Arsenic, known informally as "inheritor’s powder" for its ability to kill older, wealthy relatives in an untraceable way, was not detectable by science until the early 1800’s. The apparent poisoning of wealthy landlord George Bodle was on everyone’s minds in England in 1833 (it was as sensational as the O.J. Simpson trial). Brand new chemical tests for the presence of arsenic were performed, despite a Keystone Cops-like handling of the evidence. All of England waited to find out who had killed Bodle: the lazy, shiftless, gambler, Young John (Bodle’s grandson); the man who stood to inherit the estate, Middle John (Bodle’s son); or one of the servants who worked in the household.
Why I picked it up: Slow arsenic poisoning has been at the center of many famous real and fictional murder cases.
Why I finished it: Forensic science was in its infancy, and no reliable test was available for arsenic. The best of them was largely anecdotal and consisted of reducing the remnants of food that may have been poisoned, then burning the reduction while trying to detect arsenic’s garlicky smell. I was also surprised at the dirty tricks the lawyers used -- Middle John had to defend himself against false rumors that he had fathered three bastards by three women, and that he had been charged with attempting to slit his wife’s throat.
I'd give it to: Chris, my friend and a lawyer who would especially enjoy the tidbits about the legal system back then. Trials were not always conducted in a courthouse. This one was held at a pub called The Plume and Feathers.
A gothic, literary adventure set in New England, Janice Clark's haunting debut chronicles one hundred years of a once prosperous and now crumbling whaling family, told by its last surviving member.
The Rathbones itself feels as though it was loom-woven or carved in whalebone. Beautifully crafted and elegantly told. A siren song of a story.”-Erin Morgenstern, bestselling author of The Night Circus
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In the wake of the 1967 Detroit riots, Arthur Scott decides to move his family back to rural Kansas, where he grew up. It's a culture shock not only for his wife, Celia, who must endure the harsh judgments of her in-laws, but also for their three children, who each have to find a way to fit in. (This is especially challenging for the youngest, Evie, named after her Aunt Eve (Arthur's sister), whose murder was never solved. The town has always suspected Uncle Ray, a drunk and vicious wife beater who is married to Aunt Ruth (Arthur's other sister).) When a neighbor's daughter goes missing, Uncle Ray comes under suspicion again, and family secrets rise violently to the surface.
Why I picked it up: I love books about disturbing family secrets!
Why I finished it: This audiobook had everything I was looking for: troubled children (Evie becomes obsessed with her dead aunt and even dresses up in her old clothes), a missing child, and a skilled narrator who built tension and moved fluidly between characters. The story’s underlying dark pain made my heart ache for each character in turn. Daniel, the only son in the Scott family, struggles to be acknowledged by his father as a young man; Celia, whose life is rocked to its core by moving to the countryside where life and death are everyday occurrences; and Ruth, beaten by her husband and ignored by family and friends for years, finally finds an ally in Arthur.
I'd give it to: Meghan, who will find comfort in knowing she isn't alone in having a tough time adjusting to life in a small town where "everybody knows your business and has an opinion about it.”
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt meets The Language of Flowers as beloved novelist Susan Gregg Gilmore returns to the American South.
“Susan Gregg Gilmore’s The Funeral Dress is a rare and wonderful glimpse into lives and friendships among blue collar working women in America.” –Fannie Flagg, author of Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven
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Jac L’Etoile made a career out of her fascination with mythology. When she was a teenager, after her mother’s suicide, she began to have severe hallucinations.
Dr. Malachai treated Jac. He believes that her hallucinations are episodes of other's past lives, and that the most dangerous of them might be tied to her first love, Theo.
Theo is recently widowed and living on the Isle of Jersey. He invites Jac to the island, to try to find evidence of a secret journal written by Victor Hugo detailing his struggle with Lucifer to have Hugo’s drowned daughter brought back to life.
Jac decides to go despite Malachai’s dire warnings. What follows is an existential adventure of tormented souls returning for a chance to set things right.
Why I picked it up: I was aware of Victor Hugo's fascination with the spirit world and his exile in Jersey, and found the concept of it being woven into a present-day story intriguing.
Why I finished it: As Jac and Theo explore the ancient dolmens and ruins on Jersey, she experiences ever stronger episodes from the life of an ancient Celtic priest and his struggle to sacrifice his family to the gods. The powerful connection between that ancient trauma and Jac, Theo, his family, and their unhappiness is compelling and fraught with danger.
I'd give it to: Jeanne, who believes in reincarnation, will be moved by the coincidences, like when Jac, who was raised to inherit the family perfume house with her brother, discovers Theo's grandmother was a perfumer from Paris, and the strange sense of familiarity Jac experiences while she’s on Theo’s estate, both of which hint at deeper (past life) connections.
This utterly charming debut is perfect for fans of Cecelia Ahern’s P.S., I Love You and Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life. One woman sets out to complete her old list of childhood goals, and finds that her lifelong dreams lead her down a path she never expects.
“Spielman’s debut charms.” —Kirkus Reviews
Click to read an excerpt.
Click for a Reader’s Guide.
Project Linus was founded in 1995 to provide handmade blankets to children in the hospital, seriously traumatized, or otherwise in need of comfort. In this book Babbitt and Balagna, the President and the Vice-President of the organization, offer twenty-three patterns for kid-friendly quilts, along with basic quilting instructions, so that readers can make their own quilts to donate.
Why I picked it up: Two of the women in my craft group are quilters, and I've been thinking of adding quilting to the overly-long list of crafts I dabble in. Kids' quilts, with their bright colors and interesting patterns, are what I'd like to start with, especially since I have several pregnant friends and I'm always looking for gift ideas.
Why I finished it: The patterns in here are fun, and range from easy quilts that require only squares or triangles in order to make the pattern to more complex quilts that will give me something to strive for. My favorites were probably “Crazy 4 You,” a crazy quilt that would be teen-friendly with the right color choices (Project Linus accepts blankets for kids between the ages of zero and eighteen); “Remember Who You Are,” which features multicultural children and cheerful hearts; and “Won't You Be My Neighbor,” an I-Spy quilt that has fun images hidden behind the doors of boxy little houses.
I hadn't heard of Project Linus before I picked this up. Now I'm eager to get to work on blankets of my own to donate. Project Linus accepts blankets that are tied fleece, sewn, knitted, crocheted, or quilted, as long as they're handmade, so I have a lot of crafting options.
I'd give it to: My dad, even though his crafts of choice are woodworking, cross-stitch, and set design. He's a big sap who adores kids, so I know that the personal stories of kids who have received blankets would choke him up, too.
A YA crossover mystery that is equal parts John le Carré and Libba Bray.
"In a world where nothing makes sense, what is sanity?…. This atmospheric, suspenseful story is one of devotion and deception, innocence and independence, friendship and love, music and dance, immigration and coming of age."-Booklist (starred review)
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Leo has figured out how to turn himself invisible. (It takes him a while to figure out how to turn his clothes invisible, too.) The only person he tells is his older sister, Celine. Then he uses his power to both help her and make her life a little more miserable.
Why I picked it up: From the cover, I thought it was a book about a kid’s pajamas coming to life.
Why I finished it: The brother-sister dynamic. Celine is clearly annoyed that she doesn’t have a super power, too. So when Leo is bragging to her about how nothing can stop him, she throws a jar of chocolate sauce all over him, effectively ending his invisibility. (Later he makes it looks like she has a power by making it look like she can slap her school friends from a distance.)
I'd give it to: Leighton, whose favorite part will be when Leo frames his father and sister for loud farts they didn’t commit. (It’s my favorite part, too.)
Fourteen-year-old Dessa (an acrobat) is trying to find her twin brother while on the run with Fisk (a purple strongman) and Topper (short, blue).
While looking for firewood, Dessa frees Paladin, a young boy, from his kidnappers. Only after his father catches up do they learn the boy is the Prince of Medoria. Dessa and her friends are offered the hospitality of the palace as thanks for rescuing him. But there are still plots afoot against Paladin.
Why I finished it: Dessa continues to kick serious butt. She saves the Prince repeatedly, at great peril to herself, and the Prince obviously likes her, much to the annoyance of Corin, a young girl with plans of her own for the Prince’s future.
And the thing Dessa likes most in the palace is its vast library, guaranteeing every librarian I know is going to love her.
I'd give it to: My friend John, who has written more than a few Disney comics in his time. He loves Uncle Scrooge, so I think he’ll enjoy Topper, who has a good heart but, at every inappropriate moment, fills his satchel with gold and jewels.
This cookbook is filled not only with recipes for delicious-looking food that you rarely see in the U.S., but also with beautiful pictures of everyday Burmese life from Duguid’s trips there over the years. There’s also quite a bit of information on the history and culture of Burma which has, until recently, been closed to the outside world.
Why I picked it up: I read Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles, but he never talked about the food.
Why I finished it: With ingredients like fried shallots, lime juice, fish sauce, and dried shrimp, these dishes have strong, distinct flavors that sound really satisfying. I’m particularly excited about a recipe for pale yellow shan tofu, made from chickpea flour instead of soybeans, that’s supposed to be easy to make at home -- sounds like a fun project.
I'd give it to: Jason, who will love the recipes for chili oil, curries, and other hot stuff!
Tucker and his friends live in Pemberwick, an idyllic small island in Maine that gets a lot of tourists in the summers. He and a strange girl he has just met, Tori, see an explosive crash on the cliffs by the sea. Tucker tells the appropriate authorities, but then a military force descends on the island to enforce a quarantine. Internet access and phones are disabled, and a few citizens die from a deadly virus. Tucker, Tori, and a few friends distrust the military, and get on the commanding officer’s bad side. As the quarantine continues, reddish residue from the crash site seems to be making those who have come in contact with it stronger, faster, and a little crazy, including Tucker.
They decide they have to leave the island, but if they’re caught they’ll be killed for defying the quarantine.
Why I picked it up: D.J. MacHale’s Pendragon series has been very popular at my middle school, so the first book in a new series by him was something I had to check out.
Why I finished it: It is everything a middle school student usually wants -- explosions, conspiracies, teens fighting back against clueless (and possibly evil) adults with the world hanging in the balance. The breathless action will be a hit with teen boys: boat chases, escapes from prison camps, destroyer battles, and the like.
I'd give it to: Cory, my nephew, who would like the problems created by the islanders use of the substance from the crash site, as well as the mystery of where it comes from. (I like the unsubtle metaphor for steroid use and the moral lesson that comes with it.)