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Category Archives: Recommendations

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

So, this book has been waiting to be reviewed for ages. And it has nothing to do with the quality of this book. Or, actually, it does. It’s like a negative correlation: the better the book the harder it is for me to review it. Ah, first world problems.

What I’m trying to say is that this book is really good. It’s about these two brothers – Charlie and Eli Sister – who are basically hired guns in the mid-1800s. They are the de facto arm of the law in the western territories where state or federal government hasn’t really been established. I know what you’re thinking: vigilantes? No, fanks! But guys, these brothers don’t only answer to money or their boss. They operate under a higher and more sacred system: honor. You know when honor is involved, things get real. And quick.

So: these Sisters brothers are on their way West (near present-day California) looking for a gentlemen who has wronged their boss. And everywhere they encounter greedy-eyed cut throats in search of gold:

This perhaps was what lay at the very root of the hysteria surrounding what came to be known as the Gold Rush: Men desiring a feeling of fortune; the unlucky masses hoping to skin or borrow the luck of others, or the luck of a destination…To me, luck was something you either earned or invented through strength of character. You had to come by it honestly; you could not trick or bluff your way into it. (115-16)

Because this is the gold rush and money is what it’s all about. And whores. There are plenty of those, too. So, a little something for everyone. Well played, Mr. DeWitt.

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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

You know how after you read Pride and Prejudice you were like, “I am never going to find a book so well written with such a meaningful love story but I’m still gonna try”? Well, stop looking!

Before I go into reviewing the plot and characters and what have you, can we just talk about this cover. Ugh. So adorable!

Okay, focus. So Major Pettigrew has just found out through a phone call from his insufferable sister-in-law that his brother passed when he hears a knock at his front door. Mrs. Ali – a widow who owns a tea shop Major Pettigrew frequents – immediately recognizes his distress and takes measures to calm him down. And in Britain this means tea.

Thus begins a beautiful relationship. I am not going to go into the minor characters or the subplots except to say they only add to the complexity of the bond Mrs. Ali and Major Pettigrew share. There are so many forces pulling them apart – racism, age, colonialism, religion, family, class, etc. – but somehow their lives keep leading them to each other. And they see in each other what they need to get by in the world.

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Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby

Wonder ShowThey say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  I beg to differ.  See that cover over there on the left?  Kind of amazing, right?  And the hand drawn goodness wraps around to the back as well.  In all honesty, it almost didn’t matter what this book was about.  I fell in love with the cover art and had to bring it home.

Thankfully, the story is just as delightful as the paper it’s wrapped in.  Wonder Show tells the tale of a young girl, Portia, whose father leaves the dust bowl in search of work.  Her aunt takes care of her for a while, but ultimately puts her in a home for “wayward” girls under the watchful eye of a man known only as Mister.

Without giving anything away, events transpire and Portia runs away to join the circus.  Literally.  Actually, she meets up with the “wonder show,” which is basically a sideshow of human abnormalities that travels alongside any circus that will have them.  As she adjusts to circus life she makes friends and enemies, confronts fears, and learns to be a part of a very unusual family.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Okay, first, would you take a look at this title? It’s like Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood all over again! But it has such purpose you guys!

The book is almost entirely made up of letters: correspondences between various characters in the book. When I saw this, my thoughts went straight to Dear Mr. Henshaw and how much I disliked that book. But it works because 1) there is more than one character writing the letters, 2) each character has dimension, and 3) the characters actually carry conversations instead of writing to someone who never responds (ahem…Mr. Henshaw).

Henyways, the novel is set in post-WWII Britain and centers on Juliet Ashton, a recently-published and successful author in search of a new subject. She is also lightly batting off the attentions of a new beau, approved of only by her best friend but not the friend’s brother. Raised eyebrows,right? In the midst of all this, Ashton receives a letter from a stranger residing in Guernsey, a little known island off the coast of Britain that was occupied by Germany during the war. And this place exists, people. Like, it’s on a map and everything. Who knew?

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What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

When Alice comes to after falling off her exercise bike and hitting her head on the handle bars during her spin class, her first thought is about her unborn child. Is little Sultana (the nickname that Alice and her husband – Nick – came up with for the baby) all right? Her second thought is of Nick. He is going to be so worried about her and the baby. And once he realizes it’s no big D, he’s going to laugh at Alice’s characteristic klutzy-ness.

But it is a big D. And Alice realizes this soon after she gets to the hospital. When her sister – Elizabeth – comes to visit her, Alice can’t help but notice the coldness in her eyes and words. Her mom is also unrecognizable when she comes in. It isn’t until the doctor comes in and begins asking routine questions to check for brain damage that we realize the extent of Alice’s injury. She thinks it’s 1998. It’s really 2008.

Alice forgot everything, ya’ll. This would be bad in the best of circumstances but, you guys! Things. Have. Changed. And Alice realizes this most painfully when she calls her husband, Nick, to explain the ordeal and all she gets back is an angry and profane response accusing her of being a manipulative wretch. A dumbstruck Alice hangs up the phone after the tirade and only then is told by Elizabeth just what she’s forgotten. Alice is not 29, newly married, and expecting her first child. She is 39, has three children, and is in the middle of a divorce and a nasty custody battle.

That sucks.

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Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman

Why We Broke UpI read this book in one night instead of sleeping.

Things you should know: Daniel Handler also writes children’s books as Lemony Snicket, best known for A Series Of Unfortunate Events.  Maira Kalman is an artist who has published books of her own work along with illustrating books written by other people.  (We previously reviewed one of her picture books here.)  Together they create a physically beautiful book, with glossy pages, full color illustrations, and gorgeous endpapers.  There was basically no chance I wouldn’t buy myself a copy.

The story itself is a letter from a teenage girl, Min, to her boyfriend-for-six-weeks, Ed.  It starts with a box of things that symbolize the relationship to her, which she is unceremoniously dumping on his doorstep.  Each chapter starts with a full-page illustration of an item from the box, followed by a somewhat stream-of-consciousness retelling of how it became important.

If a six-week relationship seems insignificant to you, and definitely not worth being heartbroken over, you may be an adult with a very bad memory of what it’s like to be a teenager.  Min and Ed’s story is full of firsts and lasts, at times painfully awkward while otherwise being perfectly sweet.  Mistakes are made, lessons learned the hard way – and yet, from an outside perspective, the experience gained in six weeks of Min’s Junior year is invaluable.

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The Girl With The Crooked Nose by Ted Botha

The Girl With The Crooked NoseI watch a lot of NCIS, where 40 minutes and one amazingly talented forensic scientist are enough to solve even the most horrific of crimes.  Real life, however, takes longer and doesn’t always yield such clear-cut results.

Enter Frank Bender.  He came upon his calling as a forensic artist almost accidentally, when he attended an autopsy in lieu of taking an anatomy course to help with his sculpting.  In the storage room, there was a body of a woman who had not been identified – he was told, “We have no idea what she might have looked like.”  Looking at her skull, however, Bender realized that he did know what she looked like.  And he asked permission to sculpt a bust of her face.

Five months after he completed her bust, the woman was identified as Anna Duval, a missing persons case from Arizona.

With a successful ID came more skulls needing faces.  Bender learned more about forensic reconstruction and streamlined his technique.  He visited the Mütter Museum to study differences in skulls (and later exhibited some of his completed busts there – leading to the identification of yet another victim).  He set up a studio for his unusual hobby.  And when the Mexican government asked the U.S. for help in identifying some of the more than 400 women killed since 1993, Bender was a natural choice for the task at hand.

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