Book Review: The Nowhere Child by Christian White

Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, The Nowhere Child is screenwriter Christian White’s internationally bestselling debut thriller of psychological suspense about a woman uncovering devastating secrets about her family—and her very identity…

Kimberly Leamy is a photography teacher in Melbourne, Australia. Twenty-six years earlier, Sammy Went, a two-year old girl vanished from her home in Manson, Kentucky. An American accountant who contacts Kim is convinced she was that child, kidnapped just after her birthday. She cannot believe the woman who raised her, a loving social worker who died of cancer four years ago, crossed international lines to steal a toddler.

On April 3rd, 1990, Jack and Molly Went’s daughter Sammy disappeared from the inside their Kentucky home. Already estranged since the girl’s birth, the couple drifted further apart as time passed. Jack did his best to raise and protect his other daughter and son while Molly found solace in her faith. The Church of the Light Within, a Pentecostal fundamentalist group who handle poisonous snakes as part of their worship, provided that faith. Without Sammy, the Wents eventually fell apart.

Now, with proof that she and Sammy are in fact the same person, Kim travels to America to reunite with a family she never knew she had. And to solve the mystery of her abduction—a mystery that will take her deep into the dark heart of religious fanaticism where she must fight for her life against those determined to save her soul…

The Nowhere Child is a contemporary mystery with a premise that reminded me of some teen thrillers that were popular in the early 2000s. What happens to a person who discovers that the life she thought she knew is built on a lie? What if it turns out that your parents aren’t really your parents? How would you handle finding out that you were kidnapped, way back before you were old enough to remember, and that you have an entirely other family out there in the world?

Kim’s life is turned upside down when a stranger shows up claiming that she’s his long-lost sister. DNA testing quickly proves that they are in fact siblings. But Kim knows that her mother was a good, loving person — how could she be a kidnapper?

Kim agrees to go to the United States with Stuart to meet her biological sister and parents, to see the Kentucky town where she was born, and to try to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. What happened all those years ago? Who took her, and why? And how did she end up growing up in Australia with woman she believed to be her mother?

The town of Manson, Kentucky has its own creepy secrets, among them a formerly popular pentecostal congregation with an outsized influence on its members, including Sammy/Kim’s mother Molly. Church members bear their snake bite scars as badges of honor — those who survive, anyway. As the narrative switches back and forth between Kim’s present trip to Manson and the past, almost thirty years earlier, when Sammy disappeared from her home, the clues and connections start to add up. And while Kim/Sammy’s kidnapping happened so many years ago, there’s still a threat lurking in the town when she comes too close to uncovering the truth.

I enjoyed the story and the puzzle of trying to figure out exactly what happened to Sammy, and the description of the different family members, townspeople, and their secrets. Some of the threads between “then” and “now” seemed a little flimsy to me, but overall, the plot is pieced together in such a way that the answers aren’t too obvious. I had a pretty good idea of whose stories had holes and where the missing connection might be, but it was still interesting to see it all come together.

We never really see much of Kim’s life in Australia, and I would have liked that piece of her life to be better fleshed out, especially to have seen more memories of her time with her mother. It felt like an important piece was missing, to see how Kim was raised and what her relationship with her mother was like. Likewise, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why some of the people in Kentucky in the “now” timeline acted as they did, and even once we had all the answers about the kidnapping, I’m not convinced that the motivation for taking and keeping Sammy made a whole lot of sense.

There’s a truly disturbing scene toward the end of the book that absolutely made my skin crawl. I mean, super icky and scary. Let’s just say that if you have a problem with reptiles and rodents, you should proceed with caution!

Overall, The Nowhere Child is a good, solid read that held my interest, even when I didn’t quite buy every element of the story. If anyone else has read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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The details:

Title: The Nowhere Child
Author: Christian White
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.

Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.

My Thoughts:

While I love the premise of this book, the execution screams “literary fiction” rather than “science fiction”, and that may be why The Dreamers didn’t thrill me in the end. It’s an awesome set-up: A mysterious illness begins spreading through a remote college town, with no known cause or cure. People infected simply fall asleep, and stay that way. Without medical care, they’d die of malnutrition and dehydration, and soon the hospitals and emergency triage centers are overflowing with these strange sleepers. As the weeks drag on, those who remain awake find themselves trapped within the quarantined area, living in an eerie world of deserted homes and stray dogs.

Should be exciting, right? And yet, the narrative isn’t focused on the epidemiology or the science, but rather on the individuals, their relationships, and their meditations on the meaning of life, connection, time, and reality. How do we know that what we think is reality isn’t really a dream? How do we know that our dreams aren’t an alternate reality? When does the passing of time represent a loss? Can we mourn what we’ve never had? Is it more ethical to save many strangers than to save one person that you love? On and on.

While there are some interesting developments and characters, the metaphor-heavy presentation didn’t particularly work for me. As with this author’s previous novel (The Age of Miracles), I felt that a nifty sci-fi scenario became the canvas for a meditative literary piece, and that just wasn’t what I was hoping for. Perhaps this author just isn’t for me. I don’t regret reading The Dreamers, but I can’t help wondering how the story might have gone if written by a more action-driven, science-driven sci-fi writer.

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The details:

Title: The Dreamers
Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Science fiction/comtemporary fiction
Source: I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway

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Book Review: Fire & Blood by George R. R. Martin

 

With all the fire and fury fans have come to expect from internationally bestselling author George R. R. Martin, this is the first volume of the definitive two-part history of the Targaryens in Westeros.

Centuries before the events of A Game of Thrones, House Targaryen—the only family of dragonlords to survive the Doom of Valyria—took up residence on Dragonstone. Fire and Blood begins their tale with the legendary Aegon the Conqueror, creator of the Iron Throne, and goes on to recount the generations of Targaryens who fought to hold that iconic seat, all the way up to the civil war that nearly tore their dynasty apart.

What really happened during the Dance of the Dragons? Why did it become so deadly to visit Valyria after the Doom? What is the origin of Daenerys’s three dragon eggs? These are but a few of the questions answered in this essential chronicle, as related by a learned maester of the Citadel and featuring more than eighty all-new black-and-white illustrations by artist Doug Wheatley. Readers have glimpsed small parts of this narrative in such volumes as The World of Ice & Fire, but now, for the first time, the full tapestry of Targaryen history is revealed.

With all the scope and grandeur of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Fire and Blood is the ultimate game of thrones, giving readers a whole new appreciation for the dynamic, often bloody, and always fascinating history of Westeros.

This massive 700+ page book is not for the faint of heart or noncommitted. By no means an easy read, Fire & Blood takes determination to get through — but now that I’ve finished it, I’d say the effort is well worth it.

You know how people often describe great non-fiction as “reads like fiction”? Well, here the opposite is true. While a work of fiction (to the best of my knowledge, Westeros and Valyeria are not real places, although after soldiering through this book, they certainly feel real to me), Fire & Blood is written as a work of history, not as a novel, and reading it definitely feels like reading a densely researched piece of non-fiction. There are no overarching plotlines, and little in the way of dialogue or character development. Instead, Fire & Blood is a history of the reign of the Targaryens, starting at a point some 300 years prior to the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire, as the first Targaryen king, Aegon the Conqueror, flies on dragon-back from Dragonstone to Westeros to claim a kingdom.

The amount of detail in this book is staggering. Written as a history book from the pen of an Archmaester of Oldtown, Fire & Blood takes us through the bloody, violent years from the conquest through the early period of the reign of Aegon III, leaving off with still over a century to go before the events that begin A Game of Thrones.

Don’t even attempt to read this book without a strategically placed bookmark on the chart of the Targaryen Lineage at the back of the book. I must have flipped back to it at least once every 10 – 20 pages, from start to finish. The names are mind-boggling to try to keep straight. Among the Targaryens in this 130 year period are notable women such as Rhaenys, Rhaena, Rhaella, and Rhaenyra, not to mention Alysanne, Alyssa, and Alicent. Men’s names are just as hard to keep straight, like Jacaerys and Jaehaerys, or the numerous Aegons, Aemons, and Baelons. Unfortunately, this book does not include a map of Westeros or a guide to the many dragons, but luckily I had a copy of The World of Ice and Fire on hand for quick reference.

Fire & Blood is a fascinating read. While I’ve read the five novels published to date in the ASoIaF series, I haven’t delved much beyond these book in terms of additional histories and the myriad of supplemental materials out there in the fandom. As a first encounter with a Westerosi history, my reading experience was intense but ultimately enjoyable. I can’t even begin to fathom the intricate working of George R. R. Martin’s mind, to be able to come up with a world so complete that its history makes for compelling reading, with no details left unexplored.

While I sometimes felt like I’d be reading this book FOREVER, once I got into the rhythm of it, it didn’t take me nearly as long as I’d imagined. Parts go more slowly than others, and there are a lot of lords and ladies, houses, bannermen, etc to keep track of. The most compelling (and horrifying) part of the book is the section about the war of succession known as the Dance of the Dragons. Lasting a relatively brief number of years, it inflicted devastation upon the kingdom and its people, and brought about the destruction of nearly all of the Targaryen dragons. Maybe it should be obvious from the title — Fire & Blood is very heavy on war and death and horrible cruelty, and like any account of war, while the names remembered are those of the knights and the rulers who set the course of battle, it’s the common people who consistently pay the largest price.

Fire & Blood is part one of a two-part history, and while I’m afraid that we’ll end up waiting years for the next installment, I’m definitely committed to wanting to read part two. This was really an engrossing, rewarding read… and has had the added side-effect of making me even more excited for the final season of the GoT TV series. What a world George R. R. Martin has created! If you’re a fan, don’t miss Fire & Blood.

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The details:

Title: Fire & Blood
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam
Publication date: November 20, 2018
Length: 706 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

 

The author of The Wedding Date serves up a novel about what happens when a public proposal doesn’t turn into a happy ending, thanks to a woman who knows exactly how to make one on her own…

When someone asks you to spend your life with him, it shouldn’t come as a surprise–or happen in front of 45,000 people.

When freelance writer Nikole Paterson goes to a Dodgers game with her actor boyfriend, his man bun, and his bros, the last thing she expects is a scoreboard proposal. Saying no isn’t the hard part–they’ve only been dating for five months, and he can’t even spell her name correctly. The hard part is having to face a stadium full of disappointed fans…

At the game with his sister, Carlos Ibarra comes to Nik’s rescue and rushes her away from a camera crew. He’s even there for her when the video goes viral and Nik’s social media blows up–in a bad way. Nik knows that in the wilds of LA, a handsome doctor like Carlos can’t be looking for anything serious, so she embarks on an epic rebound with him, filled with food, fun, and fantastic sex. But when their glorified hookups start breaking the rules, one of them has to be smart enough to put on the brakes…

Ah, another fluffy romance that worked perfectly for me! What a fun read.

In The Proposal, Nik and Carlos meet and connect on what could be the worst day of her life. Their easy banter makes them want to keep in touch, and occasional texts and quick bites to eat turn quickly into terrific sexual chemistry and a natural, enjoyable friendship. Or is it more? (Yes. It’s more.)

Both have baggage in their lives. Both think they’re just looking for casual hook-ups with someone they like spending time with. Neither is willing to even entertain the idea of a relationship or emotional involvement… but emotional involvement sneaks in anyway, and throws them both for a loop.

As in the author’s previous book, The Wedding Date, the cast of characters in The Proposal is nicely diverse, and features strong friendships that give a well-rounded sense of balance to the story. It’s not just about two hot people meeting and having hot sex (although that happens) — it’s about two adults, both professional, who’ve been through some tough times, take their family and friends seriously, and think deeply about what they do and what they want.

The Proposal is quite a romp, with great dynamics between Nik and Carlos, plus lots of fun details like cupcakes, home-made enchiladas, a trip to a bookstore, and an amazing women’s gym with a terrific self-defense program. (If it existed in real life within driving distance of my house, I’d be there in a heartbeat!)

This really was a great choice for me this week, providing a much needed break from some heavier reads. I read it all in one day, which gives you some idea of how engaging the story is and how smoothy it just flows. This isn’t exactly a deep or serious read, but it does make some great points about women in relationships and the importance of having a circle of supportive friends. Nik and Carlos are both the kind of people who just sound great to be around, so it was a very cheery and upbeat experience reading a book that’s basically all about the two of them figuring out for themselves that they’re right for one another, long after everyone else in their lives knows it. If you enjoy contemporary romance, check it out!

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The details:

Title: The Proposal
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 30, 2018
Length: 327 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Macy Sorensen is settling into an ambitious if emotionally tepid routine: work hard as a new pediatrics resident, plan her wedding to an older, financially secure man, keep her head down and heart tucked away.

But when she runs into Elliot Petropoulos—the first and only love of her life—the careful bubble she’s constructed begins to dissolve. Once upon a time, Elliot was Macy’s entire world—growing from her gangly bookish friend into the man who coaxed her heart open again after the loss of her mother…only to break it on the very night he declared his love for her.

Told in alternating timelines between Then and Now, teenage Elliot and Macy grow from friends to much more—spending weekends and lazy summers together in a house outside of San Francisco devouring books, sharing favorite words, and talking through their growing pains and triumphs. As adults, they have become strangers to one another until their chance reunion. Although their memories are obscured by the agony of what happened that night so many years ago, Elliot will come to understand the truth behind Macy’s decade-long silence, and will have to overcome the past and himself to revive her faith in the possibility of an all-consuming love.

My Thoughts:

This is my 3rd book in about a month by Christina Lauren, a relatively new-to-me writer duo. I’ve been consistently finding their writing engaging, hard to put down, and emotionally compelling — but that said, Love and Other Words didn’t wow me as much as the other two I’ve read.

In Love and Other Words, there’s an aura of sadness that permeates the entire book, driven mostly by the “Then and Now” structure that keeps the narrative flipping back and forth between past and present. In the present, we know that Macy has never gotten over the heartbreak that Elliot represents, and that as a consequence, she keeps herself safe by never really opening herself up to feeling deep emotions. In the past, we see the growing friendship that turns into love, which is sweet and nostalgic, but even there, the feeling of sorrow hangs over everything as Macy mourns her deceased mother and tries to find a place for herself in the world. None of this is a negative exactly, but it does give the book a heaviness that keeps it from being an upbeat, fun read.

And having now read a few books by these authors in a relatively short space of time, I have a quibble that I can’t ignore: This is the 2nd of their books in a row (after My Favorite Half-Night Stand) where the main character is a woman with a very impressive professional life, which clearly required dedication and years of study — and yet their careers end up feeling like window dressing. In My Favorite Half-Night Stand, she’s a university professor; here’s, she’s a pediatric resident. Specifically in this book, we mainly see Macy coming and going from work shifts, but never actually see her working. What’s more, I don’t remember ever getting a clue from her “then” chapters that she had an interest in medicine or science. It’s great to see women in powerful, learned roles — but I want to actually see them in their professional capacity at least a little bit, rather than having their careers being just another fact that makes up the whole. If that makes any sense…

But back to the love story — Macy and Elliot are awfully sweet together, and it’s not exactly a surprise (so I won’t include a spoiler warning) that these two crazy lovebirds find their way back to one another by the end. “Then” Elliot and Macy take a long time to move beyond friendship, and it’s kind of lovely to see them navigating how to deal with first love. As an added plus, young Macy and Elliot bond over their love of words and books, and that’s never not a good thing! Give me a love story built around shared reading material any day!

I’ll close by sharing this sweet little exchange from a “Then” chapter, when Elliot asks Macy if she thinks about him when they’re apart:

It took me a second to process what he meant. When I was back home. Away from him. “Of course I do.”

“When?”

“All the time. You’re my best friend.”

“Your best friend,” he repeated.

My heart dipped low in my chest, almost painfully. “Well, you’re more, too. You’re my best everything.”

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The details:

Title: Love and Other Words
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: April 10, 2018
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lucy Hutton and Joshua Templeman hate each other. Not dislike. Not begrudgingly tolerate. Hate. And they have no problem displaying their feelings through a series of ritualistic passive aggressive maneuvers as they sit across from each other, executive assistants to co-CEOs of a publishing company. Lucy can’t understand Joshua’s joyless, uptight, meticulous approach to his job. Joshua is clearly baffled by Lucy’s overly bright clothes, quirkiness, and Pollyanna attitude.

Now up for the same promotion, their battle of wills has come to a head and Lucy refuses to back down when their latest game could cost her her dream job…But the tension between Lucy and Joshua has also reached its boiling point, and Lucy is discovering that maybe she doesn’t hate Joshua. And maybe, he doesn’t hate her either. Or maybe this is just another game.

My Thoughts:

I picked up The Hating Game on a whim while pondering which of the heavier books on my list to tackle next. Sometimes, light and romantic is just the thing, and this book delivered — but also made me alternate between hair-pulling frustration and goofy, grinning swoons.

Office romances are risky, and depicting them in fiction takes some delicacy… which The Hating Game mostly lacked. I spent the first twenty percent or so of this book shrieking at the characters to grow up and act like professionals! (OK, my day job might be leaking through a bit here — as someone who works in HR for a living, I was more than a little horrified by the workplace behavior of the characters and the fact that their bosses were completely hopeless as managers). Add to the office nonsense the fact that Josh and Lucy were up for the same promotion (and just how do executive assistants suddenly get considered for COO jobs?), and much of the story drove me absolutely batty.

BUT… when we get Josh and Lucy away from the office, suddenly their banter, flirtation, and chemistry become adorable, and — I admit it — it was impossible not to be caught up in the steamy scenes of almost-but-not-quite between the two of them. Sure, the plot and romance development were complicated by the usual contemporary romance tropes of poor communications and jumping to wildly off-base conclusion about the other’s intentions, but my grumpiness about these elements was eventually washed away by the sheer cuteness and sexiness of Josh and Lucy together. (With Lucy as the only POV character, we have to take her word for everything — but she does have a tendency to freak out over Josh’s behavior in ways that seem overly exaggerated. For a smart woman, she jumps to some dumb conclusions… repeatedly.)

Oh, and for a book that was supposedly centered around the office competition between the two characters, the ending left the career elements strangely unfinished, at least for Lucy. [SPOILER ahead] The big interview for the COO job has been Lucy’s focus (apart from Josh) for weeks, yet the story ends before the interview, so we don’t find out if Lucy ever got the job. We do know that Josh withdraws his application and takes a job with another company so that he and Lucy can pursue their relationship without professional conflicts of interest, but Lucy isn’t necessarily a lock and there are outside candidates — so why, after all the emphasis on Lucy’s dedication to her career, do we not get to know if she achieved her goal? This piece left me decidedly unsatisfied.

So, I guess you could say that I had a love/hate relationship with The Hating Game. I definitely got caught up in the story and basically dropped everything else until I finished… but so many parts of the story left me snorting with disbelief or rolling my eyes. If I had to come up with a rating, I’d probably give 2 stars for the office romance components, but 4 stars for the out-of-the-office flirtation, chemistry, and sexytimes. And apparently, I’ve turned into a contemporary romance reader this month — who’d have thunk it?

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The details:

Title: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: August 9, 2016
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

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Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

After that lengthy synopsis, I’m not sure what else there is to say, other than to talk about my experience reading this book.

The short version is — I loved it.

Susan Orlean is a brilliant writer, new to me, although I’ve been hearing about The Orchid Thief for years and always meant to get to it (and after finishing The Library Book, finally bought myself a copy). The story here is fascinating and multi-layered. The framing device of the book is the 1986 Los Angeles library fire, which is devastating and horrifying to read about, as the author takes us practically minute by minute through the fire’s path and shows us the awful damage done during those terrible hours.

Interspersed with the story of the fire is a history of the role of libraries in society, focusing mainly (but not exclusively) on the history of the library in Los Angeles, showing the library as a reflection of the society it serves, its challenges and its triumphs. We see how public libraries have evolved over time, and how those who work in libraries are devoted both to serving the public and to keeping public libraries vital and vibrant, even as society and technology constantly change and provide fresh challenges to the concept of what a library actually is.

We also meet amazing people, past and present, who played a part in the Los Angeles library, from head librarians to architects to security guards. It’s amazing to see the incredible talent and intelligence and humor of the people who helped build the library system and who continue to keep it relevant and important.

The story of Harry Peak is the most puzzling piece of the book — an unsuccessful actor who was suspected of the arson, but whose constantly shifting stories and alibis made any sort of case against him questionable at best. He’s an odd person, and so much is uncertain — but it’s interesting to see how his strange life intersected with such a major civic disaster.

Susan Orlean’s writing is gorgeous. Like the best non-fiction, it flows and captivates, and I never for a moment felt bored or like I was reading a dusty, dry history book.

On visiting a boarded-up, abandoned branch library:

This building made the permanence of libraries feel forsaken. This was a shrine to being forgotten; to memories sprinkled like salt; ideas vaporized as if they never had been formed; stories evaporated as if they had no substance and no weight keeping them bound to the earth and to each of us, and most of all, to the yet-unfolded future.

Other memorable (or just entertaining) lines and passages:

In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries.

In the year leading up to Prohibition, when the ban on alcohol seemed inevitable, every book about how to make liquor at home was checked out, and most were never returned.

[Althea] Warren was probably the most avid reader who ever ran the library. She believed librarians’ single greatest responsibility was to read voraciously. Perhaps she advocated this in order to be sure librarians knew their books, but for Warren, this directive was based in emotion and philosophy: She wanted librarians to simply adore the act of reading for its own sake, and perhaps, as a collateral benefit, they could inspire their patrons to read with a similarly insatiable appetite. As she said in a speech to a library association in 1935, librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.”

The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.

The Library Book is simply a delicious read, perfect for anyone who appreciates finely detailed research, expressive writing, and a passion for books and libraries. I loved this book, and can’t wait to give copies to a whole bunch of book-obsessed friends.

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The details:

Title: The Library Book
Author: Susan Orlean
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 317 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Gift (yay!)

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Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount: The perfect gift for the bibliophiles in your life!

If you’re looking for the absolutely perfect gift for a very special booklover, I’m here to tell you:

THIS IS THE ONE.

Bibliophile is just so, so wonderful. Anyone who’s crazy about books (and let’s face it, if you’re reading a book blog right now, you fit the category) will adore this book.

In this gorgeous hardcover, artist Jane Mount creates a reference guide/ode to great books/piece of artwork that is a pleasure to page through. I’ve had it sitting out on my nightstand for a few weeks now, ever since I treated myself to my very own copy, and I can personally attest that the few minutes I spend each day opening Bibliophile at random and soaking in a few pages at a time are utter bliss. And who doesn’t need that at the end of the day?

In my happy place

Okay, so now that I’ve raved on for a bit, here’s a little more about what’s actually inside.

Bibliophile is a smorgasbord of book-related subjects and illustrations, focusing on everything from favorite bookstores to bookstore cats, striking libraries to writers’ pets, iconic covers to books made into great movies.

The book is a gorgeous balance of illustrations and words, with full-color spreads to amaze and delight, such as the ones featured in this review on Read It Forward:

Jane Mount is a talented artist who specializes in books. You can check out her amazing work at Ideal Bookshelf, where you can find prints, notecards, totes and more — or if you really want to splurge you can even order a custom painting of your own favorite bookshelf.

Just a little taste of what’s available at https://www.idealbookshelf.com/collections/everything

By the way, you’ll probably want to check out her previous book, My Ideal Bookshelf, which features a round-up of cultural celebrities — writers, chefs, and more — describing the books they love the most, with Mount’s beautiful illustrations for each shelf.

And look at that! A post full of gift ideas for your favorite booklovers — or even little treats for yourself, because you deserve it.

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The details:

Title: Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany
Author: Jane Mount
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Publication date: September 11, 2018
Length: 224 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/art/reference
Source: Purchased

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Wrapping up the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi (books 4 – 6)

Finally, after threatening to read these books for oodles of year, I’ve done it! As of this past week, I’ve finished the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi. I’m definitely feeling a sense of satisfaction over seeing this through — but what will I put on my reading resolution list for 2019, now that this perennial favorite has moved to the “already read” shelf?

After finishing the first three books in the six-book series, I wrote a wrap-up post (here) to share my thoughts from the halfway point. So now, I’ll dive back in and focus on books 4 – 6, which take the series in a decidedly different direction.

Book #4, Zoe’s Tale is THE EXACT SAME STORY as the one told in The Last Colony. The catch is, this time around we see events through the eyes of Zoe, adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, and biological daughter of a man who came close to destroying all of humanity. (Spoiler alert: he failed.) Once again, we journey with the family to the new colony of Roanoke, where things go spectacularly badly for the human colonists.

Zoe is a fun point-of-view character, giving us the teen girl take on being dragged across the universe by her parents, being forced to leave her friends and technology behind, and engage in the dirty, difficult business of building a new home out of practically nothing.

Zoe is smart, and a smart-ass, and it’s exhilarating to see her come into her own and make a difference in intergalactic politics and intrigue. Plus, Zoe — by virtue of her birth father’s contributions — is a hero to an entire alien race, and seeing Zoe interact with her Obin bodyguards is worth the price of admission all on its own.

As a side note, throughout the series, Scalzi excels at creating multitudes of alien races and making them distinct and endlessly entertaining. Some are weird, some are scary, some are practically beyond description… and it all just adds to the fun of the Old Man’s War books.

You might think it would be dull to read about the same events in a second book, but trust me, it’s not. It’s kind of a blast to hear Zoe’s take on what happened, and to see how her version dovetails (or not) with her parents’ side of the story. Really, Zoe’s Tale is a great read — and I think best appreciated if read immediately following The Last Colony.

Zoe’s Tale is, in a way, an end of the main piece of the story, at least if you consider the series to be specifically about John Perry and his family. The next two books continue with events in the Old Man’s War universe, but have a very different format and focus.

Books #4 and 5, The Human Division and The End of All Things, are written (and were originally published as) a series of interconnected stories. John Perry’s actions at the end of the previous books pretty much blew up the uneasy coexistence of the Colonial Union (representing humanity) and the Conclave (an alliance of 400+ alien species). In these two books, we see what happens next.

Previously, Earth was kept isolated from the Colonial Union. Earth humans had the option of joining the CDF (Colonial Defense Forces) when they turned 75, but it was a one-way relationship. Earth was kept mostly in the dark about the goings-on out in space, and had no say in how humans interacted with the various other species they encountered.

John Perry broke through that barrier, and in The Human Division and The End of All Things, we see the fall-out. Earth is no longer willing to be merely a supplier of people and goods to the Colonial Union, and wants its own voice heard. In these two books, we meet diplomats — lots and lots of diplomats — from Earth, from the Colonial Union, and from the Conclave, each of whom represent their people’s interest, but carry layer upon layer of secret agendas as well.

Of course, these are John Scalzi books we’re talking about, so in addition to diplomatic negotiations, we have daring space rescues, lots of things blowing up, a brain in a box (yup!), wise-ass soldiers wielding mighty weapons while discussing ancient pop culture, descriptions of very interesting and sometimes scary alien beings, and more snark than might seem possible to fit into two paperback books.

As I said in my wrap-up of the first three books in the series:

Ever since discovering John Scalzi’s amazing books, I’ve know that I needed to make time for this series, but after talking about it for so long, it started feeling like a huge undertaking — and I’m not quite sure why. Now that I’ve dived in (and read three books in the space of a week), I can tell you that this series contains all the trademark Scalzi wit and smart-assery (is that a word? it should be a word) that we know and love from books like The Android’s Dream, Redshirts, and Lock In. I was afraid that Old Man’s War would be all hard sci-fi, serious and full of space battles, and I’m happy to say that that’s not the case. I mean, yes, there are space battles and the eradication of planets and species… but these books are funny, dammit, even while containing moments of deep emotion and moral dilemmas.

Now that I’ve reached the end of Old Man’s War, I can say that I’m 100% happy to have read the series! John Scalzi is consistently smart and funny in everything he writes, and I think it’s safe to say that I’m a fan for life. I haven’t started his newest series, The Interdependency (which consists of two books so far, The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) — so I guess I do have something Scalzi for my goals list for 2019 after all.

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The details:

Zoe’s Tale – published 2008; 325 pages
The Human Division – published 2013; 431 pages
The End of All Things – published 2015; 380 pages

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Charlotte Gorman loves her job as an elementary school librarian, and is content to experience life through the pages of her books. Which couldn’t be more opposite from her identical twin sister. Ginny, an Instagram-famous beauty pageant contestant, has been chasing a crown since she was old enough to enunciate the words world peace, and she’s not giving up until she gets the title of Miss American Treasure. And Ginny’s refusing to do it alone this time.

She drags Charlotte to the pageant as a good luck charm, but the winning plan quickly goes awry when Ginny has a terrible, face-altering allergic reaction the night before the pageant, and Charlotte suddenly finds herself in a switcheroo the twins haven’t successfully pulled off in decades.

Woefully unprepared for the glittery world of hair extensions, false eyelashes, and push-up bras, Charlotte is mortified at every unstable step in her sky-high stilettos. But as she discovers there’s more to her fellow contestants than just wanting a sparkly crown, Charlotte realizes she has a whole new motivation for winning.

My Thoughts:

This is a fun, light read — just enough thoughtfulness to offset the goofiness of spray tans, bedazzled ballgowns, and parading in front of judges in a bikini. Charlotte describes her sister Ginny as the “pretty one” — the Meg to her Jo, the Jane to her Lizzie — but in reality, they’re identical twins. There isn’t really a prettier sister — it’s all about self-image and what each sister does with her looks and her talents.

Charlotte is delightfully bookish and nerdy, dropping Harry Potter lines at a moment’s notice, thrilled at the idea of picking up a sorting hat to bring back to the children’s library where she works. Ginny is Instagram-famous and seemingly all about the looks. By having to literally walk in Ginny’s shoes, Charlotte of course learns that there’s more to her sister’s world than she thought, and also discovers elements of herself that she’d buried for years.

It’s all a bit silly and full of wish-fulfillment. In reality, could someone new to pageant life pull off a successful impersonation of an experienced, trained competitor? Does it make any sense that Charlotte could come up with a talent act that not only works, but wins? Of course not.

Still, it’s fun to see Charlotte apply her geekiness to the pursuit of a crown for her sister. Not unpredictably, everything ends up going wrong, but the sisters’ relationship is strengthened by it all. An unnecessary love story adds a romantic element to the plot, but it really doesn’t need to be there.

On the plus side, The Accidental Beauty Queen is a good reminder that all choices are valid, and that women who compete in pageants are not by default shallow mean girls. The book shows the individuality of many of the competitors and allows them to emerge as strong women rather than as stereotypes. Likewise, we see that there are some worthy causes associated with the pageant world, including a fictional organization that mirrors some real-life organizations that organize pageants for disabled, ill, and special needs youth, enabling them to feel proud and beautiful and deserving of appreciation.

I’ve never been interested in pageants (and would have said that I’m turned off by the idea of being judged based on appearances). My overall feelings haven’t changed, but this book did help me see another side. The twin-switch is definitely unrealistic, but it’s a fun bit of fantasy that makes the book an easy, entertaining read.

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The details:

Title: The Accidental Beauty Queen
Author: Teri Wilson
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 4, 2018
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

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