an old woman, but has kept her painful past a secret for all this time. Her husband has just passed away and she is struggling with her new lonely life and her overwhelming memories. At the same time, Kevin, a 12 year old struggling at school and home, loses his grandmother. In her last delirious hours, she whispers a confession to him, a secret about her son that she has kept since the war. Kevin is determined to unravel this mystery in the hope that it will help with his father's depression.

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee (2019) interweaves several different narratives to create a suspenseful story that also focuses on the beauty of friendship and human relationships.

And Then There Were None

In this classic British standalone mystery by Agatha Christie, eight people are invited to a mansion on an island near the coast of Devon, England. They are greeted by two staff, who tell them that the host has not arrived but has left instructions. One by one, they are murdered like the characters in the nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians.

If you are looking for a book that is suspenseful, compelling, and has a baffling, clever plot, check out And Then There Were None.

After reading the 1939 book, check out the excellent 1945 movie of the same name.

This Tender Land

In Minnesota during the Great Depression, the Lincoln School was tasked with "re-educating" Native American children and erasing their culture. Odie and his brother Albert escape the school alongside little Emmy and Mose, all of them orphans. The four children begin their journey in a canoe and set out for St. Louis, where Odie and Albert hope to find their aunt and form a family—but they'll have to put their lives on the line and offer up their souls for salvation first.

Along the way, the kids meet a cast of characters that enrich their travels and strengthen the unifying thread of love and hope throughout the story. This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger has touches of Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath and would be an ideal read for someone looking for a new book after finishing Where the Crawdads Sing.

Elevator Pitch

One morning an elevator in a New York skyscraper plunges to the ground, killing four people. The next morning, in a different building, a person dies when the elevator she's riding stops between floors. While attempting to climb out, the elevator jolts to a start, killing her in a gruesome manner. By the third day, when another elevator crashes in a different building, it's clear that these are not accidents, but targeted attacks and no one can figure out how they're happening. With so much of the city only accessible by elevator, New York City comes to a stop. Emergency personnel cannot get to people on upper floors, and many people who live or work on upper floors try to tackle the hundreds of flights of stairs. Many die from heart complications. The mayor's office, NYPD, and a journalist set out to find the terrorist behind these crashes before any more lives can be claimed.

Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay is an engaging read for anyone who likes thrillers with interesting twists along the way. Readers looking for political intrigue will also find much to be enjoyed in the conflicts within the mayor's office.

Although not as fast-paced as many thrillers, the compelling cast of characters mixed with a truly terrifying scenario kept me captivated. I found myself being more cautious and a bit uncomfortable riding elevators after reading this. It would make a sensational movie!

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.