‘Drown Her Sorrows’ by Melinda Leigh is the third mystery in her Bree Taggert series

Drown Her Sorrows by Melinda Leigh

I’ve really enjoyed books about women sheriffs, and Melinda Leigh’s Bree Taggert series fits the bill nicely. The third book in the series, “Drown Her Sorrows,” can be read as a stand alone book, but the whole series is so good, why not start with the first one, “Cross Her Heart” and then continue with “See Her Die.” Bree Taggert has returned to her hometown, Grey’s Hollow, where her abusive father killed her mother as eight-year-old Bree cowered under the porch with her four-year-old sister and infant brother. In the first book, Bree returns to solve her sister’s murder, and she stays when she is offered the position of county sheriff.

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‘The Matzah Ball’ by Jean Meltzer is a perfect holiday almost-fairy tale romance

The Matzah Ball
by Jean Meltzer

Matzah balls are soft and filling and satisfying in warm soup. However, “The Matzah Ball” by Jean Meltzer might better be compared to the rugalach that her characters love to nosh on, sweet and sometimes nutty, but made with love (and honesty) and with a texture that melts in your mouth. This story is filled with lots of love in the best tradition of any romance novel, but it’s also much more. Meltzer provides us with an inside look at a main character who is strong and successful, and at the same times struggles with a chronic disease.

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‘Bluebird’ by Sharon Cameron is a stunning work of fiction based on real events that are shocking

Bluebird by Sharon Cameron

Sharon Cameron demonstrated her ability to write engrossing historical fiction based on real events in her masterful book, “The Light in Hidden Places.” In some ways, “Bluebird,” based on real, shocking events, is the antithesis of that story. As a contrast to the first story that focuses on heroes that appeared in unlikely places during WWII, “Bluebird” unveils true villains who masqueraded as heroes. The main character, Eva, is a veritable hero, but we meet many of the truly evil beings whose bigotry, arrogance, and racial prejudice stoked the fires of hate during that time.

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‘An Observant Wife’ by Naomi Ragen gives readers an inside look at the Ultra-orthodox Jews in Boro Park, Brooklyn

An Observant Wife by Naomi Ragen

No one writes about observant Jews as well as Naomi Ragen, and her new novel, “An Observant Wife,” follows Leah Howard and Yaakov Lehman, a story that Ragen began in “An Unorthodox Match.” This sequel, which works as a stand alone book, begins with their Orthodox Jewish wedding, where we learn a lot just by reading that Leah’s mother, wearing a red dress with shockingly high red patent leather heels, walked her up the aisle. To say the least, Leah does not come from an Orthodox background.

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‘An Unorthodox Match’ by Naomi Ragen is a brilliant peek into the lives of the Ultra-orthodox Jewish community

An Unorthodox Match by Naomi Ragen

Naomi Ragen first brought us “Jephte’s Daughter,” which is listed as one of the hundred most important Jewish books of all times, and now with “An Unorthodox Match,” she pulls back the curtains on the insular lives of the New York Ultra-orthodox communities, and how people, no matter their apparent piousness, are the same everywhere. We meet Leah Howard, a woman brought up like many Jews (myself included), with no formal Jewish traditions and a decided lack of any real religious training. Her mother literally ran away from her parents and their conservative Jewish lifestyle, and Leah was raised with total freedom from religious strictures.

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‘Willodeen’ by Katherine Applegate; because Nature knows more than we do

Willodeen by Katherine Applegate

Award-winning author Katherine Applegate’s last series, “Endling,” was about the near-extinction of a species. In her newest magical novel, “Willodeen,” she presents an alternative world with strange, exotic creatures. As in our own world, some creatures in this magical one are cute, and others are not only ugly; they smell atrocious. They are called screechers because of the sound they make at night. Main character and first person narrator Willodeen and her father had enjoyed watching them — from a distance — because if you get too close to them, you smell, too. They both loved creatures, and the yard of their cottage was filled with domestic animals and wild ones, like the “ancient river otter who could no longer swim.” Together, Willodeen and her father observed nature and enjoyed watching animals, both ugly and beautiful, until one of the ever-increasing fire events destroyed Willodeen’s house and killed everyone in her family but her.

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‘Pony’ by R. J. Palacio is a superb new novel about devotion

Pony by R.J. Palacio

While the plot of “Pony” by R. J. Palacio reminded me a bit of another middle grade book about a pony, “Some Kind of Courage” by Dan Gemeinhart, the stories are quite different apart from being historical fiction with both boys having a horse that they love dearly. Each story is beautiful in its own right, and “Pony” is one that will not be quickly forgotten. In “Pony,” Palacio forces us to think about love, loss, and the connections that bind us to each other.

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‘Sugar Town Queens’ by Malla Nunn is an emotional tale of familial discrimination and the slums of South Africa

Sugar Town Queens by Malla Nunn

In “Sugar Town Queens,” author Malla Nunn takes us on a journey to the slums of South Africa, where fifteen-year-old Amandla lives with Annalisa, her white mother. Where they live, in the slum called Sugar Town for its proximity to the sugar cane fields, her mother is the only white person, and the oddity of her existence there extends beyond her skin color. Annalisa’s accent marks her as upper class, as does her insistence on living in an immaculate house—even though it’s one room made from tin — teaching Amandla how to make tea the correct way, and speaking correctly. The narrative is powerful, and we see the world through Amandla’s clever, perceptive eyes.

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‘Defending Britta Stein’ by Ronald H. Balson: thrilling courtroom drama and history about how the Danish saved the Jews in WWII

Defending Britta Stein by Ronald H. Balson

In “Defending Britta Stein” by Ronald H. Balson, attorney Catherine Lockhart and her husband, private investigator Liam Taggert, are the actors whose actions bring about justice in an unlikely manner. Through these two characters, both well known to Balson fans, we are privy to the history of a family of Danish Jews during WWII. As is standard in Balson’s novels, there is a story-within-a-story, and Lockhart and Taggert are the vehicles through which the Holocaust story is told. The storytelling is gripping, and this courtroom drama showcases the unity and bravery of the Danish people in saving most of their population of Jews during WWII when the Germans decided to implement their final solution on the Jews of Denmark.

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‘Tips for Magicians’ by Celesta Rimington is a superb middle grade book that deals with overcoming loss, family and friendship

Tips for Magicians by Celesta Rimington

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from “Tips for Magicians,” a new middle grade book by Celesta Rimington. The title sounded cute—but I realized the book is much more than “cute.” It’s a powerful and touching story of a boy who loses his mother in an unexpected accident, and we see that the grief and the resulting damage to his family seems overwhelming. Harrison’s mother was a beautiful classical singer, and she performed all over the world. His father was her stage manager, and since her death he’s been working a lot. We don’t know if he needs to work or wants to be busy to assuage his grief, but he’s gone a lot. Since her death, Harrison’s father can’t stand to hear music in their home, and Harrison has been grieving not only the loss of his mother, but the loss of the music that both he and his mother loved and shared together.

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‘Island Queen’ by Vanessa Riley is historical fiction based on the life of a rags-to-riches story that was really slave-to-riches

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

Those who start life with nothing and eventually become wealthy have nothing on Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, who started with less than nothing but became an extremely rich, powerful woman in her own right. How does one start with less than nothing, you might wonder? In “Island Queen,” by Vanessa Riley, we meet Dolly, as she was known, who was born a slave. Her father, the Irish plantation owner, taught her numbers and the value of money. She was determined to earn enough money to free herself, her mother, and her sister. Dolly ended up accomplishing that and much, much more.

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Adorable picture books to make children think deeply about author’s message — and themselves — a great combo

As a teacher of gifted children, I loved using picture books to teach my students to think about authors’ messages and about what, in addition to the cute story, the book makes them wonder. Really good picture books have important messages to share, and this collection is perfect for making students think. What do the characters learn over the course of the story? What do we learn? And in some instances, what do we know that the main character doesn’t?

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