Monday, March 19, 2018

Only Child (Rhiannon Navin)

When people ask me advice about what they should read next, lately I've been telling them about Rhiannon Navin's debut novel Only Child.  You can see their eyes go up and heads shake when I tell them that it revolves around a school shooting, but to me, it's so much more than that.  It's about the hope and innocence that lives within a six-year-old boy.

The entire book is narrated by Zach Taylor, a little first grader.  We experience the shooting through his words: the beginning "Pop-Pop-Pop" sounds, the silence of his class hiding in a closet, the joy of a reunion with his mother, and finally, the agony of a hole in his family brought about by the tragic event.  What ensues is an emotional roller coaster, but what shines through is Zach trying to make everything better by bringing about forgiveness and compassion.  The ending is unforgettable and made my heart soar.

If you read and loved Room, you'll probably love Only Child.  Both have young, inspiring narrators that live through something most of us can only imagine.  But both also have the power to teach adults serious life lessons that real life can sometimes get in the way of.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

It's Always the Husband (Michele Campbell)

What's interesting about Michele Campbell's thrilling whodunit It's Always the Husband is that she gives you a huge hint about who the culprit is right on the cover.  Now whether to believe her or not -- that's an entirely different story.

Kate, Jenny, and Aubrey are three college roommates who, as roommates often do, go constantly back and forth between being friends and frenemies.  Kate has more money than she knows what to do with but is very troubled, taking drugs and sleeping around.  Aubrey is just the opposite financially -- she cannot afford much of anything. Jenny is the no-nonsense type.  A dangerous incident their freshman year threatens to derail not only their college careers but also their entire lives if anyone finds out.  The story effortlessly goes back and forth between that time and present day (when they are in their 40s).  Will that long-ago event come back to haunt them as they grapple with something even worse?

To me, many of the characters in this book are hard to care about.  Kate, in particular, is a prima donna and impossible to root for.  However, Campbell writes in such a way that she makes it very difficult to put this book down.  It's Always the Husband (or is it?) is a top-notch mystery.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Crown: The Official Companion, Volume 1 (Robert Lacey)

When you pick up The Crown: The Official Companion Volume 1, rest assured that you are in the hands of a true expert. The hit Netflix show trusted author Robert Lacey to be its historical consultant, and the companion book brims with his authoritative knowledge.

But if you're not watching the show (and why not???), you'll still appreciate this engrossing look into the life of the fascinating Queen Elizabeth II. Volume I covers such topics as her childhood, her unexpected succession after the abdication of her uncle and death of her father, her coronation in all its glory, and her sometimes volatile relationship with her sister Princess Margaret. In addition, The Crown dives into the queen's real connection with her first prime minister, Winston Churchill.

Lacey doesn't skimp on details, and his knowledge and research are definitely impressive. There are biography pages thrown in, too, which makes the book slightly confusing to read. One is not quite sure where one section ends and another begins. But all in all, I would recommend The Crown to any fan of the show or anglophile.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Last Amateurs (John Feinstein)

John Feinstein’s The Last Amateurs is a timeless look at small-time college basketball as it plays for its one shot at big-time glory. The Patriot League may not be well known to many outside of college basketball circles, but at the time of the book's release, it was one of the few leagues in the top division of college basketball where some of the teams did not have athletic scholarships and played for the love of the game.

Feinstein’s recap of the 2000 Patriot League season and conference tournament weaves through each of the seven colleges and service academies as they play for one invitation to the NCAA tournament, also profiling the coaches and players as they struggled to balance life, basketball, and school (in the case of the players). The culmination of the book is the conference tournament, where each of the schools tries to win up to three games in order to get into the NCAA tournament, and where one loss means the end of their basketball season.

The Patriot League certainly doesn’t feature the huge schools that grab your attention, but it does have kids and coaches who love the sport. The Last Amateurs is a gripping, entertaining, fun read that will remind you about the best of college sports in an era where many times its uglier side can be brought to light elsewhere.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Our Kind of Cruelty (Araminta Hall)

Gillian Flynn, otherwise known as the Gone Girl priestess, wrote a blurb for Araminta Hall's Our Kind of Cruelty.  In it, she stated that the novel was disturbing but that she loved every minute of it. It seems every dark and twisted thriller nowadays is judged on how it compares to GG, but I will put myself out there to say that this outranks it in the need to "feel like you must take a shower afterwards."

That's not to say it's not a great read -- I couldn't put it down!  Our narrator is Mike Hayes, who is totally, completely, and blissfully in love with Verity Metcalf.  Mike and Verity do a sick and twisted role play game called the Crave.  While they were once together as a couple, Verity breaks it off over Mike's one night stand and rebounds quickly into a happy marriage with Angus.  But Mike sees Verity's new stage of life as just a part of their "game," and eventually goes deep into stalking her, with things taking a very dangerous turn.

You won't find the twists in Our Kind of Cruelty that you found in GG, but the suspense is the real "killer" here.  From the very first page, the reader knows that Mike and Verity's story will not end well.  It's getting to that point that keeps you turning the pages fast.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Finding Jake (Bryan Reardon)

I picked up Bryan Reardon's moving Finding Jake after a recommendation from a trusted colleague.  I'm so glad I did because this is one novel that keeps you guessing -- you're never quite sure what to expect, which is a trait that the best books present to their readers.

Reardon makes us guess ourselves by asking us to confront a simple question -- as parents, do we really know everything about our children?  The main character Simon Connolly loves his family -- wife Rachel, son Jake, and daughter Laney.  One ordinary day, he receives the devastating news that there has been a shooting at his children's school.  One by one, each parent is reunited with their child until Simon is one of the few left waiting for news. What really happened to Jake? Did he ever really know his own son?

Finding Jake is simply heart wrenching, and Reardon wisely alternates time periods so we learn about the family's past as well. The post climax goes on a little long so as to take me out of the zone a bit, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Finding Jake really packs a punch.


Monday, January 29, 2018

Patrick Henry (Jon Kukla)

Jon Kukla’s Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty devotes nearly 400 pages to the life of one of the unsung heroes of the independence movement in America. Henry, known primarily for the quote “Give me liberty or give me death," never held federal office and spent the vast majority of his life in Virginia, serving his home colony and state in many different capacities. Kukla’s book documents Henry’s long and winding road as patriot, moderate, and devotee to his ideals of liberty.

This account is arguably one of the strongest biographies on this founding father, bringing to light how much leadership Henry brought throughout a several decade career in service as legislator, governor, attorney, and champion for the colonies as they struggled to break free of British rule. Kukla shows Henry’s leadership through the embryonic phase of America’s independence, both in his strength of moderation (such as in advocating for a strong bill of rights being attached to the Constitution despite his initial opposition to the document as it was written) and his occasional weakness in dealing with issues that would continue to plague the new country for decades to come (such as slavery and the divide between northern and southern states around economic policy and the role of the federal government in addressing issues).

Kukla brings out Henry’s eloquence of speech at various points throughout the book, whether addressing the issues of his day or addressing his opponents as they took challenge to what he would say. That eloquence shaped a man who was passionate about liberty and freedom, helping to spark the independence movement in this country beyond mere tavern talk. This thoroughly researched book is well worth reading, especially given Henry’s moderation and relative “maverick” spirit in comparison to much of our modern politics.