Category: Contemporary

Book Review: The Last Speaker of Skalwegian by David Gardner

I have so many good things to say about “The Last Speaker of Skalwegian” that I’m not even sure where to start. How about this: I’ve already added this book to my list of nominations for my Top 10 of 2022 list. There are only four books on the list so far, so that’s saying something!

Why did I love “The Last Speaker of Skalwegian” so much? First, because it’s unique. I’m always drawn to books that offer me something different and unusual, and this one definitely fits the bill. It tells the story of Lenny, a quirky college professor who is helping his friend document the almost-dead language of the Skalwegian people. While this may not sound like a delightful premise for a novel, I can assure you that it truly is.

Lenny is the perfect character to headline the story. I loved every single peek into the inner workings of his mind that that author shared with us. His backstory is interesting, and I felt that it helped me understand the man Lenny has become by the start of the book. His development during the course of the story is interesting, and I was pleased with where he ended up. I adored Lenny so much that I’d happily read a sequel, even if nothing much happens in it. I just want to learn more about Lenny and his linguistics projects, present and future.

Other characters, particularly Daniella, Charlie, and Henri, add humor and life to the story. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Widow Bahr and Angel Warrior/Warbler…this pair were both hilarious and (ultimately) quite useful. Of course, there were also the “love to hate” characters like Dean Sheepslappe, Luther, and Elspeth. Without them, there wouldn’t have been a story, and each brought their own special brand of dislike-ability to the table.

The story itself was wonderful. Although I would happily read about Lenny and Company in any scenario, I very much enjoyed the Skalwegian plotline, along with the question of Charlie’s inheritance and the various dangers that come into play for the characters. By the last few chapters, I knew I wouldn’t be able to put the book down until I knew how everything ended up. Thankfully, the author gave us a solid conclusion that left me feeling happy for everyone, but sad that the story was over.

I also enjoyed Mr. Gardner’s clever naming of certain characters, which called to mind the genius that is Jasper Fforde. Throw in some Forrest-Gump-ish moments where things happen around our hero to which he is mostly oblivious, and perhaps you can begin to understand why I was so delighted to have had the chance to read this book.

Five out of five chunks of the most perfect sharp Cheddar!

Book Review: The Girl Who Could Breathe Underwater by Erin Bartels

I was initially drawn to this book because it is about an author who is having trouble writing her next book after the success of her first. I enjoyed that aspect of the story….one cause of writer’s block, the author’s attempts to move past it, and how she eventually found her voice again. However, there is SO MUCH more to the story.

I loved the way the author deftly interwove Kendra’s present-day story (writer’s block, revisiting her childhood retreat, working with her German translator) with the story of her childhood past in a lakefront cabin in Michigan. Both stories are beautifully told, and I awaited new developments in both timelines with equal anticipation.

There is so much attention to detail, both in plot and description, that I felt like I could actually see the world through Kendra’s eyes. Kendra herself is a likeable main character, and I appreciated the way the worked through her past with honesty and an open mind. I found myself truly invested in the outcome of her stories, and was pleased with the endings of both timelines.

One note: This story deals with sexual abuse. Nothing is graphic or gratuitous, and I felt that the topic was handled with sensitivity and integrity. However, if this is a trigger subject for you, please be advised that it is part of the story.

Definitely five out of five slices of perfect Provolone!

Book Review: The Safecracker’s Secret by Sandra Bretting

“The Safecracker’s Secret” is a wonderful stand-alone book that focuses on the developing relationship between Gene, an elderly safecracker, and his college-aged protege Skye. Each individual is given a detailed personality and back story, and I felt that I grew to know and understand each of them as the story progressed. Watching their relationship grow from their first meeting in Gene’s lock shop through the end of the book was truly a pleasure. (Note: This is an age-appropriate mentor/mentee relationship, NOT a May-December romantic one.)

Gene’s safecracking skills are sometimes utilized by the local (Houston) police, and this time around he’s involved in a case involving drugs being sold to students at Skye’s college. Part of the story revolves around trying to solve this case, but the main focus of the book is on Skye and Gene. There is a good bit for the reader to think about in terms of family relationships, which could make for interesting book club discussions.

Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed was that chapters are told from the perspectives of different characters. Gene and Skye (naturally) have the most chapters, but it was nice to hear from Reef (an employee at Gene’s shop) and police detective Boudreaux occasionally as well. This provided unique insights into different parts of the story. I loved how everything was woven together in the end.

I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys a quality character/relationship-driven story with a touch of mystery.

Five out of five slices of yummy provolone!

Book Review: The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

“The Very Nice Box” tells the story of Ava, a woman dealing with significant grief who works as an engineer at an IKEA-like company (STADA). First off, Ava’s character is incredibly well-drawn and detailed. The reader will gradually get to know her as the story progresses…everything from her back story to her current life to her various quirks and character traits. She feels very much like a real person, and becomes more and more endearing as the story unfolds.

The actual story is also excellent. Ava’s world is populated primarily by co-workers and her beloved dog Brutus. With the introduction of a new boss, the authors successfully wreck havoc with Ava’s carefully structured life. In addition to personal drama, STADA itself is having issues, as a group of protestors is trying to halt progress on a new building. I felt like I was “with” Ava every step of the way as her relationships change and she works through past issues and deals with present changes. All along, I was invested in her happiness, and found I really cared about what happened to her.

The jacket cover promises a surprise, so I was trying to figure out what it was as I was reading. I was right about part of it, but I didn’t see other parts of it coming. I highly recommend this book….for the great character portrait, for the action, and for the fun of trying to figure out the twist.

Five out of five scrumptious chunks of pepper jack!

Book Review: The Sea is Salt and So Am I by Cassandra Hartt

I just finished reading “The Sea is Salt and So Am I”, and was completely STUNNED to learn that this is Ms. Hartt’s debut novel. I’m very much looking forward to following her career, and seeing what she comes up with next!

The author includes a trigger warning at the beginning, and I’ll do the same here: This book deals with teen depression, suicidal thoughts, and a suicide attempt. If these topics are triggers for you, you should probably look elsewhere for reading material.

That being said…the author handles these intense topics in a way that is simultaneously realistic, beautiful, and heartbreaking. Her main characters and their experiences are completely believable, and I had trouble putting the book down without seeing what happened to them next. I adored Tommy, liked Harlow, and was mostly mildly annoyed by Ellis, but all three of them captivated me. I am already mentally working out what comes next for them, as I can’t stand not knowing how their lives turn out after the end of this story.

The book is set in the fictional town of West Finch, Maine. The town is almost a separate character, and reading about it, the local problems, the wildlife, and the weather added another layer to this already incredibly nuanced novel.

Finally, I appreciated Ms. Hartt’s candor in the Author’s Note at the end. I will happily read anything else she writes, even if it’s just a to-do list. Seriously, readers of the world: Take note! This is an up-and-coming literary talent worth watching!

Five out of five super-sized chunks of the best sharp cheddar money can buy!

Book Review: What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson

Book Review: What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson

I started this book expecting primarily an adventurous quest-for-the-missing money story, with a bit of heartwarming brotherly storyline on the side. Both of those items were definitely present, but as a whole the book was so much MORE than what I was expecting.

First, the treasure hunt storyline: High school student Jack finds himself (and his younger brother Matty) suddenly orphaned and imminently homeless. His father is currently serving time in prison for a robbery, and the stolen money was never recovered. Jack figures his best hope is to find the money and use it to make a new life for himself and Matty. Unfortunately, the original owners of the money are also highly motivated to retrieve it, and Jack’s sudden interest attracts their attention. This is a ruthless faction with no scruples regarding threatening or hurting children (or anyone else in their way) to get what they want. As Jack takes increasingly greater risks to try to insure his future, the reader is taken along on a crazy ride with plenty of twists, turns, and danger. I enjoyed this cat-and-mouse game, and speculating about where the money might be and who (if anyone) would find it.

While the adventure storyline was very good, the character storyline and development was even better. My favorite part of the whole book was reading about Jack’s relationship with Matty. This young man, who never had an easy life with reliable adults to guide him, has somehow grown into an incredibly caring and responsible teen who will stop at nothing to make sure his little brother feels safe and loved. When Jack’s new friend Ava is added to the mix, things become even more complicated (and more beautiful). Ava has issues of her own, and it was interesting to watch how her presence affected the boys’ lives, as well as Ava’s own. Profound (and often poetic) observations from Ava start each chapter.

Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s easily one of my favorites of the year so far; expect to see it on my Top 10 annual wrap-up.

Definitely five out of five slices of perfect Havarti!

Book Review: Beyond the Higher Ground by Thomas A. Brigger

“Beyond the Higher Ground” by Thomas A. Brigger is a very impressive book! I was initially unsure if I’d enjoy it, as it’s about a man sent to rural Virginia to oversee the building of a new prison. I opted to give it a try based on the location, as I’m from near that area, and have traveled through locations mentioned in the book. I’m SO glad I did! (If the prison aspect is holding you back, no worries…what matters is the location, not what is being built. Tuck could have been building a strip mall or apartment complex….what’s important is that he is in that place at that time. This is NOT a prison story.)

That being said….this book was so much more than I expected! The author obviously knows both the area and the construction business well, and it shows throughout the story. Everything rings true, and the descriptions of the area are detailed and allow the reader to vicariously appreciate the view. Despite the often-dark elements of the story, the reader is always reminded that everything is taking place in a region of astounding natural beauty.

The story itself centers around Tuck, who is sent to live in this area for roughly 18 months while he oversees the building project. In the course of this time, he encounters and deals with a lot…his actual job, new friends, friendly locals, hostile locals, bizarre occurrences, and the local drug trade. During it all, he’s still trying to process the unexpected death of his young wife, and figuring out how to move on with his life.

There is plenty going on throughout the book, with the action really ramping up toward the end. By that time, I was strongly invested in several other characters in addition to Tuck, and really cared about what happened to them.

There is plenty of harsh reality in this book….it’s not a light, fun read. The various aspects of the drug trade and their effects on the mostly lower-income locals are addressed realistically, which means not in a pretty way. Nothing gratuitous is thrown in just for shock value, and there’s no excessive violence or gore. I still walked away feeling truly saddened by the knowledge that things like these happen in real life every day, both in the book’s area and in other parts of the country.

You’ll meet some admirable characters: Tuck, who is trying to do his job (and the right thing), Cletus (who is trying to stand up for what he believes in), Sally (who is trying to make everyone happy and comfortable), Cecil (who has an amazing life story to share), and others. It was fascinating getting to know them all, and to learn more about the history of the area through the lives of certain characters.

There are two special, happy bits near the end….one a minor character moment/reveal that I didn’t see coming, and one a glimpse into the future that I’d been hoping for. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers, but I appreciated both of these thoughtful touches from the author.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the quality of the writing itself…it is excellent! There is true poetry contained in some of the passages, and I often found myself stopping to re-read a sentence or two, just to appreciate the beauty of the language.

Give this one a try…I highly recommend it!

Five out of five chunks of spicy Pepper-Jack!

Book Review: 337 by M. Jonathan Lee

“337” by M. Jonathan Lee is, at it’s heart, a character study of Sam Darte, a man whose mother disappeared when he was a teenager. Through present-day action and Sam’s memories of the past, the author skillfully weaves an elaborate portrait of this individual, and how the past contributed to making him who he is today.

Much of the focus is on relationships….notably Sam’s with his mother, father, brother, grandmother, and estranged wife. Each relationship is treated with depth and empathy, and it was heart-breaking to see how Sam’s past has negatively affected how he relates to the important people in his life.

Despite police evidence and court findings, Sam still isn’t sure exactly what happened to his mother. He spends time reviewing documents and questioning his grandmother in an attempt to finally learn the truth. This quest ultimately leads to some interesting results, both factual and personal, which I won’t mention to avoid spoilers.

Overall, I found the book to be incredibly sad, but very much worth reading. I enjoyed seeing how Sam learned more about who he really was, and who he wanted to be. In the end, I view the story as both a cautionary tale about the value of time and a reminder about the importance of family. This is a deeply emotional and moving novel, and one I highly recommend.

One note: I was lucky enough to receive the special double-ended upside-down edition from the UK publisher. This version is only available in the hardback edition, and only from UK booksellers. That being said, while this feature is unique and interesting, reading a copy of the book without it will NOT affect the story, or your enjoyment of it, in any way.

All in all, five out of five chunks of rich, sharp cheddar!

Book Review: Hadley Beckett’s Next Dish by Bethany Turner

I was initially drawn to this book by its premise: two famous chefs, competing against each other and trying to form a personal connection. I fell in love with this book because of the amazing writing and fabulous plot.

First, both main characters were wonderful. Hadley (the Southern belle of the kitchen) and Max (the playboy gourmet) were both very well thought-out. Their personalities were detailed and very realistic. I especially appreciated they way the two thought about (and discussed) the differences between their on-screen personas and who they really were. Max, in particular, underwent some significant changes during the story, and this was handled slowly, beautifully, and in a way that seemed very honest and organic.

Several secondary characters were interesting in their own right, especially Twila, Stuart, and Leo. It would be fascinating to read a backstory book about Twila’s past in particular!

The backdrop/setting of the story added a lot to the book for me. Both Hadley and Max had their own nationally-televised cooking shows, and readers got a nice glimpse of what it was like filming Hadley’s show. The two also competed on a competitive cooking show, which was shown briefly. Readers got an even more in-depth look at the behind-the-scenes process of another show the two appeared on together. I enjoyed learning more about how a reality show is made, and watching how the main characters dealt with some of the issues that arose during the process.

What really made this book stand out for me was the slowly evolving relationship between Max and Hadley. I’m not generally a fan of the “enemies-to-lovers” trope, but it really worked here. This was primarily because Max WANTED to change from the beginning, and Hadley was open enough to let that happen. The author does an amazing job with the dialog, allowing the reader to actually observe the things that bring the two closer. This is one of the few romances I’ve read in which I actually believed that the relationship had a long-term chance after I finished the last page.

Kudos to Bethany Turner for writing one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time! You have a new fan, and I’ll definitely be seeking out more of your work!

Five out of five yummy morsels of pepper-jack!