Online Reading Challenge – December

It’s December! That means it’s time for our final 2020 spotlight author. This month it’s: Lisa Gardner!

Lisa Gardner is quite popular, writing crime novels and psychological thrillers. These are the kind of books that keep you up past your bedtime because you can’t go to sleep until you know what happened! Some of her popular series include ones about Boston homicide detective D.D. Warren, FBI Profilier Pierce Quincy and Tess Leoni, a private detective in New England, as well as several stand alone titles.

There are quite a few authors that are similar to Gardner so if you have already read all of her titles, or would like to try some else, here are a few suggestions.

You Don’t Want to Know by Lisa Jackson

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

Suspect by Robert Crais

Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay

Roadside Crosses by Jeffrey Deaver

Lie to Me by JT Ellison

There are lots more titles and authors to choose from. Be sure to stop by one of our locations for more ideas on display.

I am planning on reading  Before She Disappeared by Gardner. It’s the first in a relatively new series by Gardner that follows the cases of a woman who searched for missing persons.

Now it’s your turn – what will you be reading this month?

 

Online Reading Challenge – November Wrap-Up

Hello Challenge Readers!

How did you do with our November spotlight author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Did you read one of her books, or one similar?

I had mixed results this month. I had planned to read Americanah, but I just couldn’t connect with it. That doesn’t mean I won’t someday pick it up again and find it delightful and inspiring, but that wasn’t happening at this time for me so, instead of forcing interest, I set it aside and picked up another book by Adichie – Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.

It’s a little bit of a cheat – this book is short and a very quick read (less than an hour), kind of a taster of Adichie’s writing and philosophy. Still, it is gracefully written and packs a punch.

Asked by a friend on how to raise her newborn daughter to be a feminist, Adichie sends a letter with fifteen suggestions. Her advice ranges from straightforward – teach her to read and to love to read, make sure both parents are involved in her upbringing – to more thought provoking ideals such as teaching her that gender roles are nonsense, that differences among people are okay, to reject the idea of conditional female equality. I was especially struck by the importance of language and what a difference words and how they’re phrased can make in our outlook and how we treat ourselves and others. “Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions.”

Of course, the values described in this slim volume apply to anyone, young or old, male or female. Enlightening and valuable lessons.

Now it’s your turn – how was your November reading?

 

Five Total Strangers by Natalie Richards

A teen thriller that keeps ratcheting up the tension, in the midst of a blizzard Iowans will understand all too well, Five Total Strangers is a suspenseful tale of not-so-chance coincidences and danger that creeps in from every direction.

For Mira, nothing has ever been the same since her aunt died last Christmas – especially since she had to leave her grieving mom to go back to school across the country. Now, it’s Christmas again and Mira is desperate to get home and be there for her mom, but the weather isn’t cooperating. Her connecting flight was just grounded, so the only way to get home in time is to accept a ride from her charming seatmate and her friends. But once underway, Mira realizes that none of her fellow passengers know each other, and she just can’t shake the feeling that something sinister is going on – especially when their things start to go missing. And all the while, the roads just keep getting worse…

The genius of this book for me is the tug-of-war between logic and instinct, as Mira struggles between what her primal, gut-level feelings tell her about a situation and what her logical, civilized brain says. I thought this brilliantly captured what it’s like to be in a scary situation in today’s world, where we know the odds of danger and catastrophe are low…but never zero. The descriptions also vividly conjure up all the unpleasantness and otherworldliness of road travel, including car sickness, dingy rest areas, and dicey gas stations, all overlaid in this case with an unspecified menace, coupled with the frustrating uncertainty and powerlessness that comes with being young. Interspersed with the chapters are ambiguous handwritten notes which suggest nothing is as coincidental as it appears, and which help the tension build to a twist you probably won’t see coming.

Those who like thrilling, suspenseful mysteries, locked room mysteries (with a mobile twist), and vivid casts of characters (all hiding secrets) will want to try Five Total Strangers – if only to remind themselves why winter road trips are an absolutely terrible idea.

This book is also available on Overdrive.

When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

Paula McLain has written an intense historical thriller detailing the life of a seasoned detective haunted by cases from her past. While in the past McLain has written historical fiction that takes place further in the past, this title is still set in the past, albeit the 1970s to the 1990s. This book is also sprinkled with true events, but it is a decided shift from her other novels.

When the Stars Go Dark digs into the life of missing persons detective Anna Hart. After a tragic event rocks her life, Anna is desperate for an escape. She heads to Mendocino, California to grieve and process what has happened. Mendocino is the closest town Anna has to home. Having grown up in the foster care system, Mendocino was the place where she found two of her most supportive foster parents. When she arrives, she expects comfort, safety, and most importantly solitude, but instead Anna finds that her work has followed her. A local girl has gone missing, leaving Anna feeling like she has to help.

This new missing persons case reminds Anna of her childhood when a local girl in her community went missing and was later found murdered. That case is still unsolved and has left the community changed. Anna volunteers her services to help with the new missing girl case. The more she works, the more the past and present interfere with each other. During her career as a missing persons detective, Anna focused on how victims come into contact with violent predators. Her knowledge of that process comes in handy as she begins searching for the missing girl. Her search slowly becomes an obsession. Anna will do anything to find this girl and to not let the past repeat itself, but soon realizes that she needs the help of others if she wants to solve this case and bring the girl home.

This book is also available in the following formats:

The Librarian of Saint-Malo by Mario Escobar

Mario Escobar’s latest novel The Librarian of Saint-Malo tells the story of a French librarian’s stand against the German occupation as they descend upon the small coastal village of Saint-Malo. While World War II novels are plentiful, the timeline covered as well as the perspectives shown during this particular title were refreshing and set this novel apart.

Jocelyn is determined. Having just married her high school sweetheart Antoine in August 1939, Jocelyn wishes to begin their married life in bliss. But soon after they are married, Antoine is drafted to fight against Germany, leaving Jocelyn behind in the village of Saint-Malo to manage the tiny library there. World War II brings destruction to their doors, while Jocelyn works to bring comfort and encouragement to those residents who can escape to the library to check out books.

Wanting to do more, Jocelyn begins writing secret letters to a famous author who lives in Paris. Having someone smuggle those letters to him is a great risk, but Jocelyn is desperate that her story, as well as that of Saint-Malo, lives on in the face of the war’s destruction. When France falls and Nazis start to occupy Saint-Malo, Jocelyn wants to do more. With the city now a fortress, the devastation only worsens.

Across the country, Nazis begin to destroy libraries. Armed with lists of unsuitable books, Nazis burn books and even steal the priceless and more rare books. Jocelyn refuses to let her library be destroyed, so despite the risk to herself, she manages to hide the books the Nazis seek to destroy. While terror reigns around her, Jocelyn waits for news from Antoine, who is now a prisoner in a German camp.

The more Jocelyn writes, the more readers see that all she wants is to protect people and her beloved books. This novel tells the story of those who were willing to sacrifice anything to save the people they loved, as well as the true history of their lives.

The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill

I recently read the gentlest of all gentle reads. If you like beautiful art, dragons, and stories of friendship and found family, this series may be for you.

In volume one, The Tea Dragon Society, a young apprentice blacksmith named Greta encounters her first tea dragon – a miniature, domesticated dragon which grows tea leaves from its horns – and brings it back to its home. There she joins the small family devoted to the care and keeping of tea dragons: healer and teamaker Hesekiel, his partner Erik, and their recent houseguest Minette, who’s troubled by a lack of memory. Greta and Minette learn not only about tea dragons, but about friendship, craftsmanship, and how to honor ancient traditions.

In volume two, The Tea Dragon Festival, we’re seeing an episode from Hesekiel and Erik’s younger days, as they go home to Erik’s mountain village for the Tea Dragon Festival. The main character of the story is Rinn, a skilled gatherer of vegetables and herbs that grow in out-of-the-way places. One day as they’re out gathering, Rinn discovers a full-size sleeping dragon. When he wakes, the dragon Aedhan says he’s the guardian of their village, mysteriously asleep for eighty years. Rinn helps him honor the past and learn how to be a part of the village, while Erik and Hesekiel investigate the cause of Aedhan’s long sleep.

Volume three, the Tea Dragon Tapestry, is out now in our Rivershare libraries, and picks up the story of Greta and Minette as they learn about growing up. Greta is still working hard to learn blacksmithing, while trying to bond with tea dragon Ginseng – and her challenges give her lots to learn about craftsmanship and grief. Minette, meanwhile, learns more about her past, her gift of prophecy, and her future. All the while their family and friendship gives them each the support they need to find their paths forward.

For a devoted tea drinker like me, the whole concept of tea dragons was utterly charming, and the slow, unhurried pace of the story was deeply restful. I think the author also works in some good meditations on craftsmanship, progress, tradition, and friendship. If you need a healing break, read these graphic novels! While the first two volumes are available on Overdrive, I do recommend the physical copies for the full immersive experience.

In Deeper Waters by FT Lukens

Did I just pick up this book because of its beautiful cover? Yes. Yes I did. But luckily it turned out to be as lovely a story as its cover.

In Deeper Waters by FT Lukens is a coming-of-age story, a romance, an imaginative fairy-tale-inspired fantasy, and a rollicking adventure. Tal is the fourth in line to the throne, and he’s on his coming of age tour around the kingdom. The kingdom is tense and war is threatened, which doesn’t help to ease Tal’s anxiety: he secretly has magic which he fears will be used as a weapon. Just as his tour is getting underway, his ship encounters a mysterious derelict with an abandoned prisoner inside – the mysterious Athlen. Athlen treats Tal more like a person than anyone has in a while, but before they can explore this connection, Athlen makes a shocking escape. When he reappears miraculously in a later port, Tal follows him, determined to get answers. And it’s not a moment too soon, as Tal is then kidnapped by pirates. He must escape if he wants to prevent a war, and he needs all the help he can get.

The familial love is on-point, messing with some stereotypes, the magic is captivating, and in my opinion the world-building is expert. In some fantasy novels, a page or three at the beginning of the story is taken up by explanations of what the world is and how it works and who the players are; in this case the story starts right up and details about the world are revealed gradually and organically, so that your picture of the world your in grows and gets colored in as you read. I found that very effective for keeping readers hooked and sharing just enough detail so things make sense as they’re happening.

One thing that struck home for me was that although Tal is unsure of himself, and a lot of decisions are out of his hands, he gradually takes more control of his life and decides what kind of person he’s going to be. I always love a story where a character forges their own path. I also thought the depiction of politics, and how complicated monarchy can be depending on your perspective, was a good nod to realism without being too dark. In short, hope is a theme running through most parts of the story – and the world needs more of that.

Sweet, exciting, and thought-provoking, this book is recommended for those who liked The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Pirates of the Caribbean, or similar fantasy adventure romps.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Julia Claiborne Johnson’s works are love letters to the early 1900s, in two very different ways. I recently read her first, Be Frank With Me, and it’s so funny and heartfelt that it gave me high hopes for her second, 2021’s Better Luck Next Time.

In Be Frank With Me, a young New Yorker named Alice Whitley narrates the story of her time working for prickly and reclusive author M.M. Banning in the early 2000s. Alice spends most of her time taking care of Frank, Banning’s nine-year-old son. Frank is a sharp dresser, a destructive force, and a treasure trove of facts, especially about the golden age of film (circa 1910 through around 1960). He has two specific rules: No Touching Frank, and No Touching Frank’s Things. None of this makes it easy for him to connect with other kids (or anyone, really), but through their time together Alice comes to care deeply for him, even as her curiosity grows about who his father is – not to mention all the questions she has about his mother and her enigmatic handyman Xander.

While I’m not sure I’m satisfied with where the book ends (although it’s always a good sign to want more, isn’t it?) I loved smiling and laughing my way through it, particularly as Alice grows and learns along the way. Her dry wit and Frank’s unique voice combined into an unforgettable friendship.

If you like books about authors, quirky kids, or young adults coming of age, you might like Be Frank With Me. If you loved Be Frank With Me, and want a story of love, marriage, divorce, and dude ranches in 1930s Nevada, you might try Better Luck Next Time. Both have a sense of nostalgia and reminiscence about them in different ways.

In the case of Better Luck Next Time, two very different women arrive at The Flying Leap dude ranch in Reno, Nevada, hoping to stay the six weeks that will make them “residents” of Reno and therefore able to take advantage of its quick divorce policy. One is Nina, an heiress and pilot on her third divorce, and the other is Emily, for whom seeking a divorce is the bravest thing she’s ever done. They couldn’t be more different, and yet both strike up friendship with Ward, a handsome ranch hand. Themes include destructive love, healing friendship, and chosen family – and apparently the book is both humorous and heartfelt in good measure.

The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Do you remember Anna’s excellent review of TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea? If you liked that book, or his newer Under the Whispering Door, you may want to try his young adult series, starting with The Extraordinaries – and followed up by 2021’s Flash Fire.

The Extraordinaries is set in Nova City, a city with an established set of superheroes (the titular Extraordinaries). Nick is their biggest fan, and is particularly obsessed with Shadow Star, a hero on the rise and constantly in the news. Writing fanfiction about Shadow Star is more enjoyable than real life, where he’s facing a new ADHD medication, an uncomfortable relationship with his ex (kind of) boyfriend, changes in his group of friends, and worries about his dad’s safety as a Nova City police officer. An attempted mugging foiled by Shadow Star makes Nick determined to be a hero too, and he drags his best friend Seth along for the ride as he chases down a spectacular destiny. But he’s got a lot to learn about what it really means to be extraordinary.

Klune is fantastic at putting a human face on a fantasy universe, without skimping on any of the breathtaking fantasy elements. In this case he shows just how wide a gulf stands between being a fan of superheroes and actually being one – to great humorous effect. Nick eventually brands himself the clueless comic relief, but he also has a great deal of emotional depth, including how his ADHD affects his sense of self-worth and self-efficacy, his lingering grief around his mother’s death, and his anxiety for his cop father’s safety. Overall, his story is one grounded in the discomforts and stupid mistakes that abound during the process of growing up, but overflowing with warmth and hope for brighter futures.

For a similar read I recommend Super Adjacent by Crystal Cestari, Hero by Perry Moore, or All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner. Less superhero-focused, but with a similar emphasis the average-citizen perspective in a world of Chosen Ones, is The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness.

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

In November every year, I try to read as many mysteries as I can. This November, I decided to focus on cozy mysteries partly because Checked In: A Davenport Library Podcast, hosted by three DPL librarians, will be talking about cozy mysteries, amongst other things, in our November episode. (You should check it out to hear myself and two other librarians talk about all things library). Cozy mysteries are considered the gentle reads of the mystery genre. They generally avoid graphic violence, sexual content, and profanity, but feature instead unlikely detectives. Right up my alley!

On my quest to read more cozy mysteries, I discovered Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala. This book is the first in a brand new series called Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery. (The second title Homicide and Halo-Halo is set to come out in February 2022.)This culturally diverse title is full of sharp humor and delicious food. The author even includes a list of recipes at the end of the novel. The end of this book clearly sets you up for a sequel. You even get to read a snippet of the next book in the series.

Lila Macapagal has moved back home. This was not what she wanted to do, but after a nasty breakup and not having completed college, Lila doesn’t really have any other options. Now living back home with her grandmother and aunt, Lila must figure out ways to help save her Tita Rosie’s failing restaurant. In addition to that huge task, Lila is also dealing with her big group of matchmaking aunties/godmothers who want her to settle down and be happy. They love her, but that love is tinged with judgment.

Lil’s ex-boyfriend also keeps popping up in her life too. He is a food critic that has been targeting all the local restaurants for the last couple years and is destroying businesses through his reviews. He has become increasingly nasty and has set his sights on Tita Rosie’s restaurant. While eating one day at the restaurant, he drops dead moments after a confrontation with Lila. The aftermath of that has drastic consequences for the family. The local police treat Lila like she is their only suspect, their landlord wants to use the death as an excuse to kick the family out of the restaurant, and Lila’s best friend has started acting weird. Refusing to let her family be persecuted for something that they didn’t do, Lila decides to start investigating herself with the help of her family and friends. What she discovers is more complicated than she ever could have imagined.