Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna

two girls down

In TWO GIRLS DOWN by Louisa Luna, Bailey and Kylie Brandt, ages 8 and 10, disappeared when their mom dashed into a store to pick up a birthday gift for the party of one of Kylie’s friends. The local police in Denville, PA are short staffed and unable to cope with the level of manpower needed to track down leads, so the great-aunt of the two missing girls hires a private investigator to find them. Alice Vega is ridiculously successful at finding missing kids: she’s had 18 cases, and she has found all of them–and most of them have been alive. Working in an unknown town means that Vega decides to tap into the resources and connections of a local private investigator. Max Caplan resigned in disgrace from the Denville police department a few years ago, and he’s been making his living by collecting information on cheating spouses. When Vega approaches him to help her locate the girls, he initially shies away from the case; however, his precocious sixteen-year-old daughter, Nell, talks him into it.

Alice Vega and Max “Cap” Caplan are fantastic characters. Alice is a complete badass, and although she isn’t good at dealing with people, she has trained herself in how to behave in social situations. She also has a sharp mind, is incredibly resourceful, and she can kick anyone’s heinie if she can catch them by surprise. Cap is a pretty typical literary ex-cop. He drinks a little too much, but most people really like him, they want to talk to him and tell him their secrets, and he’s good at piecing puzzles together. I really liked both of them, and Vega’s shadowy assistant, The Bastard, is so intriguing that I’d love for him to get a book of his own.

Louisa Luna is a good writer who writes tight action scenes while stringing words together in a sometimes lyrical manner. Her characters are well constructed, and the mystery surrounding the missing girls is a good one. The ending was actually a surprise to me!

I really hope that Cap and Vega team up in future novels, because now that I’ve spent some time with them, I don’t want to let them go. Plus, it’s rare that a thriller keeps me guessing until the end, but TWO GIRLS DOWN did! My thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

The Goldfish Boy, by Lisa Thompson

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Twelve-year-old Matthew is reluctant to leave his house due to his fear of illness and germs, so he watches and records the happenings in his neighborhood from the upstairs windows. Through those windows he’s learned a lot about his neighbors, and as he observes the happenings around him, we learn a lot about Matthew. When a young boy disappears from the cul-de-sac, Matthew is the last one to see him, and the neighborhood is in turmoil as everyone tries to figure out where the boy could be.

THE GOLDFISH BOY by Lisa Thompson is a middle grade novel with an intriguing story line. The disappearance of Teddy is what drives the plot, but Matthew’s struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder are what give it heart. Matthew is a frustratingly wonderful main character, and the book’s supporting cast is fleshed out admirably through Matthew’s observations and the bits of back-story that he provides through his memories.

The ending to THE GOLDFISH BOY wraps up nicely while still offering readers the opportunity to go out and explore the themes and topics discussed–perfect for the age group to which it’s geared.

My thanks to the publisher and YA Books Central for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

The Story Collector, by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb

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Once upon a time, Viviani Fedeler lived in the New York Public Library with her family, and she dreamed of having an exciting story of her own to tell. In THE STORY COLLECTOR, Kristin O’Donnell Tubb does that for her as she takes components of the real life of Viviani and weaves them into a wonderful tale filled with pre-teen friend drama, family relationships, a ghost story, and a mystery–all in the awesome setting of the New York Public Library of the 1920s.

I love historical fiction, and I am always happy when I find an author I can trust to be historically accurate while relaying a good story. I’ve read Tubb’s other books, and the thing that shines in all of them (including this one) is her attention to detail when dealing with a setting. Tubb researches the heck out of things, and it shows. I felt I was wandering through the NYPL with Viviani and company throughout THE STORY COLLECTOR, and as is the case with all the best books, I desperately envied the main character … and Viviani is a wonderful character. She’s sweet, funny, smart, and flawed–because perfect characters are annoying. She’s also a good friend, daughter, and sibling. Her love of a good story is her strongest trait; it’s the one that gets her in and out of trouble, and it’s what propels the plot.

As should be the case in a book about a wordsmith, there’s beauty in many of the quotes from THE STORY COLLECTOR, too. I wish I had marked the pages so that I could reference all of them, but “courage is simply fear stuffed with hope” is definitely one of my favorites, and that sums up Viviani and her adventures pretty well.

One aspect of the plot that I particularly liked was the debate on stories vs. lies. Viviani is, of course, a storyteller, and Merit, the new girl at school, challenges Viviani by saying that her stories are actually lies. The tension this causes is something that every middle school student will understand.

I was sad to finish THE STORY COLLECTOR because I really enjoyed my time with Viviani, her friends and family, and in the New York Public Library setting. Those who know me will be shocked to hear that I’ve never visited the building, but this book makes me want to get there soon. I just wish I could hang out with Viviani when I do visit.

My thanks to the author for a copy of the book. I won it during an Instagram giveaway, and in entering into the contest, I was invited to reflect on my favorite library. So, I’d like to give a shout out to Willard Library in Battle Creek, Michigan. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of walking downtown to get a stack of books (hopefully enough to last a week so I wouldn’t have to annoy my sister by digging through her books to find something to read), and it’s where I had my first real job as a Reference Page to the best librarian I’ve ever met, Jo Emerson.

 

 

Hey There, Dumpling!: 100 Recipes for Dumplings, Buns, Noodles, and Other Asian Treats, by Kenny Lao

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In case there’s anyone out there looking for cookbook recommendations …

I love cooking, and I LOVE cookbooks. Fortunately, I have an understanding partner (Dan) who loves both things as much as I do. Therefore, when I signed up to review this book for NetGalley, we took our job seriously. I downloaded the cookbook, and we set out to cook as many of the recipes as possible. Dan and I have been cooking dumplings for years, so we were pretty sure there wasn’t anything we could learn from this book beyond a few new filling recipes.

Boy, were we wrong.

First, we learned the importance of a good wrapper and the differences between the different styles of wrappers. Although the author offers a recommendation for his preferred wrapper, we tried a few different styles and thicknesses (because, as I said, we took our job seriously!) and came up with the best wrapper available in our area–and it wasn’t the one recommended by the cookbook. If you have a chance, and if you aren’t going to make your own, pick up the PF Select Shanghai-style wrappers for all of your dumplings. You won’t be disappointed. If you can’t find PF Select, the author’s suggestion of Grand Marquis Shanghai-style will do, but they’re a bit more doughy.

Second, we learned new folding styles for dumplings beyond the traditional half-moon.

Third, Kenny Lao has a method for cooking dumplings that is absolutely fantastic. In the past, we’ve fried them, and we’ve steamed them, but his treatment gives you a potsticker that is the best of both worlds and is oh-so-easy. It’s also a great method for making dumplings for a crowd.

Fourth, we were skeptical of Lao’s assertion that freezing the dumplings using his method would yield excellent results. After freezing dumplings based on Lao’s instructions, we have taken to making and freezing dumplings once a month, and we will never return to frozen grocery store dumplings again. There is absolutely no comparison.

Finally, there are the recipes. We tried four different recipes for fillings, two different soups, many of the dipping sauces, and three of the side dishes. All were quite tasty, and we definitely have our favorites.

Overall, this is a great cookbook. The layout is not overwhelming, the recipes are great, and the “how to” sections are clear. Plus, it has a variety of recipes that will appeal to cooks of all skill levels.

We have a lot of detailed notes about specific recipes, but that might be going a bit overboard for this review. Hit me up if you’re interested!

We’ll be buying a copy of this cookbook for ourselves, and we’ll be getting additional copies for friends. We definitely enjoyed our first attempt at cookbook reviewing, and we hope to do many more!

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the ebook in exchange for my honest review.

Past Tense, by Lee Child

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I’ve been a fan of Jack Reacher for years. My parents introduced me to him about when book three came out, and I devoured the books in the series as quickly as Lee Child could write them–as did Mom and Dad. I soon introduced my oldest son to Jack … my son was a high school student who wanted to be a US Marine (and has since become one), and he was immediately enthralled. How many authors can have that impact on teens, parents, and grandparents?!

Then Jack and I lost touch for a while, though I thought of him fondly, and probably more often than one should think about a fictional character. When I saw NetGalley was offering up a copy of Lee Child’s soon-to-be-released book, I had to ask for a copy, and I was rewarded with an ebook of PAST TENSE.

If you read Lee Child’s books, you know what to expect. Jack Reacher is wandering through a town, and something keeps him there. The story lines are built on the details surrounding whatever it is that forces his stay in the town in which he finds himself, and Reacher is always Awesome (with a capital A). PAST TENSE follows the formula, and in this instance, Reacher is investigating something is pretty personal: his father’s past. Of course it’s not as simple as hitting the public library, sitting at a computer, going on Ancestry.com, and finding out that everything is exactly as it seems. Nope. This is Jack Reacher, so there are mysteries. And secrets. And fist fights. And there’s another part of the story in which a couple of nice Canadian twenty-somethings are being kept captive in a motel for nefarious purposes. What there *isn’t* is Jack Reacher ending up in bed with miscellaneous female character; that surprised me, but it was actually a relief.

All in all, PAST TENSE is exactly what one expects from of a Lee Child/Jack Reacher book. Reacher is Reacher through and through. The mysteries surrounding his dad and the Canadian captives are intriguing. The action scenes are written really well, and although the slower paced moments made me roll my eyes a bit, I knew there would be some mayhem with just a turn of the page. PAST TENSE isn’t my favorite of the Jack Reacher books, but it does its job and the last half of the book ended up being as entertaining as I had hoped.

My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the ebook in exchange for my honest review.

The Drawing Lesson, by Mark Crilley

the drawing lesson

THE DRAWING LESSON by Mark Crilley is a wonderful approach to learning to draw. A graphic novel combined with an art tutorial, the author/illustrator does a fantastic job weaving his drawing lessons into the story of David and Becky and the time they spend together. David is a young boy who desperately wants to learn to draw well. Becky is an artist who isn’t looking to be an art teacher, but who can’t resist David’s eagerness and his talent.

Crilley’s drawings throughout the novel are simple, but effective. The characters’ emotions shine through, and the story is well developed despite how basic the narrative is. David and Becky aren’t overly complicated artistic figures, and that allows the real star of this book to shine, the art lessons. As Becky teaches David the basics of drawing, their relationship grows along with his skill, and the lessons broaden to show the reader how to navigate life as well as how to complete a drawing: patience; recognizing mistakes and correcting them; and putting time into what you love are highlighted. These are important lessons for readers of all ages, but particularly Crilley’s target age group.

As for the drawing lessons themselves … I can’t rave enough about them. I haven’t seriously tried to draw in over 25 years (though my sitting-in-a-meeting doodles have a fan base), but if I’m reviewing a book on how to draw, I don’t feel I can do it justice without trying to follow along with the book’s lessons. Crilley does an AMAZING job teaching the techniques necessary to draw and draw well. As I did each exercise with the most rudimentary of tools (a mechanical pencil and my college ruled notebook), I produced sketches that had my children dazzled—something that’s not easy to do. Those same children have artistic talent, and I look forward to giving this book to them to see what they can do with it. I’ll also be sharing it with any kids on my gift buying list, and I’ll be recommending it to anyone who will listen.

I can’t stress enough how awesome I found this book to be. Be sure to check it out, and check out Mark’s YouTube channel too. He’s generous with his instruction there as well, and he obviously finds joy in helping others find their inner artist.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

Age of Myth, by Michael J. Sullivan

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AGE OF MYTH is the first book in The Legends of the First Empire, a new series by Michael J. Sullivan. It begins with an excerpt from “The Book of Brin” which sets the story in a land populated by Rhunes (men), and references the gods who live across the river from Rhuneland. Those gods are called Fhrey, and the first chapter describes the death of one of the supposedly immortal Fhrey at the hands of a Rhune named Raithe, who has a bit of help from Malcolm, a Fhrey slave.

In many ways, AGE OF MYTH is your standard epic fantasy. The Fhrey are a very powerful and long-lived race reminiscent of elves in other tales, and some of those Fhrey have learned to harness magic which has led them to view themselves as far superior to everyone else. The news of Raithe killing one of their own reaches Lothian, the fane (leader) of the Fhrey, and that news coincides with information that a member of the Fhrey warrior class has decided to desert his station and take others with him. Thus, Lothian is forced to address both threats, and Arion—one of the magic-wielders—is sent to deal with the problem. Arion heads to Dahl Rehn where the deserter and Raithe have both ended up. Dahl Rehn is a village populated by some great female characters. Persephone is married to the leader of the village and she is his most trusted adviser; Suri is a young mystic who lives in the forest but has ventured to Dahl Rehn with a warning of trouble to come; and Brin is the author of “The Book of Brin”—excerpts from which are found at the beginning of each chapter.

AGE OF MYTH is a tightly written story with action, adventure, wit, and compelling characters. Although the story itself isn’t all that different than others in the genre, the writing, strong women, and flashes of subtle humor help the book shine a little brighter than the standard fantasy offering.

As I noted, I was quite pleased with the power of the female characters in the book. Arion, Persephone, and Suri are obviously stars of AGE OF MYTH, and other women like Tura and Fenelyus provide a strong historical backbone of the story. Many of the males from all the races depicted are despicable and conniving creatures, but Raithe and his sidekick Malcolm are witty, brave, honorable, and fun, and I found myself looking forward to the sections of the book where those two contributed to the action.

The world in which all of these great characters reside is well constructed, and I’m sure that’s owed in part to the fact that AGE OF MYTH is set in the same location as some of Sullivan’s other books.

Another positive to the book is the ending. Some authors struggle to put together an ending that both satisfies and tantalizes when writing a series, but Michael J. Sullivan does it when bringing AGE OF MYTH to a close. I’ve recommended this book and Sullivan’s writing to many, and I look forward to reading more by him.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

Late One Night, by Lee Martin

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Lee Martin’s LATE ONE NIGHT is one of those books that stays with you long after you read the final page. In it, Ronnie Black’s estranged wife, Della, and three of his seven children are killed when their trailer catches fire on a cold Illinois night. The inhabitants of Della and Ronnie’s hometown of Goldengate have already been talking about the pair for the past several months. After all, Ronnie left Della with their kids and moved in with a younger woman—plus he wasn’t a person who inspired many to defend him even before that.

LATE ONE NIGHT is a wonderful study of a small town. Martin’s characters and dialogue bring Goldengate, Illinois to life, and every reader will find someone they know in its pages. I loved the way each person was made more real in some small way to help me further immerse myself in the story, and by the end of the book I felt as much a member of the town as anyone I read about. Shifting points of view ensured that I always had any needed backstory, and it was done in a way that didn’t leave me scrambling to remember whose brain I was sharing.

Lee Martin has a special gift when it comes to writing literary fiction. He combines suspense and the darker side of people with the comforting rhythm of a small town, and this book is a terrific example of that; Martin captures the wistfulness and yearning for what could have been, the hopes that come with a fresh start, and the suffering caused by a tragedy. It’s one of those rare books that I’ll read again, and I definitely recommend it to others.

They Both Die at the End, by Adam Silvera

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The date is September 5, 2017 and Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio are both going to die. Thanks to an app called Last Friend, they find each other and commit to spend their day in the best way possible—whatever that means.

THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END should be an incredibly sad book about dying, but instead it’s a manual on how to live. Author Adam Silvera shows how we’re all part of a single tapestry, and intersections with others can have a significance you might never understand. Mateo and Rufus are both beautiful souls, and though they are each flawed, their imperfections help strengthen the other. The day that they spend together might seem unremarkable to someone who doesn’t know them; fortunately, we get to know them both really well through some great character development.

In the midst of Mateo and Rufus’s story are the stories of many others. We just catch glimpses of some of them, and others receive a longer look. It’s understandable that none of them are as well put together as the two protagonists, but there are instances where the glimpses seem a bit too contrived and they distract rather than sharpen the focus on the two I really wanted to see, but that could be a testament to Mateo and Rufus rather than a failing in the others.

This book would be a wonderful addition to a high school classroom. The conversations and debates I imagine it generating among teens would be awesome. Adam Silvera has created a fascinating, modern, coming-of-age story, and I look forward to sharing it with others, if only so that I can talk about it some more.

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander

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Brooke Bolander’s THE ONLY HARMLESS GREAT THING is not a book you can read in fits and starts. Instead, set aside a bit of time to read it from cover to cover. Immerse yourself completely in the story of Regan, a young woman dying from radiation poisoning, and Topsy, the elephant Regan is assigned to train to do the job that is killing her. Interspersed with their tale are glimpses of the future in the form of Kat, a scientist who has developed a warning system for a nuclear waste dump and is now tasked with selling the idea to the ones who will carry it out: elephants. But that’s not all … there’s also a fable about the strength and wisdom of the elephant, there are poems and songs, and there are news stories. All of this in less than 100 pages!

Bolander’s novella is both brutal and gorgeous. Every sentence has purpose, and even the horrific episodes are beautifully written. The females–both human and elephant–are strong and compelling characters. This is a book that will have more meaning with subsequent readings. In fact, I recommend finishing the book, pausing to reflect, and then starting over again. Repeat as necessary.