Current Picks: Book Reviews

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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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.


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).



Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016)

Trevor Noah has a gift for storytelling (which makes it no surprise that he is now a comedian). I would have liked this book more if it were told in chronological order, but ultimately, I assume the order in which it is presented goes back to the fact that he's a comedian and likely thinks anecdotally vs. chronologically. That said, Noah tells such fascinating stories of his childhood, teen years, and young adult life, all while intertwining the cultural setting of South Africa while he was growing up. I highly recommend the audio to fully appreciate both the variety of languages Noah references and the emotion and humor in his storytelling.

Check out Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood and other titles on this year's 2019 Lincoln Award (PDF): Illinois Teen Readers' Choice nominee list.

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (2018)

Whether your personal beliefs are pro-life, pro-choice, or undecided, you will find this book captivating, heartbreaking, and impossible to put down. A Spark of Light is told in reverse chronological order. A distraught father storms into an abortion clinic in Mississippi, opens fire, and takes everyone inside hostage. Hostage negotiator Hugh McElroy is called in to try to defuse the situation. He quickly finds out, via text, that his own daughter is inside.

The strong bond between fathers and their daughters is a constant theme throughout this book. Also, expect a few surprises at the end. A very good read. Jodi Picoult has once again done extensive research in preparation for writing this thought-provoking novel.



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Golden Child by Claire Adam (2019)

In her debut novel, Claire Adam takes us on a tragic, thought-provoking journey to rural Trinidad. The Deyalsingh family struggles financially, but father, Clyde, finds it hard to accept help and feels suffocated by his wife's extended family. Their twin sons, Peter and Paul, are at the difficult age of 13. Peter is the 'golden child,' both academic and diligent, while Paul has always been deemed mentally challenged due to complications at birth.

The story revolves around the sudden disappearance of Paul when Clyde is faced with a parent's worst nightmare. Claire Adam's Golden Child is an emotional roller coaster of a book!



The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (1994)

In the first entry in Laurie R. King's series featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Homes, the reader is introduced to 15-year-old Mary as she encounters the retired Sherlock at his country home where he tends to his honeybee hives. Sherlock is amazed at the intelligence of this young girl and soon brings her in as an apprentice for disguise and deduction. Soon the game is afoot as the two work together to find a kidnapped daughter of an American senator and then encounter a descendant of an old foe eager for revenge.

Start with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and check back later this month for my review of the latest entry in the series.



A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler (2018)

Alva Smith's family's declining fortunes have ruled out marrying for love. With the help of friend Consuelo Yznaga, Alva settles on rich William Vanderbilt and they soon marry. The Vanderbilts are happy for the union because the Smith's standing in society is long-established and could help elevate the Vanderbilt name.

A Well-Behaved Woman chronicles Alva's life over thirty-five years, from newlywed and mother as she navigates upper-class hierarchy in New York, through her efforts to find a good marriage match for her daughter, ultimately showing how Alva finds love and happiness for herself. A fascinating novel by Therese Anne Fowler that had me intrigued and researching the Vanderbilt family.



The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (2019)

I loved this epic high fantasy from Samantha Shannon. Yes, it is a big book, but it is a standalone novel, so no waiting for a sequel and the nonstop adventure will make the reading quick.

Taking inspiration from old legends, Shannon has created a world with hints of our own and includes a wonderful collection of mythological creatures. This world is currently facing the imminent return of  'the nameless one,' 1000 years after he was trapped in the abyss. Will Sabran, Queen of Inys, produce an heir to protect her country from this threat? Ead Duryen has been sent from the South to infiltrate the court to protect the Queen, but can she maintain her anonymity whilst attacking cutthroats and wyrms? Across the abyss in the East, Tane is preparing for her trials in the hope of becoming a dragon rider, but will the appearance of a stranger put her future in danger?

The Priory of the Orange Tree is an incredible tale full of assassins, religious differences, legends, ancient magic, political intrigue, dragons and pirates. And it has a fantastic cover too!

Series Spotlight: Ada Lace by Emily Calandrelli

Ada has two turtles: Oxygen and Hydrogen. For children who know why Ada used those names…this is the series for them! Author Emily Calandrelli is a graduate of MIT and works with Bill Nye, The Science Guy. She knows children, science, and technology.

Ada, a third grader, uses science to solve mysteries. She keeps a field guide noting what is happening all around her. The field guides are an important tool for Ada. Maybe the reader of these books will start a field guide?

The first book in the series (Ada Lace, On the Case) finds Ada watching Mr. Pebbles' apartment and she wonders…is there a dog in the apartment? Another adventure (Ada Lace Sees Red) finds that Ada has programmed a robot – George – and he does what she asks (think Alexa)…but not without problems. In Ada Lace, Take Me to Your Leader, Ada's neighbor gives her a ham radio. Ada is trying to connect with someone/something. Her friend Nina thinks aliens are answering but are they really?

At the end of each book, a "Behind the Science" section explains several of the issues and concepts in the book. There are five books in the series so far. Each book is about 118 pages with black and white illustrations on most pages. Lexile scores range from 570-610.

And…could there be a connection between Ada Lace and Ada Lovelace? This is a good opportunity to practice research skills!



My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

Oyinkan Braithwaite's debut novel is a classic tale of sibling rivalry with a dark twist—one of the sisters happens to be a serial killer. In its darkly humorous telling, this book explores universal questions about the relationship between two sisters and how their lives intertwine in ways that can never be undone. My Sister, the Serial Killer is a character study, a love story, and a family drama all rolled into one. Oh, and given that one of the sisters can't seem to avoid murdering any man that shows interest in her, it's also a bit of a crime drama too.

This is a book about love and loyalty that asks the question: How do you choose between doing the right thing and doing what you know to be right?



No Exit by Taylor Adams (2019)

College student Darby is heading home to Utah for Christmas to see her dying mother when she's caught in a blizzard. Forced to get off the road by the bad weather, she ends up at a rest stop thinking she can wait out the storm and then be back on the highway. When she sees a girl locked in a cage in one of the other cars at the rest stop, she wonders which of the other four people trapped there are responsible. Soon, Darby finds herself fighting for both her life and the girl's in order to see justice done.

No Exit by Taylor Adams is a white-knuckled thriller that's hard to put down, but it's not for the squeamish. Try this novel if you enjoyed Harlan Coben books or Greg Iles' 24 Hours.



The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (2018)

greatErnt, a former POW in Vietnam, takes his family to Alaska in an effort to make a new start after losing job after job in the lower 48. The long summer days and the helpfulness of neighbors allow the family to adapt to their new wilderness home, but as winter and darkness descend, the father’s demons begin to show.

His teenage daughter, Leni, makes friends with her desk-mate at school, but he is the son of a longtime resident with whom her father has issues. As time passes, darkness descends as both the days shorten and the family’s troubles multiply.

Kristin Hannah follows up her WWII blockbuster The Nightingale with the 1970s-set The Great Alone.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier (2013)

lastThis novel details the journey of Honor Bright, a young Quaker who leaves England to follow her sister, who was about to start a new life in Ohio with her betrothed. Things don’t turn out as planned when Honor’s sister dies en route. With nowhere else to go, Honor moves in with her sister’s fiancé, Adam, and his sister-in-law, and struggles to deal with his family.

Along the way, Honor befriends a local milliner named Belle who makes good use of Honor’s excellent quilting skills. Working in the shop, Honor meets Belle’s brother, a slave hunter, and witnesses some movement along the Underground Railroad, giving her insight into both those who seek to uphold the law and those who sought to help slaves to freedom. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier is a thought-provoking and leisurely-paced historical novel that is filled with interesting characters, loss, and a unique look at slavery in America through the eyes of the Quaker community.

A Mask of Shadows by Oscar de Muriel (2018)

maskIn late 19th century Scotland, detectives Frey and McGray are plagued by the calls of a banshee that bedevils the cast of Macbeth as they prepare to open performances in Edinburgh. Frey suspects this is a clever publicity stunt, but when a death occurs, the detectives take these happenings more seriously.

A Mask of Shadows is the third book in the paranormal mystery series by Oscar de Muriel.