Book Review: Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

On the surface, “Bee Season” by Myla Goldberg is the story of a young girl as she pursues her dream of winning the National Spelling Bee. In truth, it is much more. Although there is a decent bit about the spelling bee experience, the book spends equal time on Jewish mysticism, the Hare Krishna faith, familial relationships, marriage, and mental illness. Impressively, the author does a wonderful job with each of these subjects, and I learned quite a bit about other religions. Her treatment of one character’s mental illness is worthy of being included in college psychology courses.

That being said, I almost wish that the book had concentrated more on Eliza and her pursuit of spelling glory, along with her relationships with her family members and how they change during the course of the book. Even as I enjoyed learning about the other big topics included in the novel, it often felt like too much for one story. Perhaps you can tell that I’m a bit ambivalent regarding my opinion of this book….but I submit that the fact that I’m still  thinking about it, and trying to figure out how I felt about it, is a mark that “Bee Season” is a worthwhile book to read.

My recommendation: Read it, and expect to learn some things. Just don’t go in expecting the story to be primarily about the National Spelling Bee.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: The Cupcake Caper by Kelle Z. Riley

I am a regular reader of several cozy mystery series already, so there has to be something potentially special in evidence to encourage me to start a new one. “The Cupcake Caper” by Kelle Z. Riley (Book 1 in the Undercover Cat Series) seemed to fit the bill, and I have to say that I’m glad I took the chance on this debut mystery!

What was it about this book made me pick up a new cozy series, you ask? The answer: intelligence, both on the part of the author and the main character, Dr. Bree Watson. Both author and character are PhD scientists, as well as smart, witty, women. Bree is able to hold down a serious, demanding job, and apply her common sense and research capabilities to solving the murder that takes place at her lab. (On a side note, Ms. Riley’s website is wonderful as well; it’s clean, easy to read, and has substantially more interesting content than the typical author website.)

The story itself is interesting and well-paced, with plenty of action interspersed with scenes of Bree actually trying to solve the crime in question using her brain. Unlike many cozy heroines (who often simply go about their lives, ask a few questions here and there, and sometimes stumble over actual clues) Bree tackles her investigation head-on, with a great deal of thought, planning, and organization.

I would actually call “The Cupcake Caper” a cozy-mystery-hybrid. While it includes the key cozy attributes (a pet, a hint of romance, food/cooking, quirky friends), this book offers the reader more. It edges toward being a “standard” mystery in that much more attention is focused on solving the crime than in a typical cozy. The heroine’s job, and the fact that she holds a PhD, make her come across as a woman to be taken seriously. There is also more of a sense of real danger than what one typically encounters in a cozy. As a result I really enjoyed the book. I liked all the standard cozy tropes, but appreciated the more intense and serious nature of the mystery. The book ends with a hint of things to come for Bree, and I look forward to reading about her future adventures.

Five out of five blocks of delicious feta!

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Mini-Reviews

The Book of You by Claire Kendal

“The Book of You” by Claire Kendal tells the story of Clarissa, a young woman being stalked by an unstable colleague. This is a psychological thriller, made all the more terrifying by the incredible realism of the events portrayed and the author’s storytelling style. The heroine is realistically drawn; Clarissa is smart and practical, but not perfect or naive. She takes the reader through her story as she keeps detailed notes about the stalking as evidence to be used in seeking police help and protection. The fear and creepiness are very real, and not everyone is what they seem. There area  few graphic elements (after all, we are dealing with a psychopath), but nothing is thrown in gratuitously. “The Book of You” is the author’s very impressive debut novel, and she is definitely someone from whom we can expect great things in the future. 5 out of 5 slices of Swiss!

 

The Crispin Trilogy by Avi

This three-book series is geared to middle grade readers (I’d say 4th-7th graders, depending on maturity and reading level). I read the first book with my 5th grader, who was required to read historical fiction for a school assignment. As he went into the book with an “I-hate-historical-fiction” mentality inherited from an older sibling, I’d say his critique of “It was okay” was actually fairly high praise. I, on the other hand, loved the story, and eagerly finished off the remaining two books on my own. The series follows the adventures of Crispin, a boy who finds himself orphaned and wanted by the authorities through no fault of his own. Set (primarily) in England in the 1370s, the story provides a lot of information about the daily life of average people. Some historical references and events are included, but the books focus mainly on the everyday citizens who are largely left out of histories of the time period. The educational aspects never come across as heavy-handed, and you’ll be so caught up in the characters that you’ll likely not even realize that you’re learning something in the process. 5 out of 5 delicious bites of brie!

P.S. You absolutely MUST read in order:
Book 1: Crispin: The Cross of Lead
Book 2: Crispin: At the Edge of the World
Book 3: Crispin: The End of Time

 

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

If you’re looking for something new and different to get you out of a reading rut, then “Mr. Fox” by Helen Oyeyemi is the book for you! I can promise that this story is unlike anything you’ve read recently. Upfront, this is the story of author Mr. Fox, his wife Daphne, and his muse Mary. Interspersed throughout the novel are a series of short stories in which our characters immerse themselves in a most literal sense. While I do not claim to have fully understood the entire book, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend “Mr. Fox” to anyone looking for something unique, and to anyone who would like to become acquainted with an incredibly talented up-and-coming fiction author. 4.5 of of 5 wedges of sharp cheddar.

 

Boy Heaven by Laura Kasischke

I read “Boy Heaven” by Laura Kasischke because it was on a “recommended” list, and sounded intriguing. It turned out to be a perfectly good story, but did not live up to the hype. The book is billed as intriguing and suspenseful, with a surprise ending. The initial set-up was good, but there was not nearly enough content about the allegedly suspenseful events to build up to what was a not-particularly-surprising conclusion. There was no real psychological tension, and the core event around which the story revolves turned out to be more of a tragedy (and a crime) than anything else. It’s a perfectly acceptable story about some girls at cheerleading camp, but don’t head into this book expecting a mystery, thriller, or major life lesson. On the plus side, the main character is well-developed (we learn more about her as she shares anecdotes from her past with the reader), but her actions at the end of the book don’t track with what we’ve learned about her. What’s most disappointing is that this could have been a truly engaging psychological mystery/thriller. Everything was there, and ready for the plot to advance and become something fascinating. Instead, the story ended with a non-shocking revelation and a note of tragedy that was never fully embraced by the story’s participants. 2.5 out of 5 slices of American.

Book Review: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

“American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld is, first and foremost, an incredibly well-written book. The main character and first-person narrator, Alice Lindgren Blackwell, is intricately drawn, complex, and entirely believable. She rings so incredibly true that I turned to the author bio to see if it provided any insight into how a man could understand a woman’s mind so well. As it turns out, Curtis Sittenfeld is female, which makes a lot more sense.

The reader follows Alice’s life from her small-town teenage years through her marriage, along with her husband’s political career. The book is at its best when it focuses on Alice, her life, and her relationships with others. Her motivations, thoughts, and actions are shared as she progresses through her life. This book is well worth reading for Alice’s insights on marriage alone. Her relationship with Charlie Blackwell provides enough ideas and questions for an entire college “Psychology of Marriage” course.

Another intriguing facet of the book is Charlie’s career path. From an early foray into the political arena, to lollygagging in the family business, to baseball, and back to politics, his journey is fascinating to follow, especially through Alice’s eyes. I’d have liked to see the story split into two books, with the second focusing entirely on the Blackwells’ later political experiences. This one gave me enough to whet my appetite, but left me wanting more of that part of the story.

The author’s disclaimer calls the book “a work of fiction loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady.” She goes on to say that Alice, Charlie, his parents, and some of his political cohorts are recognizable (this is true), but that all other characters and incidents are fictitious. The disclaimer left me wondering exactly how much of the story that centered on real people was true. Obviously some details (names, locations) had been changed for purposes of the story, but I’m left unsure of whether or not the characterizations were meant to be accurate.

“American Wife” has left me eager to seek out authorized biographies of the real first lady and her husband in order to learn more. However, I think the book would have been stronger if a few more details had been changed and the story had been presented entirely as a work of fiction. As it stands, it shows Charlie and his family (and their real-life counterparts) in a somewhat negative light, and the reader is left wondering how much of the book was meant to be true, and how much was actually fiction.

As such, I give it 3.5 out of 5 slices of provolone. I’d have gone higher based on the quality of the writing, but lower based on the ambiguities of fact vs. fiction. All in all, despite the 3.5 slice rating, this is a worthwhile novel to read.

 

 

 

Books: 3 Mini-Reviews (aka What’s Good to Read)

I read a lot, and don’t always have time to write full, formal reviews of everything. Rather than not sharing some really great books, I decided to try these mini-reviews. Enjoy!

These are the three books that I’ve read this week, and my thoughts. They are in no particular order.

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley:

A sweet, funny, sad story of a man and his beloved dachshund, Lily and the Octopus actually made my cry. Although the theme is a bit depressing, there are plenty of happy moments, and the sadness is worth it, as you will cherish this wonderful glimpse into the history of a very special relationship. I recommend this to anyone who likes a unique, quality read. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves dogs, and understands that they are worth the effort, even when they make you cry.

 

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz:

Teeth tells the story of a teenage boy who moves to a remote island with his family in search of a miracle cure for his sick younger brother. The story itself is compelling, but the book really shines when it focuses on the feelings that tough, hip, foul-mouthed Rudy has for his brother and for his new friend. There are supernatural elements in the book (magic fish, and one very special character), but I would not classify this as fantasy. Instead, I think of it as realism, with a touch of the unknown. One note: Rudy, as the first-person narrator, swears a lot. Although it is part of his character, and makes him seem like a real teenager, I would proceed with caution in recommending this to older kids. (It is definitely too adult for younger ones.)

 

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin:

This is an unusual and intriguing story, told by first-person narrator Mara. Mara has been through a trauma, and is trying to get her life back on track. Unfortunately, she is hampered in this by some strange happenings. The story moves along at a nice pace, and is occasionally interspersed with dreams/memories of the past events that helped lead Mara to her present situation. In addition to Mara herself, the other relevant characters (her brothers Daniel and Joseph, and classmates Noah and Jamie) are clearly drawn and appealing. One note: this is book 1 of a trilogy, so plan accordingly. The story ends with a startling revelation, so plan to acquire the second book (The Evolution of Mara Dyer) before you finish this one.

Book Review: Incubation

Laura DiSilverio has, in the past, primarily been a cozy mystery author. Incubation marks her debut in a new genre, and it is a very impressive one! This is Book One in an anticipated trilogy (Book Two, Incineration, came out in June of 2016, and Book Three can’t be published soon enough for me).

Incubation centers around the life and adventures of Everly Jax, a young woman who discovers that her future lies in leaving the only life she’s ever known to enter the dangerous outside world. Luckily, she is accompanied by two close friends, and the trio set out to achieve their different (but mostly complementary) goals.

All of the primary characters are very well realized, and come across as genuine and individualized. Even some of the more minor characters are portrayed with enough care and detail that the reader is curious to learn more about their backstories. The interactions between the young people ring true, and the dialog sounds very much the way I imagine the similarly-aged youth in my life would talk if they found themselves in this story.

The plot is action-packed and well paced. Everything that happens makes sense, and occurs in a logical progression. Of note, the main characters do not instantly morph into junior McGuyvers, able to perform incredible feats easily. They undergo some training, and learn some new helpful skills, but they’re not portrayed as being magically able to handle everything that comes their way, and they sometimes (as teens may do) make bad decisions and mistakes. Another noteworthy bit: when the main character (Everly) has to do something she considers bad or wrong, she thinks and worries about it afterwards.  I find this adds realism to the plot, as well as likability to the character. After all, how many teens who’ve led a fairly sheltered life would transition easily and without moral dilemma to a new life involving some level of hurting others?

The world of the story is well thought-out and makes sense. A critical element for dystopian fiction is that the brave new world of the story is clear to the reader. DiSilverio does a wonderful job of making sure that the reader understands the environment through which the characters are moving, even as the characters themselves learn more about the realities of their world. The fact that she does so without coming across as overly descriptive or boring adds to the overall enjoyment of this book.

Although it goes without saying, I really, really loved reading Incubation, and congratulate the author on succeeding so very well with her foray into this new genre.

Five out of five delectable wedges of Cherokee Rose (a fabulous creamy cheese made in Georgia, US)

 

Book Review: The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala

The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala by Laura DiSilverio is Book 3 in the author’s Book Club Mystery series. Normally, I try to avoid starting a series any way other than with Book 1, but this one intrigued me enough to pick up the newly released (8/2/16) third book. What was it about this title that had me abandoning protocol and diving right into Book 3, you ask? The simple answer is: “Rebecca”! The title Readaholics are reading and discussing the du Maurier classic, which is one of my favorites. I was pleased to see that, during the course of the story, the club actually meets and discusses “Rebecca”. In addition, the main character thinks about the classic story throughout her adventures.

Other highlights from The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala include:

  1. The main character, Amy-Faye Johnson, is an event planner, and her main event for the duration of this book is a series of events that make up the Gothic Gala celebration. I had a general sense of the definition of gothic fiction before reading this book, but I actually learned a good bit more by following the events of the Gala. The information flowed naturally, however, and never felt like factual overload.
  2. Laura diSilverio includes lots of current pop-culture references, which gave the book a modern feel. I particularly enjoyed the fact that I share several common popular interests with Amy-Faye (and/or Laura DiSilverio).
  3. The suspects and red herrings were plentiful. My initial guess for “whodunit” was not correct, but not entirely wrong, either. When the “big reveal” occurred and all was made clear, everything made sense and fit with the previously provided clues.
  4. Starting a series with Book 3, as expected, left me playing a bit of catch-up with the characters. However, I was able to quickly figure out the major players, and was never left feeling that I really *should have* read books 1-2 first. I definitely plan to go back and catch up, and have already ordered book 1 (The Readaholics and the Falcon Fiasco).
  5. Although the author does not rehash (or spoil) the events of the previous books, Amy-Faye does reference things that have happened and mysteries she has been involved with before. I liked this and found it added realism to the character. After all, if someone has been involved in any way with a murder investigation, that person would certainly think about it going forward, especially when faced with another crime.
  6.  The character of Maud is a delight! My favorite Maud moment comes when Amy-Faye reads aloud a note that was attached to a projectile directed at the group. Maud’s first comment is, “I hate sloppily used pronouns with unclear antecedent references.” I look forward to seeing more of her in future books!

Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed this cozy mystery. Five out of five yummy slices of aged British Cheddar!