Book Reviews from Your Gibsons Library Community

 

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Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
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I’ve always been a sucker for post-apocalyptic, nuclear holocaust fiction. It’s rare now (we’ve moved onto zombies, climate disasters and pandemics), but back in the day they were quite common. Yet somehow, I’d never gotten around to this one. I was a little worried about the writing feeling dated from some other reviews I read, but this story felt as fresh and compelling to me in 2021 as I’m sure it felt to readers in 1959.
The story revolves around a small town in central Florida after a catastrophic war with the Soviet union. The first 100 pages or so are set prior to the bombs/ missiles dropping and I for one, enjoyed getting a feel for the circumstances that lead up to the war (spoiler alert, it involves Syria which I found interesting given how important that region still is for world affairs).
Once the war happens we see everything through the prism of a group of survivors in Fort Repose, a town isolated enough to have survived direct destruction and radiation fallout. The inhabitants survive through ingenuity, farming and restoring their semblance of order. The main protagonist is a former officer who’s very much a Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead type. Their tribulations from everything to dealing with a lack of salt to murderous Highway Men kept me riveted.
Yes, the language and racial and gender roles are dated but…the book is surprisingly progressive for its time. Black people live side by side with the whites even before the bombs drop and when the survivors are finally able to hear some news from the outside world they learn that the acting President is a woman. To be clear, there is plenty of casual racism and sexism in the book, but it is set in Florida in the 50s.
I for one loved the plausible geopolitical run-up to the war, the plight of the town to survive and the tinge of optimism that survivors carry. I whipped through this one fast!

Saving Italy: the race to rescue a nation’s treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel
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Absolutely recommend to others! Provides a whole different perspective to WWII and events leading up to ending the war – the important part art preservation played in these negotiations! Amazing!

 

 

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
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You can’t read this once. Four or five times might do it. Lyrical writing combined with a delightful story, actually a set of stories. It’s not only philosophical, but also contains advice on gustatory adventures, how to make friends, and how to change your mind and learn new words like “gloutof”. The joys of grammar and language are woven through in a seductive and celebratory manner. Read this at least three times!

 

Geniuses at War by David A. Price
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A very revealing book on the vital role the work and geniuses at Bletchley Park played to ultimately win the war and the resulting birth of digital technology there, leading to our computer age!

 

 

Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella
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I love Sophie Kinsella. Funny, lighthearted read. She gets herself in funny predicaments. Young adult, romantic, lightherted books are my preference. I also love all Shopaholic books by her.

 

 

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz
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This was a zesty read for those who can get into the spirit of the concept. I recommend this book but not to everybody. Ambitious, winsome, madcap. If it were not so audaciously, obviously not our timeline, this would hardly qualify as sci-fi…. As it plays out, timelines do cross, and unlovable, hard-core, anti-heroines can win a tired reader’s heart. With tremendous self-assurance, the author has given us a world, perhaps parallel to our, in which time travel is routine. Provided you qualify, you just need to apply and follow the rules. Just don’t get caught in another timeline!

 

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
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I loved this book and happily recommend it. Profound in its simplicity, this sweet book is tempered by its salt. Its basic assumptions are miles above sea level, allowing the characters to soar into a down to earth kind of fantasy. Be that as it may that some of the characters are drawn straight from childhood nightmares.

 

 

One summer : America 1927 by Bill Bryson
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Excellent readable book of America just before the depression .
Many things changed in 1927: longer airplane flights
Construction of larger buildings began
Social mores changed.
But why : read the book and find out …

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
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So…wow! One of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. If you’ve heard about this one and are on the fence, hop that fence right now and start reading. Okay, I’ve got the hyperbole out of the way so onto my review.

This amazing novel starts Louisiana town that’s populated entirely by extremely light skinned blacks. The author doesn’t throw dates out very often but I believe the novel starts in the 60’s and works in way several decades forward as the story progresses (there’s some jumping around in time but it always makes sense). The story begins with Desiree and Stella, identical twins raised by their widowed Mother, Adele. Their childhood was scarred by the brutal lynching of their Father. In their late teens, they get up the nerve to run away from a life that promises nothing but poverty and racism and they start new lives in New Orleans before Stella runs away yet again, this time departing her twin and starting a new life far away.

I don’t want to say too much more because so much happens from that point on that I’d have rather not known when I started reading. Suffice to say we follow the twins and their offspring for many decades and the story jumps from Louisina to LA to New York to Minnesota. I highly recommend it.

 

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
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I was a bookseller for 25 years and somehow never read this until now! I’m going to have to resort to cheesy clichés because I can’t help myself! This book is poignant, beautiful, touching you name it (I could throw in charming and delightful too but let’s not get crazy). This is a very brief book and is a collection (non-complete though I guess some letters got lost) correspondence between Helene Hanff and the various staff and family members of staff of a London bookshop. Helene begins the correspondence in 1949 and it continues for over 20 years. The letters definitely highlight the nation’s stereotypes as Helene is humourous and direct right off the bat while the bookseller (there’s more than one but the original correspondent, Frank is the one that usually writes back) is reserved, at least to start.

I’m not sure if anyone picked up on this but one thing that did strike me is an oddly prescient observation about the allure of online shopping. The following quote is from 1950, a almost 50 years before the launch of Amazon. “Why should I run all the way down to 17th St. to buy dirty, badly made books when I can buy clean, beautiful ones from you without leaving the typewriter?…”

Substitute typewriter for computer or smartphone and you’ve got the sentiment of many of the people who long ago gave up the joys of browsing bricks & mortar bookstores. To be clear, I loved this book and I’m just having a little fun pointing this out. In a way, Helene, had the best of both worlds as she had the convenience of shopping from home but still developed the joy of a relationship with her bookstore through correspondence. This is easily one of the most moving books I’ve ever had the joy to read.

 

Fer-de-Lance (Nero Wolfe #1) by Rex Stout
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I’ve only gotten into mysteries later in life so I’d never read a Rex Stout book though I was familiar with the name. His name came up in an Otto Penzler mystery compilation and I thought it time to give him a try. This is the first book in the series and written in the mid 30’s in the heart of the depression. The actual murder and how it’s solved is interesting enough but it’s the characters that Stout creates that made this such a joy. Our narrator is Archie Goodwin, a young handsome man who functions as a secretary and investigator for Nero Wolfe. Wolfe is a severely overweight genius who rarely leaves his New York townhouse and has a strict & fascinating routine. He dedicates several hours a day to his plant room, a large indoor space for his orchid collection, he even has a full time gardener to tend to the plants! There’s also a Swiss cook and servant who serves the elaborate meals that Wolfe eats punctually no matter what.

I won’t go into the details of the crime committed for fear of spoilers and because I really did find it secondary to the story. For me it’s all about Wolfe and Goodwin, a sort of Holmes and Watson but not exactly. Goodwin is a good investigator in his own right though he doesn’t have the genius of Wolfe and knows it, he routinely becomes infuriated with Wolfe when he knows he’s holding back info or when he seems more preoccupied with lunch then finding a killer. The relationship between these two really made the book for me as did the interesting historical setting of mid depression New York City.

 

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson
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This First Nations author speaks as 1st person throughout as she tells the story of reservation living. Passage of time as well as diving in and out of Spirit World creates a real feeling of the story for the perceptive reader…

 

 

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
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A bleak post-pandemic tale, lyrically told. The narrator, Hig, is holed up on the edge of a small private airport outside Denver, Colorado, with his dog Jasper and a grizzled old gun-collecting survivalist. Hig was a pilot in the Before days & has found a stash of airplane fuel, so he takes regular short flights in his little plane. There are of course a few other survivors, and therein lies the tale. The writer conjures beauty, brutality, grief, resilience, everything we are experiencing right now. Highly recommend the book and the author.

 

Slow Horses by Mick Herron
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This review is really for a series, starting with Book 1, Slow Horses. The Slow Horses are a group of failed MI-5 agents, each one dumped there to serve out their punitive, purgatorial careers under the rude, slovenly, cagey Jackson Lamb. Each Slow Horse character (in a crew of about 6, depending on the day and the ineptitude of those in the Field at any given time) is special in his/her own way and clearly drawn. The Slow Horse building is so grunge you can smell the dampness. Plots? Yes, there are plots. Sometimes the plots are three dimensional, involving several levels of spydom. Can’t say enough good things about this series, read them in order. Slow Horses, then Dead Lions, then The list, then Real Tigers, and so on. The series is a delight.

 

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

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My family and I (wife and two teenage daughters) do a lot of road trips and we always listen to audiobooks on the drive. When we agreed upon this one I thought it would be enjoyable enough but I definitely didn’t think I would love it, I was a bookseller for decades and kind of overdid it on teen dystopias a long time ago. Well Scythe surprised me with how good it was. In fact I enjoyed it so much I’m tempted to read the second one on my own instead of waiting for our next trip! I threw out the dystopian description but this is one of those imagined futures that borders on utopian (much like The Giver or Brave New World, for that matter). It’s set in a future where mortality has been conquered along with poverty, war and all the other real troubles are world faces. In order to cope with the overpopulation that comes with nobody ever dying, there are “reapers”,  honoured individuals that basically go around randomly choosing people to kill. There’s virtually no chance of dying (some people even jump off buildings for kicks knowing they’ll magically be brought back to life) unless you’re chosen by a reaper and even then the odds are infinitesimal. The story revolves around a reaper and two teens he chooses to be his apprentice, I won’t say much more so as not to give it away. Neal Schusterman has created a highly enjoyable and original world with plenty of plots twists and a story line that’s just as engaging as the premise. I loved it!

 

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

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 As my old boss used to say, this was a worthy read… I confess I hadn’t heard of this book until it came up in a newspaper article about a protest organised by Farrow and the employees of Hachette Publishing over the publication of Woody Allen’s latest memoir.   (Ronan Farrow is Woody Allen’s estranged son.) I didn’t follow the Harvey Weinstein trials or the Me Too movement as much as I should have, so this was essential reading to me. Farrow’s first hand experience exposing Weinstein’s sex crimes while being spied on, harassed and muffled by his own network is one of those stranger than fiction accounts. He writes well and manages to bring in just enough personal experience to keep the story grounded and interesting without letting himself distract from the story. I’d be highly surprised if it wasn’t already optioned for a movie, it would lend itself perfectly to that medium.

 

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

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  So…I’m a 45 year old man, a Canadian and was a bookseller for 25 years and I had never read Anne of Green Gables!!! It’s just one of those books that never interested me, I’d never even watched the TV series and literally all that I knew was that it was set on Prince Edward Island and involved the story of an adopted orphan girl. In fairness I’ve been meaning to read this for the past decade and never got around to it but COVID -19 took care of that excuse. What I found was an absolutely charming story of a precocious orphan girl who ends up being adopted by a middle aged brother and sister who have spent their lives quietly living the life of farmers in rural PEI. They had asked to adopt an orphan boy thinking he could help on the farm and initially plan on sending her back but they’re soon won over by her charming personality – as was I! It is a kid’s book and as such a little formulaic; Anne, who does something inappropriate but doesn’t mean to be “a bad little girl”, learns from her mistake and then does something else wrong. But all in all, this a delightful piece of literature.

 

Recursion by Blake Crouch

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STAFF PICK – Jocelyn

 If you haven’t read Blake Crouch yet, you’re really missing out. Both Recursion and Dark Matter are awesome, engaging and intelligent books that draw the reader in from page one and don’t let go until the very last line. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that Recursion is about collective memory, consciousness, time and reality. It takes big concepts and puts them in a story that grabs  and entertains you in a suspense-filled plot that I didn’t want to end.  I loved it. Definitely one of the best of 2019 .

 

Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman

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STAFF PICK – Andrea T.

 The Wartime Sisters is about Ruth and Millie two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. I very much enjoyed this book and discovering the reasons behind the two sisters damaged relationship. The bonds of sisterhood are tested again and again. Lynda Cohen Loigman doesn’t play favorites, she wants you to understand and appreciate both. Sprinkled between the sister’s stories are the narratives of two other women, Lillian, and Arietta. Both are wonderful characters with their own pasts that influence the relationship of the sisters when the past catches up with them. This is about how families and things that happen to us as children can have a significant impact on who we are, how friendship and caring of others makes such a big difference in people’s lives. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys a family drama with a splash of historical fiction blended within.

 

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

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  This book had me hooked by page one! I read quite a  lot of suspense fiction and this one had an unusual twist on your average thriller-type storyline.  This is NOT a normal married couple. (Or at least let’s hope not!) Although they seem like the perfect little family to the outside world, let’s just say that they have an unusual and twisted hobby in common. It’s a great, fun read and it held my attention to the bitter end. 5 Stars!

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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Wow! I loved this book. I originally read The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager and re-read it last year after watching the TV series (yes, it diverges from the novel considerably but it’s excellent television). It took me a 20 pages or so to get into the swing of following the 3 different characters accounts but after that I was hooked. The book is set about a decade (maybe longer?) after the first book and follows the lives of an aunt, a Canadian teenager, and a teenage daughter of a commander. Atwood does an amazing job of keeping the plot racing and making the aunt’s backstory sympathetic (I don’t know why I’m not naming her its pretty obvious who she is!) In fact the aunt was my favourite part of the book.

 

The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro

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So…This book isn’t particularly well written and it’s a genre I rarely read; a fairly formulaic horror thriller but I’m going to give it a five anyway! This is a good old fashioned page turner that had me hooked from the start. I de died I’d try reading some horror fiction for the month of October and stumbled upon this one. Its basically a vampire story but the main characters are CDC doctors, a Jewish holocaust survivor whose been hoarding weapons for decades for a vampire outbreak and a New York rat exterminator. The vampires are more like zombies than the charming Twilight style blood stickers which kept the story from feeling cliched. There are a shitload of loose ends at the end of the book, I’m fine with leaving the reader hanging on for a sequel but the authors could have tied things up better.

 

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a very readable story of a fictional band in the late 1970’s (I pictured Fleetwood Mac as I read). The most compelling part of the novel is the intense chemistry between Billy Dunny (who’s happily married to someone else) and Daisy Jones.

I raced through this and it’s an enjoyable enough read, but the author’s narrative device of writing the whole book as a series of recollections by various members of the band didn’t work for me. Having the entire novel narrated back as past tense recollections made the story feel too detached and not engaging enough. Honestly it felt more like a Rolling Stone band profile than a novel. Still worth a read though.

 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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I put off reading this book because I heard it was so depressing! But so many people raved about it, I decided to give it a go. I found it difficult to get into this book because there were so many characters to keep straight. After 100 pages or so I was hooked. The characters are so well developed, you feel like you know them intimately. A Little Life is definitely not an uplifting book but it stays with you long after you’ve read it. 4 and 1/2 stars!

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Possibly one of the greatest books I have ever experienced. The story-line centers around the unspeakable childhood trauma of one of the main characters and how everyone around him has adjusted their lives to deal with it. I could not put this book down. Although many parts are not for the faint of heart, it is a book that will leave an impression on you long after the last page has been read. Beautifully written and achingly honest. 5 stars.

 

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)  by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut

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This is not only a wonderful story about lovable foxes slowly turning into pets at the hands of scientists, but also a story of defying a backwards government in the name of science. The characters in this book do whatever it takes to forward science for everyone. It is inspirational and uplifting and finishes with cute foxes that you can call your friend. 4 stars.

 

Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich

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What will it take to change our future? This book tackles that subject in a way I have not ever seen before. Ben explains the use of DNA and synthetic biology to begin the process of creating a beast from the past. Half adventure story, half scientific treatise, it will captivate the reader with an almost science fiction approach to making a difference in our world today.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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This is the first novel from the master of short fiction, George Saunders. I love his short stories because they are full of distinct voices, brilliant and humorous contrasts, a healthy dose of speculative elements, and always the love and compassion of this author comes through. For Saunders fans, this novel will not disappoint. Clever, strange, funny, tragic, absurd and utterly beautiful. And now historical fiction + ghost stories like you’ve never seen them before. (See? He’s got everything.)

 

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill

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I love a good memoir, local history and travel writing so this book ticked a lot of boxes for me! Charlotte Gill’s got a direct engaging writing style I enjoyed and she does a great job interweaving her account of her many years tree planting with a look at the impact of logging on our forests. I came away from reading this with a new respect for our old growth forests.

Although I really enjoyed the book I would have liked the author to go into her personal story a little more, there’s absolutely no backstory of how she got to be a tree planter and virtually no glimpse of her life outside of the job. Overall an excellent read, if you loved The Golden Spruce or the Hidden Life of Trees then this will be right up your alley. 4 stars!

 

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE  by Phil Knight

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This is by far one of the best memoirs I’ve read, period. Yeah I’ve read (and loved) the Jobs bio by Isaacson and Vance’s biography of Elon Musk but I don’t particularly love business books I just love a good memoir or biography of pretty much anyone if it’s well written.

Phil Knight has created what comes across as an honest (hard to know for sure) and self deprecating book about his creation of Nike and his passion to go against the grain. Ultimately this is the story of a young man who knew he didn’t want to conform to the stereotypes of what a successful college educated would become in the 1960’s. Running was still very much a misunderstood and under appreciated past time then (apparently it wasn’t unusual for joggers to actually be accosted on the street in the early 1960’s) but that didn’t stop Phil from hustling up an empire starting with a few bucks and a bunch of shoes in the trunk of his car (a cliche but apparently true!). The business side of the book is fascinating but more than anything I loved story of a young man finding himself, there’s plenty of international travel and adventure along with the deal making and hustling. This may sound strange but small bits of the book actually reminded me more of Hunter S. Thompson or Kerouac than a book you’d find in the business section. 5 stars!

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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Found this to be a slog for about the first hundred pages. But it had been recommended by many and so I persevered. I couldn’t put it down! I came to love and respect the main character who was so well characterized that I felt I knew him. What a great read! 5 stars!

 

 

So, Anyway… by John Cleese

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I’ve been wanting to read this for a couple of years, I’d heard it was interesting but not particularly funny but that wasn’t my experience. I found myself laughing aloud quite regularly while reading even though it is a serious account of Cleese’s childhood and younger years. (he’s not trying to be David Sedaris but there’s still plenty of laughs dotting the book).

Cleese spends a fair bit of time describing his upbringing as a single child with a doting Father and somewhat self- obsessed and neurotic Mother and his formative years at Cambridge where he started to develop his comedic talents. Honestly, he seems to have a led a fairly charmed life: there was no drug addiction to conquer, no lean years of sleeping in his car and while trying to make it in show business. So it’s particularly impressive that his story is still so entertaining.

I was a little disapointed that the book ends in the early 1970’s (I’m a huge Faulty Towers fan and would have loved to know more about its creation) but I guess I should have paid more attention to the subtitle “The Making of a Python”. 5 stars!

 

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

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John Scalzi is a truly amazing writer who seems to be getting better all the time, this is second book in the Interdependency Sequence and I think I loved it even more than the first. I’ve always enjoyed science fiction but lately when I’ve tried revisiting the favourites of my youth (Asimov, Heinlein etc ). I’ve been dismayed by the tedious writing style and blatant sexism. What I love about Scalzi is that’s he’s writing good old fashioned hard sci-fi but with a very contemporary voice. I won’t really go into the plot, presumably if you’re reading this you’ve probably already read the Collapsing Empire, there’s some major new relevations in this follow up that really upped the plotline and kept me riveted to the last page. 5 stars!

 

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

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I think Harari is a brilliant and engaging writer who challenges his readers to broaden the way they think about the human species. So why only 3 stars? Have you ever been to a party and met a super smart interesting person, chatted with them enthralled for an hour but then found yourself unable to actually remember the finer details of your conversation? That’s how I feel about this book. In theory Harari is taking the points from his previous two books (do yourself a favour and read Sapiens if you haven’t already, it’s the shit!) and applying them to our present. In reality the book felt like not very coherent essays that don’t connect particularly well. Most of the chapters would make a fine magazine article but together as a book I felt they were lacking cohesion. Someone saw me reading this the other day and asked want it was about and I felt myself struggling to describe it, I still do! I enjoyed Harari’s writing enough to plow through the book and it was interesting to see more of the author’s personality come through (spoiler alert, he’s a hard core atheist!). Definitely worth a read for super fans but the first two books are definitely better.  3 stars!

 

The PowerThe Power by Naomi Alderman

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3 stars

I really wanted to love this book. It got great reviews on Goodreads, which I usually find to be a reliable source. In this book, teenage girls everywhere suddenly discover that their bodies can produce a deadly electrical charge. At first there are just a few who have this power. Then suddenly all girls and eventually all woman can tap into this power – which of course, changes the whole power dynamic of men and woman the world over.  I really liked the fascinating premise of the book. Unfortunately, it just didn’t hold my interest after the first half of the story. Give it a try, though. I’d love to hear other people’s perspectives on this book. Submit your book review so I can hear what you think about The Power. I gave it 3 stars.

 

still meStill Me by Jojo Moyes

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4.5 StarsThe third installment in the life of Louisa Clark, Still Me delivers another engaging look at Louisa’s quirky and lovable unique self. Now in New York, Louisa finds herself in a new country with a new, difficult employer. This book doesn’t disappoint, even after the high expectations I had after reading Me Before You. Definitely recommended! 4 and 1/2 stars!

 

EveryonheEveryone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

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4 stars

This novel is set in Britain at the time of WWII, from the declaration of war to the end. The narrator is the typical cute but plucky daughter of a high-ranking cabinet official, supporting characters are her best pal and 2 young men who are also close friends. Begins with young people struggling with ‘doing the right thing’ when the country goes to war. And then reality hits. This book captured me from page 1. Great character development, evocative on setting. I recommend other titles by this author as well. 4 stars.

 

Garden of eveningThe Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

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5 stars

A wonderful read! It includes much of the 20th century history of Penang and detailed information on the complexity of Japanese gardening. It is an illusive mystery and is intriguing and informative. 5 stars.

 

 

man seeksMan Seeks God: my flirtations with the divine by Eric Weiner

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5 stars

Only book I have EVER laughed out loud! Highly intelligent, witty,hilarious, thought provoking, best-of-its-kind-ever book. Educational and every page highly entertaining. 5 stars.

 

 

Before the fallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley

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4.5 Stars

Before The Fall is like a cross between the Goldfinch and Gone Girl. It’s tempting to call this a a literary thriller but it’s so much more. The perfect summer read. 4 and 1/2 stars.

 

 

homegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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4.5 Stars

Amazing book! What a read! It starts in 18th century Ghana with 2 half sisters and follows the lives of their children and their children’s children up to present day. Each generation struggles, living in Africa and America – wars, slavery, the civil rights movement. You can see how the lives of each generation effected the next. Well written and constantly engaging the reader. I loved this book! 4 and 1/2 stars.

 

Red NoticeRed Notice by Bill Browder

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4.5 Stars

A true story that was so compelling, I could not put it down.Bill Browder was a real maverick, and fighting against Putin, well, he’s amazing! 4 and 1/2 stars.