You Can’t Catch Me, by Catherine McKenzie

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Jessica Williams escaped a cult when she was 18, became an acclaimed journalist, and was disgraced after she was caught plagiarizing someone else’s work–and that’s just the backstory for Catherine McKenzie’s latest thriller, YOU CAN’T CATCH ME. Within the first few pages, I was pulled in, and I rushed through the e-pages as fast as I could to see what else would happen to McKenzie’s hapless protagonist.

The book starts with Jessica is sitting in an airport bar with a plan to escape the relentless media coverage of her career-ending mistake. While there, she meets another Jessica Williams and the two share a drink. What follows is a plot that flips sideways, up, and down and pulls the reader along while doing it. There were times that I thought I had everything figured out, only to be fooled by this artfully crafted story with multiple Jessica Williams, family drama and intrigue, and plenty of crimes committed. There’s also a bit of a love story for anyone who is into that.

I’ve read many of Catherine McKenzie’s books, and one thing I always count on is compelling characters with strong and believable reactions and relationships, and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME delivers on that, too.

As I’m sure you can tell, I definitely recommend this book. I’ll be buying copies for my thriller-loving friends and family. My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the book.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson is a breathtaking (literally) book that chronicles the many versions of life experienced by Ursula Todd and anyone in her orbit. Born in the midst of snowstorm in 1910, Ursula almost dies at birth–and then she does die many more times over the decades that follow. I don’t think I’m giving away anything by telling you that Ursula has to try a lot of different paths before we can get to the end of things.

Ursula’s lives cover some of the more interesting and traumatizing moments in history, but Atkinson does a terrific job of showing that it’s the more everyday happenings–family vacations and sixteenth birthdays, for example–that change the course(s) of Ursula’s life (after life).

When I asked my sister what she thought about the book, she said that she really liked it–until the end. And I have to agree with that simple breakdown of LIFE AFTER LIFE. This is a book worth reading. The writing will cause you to catch your breath, sit on the edge of your seat, and flip pages quickly to see what comes next. And even if the ending disappoints you (and I agree with Sherry’s assessment–it did disappoint me), I doubt you’ll regret reading the 450 pages that come before that ending. LIFE AFTER LIFE is brilliant in so many ways, and Ursula is a character I enjoyed, admired, and loved. I’ll think about her a lot, and I’ll consider the potential of all of our lives as we navigate crossroads that seem both big and small as we make our choices.

This book was exhausting in the best way. I can’t wait to talk about it in person with my sister, and anyone else who would like to discuss it with me.

Castro’s Curveball, by Tim Wendel

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“It’s not the people who’ve never fallen or lost that are worthy of our admiration. It’s what you do after you fall that’s the surest test of a hero.”

Playing winter baseball in Cuba is the only path left to the major leagues for Billy Bryan in 1947, and the deep-thinking catcher knows that he doesn’t have many chances left to stand out to the people who decide who makes it and who doesn’t. Cuba is at a similar crossroads as young revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro are working to usurp the country’s government and instill a new way of life for its people.

Billy and Fidel’s lives intersect on the baseball diamond one night as Castro leads a group of radicals onto the playing field during a game, and Billy offers young Fidel a chance to throw a few pitches. That interaction sets Billy off in an unexpected direction, and he finds himself in the middle of a revolution and falling in love with Malena Fonseca, the photographer tasked with documenting it.

Malena’s photographs are why, more than 40 years after leaving Cuba, Billy finds himself on a plane headed back there with his adult daughter and a host of memories of baseball, Castro, Cuba, and the woman Billy left behind.

CASTRO’S CURVEBALL by Tim Wendel combines sports, history, and personal relationships in a wonderful amalgam with a terrific plot and characters that make you care deeply about them. The story alternates between modern day(ish) and Billy’s final days in Cuba in the 40s.

Full disclosure so you know how biased I am–I love Billy Bryan, and not just because “aging catcher” is my favorite baseball character in both literature and film. Billy has more depth than the typical sports protagonist, he has an old school sense of honor, and his story is set in a fascinating time. I haven’t studied nor read much about Cuba in the late 40s, but after reading CASTRO’S CURVEBALL, I’m going to have to remedy that.

But since I do love baseball so much (baseball was the first game I learned to play with any level of nuance), let’s talk about the baseball scenes for a minute. Those sections are incredibly well written, and I could almost feel the grit from the infield and hear the crack of a bat every time the book’s action took me to the ballpark. That said, when reading a book that revolves around a sport, I’m often sad when the plot takes me anywhere other than on the field, but that wasn’t the case with CASTRO’S CURVEBALL. I was thrilled to find that the action outside of the diamond was just as engrossing as the games in which Billy played.

CASTRO’S CURVEBALL is a great book of historical fiction, it’s a fantastic sports book, and the relationships between the covers are just as intriguing as the play between the foul lines. I regret that my dad isn’t alive so that I can share the book with him and get his take on it–I’d love to talk about this novel with someone else who is a fan of baseball, history, and politics. If you’re that person, read the book and hit me up. I’d love to chat!

I hear that there’s a sequel of the book coming out soon, and I’m excited to read that one, too. Kudos to Tim Wendel for creating characters and a story that will stay with me for a while.

The Operator, by Gretchen Berg

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Vivian Dalton is a switchboard operator in 1950s Wooster, Ohio. She and the other operators at Bell aren’t *supposed* to listen in on calls, but how were people supposed to fill their days before reality TV?! Unfortunately for Vivian, she taps into a call that completely upends her uneventful middle American world, and all of Wooster ends up shaken as a result.

THE OPERATOR by Gretchen Berg is a terrific book. It’s a commentary on small town life in the 1950s and an examination of family relationships and dynamics. Although I don’t expect character-driven novels to have a lot of action, this one delivered in that, too. I also loved the historical aspects of Vivian’s story—especially the moments spent at the switchboard. My mom was a switchboard operator in Michigan in the 1950s, and I worked at an answering service that had the last functioning cord switchboard in that state during my college years (yes, I’m old), so every time Vivian walked into work, I had a glimpse into my mom’s past while revisiting my own.

You don’t have to have a background that matches the storyline to appreciate this book. Gretchen Berg writes wonderfully well, and there is enough humor and action to keep you turning pages even if you can’t get invested in the characters—though it would be hard not to find someone in the book with whom you can relate. Vera, Vivian’s older sister, is consumed by jealousy for her prettier sister, and their younger sister, Violet, is just trying to keep the peace. Vivian also has a teenage daughter who is alternately mortified and mystified by her mother, and the men in the story—while taking a back seat to the women—add color, depth, and necessary detail to the plot.

I really hope that Gretchen Berg has more books in mind. If she’s taking requests, I want to hear more from Charlotte, Vivian’s daughter, and I need to know what happens to that “four flusher” Betty Miller! In the meantime, I’ll share the book with lots of people so that I can talk about the people of Wooster, Ohio for a while longer.

My thanks to Book No Further bookstore in Roanoke, Virginia and the publisher for a copy of an ARC of the book in exchange for my unbiased review.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

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Quentin is a genius, and he’s pretty depressed. Life lacks color for him, and he immerses himself in a children’s book series about Fillory, a land filled with magic, as a form of escape. Imagine Quentin’s delight when he finds out that magic is real, there are colleges that teach it, and he’s been accepted into one … but disillusionment isn’t far behind no matter how many dreams come true for Quentin. The Magicians has been described as a mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books, but for adult audiences, and the author does not hide the fact that he’s borrowing heavily from those two series.

I first read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians a couple of years after it came out, and I came away from it feeling pretty grumpy. I wasn’t sure why it had that impact on me. At first, I thought it was the general ickiness of most of the cast, but I’ve enjoyed plenty of books without likeable characters. I had lunch with a friend who also disliked the book, and we talked about it for a bit, but I never reached a satisfying resolution to my lack of appreciation for a story recommended by people whose book opinions I value (including my sister).

A couple of months ago, a group of friends and I decided to start a book club, and as I tried to come up with a good first book that would have some appeal to a wide range of people, I suggested The Magicians—in part because I thought that I should give it a second chance. My first reading of it was at an unsettled time in my life, and I’ve had more than a few instances where I’ve enjoyed a book more after a second reading.

The verdict after this reading? Yes, I enjoyed it more this time, in part because I was able to adjust my expectations away from a universe as magical as the ones found in the Harry Potter and Narnia series. This second go also gave me the opportunity to zero in on what was so off-putting the first time around, and the problem is largely with me. One of the reasons I read books from the fantasy genre is to be entranced by a whole new world—or an interesting new riff on the world in which we’re living. Because it borrows so blatantly and unapologetically from previously established worlds, The Magicians didn’t offer me the level of escape and diversion that other fantasy novels do. Every storyline is a distorted view of worlds I already know thoroughly and love, and it was jarring the first time I read it. (For the record, I also didn’t enjoy the Bizarro World storylines that DC put out, so at least I’m consistent.)

What did I like this time? Well, I appreciated Lev Grossman’s willingness to do a deeper character study than is often found in this genre. Although some members of Quentin’s crew are teen movie stereotypes (and icky), Quentin is more than just the typical brooding, brilliant teen/young adult. And I liked the shy-but-strong Alice quite a bit. It’s also a positive that Lev Grossman can write well, of course, though I was often bored during the action scenes.

The Magicians ends where I’m sure book 2 begins, and it left me intrigued enough to be tempted to continue the series. However, this may end up being an instance where I watch the tv show instead.

The Sisterhood of Books

Sherry and Kristie

We’re Kristie and Sherry, and we’re sisters. Growing up, we shared our siblinghood with five loud, smelly brothers. We also shared a bedroom from the day Kristie was born until the day Sherry left for college.

Over the years, we grew apart. We grew together. We had adventures. We lost touch. We got back in touch. We spent a summer together. We got married (and occasionally divorced) and raised a wide variety of children, our own and other people’s. We are godmothers to each other’s firstborns. We discovered wine. And beer. And over the years, we have loved each other and annoyed each other in the special ways that only sisters can.

And–we both ended up working with books.

Sherry is the relatively quiet one; she became an editor. Kristie’s the outgoing one; she ran community outreach for a university library and coordinated a super-huge yearly book-and-author fest. And we both read books. Lots of books. All kinds of books.

Knowing how much we love books, people are always asking both of us for book suggestions, and we happily make them. We love putting the right books into the hands of people who will love them as much as we do.

After a while, though, it felt like we were duplicating our efforts, typing the same answers to the constant cries of our friends on Facebook: “Help! What should I read next??”

Why should telling other people about the books we love be so difficult? Why not keep track of what books we want to recommend (or not)? Why not start a conversation about what we like and why? Why not throw ourselves headfirst into the twenty-first century and start a blog? After all, everyone else in the world has.

And why not do it together, sharing our sisterhood of books?

So, here we are. We are very different people, but get us both started on the subject of Michael Chabon, and you’d never know that Sherry is still upset about what Kristie did to her Barbie doll collection.

Welcome to our sisterhood. If you love books and the places they take you, we think you’ll like it here.

Meet the Sisters

cropped-sisters.jpgKristie and Sherry are sisters. They grew up in Michigan, and now live in Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively.

Kristie and Sherry love books.

Kristie and Sherry love talking about books, recommending books, and even trashing books when absolutely necessary.

They don’t always agree, but when they don’t, Sherry is always right.