Current Picks: Book Reviews

Pocket Full of Colors

Explore the colorful and magical world of Mary Blair in this junior biography told with beautiful pictures. While we can now find Blair listed among top Disney artists, animators, and designers, we get to see how her childhood love of colors and sketching led to that future working with Walt Disney himself. It is not an easy journey, trying to compete with men as well as color cynics (perhaps somewhat surprising for the world of Disney we know today). Ultimately, though, Blair receives an invitation to help create arguably the most recognizable and nostalgic theme park ride of all time—and my personal favorite—It's a Small World, truly epitomizing Blair's talent and vibrant imagination.

Check out Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire (2017) by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville. For more information, visit Oh My Disney for The World Behind "It's a Small World" and The Life and Work of Mary Blair.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

I was feeling the need for a good book to escape into and Alix E. Harrow really delivered with whimsical prose and a fantastical story in The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019).

Set at the turn of the 20th century in Vermont, we follow the story of January, a young mixed race child in the care of a wealthy collector, Mr. Locke. Her guardian employs her father to travel the world searching for and obtaining rare treasures and curiosities, which are then added to Mr. Locke's extensive collection or sold at secretive auctions.

At the age of seven, while on a trip to rural Kentucky with Mr. Locke, January opens a dilapidated blue door amongst some ruins in a field and is briefly transported to another world, a world that smells of salt and stone, a world that feels strangely welcoming. Her few short moments there leave her wondering if it was a real memory or just her imagination. Then, at the age of 17, her father disappears while on one of his trips and a book mysteriously appears in a treasure chest in Mr. Locke's collection—a book that carries the scent of adventure and other worlds and tells of ten thousand 'doors'. And so begins an upheaval of January's life and the opening of new doors.

Lovers of Narnia and The Time Traveler's Wife will enjoy this beautifully written book, full of the power of the written word, love, and strong female characters.

The Right Sort of Man

In London after World War II, Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge operate The Right Sort Marriage Bureau, which is a matchmaking service. When one of their clients, Tillie, is murdered, and Dickie, the man they set Tillie up with, is arrested for the crime, Iris and Gwen take it upon themselves to find the killer because they know Dickie is innocent. They also know the scandal of the crime could ruin their business. Luckily, Iris worked undercover during the war, and those skills come in handy, as can having a partner like Gwen, who also can think fast on her feet.

The Right Sort of Man (2019) is a breezy, cozy mystery with colorful characters. Allison Montclair's debut is excellent for people who enjoy Jacqueline Winspear, Susan Elia MacNeal, and Alexander McCall Smith.

The Bad Guys

I read this book in one sitting with a three year old: I'd call that an accomplishment and give a lot of that credit to author Aaron Blabey. We follow Mr. Wolf and his associates, Mr. Snake, Mr. Piranha, and Mr. Shark, on a mission to turn around their longtime reputations as bad guys. They hit just a couple bumps along the way, but are determined to make amends.

This early chapter book is part of a series, so get caught up in Blabey's sketchy characters' silly escapades. The Bad Guys (2017) is a 2020 Monarch Award nominee, recommended for grades 2-4.


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Drawing Home

Penny lives with her mother, Emma, in the Hamptons and treasures her time with Henry Wyatt, a famous artist who has made Sag Harbor his home. When Henry dies and leaves his estate, most importantly, his home Windsong, to Penny, Henry's old friend, Bea, is furious. Years ago, she and Henry agreed that when he passed away, Windsong would be turned into a museum. Bea also wonders why Henry would give his estate to a teenage girl. Leaving Manhattan, Bea arrives at Windsong, vowing not to leave until the home is in her hands. Emma is not happy with Bea's appearance, but has her hands full. She is helping Penny manage her OCD, has a job at the American Hotel and must adapt to their newfound wealth.

Drawing Home by Jamie Brenner (2019) is the story of Emma, Penny, and Bea and how Henry's bequest changes their lives. It's a perfect read-alike for the novels of Elin Hilderbrand.

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How We Disappeared

Set in 1940s Singapore, How We Disappeared grapples with the tragic history of 'comfort women' in World War II. These young local girls were taken from their families at gunpoint and subjected to years of brutal rape by the occupying Japanese forces. If they managed to survive the war and return home, instead of being welcomed back with open arms, they were often shunned by their family and neighbors.

We follow the story of Wang Di, who was taken from her village by the Japanese army in 1942. Almost 60 years later, she is now an old woman, but has kept her painful past a secret for all this time. Her husband has just passed away and she is struggling with her new lonely life and her overwhelming memories. At the same time, Kevin, a 12 year old struggling at school and home, loses his grandmother. In her last delirious hours, she whispers a confession to him, a secret about her son that she has kept since the war. Kevin is determined to unravel this mystery in the hope that it will help with his father's depression.

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee (2019) interweaves several different narratives to create a suspenseful story that also focuses on the beauty of friendship and human relationships.

And Then There Were None

In this classic British standalone mystery by Agatha Christie, eight people are invited to a mansion on an island near the coast of Devon, England. They are greeted by two staff, who tell them that the host has not arrived but has left instructions. One by one, they are murdered like the characters in the nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians.

If you are looking for a book that is suspenseful, compelling, and has a baffling, clever plot, check out And Then There Were None.

After reading the 1939 book, check out the excellent 1945 movie of the same name.

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.



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. 


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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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.


Series Spotlight: Peachy and Keen by Jason Tharp

The cat, Peachy, and the dog, Keen, are best friends. The series, Peachy and Keen, feature the two friends in stories of their school adventures at Happy Trails School.

In the first book, A School Tail (2018), Peachy wants to work on the school newspaper but discovers there is no longer a print newspaper. Peachy has the idea to replace the newspaper with an online magazine. With Keen's help, Peachy finds four classmates to work on the PURRFECT9: Rue, the high fashion kitty, Connie the octopus, Nanner the monkey, and Gertie the unicorn. Of course, they need a faculty sponsor and recruit Rocco the llama, who is the janitor. Principal Trunx, an elephant, is not helpful to Peachy but in the end… the PURRFECT9 staff wins him over.

These books by Jason Tharp are full of puns. To enjoy the stories, a reader will need to understand (and enjoy) puns. Even the title – Peachy Keen – is a pun.

Each book is 96 pages. There are full color, cartoon-style illustrations on each page and these add to the story and are fun in themselves. There is a significant amount of text, which makes the books look harder than they are. The Lexile is 590-770.



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.



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.