Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mysteries and Thrillers -- The Cure for the Common Cold?

On New Year’s Eve, my husband caught a doozy of a cold. I’ve known him since 1968 and this is only the third cold he’s had in those years and all were memorable. He sneezed practically nonstop for days so, despite my somewhat Shakespearean obsession with washing my hands, I couldn’t escape his germs and was soon sneezing myself. Deciding that defeating the cold quickly was almost impossible, I armed my bedside table with mysteries, my cell phone, tea, and a small jar of local honey enriched with cinnamon. The second day of the cold I asked my husband to go to the Chinese restaurant near us to bring me a quart of hot and sour soup. Thus equipped, I spent two and a half days in bed reading, sleeping, and sipping tea and soup. By the third day, I was feeling better, yet I was still congested so I moved my headquarters downstairs to the den where more mysteries awaited me.

The Mayo Clinic says, “Nothing can cure a cold, but there are some remedies that might help ease your symptoms and keep you from feeling so miserable.” The remedies they suggest include resting, keeping hydrated, and sipping warm liquids with honey. They fail to mention that a stack of mysteries on the nightstand or in an e-reader will help a patient remain at rest. Almost all medical advisors note that regardless of what remedies one chooses, a cold will last seven to ten days and sometimes longer. Since WebMD and the Mayo Clinic haven’t offered mysteries or thrillers as common cold remedies, I’ve listed the ones that kept me sane during the inevitable recovery period. The bonus was that they also kept me at home where I wasn’t infecting others. I like mysteries and thrillers when I’m ailing as their fast pace and accessible prose are just what my cold-muddled mind can comprehend.

Two books stood out as ones that almost made it worth catching my husband’s cold:

Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews (2015)

Palace of Treason is a sequel to the Red Sparrow in which author Matthews, a former CIA officer, introduced Dominika Egorova, a Russian intelligence agent and Nash, the US handler of a Russian mole. They’re both back in Palace of Treason.  Egorova is a synesthete; she sees a halo of color above peoples’ heads that reveals their intentions. She’s now a CIA operative in the Kremlin where she’s captured Vladimir Putin’s blue-haloed attention much to the chagrin of her evil boss. She’s in love with Nash who is now her handler thus complicating her assignments. The bad guys are quite evil and the good guys are incredibly clever in this thriller that will keep you on edge.

The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt (2014) 

The Whites is a book I’d avoided until author Anne Patchett and a friend recommended it. I found Price’s earlier Clockers and Lush Life exceptional yet they were so gritty and harsh that I wasn’t sure I was ready for another. His first attempt at writing as Harry Brandt is a surefire winner and is both intelligent and accessible. Since policeman Billy Graves mistakenly killed a kid, he’s been on the graveyard shift where he patrols in relative obscurity. Once a vigilante threatens the city, Billy and other cops try to figure out who he is. Revealing the subsequent twists and turns might spoil the intrigue. If you’re looking for a compelling thriller, this is it.

I also read and enjoyed:

Trapeze, by Simon Mawer (2012)

Part historical fiction, part suspense thriller in the vein of John LeCarré, this WWII spy story starts slowly as it details the life of Marian Sutro, an English woman chosen by the British to assist the French resistance effort. Her facility with French seems to be why she’s been dropped from a plane in France until she’s on her way to an even more dangerous and important mission. I read this 2012 novel to prepare for Tightrope, also by Mawer. Don’t worry if the ending leaves you with questions. Tightrope, the sequel, will provide answers.

He Will Be My Ruin by K.A. Tucker (publication date - February 2, 2016) 

Maggie is certain her closest friend Celine didn’t kill herself so she leaves her humanitarian work in Africa to head to New York to prove her belief. She uncovers Celine’s secret life and tries to find a missing rare antique. Who can she trust? Ruby, Celine’s 80+-year-old neighbor, steals the show in this racy whodunit that will be Tucker’s hardcover debut.

Angels Burning by Tawni, O’Dell (publication date – January 12, 2016)
Angels Burning forces police chief Dove Carnahan to confront the evil in her own background as well as in her small town when the burned body of a 17-year-old girl is discovered in an abandoned fire pit and the girl’s backwoods family doesn’t seem interested in finding out whodunit or why. O’Dell is at her best when showing the chaos that a lack of hope in dying rural communities can create. She also makes the reader ponder why killing seems reasonable.

X by Sue Grafton (2015)

X is vintage Grafton. As Kinsey Millhone, private detective, solves her24th mystery and the series winds down, Millhone’s landlord Henry and the new residents next door highlight this procedural. Henry has always been a delight and he doesn’t disappoint. Grafton makes ingenious criminals almost likable and she always comes up with clever plot twists that allow better solutions than simply tracking the bad guys. In this one, Milhone is tricked and falls victim to counterfeit money that was used to ransom a pricey Turner painting. She also finds that a former colleague was probably involved in illegal shenanigans involving an old case his widow asks Millhone to investigate. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Best Books of 2015!

Looking for the best books of 2015? This summary of the best in each of the categories that I've posted over the last week should be of assistance. Thanks to Andrew Carnegie and founders who valued literacy, Americans have access to books both digitally and in hard copy via public libraries like this one built in 1903 in Washington, D.C. You can also download audio versions of books from your local library. More information about each book is available on the categorized lists, on my annual list of all the books I read in the last year, and in complete reviews if applicable.. 

The Best Book of 2015:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Read the complete review here.)

The Best Novel of 2015:
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (Read the complete review here.)

The Best Fiction I Read in 2015 That Was Published Previously:
  • Americanah by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie (2013)
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (2014)
  • Mary Coin by Marisa Silver (2013)
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozecki (2013)
The Best Nonfiction Book of 2015:
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

The Best Nonfiction of 2015
The Best Mystery/Thriller of 2015: Descent by Tim Johnston (Read the complete review here.)

The Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2015: 
  • A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
  • As Night Falls by Jenny Milchman (Read the complete review here.)
  • Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke (2014) (Read the complete review here.)
  • The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny
  • The Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (2013)
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
The Best Historical Fiction Novel of 2015: 
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (Read the complete review here.)

The Best Historical Fiction of 2015:

·         Little Women in Blue by Jeannine Atkins (Read the complete review here.)
·         Lum by Libby Ware (Read the complete review here.)
·         Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell
·         The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (Read the complete review here.)
·         Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (Read the complete review here.)
·         Some Luck by Jane Smiley
·         White Collar Girl by Renee Rosen (Read the complete review here.)

I also recommend two books published previously that I enjoyed this year:
·         Mary Coin by Marisa Silver (2013)
·         The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton (2014)

Historical fiction fans will also relish a hybrid novel set both in the past and today:
·         The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

The Best Young Adult/Teen Book of 2015: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (Read the complete review here.)

  • All American Boy by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (Read the complete review here.)
  • I Was Here by Gayle Forman
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold
  • Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt
  • Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
The Best Middle Grade Children's Book of 2015 (although some might call it young adult): Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

The Best Children's Picture Book of 2015: Thank You and Good Night by Patrick McConnell

  • Book by David Miles, Natalie Hoopes, illustrator
  • The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt, Oliver Jeffers, illustrator
  • Glamourpuss by Sarah Weeks, David Small, illustrator
  • Home by Carson Ellis
  • Thankful by Eileen Spinelli, Archie Preston, illustrator
  • Waiting by Kevin Henkes

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Peanut Butter and Jelly - The Best Children's Picture Books - 2015

When my son Andy was 18 months old, he discovered smoked oysters and he adored them for years. He begged to take them as his birthday treats to his second-grade class and couldn't believe that his friends wouldn't gobble them up. Young children have different taste in books just as they do in foods. Some love sweet "cupcake" tales and others enjoy tart, "smoked oyster" books with humor. Andy's first favorite book was Donald Crews' Freight Train, a Caldecott Honor book that isn't too sweet or too tart. The best children's picture books I read this year offer a variety of tasty temptations. 

The Best Picture Books of 2015: 
  • Book by David Miles, Natalie Hoopes, illustrator
  • The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt, Oliver Jeffers, illustrator
  • Glamourpuss by Sarah Weeks, David Small, illustrator
  • Home by Carson Ellis
  • Thankful by Eileen Spinelli, Archie Preston, illustrator
  • Thank You and Good Night by Patrick McConnell
  • Waiting by Kevin Henkes
The Best Picture Book of 2015:
Thank You and Good Night by Patrick McConnell
Maggie hosts a pajama party for her bunny Clement and invites Jean, an elephant, and Alan, a bear. I adore McDonnell’s homage to some of my favorite characters, authors, and illustrators including Clement Hurd, A.A. Milne, and Jean de Brunoff in this charmer that extolls friendship and gratitude. This is a book I could read over and over without tiring of the illustrations or the message. Ages 3 - 6

Runners Up - Best Picture Books: 

Book by David Miles, Natalie Hoopes, illustrator 
Book celebrates the extraordinary world of books in a radiant display of color and words that will resonate with preschoolers. You don’t need a password or have to worry about a virus with a book. Peanut Butter & Jelly, Ages 3 – 6 

The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt, Oliver Jeffers, illustrator
The Day the Crayons Came Home is even better than its predecessor, The Day the Crayons Quit. Postcards sent to Duncan from disgruntled and misplaced crayons will delight parents and children alike. Peanut Butter & Jelly, Ages 5 – 8

Glamourpuss by Sarah Weeks, David Small, illustrator 
Glamourpuss is sassy, clever, and a laugh-out-loud tale that should please any adult sharing it with a lucky child. Glamourpuss lives with the Highhorsen family and she’s special so when a trick-performing dog disturbs her reign, she isn’t happy. Princess lovers and all children will enjoy this romp. Parents and teachers will relish the expansive vocabulary. Peanut Butter & Jelly, Ages 3 - 6

Home by Carson Ellis
Home is a gorgeously evocative picture book reminiscent of Mary Ann Hoberman’s classic A House is a House for Me. I’d let a child tell me what the pictures say rather than reading the words although phrases like “Sea homes. Bee homes. Hollow tree homes” charmed me. Peanut Butter & Jelly, Ages 4 - 8

Thankful by Eileen Spinelli, Archie Preston, illustrator 

Thankful is a gentle story for Thanksgiving and beyond. “The waitress is thankful for comfortable shoes/The local reporter for interesting news. It’s a delightful read-aloud with lovely illustrations that will spark “thankful” conversations. Peanut Butter & Jelly, Ages 4 - 7

Waiting by Kevin Henkes 

Waiting depicts figurines on a windowsill waiting to see what will happen next. Waiting is hard for all of us, but it’s especially difficult for young ones. This charmer will help. In usual Henkes style, there's so much room for a child's imagination within the pages. Peanut Butter & Jelly, Ages 3 – 6

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Peanut Butter and Jelly - The Best Middle Grade Children's Books - 2015

What looks like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in this picture is actually a peanut butter and jelly cake made in the Food Nework Test Kitchens. Sometimes a plain peanut butter and jelly sandwich is just what a kid wants, sometimes it's not. My daughter took a PB & J sandwich and either an apple or a pear to school for lunch every single day for eight years.  She absolutely refused to deviate from what she loved. If I'd seen this cake then I might have tried to tempt her with it. She may not have liked variety in her lunches, but she loved to read a variety of books.  She adored most genres including Beverly Cleary's domestic delights, Roald Dahl's fantasies, and Cynthia Voigt's historical adventure Jackaroo (now titled The Tale of Gwyn).  

Whatever your favorite young reader fancies, this year's best books will provide some fine reading. 

The Best Middle-Grade Books of 2015:
  • Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
  • Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
  • Good-Bye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
  • My Near-Death Adventures (99% True) by Alison DeCamp
  • Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
  • The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
The Best Middle Grade Book (That Some Might Call a Young Adult Book):

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Orbiting Jupiter broke my heart. Joseph is a “bad” kid. He’s thirteen. He’s been in jail, assaulted a teacher, and fathered a daughter named Jupiter who he’s never seen. When 12-year-old Jack’s family takes Joseph in as a foster child, most people think it’s a bad idea. A few teachers and Jack look carefully and see light in Joseph. Told in Jack’s straight-forward, calm voice, this never gets maudlin. Prepare for a good cry. I want everyone over the age of ten to read this wonder. Some might consider this a young adult book because Joseph has had sex and they might not feel some preteens should know about it. If a kid is ready for the nativity story of Jesus birth, he or she can handle this one too. Any adult who reads it will become an evangelist for it. I picked it up to write this review and read the entire thing again - and I cried - again.  Orbiting Jupiter, I love you. Peanut Butter & Jelly/Soul Food, Book Club Ages 10 - 14

The Best Middle Grade Book for Ages 10 and Up and the Best Middle Grade Debut:

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
After Suzy’s friend drowns, she convinces herself that a jellyfish sting must have caused the drowning and sets out to prove her hypothesis. She, like so many kids, feels that there must be a reason for everything that happens. Suzy’s poignant determination and intelligence will appeal to thinkers. It’s a touching ode to grief. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. Peanut Butter & Jelly/Soul Food, Ages 10 and up

The Best Historical Fiction Middle Grade Book:

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan (Read the complete review here.) 

Echo is a wonder. It shows how music propels and enriches the lives of three children. Combining a magical fairy tale with 20th Century history, it’s a brass band, cymbal-clapping winner that ties the three tales together gloriously. Peanut Butter & Jelly/Pigeon Pie/Super Nutrition, Book Club, Ages 10 - 14

Runner Up for Best Historical Fiction and Best Debut Middle Grade Book:
My Near-Death Adventures (99% True) by Alison DeCamp (Read the complete review here.)
Eleven-year-old Stan’s mother and grandmother cook for lumberjacks at a camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the late 1800s. When Stan learns that his father isn’t dead, things get interesting. Stan is hilarious and boys will love him. Peanut Butter & Jelly/Pigeon Pie, Ages 8 - 12

Runners Up - Best Middle Grade Books:

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate 

Crenshaw is an imaginary cat who comforts ten-year-old Jackson when his life is falling apart. Jackson’s dad has MS and has lost his job and his mother’s lost her job as a music teacher as well so things are tough. Jackson and his sister are hungry. They may not have enough money for rent. Will they have to live in their minivan again? This is an honest rendering of a real problem that shows that kids are resilient. Humor helps and it’s a winner. Peanut Butter & Jelly/Super Nutrition, Ages 9 - 12

Good-Bye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Stead, the winner of the Newbery Award for When You Reach Me, hits a home run with this true portrait of adolescents and their problems. Three seventh grade girls navigate friendship via their “No Fighting” rule. It also shows how sweet a developing young romance can be. This book is profound, bighearted, humorous, and quite simply a winner. It also illustrates the dangers of innocent middle school-aged kids and their cell phone usage. If I were a parent of kids this age, I'd listen to or read it together and use it to discuss privacy. I listened to this and while I didn't enjoy the narrator's voice, I loved listening to the characters. Peanut Butter & Jelly/Road Trip, Ages 10 and up

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Best Fiction of 2015

It's New Year's Day a day that makes many of us think of champagne. It's the epitome of sophisticated imbibing unless we had too much of it on New Year's Eve.  We drink champagne to celebrate and commemorate happy events. My Dad took this photo near Reims in Normandy in the summer of 1944 shortly after D-Day. His caption notes that the bottle is Piper Heidsieck '37 and that they drank it "with every meal for two weeks straight. We carried one 2 1/2 ton truck loaded with the stuff." Sometimes what seems wonderful isn't that great depending on the circumstances. We make sense of those circumstances and the events of our lives by telling stories. My father had many stories about his time in the war and he "told" most of them through the pictures he took. We make sense of our world through stories which is one reason why we like to read fiction. 

The Best Fiction of 2015:
  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
  • Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
  • Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
  • The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain
  • Some Luck by Jane Smiley
  • A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
  • The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea
The Best Fiction I Read in 2015 That Was Published Previously:
  • Americanah byChimanada Ngozi Adichie 
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
  • Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
The Best Novel of 2015:

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (Read the complete review here.)

Our Souls at Night is a joy-filled, compact novel about love. Addie, a widow, visits Louis, a widower, and asks if he’d consider sleeping with her occasionally. She wants to talk, to fight the loneliness.  She isn’t asking for sex, just companionship against the darkness. Set in small-town Holt, Colorado, where Haruf’s other spare, eloquent novels, lived, Our Souls is a legacy that Haruf bequeaths on his readers. He wrote this last novel as he lay dying and it reflects the pureness of his life. Just read it. Gourmet/Grandma's Pot Roast/Soul Food, Book Club

The Best Canadian Novel of 2015 (published November 2014): 
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Read the complete review here.) 

All My Puny Sorrows is a wise, ironic, unsettling, dark, original tale based on Toews’ family. Sisters Elf and Yoli grew up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. Now Elf is a world-renowned concert pianist and Yoli seems like a screw-up but it’s Elf who wants to kill herself and her latest attempt pulls their family apart. If you like literary novels with distinctive voice, read this. Gourmet/Sushi, Book Club

The Best Novel of 2015 Runner Up:
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Lancelot (Lotto) Satterwhite, an aspiring actor, is the hero of the “Fates” half of the novel as is reflected in his nickname. When acting doesn’t work, he becomes a playwright and achieves fame and fortune. His wife, the enigmatic Mathilde, reveals herself in the “Furies” section as she copes with grief and plots malevolent revenge. The characters, the underlying connection to Greek mythology, and the words, oh, the magnificent words, of this novel show why it’s on every best-of-the-year list. You don't want to learn more about this great novel, you want to open it and let it reveal itself. Gourmet, Book Club

The Happiest Novel (and a romance too) of 2015:
The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain  (Read the complete review here.) 
This is the light, intelligent romance we all want when we need a lift. Laure is mugged outside her Paris apartment. Laurant, a bookseller, finds her abandoned purse. It has no phone or ID – just a small red Moleskine notebook filled with handwritten thoughts. Laurent attempts to find the owner in this quintessential French tale that fans of The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the movie Amélie will adore. It’s elegant, charming, and I’m already casting the film in my mind. Dessert/Grandma's Pot Roast/Tapas, BC

The Best Novel of 2015 by an Author Who Always Delivers:
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Read the complete review here.)
A Spool of Blue Thread is Anne Tyler at her best – subtly mirroring our lives. Some critics call it the best novel of the year and others find it predictable. I adored its depiction of the predictable rhythm of family life. The Dowager Queen of the ordinary offers a novel that helps us understand the people inhabiting our own worlds. The enchanting ending proves that you can go home again. Gourmet/Grandma's Pot Roast, Book Club

The Best Historical Fiction Novels of 2015 (See Pigeon Pie - The Best Historical Fiction of 2015)

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain and Runner-Ups: The Nightingale by Kristin HannahSome Luck by Jane Smiley and Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

The Best Short-Story Collection and one of the  Best Audio Books of 2015:
The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea (Read the complete review here.)
The Water Museum made me laugh, cry, and ponder, Snippets from it keep invading my thoughts about immigration, assimilation, love, grief, and community. Urrea’s imagery, heart, and brilliant writing make this a must read. I read it and I listened to it. Try to listen to at least one of the stories as Urrea tells them in his whimsical, emotional, powerful voice. Earphone Award winner, Gourmet/Road Trip, Book Club

The Best Novel About the Immigrant Experience (Published in 2013):
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah spectacularly evokes the immigrant experience through the eyes of Ifemelu, a NAB or non-American Black, who blogs about race in the U.S. then returns to life in Nigeria. The novel is magnificent, offering numerous insights, yet it’s also pure story and a compelling page turner. This must read is as entertaining as it is informative. Gourmet/Super Nutrition, Book Club

The Most Imaginative Novel I Read in 2015 (Published in 2014):
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation is inventive and clever: a new universe, a new way of exploring life in words. The wife and the husband share an over-the-top love and marriage until they don’t. So many random, seemingly unrelated speculations together form a cohesive, literary triumph.  You can read this in one two-hour setting but you’ll want to set it down, take a walk, ponder, then return to Offill’s intricate world of desire, fear, connection, disintegration, and life’s rhythmic pace. Wow! Gourmet/Tapas, Book Club

The Amazing Book that Made Me Think and Think and Think (Published in 2013):

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki 

Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist, finds teenage Nao’s diary when it washes up near her British Columbia home. Alternating chapters delineate Ruth and Nao’s lives which feature time as a concept and being “other” as a connection. Nao’s grandmother, a Buddhist nun, offers life lessons and serenity. Readers looking for a challenge and those willing to read some tough bullying scenes will embrace the power of this masterpiece. Book clubs could talk for hours and not cover most of the questions this novel makes you ponder. G/S, BC