Current Picks

Denise

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2019)

One of my favorite books of the past year: the writing is beautiful; the characters are superbly drawn; the storyline takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotions; and the atmospheric descriptions of nature and wildlife in the marsh, as well as Kya's interactions with them, are extraordinary.

The main character, Kya, known as "Marsh Girl" to the townspeople, is haunting and unforgettable. Her life story is relayed from age 5 through her twenties, as she grows up alone in a shack in the marsh after being abandoned by her family at age 8. Her strength, courage, intelligence, and resiliency are captivating. The mystery of the young man found dead at the bottom of a tower in the nearby town provides an additional element of intrigue.

It's impossible to capture the true essence of this amazing story in a review. You must read Where the Crawdads Sing to understand. I can't wait to read more books by Delia Owens


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Mary P.

The Glovemaker by Ann Weisgarber (2019)

In the 1880s, Deborah lives an unusual life in a small town in the Utah territory. Her husband Samuel, who travels as a wheelwright repairperson, is long overdue. She is part of a community of eight families who live apart from other Mormons because they do not carry the same beliefs.

When a stranger arrives on her doorstep looking for shelter from a federal marshal, it sets in motion a series of events that threatens not only her future, but that of her entire town. Fear and mistrust feature prominently among the community and of outsiders. The Glovemaker provides an interesting look at early pioneers, Mormon settlers, and survival in the 19th century.

Try this Ann Weisgarber novel if you enjoyed News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Both compelling, descriptive novels feature the early West and people overcoming challenging circumstances.



Megan

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.


Lora

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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Jennifer

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.



Kathy

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. 


Denise

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.



Hugh

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.



Mary P.

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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Lora

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson (2019)

Artist Henrietta "Hen" Mazur is convinced her next-door neighbor Matthew Dolamore is a killer. While at Matthew's home for dinner one night, Hen sees a fencing trophy that she believes belonged to murder victim Dustin Miller, who lived down the street from Hen when she lived in Cambridge. Hen isn't sure what to do because she has bipolar disorder and is doing well now, but while in college she had an episode and was arrested for attacking another student because Hen believed the student was a murderer. Hen feels the police won't believe her now, but when Hen begins to follow Matthew, she becomes a witness to his violence and her and Matthew's lives become forever intertwined.

I always look forward to a new Peter Swanson novel and this one doesn't disappoint. Before She Knew Him is a page-turner in the style of Alfred Hitchcock.



Jennifer

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (2019)

No sophomore slump here! Following The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang delivers another sparkling gem of a romance. Khai is autistic, doesn't think he can love, and avoids relationships. So his mom returns to Vietnam and finds Esme: a hardworking single mother with a limited education and fewer opportunities. I loved watching this nuanced pair grow as individuals and as a couple--and learning about Vietnamese culture. The Bride Test presents a modern twist on the arranged marriage trope.



Judy

Series Spotlight: The Critter Club by Callie Barkley

Four friends – Amy, Ellie, Marion, Liz – have created a club to help "critters" such as pigs, puppies, mice, chickens, and cats. Amy's mother, a veterinarian, is instrumental in helping the girls with their adventures at the Animal Rescue Center in Santa Vista.

Each book features one of the four friends but all four girls are in each book. The Critter Club has problems to solve and they always find a good solution. In Amy on Park Patrol, the girls work to keep the town park for animals—not more stores. The girls help find a home for Plum the Pig in Ellie and the Good-Luck Pig. The girls start a pet sitting service – Critter Sitters – in Liz Learns a Lesson.

This is a great series for a reader who loves helping animals! Each book in the series of 18 books (so far!) is about 120 pages with black and white illustrations on most pages (book 1 is Amy and the Missing Puppy). Sparkles on some of the paperback covers add to the charm of the stories. The Lexile scores range from 460-630.

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Kathy

Elevation by Stephen King (2018)

Stephen King takes us back to the fictional town of Castle Rock in his latest novella, Elevation, where we are introduced to Scott Carey, a good-hearted, hard-working man, who, as is the case in all of King's works, discovers something rather unusual is happening.

What's most disturbing to Scott is that the unusual thing is happening to him. He's losing weight at a rapidly increasing rate, yet his size doesn't change, ever. No matter how Scott tries to weigh himself down, the number on the scale continues to decrease. As Scott's journey toward weightlessness progresses, the lightness he feels helps him see things more clearly, which inspires the town to go through a kind of lightening as well.

This odd little tale lacks the usual Stephen King horror, so makes for a pretty, quick, dare I say, fun read.


Jez

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)

Despite being published late in the year, Michelle Obama's Becoming was the bestselling book of 2018 and once you start reading, it's not hard to see why. Obama's first book is everything you could want from a memoir by the former First Lady. Starting well before her time in the White House, Obama describes her life living on the Southside of Chicago and having to work hard from a very young age in order to get ahead in her education, including testing into an elite school. Going through her early adulthood, readers learn about Obama's humanitarian efforts in various positions to help underprivileged students get a better education and fair chance in life, a value she carries into her life in Washington.

Perhaps the reason most readers will pick up this book is to read about the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential elections and President Obama's terms in office. Michelle Obama does an excellent job of showing both the political and personal sides of life in the White House and having to navigate the nebulous position of a First Lady. Beautifully written and deeply personal, Becoming is the memoir to read this year. I highly recommend picking up the audiobook, read by the author, who could easily have a second career in audiobook narration if she chose.



Hugh

Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King (2018)

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes travel to Fascist-controlled Venice to find a patient (Lady Beaconsfield) missing from the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem (Bedlam). Mary finds it to be a great lark mingling with the idle rich on Lido beach while Sherlock takes a more serious slant to their search and considers the finer points to their investigation. Yet Mary prevails as Lady Beaconsfield and her nurse attendant also enjoy La Doce Vita and often venture from their island hideaway to join the gang at Lido. Mary concocts a clever scheme to rescue Lady B from her Fascist older brother who is more interested in the Lady's inheritance than her welfare.

Follow the latest adventure of this pair in Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King (and to see where it all starts, check out my review earlier this month of The Beekeeper's Apprentice).