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Wallace and Grace Take the Case by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Wallace and Grace Take the Case by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin is the second book in the series of early chapter books for young readers. Wallace and Grace are the best of friends. Wallace loves facts and often takes notes in his notebook when they are working on unraveling a mystery, while Grace loves to puzzle things out based on those facts. In this case, Edgar, the rabbit, says there is a ghost preventing him from eating the kale in his garden.

My daughter likes this series of mysteries, which are not overly complicated, but do get her thinking about things differently and deductively. One complaint she had was that Grace likes to use big words like courageous, which she finds difficult to pronounce. This may be the case now, but as she grows as a reader I hope that complaint will disappear. Regardless, this does not detract from her enjoyment in reading these aloud at bedtime, and she’s told me she wants to go to the bookstore to buy the series. (I think there are only 3 at present)

Wallace and Grace Take the Case by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin is a delightful mystery series with my daughter’s favorite kind of character — animals with personalities. She enjoys reading these at bedtime, and sometimes doesn’t want to stop at just one chapter because she knows she’s close to finding out what the mystery is.

RATING: Quatrain

Wallace and Grace and the Cupcake Caper by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Wallace and Grace and the Cupcake Caper by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin is a cute chapter book that was easy for my daughter to read to me every night. As we’re trying to keep her on track for reading, this was a great choice since she seems to like animal main characters and mysteries. Wallace is a note taker during the case, and he makes sure that all the clues are captured. Grace is a thinker and puzzle solver. She loves to see all the pieces strewn about and ready for her to put together.

Monty the chipmunk’s cupcake is stolen, and he points the finger at the groundhog, Sal, but Sal insists he didn’t take it. He does admit to eating some of the frosting. As Wallace and Grace follow the clues, readers soon find that some other things are missing from the forest.

Wallace and Grace and the Cupcake Caper by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin is a great starter chapter book for early readers that still has enough illustrations to keep kids motivated and engaged. My daughter was excited about getting the next book in the series.

RATING: Quatrain

Pug Pals: Two’s a Crowd by Flora Ahn

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 121 pgs.
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Pug Pals: Two’s a Crowd by Flora Ahn is a story about accepting change and learning to accept a new situation — and eventually come to enjoy it. Sunny is a pug who is spoiled by her owner, with a billion stuffed toys, run of the house, and lots of love. But when her owner brings her not another new toy but a little sister pug named Rosy, Sunny is less than pleased. She doesn’t like sharing at all, and she’s annoyed by Rosy’s antics all the time. She particularly hates how Rosy is always slobbering all over her ears.

Eventually, Sunny blows up angrily when Rosy loses Sunny’s favorite stuffed bunny. Sunny says some harsh things to Rosy. After cooling off, Sunny has to go out in search of her little sister and her missing stuffed toy.

This summer, my daughter and I have traveled to the library in search of more challenging books to read, so she doesn’t lose her skills over the summer. We’ve read this book together over the last week or so in between summer swim team activities. For the most part, the story was right up her alley with animals and a mystery. There were some harder words for her to sound out, which was good, but also a bit frustrating for her. But overall she enjoyed the adventure with these two pups.

Pug Pals: Two’s a Crowd by Flora Ahn is a good read for early readers looking for a challenge, but who also want some illustrations to help them visualize the story, too. There are about 10 chapters in this book, so we’re gearing up for longer chapter books. We’ll likely seek out book 2 in this series.

RATING: Quatrain

Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews

Source: St. Martin’s Press
Paperback, 448 pgs.
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Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews is slightly different from the lighter side of her other novels. Drue Campbell’s life is turned upside down with the death of her mother, the reappearance of her estranged father, an accident that takes away the one thing that eases her mind, and the loss of her job — a job she hated. Campbell hasn’t had an idyllic life, but with her mother she was at least grounded. Now, she’s adrift and wary of accepting her father’s help, especially after being estranged for so long.

When she arrives in St. Petersburg, Florida, she is given her inheritance from her father – her grandparents’ cottage on Sunset beach. But the gift is not without its own headaches — a leaky roof, nasty color scheme, and so much more. While clearing out the trash from the previous hoarder tenant and cleaning up the cottage, Drue uncovers a mystery in her own attic. When she heads to the office to work for her father, she also discovers his new wife is her former best friend and there’s a mystery at the law office that needs a second look.

Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews is a complex read of a young woman finding her place in the world after losing so much, but it’s also chock full of murder mysteries that Drue Campbell and you can’t help but dig into.

RATING: Quatrain

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About the Author:

Mary Kay Andrews graduated from the University of Georgia with a journalism degree in 1976.  She worked as a reporter at a number of papers, and spent 11 years as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before leaving to write fiction full-time in 1991.  She published ten mystery novels under her own name between 1992 and 2000, and since 2002, she has authored a number of best-selling books as Mary Kay Andrews.

Owl Diaries: Eva and Baby Mo by Rebecca Elliott (book 10)

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Owl Diaries: Eva and Baby Mo (book #10) by Rebecca Elliott is the 10th book in this series of Branches Books from Scholastic and a favorite series of my daughter. Eva is one curious owl and she’s kindhearted. When she learns about hobbies at her elementary school and she and her classmates are charged with sharing their own hobbies, she realizes that she doesn’t think her parents have hobbies at all. Eva soon learns that her parents once has a dazzling hobby, but with their growing family, they have had little time for it.

My daughter has loved this series since the beginning, and she now is able to read most of these books on her own, which is a delight to hear. She loves reading about Eva and her friends, as well as their plans and projects. In this book, Eva and her friends devise a way for her parents to rediscover their hobby. They offer to babysit Mo. They do not know how hard it will be.

Owl Diaries: Eva and Baby Mo (book #10) by Rebecca Elliott is a delightful book about how sometimes things look easier than they are in actuality. Eva and her friends learn how hard babysitting can be, but they also realize how fun it can be.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

A school project from when Rebecca was 6 reads, ‘when I grow up I want to be an artist and a writer’. After a brief detour from this career plan involving a degree in philosophy and a dull office job she fulfilled her plan in 2001 when she became a full time children’s book illustrator and has since written and illustrated hundreds of picture books published worldwide including the award-winning Just Because, Zoo Girl, Naked Trevor, Mr Super Poopy Pants, Missing Jack and the very popular Owl Diaries series.

She lives in Suffolk in the United Kingdom with her husband, a history teacher and children, all professional monkeys.

Owl Diaries: Eva’s Big Sleepover by Rebecca Elliott (book 9)

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Owl Diaries: Eva’s Big Sleepover (book #9) by Rebecca Elliott is the ninth installment in the branches book series and Eva is eager for her birthday sleepover to celebrate her Hatch Day. She wants to invite her class, but Sue is not a particularly nice owl all of the time and Eva is reluctant to invite her. Eventually, she does.

Eva learns that you shouldn’t be mean to someone just because they are not nice to you. She also learns that someone could be simply in a bad mood and unaware of how that mood affects how they treat others. Elliott weaves in these lessons skillfully for children, and with the colorful illustrations, it’s hard not to love this series of books.

I am astounded by Eva’s mom’s bravery in allowing Eva to invite her entire class or a sleepover. I’m not sure that I would be that brave.

Owl Diaries: Eva’s Big Sleepover (book #9) by Rebecca Elliott is another solid read in this series. My daughter has grown as a reader with these books, and she loves Eva’s creativity and kindhearted nature. I’ll probably be sad when she no longer wants to read them together.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

A school project from when Rebecca was 6 reads, ‘when I grow up I want to be an artist and a writer’. After a brief detour from this career plan involving a degree in philosophy and a dull office job she fulfilled her plan in 2001 when she became a full time children’s book illustrator and has since written and illustrated hundreds of picture books published worldwide including the award-winning Just Because, Zoo Girl, Naked Trevor, Mr Super Poopy Pants, Missing Jack and the very popular Owl Diaries series.

She lives in Suffolk in the United Kingdom with her husband, a history teacher and children, all professional monkeys.

The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa

Source: TLC Book Tours
Hardcover, 320 pgs.
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The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa is a framed story in which Elise Duval must confront a past she has forgotten. A young woman and her daughter visit Duval and return to her items that were lost after the World War II. This is just the opening of the book of Duval’s journey from the present into the past.

“She knew well that no matter how the author fashions his characters, no matter which words he chooses, it is always the reader who holds the power of interpretation.” (pg. 12)

In 1939, Amanda and Julius Sternberg are a young family who find their home in Berlin is turning into something very ugly as the Nazi’s grow more powerful. Amanda owns a bookshop. Julius is a cardiac doctor but soon finds he’s no longer allowed to practice because he’s Jewish and when he is taken away from his family, Amanda is left to make decisions on here own for herself and her two daughters. Much of the WWII history is familiar in this story, but the connection between a mother and her daughters becomes a heavy theme throughout the book.

How do you decide what is best for yourself and your children when there is pressure not only from a government that has branded you an undesirable and from those willing to help you because they feel an obligation to your arrested husband. Correa’s novel is heartbreaking for more reasons than how many people are abused, murdered, thrown out of the only homes they have ever known, and separated from their families. Amanda has to make some tough choices and place her children’s safety above her own.

“We distance ourselves from the past far too quickly,” she told herself. (pg. 86)

Fleeing to southern France, her family finds a bit of peace. Living with Claire Duval, an old family friend, the Sternbergs fall into a rhythm of helping out at the farm and going to school. This lull is only a respite from the hunters conquering those around them. Amanda is again forced to make one of the biggest decisions to save her family.

It’s very easy to fall into this story and to feel the deep rip of these decisions and the far-reaching effects of these decisions not only on the mother, but also on the daughters. Mixed into this dynamic is Claire Duval and her own daughter, Danielle, and how they act and react to the Sternbergs and the struggles they face simply because they are offering them shelter. The bonds between these mothers and their daughters are like steel, even when memories begin to fade and details get a bit fuzzy for the children as the war continues and seems endless.

The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa is a beautiful tale of resilience and survival. My only complaint was that I wanted more about Viera, the eldest daughter, and I wanted more about Elise after the war. Perhaps there is a sequel in the works? I would love that! This was a wonderful story and stands as a testament to the families that faced death and horror during WWII and came out the other side more resilient than anyone would have expected.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Armando Lucas Correa is an award-winning journalist, editor, author, and the recipient of several awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the Society of Professional Journalism. He is the author of the international bestseller The German Girl, which is now being published in thirteen languages. He lives in New York City with his partner and their three children. Connect: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Beautiful Justice by Brooke Axtell

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 241 pgs.
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“Although approximately one in six women will be sexually assaulted, more than 90 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail.” (pg. XI)

Beautiful Justice by Brooke Axtell will inspire those who have been abused, trafficked, and left feeling unworthy to rebuild their self-esteem, create their own sacred places, and heal from their abuse. Axtell’s memoir is more than a look at her life and recovery, it is a call to those with similar stories and experiences.

She asks nothing of them but to care for themselves, to rediscover their own worth, and to find a community that can support them in that endeavor. Throughout the memoir, she offers poems she wrote throughout her experiences as a way to speak about the suffering and long road of recovery.

“Beautiful Justice is the art of taking back our lives and reclaiming our worth after abuse. It is a form of Justice that does not depend on what happens to our perpetrators. It is centered on our recovery as a creative process.” (pg. X)

Axtell’s recovery from abuse and trafficking was a long one. But with the help of her parents after a tumultuous time, she had two champions for her self-worth. At one point, her father praises her and reaffirms her as an intelligent young woman, while her mother helps her find places to seek out the help she needs. Even as she succeeds in some areas of her life, she is still battling demons.

“I strive for perfection in every dimension of my life — my dance, my studies, my spiritual path. I want to shine so brightly the shadows cannot consume me.” (pg. 16)

Axtell does not dwell on the horrors she experienced, but on the emotional trauma, the PTSD, and the dark shadows that follow her. Her recovery also provides lessons in how you can fool yourself into believing that all is right with your own world, even when you have not resolved the darkness that follows you. She offers moments of joy, her struggles, and her poetry in an effort to demonstrate the hard road of recovery but also the hope that can be found around you, if you are willing to ask the right questions of yourself. What makes you happy? How can you reclaim your life? How can you rebuild your worth without connecting it to what happens to the perpetrators of your abuse?

We are the untamed.
We are the unashamed.
We are beautiful justice
Just watch us rise. (pg. 143)

In addition to her story, she offers journal prompts in the back to help other survivors get started on their own recoveries, she provides them poems of strength and hope, and she provides mantras they can use to reaffirm their own worth. While she speaks a lot about how her ties to Christianity helped in her recovery, she also cautioned readers on how some doctrine and those who offer it can lead you away from your recovery journey. Axtell says that you need to find your own touchstones and paths to recovery, and many of the answers are within yourself. Self-reflection, self-care, and creativity can help those in recovery blossom and rebuild their lives. Beautiful Justice by Brooke Axtell is a journey of reclaiming self-worth and identity, while manifesting the beauty inside in the form of art and celebrating the value we bury inside.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet and Author:

Brooke Axtell is the Founder and Director of She is Rising, a healing community for women and girls overcoming gender violence and sex trafficking. Her work as a human rights activist led her to speak at The 2015 Grammy Awards, The United Nations and the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Her work as a writer, speaker, performing artist and activist has been featured in many media outlets, including the New York Times, LA Times, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal, CNN and The Steve Harvey Show. Brooke is an award-winning poet, singer/songwriter and author of the new memoir, Beautiful Justice: How I Reclaimed My Worth After Human Trafficking and Sexual Abuse.

The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman

Source: TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 352 pgs.
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The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman follows Eva Cassidy aboard the Lurline on its way to Hawaii where she will serve as an army nurse in Pearl Harbor. She has secrets, and she’s hoping that despite her new name and faked documents, she will be able to use her nursing skills and send money to her sister, Ruby, who was struck with polio, in Michigan. Aboard the ship, she is immediately drawn to Lieutenant Clark Spencer, a man with secrets of his own.

“He reminded Eva of her father, who was always requiring her to answer her own questions and solve her own problems.” (pg. 29)

Ackerman’s WWII setting is well rendered, and the scenes where the Zeroes attack and the harrowing chaos of the hospital are vivid and frightening, especially viewing it from the point of views of her characters. Whether with Spencer trying to save himself and the men around him as bullets shower down on them or with Eva running from a lecture hall to the hospital.

“With fewer new injuries coming in, the nurses busied themselves cleaning up the place in between surgeries and tending the wounded. You could hardly see the linoleum under mud, soot, and blood. Beds and sheets were soiled, and so were the men.” (pg. 250)

The love triangle between Eva, Clark, and Billy — her hometown boyfriend who helped her get her job and wants to marry her — is wrapped up a little too neatly in the end. There also is a government conspiracy that is a little too thin, given that one of the key players is not as high level as one would expect, as well as some other nuances. None of this detracted from Ackerman’s lovely story about a woman wronged and looking to still fulfill her dreams and build a new life in paradise. The attack on Pearl Harbor looms large but it is not the heart of this story.

The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman’s well-researched novel is a delight in terms of its heart. The resilience of humanity and its ability to pull together in times of crisis are its main themes. Eva Cassidy is a strong woman who lost her compass — her father — only to find she’s as strong as she was when he was alive. She just needed to tap into her strength for herself and those around her.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Sara is the bestselling author of Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine. She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories. When she’s not writing or teaching, you’ll find her in the mountains or in the ocean. She currently lives on the Big Island with her boyfriend and a houseful of bossy animals. Find out more about Sara and her books at www.ackermanbooks.com. Connect with Sara: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Source: Berkley
Hardcover, 400 pgs
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The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner is a novel of lasting friendship — one that surpasses the bounds of culture and war, as well as separation. Elise Sontag, a German American, finds that life during WWII becomes increasingly complicated when her father is arrested by the FBI in Davenport, Iowa. When her father is gone for months, his bank accounts are frozen, and the family is left to fend for itself, Elise learns that her school chums can be less mean than the world around her. Although she’s shunned at school, the sneers of passersby and neighbors, as well as the distrust from her father’s co-workers, are far worse. Through it all, she must be strong for her mother.

“Months later, in the internment camp, Mariko would tell me she believed there were two kinds of mirrors. There was the kind you looked into to see what you looked like, and then there was the kind you looked into and saw what other people thought you looked like.” (pg. 28)

When the entire family is reunited in Crystal City, an internment camp, she learns that even among the perceived “sympathizers” there are more Americans like her. But camp politics can be hard to navigate as someone who doesn’t see how she is perceived by those in the camp. Her focus is on trying to return to a normal life at the Federal School in the camp and befriending Mariko Inoue, a Japanese American from Los Angeles, who also feels more American than Japanese.

Meissner tackles a lot of larger themes, but the theme running through Elise Sontag’s narrative is one of identity. When our home country considers us the enemy, how do we reconcile that with who we know ourselves to be? How can we retain the goodness of our souls without succumbing to the perceptions of others? Can we hold onto what we know about ourselves when others see us as the enemy and send us to a place we feel is hostile to us because they also see us as the enemy?

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner is a stunning novel about the last year of World War II from the untenable situation of a young American girl thrust behind enemy lines by her own nation. It is about the friendship that can blossom amidst terrible and heartbreaking conditions. This is a WWII novel that will grip your heart, squeeze it and leave readers wanting more. (I personally would want to read Mariko’s story!)

RATING: Cinquain

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About the Author:

Susan Meissner is a USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction with more than half a million books in print in fifteen languages. She is an author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include As Bright as Heaven, starred review in Library Journal; Secrets of  Charmed Life, a Goodreads finalist for Best Historical Fiction 2015; and A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University and is also a writing workshop volunteer for Words Alive, a San Diego non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk youth foster a love for reading and writing.

Visit Susan at her website; on Twitter at @SusanMeissner or at Facebook.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (audio and print)

Source: Purchased
Paperback and Audible, 447 pgs. or 14+ hours
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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which was a book club pick from last year and took me more than the month allotted to read, is a look at Chicago’s endeavor to build a World’s Fair to rival that of Paris. Larson attempts to contrast the beauty of the white city created by some architectural greats with the dark serial killings of  H. H. Holmes. The story is one of a city growing up and expanding, which generally brings with it the darker elements of crime. As women began to seek out jobs and not marriage, many were preyed upon by criminals, including Holmes. These comparisons are easy to see, but the main bulk of this book is focused on the political issues of the 1893 World’s Fair and its construction.

“Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago’s Hull House, wrote, ‘Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.'” (pg. 11)

“To women as yet unaware of his private obsessions, it was an appealing delicacy. He broke prevailing rules of casual intimacy. He stood too close, stared too hard, touched too much and long. And women adored him for it.” (pg. 36)

Like the previous book I read by Larson, the narrative is big on detail — too much detail in some places — and this often bogs down the narrative and leaves the reader wondering if the book is about the fair or the serial killer. To finish this pick, I ended up reading along with the audiobook to keep my attention focused, as I found it wandered too much just listening to the audio and too much when reading the book — I started scanning pages rather than reading them.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were those short chapters about Holmes, and it makes me wonder if Larson had a hard time finding enough about him and his crimes to write about him alone — hence the need for the World’s Fair and its comparison with the darker side of Chicago. This was less boring than the previous Larson book I read, which isn’t saying much.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson was a mixed bag for me. The World’s Fair parts of the book were interesting but too long winded, while the parts about Holmes are too little throughout the book until the end. Saving the show-stopper for last is a detriment for this book. These subjects are not really related to one another, and the only thread holding them together is Larson’s slight juxtaposition of them and the fact that they both occurred around the same time. It would make readers wonder if Holmes would have been as successful as a serial killer if the World’s Fair had not distracted the police, officials, the government, and tourists alike.

RATING: Tercet

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Knock, Knock: The Biggest, Best Joke Book Ever

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 352 pgs.
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Knock, Knock: The Biggest, Best Joke Book Ever from Highlights for Children is a book my daughter received from Santa Claus, and if we are taking a trip in the car, she will take it with her. We started telling her knock, knock jokes a couple years ago, and she told us that we made them all up ourselves. Now that she has this book, she can see that we didn’t, but we were clearly inventors in her eyes for a while.

My favorite one to tell her was the one with the banana, and when she got this book, she insisted I had made it up. Eventually, she found it in the book and was surprised that I hadn’t. I love those little moments.

This book has brought her hours of fun and enjoyment, and if you could hear her read from the book and her grampie tell her knock, knock jokes he remembers, you’d be laughing. They go back and forth for hours sometimes. The pure joy makes this book worth every penny Santa spent.

RATING: Cinquain