2018 Newbery Books

It’s June, and I’m finally getting around to reviewing this year’s Newbery winners! I loved the diversity of the 2018 Newbery books. From a picture book for younger kids to a novel of free verse for teens, these books feature great characters, interesting (sometimes heart wrenching) stories, and a look at some of the most difficult parts of growing up.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

Crown is a picture book about black hair and feeling good about yourself when you look in the mirror. I can imagine that this book will give black children more self-confidence, and for those with all kinds of different hair, the book offers beautiful art and a fun, upbeat message about loving your personal look. I would love to have this book in my future child’s personal library.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Long Way Down

This book is quick to read, but its message is intense. It’s a free verse story about a 15-year-old boy whose brother was shot. On his elevator ride down to shoot the guy he thinks shot his brother, the boy talks to the ghosts of family and friends who died by gun violence. I’m not generally a big fan of free verse novels, but this one is powerful and (sadly) relevant for today’s teens. It will stick with you long after you read it.

Rating: Good (but definitely not forgettable!)

Piecing Me Together

I really enjoyed this book. It takes an unflinching look at race and privilege and reflects upon how even the most well-meaning people can make problems worse if they don’t truly understand the people they’re trying to help. The main character and her friends learn and grow as they appreciate each other’s perspectives and learn to use their voices to make themselves understood.

If you want a story about growing up that’s fun to read but doesn’t skimp on the complex issues that many teens face, you should check out Piecing Me Together.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hello, Universe

The 2018 Newbery winner was so fresh and fun and sweet, and it is chock-full of likable characters (both the three MCs and all the side characters). There is also some great representation in the characters (although their diversity isn’t quite as emphasized as in the other Newbery books this year), as the main characters include a Deaf girl as well as other, racially diverse characters. Hello, Universe is not as heavy as Long Way Down or Piecing Me Together, but it is certainly worth your time if you’re looking for a sweet MG read.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Comics Roundup, June 2018

I’ve been exploring comics again, and the more I read, the more surprised I am at how many comics I have enjoyed. This eclectic roundup offers short reviews of the volumes of comics I’ve been reading lately, along with a couple of books that are more focused on art than on words.

Black Panther and Hawkeye

Let’s start with the bad news: I still don’t like superhero comics. I loved the movie Black Panther, and Hawkeye is always a favorite character in the Avengers, but I just couldn’t get into either of these volumes of comics. I wanted to like them, but I just got bored. I’m not a big fan of fight scenes; maybe that’s my issue with superhero comics.

Rating: Meh

Misfit City

This series is just fun–it involves a group of girl friends who find a treasure map in the midst of their boring lives in what they see as a dead end town. This series is strongly influenced by The Goonies, complete with adventures in underground caves. I hope in future issues the girls will be further fleshed out (currently they each only have a couple of stereotypical characteristics to make each character distinct), but even here at the beginning of the series, I am enjoying the adventure.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Not-So-Secret Society

This comic was okay. It’s a little young for me–the story revolves around a group of 12-year-old friends who create science projects that sometimes get out of hand–but it’s really cute. If your child is into STEM, they will probably enjoy this comic.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Backstagers

This series tells the story of an all-boys school in which the stage crew has a magical, fantastical, and dangerous series of tunnels backstage. I have been captivated by the magical world of the backstage tunnels, and I can’t wait for future issues to explore them further. If you liked Bee and Puppycat, you will probably enjoy this series as well.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Herding Cats

This may be my favorite of Sarah’s three books. As always, she produces great comics about being female, being a Millennial, fighting anxiety, and making art. They are super relatable and hilarious if you fit any of those groups.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Arrival

This book is not a traditional comic, but rather a picture book with no words. It’s filled with gorgeous, strange sepia toned art. The wordless story is evocative of an immigrant’s experience, even though the land to which the character immigrates is not any place in our world. Give yourself plenty of time with this short book to pour over the art.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Fables

This comic has been completed (no spoilers please!), and I have been ripping through the many volumes. Fables is the story of fairy tale characters who are forced to live in the “mundane” world because they’ve been exiled from their own world by the Adversary. The series contains a certain amount of sexual and violent content, so be forewarned, but so far it hasn’t been enough to make me squeamish. I’m finding the characters to be interesting and complex, and the story keeps me coming back for more. I’m sure I’ll read several more volumes of this comic before the summer is over.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

YA Roundup, June 2018

(All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Love that Split the World

Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start… until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.

That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.

The time travel/wormhole aspect of this book really intrigued me when I first heard about it, which is why I decided to read this book. However, I really don’t enjoy YA romance that much, so I couldn’t get invested in Natalie and Beau’s relationship. If you enjoy books like Anna and the French Kiss, you will probably enjoy this book as well. It just wasn’t my favorite.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Truth Beneath the Lies

All Kayla Asher wants to do is run. Run from the government housing complex she calls home. Run from her unstable mother. Run from a desperate job at No Limit Foods. Run to a better, cleaner, safer life. Every day is one day closer to leaving.

All Betsy Hopewell wants to do is survive. Survive the burner phone hidden under her bed. Survive her new rules. Survive a new school with new classmates. Survive being watched. Every minute grants her another moment of life.

But when fate brings Kayla and Betsy together, only one girl will live.

This mystery/thriller was slow to start, but I enjoyed the last third once the mystery started to be revealed. This is a good choice if you enjoy thrillers with unreliable narrators but want something a little less intense than the adult options in that genre.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Universe Versus Alex Woods

A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …

This book is funny, but it’s also intense. The novel revolves around assisted suicide and grieving the loss of someone important. The characters are quirky and likable, but be prepared for some surprisingly dark content.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Top Ten Clues You’re Clueless

Top Five Things That Are Ruining Chloe’s Day

5) Working the 6:30 a.m. shift at GoodFoods Market

4) Crashing a cart into a customer’s car right in front of her snarky coworker Sammi

3) Trying to rock the “drowned rat” look after being caught in a snowstorm

2) Making zero progress with her crush, Tyson (see #3)

1) Being accused—along with her fellow teenage employees—of stealing upwards of $10,000

Chloe would rather be anywhere than locked in work jail (aka the break room) with five of her coworkers . . . even if one of them is Tyson. But if they can band together to clear their names, what looks like a total disaster might just make Chloe’s list of Top Ten Best Moments.

You might be surprised to learn (given my earlier opinion of YA romances) that I really enjoyed this sweet book. Six teenagers of widely varying personalities and backgrounds are trapped in the grocery store they work at on Christmas Eve when someone accuses them of stealing money from the charity drive. Although Chloe, an awkward teen struggling to keep her diabetes and her overprotective mom a secret, is our main character, each of the other characters is fun and unique. I loved watching the teens bonding and becoming friends even as they make mistakes and say insensitive things to each other. A sweet romance that’s not only about the romance–possibly why this book charmed me while others fell flat.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Books in Translation, June 2018

One of my long-term reading goals is to read one book from each country in the world. Admittedly, I’m not doing very well. I’ve read books from Russia, Australia, France, Botswana, Mexico, Iran, India, and a few more, but progress has been slow. These books are ones that I picked up purposely because they are very popular in their countries of origin, and they couldn’t have been more different from each other.

Moomin

I read two versions of Moomin, a very popular cartoon character from Finland. The first was the original comic strip for adults, and the second was a cute rhyming picture book for children called The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My.

“Charmingly meandering,” a quote from the back cover of the comic strip collection, is probably the best description for these comics. They don’t seem to have much of a plot, and what plot exists is strange, but the characters are also oddly lovable. If you’re looking for a fun and whimsical way to spend an afternoon, you might spend it with the Moomin family.

The children’s book is adorable, with translated rhymes and cutouts on every page, which really make the artwork shine. Each page ends with the invitation to guess what happens next. It’s silly and fun with unusual artwork. I think small children would love this book.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Jar City

When a lonely old man is found murdered in his Reykjavík flat, the only clues are a cryptic note left by the killer and a photograph of a young girl’s grave. Inspector Erlendur, who heads the investigation team, discovers that many years ago the victim was accused, though not convicted, of an unsolved crime. Did the old man’s past come back to haunt him?

As the team of detectives reopen this very cold case, Inspector Erlendur uncovers secrets that are much larger than the murder of one old man–secrets that have been carefully guarded by many people for many years. As he follows a fascinating trail of unusual forensic evidence, Erlendur also confronts stubborn personal conflicts that reveal his own depth and complexity of character. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is a great police procedural/mystery, and it is part of a series that is apparently quite popular in Iceland. However, I was uncomfortable with the amount of description of rape in this book. That’s about all I have to say about this one–interesting mystery, but be forewarned.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Small Goals + What I’m Into, June 2018

Linking up to share my June 2018 small goals + what I'm into. | NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I’m linking up with writes like a girl for my June 2018 small goals, and Leigh Kramer for my monthly what I’m into.

It has been ages since I’ve written a post, so I’m coming back from my hiatus with my small goals and what I’ve been up to lately. What with working 60 hour weeks and dealing with all the other issues that always seem to crop up during a busy season, I can’t even remember what my goals were from February!

  • Design a library bag. Okay, I did design it, but I’ve been unable to get my hands on an ink jet printer to use my iron on transfer. I’m counting this as completed, but there’s still one more step!
  • Start meditating again. Not at all. I dropped every extra thing that wasn’t essential to my life during the past three months (and, um, maybe some that were… I’m looking at you, yoga practice). Maybe I’ll be able to get back into this over the summer.
  • Go on a spending freeze. Yep!

Hey, 2/3 is pretty decent, all things considered. For June, my first month of summer “break” (I’m still working, just not nearly as many hours), I’m going for a mix of practical, catch-up items and fun, relaxing goals.

  • Prepare for vocal camp. I signed up to teach vocal camp at my studio again this year, and I need to prep my materials. I’m hoping to use a lot of the same activities I used last year, but I need to get everything out and take stock of what I have.
  • Organize paperwork. My method of just jamming everything into a drawer and out of sight worked temporarily, but now I need to put things where they belong before I lose something important.
  • Go to the beach. Need I say more?
  • Watch The Good Place. I was really enjoying this show, but I only got about six episodes in before the crazy hit. I want to get back into it this summer.
  • Read just for fun. Now that I have time to read again, I want to hit the library and take out a bunch of great beach reads and children’s books that I can fly through.

What I’m Into

Books I’m looking forward to reading: I just started Pioneer Girl, the annotated original manuscript by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and it has been fascinating so far.

TV shows I’ve watched: My husband and I have been getting into The Big Family Cooking Showdown on Netflix. It’s fun and sweet, almost like a Great British Bake Off for families cooking savory meals.

Instagram account I’m loving: Patrix15 posts gorgeous pictures of colorful houses, plus the art that others have made based on those houses.

Links I like: It’s been a while since the Super Bowl, but this article about the sound design is fascinating.

So Tana French is having her books made into a BBC series?

I love unexpected kinds of libraries.

A French carpenter wrote his diary on the boards of a chateau in 1880, and we’ve just discovered it.

My favorite Instagram:

Over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I had a Bob Ross painting party. Our paintings turned out surprisingly decent!

If you’d like to follow me on Instagram (I post lots of book pictures and the occasional selfie), you can do so here.

What are you all up to this month? Let me know in the comments!

ARC Roundup: April 2018

It’s been so long since I’ve had a chance to blog that a lot of really wonderful ARCs I’ve received lately have gone un-reviewed–until today! Today’s roundup includes books about friendship, science fiction, and (of course) murder mysteries.

Death at the Selig Studios

The next book in the Emily Cabot series is set in 1909 and involves the blossoming film industry. Interestingly, Emily is very judgmental of the actors and actresses, thinking that the films are tawdry and for the working class. When Emily’s brother Alden, who is involved in the movies (and possibly with one of the actresses), is accused of murder, Emily is torn between her desire to vindicate her brother and her desire to make him face the consequences of his choices.

I like how the historical setting in this book made such a difference in the characters’ actions and attitudes, making it different from many historical fiction mysteries I’ve read in which the time period stays firmly in the background. If you enjoy the combination of historical fiction and murder mysteries, you might want to give this series a try.

Strawberries and Strangers

Dumped by her cheating husband, Jenny King is trying to build a new life in the small seaside town of Pelican Cove. Locals are lining up at the Boardwalk Café for her tasty cakes and muffins. But when her aunt is accused of killing a stranger, Jenny is forced to set her apron aside and put on her sleuthing cap.

Jenny battles with the cranky local sheriff and quirky local characters to get to the truth. Aided by her new friends, she will move heaven and earth to find out who the dead stranger was and what he was doing in Pelican Cove.

If you like cozy murder mysteries with friendly small towns, scenic settings, yummy food and a touch of romance, you will like Strawberries And Strangers. (Summary via the author)

Romance and mystery abound on a small island on the East Coast. After a murder at one of the most exclusive parties in this small town, Jenny splits her time between wrangling with the sheriff, whom she can’t seem to meet without arguing, and trying to prove the innocence of her aunt.

I enjoyed the island setting–you know I love a cozy mystery with a good setting–and the interesting characters who populate the island. I’m usually not a big fan of romance, so I didn’t care much about Jenny’s love life in the book, but I am curious about where it will go in future installments. If you prefer a modern cozy mystery over a historical one, this is a light, relaxing read.

Belong

This book about friendship was lovely; much better than I anticipated. The design of the book is beautiful, and the advice contained within goes far beyond the usual tips for making friends. Agrawal suggests that you go IN first and gently deal with your own baggage, discovering what kind of friends you’re looking for and what kind of friends you need to distance yourself from, before you go OUT and find these people in the real world. Some of her advice wasn’t great (I couldn’t fathom why the author is so against identifying as an introvert or extrovert when this can be such a helpful tool in understanding personality, especially since both types clearly want and need friends), but on the whole, I greatly enjoyed the book. If you want a book about making friends that avoids cliches and has a lovely design, I highly recommend this one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Fresh Ink

I really enjoyed this collection of YA short stories. Some are SFF, some are stories set in the real world, and all feature diverse characters of all kinds by many wonderful authors. I would love to read some full-length books by these authors (and, in fact, I have several of their novels on my TBR list!).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Apple Strudel Alibi

This book is a fun addition to the Oxford Tearoom series, in which Gemma and the Old Biddies go to Vienna and must solve a murder which takes place in their hotel. I missed the usual Oxford setting (always one of my favorite parts of the books in this series), but it was fun to see Gemma and some of our other favorite characters in a new setting. As always, the mystery and the characters are fun and lighthearted. If you’ve enjoyed other books in this series, you’ll like this one too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Bob

Bob is a fun, short story of a girl rediscovering a childhood friend–who might just be a zombie. But this middle grades book isn’t scary. It’s fun and sweet and heartwarming and a little magical. It hasn’t stuck with me, but I enjoyed it as I read it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Inventors at No. 8

George, also known as Lord Devonshire, is living in a crumbling house with only an old manservant for company, after the unlucky deaths of both his parents. When he reluctantly tries to sell his grandfather’s map, he meets up with Ada (a young Ada Lovelace) and Oscar, who loves painting and adventuring with his orangutan. They go on a wild adventure across Europe in order to find George’s lost family treasure, find Oscar’s pirate father, and save Ada from the organization who wishes her harm.

I liked Ada and her flying machine, but I found both orangutan-owning Oscar and curmudgeonly George to be irritating. Still, the group’s adventure was fun, and their friendship despite the frequently insensitive or hurtful comments they made to each other was a lot more realistic than most friendships in MG books.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow was hugely popular when it came out a couple of years ago. It took me a while to get to it, as I knew it was going to be depressing, but I finally read it. It wasn’t exactly eye-opening for me–I knew a fair amount of this information already–but from the buzz around the book, it seems like a lot of people weren’t aware. Today I’ve teamed up with my husband to ask him about his thoughts on some of the things I found interesting from The New Jim Crow. Although he hasn’t read the book, he spent a year working as a correctional officer, and his insights on life in prison are helpful in light of the contents of this book. I’ve chosen a few of my favorite quotes and takeaways from the book, and he has responded to several of them. (My own notes are in italics.)
Prisons “create crime rather than prevent it” — What a lot of people don’t realize is that prison has this tendency to teach people to do what they can get away with in order to make their lives even a little easier, largely because the system isn’t designed to be worked within. For instance, the facility that I worked at had housing units with one central HVAC system that had a thermostat that only the maintenance personnel had access to (even I, as the unit officer, couldn’t access it to make it more comfortable for myself). Often the inmates who were really cold at night would block their vents with cardboard to make it warmer, even if it was against policy. During morning inspection, on a regular basis, I would hear inmates get caught with blocked vents, and they were told that they would get written up. Many of the non security personnel or lower ranked command staff would say something along the lines of, “Do what you need to do to be comfortable at night, but make sure it’s down by inspection so I don’t have to write you up.” That attitude doesn’t exactly teach or reward people for working within the system, rather the opposite, and it was just one of many things that I saw day to day that showed how counterintuitive the American idea of rehabilitation is.
“Many offenders are tracked for prison at early ages, labeled as criminals in their teen years, and then shuttled from their decrepit, underfunded inner city schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”  —  I began working as a correctional officer right after graduating college, around the age of 23. A surprising amount of inmates in my general population unit were my age or younger, and they often told me about how they were shuffled from extended families to juvenile detention to the foster care system, until they found themselves in prison. It always showed itself as a socioeconomic thing. I rarely heard a story of how someone had an upbringing of affluence and advantage and ended up in prison. (The New Jim Crow states that, ironically, the poor and black citizens of our country “find it increasingly difficult to obtain education, especially now that funding for public education has been hard hit, due to exploding prison budgets.” If you want to learn more about how socioeconomic status, race, and school zoning are interconnected in ways that make it hard or impossible for students of color to get ahead, you must read The Shame of the Nation, which covers this topic in depth.)
Charges associated with parole, probation, etc. can’t be paid by felons who can’t get a job, so they often end up back in prison, where almost all their wages go toward room and board in the prison.  —  As a housing unit officer, I was directly in charge of two housing units that held 54 inmates apiece, so I was in direct contact with 108 convicted felons on a daily basis. I would estimate that at least half of those inmates were up for parole or release within five years. The lucky ones would talk about living with a cousin or their parents for a while. One guy talked about how a family member had a used car lot in Knoxville, so he’d give selling cars a try instead of cocaine. A lot of them simply talked about how their family was either dead or wanted nothing to do with them, and most their friends were either dead or in prison as well. These people usually said they were trying to get into a halfway house that might let them stay for a couple months, but had nothing in the way of job prospects or contacts. Our facility didn’t have much in the way of job training. They closed down the HVAC school while I was there, the culinary program was really small and usually only populated by inmates on good behavior (i.e. those who were often down for long sentences), and the GED program was usually run by people who couldn’t cut it teaching in a real school (like so many non-security positions in our facility). For inmates without a support system after getting out, all I saw was desperation and apprehension. I’m not surprised at all that the recidivism rate is so high in America.
//

The main thing I took away from this book is how flawed our entire justice system is. From the policies our representatives make (so many policies, like the five year time limit on TANF, requiring an ID for voting, etc. seem legitimate until you look at how they affect the disenfranchised) to the police who enforce them (did you know that police can confiscate property whether or not you are eventually charged with a crime?) and the judges who sentence them (it’s amazing how much lawyers and the Supreme Court rely on upholding former cases and laws, even if they are clearly flawed), every step on the path to prison is filled with issues that need to be solved.

And these issues disproportionately affect black people, which is, of course, why the author calls mass incarceration “the new Jim Crow.” If you need stats, these are the ones that I found most shocking:

  • “In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.”
  • The United States currently imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
  • “The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.”

If mass incarceration and racial disparity in our judicial system are topics that you want to know more about, this book will inform you and outrage you. Definitely recommended.

Newbery Roundup: March 2018

I’m continuing to request all the oldest Newbery books through our amazing interlibrary loan, but since it takes time to get each book shipped to my library system, it has been slow going. These three books are the latest (oldest) Newbery honors I’ve been reading.

Jane’s Island

I enjoyed Jane’s Island a lot more than I anticipated. Ellen is hired to care for Jane, a free spirited girl spending the summer with her family in a scientific community on the water. Their summer is full of adventure, swimming, fishing, exploration, picnics, and science experiments. If you like old-fashioned children’s adventures like The Penderwicks and Swallows and Amazons, you’ll enjoy this book.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Out of the Flame

This historical fiction novel was all right, but I must say it took me a while to get into the story. In fact, I thought it started out really boring. The book follows Pierre, a page in the French court, who goes on adventures and tries to befriend Prince Henri. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I knew more of the actual history behind Pierre, the young princes, and the royal family in general.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Boy of the South Seas

This one was… okay. This book covers the adventures and travels of a Polynesian boy, but these are not very exciting. After accidentally stowing away on a boat, the boy is dropped off on an island near Tahiti, where he makes his home and learns more about the ways of both the island’s colonizers and his own people. The book is short, and not much happens. I can’t see many of today’s children becoming engrossed in the story.

Rating: Meh

Top Ten Books on My Spring TBR List

Today I'm linking up to share the top ten books I want to read this spring. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m linking up with That Artsy Reader Girl for Top Ten Tuesday to share my top ten list!

Readers, you might have noticed that I’ve been AWOL for almost a month now. That’s because I got a new job–without quitting my old job! While my schedule will eventually settle down, right now I’m working nonstop, so I haven’t had much time for blogging. But I had to jump on today’s TTT prompt. In no particular order, these are the books I’m looking forward to reading this spring.

  1. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  2. The rest of the Junior Bender series by Timothy Hallinan
  3. The rest of the Books of Bayern series by Shannon Hale
  4. The rest of the Howl’s Moving Castle series by Diana Wynne Jones (yep, I’m still working on finishing my unfinished series!)
  5. A Murder Hatched by Donna Andrews
  6. Ordinary Magic by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway
  7. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
  8. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  9. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
  10. Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery

Have you read any of these books? What books are on your spring TBR list? Let me know in the comments!

Fiction Roundup: February 2018

An eclectic assortment of fiction books I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve been reading an eclectic mix of fiction over the past two months, and they’ve all been enjoyable in different ways. But if you want to find out which book actually captured my imagination and kept me turning pages, scroll down to the end of this post!

(All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

What do a dead cat, a computer whiz-kid, an Electric Monk who believes the world is pink, quantum mechanics, a Chronologist over 200 years old, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (poet), and pizza have in common? Apparently not much; until Dirk Gently, self-styled private investigator, sets out to prove the fundamental interconnectedness of all things by solving a mysterious murder, assisting a mysterious professor, unravelling a mysterious mystery, and eating a lot of pizza – not to mention saving the entire human race from extinction along the way (at no extra charge).

This mystery/ghost story/sci fi novel by Hitchhiker’s Guide author, Douglas Adams, is just about what you would expect it to be. The book is funny and bizarre, and although it is (mostly) centered on earth rather than on space, it still has that science fiction/supernatural element that Adams is known for. If you’re looking for a quirky, entertaining book that defies strict genre classification, you’ll probably like this book.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Little Elvises

LA burglar Junior Bender has (unfortunately) developed a reputation as a competent private investigator for crooks. The unfortunate part about this is that regardless of whether he solves the crime or not, someone dangerous is going to be unhappy with him, either his suspect or his employer.

Now Junior is being bullied into proving aging music industry mogul Vinnie DiGaudio is innocent of the murder of a nasty tabloid journalist he’d threatened to kill a couple times. It doesn’t help that the dead journalist’s widow is one pretty lady, and she’s trying to get Junior to mix pleasure with business. Just as the investigation is spiraling out of control, Junior’s hard-drinking landlady begs him to solve the disappearance of her daughter, who got involved with a very questionable character. And, worst news of all, both Junior’s ex-wife and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Rina, seem to have new boyfriends. What a mess.

I read the first book in this series a long time ago, and I finally got my hands on a copy of the second book. The Junior Bender series has a bit more grit and gore than the mysteries I typically read–think action movie complete with guns and car chases–but it’s nothing too intense. Just like in the first book, the characters are interesting, the writing is fast-paced, and the mystery will keep you engaged. I did find a fair amount of weirdness in this book (why does the 37-year-old character living in 2012 not understand how to use Google and YouTube? What’s up with Junior’s relationship with his ex-wife, his daughter, and women in general?), but I’m still looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

This book has some similarities to Life After Life, which you may recall is one of my favorite books ever. The kalachakra live the same life over and over again, with complete memory of all previous lives. Harry has to outwit his former friend Vincent, who is having kalachakra killed before they are born, destroying Chronus clubs, and trying to build a quantum mirror, no matter what the cost.

I think the fact that this book is similar to one of my all-time favorite books did it a disservice, as I kept comparing it unfavorably to Life After Life. The other main issue I had with the book is the torture scenes (yes, multiple). It was a little too intense for me, and I had to stop listening to the audio book and borrow an ebook version so I could skim the rough parts.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Maltese Falcon

Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. But Miss Wonderley is in fact the beautiful and treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and when Spade’s partner Miles Archer is shot while on Thursby’s trail, Spade finds himself both hunter and hunted: can he track down the jewel-encrusted bird, a treasure worth killing for, before the Fat Man finds him?

I don’t enjoy a detective story as much as other kinds of mysteries, but I can see why this book is a classic. Sam Spade is iconic as the hard-boiled PI, and I did enjoy reading about his adventures. The book is very well written, but (of course) filled with sexism. I have another Dashiell Hammett book on my TBR list, so I’m looking forward to more tight writing, well-crafted characters, and several sighs and eyebrow raises over the author’s treatment and portrayal of women and minorities.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Year of Wonders

When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders.”

This book is my favorite on this list, and honestly, one of my favorite books of 2018 so far. It provides a well-researched, heartbreaking look at a village who cut themselves off from the world when the plague started to ravage their residents. The novel looks not only at how the disease makes life difficult, but how residents sometimes turn on each other rather than supporting each other. It’s fascinating historical fiction, and the author’s note provides interesting information on how much of the story is based in fact. I highly recommend Year of Wonders whether or not you think you’re interested in the plague. It’s that good.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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