Current Picks: Book Reviews

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.




The Murder Pit

Arrowood and Barnett investigate cases in the shadow of Holmes and Watson but never seem to live up to their high standards—and certainly do not attract the high-level clients of the latter pair.

In The Murder Pit, the former pair represent an untruthful couple who say they want to rescue their recently married, mentally deficient daughter from her aggressive in-laws. A murder occurs and the victim's body is not easily found, but the A & B pair sleuth on through covert and sometimes violent occurrences to resolve the matter.

The Murder Pit (2019) is the second book by Mick Finlay to feature Arrowood and Barnett. Check out Arrowood for the pair's first mystery.



Such a Perfect Wife

Crime reporter Bailey Weggins, the spunky protagonist in this mystery, will stop at nothing to find out what happened to a young mother who disappeared while jogging one morning. Bailey is tenacious and constantly sticks her nose in where it doesn't belong. All small towns have secrets, and Bailey just keeps trying to dig them all up.

Such a Perfect Wife (2019) by Kate White is an entertaining page-turner! And it's part of a series, so you can check out Bailey's previous adventures.

The Stationery Shop

Set in 1950s Tehran, this ill-fated love story features teenagers Roya and Bahman. Roya's favorite place is Mr. Fakhri's stationary shop and she goes there every Tuesday after school to indulge her love of novels, poetry, and everything stationery. It is here that she meets Bahman, a young political activist and, despite parental disapproval, class differences, and Iran's political unrest, their love blossoms.

The story actually begins 60 years later in Boston. Raya has spent her adult life in America as an immigrant, always wondering why the love of her life never showed up to their rendezvous in a city square amidst a violent coup. Out of the blue, she discovers that Bahman is a resident in a nursing home nearby. Will visiting him finally give her the answer? Has their love lasted a lifetime?

I really enjoyed this romantic tale by Marjan Kamali, who writes very evocatively of the 1950s streets of Tehran. Her descriptions of Persian food had me looking up recipes, especially for the cooling melon ice that she mentions multiple times in The Stationery Shop (2019). I went out and bought some cantaloupe the next day and it was just as refreshing as I imagined!



The Spies of Shilling Lane

When Mrs. Braithwaite is ostracized by the community because of her recent divorce and her bossiness running the local Women's Voluntary Service, she decides to travel to London to see her daughter, Betty. When Mrs. Braithwaite arrives where Betty is staying, she discovers that Betty is missing. With help from Betty's landlord Mr. Norris, Mrs. Braithwaite finds herself involved in quite an adventure to bring Betty home.

Mrs. Braithwaite also discovers her life and herself changed forever for the better amid wartime London. The Spies of Shilling Lane (2019) is a delightful read, much better executed than Jennifer Ryan's debut, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir. A great readalike for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.



Where Am I Now?

Did you enjoy Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire, or the remake of Miracle on 34th Street? These 90s films feature a delightful performance by the adorable Mara Wilson. She's all grown up now, and has written an engaging series of essays. In Where Am I Now?True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame (2016), Wilson covers her childhood in the spotlight (both good and bad), her struggles with OCD and depression, and coming of age as an aspiring storyteller in New York City.

Don't let the childhood stardom fool you. Wilson pursued the creative arts (both performing and writing) in high school and in college at NYU. She is a gifted writer and experienced storyteller, and those talents shine throughout her memoir. It is full of heart, featuring both heartbreaking and humorous stories.

Listen to her memoir via Overdrive. Watch a video with Mara on mental health for Project UROK. 



The Death of Mrs. Westaway

Harriett (Hal) Westaway is at the end of her rope, emotionally and financially. At 21, she is mourning the sudden and violent death of her mother and trying to make ends meet as a tarot card reader. She borrowed money from the wrong person and is now receiving threats. She is skeptical when she opens a letter from a law office, but it turns out to be a request for her presence at the reading of the will of her grandmother, Hester Westaway. There is a slight problem: Hal's grandmother was Marion and she died before Hal was even born. She couldn't help speculating. This could be the ticket out of her current mess, if she could get away with it and IF her conscience would let her get away with it. A few thousand pounds could get her back on her feet and the loan sharks off her back. Surely, a wealthy family wouldn't miss that amount of money.

When she arrives at the rundown estate and meets her "family," she begins to wonder if the money is worth the risk. She finds herself enjoying being part of a family, but this family has a tragic history and a few secrets hidden away where no one was supposed to find them. Hal finds herself uncovering secrets that involve her more than she could have imagined. This suspenseful plot and intriguing characters will keep readers spellbound until the very last page of Ruth Ware's The Death of Mrs. Westaway (2018).



City of Girls

This racy read begins in 1940 when 19-year-old Vivian Morris is thrown out of Vassar College. Her parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a crumbling theater. Vivian meets the charismatic and sensual theater players, embarking on a wild adventure.

Elizabeth Gilbert captures the fictitious Vivian's life from her wild-child teenage years through her 80s. The story covers WWII, family tragedy, unexpected friendships, and self-discovery. City of Girls (2019) has a strong sense of place, with New York City featured as a character. This lively, sensuous, and interesting novel showcases one life in the 1940s and 50s.