Have You Heard
… the tragic death of Amelia Baron? Kimberly McCreight’s debut novel, Reconstructing Amelia, begins with Kate Baron, a single mother and attorney, receiving a call from her daughter Amelia’s exclusive private school, saying that Amelia had plagiarized her latest English essay. Kate can’t believe that her intelligent daughter would have done something like this, so she heads to the school to sort everything out. By the time she gets there, however, she finds that Amelia has fallen to her death from the school roof in an apparent act of suicide.
Several months after Amelia’s death, Kate receives a text message saying “Amelia didn’t jump,” confirming what she already knew in her heart - that Amelia didn’t commit suicide. As Kate begins her own investigation into Amelia’s death, she realizes just how many secrets her daughter had, and how she barely knew her daughter at all.
One of this book’s biggest accomplishments is how authentically Amelia’s teenage world is portrayed. The story may take place at a privileged high school, but the uncertainty, fear, and frustration are definitively universal for anyone who went to an American high school.
Lately, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to the literary thriller genre, which has been popularized by Gillian Flynn’s breakout novel, Gone Girl. If you’re a fan of Gillian Flynn, or character-centered suspense novels, I highly recommend Reconstructing Amelia. It’s a thrilling and intense mystery, but it’s also a poignant story of high school hazing, love, sexuality, and friendship. Can’t go wrong with that.
Reviewed by Katie (staff)
… the secret group that investigates government conspiracies in Washington, DC? In David Baldacci’s political thriller, The Camel Club*, the four members of the club find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy bigger than anything they’ve ever experienced before, when they stumble upon a murder-in-progress in a deserted part of Washington, DC. From there, the investigation leads to a group of foreign terrorists who are coming up with an elaborate plot to take down the President of the United States at an upcoming event – a plot that may link back to the federal government.
What made this book unusual was that David Baldacci used research pertaining to current political events (in this case, terrorism and Middle Eastern culture) and skillfully wove it into the plot so that I was learning while being entertained at the same time. In particular, Baldacci includes a lot of information about Islam and Middle Eastern culture, which has sparked a lot of discussion and debate amongst his readers. (Side note: if you’re particular about political views, the story takes on a more liberal perspective.)
It’s also worth mentioning that the “bad guys” of the story are not as cut-and-dry as you might expect. I won’t give too much away here, but there’s a lot more ambiguity in terms of determining who’s “good” and who’s “bad.” It gives the story an extra layer of complexity – something I didn’t expect from a political thriller.
And if you liked this book, make sure to check out The Collectors, when the Camel Club returns for another conspiracy investigation – this time, the assassination of a Supreme Court justice.
Reviewed by Katie (staff)
… one man’s experience with life after death? Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D., has the whole story. These kinds of books always get me hooked and I have to read them (especially as I age). I mean who isn’t curious about the afterlife, right? But this one was written by a neurosurgeon so I figured he had a leg up on most of the others who had a Near Death Experience (NDE) and wrote a book.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that this book contained a story within a story. Dr. Alexander is an orphan and was trying to find out the identity his biological parents, and darn if he didn’t weave that into the whole experience too. It was a very quick read and the book contains a very thorough bibliography at the end, of other, similar titles. No doubt I will be checking out those books, too, or interlibrary loaning them.
Reviewed by Richard (staff)
… the story of love and friendship that begins in the mid-seventies and extends into the twenty-first century? Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah tells the story of Tully and Kate, two girls who become best friends during the summer of 1974 and remain inseparable through high school, college, careers, motherhood, and all of the pitfalls and triumphs that come with a lifelong friendship.
Anyone who’s read my previous reviews knows that I tend to read novels that fall on the “dark and twisted” side of the spectrum, so this is a big departure for me. But I really enjoyed this book. The characters were created so lovingly that I felt like I was reading about my own friends. If you’re looking for a story to give you the warm fuzzies, this is it.
With that being said, I HIGHLY recommend keeping a big box of tissues next to your bed. Granted, I tear up much easier than most people (I’ve gotten bleary-eyed during a Superbowl commercial before), but the last few chapters are still extremely sad. So go grab a box of Kleenex. Heck, grab two. Better safe than sorry.
All joking aside, this was a surprising find for me, and I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to read this. Ultimately, Firefly Lane was a great affirmation of the importance of friendship – a lesson that is sure to resonate with female readers everywhere.
Reviewed by Katie (staff)
This book picks up where her previous book, Debbie: My Life, ends. There is only a little bit of back story about what has happened to Debbie in the past book to get you up to speed in this one. It starts in 1984 with her third marriage. This part of the book is on the sad, and sometimes unbelievable, stupidity that occurred to Debbie while married to conniver Richard Hamlett. Over the years, Debbie lost millions of dollars in bad investments, court battles and bad decisions. This book also deals with the heartbreak of losing her beloved Hollywood memorabilia after a lifetime of collecting. She owned the original dress Marilyn Monroe wore while standing on the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch – it sold for millions of dollars and finally got her out of debt.
In part two, Debbie has just turned eighty years old. This part is a hilarious look at some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of her 50+ movies, her stage shows and her very famous friends. The director liked her so much in How the West Was Won that she wasn’t killed off, and he kept writing scenes for her until she aged to ninety years old by the end of the film. Who knew that she wasn’t the first choice to play the Unsinkable Molly Brown? Can you imagine Shirley MacLaine in the part? Debbie is truly “Unsinkable.”
Reviewed by Terry (staff)
… Geoff Emerick, The Beatles’ sound engineer who was responsible for putting together some of The Beatles’ most influential albums? In his book, Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick recalls his encounters with The Beatles, from their first recording session to their final days recording Abbey Road.
On the surface, this is a story about the technical aspects of creating these monumental albums, but beneath that is a fascinating, and ultimately heartbreaking, account of The Beatles’ rise to stardom, their creative triumphs and frustrations, and the pressures that drove the band apart. Emerick takes great pains to accurately portray each Beatle individually, instead of lumping them together as a single entity, and he also does his best to dispel the common myths surrounding the band. For example, George Harrison was always portrayed as “the quiet Beatle,” but to Emerick, George was often sarcastic and cruel, a frustrated artist who wasn’t valued or respected by his band mates.
There’s a lot of technical jargon in this book, but it’s still fascinating to see how the albums were made and exactly how much effort went into recording these monumental songs. We get a firsthand look into their songwriting sessions, their guitar solos, their jokes, and their arguments. We see how John Lennon and Paul McCartney bounced songwriting ideas off of each other, and then how they grew apart and honed their own distinctive sounds. We see George struggling with his guitar solos. We see Ringo sitting in the back of the room while the rest of the band collaborated. We see a lot of things that were never made available to the public.
And even though I knew exactly how and when The Beatles disbanded, it was still heartbreaking to read about their last Abbey Road sessions, knowing that the world would never be treated to another Beatles album. It was like I had experienced their career firsthand, and I felt like I lost something when they broke up.
This book transformed The Beatles from a mythic rock and roll band to a much more complex and frustrated group of artists. Give this book a try – I guarantee you’ll never listen to their music the same way again.
Reviewed by Katie (staff)
… Captain Trips, a devastating flu virus that wipes out 99% of the American population? This marks the beginning of Stephen King’s epic fantasy/horror novel, The Stand, and let me tell you, this one is a doozy. The uncut version is between 1100 and 1400 pages long, depending on which edition you read, but believe me when I say that this story is well worth the effort.
The basic story involves a flu virus that wipes out most of the American people. Only a few survivors are left in the deserted country, and slowly, they begin to band together. But at the heart of the apocalypse are two opposing forces: Mother Abagail, a 108-year-old black woman from Nebraska, and Randall Flagg, the “dark man” who haunts the dreams of the plague survivors. As the survivors are drawn towards either Mother Abagail or Randall Flagg, a great confrontation between good and evil begins to coalesce, bringing a small group of men into the desert to face the growing forces of Randall Flagg.
This is a really hard book to classify - on the one hand, it’s full of apocalyptic horror, and Randall Flagg is one of the best-developed villains in any of Stephen King’s works. On the other hand, the ultimate confrontation between good and evil, as well as the epic journey the characters must take, suggest elements of fantasy. And on the OTHER hand (yes, that’s three hands now), this is just a really well-told story that goes beyond known genres.
The main drawback to the book is its extraordinary length, but the characters are so well developed and the story is so interesting that it never feels slow or boring. In fact, I’d even go so far as to call this a FAST read…it certainly kept me turning the pages late at night.
Even if you’re not a fantasy or a horror fan, I highly, highly recommend this book. This is Stephen King at his best, and it’s a perfect example of why he’s considered one of the world’s premiere story-tellers.
Reviewed by Katie (staff)
…the retro/modern casserole cookbook that has something for everyone? In The Casserole Queens Cookbook by Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollock, you will find retro 50’s casserole recipes that will have you drooling as you recreate these iconic classics.
The first thirty-three pages are a must read. Not only are they informative, but they are funny as well. A dish towel apron pattern is even included. Once I had the supplies needed, it took me all of ten minutes to make, and it works like a charm. (You don’t need a sewing machine either.) Dressing the part, having an apron and listening to music are a must while you cook these casseroles. Page sixteen tells you so.
The part on freezing your creations is very helpful so you don’t end up with mush or a chipped tooth. There are two pages on how to cut calories and only three pages on how to use this cookbook – assumptions and techniques. There are little family stories at the start of some of the recipes, which I thought were interesting, and a few tidbits at the end of some of the recipes. The “Mandarin Meatloaf” was a new version of an old favorite. It was a hit at my house, and the leftovers reheated just fine. “Damn Skinny Yankee Pot Roast” was very easy to make, but don’t save the leftover potatoes for the freezer as they get kinda mushy when reheated. The “Frenchy Toast Casserole,” I made only half the recipe one Sunday morning, and it was delicious. I’m anxious to try the “Freakin’ Insane Chocolate-Chip Applesauce Quick Bread” next.
Reviewed by Terry (staff)
… the classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Six or the Dinosaur Cookbook? Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores is just what the title suggests, a compilation of anecdotes collected by Jen Campbell from her own experiences and stories shared by booksellers around the world. It has everything from misunderstood titles and people desperate for the latest in their favorite series, to a customer who wants her books delivered down the street because it’s raining.
Some of the stories involve innocent mistakes and people simply having a bad day. Others will show you the incredible depths of rudeness to which some people will sink. Can you imagine ordering a pizza to be delivered at the store where you are shopping, or wanting to return a book that had been dropped into a bathtub filled with water, or insisting every bookstore in the world stop carrying the book that gave your child nightmares? These are only some of the strange things people have done in shops. Fortunately, library patrons are much more sensible and kind than bookstore customers!
Reviewed by Fran (staff)
… the cute little baby chicks in the Children’s Department at the Waukegan Public Library? If you have already seen them, then The Natural History of the Chicken will be an extra treat. If you haven’t, you need to check out this DVD, ASAP.
You’ll cackle with delight as you watch some of the silly antics of people who make chickens pets. I especially liked the lady who put a diaper on her fluffy chicken so it wouldn’t make a mess in her house as it watched opera on TV. The story of the guy who raised roosters and drove his neighbors crazy with all of the cockle-doo-da-doodling is great. You’ll learn something about chicken farmers, chicken breeders and the conditions that chickens are forced to live in just to feed humans, and you’ll be amazed at how much chicken is consumed by the average person in one year.
The story of the Headless Michael is touching. In the 1940s, Michael’s head was chopped off, and he lived for almost a year. He toured the world and was hand fed. Amazing, but true. The story of Liza is spiritual. She longed for baby chicks of her own and almost died to protect them. How about the story of Valerie? Her owner gave her mouth to beak resuscitation when she froze in a nor’easter and the owner thought she was dead. If you’ve ever had to kill a chicken for food and pluck it and then eat it like I have, you’ll understand that every creature has more than one purpose in life. You will never look at a chicken in the same way once you’ve seen this educational, funny and touching DVD. It’s a one-hour family film, but be sure to watch it with little kids in case they have questions.
Reviewed by Terry (staff)