Saturday, September 23, 2017

Best Day Ever

by Kaira Rouda
Graydon House    2017
352 pages     Thriller

If you have ever wanted to see into the soul of a narcissistic sociopath, then Best Day Ever is your go-to guide. That is if a narcissistic sociopath has a soul. Paul Strom has none, and his wife Mia is about to pay the price.

Mia is, in the words of Paul, the perfect wife and stay-at-home mother. However, things haven't been going as well as Paul would like, and he has decided to take Mia on a spring weekend to their cottage on Lake Erie. The narrative is told completely in the words of Paul, and we learn that Mia comes from a wealthy family; that his parents died in a tragic carbon monoxide accident; that he has had a successful career in sales; that he is a perfect husband; and that he loves his two sons more than anything. We learn all this as the couple is on the drive to their cottage—a drive you can't wait to get over because you know that something bad is about to happen.

Paul is a ticking time bomb, and the reader is fascinated to watch his carefully created life and vacation scenario unravel before our eyes. Because the narrative is told completely by Paul, we recoil at his commentary and are compelled to read in horror as the events unfold. Some of the plot twists are a bit unbelievable, but it doesn't matter because the reader is so caught up trying to protect Mia that nothing else matters. It turns out that Mia doesn't need protecting too much. 

Frankly, I wanted the plot to twist one more time at the end. The relationship is so rotten, I wanted something more to happen. The sense of foreboding that stalks the reader through the majority of the book ends too abruptly—the comedown happened too fast. Did I want more revenge? Perhaps.

 In a note at the end of Best Day Ever, the author suggests that we are all unreliable to the degree that we "curate" our lives on Facebook and other media, showing our perfect lives, and our perfect children and grandchildren. Rouda suggests that one of the joys of reading domestic suspense novels is that the reader is able to go beyond the facade into the reality behind the "perfect family" screen.

About 100 pages into the book Paul mentions, "When you've got it, you've got it. I'm not bragging, really. I'm just telling you there are some things I'm really good at and this—women—is one of them." I looked up in shock! I know this guy! Although he never plotted murder, the guy I knew was just about as sociopathic as Paul and definitely as narcissistic. I remember listening and watching in horror as my recently-divorced work associate wooed a woman from Ohio that he had met online. Fortunately, or unfortunately, she was on the verge of inheriting a large oil fortune. (OMG, I just realized that she also lived on Lake Erie!) She was also in a very vulnerable spot in her life, and he took advantage of it all. Nearly a year later, everything unraveled, and she came to her senses and kicked him out of her life. He's on his third marriage, fourth or fifth job, but from his Facebook posts as narcissistic as ever. 

Best Day Ever is a delightful diversion; a quick read on a hot day. Here is the trailer.

Kaira Rouda's website.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Refugees and Migrants/Poverty and Hunger

Barron's     2017/2018
32 pages     Children non-fiction

How do you raise empathetic children? I believe that you raise empathetic children by inviting many kinds of people into your home, practicing grace and empathy in your daily life, and by helping children understand that there are many kinds of people and that because we are very fortunate, we must help those who are not so fortunate.

Recently, Barron's Educational Press published the first two books in their series, Children In Our World. The two that have recently been released are Refugees and Migrants  and Poverty and Hunger. Racism and Intolerance and Global Conflict are coming in 2018. 

I was particularly interested in the book Refugees and Migrants, because of my activities with Justice for our Neighbor, which is a ministry of the United Methodist Church. Additionally, my grandchildren have refugee children in their classrooms, so they wonder about them and don't understand why they don't speak English and need special help in their classrooms.

I found these books to be very helpful in explaining difficult experiences to children. The text is easy to read with a topic on each page. In the Refugees and Migrants book, some of the topics are Leaving Home Behind, How Do They Travel, and Talk about Your Worries. The last two pages of text in each book allows children to "talk about it" and How Can You Help? These are important additions to a fact-based book because children are naturally empathetic and want to help. 

Recently, the mother of my grandson's friend, Frederick, came close to being deported back to Nigeria. Everyone in the daycare was extremely worried about the situation, and Adela, 6, was trying to understand why this could happen. Last week when I read Refugees and Immigrants to her, she immediately identified with Frederick's situation and explained to me that Frederick's mother had gotten a card that said that they could stay in the United States. 

Every Christmas, we have a family project of purchasing ingredients and putting together snack kits for a charity called Kids Food Basket, which is run by a family friend. We have tried to do other projects, but this one works best for us. The children love to go shopping for the kit ingredients and to put the kits together. Then, we take whichever children are available to the headquarters of the charity and deliver our project. Before we do the project this year, I am going to read Poverty and Hunger to my grandchildren to bring the message home.

I also appreciated that there is a table of contents, a glossary, and an index in each book. They are valuable additions to any elementary classroom and social studies curriculum. You might also appreciate the book The Journey by Francesca Sanna. It expresses in fiction what Refugees and Immigrants expresses in fact.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What is Hip Hop?

by Eric Morse
Art by Anny Yi
Akashic Books     2017
32 pages     Picture Book   
They're all here! Every hip hop star from DJ Kool Herc to Nikki Minaj, Drake and Kendrick Lamar. Told in rhyming poetry, Eric Morse reminds everyone of the history of this remarkable art form, and all of the offshoots, including break-dancing, graffiti, clothing, and DJs. The book ends thus:

By now the culture's spread
to every corner of the globe.
Inside every head
is a hip-hop frontal lobe.
Break-dancing lives on,
they teach graffiti in schools.
MCs have fashion lines, DJs epitomize cool.
Bu hip-hop remains, deep down at its heart,
a unique expression, an urban form of art.

The artwork is spectacular. Done in clay by Anny Li, each hip hop star is so cleverly created that they are immediately recognizable. Here is a look at one of the pages.
 The poetry is a bit awkward at times; but then, hip hop poetry is sometimes awkward. Morse also acknowledges that hip hop often takes on topics that aren't particularly for children's ears, or it discusses violence and "other bad things too."
Hip-hop has become an important form of art—so important that Lin-Manuel Miranda used the form for the hit musical, Hamilton. I was struck when I saw the musical by how cleverly all the various forms of hip hop were intertwined in the music.

I also liked that the many women of hip hop had presence in the book. I was surprised to find that Queen Latifah got her start as a hip hop artist. 

I would quibble a bit about the guidance that the book is for children ages 3-7. I really see this book fitting well into elementary school curriculums and elementary school libraries. Children will love it, and I think that it could be used in music classrooms, and/or in language arts and history classrooms in later grades. 


What is Hip Hop? is a companion book to What is Punk? which was previously published.

Loved this book!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Atwelle Confession

by Joel Gordonson
Selectbooks     2017
266 pages     Mystery

Joel Gordonson sat listening to a medieval scholar tell of her discoveries at a small church in Norfolk in England. Apparently the researchers had found a set of 12 carvings of demons (gargoyles) in the roof of the nave of St. Clement's Church in the village of Outwell. His imagination took wing, and the book The Atwelle Confession is the result of his imaginings. 

The novel revolves around the building of St. Clements Church in 1532 and the discovery of the gargoyles in 2017. (The actual discovery took place in 2012.) Here is a summary of the plot:
After discovering rare gargoyles mysteriously positioned inside an ancient church being restored in the small English town of Atwelle, architect Don Whitby and a young research historian, Margeaux Wood, realize that the gargoyles are predicting the bizarre murders that are occurring in the town.

Five hundred years earlier when the church is constructed, two powerful families in Atwelle are contesting control of the region in the fraught backdrop of King Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope over the king’s divorce. In the middle of these conflicts, the same bizarre murders are being committed in the town.

The Atwelle Confession is the story of two macabre murders that take place five hundred years apart, and one surprising solution.

Frankly, the best aspects of the book are the premise and the authentic history of the church. It was fun to see how the author's imagination took over and created a plot using the history of the church as well as the "reality" of the church in 2017. However, there are gaps in the character development and dialogue that kept me from being totally captivated. I hope that as Gordonson develops his skills as a novelist, he will work on his character development. On a good note, I was really surprised by the villain, and I always love it when you just can't guess who the murderer is. 

The Atwelle Confession definitely made me want to journey to England and look up St. Clement's Church to see those ominous and creepy gargoyles holding up the roof. Those aspects of the novel were visual and enticing. Gordonson obviously did his research. Currently the church is being restored. It is a unique representation of the medieval church and the controversy between Henry VIII and the Pope. That part of the story line is also well developed.

One of the most enticing aspects of travel is to see the progression of history through the architecture of a country—particularly the architecture of the Christian churches. We witnessed that just recently on our trip to Norway and visited several Stave churches. One of them, in particular, had gargoyles in the roofline. The theology behind the gargoyles remains a mystery, in much the same way that they are a mystery in the St. Clement's Church.
I received this book from the publicist. Thank you.

Joel Gordonson is a novelist, but also an international lawyer. Here is his website:

Friday, September 8, 2017

Bury Your Dead

by Louise Penny
Minotaur Books     2010
384 pages      Mystery

"As Quebec City shivers in the grip of winter, its ancient stone walls cracking in the cold, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache plunges into the most unusual case of his celebrated career. A man has been brutally murdered in one of the city's oldest buildings - a library where the English citizens of Quebec safeguard their history. And the death opens a door into the past, exposing a mystery that has lain dormant for centuries...a mystery Gamache must solve if he's to apprehend a present-day killer."

Louise Penny just gets better and better with each book. Bury Your Dead is the sixth outing for Inspector Gamache and what a mystery (or mysteries) he has uncovered. 

As Bury Your Dead opens, Inspector Gamache has had a tragedy in his professional life and is healing from his injuries by visiting his friend and mentor Emile in Quebec City. He has decided to explore some neglected Quebec history at the Literary and Historical Society, the English language library in the old city.

Shortly after his arrival in the city, an amateur archaeologist, Augustin Renaud, is found dead in the library basement. Murdered with his own shovel. Everyone knew Renaud because they believed that he was crazy; he was obsessed with Samuel de Champlain, and he had searched for Champlain's body all over the city of Quebec. Did he think that the body of Champlain was in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society?

 Even though he is on a leave of absence, Gamache can't avoid being drawn into the mystery, both the mystery of Champlain's body and the mystery of Renaud's death. At the same time, Gamache is keeping tabs on an investigation in Three Pines, which he feels that he may have botched. Beauvoir, his lieutenant, is recovering in the small village, trying to figure out if Olivier, the village hotel keeper, is indeed guilty of the murder of the hermit—the case in The Brutal Telling. (This is book 5 in the series. Haven't read it.) So now we have two cases—the dead archaeologist and the dead hermit. 

But—and this is a big but—Gamache is also trying to reconcile the decisions he made on a botched raid in which some of his inspectors were killed and both he and Beauvoir were injured. He is deeply wounded—both physically and emotionally—and he plays the events over and over in his mind. Because he can't sleep at night, he prowls the Plains of Abraham where the significant battle between the French and the English played out. He compares the failures of Champlain at this battle with his own failures. Oh, and I forgot to say that it is winter and bitterly cold.

There is a lot going on in Bury Your Dead, and it is significant that Penny is able to keep all these balls in the air in ways that keeps the reader fascinated. Penny and her husband spent a month in Quebec fitting all the details together in order to make the city of Quebec come alive for the reader. So, the Champlain body narrative connects to the dead archaeologist, which is completely interwoven with the murder in Three Pines and  Gamache's mental fatigue. The book is brilliantly constructed, and our understanding of Gamache deepens as he faces these enormous challenges.

As you will read in the next article, I met Louise Penny at the launch of her newest book, Glass Houses at the end of August. She  is a remarkably gracious woman, and a crowd of nearly 500 greeted her at the launch. In Quebec City, my friend and I took an Inspector Gamache tour of all the sites mentioned in Bury Your Dead. Extremely nerdy, but also extremely cool.