Prepublication Reviews and Expertly Selected Title Lists

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

purityI am the first to admit that I have not read Franzen before now. With all of the hullabaloo that usually surrounds his books, I was always a little leery and wondered if they lived up to the hype. However, I like to keep an open mind about these things so I took the plunge to read his latest endeavor.

Right out the gate, I will say that Purity will be this summer’s Goldfinch, which means that it is a long and complicated novel, full of many characters, plot twists, and intricate details. The book has a lot going on, so it may be too heavy (literally and figuratively) to be your beach read, but once you get started you won’t be able to put it down.

The title character, also known as Pip, is a 20-something troubled soul trying to find her purpose in life while simultaneously wondering how to pay off her staggering student loan debt. If only she could locate her long lost father who (by her mother’s account) is very well to do, her problems would be solved. Unfortunately, her mother refuses to reveal who Pip’s father is so she is left to her own devices to try to find him. Thus begins her bizarre and somewhat unlikely odyssey.

One surely cannot discredit Franzen’s writing chops and it can be assured, this novel takes you on a strange, manic, and crazy ride. It is not for the faint of heart, and can be quite brutal and even dismal in parts. Yet an inexplicable curiosity (or madness!) will keep you soldiering on, if for nothing more than to cheer on Pip and her never-ending hope of finding what she is looking for.

– Susan

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Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye StrangerThis book begins against the backdrop of middle school; the primary focus of which is three girls who are best of friends. The main character, Bridget, lives with her musician mother and coffee shop owner father in New York City.  The story actually starts several years earlier, when Bridget miraculously survives being struck by a car as she skates through an intersection. The incident affected her significantly, as she then begins to view herself differently and wonders if there was a special reason why she survived.

Fast forward several years and Bridge (as she wanted to be called after the accident) along with her best friends, Tabitha and Emily, are trying to navigate the changes and challenges that come with seventh grade and their teen years. With the introduction of new friends (especially boys), the trio finds it’s not so easy to honor the friendship pact they made years earlier.

This book accurately portrays a lot of issues that face youth today, especially those walking the fine line between being a kid and a teenager. A variety of relevant topics are introduced such as friendship, peer pressure, sexting, shaming, bullying, and forgiveness. Many characters are intertwined and the descriptive nature of the writing is intricate and rich.

Although the majority of the book takes place in the third person, there are chapters written in second person that are set at a time that’s slightly ahead of the rest of the book. Eventually the two narratives do catch up with each other however this was initially confusing and took some getting used to. Ultimately though, this isn’t a major distraction from what was an interesting and believable read.

– Mark

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Charlie and the Grandmothers by Katy Towell

Charlie and the GrandmothersYou could call twelve-year-old Charlie Oughtt a bit of a nervous boy and that would be true. Yet when many of the neighborhood children start disappearing, it’s Charlie that quickly notices something is amiss. When their mother suddenly sends the boy and his younger sister to stay with Grandmother Pearl, he suspects that many of his fears are about to become real. You may be wondering, why is Charlie so suspicious about this strange turn of events? Well, for starters, the siblings don’t even have a Grandmother Pearl.

Thus begins the tale of Charlie the worrier and his bold and adventure-seeking sister Georgie. They witness many strange events at “grandmother’s” house, starting with the fact that there are now two grandmothers. Nothing is as it appears to be as rooms change size from one moment to the next, doors appear out of nowhere and the grandmothers are definitely not who they pretend to be.

As the siblings are kept away from each other, Georgie is starting to forget many of the events that have just transpired and even Charlie isn’t feeling like himself. Could it be that evil forces are at play, feeding on the fears and nightmares of children? Is there a sinister plot to hold the world’s children captive and drain them of their memories? Will Charlie, who’s scared of almost everything, discover hidden strength and overcome his worst fears to save everyone? You’ll have to pick this book up to find out.

I found this story to be very imaginative with great writing and I highly recommend this title.

– Mark

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Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Chasing SecretsThis book drew me in so completely, I did not want to put it down.

We are introduced to Elizabeth Kennedy or Lizzie to her friends, a young girl who aspires to be a scientist. Unfortunately for her, there’s a bit of a problem, it’s the 1900s.

While Lizzie does go to school, it’s a finishing school and not one where she fits in well. The other girls are snobby, and Lizzie has a difficult time making friends.  One of the highlights of her weeks is going on calls with her father, who is a doctor, and encourages her love of science. These outings are frowned upon by her Aunt who helps to take care of Lizzie and her brother William. Her Aunt does not approve of Lizzie’s interest in science and thinks the focus of their father’s attention should be on young William.

Lizzie will soon discover that there is more to life than her interest in science. Like how to make friends at school, or learning more about Noah, the son of her family’s Chinese cook. When Lizzie discovers he is hiding in the servant’s quarters, she wants to know why and how is it that she never knew of him.

Lizzie finds out that Noah has questions of his own. He wants to know if he can go back and live with his uncle in China Town, and why some people are dying of an illness and some survive.  Lizzie and Noah team up to find out if there is a plague in San Francisco and what they can do to help.

So pick up this book and see how Lizzie survives her triumphs and trials and if she will continue on with her in interest in science.

– Ellen

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After the Red Rain by Barry Lyga

After the Red RainLife as we know it has ended in this thrilling book, “After the Red Rain”. Wars, pollution and other unnamed disasters have blocked the sun and because of this, our planet is dying. There are no natural forms of plant or animal life, excluding humans, left on the planet and as a result, we are destined for extinction.

Our heroine, Deedra is doing the best she can to survive in this new and terrifying world. Having been born in this dark time, she doesn’t know that life could be any better.  That is until she sees the most perfect and Beautiful Boy named Rose, trying to cross the river into her district.  Rose is as mysterious as he is beautiful and Deedra is immediately drawn to him. The two become unlikely friends and discover that not everything is as it seems.

After the murder of the magistrate’s son, Rose becomes the prime suspect. They fight to prove Rose’s innocence and for their survival. In the process, they stumble across the government’s darkest secret imaginable. With this new knowledge, they are forced to act to save what is left of the world.

This is a fast paced book with surprises around every corner. I loved the way the author proposed the terrifying idea about our bleak future without plants. This is a very real issue in today’s world and it really makes you think “what if?”

Extremely well done and I look forward to a sequel!

– Renee

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Villa America by Liza Klaussmann

Villa AmericaIf you are a fan of 1920’s literary culture, The Lost Generation, Hemingway or the Fitzgeralds (F. Scott and Zelda), this book may be for you. The novel mixes fact and fiction together to create an interesting, atmospheric narrative of wealth and indulgence among an eclectic group of artists.

The main characters are Gerald and Sara Murphy, who are wealthy expats – living on the French Riviera just after the First World War. In fact, the Murphys are not just characters; they’re real people who really did live in the time and place described. In the 1920’s they escaped to the South of France and built a home which they called Villa America. It was here that they hosted lavish and glamorous parties with famous guests they befriended such as Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, and countless others.

Celebrity name dropping aside, the book eventually focuses on the life that Sara and Gerald built together along with their three children. The Murphy’s home and marital relationship would later become the inspiration for Fitzgerald’s novel, “Tender Is the Night”. Unfortunately, tragedy and loss enter the couple’s life and threatens to destroy everything they’ve built.

All in all, this was an interesting look at wealthy Americans of the roaring 20’s as we read fictionalized accounts of their friendships, flaws and desires. Although a very long read, this book is worth the trouble for anyone who has an interest in that “Lost Generation” era.

– Mark

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Far Outside the Ordinary by Prissy Elrod

Far Outside the OrdinaryWhen a newly married couple promises to love each other “in sickness and in health” they do not know if they will ever be put to the test.  But when Prissy Elrod’s husband Boone is diagnosed with a brain tumor, she quickly wakes up to her new reality. With her can-do personality Prissy unabashedly delves into the role and chronicles her efforts to be the ultimate loving spouse and caregiver. It is only when her daughter finally forces Prissy to accept the fact that she needs help does the story take a surprising turn.

Growing up in the south, Prissy was surrounded and loved by many African-American caregivers. When she hires a group of them to care for Boone, the love and tenderness she feels for her new friends makes it easier to endure the hardships she faces. With a fond and oftentimes humorous tone she recognizes that it is friends and family that help heal her broken heart. It is her stark honesty that will truly strike a chord with you.

In the second half of this memoir we find out how Prissy carries on after her husband’s death. It is an inspiring and heartwarming conclusion to this story. Prissy’s tale will touch the hearts of all readers, and I highly recommend it to those in Caregiving roles.

– Susan

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Stone Rider by David Hofmeyr

Stone RiderWould you participate in a treacherous race, choosing to leave behind family and friends for the chance to have a better existence? You might if you feel like you’re quickly running out of options and have little to lose.

In a future where Earth can no longer support the population, a fierce competition has developed to give hope to those brave enough to take the risk. The Blackwater Trail: a grueling and brutal race whose winner receives a one way ticket off the desolate ground to Sky-Base. Above the Earth, Sky-Base is the new home, and haven, for a select group of humanity.

Adam Stone did not initially even want to race. He would not abandon his little brother or relinquish his love for Sadie Blood. However a year later, Levi (Sadie’s cruel brother) destroys all Adam’s reasons to stay.

When competing in the Blackwater Trail, most choose to tackle it in groups. Should Adam try to trust again? Will he trust new friends, especially when he has ample reason to rely solely on his own efforts to win the race?

A solid read for those like to enjoy action adventure and dystopian future settings. While we might not be in a position like this today, who knows what the earth will be like in the future. Reading this book made me think about how we can work harder to prevent this future for Earth.

– Ellen

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Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland

Steve JobsThis biography was an entertaining read and moved along quickly because of the graphic format and limited text. It covers most of the major details of the tech icon’s life, although some areas of importance are merely glossed over, such as the relationship with his first daughter and his ultimate death. We read about his now famous Stanford graduation speech in 2005 and a page later we read of his death in 2011. That was too abrupt of an ending for my taste.

That being said, this is still an interesting overview of a fascinating, complicated and brilliant man. Much of the technology that the young readers of this book take for granted today were, a few years ago, only a glimmer in Jobs’ imagination. The book also gives substantial space to covering popular tech trends of each decade, which gives a nice frame of reference for new things to come.

Mostly though, this book is about the remarkable life and work of Steve Jobs.  He was demanding and overbearing to say the least, but at the same time he was an inspiring visionary whose legacy to our way of life will be remembered for generations to come.

– Mark

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The Dinosaur Disaster by Matthew McElligott

The Dinosaur DisasterSix students arrive for their first day of school at the Mad Scientist Academy. When they first arrive, they find their teacher, Dr. Cosmic, all tied up. He explains that he was trying to put one of their school pets, Oscar, on a leash but he escaped. When one of the students asks what type of pet it is, the doctor says that you could consider him a dinosaur.

The doctor tells children to keep an eye out for Oscar as they make their way to meet a hologram of Dr. Tibia. She’s a paleontologist and gives the children a brief overview of fossils and the possible cause of dinosaurs’ extinction. During the overview, Dr. Cosmic is dealing with some malfunctions.

Suddenly a mechanical Triceratops breaks through a wall. Dr. Cosmic explains that the dinosaurs are set in safe mode, but it has a live mode for scientists to study how the dinosaur would behave in the wild.
Dr. Cosmic gives the children handbooks and a puzzle to solve. He shows them to an exhibit full of many dinosaurs, gives them their first clue, and then heads off to find Oscar. As they go from clue to clue, they learn facts about the dinosaurs. They are soon stopped in their tracks as they hear Dr. Cosmic and then a loud BOOM! The children follow the noise and discover that all the robot dinosaurs are now in live mode!

After escaping the mechanical dinosaurs and shutting them down, the students find Dr. Cosmic once again tied up, however this time it’s with Oscar in tow. What is Oscar? You’ll have to pick up this fun fact filled book to find out!

– Amanda

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