April and May Book Reviews 2019

In the last two months I’ve read a wide variety of books from picture book to romance and everything in between. Some of these books are not recent releases but were mentioned during sessions at recent conferences. I’m currently reading my way through this list along with my normal ‘just for fun’ reading and will bring you those that I highly recommend. 


Where Did the Sun Go? by Karen Franco

Franco writes a sweet story that teaches all ages how weather can affect someone on the autism spectrum. Smart details make this book an asset for classroom learning, inclusion, and acceptance. I particularly appreciate the endnotes about thunderstorms by meteorologist Lindsey Slater as well as more in-depth information from the author.



When weather changes, so can behaviors. "Where Did the Sun Go?" touches on how a stormy day affects children on the autism spectrum. With positive reassurance, contact interaction, as well as fun distractions, Jacob learns how to cope with the storm. Knowing the sun will be back soon helps to keep him calm and puts a smile back on his face.


How to Eat a Peach, Larry and Bob, and The Lollipop Tree by Karen Schaufeld and illustrated Kurt Schwarz.

I was pleased to meet this author illustrator duo at the Untitled Town Book and Author Festival in April. Schaufeld writes beautiful stories that will entertain both adults and children. They are all gorgeously illustrated by Kurt Schwarz and a visual pleasure.  I love that the author sprinkles in some higher level vocabulary as kids appreciate learning these “reach” words even when they are very little.

Larry and Bob is a poignant story about a unique friendship between an eagle and a fish that grabs your heart.



A beautiful story of a unique friendship between a Bald Eagle and a Smallmouth Bass. In the midst of their everyday lives, Larry and Bob meet one fateful day that will change them both. "Larry and Bob" is an exciting story that will keep readers intrigued about what will happen next.


The Lollipop Tree is endearing and sweet story of courage amidst life’s challenges. Anyone can relate to the storyline and take something away about facing one’s own difficulties, no matter what they may be.



Follow us on the exciting journey of a strong and proud little tree! Once remarked upon for her tall stature and growing limbs, an incredible storm leaves her scarred and the tree must fight all odds to regain the strength and beauty once marveled at by passersby. The Lollipop Tree is a beautiful and unusual story that young readers will come to love through seasons of change.


How to Eat a Peach is a fun look at the greediness of a farmer hoarding his delicious peaches turns into a true friendship when a tenacious squirrel decides that he must have some of this well-guarded fruit.



How much would you do to follow your passion?  Squirrel’s only passion is peaches, and a farmer and a wall stand between him and his goal.  This suspenseful fable is a tale of determination and an unexpected change of heart.


On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier

This is a delightful picture book that combines lovely text celebrating the arrival of baby along with a parallel story of the natural world. Wonderful endnotes on nature and science as well. I don’t know how this wasn’t in our home library when our kids were growing up. This will be a gift I will give in the future.



In simple words and radiant collages, Debra Frasier celebrates the natural miracles of the earth and extends an exuberant welcome to each member of our human family. Accompanied by a detailed glossary explaining such natural phenomena as gravity, tides, and migration, this is an unforgettable book.

The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson

CJ rides the bus with his grandma on a lovely bus trip down Market Street from Sunday church to the soup kitchen where they volunteer. The details of the neighborhood, the people on the bus and the street, and the questions CJ asks along the way make this a sweet, sweet story.

2016 Newberry Medal, 2016 Caldecott Honor Book, 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book and many more awards.



Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don't own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty—and fun—in their routine and the world around them. This energetic ride through a bustling city highlights the wonderful perspective only grandparent and grandchild can share, and comes to life through Matt de la Pena’s vibrant text and Christian Robinson’s radiant illustrations.



All the Walls of Belfast by Sarah Carlson

A tale of two teens who come from opposite backgrounds in Northern Ireland where walls still separate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, making their developing relationship not only difficult but dangerous. The book is a well-written story that explores political themes of Ireland’s Troubles and terrorism alongside themes of independence and escape (from abusive family life). The author takes great care to build an authentic Irish experience for the reader with setting descriptions and dialogue.



The Carnival at Bray meets West Side Story in Sarah Carlson’s powerful YA debut; set in post-conflict Belfast (Northern Ireland), alternating between two teenagers, both trying to understand their past and preserve their future. Seventeen-year-olds, Fiona and Danny must choose between their dreams and the people they aspire to be.

Beneath the Flames by Greg Renz

Beneath the Flames by Greg Renz begins with one of the best first chapters I have ever read, pitching us directly into the kind of action and raw emotion rarely found in a debut novel. Our heart aches for the main character Mitch as guilt drives him to seek distraction, purpose, and redemption by joining the Milwaukee Fire Department. His life on the farm and as a small-town volunteer fire fighter hasn’t exactly prepared him to cope with the inner city. He makes enemies, mistakes, and, surprisingly, some good friends, but all of these collide in a tightly woven plot that is both simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting.

Renz’s skill as author is evident in the depth of each character and their dialogue and mannerisms—so much so that we feel as though we’ve met them all in real life. This is a book with serious themes and subjects; suicide, racism, gang violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault, murder and more. But this is also a story about hope, love, and family. Renz handles them all with a brave pen that isn’t squeamish with the tough parts.

This is the kind of story we need in the world today—authentic and insightful. I guarantee you’ll be thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading. 




BENEATH THE FLAMES is an intimate combination of love, race, and life as an urban firefighter.
A fire in a neighboring farmhouse has young farmer and volunteer firefighter, Mitch Garner, blaming himself for the tragic outcome. He loses all hope of forgiving himself. His only hope for redemption is to leave Jennie, the girl he’s loved since high school, and journey from Wisconsin’s lush farmland to the decaying inner city of Milwaukee to prove himself as a professional firefighter.
Mitch is assigned to the busiest firehouse in the heart of one of the most blighted areas of Milwaukee, the Core, where he’s viciously hazed by senior firefighters. He struggles to hold it together at horrific scenes of violence and can’t do anything right at fires. Within weeks, he’s ready to give up and quit. His salvation comes in the form of a brash adolescent girl, Jasmine Richardson. Mitch is assigned to tutor her little sister through a department mentoring program. Despite Jasmine’s contempt toward Mitch, her courage and devotion to her little sister inspire Mitch to stay and dedicate himself to helping her and the neighboring children overcome the hopelessness of growing up in crushing poverty. Trouble on the farm has Mitch torn between returning home to Jennie and staying in Milwaukee where he’ll be forced to risk his life to protect Jasmine from the leader of the One-Niner street gang.


Between the Cracks by Carmela Cattuti

A beautiful story following one woman’s life from the tragedy of losing her family to the safety of a convent school in Italy and then to a marriage which takes her across the ocean to her new life in America. We celebrate her triumphs and mourn her losses as she courageously lives her life in the early 20th century. The author skillfully captures the beauty of everyday moments and the strength of her female character scene by lovely scene.



Join Angela Lanza as she experiences the tumultuous world of early 20th century Sicily and New York. Orphaned by the earthquake and powerful eruption of Mt. Etna in 1908, Angela is raised in the strict confines of an Italian convent. Through various twists of fate, she is married to a young Italian man whom she barely knows, then together with her spouse, immigrates to the U.S. This novel is an invitation to accompany the young Angela as she confronts the ephemeral nature of life on this planet and navigates the wide cultural gaps between pre-World War II Italy and the booming prosperity of dynamic young America. Author, artist, and teacher Carmela Cattuti created Between the Cracks as an homage to her great-aunt, who survived the earthquake and eruption of Mt. Etna and bravely left Sicily to start a new life in America.


Book two, The Ascent, is now available! You’ll want to grab a copy of both, so your reading is not interrupted.



A novel based on true happenings The sequel to Carmela Cattuti's first novel, Between the Cracks,, this story invites the reader to accompany Angela Lanza as she builds her life in America during the first half of the 20th century. A Sicilian immigrant, she manages to assimilate into the social life of a small town outside of New York City. Through the horrors of war, domestic tragedy, and raising her sister-in-law's children, hers is a successful immigrant experience. Angela seeks to transcend organized religion and develop her spirituality. She influenced three generations of Americans through her artistic sensibility and a sharpened intuition. The book parallels America's growth with Angela's growing sense of who she is in the world.


Empty Chairs by Anne Davidson Keller

A story of love and loyalty that you will not put down! A skillful portrayal of one North Carolina farm family’s struggles in the 1940s as teen children make their way into a life away from the farm with sometimes disastrous consequences for those that remain. The author has created a complex heart-tugging story with multi-layered characters that is a joy to read.



In this story of family, love, and interwoven connections, the McDowells struggle to survive on their family farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Joe, the youngest sibling, steals coins from his mother's purse, knowing he can never have things he really wants. After his older brother is drafted to World War II, Joe and his family must confront an avalanche of crises, learning what means most in each of their lives. Joe will have to choose whether to become the man on the farm, or to follow his dreams. In a surprise turn of events, the women in his family show strength they didn't know was theirs. Love and tolerance become the keys to overcome the challenges facing Joe and his family.


The Mister by E.L. James

If you were not a fan of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, don’t give up on E.L. James. Her recent love story, The Mister, is an excellent romance story with enough twists and turns to make it far from cookie cutter.



London, 2019. Life has been easy for Maxim Trevelyan. With his good looks, aristocratic connections, and money, he’s never had to work and he’s rarely slept alone. But all that changes when tragedy strikes and Maxim inherits his family’s noble title, wealth, and estates, and all the responsibility that entails. It’s a role he’s not prepared for and one that he struggles to face.
But his biggest challenge is fighting his desire for an unexpected, enigmatic young woman who’s recently arrived in England, possessing little more than a dangerous and troublesome past.  Reticent, beautiful, and musically gifted, she’s an alluring mystery, and Maxim’s longing for her deepens into a passion that he’s never experienced and dares not name. Just who is Alessia Demachi? Can Maxim protect her from the malevolence that threatens her? And what will she do when she learns that he’s been hiding secrets of his own?



The Rule of One by Ashley and Leslie Saunders

There was no way I could put down this story once I’d read the first couple of pages! A world that’s designed to make one twin’s existence illegal, these sisters are forced into a terrifying escape into the unknown with only a series of safe houses mapped out. Their journey reveals more and more about both their deceased mother’s life as well as the what their captured father may be enduring. This is an incredible coming-of-age story set within the most difficult set of circumstances imaginable. Book two, The Rule of Many, is on my reading list--see those details below.



In their world, telling the truth has become the most dangerous crime of all.

In the near-future United States, a one-child policy is ruthlessly enforced. Everyone follows the Rule of One. But Ava Goodwin, daughter of the head of the Texas Family Planning Division, has a secret—one her mother died to keep and her father has helped to hide for her entire life.

She has an identical twin sister, Mira.

For eighteen years Ava and Mira have lived as one, trading places day after day, maintaining an interchangeable existence down to the most telling detail. But when their charade is exposed, their worst nightmare begins. Now they must leave behind the father they love and fight for their lives.

Branded as traitors, hunted as fugitives, and pushed to discover just how far they’ll go in order to stay alive, Ava and Mira rush headlong into a terrifying unknown.




Born to a death sentence in a near-future America, rebellious sisters herald a revolution—if they can survive.

Twins Ava and Mira Goodwin defy the Rule of One simply by existing. The single-child law, ruthlessly enforced by Texas’s Governor Roth, has made the sisters famous fugitives and inspirations for the resurgent rebellion known as the Common.

But the relentless governor and his implacable Texas State Guard threaten that fragile hope, as Roth consolidates his power in a bid for ultimate authority.

As Ava and Mira relinquish the relative safety of their Canadian haven to stand against Roth, new allies arise: Owen, a gifted young programmer, impulsively abandons his comfortable life in a moment of compassion, while Zee, an abused labor camp escapee, finds new purpose in resistance. The four will converge on Dallas for a reckoning with Roth, with nothing less than their destinies—and the promise of a future free from oppression—on the line. Disobedience means death. But a life worth living demands rebellion.


The Immune (Omnibus – Books 1 – 4) by David Kazzie

At first this may appear to be the typical pandemic survivor story, but it takes a much more sinister turn when the source of the virus is learned and survivors must cope with a potentially more dangerous foe than the original virus. These twists and better than average character development make this series worthy for recommendation.



On a warm summer night in New York City, the apocalypse begins.
Within days, the lethal Medusa virus is burning across the globe like a wildfire. Society crumbles as a terrified populace seeks refuge from the horrifying spread of the disease. 

In Virginia, Dr. Adam Fisher struggles to save his dying patients while he remains inexplicably immune. 
In New York City, Sarah Wells, an Army captain harboring a tragic secret, is ordered to maintain a military quarantine at all costs.
And in Georgia, aging football star Freddie Briggs grieves as his family falls, one by one, to the disease.
For these three survivors, staying alive was just the beginning. 


Civilization is but a memory, and this is the dismal world left behind. 
As Adam, Sarah, and Freddie trek across a ruined American landscape, the challenges mount, including the horrifying prospect that the Medusa virus may not yet be done with the survivors. 


Adam and his fellow travelers take refuge in Evergreen, a lonely town in Oklahoma that promises a better future for all of them. But as Adam acts on the thinnest of leads regarding his quest, a new threat from within may prove his downfall.


Every apocalypse has an end. Having lost everything, Adam embarks on a dangerous journey to find a missing loved one. To save her, he will venture deep into the heart of darkness, where he will come face to face with the shocking truth about the plague that destroyed humanity.


Happy Reading!! If you've read any of these, let me know if you liked them, too. Or why you didn't. I always love talking about books! - Valerie


Two of my faves this year have been the classic "The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler, ( https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2728766504 ) and "Peace Like A River" by MN author Leif Enger. ( https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2497223761?book_show_action=false&... )

Both are first novels. Both are outstanding.

Chandler was a master of metaphor, description, setting, and dialogue. The plot and characters were secondary compared to the sheer joy of reading such lyrical, original passages.

Enger's debut contains a slight religious mysticism. (Is Dad some sort of Jesus figure who can perform miracles and walk on air?) But the family of characters is unique, charming, smart, resourceful, and ever determined to complete their mission of finding their fugitive son and brother. A rare book that I've read twice and enjoyed more the second time around.

Oooh, those sound really interesting. I appreciate the suggestions! - Val

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