Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review: The Grave's A Fine and Private Place

Flavia is taking a short trip down the river with her sisters Ophelia and Daphne and their faithful servant/devoted friend Dogger. But this is Flavia de Luce, and they have hardly started down the river when they discover a dead body. After they fish the body out and have a terse encounter with local law enforcement, Flavia quickly realizes that they are in the same town where several people were poisoned. Are the deaths connected? Of course they are, dear reader, and we are off on another delightful adventure with Flavia and the family.

The first five books in this series are formulaic (in a good way). Flavia finds a mystery in her tiny English town and then she solves it, with the help of various family members and neighbors. In more recent books, Alan Bradley has introduced some truly world-shaking events into the de Luce family. I have never written a long series like this, but I have to imagine that Mr. Bradley knows exactly where he is taking our beloved Flavia.

This is where some of my frustration comes into play though--each book seems to change the family, but we don't really get a chance to see what it looks like before the next crisis occurs. Books seven and eight seemed to hint that the books would go in an entirely new direction and finally give us some answers about the lives and work of Flavia's parents and aunt. But we still haven't received any of those answers and this book felt to me a bit like the middle book in a trilogy--we needed some more information before we could get back to the real action.

The mystery itself in The Grave's A Fine and Private Place is a good one and it's interesting to see the lives of people who don't live in Bishop's Lacey. I also loved seeing Flavia grow up a bit; she even takes a young boy under her wing as a sort of mentor. Most of all, I'm excited to see what happens to Flavia and the family in book ten (which will purportedly be the last one). This story ends with the suggestion of a big change, so I hope we actually get to see what that looks like in book ten and see how all of these threads will come together for Flavia.

The Grave's A Fine and Private Place
Flavia de Luce #9
By Alan Bradley
Bantam January 2018
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: The Music Shop

On a run-down street in England, there is a music shop. The owner Frank stubbornly continues to stock the shop with his beloved records, even as his reps tell him that time is almost over. Frank has a gift for knowing exactly what music people need. His shop is a beacon to his customers and the other people who live and work on the street--Frank's assistant Kit, a tattoo artist, a former priest, the baker, and a pair of brother undertakers. One day, a beautiful woman faints outside and the two strike up a friendship as Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. Their tentative lessons will help them both open up their hearts to other people and to music again.

The Music Shop is a love story on multiple levels. From the first time they meet, readers wonder if Frank and Ilse will be able to overcome their worries and love each other. But it is also a story of love for music, for a certain place and time, and for your community. Parts of the story are told in flashback, as Frank remembers his mother introducing him to the music of Bach and Beethoven and discovering Aretha Franklin and The Sex Pistols. Readers are also treated to a beautiful look at what it means to be a part of a neighborhood where you commiserate with your neighbors at the local bar, help them out in times of crisis, and fight gentrification alongside them.

Rachel Joyce clearly excels at writing about the lives of everyday people--no one in this story is going to become a millionaire or discover they are a member of the royal family. But we get to see the joys and tragedies of their lives and remember with the characters that a good friend and a good song can go a long way in carrying us through. This is a sweet book and there's never really any doubt that everyone will end up with a happy(ish) ending, but it's a delight to read while humming along the entire time.

The Music Shop
By Rachel Joyce
Random House January 2018
256 pages
Read via Netgalley

Other books by Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, Perfect

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: When God Made Light

When bedtime comes around, parents often find themselves with a dilemma: either your child will pick out a book you can't stand or you pick a story that they aren't thrilled to hear. But once in a while, you find a book that is beloved by everyone. When God Made Light is one of them.

This book is a sweet look at two sisters spending the day together and reveling in all of the ways God gives us light--the way the light of dawn spreads across the floor, the warmth of the sun helping flowers to grow, and the delight of a firefly held close. Most of all, it celebrates the light that each child brings to the world around them.

The illustrations are whimsical and beautiful and I find myself noticing new details each time we read it. If you are looking for the next book for bedtime reading or a gift for the little one in your life, When God Made Light is the perfect choice.

Thoughts from the 4-year-old: I like it because it has light and it has puppy dogs. It has pools and camping. It has sleeping and it has lots of fun!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Gardening Mini-Reviews

Lisa Steele is known as an expert in all things chicken-related. She has written several books, appeared on tv shows and in magazines, and maintains a website where she teaches about the ins and outs of taking care of chickens. She is also a gardener and in Gardening with Chickens, she writes about all the ways that chickens can help your garden and your garden can help your chicks.

So, you may gather that I'm thinking about getting some chickens. I haven't actually taken the leap of calling my local government offices and finding out if we are zoned for such things, but I am dreaming dreams of warmer mornings when the kids and I can go out and collect some eggs from the backyard. If you find yourself in a similar position, Lisa Steele's book is a great place to start. She may be an expert, but she writes clearly for the reader who might be new to chickens (or gardening). If we do end up adding some chickens to our home, I know that they can keep my garden healthy by turning the soil and that our garden scraps can keep the chickens healthy by giving them a varied diet. And it doesn't hurt that this book has a beautiful layout, with plenty of pictures of Steele's farm.

Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens
By Lisa Steele
Voyageur Press November 2016
176 pages
Read via Netgalley

Are you thinking about taking up gardening? Perhaps you already grow food or flowers, but are thinking about the possible effects of pesticides and chemicals on your garden. This book is going to take you from first thought to enjoying beautiful flowers and vegetables, all while reminding gardeners of the importance of gardening organically during every step of the process.

This book reminded me a bit of a textbook. Author Mark Highland is taking a deep dive into gardening, which means you are going to know more about layers of dirt and organic fertilizers than you ever imagined. This is decidedly a book for the committed gardener who is ready to take some notes, as opposed to the person who wants to skim something light and simple. But there is a lot to break up the text too--there are plenty of pictures of beautiful gardens in full bloom, rows of vegetables in the middle of the process, quirky illustrations, and helpful charts.

Practical Organic Gardening: The No-Nonsense Guide to Growing Naturally
By Mark Highland
Cool Springs Press December 2017
240 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review: Young Jane Young

Aviva Grossman is ready to go out and conquer the world--she's young, smart, and pretty, and has recently been hired as an intern for a handsome, popular Congressman. When she and her boss begin an affair, she can't resist writing about it online (anonymously, of course). But it doesn't stay hidden for long. While the congressman is able to save his re-election campaign and his marriage, Aviva is vilified and despised. She decides her only option is to start a new life, so Jane moves to remote Maine and becomes a wedding planner. She lives a quiet life with her daughter Ruby, until she considers running for mayor. Can the secrets of Jane's past stay hidden or is it time for the truth to come out?

Like many readers, I adored Gabrielle Zevin's sweet and quirky The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. So I was excited to read her newest novel. But I must confess that I picked this book up and put it down a few times before finally sticking with it because Young Jane Young is very different in tone and plot from A.J. Fikry. 

Zevin uses several different perspectives to tell this story, including Aviva's mother, Jane's precocious daughter Ruby, and even the wife of the congressman. Each character is fascinating and uniquely written. I especially loved the relationship between Jane and Ruby, although Ruby's narrative, which is told through emails with an international pen pal, is sometimes a bit much.

This book strikes a great balance. It's obviously about some current and difficult issues, like the way women are treated in the media and the way that men can seemingly escape scandal without consequence, while women are blacklisted in their fields. But it's not a heavy book; there is a lot of humor to be found on these pages and you can almost see it play out in your head like a zany comedy on a movie screen. Young Jane Young is a fun and often delightful read that will also leave you thinking about the cost of being a woman in public who makes mistakes and the double standard for men and women in our modern culture.

Young Jane Young
By Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin Books August 2017
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Mini-Reviews: Stay With Me and Manhattan Beach

Yejide and Akin are prepared to have a happy marriage and keep their families and their traditions at arm's length while pursuing a modern Nigerian life. But after years after marriage, Yejide still is not pregnant. They have been to specialists, tried drinking teas to boost fertility, and Yejide is even considering visiting the healer who lives up on a mountain. The decision is made for her when their family shows up with a second wife for Akin. The repercussions of that choice will drive the couple to the brink and force them to decide how hard they will fight for their marriage.

Stay With Me reminded me of Fates and Furies in certain ways. Both tell the story of a marriage from alternating points of view. You may think you know what is going on until you get the other spouse's side of the story and suddenly, your whole perception of the relationship and the people in it will change. Both Yejide and Akin do some outrageous things in their attempts to save their marriage and themselves. It's both incredibly specific to Nigerian culture, and familiar to anyone who discovers that marriage and having a family isn't quite what you expected.

Stay With Me
By Ayobami Adebayo
Knopf Publishing Group August 2017
260 pages
From the library

Anna Kerrigan works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as the only female diver. She spends her days defying the expectations of her boss and repairing the massive ships that have been damaged in the war. When she meets the notorious Dexter Styles one night, she remembers going to his home many years ago with her father. Anna sets out to discover how the men knew each other and if Styles might be responsible for her father's disappearance.

I may be the only reader who picked up this book without reading Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad first. I can't resist a well-told historical fiction novel and this is certainly one. Ms. Egan writes place like few other authors, and you will feel like you are dancing in a WWII-era club or walking through the Naval Yard on your way to work. My only qualm with Manhattan Beach is the change in perspective towards the end of the story. It didn't really add anything for me and I found myself wanting to be back with Anna. I would have read her entire life story, so I'm excited to go back and read Egan's earlier books.

Manhattan Beach
By Jennifer Egan
Scribner October 2017
438 pages
From the library

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Forgotten History Mini-Reviews: Dogs at the Perimeter and Dreamland Burning

I'm placing these two mini-reviews together because both books center around lesser-known moments in history. I certainly never learned about The Tulsa Race Riots in history class and I knew of the Cambodian genocide, but had never read a novel about it. I find that the best historical fiction inspires you to go and research further and Dogs at the Perimeter and Dreamland Burning certainly do that.

Janie doesn't know what to do with herself. Her friend and mentor Hiroji has disappeared, she can't face her husband or young son, and she is haunted by her past. Both Janie and Hiroji are consumed by thoughts of their brothers---Janie knows that her brother died long ago in Cambodia, but Hiroji can't help but hope that his brother is somewhere in the world after working at a refugee camp. This novel is an intense and devastating look at the visible and invisible scars of war.

Dogs at the Perimeter is a book where little happens in the present. Instead, the characters live in a world of memories and fight to keep living because the horrors of their past refuse to leave them alone. Those memories are written sparsely because we need no embellishment to understand how agonizing it is to not know where a family member is or to helplessly watch someone starve. Madeleine Thein is one of those writers who seems to stay mostly under the radar, which is a shame. Her books are beautifully written examinations of grief and loss, both individually and for the people of entire nations who have lived through unimaginable circumstances.

Dogs at the Perimter
By Madeleine Thein
W.W. Norton October 2013
259 pages
From the library

Rowan Chase had only lazy summer day before she was supposed to start her internship. But discovering a dead body on the family property will send her searching for answers about what happened to the victim and how he ended up buried in her backyard. A hundred years before, Will Tillman is trying to find his way in a city where racial tensions are rising. Will tentatively befriends a black boy and his sister, but he also is pursued by a local Klansman who wants him to join. Little does he know that Tulsa is about to literally be set on fire and everyone in town, black and white, will be in danger.

I have to confess I didn't know anything about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. An entire section of town was burnt down, thousands of African American homes and businesses were destroyed, and hundreds of people were murdered. Jennifer Latham does a wonderful job of showing two kids on the verge of being adults who are seeing things clearly for maybe the first time: Will is white and has rarely considered what it would mean to be a person of color and Rowan is biracial but protected by her wealth until she starts working at a local clinic and sees the ways poverty and racism can destroy lives. This is a rare instance where both timelines are compelling and readers will love following Will and Rowan all the way to the end.

Dreamland Burning
By Jennifer Latham
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers February 2017
365 pages
From the library