Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: Two cozy mysteries

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I knew "The Bishop's Wife" by Mette Ivie Harrison was coming for some time. I went to a writer's workshop at Pleasant Grove Library a year or so ago. Mette was there and mentioned that her agent was interested in her idea to set a murder mystery in a Mormon neighborhood and that a Mormon woman would acquire clues to solve the mystery using unique-to-Mormons experiences, like visiting teaching. I was intrigued and thought it sounded like a lot of fun and I was looking forward to reading it.

So, about a year later, here comes the book, "The Bishop's Wife." I went to the book launch at the Provo Library. It was not what I expected. Harrison's presentation was very interesting, heart-breaking at moments. She was very honest and real, raw even, with her retelling of laying the foundation for this book. And I really appreciate that. But I was surprised by the actual novel and it wasn't at all what I expected. What I was hoping to be a cozy mystery with some  Mormon themes turned into what felt like a Mormon expose to me. Enough of the rant, here's the review.

The story is about Linda Wallheim, a Bishop's wife in the SLC area. Early in the book we learn about the disappearance of a young wife in the Wallheim's ward (eerily similar to the Susan Powell case.) Before long, Linda suspects the husband killed her. As Linda searches for clues, she involves herself in the life of the six-year-old daughter of the missing mom. The secrets she uncovers are many and some of them are dark and insidious. 

One of my main problems with this novel is that it took a quarter to a third of the book to get to the meat of the mystery. For the first several chapters, I felt like I was being introduced to the Mormon church and culture.  Much of it felt like a lecture or special report into the inner working of the church. My qualm was that not all of it really related to the story so why was it included? And it was Linda's interpretation and perspective on the church. Many of the things Harrison pointed out or felt the need to explain were not my personal experience, interpretation or perspective. I'm a member and I don't feel the same way Harrison portrayed the church in general to feel. One of the things that bothered me a lot was that the Bishop (Linda's husband) take the Lord's name in vain three times. I can see a Bishop cursing. In fact, I've heard it myself. But never the Lord's name. So there are just a bunch of those things. I just felt like she was looking for opportunities to include weird, titillating subjects in the Mormon culture. It was overboard in my opinion. I wished she had just told the story and shown some of the culture instead of explaining it. And also the ending was totally unbelievable. A normal person would never do what Linda did.

Anyway, once the mystery got going, it was a much more enjoyable read. And there were several other story lines that were interesting and rewarding. I just didn't like Linda as much as I wanted. She was nosy and had a chip on her shoulder. So I guess she was human, which is a good thing. Just not as likable as I had hoped.

Will I be reading more of the series? No. Harrison listed some of the topics she will tackle in other books in the series and I'm just not interested. It seems more agenda driven than good characters with a good story. Maybe my skin is thin and I'm easily offended. Maybe I don't want to take the effort to look deeply at some of the controversial issues in the church. Maybe I'm too invested in my religion and culture to see it put on display this way. You may be right. To each his own. Maybe I prefer lighter mysteries.

Image result for lemon tart kilpack"Lemon Tart" by Josi Kilpack. I read this soon after "The Bishop's Wife" and I liked it better. No agendas. 

But these darn women who just can't seem to mind their own business. Sadie is the nosy neighbor in this cozy mystery and it had so many twists and turns, it was the only thing that kept me reading. (Can you tell this is not my first genre of choice?) Sadie keeps a close eye on her cul-de-sac through her front window and has a tendency to solve problems by cooking and baking her way out of them. When a young, single-mom neighbor is murdered and her young son is missing, Sadie can't help but get involved. 

Sadie finds herself in trouble and at odds, not only with neighbors, in-laws and her boyfriend, she also develops a tense relationship with the police who are working the case. Thanks to the help of her daughter, she follows the clues and solves the case. Come to find out, she is quite fierce when she needs to be.

This was a fun, quick read. I really liked Sadie and was rooting for her the whole way through!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: two middle grade recommendations

SugarWhile I was reading "Three Times Lucky,"Mill was reading "Sugar" by Jewell Parker Rhodes.  "Sugar" is about a young black girl in the late 1800's, after the blacks were freed from being slaves and many moved north to find a new, free future for themselves. But many stayed with their previous work; same work conditions, but less abuse and little pay. So Sugar is a young, middle-grade age girl who has lost her mother (who died) and her father, who was sold off as a slave somewhere else before he was free. 

Sugar develops a make-shift family with the other slaves working on the sugarcane plantation and also makes friends with Billy, son of the owner. When the owner buys/hires more help for his fields, Sugar's life changes. The new help are immigrants from China! The rest of the book is about the previous slaves adjusting to the Chinese workers and an interesting blend of culture at a time when all kinds of cultural and color-based ideas were changing.

I loved the blending of cultures in such an interesting and transitional time period. The initial hesitancy between Chinese and African-Americans felt true and honest. I loved the depiction of unity and sense of feeling within each group. Sugar was a fun, spunky character and I'm sure that's what drew my daughter into the story.

One draw back was word choice and sentence structure. It was really distracting for me. Some of the reading just felt like a bunch of fragmented sentences. I assume the author was just trying to use language as another way to demonstrate the culture and cadence of each group, but the loss of subject in many of the sentences really bothered me. 

This is a great middle-grade book, though not my first choice. Camille really loved it so that says a lot. And I loved that it introduced so many different cultures and also a very interesting introduction to an important period of history. 

Image result for cicada summer"Secrets of the Cicada Summer" by Andrea Beaty. The cute middle grade novel is full of secrets that are slowly doled out throughout the story. Eleven year old Lily had something traumatic happen in her past and now she doesn't talk, but she sure does think a lot. And we get to read all of it. When a new girl comes to town, Lily feels threatened. But when it appears the new girl also comes with a mysterious past, Lily puts the skills she learned from her favorite Nancy Drew mystery novels to use and figures out the story behind the newcomer. She also makes a few discoveries about her own past as well. 

I really enjoyed this novel, the sweet characterization of Lily and the supporting role of loved ones surrounding her. Although the story deals with a few heavy topics, such as death and abuse, it is all couched in the love of a small town and reliable, supportive adults. I can't wait for my girls to read it and talk about it together.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review; Three Times Lucky

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"Three Times Lucky" by Sheila Turnage.

This is a great middle reader book, though I must admit, it took me a couple of chapters to get in to it. There are a lot of characters and they are all seem to be introduced at once at the local restaurant, which was a tad bit confusing. Millie (9yo) started it a couple of days ago and she feels the same way. She wanted to stop, but I told her to keep going because it will be worth it!

The story is about a baby who was found during a hurricane, found floating in the flooding on a billboard by a man who has completely lost his memory. He names her Mo, short for Moses. She grows up in a very small town full of an eclectic group of people. It's almost over the top, to be honest, a little hard to believe until I decided to suspend my belief for the sake of the story, which is a really fun story.

When a big city detective comes to town and a dead body is found by the river, Mo gets involved in the biggest mystery ever to set foot in their small town. The action really goes into overdrive when another big storm hits land. There is a little violence which is not seen but alluded to. (Child abuse by a drunken father, kidnapping, blood smeared on a wall.) So if your reader is too young, it might raise some questions to discuss together. I'll see how it goes with Millie.

Clearly, the driving force of this novel is Mo. She is an orphan with a lot of personality and very sympathetic at the same time. She's spunky and entertaining, but also endearing and so easy to love. I couldn't wait for Mill to read this. This is a great story full of fun characters and an exciting mystery. Readers of all ages will enjoy this book.