Book Review: The Wonder of Us by Kim Culbertson

The Wonder of Us  
Kim Culbertson
Point , April 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-73151-5
Hardcover

If ever the old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ applied, this is that book. Abby and Riya became best friends the day Abby picked up a spider, and after naming it Sam, carried it outside where she let it go free. That was when they were in second grade and despite Riya being an extrovert and Abby an introvert, that friendship has remained unbreakable. That is until last year when Riya’s family moved to Berlin temporarily so Mom could help her brother stabilize the family business.

Shortly after the move, Abby’s mother announced she needed space and change, moving out a couple days later, only to begin living with the family dentist. Abby, feeling doubly abandoned, had to suck it up and start being the adult because her dad lost his way, leaving her to make meals, buy groceries, not to mention having to remind him to take a shower and get to work almost daily. It was a time she needed Riya desperately, but their phone calls, texts and face time chats were all poor substitutes for having her best friend at hand when she was continually crashing and burning in silence.

When Riya’s grandmother sprung for a grand European vacation and urged her granddaughter to invite Abby, it might have, should have, been the perfect healing reunion, but it wasn’t. Both girls had let too many secrets and unsaid things build up during their year apart and as they visited Florence, Switzerland, Berlin, Scotland, Iceland and finally London, it was akin to having a severe burn, only every time the healing started, someone ripped off the protective gauze, setting the process back.

Abby’s love of history comes alive when they visit each new location as the author brings historical tidbits to life in a way that allows readers to imagine they’re seeing them as well. Abby’s observations about how seeing certain places adds even more because she takes her emotional responses and turns them into dialogue that’s extremely easy to relate to.

The negotiations (there’s no better way to describe them) between the two friends are often awkward, cloaked in the angst and hurt of what should have been shared in the year they spent apart and ownership belongs to both of them. There are times when you feel like continued friendship is a lost cause, but their history is too strong for that to happen. If you want to find out how they end both the trip and where they’re headed, read the book and discover how much depth and insight it has. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Then you can read Kim’s other books as I have and see what a satisfying storyteller she is.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, March 2019.

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A Trio of Teeny Reviews

Ain’t She a Peach
Southern Eclectic #4
Molly Harper
Gallery Books, June 2018
ISBN 978-1-5011-5133-0
Trade Paperback

Once again, the McCready family of Lake Sackett, Georgia, is back in fine fettle with their McCready Family Funeral Home and Bait Shop and, also once again, they’ve captured my heart. This time the focus is on Frankie, the youngish coroner/embalmer who considers herself well past the age of independence but her parents don’t know how to even begin to think of letting their precious only child spread her wings, so to speak. Sure, she sneaks off to Atlanta occasionally for a night of satisfying rowdiness but she can’t make herself move out (although she has disabled the location service they use to track her). There are very good reasons for this helicopter parenting but, really, she needs to grow a pair!

There’s a new Sheriff in town, Erik Linden, and while Frankie has a few, or a lot, of philosophical differences with Erik, including his queasiness around her dead customers, she’s finding it very hard to resist the man. Meanwhile, the rest of the McCready bunch are around and about and the town’s Halloween Trunk-R-Treat festival is coming up while a teenaged desperado has it in for Frankie for some reason.

The whole rambunctious McCready clan is a family I’d love to be part of and this fourth book in Molly Harper‘s series is just as much fun as all the others. Oh, I do hope there will be more!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2018.

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Jurassic, Florida
Hunter Shea: One Size Eats All #1
Hunter Shea
Lyrical Press/Kensington, June 2018
ISBN 978-1-5161-0793-3
Ebook

LOL, I’m still chuckling over this book and I have only myself to blame for not having indulged in Hunter Shea‘s work before. Polo Springs, Florida, is a quiet little place but people are starting to notice that the lizard population, specifically small iguanas, seems to be popping up everywhere. Not just popping up—slithering and scampering and the little beasts apparently have lost all fear. Not so the humans in this town, folks like Frank who’s running from the mob and Ann Hickok, the very unlikely mayor who’s only 18 years old. Everyone in Polo Springs has stepped into their own Godzilla movie and the future’s looking very, very dim.

Polo Springs is about to get a rude awakening and they’ll wish they had those little iguanas back. In scenes that are alternately grisly and scream-inducing but also high camp, we learn the answer to the question: can anyone save this town from the invasion of giant people-eating critters?

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2018.

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In His Kiss
Neil Plakcy
Featherweight Publishing, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-64122-112-2
Trade Paperback

There’s nothing easy about high school, as most of us know, but senior Michael has it worse than some. First of all, he’s gay. No big secret there but he’s almost painfully shy and definitely insecure when it comes to actually finding “the right one” or even one who will do for right now. He’s also saddled with his younger brother, Robbie, aka the Big Mistake and family life pretty much revolves around Robbie with his multitudes of allergies and other issues. On the positive side, he has an awesome best friend, Brie, and she makes life in Stewart’s Crossing, Pennsylvania, tolerable although Michael is way past ready to get out of Dodge.

And then along comes Daniel Florez and life for Michael will never be the same again. Luckily for him, Daniel has a little more self-confidence—really, he’s almost oblivious to what’s not supposed to work or maybe his home life has just given him a thicker skin so he’s not quite as vulnerable. Whatever it is, Daniel is not afraid to make the first move and the second and the third… Suddenly, things are looking up for these two really nice kids and the future might be bright but there are some side effects, including resentment from Brie, but why are strange things happening to Michael, like awesome SAT scores? And, minor detail, why is the FBI hanging around spying on Daniel?

With a bit of fantasy and a lot of high school angst, not to mention lots of humor and love of all sorts, Neil Plakcy has created a story that had me smiling a lot and cringing just a little (in a good way) and I definitely want to know what Michael and Daniel are going to be up to next 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2018.

Book Review: The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris

The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder
Sarah J.Harris
Touchstone, June 2018
ISBN: 978-1-5011-9337-8
Hardcover

Synesthesia, the condition where a person sees colors with people’s words and other things, has made several recent appearances in crime fiction with varying degrees of success. Sarah Harris brings the condition to readers in The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder where Jasper Wishart is convinced he murdered his neighbor over some wild parakeets. Readers get the story in reverse as we are introduced to Jasper and his father after Bee is dead and the police are investigating, then move backwards in time to the night of the murder.  While Jasper’s synesthesia is the focus of Jasper’s odd behaviors, Jasper also suffers from prosopagnosia, the inability to visualize or remember faces. This condition also figures into the plot. It is clear that Jasper is also on the spectrum.  Jasper is thirteen though his behavior is that of a much younger child. It appears that he suffers from OCD and impulse control.  Jasper is an interesting character.

The murder mystery itself is pretty good. There are several twists along the way to keep the reader interested and to allow for a more suspects. And the writing is also beautiful.

My problem with this book, and it is a big one, is the synesthesia is overplayed to the point where I found the story almost impossible to follow for most of the first half to two-thirds of the book. The chapters are all subtitled with a color, many of the characters we only know by Jasper’s color name for them and the dialogue is packed full of the colors that Jasper is seeing. I do believe this would have worked better for me if at some point readers would have had the benefit of the perspective of another character on the happenings. Further into the book we do get a bit of the story told from the father as the crime is slowly unraveled, but it was a long time in coming. It would also have helped if perhaps the author would have chosen to give us other names for the characters or a listing somewhere so that we could glance back and she who “yellow french fries” or  “cherry pants” among others were and what their role in the neighborhood was.

I understand the author was striving to give readers realistic experience into what life with these conditions is like, but for me, it was just too much overpowering what was basically a very good whodunit.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St.Clair, June 2018.

Book Review: The Tribulations of August Barton by Jennifer LeBlanc

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Book Review: The Great and the Good by Michél Deon

The Great and the Good
Michel Déon
Gallic Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-910477-28-1
Trade Paperback

Originally published in 1996 as La Cour Des Grands, this translation of Déon’s Gatsby-like tale by Julian Evans tells the story of Arthur Morgan, the son of a poor French widow. He has a scholarship to an Ivy League university to study business law, and his mother spends money she can ill afford to purchase a first class cabin for him on the Queen Mary. Aboard the ship he meets Professor Concannon, who is on the faculty of university and is drinking himself into a stupor, and Allan Parker, an advisor to President Eisenhower, who becomes a valuable contact for Arthur. But of more importance to Arthur are the three beautiful young people he meets and becomes infatuated with.  There is Elizabeth Murphy, a carefree  wealthy bohemian with aspirations to become an actress, and the sultry and mysterious Brazilian Augusta, who immediately captivates Arthur. Complicating matters is Augusta’s brother Getulio, a fellow student at the university who is involved in gambling and a host of illegal schemes. Arthur becomes entangled in the lives of these people, and is slowly drawn into their circle. This coming of age story, set in the 1950s, reflects on Arthur’s choices and regrets, and the paths that his friends take lead to surprising consequences.

Déon is the author of over fifty books, including The Foundling Boy and The Foundling’s War.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, March 2017.

Book Reviews: Rescued by Eliot Schrefer and The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

rescuedRescued
Eliot Schrefer
Scholastic Press, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-65503-3
Hardcover

Every child wants a pet at some time or another.  A dog, kitten, pony or orangutan.  Maybe orangutan isn’t typical, but if you grew up watching BJ and the Bear or Every Which Way But Loose, you may see the simian sway.  Whatever the animal, it is almost always up to parents to make the decision.  Children don’t always know what is best.

When John casually notes the potential appeal of ape ownership while watching an old movie, he was not actually asking for a pet.  His dad could dig the draw when he recognized the leading “man” as an orangutan because sometimes the adorable orange creatures would wander around his company’s plant in Indonesia.

In fact, he returned from a business trip bearing a baby-orangutan-in-a-barrel.  John was beside himself with wonder and joy.  His mother was also struck with wonder; but hers was the “in doubt” version, much different than the “filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel” version that burst from her son. John’s wonder won and Raja became the newest member of the family for four rambunctious years.  Until divorce divided them.

The two year separation of John and Raja was torture; for both boy and beast; but paled in comparison to their last days together leading up to their final farewell.   This relationship is written so well, it is as if I actually witnessed it.  The fondness, understanding, patience, support and tolerance between the “brothers” is palpable.  The range of emotions that rocket through John as he blindly battles the hardest decision of his entire life build the ultimate reader’s rollercoaster and recalling that this is a sixteen-year-old-boy, ties a knot and truly tugs the heart-strings.

I thoroughly enjoyed each and every bit of this tiny tome and would be remiss if I did not highly recommend Rescued to those searching for reads.  While the book may  technically tip into the Middle-Grade category (for the 12-year-old and older readers), I have no doubt that there are many Teen-Aged, Young-Adult and Not-So-Young-Adult readers that will love Raja’s story as intensely as I do, and I’m confident that I’m not the only reader to learn a lot from it.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2016.

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The Game of Love and DeathThe Game of Love and Death
Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-66834-7
Hardcover

The Game of Love and Death is positively packed with particulars to ponder.  Love is a man, Death a woman. Each chooses a competitor, a term I use loosely; the chosen do not actually compete.  Most people are unaware of the Game, even while participating.  Virtually no rules, a victor is declared; but the win seems superfluous.

Flora, an amazing aviation mechanic, is also a phenomenal pilot, possibly rivaling Amelia Earhart.  It is 1937 and she “has the brown skin, and here in America, (you) pay so very much heed to that.” Besides, she can trick herself into believing that she was meant for something else.  The death of her parents created a void she valiantly tried to fill with the jazz nightclub she inherited.  Flora chose work over a high school diploma, believing “…the club was her future and most white folk were hell-bent on keeping colored folk in their place, even if they were polite about it.”

Henry hasn’t had it easy, but he is a white male.  His dream is simple: eke out a living with his beloved bass.  Instead, he works for the newspaper of his almost-adopted family, often accompanying Ethan on interviews.  When Henry sees Flora working on a plane, it is as if he had been sleep-walking through life and is just now completely awake.

The harrowing story of Flora and Henry in the The Game of Love and Death is enriched by the secondary characters.  Ethan isn’t the golden boy he seems, and his secret struggles would tarnish his image if revealed; although there is nothing to be ashamed of.  Simple spoken statements throughout, “there hasn’t been a white newspaper that’s written about the likes of us unless some sort of arrest was involved,” reiterate bigoted opinions; making the book more than just entertaining to thought-provoking, too.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2016.

Book Review: Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Bones & AllBones & All
Camille DeAngelis
St. Martin’s Press, March 2015
ISBN 978-1-250-04650-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Maren Yearly is a young woman who wants the same things we all do. She wants to be someone people admire and respect. She wants to be loved. But her secret, shameful needs have forced her into exile. She hates herself for the bad thing she does, for what it’s done to her family and her sense of identity; for how it dictates her place in the world and how people see her–how they judge her. She didn’t choose to be this way.

Because Maren Yearly doesn’t just break hearts, she devours them. Ever since her mother found Penny Wilson’s eardrum in her mouth when Maren was just two years old, she knew life would never be normal for either of them. Love may come in many shapes and sizes, but for Maren, it always ends the same–with her hiding the evidence and her mother packing up the car.

But when her mother abandons her the day after her sixteenth birthday, Maren goes looking for the father she has never known, and finds much more than she bargained for along the way.

Faced with a world of fellow eaters, potential enemies, and the prospect of love, Maren realizes she isn’t only looking for her father, she’s looking for herself.

Maren Yearly is most certainly unlike any character I’ve met before: Maren eats people, especially people who seem to like her and, one day, Maren finds herself on her own because her mother has abandoned her out of fear for her life. Rather than fall apart, Maren sets out to find the father who has never been part of her life and, perhaps, answers to the questions that have always loomed over her.

Now, one might question the appeal of reading about a cannibal, particularly with the rather gruesome scenes that are bound to occur (and they do) but the first chapter reeled me in by starting off with Maren’s first “meal”when she was just a baby and then moving on to a scene 16 years later when her mother deserts her, finally drained of all ability to protect and love her daughter. This conjunction of two kinds of pathos led me to think I wanted to know how Maren would cope and I’m so glad I pushed on.

Bones & All is an odd story, no doubt about it, and it most likely won’t appeal to a broad spectrum of readers but this is more than just a horror novel; this is the journey a young girl must take to accept herself and, as such, Ms. DeAngelis has done a nice job. It also carries a bit of an agenda but not obtrusively and the reader is free to embrace or ignore said agenda. In the end, it’s the story that matters most.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2015.