National Book Lovers Day: Celebrate By Learning to Download Books for Free

August 9 is National Book Lovers Day, a celebration for book worms everywhere. And lucky for us, our public library has its own collection of ebooks and audiobooks that we can download for free.
Libby, the leading library reading app by OverDrive, lets users download ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, comics, and more at no cost. All you need to get started is a library card—and even if you don’t have one, an Instant Digital Card can be yours in 30 seconds with just a phone number. 

Besides being able to borrow digital titles, OverDrive launched a new monthly blog series this July showing June’s top ten most popular books that had been borrowed digitally from the public library on Libby. Now in August, they’re sharing July’s top ten. On the list, you’ll find frequent New York Times bestsellers including Daniel Silva and Danielle Steel. Also among the Top Ten is T.J. Newman with their stunning instant #1 bestselling debut title, Falling.

As a reminder, Professional Book Nerds podcast always previews the upcoming month’s buzziest new books as well, and you can listen to their August episode right here. You can find July’s most popular new releases in the list below.

The top ten new books from July

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Falling by T.J. Newman


The Cellist by Daniel Silva


It’s Better This Way by Debbie Macomber

Nine Lives by Danielle Steel

While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory


The Therapist by B. A. Paris

The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel

The Bone Code by Kathy Reichs


Fallen by Linda Castillo

The Hollow Ones

               I didn’t intend to spend the last three days speed reading “The Hollow Ones” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (Grand Central Publishing 2021; $28). Indeed, I had other things to do—deadlines to meet, a new workout program to keep up with, and my daughter’s wedding to help plan. But I didn’t do any of those. Instead I caromed around the universe, going back and forth in time, following this complicated by fascinating novel written by two greats in their field. del Toro is a prolific writer, producer, and director who wrote and director the four time Academy Award winning movie “The Shape of Water.” Hogan, an American novelist, screenwriter, and television producer, who co-authored, with del Toro,  The Strain trilogy. He also wrote the novel “Prince of Thieves” that was made into a movie “The Town” with Ben Affleck .

Guillermo del Toro. Photo by Lorenzo Agius.

               This is not a book for the faint of heart—and I typically fall into that category. But I just had to figure out what was going to happen next after the first chapter. That’s when  Odessa Hardwick, a young and inexperienced FBI agent arrives at the scene of a gruesome murder taking place along with Walter Leppo, her seasoned partner. Inside an upscale home, the two encounter the owner butchering his family. Odessa, believing her partner is under attack by the murderer, shoots and kills him. But then the unexpected occurs, Walter takes a knife to the only surviving family member and Odesssa is forced to kill him to save the child. She already is under a lot of stress when she had to question if that was a shadowy figure she saw fleeing from Walter’s body after his death?

               Most likely, given the supernatural forces that are in play here starting with why this prosperous home owner killing his family, why did Walter suddenly take over the job of butchering them, and what the heck is going on anyway? Odessa, distraught and doubting her actions and indeed, her own sanity, is  given the assignment while awaiting the results of the inquest into the killing of Leppo, to clear out the desk  of ailing FBI agent Earl Solomon who started his career investigating lynchings during the early 1960s in the American south.

               “Solomon puts her on the trail of a mysterious figure named Hugo Blackwood, with whom the dying Solomon has been professionally — but unofficially — aligned since his rookie days,” says Hogan, who describes his collaboration with del Toro as long talks over breakfast batting around ideas which they then expand until finally turning out chapters.

Hugo, an immortal has seen a lot through the centuries. To solve the mysteries of the moment, they must retrace what happened in 1582 when he was a young attorney and a portal to another world was accidentally opened allowing the evil and dangerous hollow ones to enter ours.

               Hogan, who describes the hollow ones as “nasty creatures who live to possess human victims, jumping from host to host” is vague about whether this is the first in a series focusing on Hugo and Odessa solving supernatural crimes. He does acknowledge though that Blackwood’s story which in this novel encompasses England 1582, the Jim Crow South of 1962, and New Jersey in 2019 is only 20% told.

               If they do have another book coming, I need to get all my chores done ahead of time so I can immerse myself once again.

The Women of Chateau Lafayette

               “It’s amazing how women get lost in history,” says Stephanie Dray, the New York Times bestselling author of The Women of Chateau Lafayette.     “I want to tell their stories.”

At first, the story she was going to tell was that of  Beatrice Chanler, a success London actress with a troubled marriage  who received the Legion of Honor for her philanthropic service during World War.  But then Dray discovered a packet of love letters that were not between Chanler and her husband and she knew she would have to start all over.

               Ultimately, Dray would write the stories of two more women whose connection through the centuries was the French country chateau of the Marquis de La Fayette, one of the heroes of the American Revolution.  And each time, she would set that book aside as more details emerged.

               “Chateau is set in three time periods–during the French Revolution, World War One, and World War Two,” says Dray whose previous books include “My Dear Hamilton,”

               In each period, there was an extraordinary woman who rose to the occasion. The first was Adrienne Lafayette, the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette. More than a spouse, she was her husband’s political partner and, like him, faced the danger of the guillotine during the  French Revolution. The third woman is Marthe Simone, a teacher and writer, who at first wanted to avoid any activities that could put her at risk from the Nazis during World War II but then becomes an active participant in helping hide Jewish children at the chateau.

            “She, like the other two women, deserved to have her own book,” says Dray. “But then I saw the importance of telling all their stories in one novel. I was a government major in college and then I went to law school, but I was really only a lawyer for ten minutes.  But I’ve always been interested in government as people, this story is about the rise of the republic and the continued survival of the public.”

            Writing about the Chateau Lafayette became so much a part of Dray’s every day living that when she saw the castle for the first time she was so nervous she had to have her husband hold the camera.

            “All the video I took is very shaky,” she says.

            Indeed, she becomes so immersed in her stories that when she was writing “America’s First Daughter,” she found herself speaking with a southern accent. That passion is evident in one of the take-aways she hopes readers get from reading The Women of Chateau Lafayette.

            “The Franco-American alliance saved this country three times over,” says Dray. “This book is relevant to those in powdered wigs and those today.”

Virtual event with Stephanie Dray.

When: April 3 at noon

What: Barbara’s Bookstore with Stephanie Dray in virtual conversation with Lauren Margolin “The Good Book Fairy” blogger.

To Register: https://barbarasbookstores.com/event/stephanie-dray/

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">FYI: The event is free. All registrants receive 10% off book purchase with code ‘EVENT’FYI: The event is free. All registrants receive 10% off book purchase with code ‘EVENT’

The Children’s Blizzard: A Historic Novel of the Nebraska Prairie

Melanie Benjamin

The week before, they’d been isolated when a snowstorm and cold temperatures forced everyone to stay inside. But that morning Gerta, the young teacher who boarded at the Pedersen’s house, and her student Annette, a waif who had been dropped off at the home by her mother who hadn’t even hugged her goodbye, ran across the Nebraska prairie to the schoolhouse enjoying the sunny warm weather.

It was like being free again, but it was only January, and the school children let out for recess because of the wonderful weather were suddenly confronted by a black wall of clouds that blocked the sun. Running back to the schoolhouse, they discovered there was little wood left to keep the big stove burning, and they all shivered as the temperature plummeted — oh, why had they only worn their shawls and not their heavy coats and boots? The sounds of the howling wind rushed through the schoolhouse, and through the windows they saw almost nothing but the occasional bright sparks of lightning, because the snow formed a curtain so thick it blocked everything else out.

In history books, this sudden and deadly snowstorm would be known as “The Children’s Blizzard” because, of the 250 to 500 known fatalities, many were children trying to find their way home.

Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of “The Aviator’s Wife,” “The Girls in the Picture” and “The Swans of Fifth Avenue,” has taken the incident and turned it into the page-turning novel “The Children’s Blizzard: A Novel” (Delacorte, $28).

It’s an obscure but fascinating aspect of America’s frontier history, but Benjamin, a voracious reader of history already, was somewhat familiar with the disaster when she and her editor decided that might be her next book. Benjamin, who grew up in Indianapolis with aspirations to become a New York actress, lived in Chicago until moving to Williamsburg, Virginia a few months ago. She began writing historical novels in 2010, and, amazingly, this is her seventh. She must, it seems after spending an hour chatting with her on the phone, write as fast as she talks.

The gist of our conversation: she’s a history junkie; she investigates a subject relentlessly, but if she can’t conjure up characters that really come to life, she’ll move on to the next project, as she doesn’t want to write a book that doesn’t seem real. That means she’s written entire novels and then just abandoned them. Even when she loves the personalities she creates, once she’s done with her novel, there are no second glances as she moves on to the next book. Oh, and though she’s a history buff and dwells in different pasts when writing, she doesn’t live in a stately old mansion, just a historic town.

Luckily, she discovered many captivating characters for “The Children’s Blizzard” and, though I know we’re talking Nebraska here, an equally compelling landscape and period of time.

Hard working immigrants, mainly Norwegians, Swedes and Germans were lured to Nebraska by dreams of lush crop producing farmland. It was easy as just packing up your belongings, the advertisements read, as coming by wagon or boarding a train to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities.

Only Nebraska really wasn’t all that. Don’t think “Little House in the Prairie” because it was so much more harsh, unyielding, and frustrating. There were blizzards, droughts where the soil cracked and the crops withered, prairie fires and vast hordes of insects devouring everything in their paths. We’re not talking fun here, not at all.

“Nebraska wasn’t a state at the time, it was a territory,” says Benjamin. “They were trying to get enough people to settle there because that’s one of the ways you became a state.”

Benjamin found that the story ignited her entire imagination, forming a connection to generations of her family.

“There was a personal epic quality to it, my mother’s family immigrated from Germany to an Illinois farm,” said Benjamin. “So the story was kind of in my DNA.”

Benjamin describes her imagination as her biggest strength, which is why she can put herself into the lives of people she’s created and who live in a time long before she was born.

“I was a serious child,” she said. “I was always imagining people’s lives and what they were like. Most authors are observers, we’re on the outside looking at the party, not at the party.”

This review was previously published in the Northwest Indiana Times.

‘True crime’ inspires fiction thriller

“I’m destined to disappear,” Rachael Bard tells the listeners of her true crime podcasts.

Eliza Jane Brazier

For Sera Fleece, whose life is tumbling down around her as she dwells upon each of her many perceived failures and seldom leaves her home, her time is totally focused on every episode — each one dedicated to a missing or murdered woman. She thinks in terms of the episodes and absorbs the details Rachel reveals about her personal life. Sera knows she lives on Fountain Creek Ranch in the yellow house somewhat distant from her parents’ home and the barns, stables and quarters for the campers who fill the ranch in the summer.

And then, one day it happens. There are no more podcasts and no more social media posts. Rachel has disappeared.

“I know, the first 48 hours are crucial,” Sera tells herself. (After all, she doesn’t talk to anyone else — not her ex-husband who still cares, or her parents, or even the clerks she interacts with when she finally is able to get herself out of the house to buy tea.) “And every hour you don’t update, I think, ‘Something is wrong.’ I think, ‘The case is going cold.’”

So begins “If I Disappear” (Berkley Hardcover 2021) by Eliza Jane Brazier, which follows Sera as she drives to northern California in search of Fountain Creek Ranch.

“I will use the things you told me,” she says to Rachel, promising to find her.

But it doesn’t look promising. Somehow she missed the turn for the ranch, and stopping in the little town where Rachel went to school and where her best friend disappeared when they were high school students, she finds that no one will even mention its existence.

Turning back, she finds the ranch’s entrance, noticeable because what is supposed to be a tourist attraction has signs reading “No Trespassing” and “Beware of Dog” posted on the drive.

“The setting came from a job I took in northern California that got weird at an isolated dude ranch. I won’t go into details, but the truth is very nearly stranger than fiction,” Brazier said when I ask about the eerie setting she created. “The emotion came from finding myself single again after my husband died. And the hook came from my love of true crime.”

Like Sera, Brazier says she was looking for answers but in a different way than most.

“After my husband died, I found that the grieving process really replicated true crime podcasts: you are searching for answers,” she said. “I found a lot of comfort in them and still do to this day. For me it’s about facing your fears, making order out of chaos and also about control. In true crime, you know the bad thing is coming. It can be a way to address trauma and feel less alone in it.”

Playing detective, Sera is hired by the Bards to work with the horses, a job that allows her to search for clues to Rachel’s disappearance. Her searching arouses suspicions but startlingly, she realizes that no one seems concerned about Rachel’s disappearance besides Sera. Rachel, she learns, has disappeared before and will do so again. At the ranch, Sera finds meaning not only in her investigation but in working with the horses and her developing romance with the ranch manager.

Yet that doesn’t stop her search for Rachel, or the overwhelming feelings that there are many dangerous unknowns surrounding her. Was Rachel involved with the ranch manager and what happened to his wife? Did she really go back to Texas like he says. Is it possible he’s a murderer?

Brazier, a screenwriter and journalist who lives in Los Angeles, is currently developing “If I Disappear” for television and writing another mystery.

“It’s a brutally funny thriller about very bad rich people,” she said.

Online events

This story previously appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times:

https://www.nwitimes.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/books-true-crime-inspires-fiction-thriller/article_acce7dc7-16c5-5e85-8824-7862f579cf62.html

Finding hope while studying penguins

I’ve always felt that the natural world can bring us healing in many ways, but I decided a story about healing through penguins would be extra-special.

A quirky adventure following an unusual heroine, “How the Penguins Saved Veronica” tells the story of wealthy 85-year-old Veronica McCreedy, who lives alone in a Scottish mansion. Feisty, stubborn and at times whimsical, McCreedy decided to use her large inheritance in funding a group of scientists who study penguins in Antarctica.

But all that money comes with one condition — she wants to meet the penguins.

“The main inspiration of my book was a friend of mine who’s obsessed with penguins,” author Hazel Prior said. “When her husband died, she found an extraordinary strategy of coping with her grief: she decided to travel round the world visiting penguins, her aim to get photos of every penguin species in its native habitat. She’s had such fun with her mission. I’ve always felt that the natural world can bring us healing in many ways, but I decided a story about healing through penguins would be extra-special.”

Prior said she decided to make Veronica older because she’s been incredibly inspired by people she knows who have started learning new things, from harp-playing to sky-diving, in their 80s and 90s.

“I love their ‘it’s-never-too-late’ attitude,” she said. “And they have experienced so many changes in their lives. Having an octogenarian as my main character gave me the chance to delve back into wartime history, which is another interest of mine.”

It’s also important for other reasons.

“Our society leads us to believe that it’s better in every way to be young,” Prior said. “It would have us think that at 30 the best part of your life is over, at 40 nobody notices you anymore and from 50 onwards you may as well not exist — particularly if you’re a woman. This is so wrong. I admire people who are hungry for life, who go out and seek new experiences regardless of their age. For example, a friend of mine started learning the harp at the age of 90. And my neighbor’s father took up skydiving in his 80s. These are extreme examples, but we never stop dreaming, learning or having new adventures. Every year that passes adds to our rich bank of experiences. The logical conclusion is that the older you are, the more interesting you are — so wouldn’t an octogenarian be the perfect heroine?”

Speaking of harps, when Prior was a student in Scotland, she found an old broken Celtic harp in a cupboard and decided to learn how to play it, which wasn’t quite as easy as it sounded.

“But the harp has always been a source of magic and wonder for me,” she says. “It’s an instrument with a sound that’s just so evocative and moving. The Celtic harp was the inspiration for my debut novel, ‘Ellie And the Harp Maker.’”

Asked if she has any special take-aways for readers, Prior answered that she would like to highlight the importance of caring for this planet that we share with so much amazing wildlife. Adélie penguins are just one of the many species threatened by climate change.

“But overall, ‘How the Penguins Saved Veronica’ is a fun book,” she said. “Penguins are not only sweet and charming; they also set us a wonderful example of determination, gusto and cheerfulness in the face of hard conditions — a lesson that’s very relevant in our current times. If I could sum up the message of the book in one word, that word would be ‘hope.’”

The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America: Sixteen Teenagers on an Adventure of a Lifetime

In her last year of college, Lorraine Boissoneault, an avowed Francophile and writer who lives in Chicago, became interested in the French history of North America and the journey undertaken by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the first European to travel from Montreal to the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Her fascination with the great explorer led to a conversation with an underwater diver and thus to the story of La Salle’s Le Griffon (The Griffin), the first full-sized sailing ship on the upper Great Lakes which disappeared in 1679 with six crew members and a load of furs—also making it the first shipwreck in the Great Lakes. Luckily La Salle had disembarked before the ship made its final voyage. She also learned about a Reid Lewis, a French teacher who decided to re-enact La Salle’s trip, an eight-month, 3,300-mile expedition he undertook with 16 students and six teachers dressed in the period clothing from that time to celebrate the country’s Bicentennial.

Interviewing the voyageurs as well as visiting places where La Salle had landed during the journey and reading original documents written in French (“nothing is ever quite the same in translation,” says Boissoneault), who wrote The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America: Sixteen Teenagers on an Adventure of a Lifetime (Pegasus 2016; $27.95).

“It’s amazing when you think of how much they could withstand,” she says, meaning both La Salle and Lewis’ crews.

Indeed, Lewis and his group of students and educators had to trudge over 500 miles of Midwestern landscape during one of the coldest winters on record in the 20th century, paddle in Voyageur canoes across the storm tossed and freezing Great Lakes and, in keeping with their pledge to emulate La Salle, start their campfires with flint and wood.

Of all the thousands of miles they retraced, Lewis’ voyageurs felt that Canada’s Georgian Bay on Lake Huron was most unchanged and therefore the closest they came to what La Salle would have experienced in terms of the water and landscape.     

“We’re fascinated by history but you can’t go back no matter how hard you want to,” says Boissoneault noting she can’t imagine seeing Chicago without civilization as La Salle would have done. “The past is unobtainable. Most poignant for me is their walk across the Midwest. They were doing the same thing La Salle did and wearing the same clothes but nothing was like how it would have been in La Salle’s day.”

American Wolf

Nate Blakeslee has created more than a moving tribute to Yellowstone wolves. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West (Crown 2017; $28) is truly a crossover genre, science with a human face. Or, should I say, a genuinely intelligent book that connects man and beast in a way that is evocative of what Harvard’s E. O. Wilson calls “Biophilia”.

I read this outstanding volume after reading an utterly vacuous and didactic animal book, so I was predisposed to expect it to be a soppy, sentimental and anthropomorphic look at Canis Lupus. Mercifully, it is not.

American Wolf has beauty as well as brains. And it pierces the heart only after skillfully penetrating the neocortex.  I recommend it, without reservation.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye

Lisbeth Salander, computer hacker extraordinaire, social misfit and martial arts expert, is back in The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye.  The fifth in the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, Salander sentenced to prison for several months after she protects an autistic child in her typical law-breaking but righteous way. But even prison bars can’t stop Salander from assisting muckraking journalist Mikael Blomkvist as he investigates The Registry, a secret group of doctors conducting illegal experiments on twins.  It’s all personal for Salander, who has an evil twin named Camilla.

The investigation is also a chance for Salander to learn more about her abusive past. But there are, as always, barriers in the way. A prison gang leader has put a hit order on her, the Russian mafia and religious fundamentalists are after her and Camilla  is back and more treacherous.

Fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first novel in the Millennium series started by Stieg Larsson and, after his death continued by David Lagercrantz, will be happy that Salander and Blomkvist have teamed up again in this thriller set in Sweden.

For Lagercrantz, a well-established journalist and novelist, the chance to take over the Millennium series was an exciting opportunity. It was also rather daunting as Larsson’s Millennium trilogy sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.

“If I have a gift it is probably to have the ability to write in many ways,” says Lagercrantz. “My sister who is an actor sometimes calls me an actor-writer, I go in to roles. My journalism past helped me a lot. I always say if you want to write good journalism use literary techniques, and if you want to write good fiction use journalistic research. Of course, it helped me to understand the life of Michael Blomkvist. In my heart, I am always a reporter.”

To successfully channel the characters Larsson created, Lagercrantz read the original three books over and over and thought about the characters’ universe day and night.

“My key to writing the book was passion,” he says. “It was the thrill of my life.”

That passion showed. The Girl in the Spider Web, his first book for the series, was a best seller.

Beyond giving his readers an enjoyable story, Lagercrantz wants to help people become more tolerant and understanding than we currently are.

“It is so sad to see the society getting more and more divided,” he says. “Hate is obviously growing, thanks to terrible leaders, and if I can bring just some of us a little tiny bit closer I would be so happy.”

 

Hauntings of the Underground Railroad: Ghosts of the Midwest

Before the Civil War, a network of secret routes and safe houses crisscrossed the Midwest to help African Americans travel north to escape slavery. Although many slaves were able to escape to the safety of Canada, others met untimely deaths on the treacherous journey—and some of these unfortunates still linger, unable to rest in peace.

The author in front of an Underground Railroad stop said to be haunted.

In Hauntings of the Underground Railroad: Ghosts of the Midwest, Jane Simon Ammeson investigates unforgettable and chilling tales of these restless ghosts that still walk the night. This unique collection includes true and gruesome stories, like the story of a lost toddler who wanders the woods near the Story Inn, eternally searching for the mother torn from him by slave hunters, or the tale of the Hannah House, where an overturned oil lamp sparked a fire that trapped slaves hiding in the basement and burned them alive. Brave visitors who visit the house, which is now a bed and breakfast, claim they can still hear voices moaning and crying from the basement.

Ammeson also includes incredible true stories of daring escapes and close calls on the Underground Railroad. A fascinating and spine-tingling glimpse into our past, Hauntings of the Underground Railroad will keep you up all night.

%d bloggers like this: