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Category Archives: Recommendations

Killing Kate by Julie Kramer

Killing Kate by Julie KramerThe Riley Spartz books are exactly the kind of wonderful mid-list offering that I never would have stumbled across anywhere other than a bricks and mortar bookstore.  The bright covers drew my attention when shelving and lent themselves to being a centerpiece of any display.  And, invariably, I read the cover blurb, flipped open to the first page, and found myself hooked.  I took Riley Spartz home with me, spent a few tense hours with her, and have never failed to pick up each new title on publication day since.

These are not serious, high brow mysteries, but nor are they your grandmother’s cozies.  They manage to strike a happy medium of being witty and intensely entertaining, while having real suspense and depicting actual violence.  Protagonist Riley Spartz is an investigative reporter for a Minnesota TV station, and as such she is just as worried about ratings and sweeps as she is with finding murderers.  Her job makes her an interesting “amateur sleuth” in that she’s not actually an amateur at all.  Riley knows all the tricks on digging up dirt on people and getting the information she needs out of interviews and well-placed contacts.  But her goals are different than most murder investigators: she is more interested in telling a good story than finding justice, though both always seem to happen in the end.  The mechanics of how reporters go about building a story for their television audience are given in detail and add authenticity to the story, along with providing insight into a world most readers have never visited.  In a way, these books are a workplace dramedy, with reporters and networks in constant competition for stories and ratings numbers, not to mention budget cuts and unsympathetic bosses.  Unlike most P.I./homicide detective characters, Riley always has her plate full of concurrent ongoing investigations, and the subplots, usually involving animal mysteries, are just as intriguing without distracting from the lead story in any way.

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Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar by Peter Macinnis

BittersweetI know what you’re thinking: what is with this girl and addictive white powders?

Anyway, do you remember how one of my issues with Mark Kurlansky’s book on salt was that he made unsubstantiated declarations about how salt influenced history? Well Peter Macinnis totally avoids that issue in this book. Translation: this book is the bee’s knees!

Macinnis starts out by saying that sugar played an important part in history but – had it never been discovered – some other valuable product could just as easily taken its place in this story (XIII). The reason I love this statement is because Macinnis acknowledges just how much of a role chance plays in history: huge. Then, as kind of a warning to his readers (and to all people who study history), Macinnis makes the following statement:

It is better to look at what evil men have done, in an effort to ensure that we do not repeat it, than to look upon past evils with a sanctimonious superiority. We are different, but it is doubtful we are that much better, for few things change as little as human nature. (XIV)

What?! I know! What a punishing yet truthful statement.

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Poindexter Makes a Friend by Mike Twohy

Poindexter Makes a FriendMy nephew thinks I bought this book for him.  While he’s somewhat correct — it really is a fun book to read to a child, so borrow one (a child, that is) if you have to — apparently I am still working on my “sharing” skills, because this one lives at my house, not his.

It’s about a young pig named Poindexter who is shy around his relatives and other kids in the neighborhood, preferring to read to the stuffed animals in his room instead of joining the kids outside.  This reminds me so much of my nephew, who gathers his stuffed animals around him during bedtime stories, saying, “Come here, friends!”  (Although he also loves running around outside, but I digress.)  Poindexter is perfectly happy with this arrangement, but how is a well-adjusted, well-read young pig to make friends with other animals that are not stuffed?  He finds solace in the local library, where he sits and reads but also helps the librarian push the book cart and reshelve books.  I was a very happy aunt indeed when I pointed to the picture and asked where Poindexter was going, and my nephew immediately responded, “Library!”

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Shiver Me Letters: A Pirate ABC by June Sobel

Shiver Me LettersIf you need a fabulous Alphabet book  — this is it!  It is fun to read, well-paced and brilliant. It should be in every kindergarten classroom and is a perfect gift for any 3-6 year old.

“R,” roared the captain. “R’s not enough. We need other letters to help make us tough. “Let’s sail far away to find ABC’s. Bring me back D’s, E’s, F’s, and some G’s.” “R,” cried the crew. “R, we agree! Let’s look for an A and a B and a C!”

And so the adventure begins. Each capital letter is cleverly found and the text is in brilliant rhyme.  I highly recommend this book.    *****

 

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Love Drugged by James Klise

Love DruggedHigh school can be a tricky four years to navigate under the best of circumstances.  For 15-year-old Jamie, there is an added complication: he is gay.  We’re living in 2011, when acceptance of the LGBT community is continually reaching new highs, but coming out to family and friends can still be a very difficult and terrifying step, especially for a teenager.  Jamie doesn’t want to wave flags or march in parades; he just wants to feel “normal” and make it through high school intact.

When a classmate discovers Jamie’s identity on a website for gay teens, he decides to preemptively dispel all rumors.  To protect the secret of his sexuality, Jamie begins seeing a girl named Celia Gamez, who is rich, beautiful, and popular.  Celia’s father happens to be in the business of developing new pharmaceutical drugs and lets slip one day that he is testing a new pill that can “cure” homosexuality.  Jamie thinks this is the perfect opportunity to finally become “normal” and carry his relationship with Celia to its expected result.  He steals some of the pills and secretly begins taking them before hanging out with Celia.

As you can guess, this plan doesn’t work out exactly as Jamie had imagined.  The exact downward spiral is best read firsthand, so go get yourself a copy.  I’ll wait…

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MUD PIES and OTHER RECIPES: A COOKBOOK FOR DOLLS by Marjorie Winslow

In honor of summer vacation, this is a “slow down” book that inspires outside play. We should never hear the word “bored” from our children. There are always BOOKS to read, things to make with sticks and boxes, or, as I say, laundry to fold.

“This is a cookbook for dolls. It is written for kind climates and summertime. It is an outdoor cookbook, because dolls dote on mud, when properly prepared. They love the crunch of pine needles and the sweet feel of seaweed on the tongue.”

“The sea makes a nice sink; so does a puddle at the end of a hose. For a stove there is the sun, or a  flat stone.”

Originally published in 1961, Marjorie Winslow’s clever recipes are timeless. This little gem creates everything a doll (or bear) might like to eat during a good day of outside play. No need to purchase plastic play food, this book inspires children to make their own creations. I have fond memories of the beautiful plastic necklace “cakes” my daughter made for her dolls. I highly recommend this book; it reflects a kind of play that is mandatory but often neglected for electronic entertainment.  It’s time to turn off  the TV and go outside.

SILKY SPAGHETTI

“…Collect enough corn silk to fill a big bowl. Add 2 cups of fresh air and leave in the sun until just tender. If a sauce is desired, the following may be poured over each serving: to 1 melted ice cube, add 1 teaspoon of minced grass and a dash of white sand.”

MUD PUDDLE SOUP

“…Find a mud puddle after a rainstorm and seat your dolls around it. Serve.”

PINE NEEDLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

“…Using the square cake pan, cover the bottom with a layer of pine needles. Then mix moist earth from the foot of a pine tree with pine needles and pack the mixture tightly into the pan on top of the layer of pine needles. Place in a hot sun to bake, turning upside down to unmold. “

 

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Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo Cortés

Go the F**k to SleepA friend and loyal reader of our blog requested that I review this book, and what a great suggestion that was.  Timely and certainly a fun book to review!  Her reasoning was:  “Because if you like it, I’m buying it for all my friends who have kids.”

With that kind of endorsement, who could resist?  That is what we’re here for, after all.

If you live under a rock and haven’t heard about this new picture book, it started as a joke.  Author Adam Mansbach posted the following status update on his Facebook profile one night: “Look out for my forthcoming children’s book, ‘Go the F**k to Sleep.’”  It received an overwhelming response, so he began to draft some actual verses.  Originally scheduled to be released in October, the release date was moved up several times due to demand and insane levels of pre-ordering.  It was finally released June 14th.  And it gets better: Samuel L. Jackson narrated the audio version, which is available for free on Audible.

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The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes by Marcus Sakey

The Two Deaths of Daniel HayesIn an interview last week, Chicago novelist Marcus Sakey said ideas for his books emerge from “sheer panic” and called the challenge of finding an idea to write about every day for a year “daunting.”  When he does choose an idea to work with, however, you can be sure it’s a good one, and that his execution will do it justice.

In that same interview, Sakey cites his inspiration for the driving force behind his newest thriller, The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes, as coming from fellow Chicago author Sean Chercover.  Apparently Chercover quoted Negro League baseball player Satchel Paige (1906-1982), who once said: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”  Sakey explains, “I just took that and I thought, who would you be, if you didn’t know who ‘you’ was?  …I really tried to keep that front and center, [that] this guy is literally inventing himself as he goes along.”  The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes revolves around a man who finds himself nearly dead with no memory of himself or his life prior to that moment.  As he finds clues to his identity, however, and learns more about the circumstances that left him mostly drowned on a beach in Maine, he begins to wonder if he is really capable of the acts others claim he has committed.

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Zombies vs. Unicorns edited by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black

Zombies vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns

Much as I love short story anthologies, I tend to find them lying around half-finished, simply because it is so easy to put them down at the end of a story and get sidetracked by some other shiny book.  So although I bought this book and started reading it back in September when it was first released, it was only recently that I picked it up again and realized I had a couple stories left to go.

The premise of this anthology is an argument started via blog between YA authors Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black about the relative merits of these mythological creatures.  The stories alternate between zombies and unicorns, with a few combining the two.  The editors provide introductions to each story, arguing the virtues of Team Zombie (Larbalestier) and Team Unicorn (Black).  Many big-name YA authors have contributed, including Meg Cabot, Garth Nix, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, and Scott Westerfeld.  The bickering between the editors feels, at times, a bit contrived, but the stories deliver in fun and exciting ways.

Personally, I was firmly on Team Unicorn when I picked this book up.  In a revelation that is sure to send shock waves through the book blogosphere, I must admit: I am not a fan of zombie literature.  I know it has been very popular of late, with World War Z and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hitting bestseller lists everywhere.  But I just do not see the appeal of shuffling, leaking, previously-dead people trying to eat your brain.  Unicorns, on the other hand, have a complex and contradictory mythology.  They have healing powers and a sense of purity about them, and yet they can also be deadly.  They have an air of mystery about them.  They glow.  And they don’t leak body fluids.

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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Packing for MarsLet’s start with a disclaimer: I read this book many months ago, soon after it came out in hardcover.  While my goal here is to mostly review recent reads, I’m making an exception in this case because of its trade paperback release last month and the final Shuttle missions.

If you’ve read Mary Roach before, you know what to expect: easily accessible science, research into unusual but fascinating areas, and a healthy dose of humor.  Packing for Mars is true to form, and was one of my favorite books to hand-sell during the last holiday season.

Before reading this book, I thought I knew a lot about the space program.  My father is an actual rocket scientist, and NASA has occasionally entrusted him with things like moon rocks.  I’ve read The Right Stuff, more than once.  We have Shuttle magnets on our refrigerator, and I even played with an astronaut Cabbage Patch doll when I was growing up.  Somewhere I have a Lego set of a Shuttle on a launch pad.

Packing for Mars, however, explores space exploration from a very different, but very human, point of view.  From the psychological effects of being confined in a small capsule or floating freely out in space to the problems that arise from collecting human excrement without gravity, this book is an in-depth look at the lesser-known engineering marvels that have allowed humans to travel, live, and work in the void of outer space.  It is not just a matter of how to propel machines into space that interests Ms. Roach, but the idea of learning what humans need to survive in such and environment and adapting the vehicles accordingly.

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