Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: THE BOOK OF SPECULATION by Erika Swindler

bookThis book came into the bookstore, and its cover attracted me. (Yes, I know about that saying you can’t judge a book by its cover; it’s a lie. People go to special marketing schools just so you can.)

I’m not the biggest fan of surprise endings – let’s start with the ending, shall we – but this one had a great twist. I’m also not a big fan of time-hopping books, but this one moved between the eighteenth and twenty-first century with some smooth maneuvers.

I am a big fan of well-developed characters, which this book has in spades. Even the minor players get major development.

The basic plot is some families have been hanging around each other for a few centuries, working the carnival circuit, and some of them keep dying the same way. It all comes down to a very old curse, some very new secrets revealed, and a cast of quirky misfits.

I’d call this something between a mystery and a family saga. It’s too gentle for a thriller (Gott sei dank) and too mysterious for general fiction. Now might be a good time to say, if you’re afraid of water, you won’t like this book. I’m a certified lifeguard, and parts of it made me queasy. (Also, let me just say now, don’t try any of that stuff at the lake.)

The writing doesn’t get in the way of the story; this is character-driven well-plotted book that would be enjoyable anywhere, except the beach. Trust me; don’t read it at the beach. Your bathtub is safe.

Two hands up, waving not drowning.

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The Monday Book: CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler

Apologies for the failure-to-appear of Friday’s blog. We threw a party for friends newly married on Saturday, and that kinda sucked all the oxygen out of the weekend.

homeI plucked this book from our shop shelves one day and was glad I did. Eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister asks her hairdresser Dorrie Curtis to drive her cross-country to a funeral. Why she does becomes clear as the book unfolds, hopping back and forth between Dorrie’s present-day relationship, and Isabelle’s just before World War II. It’s a tear-jerker for sure, but it also explores not just male-female relations, but friendships between women, and between mothers and daughters. Kibler’s writing is easy and fast, like a spring all flowing in one direction. Very few diversions, and nothing overly poetic to get in the way of a gripping read.

Normally I’m not a big fan of time-hop books but this one worked particularly well, making some subtle points about how the times, they may not be a-changing as fast as people think when it comes to race relations.

There are not many surprises in the book, and not all the characters are fleshed out, but Dorrie, Isabelle, the men in their lives, and Isabelle’s mother and Dorrie’s son are well-drawn. Which, as you will see, is enough to tell this tale with bittersweet dignity.

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Monday Book Review

Jack’s guest Monday book review –

Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone (Ballantine; 2015)

Well – my guilty secret was bound to come out eventually! I am an aviation nut, from my teenage years building flying models for competition, through a wonderfully memorable gliding vacation in Yorkshire, and on up to re-discovering the delights of model building in my retirement.

I have a particular love of planes from the early days of aviation – the glorified box-kites, with barely enough power to sustain them flown by intrepid heroes who learned through trial and (often fatal) error.

I really thought I had a good handle on the history of those times, but Goldstone reveals a story of rivalry and pig-headedness that almost defies belief!

Everyone knows, of course, that the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were the first men to design and fly successfully a heavier than air flying machine with the means of controlling its path through the air. What most folk don’t necessarily know, however, is how much they owed to other contemporary pioneers. They communicated regularly with Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley among others, incorporating many of their ideas into the design of their ‘Flyers’. Finally, they had the work of the German designer Otto Lilienthal to draw on – particularly with regard to weight distribution and the curved airfoil needed to generate lift.

1909_Model_A_Flying_in_France

A Wright Flyer in France frightening the horses.

Sadly, the Wrights came to believe that because they were the first to successfully demonstrate flight by a heavier than air machine, they were entitled to royalty payments on every other machine made by anyone after that. It didn’t matter to them if the designs were radically different from theirs – the mere fact that it could fly meant to them that the principles they pioneered were being unfairly utilized.

The pursuit of an ever growing number of law suits against other plane manufacturers quickly began to consume all their energies, and meant that they didn’t have any left to spend improving and developing their designs. The most famous dispute was with the other great American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and this one probably contributed to Wilbur’s early death. Worn out by all the court appearances he succumbed to typhoid. Orville lasted longer but didn’t have the same drive as his brother, either to improve the planes or to pursue the litigation.

H-8 1916 r r

The Curtiss H8 in a 1916 demonstration.

Goldstone, in this book, argues that because of all the disputes and court cases the fledgling aircraft industry in the US fell behind those in other countries – particularly France, Britain and Germany. He maintains that it wasn’t until some years after the end of WW1 that America began to catch up with the others.

For anyone with an interest in early aviation and ‘those magnificent men in their flying machines’ this is a must read. At least five thumbs up!

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The Monday Book: A GONE PECAN by Dusty Thompson

Okay, so this book is full of typos. And it’s more about being funny and enjoying the moment than pulling a plot together.

So?

It was such a fun read. The characters are so Southern-believable. I first encountered Thompson because of a Virginia Young Leaders speech her gave that is viewable online. I often used it in my speech classes. And one day I looked online to see if he’d speechified anything else, and whaddaya know, Thompson had written a book!

So I contacted him and said I reviewed them, and if he cared to send one…. which he did… about six months later with an apologetic note.

And that’s kind of how the writing goes – fun, not necessarily fast, no necessarily aiming for a goal. Just fun.

Maybe that’s why I liked it so much. Who cares whodunit or why? Just enjoy the ride. These people are so believably over the top. Southerners may get more out of this mystery than other readers, but the humor stretches wider than regional. It’s just, some of these people, well, I worked with them in college….

 

Please remember: there are more places to get self-published books than that A-word. Try Powell’s.

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The Monday Book: NIGHT GARDEN by Carrie Mullins

carrie mullinsI bought this book at the recent Appalachian Studies Association Conference, after a mutual friend introduced me to Carrie and announced it was her publication day. I’m glad I did, as I enjoyed Carrie’s writing. Very descriptive, which is not usually my thing, but the characters are well-drawn, which is.

The protagonist is a teen girl with a dead brother, difficult parents, and a teacher who helps her score substances. So it’s only natural that soon after she should have a boyfriend who edges toward emotionally abusive, and women around her who urge her to understand. The dysfunction here is told in third person but primarily from her point of view as she struggles to believe that Bobo (her boyfriend) loves her, that being pregnant isn’t so bad, that she has a good life. That she can get out.

It’s a story with a lot of detail in how the people live, and a building sense of emotional dread mixed with resignation and strength. You’re not really sure how it’s going to end, and I’m not putting any spoilers in here. If you like Appalachian dysfunction, delicate touches on tough subjects, or descriptive novels, NIGHT GARDEN is for you.

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The Monday Book: THE PUG LIST by Alison Hodgson

pug listAlison Hodgson got in touch with me out of the blue to see if I’d write a back blurb for this book, then sent an advance reader copy.

Pug List deals with a heavy subject (arson) in a light way (family love and insanity exacerbated by furry love). It’s published by Zondervan, a Christian house, and it’s inspiring without being in-your-face overt. She deals with questions of love, safety, commitment, amidst sweet family stories about dogs, kids, and trying to get to work and school when you have nothing to wear–literally.

By turns sweet and terrifying, Hodgson takes us on a journey through the rebuilding of a house and a home. Regaining trust, recovering personalities, and adding a fur baby to the family on the way, she talks without sentimentality about the love of God for us, the love of mothers for families, and the love between kids and dogs. This memoir is a charmer.

In the interest of full disclosure, Little Bookstore is mentioned about 2/3 through the book, because Alison had just finished reading LB and was struck by the section recounting an encounter with a fire victim. Alison had a similar experience to the one I described while trying to replace some of things insurance had (finally) allowed her to, including several precious titles.

The Pug List comes out in April and can be pre-ordered now. We recommend asking your local bookseller to get it for you, as that gives Hodgson more points as an author than ordering online. Or order it from Powell’s if you’re not fortunate enough to have a bookstore nearby. But if you like memoirs and Christianity, you’re gonna love this sweet, surprisingly cheerful story of a family rebuilding its life, house, and confidence.

 

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The Monday Book: THE MOUNTAINTOP SCHOOL FOR DOGS AND OTHER SECOND CHANCES by Ellen Cooney

mountaintopschool-bookThis is kind of a stream of consciousness book, but it has three of my favorite things in it: cool characters, dogs, and a redemption theme. Evie leaves her drug rehab program without completing it and lies her way into a job at a dog rescue, run by four ex-nuns at the top of the mountain. At the bottom is Mrs. Auberchon, a basket case in her own right, who is the rescue warden and runs an Inn. She’s a hoot. You kind of wish you didn’t like her.

The dogs are their own characters, each with a story of how she or he was liberated or dropped to the rescue. What might sound like it would be predictable as a plot is written in such a quirky way, you really can’t always tell what’s going on. This is one of those edgy books that doesn’t even get close to sentimental because it’s too busy startling you.

Here’s a quote to give you an idea of Cooney’s weird, wild writing style: “Sometimes when dogs greeted a returning soldier, they’d go over the edge. They would have to take a few moments to run crazily in circles around the human, or around a room or a yard. I’d have to take a break from watching, so my brain had a chance to absorb what I was seeing: that there is such a thing as joy being bigger than the container that holds it.”

Two paws up, no opposable thumbs.

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