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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cheddar's Tales: Showdown in Crittertown

The drama continues! Or at least, it does in showdown in Crittertown by Justine Fontes. 

Now that things have settled down around the post office, word on the street is that the local elementary school will have to close due to a budget crisis. Cheddar and the gang love these students and can't imagine not seeing them after school regularly. They hatch a plan with the students to save the school. Meanwhile, a rumor is brewing of war between the post office colony and the library colony. Who is making the weapons and planning to take over? Can Chefdar come up with a solution in time to save everyone from certain ruin? 

Just as with the first book, Cheddar and company are completely adorable and melt-worthy in this second book. Cheddar is a kind soul, and it's clear when he draws up a peace treaty between the Post Office and Library gangs that he cares about not just his own family, but also the greater good of mice in Crittertown. He comes up with the idea to hold an anual Mouselympics competition between the two houses, and it turns out well for everyone. It's a sweet moment, and it has a nice moral to it as well. 

Also I this book, character development begins to expand. Cheddar and Nilla both have crushes in the library clan, even though Nilla's is what led to the sharing of post office information, which facilitated the peace treaty. Poor girl; she just wanted to be loved back. Cheddar, though, has a crush on Poetry, and by the end of the book it looked like it might be headed somewhere. He did give her one of his beloved cheddar crackers, after all. 

As an adult reading this book, I thought it was incredibly humerus that the mice and the children solved the school budget crisis by just raising the shortage. After all, we know budgets don't work like that. However, from a kiddo perspective, it's an uplifting take that shows the power of teamwork and what can happen if we all care just a little about our fellow man (or mouse, if you will). 

Realistic budgeting 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Crisis in Crittertown

So, I'm a fan of the Cheddar's Tales series. It's a super cute, super fun set of books for kids in the early childhood set to be read aloud to by their parents, and in elementary school to read on their own. There's a good, positive moral to the story, and it's still adorable for parents to read. I proudly read Crisis in Crittertown on the train this week. 

Ever since The Change, the mice of Crittertown can understand, read, and speak English. It's the darndest thing, but they sure are enjoying themselves. Cheddar, Nilla, and his gang all live in the Crittertown post office and have a nice life there. They snack on the mailman's crackers, enjoy the daily hustle and bustle, and spend time relaxing and loving life. Then one day they overhear the mailman talking about having to close the post office. Where will Cheddar and his litter go? They sneak out one night to find a new place, heading to the library and a bed and breakfast to a school. Can they find a new home before it's too late, or will the groups of mice not be willing to share their homes with Cheddar and his family?

The cuteness is on overload over here, folks. Cheddar can write. Like with a full-size pencil. He sometimes can't help himself, like when he eats half of a girl's cheese sandwich because he's so hungry. (Cheddar cheese is his favorite, FYI.) He makes friends with dogs and with children, but cats will never work out. He stands up to a nasty, angry gang of mice at the grocery store, and after reading that passage I seriously had to consider how I feel about my local grocery store mice. His adventures were just lovely, and it was nice to read a children's book that was fluffy for me but that I know would be highly enjoyed by the 3 foot set in my life. 

My absolute, no-doubt-about-it, favorite part of this book was the library scene. The mice who call that habitat home all have names that correspond with sections of the Dewey Decimal System. There's Nonfiction and General History. Seriously. I'm not kidding. It's absolutely glorious, and it was just a fun, lovely book to read. I enjoyed myself immensely and I look forward to putting this on my child's bookshelf to one day read aloud with him.  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

This Is Where It Ends: A Novel

This is one of those books I picked up at Book Expo a couple of years ago and it fell in the cracks of my TBR pile. I love me some crime, so Marieke Nijkamp's This is Where It Ends seemed right up my alley. 

It's the first day back to school after winter break, and the students of Opportunity Hugh School are in their annual assembly hearing the same speech from their principal they hear every year. When it ends, students go to leave -- but they can't get out. The doors are locked. In the confusion, Tyler walks in with a gun and begins to slaughter his classmates. 54 minutes later, the nightmare is over. 

The best thing I can say about this book is how disappointed I was in it. I was hoping for a nuanced look at what happens in a school shooting, with some compassion for the victims. Instead, I was incredibly turned off by the graphic and gratuitous violence Nijkamp portrayed. I get it -- it's the reality of this kind of situation. But it felt gory for the sake of shock value, and I wasn't shocked so much as disgusted at the lack of respect for victims of this type of tragedy. 

I found some of the characters to be interesting, if a bit contrived. I found parts of the story to be of interest as well. I was, however, completely turned off my the ending. The night if the shooting, after many students get out successfully, they all hold a vigil at the school. That's slightly unrealistic, as the author seems to have no grasp of shock or the aftermath of violent crime, but it's in the speeches given that my mind was blown. The students come together for their lost siblings and friends, hold hands, and promise that this is where it ends. The hate and the unhappiness. Are you serious? Having just gone through an enormous trauma where dozens of murders were witnessed first-hand, you really think these kids are coming together hours later and holding a rally where they smile at each other? I feel that the author could have used a psychologist on hand to talk about trauma. 

I'm just grateful that this book was on the short side. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mystic River: A Novel

I remember seeing this movie forever and a day ago, and I remember it being very affecting. I can't, though, remember any of the details of the story. So I picked up Dennis Lehane's Mystic River and won the lottery with its story. 

Just hours before she's supposed to run off and elope with her secret boyfriend, Katie goes missing. There's blood in her car, and soon she is found brutally murdered in the woods near where she few up. The man investigating her death, Sean, grew up with her father. They were young and naive, playing outside when the third of their trio, Dave, is kidnapped and sexually assaulted for four days before returning. Now Dave is a suspect in Katie's murder. We always think our pasts will never come back to haunt us -- until they do. 

I was completely blown away by how utterly outstanding this novel turned out to be. I was simply hoping for a good story and an indulgent read, and I got far more than that from this piece. I found the characters to be compelling and full-bodied, leading this story into nail biting territory without being a thriller. I was completely invested in these men and their families, and I found it hard to turn away from them and their story, which was also told so beautifully. When you have a set of characters in a well-developed story, it's almost impossible to say that you don't come to care about them as people. Who cares that they aren't real?

Katie's murder lent itself to the crime angle I love so much, and it was gruesome in description yet honest enough to elicit a sense of sadness from me. Combined with Dave's story, it made me mourn humanity, because while it may not be a terribly common occurrence, both of these stories were all too real. This story reminded me that I do indeed quite like Lehane, and I should seek out more of his cannon. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Waiting: A Novel (Guest Blogger Charlotte)


Waiting, by Ha Jin, is not my usual style of novel. But one of my New Year's resolutions this year was to read more National Book Award or PEN/Faulkner Award Winners. Waiting won both, so I decided to put it first on my list.

Waiting is the story of a Chinese army doctor who is in an arranged marriage but has fallen in love with a nurse who is stationed alongside him. It begins when he has been waiting eighteen years for a divorce, to which his wife will not agree, and then travels back in time to take the reader through the early years of his marriage and the long quest of waiting for his divorce to be allowed and the life of his dreams to begin. The reader sees from the perspectives of Lin, the doctor, and Mannu, the nurse, through the back and forth that unfolds through these long years of waiting. By the book's third act, we are back to that eighteenth year.

What I enjoyed most about the book was the descriptive language used to set the scene of life in a Chinese village, countryside, city, and army camp throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. That is a world I know nothing about and never really gave any thought to, and while the descriptions are short and shy away from flowery language, the scene-setting is strong. I found that I would get engrossed in parts of the story and be envisioning them because of all the details included. For example, when Lin first travels home to visit his wife, this is part of the description:

Shuyu was making a jacket for their daughter, cutting a piece of black corduroy with a pair of scissors and a stub of French chalk. Two yellow moths were circling around the 25-watt bulb hanging from the papered ceiling. On the whitewashed wall, the shadow of the lamp cord severed the picture of a baby boy, fat and naked in a red bib, riding a large carp in billowing waves. On the mat-covered brick bed were two folded quilts and three dark pillows like huge loaves of bread. The sound of frogs croaking came from the pond at the southern end of the village while cicadas' chirping seeped in through the screen window. A bell tolled from the production brigade's office, summoning the commune members to a meeting.

It is almost all nouns and facts, but the vignette is set so that the reader can see and smell and feel it. I particularly loved the descriptions of Chinese foods throughout the book and their contrast to some of the stark descriptions of army and communist life, which are often included as a throw-away like they are in the paragraph above. It gave the book an eerie edge to its touching, personal narrative and made me feel almost as if I was living in that setting, where someone was always watching to see what others would say or do and looking over their shoulders.

I felt like this book had so many insights into the practical considerations of relationships and marriage, and how much they can influence one's choices even more than feelings do. In most young adult novels, if there are practical considerations at all to a relationship, they are seen as something to be overcome - if your parents don't like someone, you can try to convince them otherwise! But in Waiting, all the characters have practical things to consider about one another, such as their age, ability to earn money for the family, or even the rules that the army, government, or culture have about relationships. One aspect I really liked was when the characters would have internal dialogues and almost fight with themselves about this battle between practicality and feelings. Even though their situation was so far from my own, I found it relatable.

Waiting is strangely compelling, even though the story is somewhat predictable and half the book is built on the suspense of whether or not Lin will get a divorce, though we know from the beginning that he will not for the first eighteen years and then he should be able to. The story is not in the actions but in the everyday thoughts and feelings of these ordinary people, who each want what is best for themselves and their own lives while still wanting to be good people in the world. There are moments that are sad, brutal, and confusing, and the overall awareness of the disadvantages women in the story faced gave a mournful tone to even the happiest passages.

This is not a beach read by any means. It is an easy story to follow, and so it can be read in little bits, because you won't forget these characters and what they're going through. There are passages you will read a few times, just to put yourself in them and look around. And while it wasn't written for young adult readers, I found it accessible and, surprisingly, it actually made me more interested in Chinese culture and history without feeling like it was trying to.

- Charlotte 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

That Night: A Novel

I actually read this novel before the previous Chevy Stevens that I posted, yet I completely forgot to post this one! This is That Night.

Toni will never forget that night, the one where her sister was murdered, and she would soon be under investigation, charged, and convicted. She knows that she and her boyfriend Ryan had nothing to do with it, but how on earth could they clear their names? Seventeen ears later, they are getting out of prison and each needs to create a life for him- or herself. They both end up back in their small hometown, where they must avoid each other as a condition of their parole. Too bad Toni can't also avoid the horrible girls who made her life miserable in high school. Soon, though, others connected to the trial start disappearing, and Toni and Ryan come under suspicion. Can they piece together what happened that night before it's too late for them -- again? 

This novel showed that Stevens is really finding her voice. She steps away from the talking-to-the-therapist trope and really digs into her characters from both a first-person and a third-person perspective. She develops strong character arcs in this novel, developing Toni over time from a sullen teenager to an angry grown woman who will stop at nothing to show that she is clear of the charges -- and the conviction -- against her. Ryan is also interesting, but it's really Toni that interested me as a character. The mean girls in her world were great foils that were three dimensional, and it made for a great and gripping read. 

I also really enjoyed the story. There was enough personal buy-in from the beginning that I found myself wanting to come back to the story after I had to walk away. The twist at the end was genuinely surprising, and Chevy has moved away from the over dramatization of a final twist and ended this story with a Big Bang. It made for reading that was indulgent and heart-racing. This is definitely one thriller I would recommend to anyone looking for a great Friday-night read at home alone with a bottle of wine. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Pelican Brief: A Novel

I'm going way back in the John Grisham canon with The Pelican Brief. Arguably, Grisham's first three books are his absolute best, with this being the third. After I read The Client, I'll let you know if that stands for the first four. 

Darby is an outstanding law student in New Orleans, enjoying her time and enjoying the eligible bachelor professor as well. After two Supreme Court justices are murdered in one night, Darby puts together a brief on what could be linking the murders -- and it soon becomes the reason she is running for her life and her beloved is dead. The Pelican Brief, as it's called, names a very dangerous man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, which is control of land that will yield him billions of dollars. If Darby can survive, she must trust an investigative reporter to get the story out in time. 

This throwback of a Grisham novel was positively wonderful. It was everything I love about his intricate storytelling, his grasp of complicated legal binds, and his awkward insertion of a romance where there really doesn't need to be one. This quite long book read very quickly, because the story is so compelling that it begs to be read. Darby is a fantastic character in her own right; rarely does she need to be rescued and, in fact, is more willing to walk away than trust any man she has suspicions about. I hesitate to call her a feminist character, but she's damned close for a 1990ms portrayal of a woman in pop lit. 

It's been fun to hark back to Grisham's easy work, because it really is outstanding. I know he's a little fluffy for "serious readers" (snort), but I appreciate a good book that reads like water flows through a brand new pipe and that capture my attention so full it's the only thing I want to read. This novel did just that, and it was well worth the time I spent with my nose in a book. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Never Knowing: A Novel

I have enjoyed some of Chevy Stevens' earlier novels, and I picked this one up way back in the spring when I was in Ocean City for a bachelorette weekend at a lovely used bookstore next to our condo. I dug into Never Knowing on the train this past month.

Sarah has spent her whole life wondering who her birth parents are. She had a perfectly loving family, but her father was hard on her and she always get like an outcast among her younger siblings. Before her wedding, she decides to do some digging and finds her birth mother. However, her birth mother doesn't want to see her. After hiring a private investigator to suds out the situation, Sarah discovers that her father is none other than Canada's most notorious serial killer, and her mother was the only victim of his to get away. Sarah knows that as long as the information doesn't get out, she will be safe. Then the information got out...

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and I thought it was a fascinating premise. It was outlandish enough to grab my interest and keep me turning the pages, while still being real enough that the true crime officianado in me could enjoy the juicy, salacious crime details. I love that Stevens incorporated a few known details about serial killers, and she made hers real enough that I wanted to keep knowing more.  I hated the misogyny that was inherent in this novel -- Sarah's "wonderful" fiancĂ© often calls her crazy or overdramatize or tells her that she needs to calm down, to which Sarah always defers and then self-deprecates in a disturbing way -- and it was in both the men in Sarah's life (see previous sentence about fiancĂ©, and her father was annoying too) and Sarah herself, who never really stuck up for herself or grew a backbone. Unfortunately, this overshadowed the interesting parts of the story for me. 

There were a couple of other things that irked me about this book as well. The first is that the story is told in the same format as Stevens' first book, which is in chapters dilineated by therapy sessions. I thought it worked great for the first storyline, but this one not so much. It felt forced when it came up in the story, and I felt that the arc would have been much better served if Sarah was just the narrator and told the damned story. The other thing that bothered me was the ending. There is a big dramatic scene that is the climax of the story's action, then there is a bitty baby climax in the denouement that takes an already implausible story and just makes the whole thing absurd. It was wholly unnecessary and left a bad taste in my mouth. I liked the far-fetchedness of the serial killer storyline, and I wished she had just stuck with that. However, I do realz or this was her sophomore novel, so she was still finding her formula. 

I now feel that my issues with the characters counteract how I feel about the story. That being said, I'm still going to keep reading Stevens' books because I love a juicy story.