Current Picks: Book Reviews

Denise

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni (2018)

samhellOne of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I became so attached to the characters that I didn’t want the book to end. The main character and narrator, Sam Hill, was born in 1957 with a condition called ocular albinism, which made his eyes red. In school, he was ostracized and given the nickname “Devil Boy.” Sam takes us back and forth between his childhood and 1989, and then into the present. A significant aspect of his journey depicts the lifelong friendships he develops with two other outcast students, Ernie and Mickie. His Catholic school experiences were all too familiar and cringe-worthy, and at times, I felt like I was reading someone’s memoir. That’s how realistic and compelling I found the characters and storyline in The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.

I experienced a whole range of emotions: sympathy for Sam’s childhood struggles, anger and heartbreak at the bullying, admiration for his mother’s undying faith and encouragement, revulsion at the acts of a particularly vile character, and hopefulness due to his relationships with Ernie and Mickie. Highly recommend this Robert Dugoni novel for anyone who loves books with a great cast of interesting characters that are part of an emotional journey.
Jennifer

1356 by Bernard Cornwell (2013)

1356A gripping historical adventure filled with compelling characters, 1356 details another segment of the fight for supremacy among England, France, and the church. While this is Bernard Cornwell’s fourth novel featuring Thomas of Hookton, you can jump right in to this standalone story.

1356 is an action-packed tale of intrigue, political machinations, and a quest culminating with the Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years’ War. Thomas and his band of mercenaries adhere to strong moral code, often putting them at odds with others in medieval France.

For fans of history and historical fiction, military and war stories, quests, and compelling characters. Just a warning: this novel features several battles, so includes some graphic (though not gory) violence.

Pro tip: Listen to the dramatic narration by Jack Hawkins for distinctly voiced characters, gritty battle scenes, and intense adventure.

 
Heather

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost (2008)

diamondwillowHelen Frost tells the story of 12-year-old Diamond Willow, named after diamond willow sticks, which when carved and polished, have beautiful diamond-shaped designs. These designs are the forms that Frost's poems take in the book, each containing a hidden message.

Willow struggles interacting with other humans; however, she loves dogs and has a special connection with her family's favorite sled dog, Roxy. While attempting to save Roxy's life, an unexpected snowstorm ends up landing Willow in a harrowing predicament. Ultimately, though, this adventure leads to the reveal of a family secret kept hidden Willow's entire life.

A quick read and a creative format, Diamond Willow is on the Bluestem nominee list for 2019 for grades 3-5.
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Kathy

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017)

manhattanbeachJennifer Egan’s epic novel Manhattan Beach is set in the Brooklyn Naval Yards during World War II. This coming-of-age novel features Anna Kerrigan as a fiercely independent young woman who longs to serve the war effort as a diver, an occupation reserved solely for men in 1940s America. Anna’s underwater training takes her deep into the murky waters of New York Harbor, while her quest to uncover the mystery that has torn her family apart leads her into the dark underworld of organized crime.

Manhattan Beach was long-listed for the National Book Award in 2017. I recommend giving this one a listen — the audiobook narration by Vincent Piazza of Boardwalk Empire adds the perfect touch of noir to this historic novel.
Katie

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (2017)

hellouniversekellyHello, Universe was one book that I had to read in a single sitting because I was so enthralled with the story telling. Told by four very different characters, their storylines intertwine and meet throughout . The adventure is high-stakes (at least for a claustrophobic like me!), and I loved watching the characters develop and progress through their actions and thoughts.

My favorite character was Virgil Salinas. I loved his relationship with his pet, Gulliver, and with his lola (grandmother). He feels out of place in his family since he's not interested in sports. He's also the character who I felt the most concerned for, in terms of the adventure that he takes.

But I think what really made this a special read for me is that I read it the week before I heard Erin Entrada Kelly give her acceptance speech for winning the Newbery Award. The combination of book and speech is unforgettable and I'm so looking forward to anything Kelly writes next...including the Golden Valley High series. Ha!
Hugh

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham (2017)

roosterbarThree third-year law students at a for-profit law school are discouraged that only about half its graduates pass the bar and even fewer find jobs. After a bipolar friend commits suicide, the three lose any motivation to finish their studies and hang around the courts and hospitals trying to find clients to help. Yes, they accept fees and represent themselves as practicing lawyers, so the misadventures begin. Can John Grisham possibly find a soft landing for these three? Read The Rooster Bar to find out.
Elizabeth

The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn (2018)

womaninthewindowIf you enjoy classic Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, you will surely love this debut novel by A. J. Finn. Dr. Anna Fox, a former child psychologist, suffers from agoraphobia. She never leaves her house, nor does she ever open any windows. Nevertheless, she is quite a busy woman. She spends her time watching classic movies, drinking much merlot, and self-medicating with pills.

One of her favorite pastimes is spying on her neighbors. One day, as she is spying, Anna witnesses something horrible. The only problem? She cannot find a soul who believes her. The Woman in the Window is filled with twists and turns, and will keep readers entertained from beginning to end.
IPPL Staff

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi (2012)

shattermeImagine what it would do to a person to never feel the touch of another human being. Not because of loneliness, but out of fear. Something in Juliette’s body causes anyone who makes contact with her skin to undergo such excruciating pain that if contact has been made long enough, they will die.

In and out of doctors’ offices, psychiatric care, and more, her parents just want to rid themselves of their burden after the unspeakable happens. Juliette’s in an asylum—this is her life now. Until a government official takes interest in her and takes her in. Perhaps he can make use of this…gift. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi is filled with anticipation, heartache, and maybe, just maybe, a chance for Juliette to find love. This is her story.
Lora

Digging In by Loretta Nyhan (2018)

digginginTwo years after her husband died in an accident, Paige, living with her teenage son, Trey, is going through the motions of life. Adding to the stress, changes are afoot at the advertising agency where she works. Big Frank, the founder of the agency, has passed away and his son, Lukas has taken over. Lukas is enamored of the principles outlined in a trendy new business bestseller and has completely redesigned the workplace. He has also made it apparent that two out of the office's six employees will be let go soon.

One thing that has been extremely satisfying for Paige in this time of upheaval is digging in her backyard, much to the dismay of her noisy and not-so-nice neighbor, Mr. Eckhardt. Soon, Paige decides that she will turn the backyard into a garden. Will Paige be able to pull her professional and personal lives back together--and get a garden to grow? Digging In is a humorous tale of a woman overcoming a tragedy and finding a new self. Loretta Nyhan’s book is a great choice for those who love novels about relationships.
Jennifer

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole (2018)

dukebydefaultAnother unique and delightful romance from Alyssa Cole featuring realistic, sympathetic, and charming characters. In contemporary Scotland, Tavish is a traditional swordmaker struggling to keep his business afloat. American socialite Phoebe sees this apprenticeship as a chance to turn her life around. Sparks fly. You'll root for this pair as they navigate social issues, family challenges, and an unexpected dukedom in A Duke by Default.
Denise

Saving Sophie by Ronald H. Balson (2015)

savingsophieRonald Balson has written a complex, captivating story with great characterizations. Saving Sophie is a suspense/thriller infused with rich historical details and insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It takes you on a journey from Chicago to Hawaii to Israel, as Jack Sommers goes to any lengths to rescue his daughter. He is joined by an investigative team whose mission is not only to rescue Sophie, but to thwart a major terrorist attack in Hebron. There are many twists and turns to keep you interested. I found it not only entertaining, but also informative. At times it reminded me of I Am Pilgrim (another book I really enjoyed).
Heather

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson (2016)

msbixbysWritten from the alternating perspectives of three sixth grade boys, this exceptional novel follows their quest to create a very special "last day" for their teacher, recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and unable to finish the school year. Clever, funny, and heartwarming, this quick read will take you through a range of emotions as you are part of Steve, Brand, and Topher's mission for their beloved Ms. Bixby.

Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson is among the 2019 Bluestem and Caudill Award nominees for the State of Illinois, designed for students in grades 3-5 and 4-8, respectively, but grownups, don't discount the opportunity to enjoy this book as well!
Hugh

The Midnight Line by Lee Child (2017)

midnightlineRetired army officer Jack Reacher has not settled down after leaving the service. He travels light, buying new when the old becomes worn and never stays long in one place. He finds a West Point ring in a pawnshop and begins a journey through the Midwest to Wyoming hoping to find the owner and hear her story. Along the way, Jack meets the owner’s twin sister and the detective she has hired to find her twin. They encounter many obstacles including those raised by illegal drugs, but Jack is tough and the honor of a fellow officer is at stake so there is no thought of giving up even when the way is filled with danger.

Check out The Midnight Line for Lee Child’s latest adventure starring Jack Reacher.
Katie

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (2017)

aminasvoiceAmina loves music and especially loves to sing. But whenever she stands on stage, words never come out. And Amina has more than just stage fright to worry about: friends, family visiting from Pakistan, and her parents have signed her for a Quran recitation competition! Can Amina find her voice in time?

Hena Khan writes a realistic, relatable character in Amina. Readers will cheer for Amina throughout the book; even when Amina makes some mistakes, she is quick to make amends.

I thought that the story was fast-paced and very engaging for readers. I had to keep turning the pages to find out what would happen to Amina.

Amina’s Voice is currently on the Bluestem 2019 Nominees list for grades 3-5. Make sure to pick up a copy of our challenge log when you check out a copy in the K&T Department.

 
Jennifer

I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon (2018)

iwasanastasiaLong fascinated by the Romanovs, I jumped at the chance to read a new historical novel featuring the doomed Russian royals. Did Anastasia survive the firing squad? In alternating timelines, Anastasia Romanov and Anna Anderson share their stories. Whether you think you know what happened, you’ll be drawn into the dual narratives—Anastasia’s story starts in 1917 and moves forward, while Anna’s narration starts in 1970 and goes backwards in time.

I was Anastasia is a richly detailed and moving tale. Try listening to Ariel Lawhon’s latest novel—narrators Jane Collingwood and Sian Thomas do an excellent job bringing the fascinating story to life.