What’s That Book? Leaving the Beach by Mary Rowen

TitleLeaving the Beach

Author:  Mary Rowen

Genre: Fiction

Rating:  4 stars

What’s it about?  The story of Erin Reardon and her search for happiness. Told in the first person and set in the working class town of Winthrop, Massachusetts, readers get to know Erin in alternating time periods—in the 1970s and ‘80s as an awkward teenager and college student, and in the 1990s as a young adult. As a slightly overweight teenager, Erin struggles to fit in, but finds comfort in music, to the point of obsession, as she latches on to a string of rock stars, certain that they are the only ones who understand her: Jim Morrison, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and the fictional grunge rocker, Lenny Weir, Erin’s main obsession. But Erin has major problems. Trouble at home and feelings of guilt and inadequacy lead to an eating disorder, alcohol abuse and a series of bad decisions.

Readers will enjoy reliving many classic teen and young adult moments as they relate to rock music, concerts and playing albums over and over. I like how Rowen describes the powerful one-on-one connection that can occur when you listen to music by yourself. Rowen also realistically shows the more painful times of rejection, not fitting in and the lonely moments suffered when everyone else seems to have life figured out.

How did you hear about it?  I saw Leaving the Beach reviewed by a few of my blogging friends and decided to read it myself.

Closing comments:  I thoroughly enjoyed this unique and fast read. Erin Reardon is both typical and remarkable, flawed but likable. Readers need to hold on to hope as she makes mistakes. I didn’t see the author’s truly original finish coming, and that made the book an even better read!

Contributor:  Book Club Mom

P.S. I was pleased to receive a message from Mary Rowen, who asked me to tell readers that, while Leaving the Beach is currently out of print, a newly edited version will be available in the summer of 2019. Learn more about Mary Rowen at MaryRowen.com.


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What’s That Book? Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

 

TitleFrog Music

Author:  Emma Donoghue

Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction

Rating:  4 stars

What’s it about?  The fictionalized account of the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet, an enigmatic free spirit in San Francisco, who dressed like a man and earned a living catching frogs for restaurants.

The story begins with Jenny’s murder, which takes place in a rented room at a railroad saloon. An unknown assailant shoots through the window, kills Jenny, but misses her companion, Blanche Beunon. Blanche, a burlesque dancer at the House of Mirrors, is certain she knows who is responsible, but will the authorities believe her? The author cleverly frames this original story with music and lyrics of the times.

The majority of Donoghue’s characters come from historical record and comprise San Francisco’s gritty underbelly during a smallpox epidemic and record heatwave. Blanche’s efforts to both save herself and point to those responsible for Jenny’s murder reveal many complicated and unlikable characters who are trying to scrape by in a rough environment and willingly take advantage of each other. Blanche’s lover and his companion are former trapeze artists from a circus in Paris, where Blanche performed on horseback. A back injury has forced him to quit performing and now Blanche is the breadwinner for the trio, earning money from her “leg shows” and private rendezvous.

Blanche thinks nothing of this until she meets Jenny, who has a knack for asking unsettling questions, and forces Blanche to see her life as it is.

How did you hear about it?  It is this month’s mystery book club choice.

Closing comments:  The author presents a vivid picture of the seedy side of San Francisco during this time period, including its widespread abuse and racial intolerance. Her characters’ attitudes towards other races, including the French, Irish, Chinese, Italians and Prussians, show how prejudice was deep seated during these times. While the story is based on actual events, Donoghue includes themes of love, friendship and motherhood, yet most of her characters don’t come close to holding onto these things. While Blanche’s character is the most developed, Jenny is the most interesting one. She was well-known throughout the city and I was very interested in her back story.

Frog Music is not for the faint of heart, due to many graphic and weirdly violent sex scenes. Many readers will question whether they are necessary to the story. I’m not sure. I think on one hand, they help define the characters and the times, but I also think there were too many “defining moments.”

The mystery is solved in the final pages and an Afterward provides much detail about the author’s research and the musical references. I thought this was one of the best parts of the book.

Contributor:  Ginette 😉


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What’s That Book? The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

TitleThe Great Alone

Author:  Kristin Hannah

Genre: Popular fiction

Rating:  4 stars

What’s it about?  A story about a family of three who, in an effort to start fresh, move from Seattle to the open space of Kaneq, Alaska. Cora and Ernt Allbright had been happily married in the 1960s, but everything changed after Ernt returned from service in Vietnam. A prisoner of war for six years, Ernt came home with many demons. When Ernt learns he has inherited land in Kaneq from a war buddy who was killed in service, Alaska sounds like a perfect escape. A mish-mash of settlers in Kaneq form a divided community. Many are homesteaders from several generations back and many are there to escape, including the survivalist clan of Ernt’s buddy. The brief summer in Kaneq soon gives way to an unrelenting winter. And the shortened days reveal an even greater darkness inside the Allbright cabin.

It’s hard enough to adjust to Ernt’s depression and excessive drinking, but Cora has been hiding something much worse. The story is told from the perspective of their thirteen-year-old daughter, Leni, who tries to reconcile her love for her father with the man he is now.

The story starts in 1974 and finishes in the present, describing the many challenges and heart breaking decisions the Allbrights must make.

How did you hear about it?  My book club friend selected it for our December read.

Closing comments:  I enjoyed reading about Alaska and how people survive in such a difficult place. The author did a great job describing both the beauty and the danger of living in Kaneq. Survival is a full-time job there and the Allbrights meet many people who are willing to help.

Despite its 400 plus pages, this is a fast read. Although I enjoyed the story and descriptions, the characters are somewhat stereotypical, making the book a light version of an important time period. A perfectly tied-up finish will make some readers happy and will make others think the ending is unrealistic.

Contributor:  Ginette 😉


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What’s That Book? The Racketeer by John Grisham

TitleThe Racketeer

Author:  John Grisham

Genre: Legal thriller

Rating:  3 stars

What’s it about?  When Judge Raymond Fawcett is murdered and his safe is emptied, the FBI scrambles to solve a crime with very little evidence. Then comes an offer from Malcolm Bannister, a former attorney who is serving time in a Federal prison camp for money laundering. Bannister says he knows who did it and why, but he wants a deal.

How did you hear about it?  I was looking for something different and entertaining to read and found The Racketeer at the library.

Closing comments:  I enjoyed this clever story, which carries the reader through a plot that seems straightforward and evokes sympathy for Bannister’s seemingly wrongful conviction. Grisham introduces characters and presents facts as needed and by mid-story, we think we have an idea how it will all work out.

But new characters and twists lead in a different direction and just enough information is left hanging until the finish, when it’s all wrapped up. In the end, you can’t help but return to the beginning and rethink the characters. Grisham shows us that the question of what is fair game does not always have a clear answer.

I liked Bannister’s character, even as we learn more about him and see to what lengths he will go. I enjoyed the fast pace of the book and how Grisham pokes fun at the FBI. If you’re a lawyer or a former inmate and you take issue with some of the facts or unrealistic turns, make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end, telling us this is “indeed a work of fiction.”

It’s been years since I read The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client, which I thought were excellent. This does not seem as substantial, but is entertaining nonetheless.

Contributor:  Ginette


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What’s That Book? Believe It: My Journey of Success, Failure, and Overcoming the Odds by Nick Foles

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TitleBelieve It: My Journey of Success, Failure, and Overcoming the Odds

Author:  Nick Foles, with Joshua Cooley

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating:  3.5 stars

What’s it about? This is a first-person account of the journey that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles experienced in the 2017 season, which culminated in the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory. After entering the season as the backup, he was thrust into the starting role after the starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, tore his ACL. Foles embraced his faith in God and overcame countless odds to achieve the greatest feat in an NFL season—winning a championship.

How did you hear about it? I’m an avid member of the “Eagles Twitter” community, so I get most of my Eagles news from there. It was hard to not hear about the Super Bowl MVP’s book while following the aftermath of the championship.

Closing comments: I learned a ton about Foles in this book, including information prior to his days in the National Football League. I was glad he included these parts instead of just focusing on the 2017 season for the entire book. It was great to hear about how he was recruited in high school, his eventual transfer from Michigan State to Arizona, and even aspects of his personal life. He’s an honest and open individual, which quickly becomes clear when listening to his interviews, and luckily, this translated into an honest, humbling book. Of course, Foles is no author, so the quality of the writing (despite the help of a real author) is not going to blow anyone away. The book probably could’ve been cut by about 40 to 50 pages and still have been just as interesting, but it doesn’t drone on and on either. Personally, I found the references to his religion a little over the top at times. I am glad that Foles’s belief in God helped guide him through his experiences, but for readers who aren’t into that kind of thing, it might come off as him pushing his religion too much. I’m sure this wasn’t his intention, so I can’t criticize it too much. However, for many people who don’t have as strong religious beliefs, it can be easy to glaze over entire paragraphs because it becomes rather repetitive. Overall, though, this was a fun, easy read and gave me some great perspective into the man that’s going to be at the top of the list in Philadelphia for a long time.

Contributor:  Austin Vitelli is an assistant editor for a medical publishing company who recently graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in journalism. He’s been a Philadelphia Eagles fan his whole life. His blog, which mostly focuses on the Eagles, can be viewed here.


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What’s That Book? The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King

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TitleThe Murder of Mary Russell

Author:  Laurie R. King

Genre: Detective fiction

Rating:  4 stars

What’s it about?  The 14th book of King’s Mary Russell series in which the author incorporates characters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries into new detective stories. This one includes Sherlock Holmes and his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, as well as Mary Russell, Holmes’ wife, a new character created by King at the beginning of the series. The book is based on Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott,” a tale involving Mrs. Hudson’s father as a young man, as he is transported as a prisoner from England to Australia. A mutiny ensues, the ship explodes and Hudson finds himself adrift.

The bigger story is about Clara Hudson, James Hudson’s daughter, and how she came to be Sherlock’s landlady and housekeeper, first at his Baker Street residence and now in Sussex. It begins in 1925 when Clara returns from the market to a bloody and upturned house. Sherlock is out and Mary is nowhere to be found and Clara fears the worst for a young woman she considers family. Who has been to their house and why are Clara’s personal belongings in disarray?

Clara has learned a few things about how to handle evidence and the process of deductive reasoning and has useful information for Sherlock when he returns. The book is partially narrated by Mary herself, with alternating chapters going back to 1850s when Clara is a young girl and later.

In the back story, James Hudson is not a great father, often drunk and hardly trustworthy, but father and daughter become partners in crime as they work the crowds in both Sydney and London, picking pockets and developing more elaborate schemes to steal people’s money. The stories come together at the finish to connect the Sussex visitor and Clara’s two lives.

How did you hear about it?  I learned about it from the mystery book club I run at my library job. We will be discussing it next week.        

Closing comments:  I enjoyed this story very much. Although I’m sure it’s best to read the series from the beginning, I was pleased to be able to jump in so late. The first of the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, is presented as a memoir and introduces Mary to Holmes. Most of the books are about their relationship. The Murder of Mary Russell is different because it is about Mrs. Hudson. I would recommend the series to devoted Sherlock Holmes fans as well as to readers who enjoy detective fiction.

Contributor:  Book Club Mom

For more information, please visit these recent posts:

On mystery writer Laurie R. King, Sherlock Holmes and fan fiction

When you have a Twitter conversation with a character from a book


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What’s That Book? We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

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TitleWe Were the Lucky Ones

Author:  Georgia Hunter

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating:  3.5 stars

What’s it about?  A fictionalized account of the author’s family in Poland and Europe during World War II. In 1939, the Kurc family lived in Radom, Poland. Sol and Nechuma had five grown children, just starting their lives. Everything changed when Germany invaded Poland. The parents were given jobs working in a German cafeteria. One brother was in France. Two others joined the Polish army. Mila Kurc’s husband disappeared and Halina’s new job was hard labor at a beet farm. The family was eventually forced out of their home and into a designated Jewish ghetto. The oldest son and his wife were sent to Siberia. For six years, the family was scattered, with little information about each other. They witnessed executions and faced brutal treatment and persecution by both the Germans and the Soviets. They endured unthinkable conditions, took innumerable risks to survive and resist, sometimes with the aid of Halina’s husband who was involved in the Underground.

Nearly six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and although the Kurc family suffered many losses, they all survived the war. When the war was over, some came to America, others settled in Europe, but they all left Poland. Georgia Hunter’s grandfather was the middle son, Addy, who was in Paris when Germany invaded Poland. He escaped and spent time in Spain, West Africa, Casablanca and Brazil, and had no contact with his family until after the war. When he arrived in America, one of the first thing Addy did was change his name, which was short for Adolf, to Eddie.

How did you hear about it?  My book club friend selected it.

Closing comments:  An incredible story of perseverance. The Kurc family survived a horrible period of history. Their courage and resolve—and, as the author says, luck—is a story that should be read and remembered.

On a side note, from a stylistic point of view, separate from the serious and important record of history, I felt that the book could have been shorter. While not a difficult read, it is over four hundred pages and the accounts are sometimes wordy and repetitive. In addition, it was sometimes difficult to keep the characters straight, as they did not possess enough distinct traits. The book often reads more as a wholesome Young Adult book, with an occasional scene that seems unbalanced with the overall style.

Contributor:  Ginette


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What’s That Book? The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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TitleThe Nest

Author:  Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Genre: Fiction

Rating:  4 stars

What’s it about?  A dysfunctional group of middle-aged siblings who put the pressure on their charming but reckless brother to pay back a large sum of money from their inheritance. The story is set in New York and begins a few months before Leo, Jack, Bea and Melody Plumb are due to collect money from a trust (The Nest) their father set up years earlier before his death. Each had been counting on the money, which had grown substantially, but when Leo, drunk and high on cocaine, crashes his Porsche, their mother dips into the account to send Leo to rehab, pay off the young waitress in the passenger seat, and above all else, avoid scandal. Out of rehab, will Leo make good?

Leo, the oldest, made his money from a “literary” gossip magazine which helped propel their writer sister, Bea into fame. But Bea never got her long-expected novel off the ground and has been floundering ever since. Jack, always in Leo’s shadow, owns an antique shop, but he’s bad with money and has kept many financial secrets from his husband, Walker. And Melody wants desperately to send her twin daughters to college. She has scrimped and saved her entire adult life, but money is still tight. Secrets between the siblings and their spouses muddle up an already complex dynamic, heck to live through, but lots of fun to read about!

How did you hear about it?  Selected by my book club

Closing comments:  I loved this book. It’s a great balance between serious themes and entertaining plot lines. In particular, I love how the side characters develop and have their moments later in the story.

Contributor:  Ginette


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What’s That Book? Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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TitleRules of Civility

Author:  Amor Towles

Genre: Fiction

Rating:  3 stars

What’s it about?  High society New York in 1937 in which characters search for love and success in Post Depression New York. The story follows Katey Kontent, a secretary on Wall Street and banker Tinker Grey, who meet by chance at a jazz club in Greenwich Village. Katey begins a year-long mingle with the upper class elite, with plenty of challenges.

How did you hear about it?  Selected by my book club. I was attracted to the book cover too, which made me want to get right into it.

Closing comments:  I like reading about New York during the late 1930s. It is always interesting to think of parents and grandparents who lived through those times. It’s only natural to cheer for Towles’ young characters as they search for love and success.

Towles had a good idea, throwing together Katey, Eve and Tinker. It’s fun to watch the sparks fly as they get to know each other and form alliances. Characters are somewhat unrealistic, however, too perfect, too self-assured and well-read.

All in all, though, a light and entertaining read.

Contributor:  Ginette


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What’s That Book? Gunslinger by Jeff Pearlman

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Title:  Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre

Author: Jeff Pearlman

Genre: Biography

Rating:  5 stars

What’s it about?  This is a great, thorough biography on Brett Favre, the NFL great who played almost 20 seasons in the league, mostly for the Green Bay Packers. While the author doesn’t ever directly interview Favre for the book, you quickly forget that, as it’s clear that dozens of people were interviewed for this story. Play-by-play action is almost always boring in game stories, yet Pearlman has a way of making a game more than a decade old sound as exciting as if you were watching it on TV.

He paints Favre’s character without holding back — this is by no means a book chronicling only the best moments of his football career. It goes through the personal struggles that Favre endured such as drug addiction and rampant infidelity, but just when you think he’s a terrible human being, you realize he has another side. Another side that proves humans are more intricate and complicated than they appear in a news article or a TV segment. Pearlman finds a way to force the reader to put their own values and morals to the test. Are some of the things Favre did unforgiveable? Is he just a fun-loving guy who gets carried away sometimes? Did the constant spotlight make some of his actions inevitable? Everyone will have their own opinion, but the argument is by no means one-sided. In an age where fans are forced to grapple with whether to cheer for a player who’s committed a crime or moral wrongdoing but still plays for their favorite team, this story shows this isn’t a new problem.

The author captured the unconditional love that the city of Green Bay had for Favre, which then turned on him temporarily when he signed with the rival Minnesota Vikings. There’s a reason he’s arguably the first name that comes to mind when you mention Packers’ greats. Not many players were truly idolized like Favre was by Packers’ fans.

It is hard to find fault in this book. The vocabulary is impressive without sounding like he’s trying to brag. The story is a good length without feeling like it lasted as long as Favre waffled over retirement. It is, above all things, fair. Obviously, it would’ve been great to hear directly from Favre, but there are enough interviews with other people to make up for that.

How did you hear about it?  I followed the author on Twitter and he had been talking about the book a lot when it was released in 2016, so I decided to give it a try.

Closing comments:  I am not usually much of a biography guy, but this might change my mind. It’s one of those stories where you don’t have to be a Packers fan to enjoy it. You don’t even have to be a football fan. You’re certain to go back and forth on whether you like the legend that is Brett Favre, and that’s what makes him such a fascinating character.

Contributor:   The author of this review is Austin Vitelli. He currently works as an assistant editor for Matrix Medical Communications, a medical publishing company. He is a recent journalism graduate from Lehigh University. He is a huge NFL fan, specifically the Philadelphia Eagles. You can view his website here or follow him on Twitter here.


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