The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer

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Jim "Zig" Zigarowski's job is one of great responsibility, honor, and skill. As a mortician at Dover Air Force Base, Zig is the last person to come into contact with fallen soldiers before they're sent to their final resting places. He meticulously prepares the bodies, sometimes performing unbelievable restorations, ensuring each of the deceased gets the honorable treatment they deserve. He's had his fair share of loss, so he works diligently to ensure each family gets one last moment with the person they love.

Zig normally manages to keep a professional distance between himself and the people he prepares. When a group of deceased passengers from a downed military plane arrive at the base, he expects business as usual. One name, however, catches his eye. US Army Artist in Residence Nola Brown was among the group aboard the ill-fated flight. Zig immediately is taken to a time years ago when a girl named Nola Brown saved his daughter's life. Now the heroic girl lays on Zig's cold steel table providing him with one last look at the person who gave him some precious extra time with his only daughter. There's just one small problem. The woman on his table isn't Nola Brown!

The Escape Artist sees Brad Meltzer combine the intrigue of a deeply hidden government conspiracy with a nuanced story of human loyalty and respect to the ones who've passed away. Meltzer alternates between the present day plot of Zig seeking to find the missing Nola with flashback scenes of Nola's unusual childhood. At first, I found myself struggling to connect with the scenes of the past. Nola's childhood seemed to have little to do with the captivating drama surrounding Zig's quest. Fortunately, the past and present narratives soon began to have more and more to do with each other, creating a richly-drawn plot that kept the pages easily turning.

Meltzer weaves a connection between the ongoing fictional conspiracy and the real-life history of famed magician Harry Houdini. These touches of historical fact help to ground the events of the novel in a reality that would be otherwise unbelievable. Each element of the novel adds to the overall appeal, but it is the characters that truly captured my attention. Meltzer writes each of them, from the main characters to supporting cast, with genuine care. Even the candy restocker at the base is given a backstory that adds life to the world of the book. The Escape Artist does everything right, making me eager to dive into another book by Brad Meltzer.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2019, 2)

Becoming by Michelle Obama

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"For me, becoming isn't about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as a forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn't end."

Whenever a new president is elected, it is inevitable that the people vacating the White House eventually publish a memoir. I've read Bill Clinton's My Life, George W. Bush's Decision Points, and will no doubt read whatever book Barack Obama eventually publishes. While Hillary Clinton is the only First Lady whose writings I've read, Michelle Obama's book was one of last year's must-reads. I never got around to reading it during 2018, so it was a natural choice to start off my reading in the new year.

Even if she never became First Lady, Michelle Obama's life story would be remarkable. Her family rented out the upper level of a home in the south side of Chicago, laying the foundation for her future and her appreciation of the privilege she would earn later in life. Her parents never had the money to lavish their kids with gifts or vacations, but they did make a marked effort to invest in their children's education. Obama defied the disadvantages of her gender, race, and class to earn a law degree from an Ivy League university and carved out the future that her parents always dreamed she could achieve.

Naturally, a large portion of the book focuses on the Obama family's time in the public eye. Michelle writes about the oft-repeated story of her not wanting her husband to run for office. As he prepared to step into the political limelight, Barack was already stretched thin between his duties as community organizer, author, college professor, father, and husband. Obama writes of the effects of her husband's political and professional obligations in a way that any working wife and mother are sure to relate to.

What struck me most about the aptly titled Becoming, was the ways in which Michelle Obama's story of finding herself and constantly evolving align with the aspirations of the country that her husband was elected to lead. Her trajectory in life was achieved through hard work, humility, and seeking to always learn and grow. At a time when our country is more divided than ever, I think it is vital that we look to stories like Michelle's to find our common humanity. At the end of the day, we are all still 'becoming', and the only certain thing is that each day will offer something new to love, challenge, and hopefully learn from.

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads.
(2019, 1)


Winter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand

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As the year comes to an end, it is important to reflect upon the days that have preceded this one. Today marks the final day of my seventh year of blogging and reviewing books. These seven years have seen much growth for me both personally and professionally. I'm a different person today than I was years ago, but the things that have always shaped me persist to this day. One thing that has certainly only continued to grow is my love of books.

On this day of reflection and celebration, it seems only fitting to review the final novel in Elin Hilderbrand's Winter series. Seven years ago, I wouldn't have even given a second look to Hilderbran's novels. A holiday-themed family drama just wasn't my preferred genre. As my tastes have diversified, I've come to appreciate the kind of character-driven story that  Hilderbrand's series presents. More life experience for me means that I'm able to better relate to the everyday challenges faced by the family in the books. Instead of turning away from a genre that was mostly unknown, I've embraced the series and have enjoyed it immensely.

Winter Solstice is the perfect conclusion to Hilderbrand's series. I won't provide any specifics about the plot because a summary just wouldn't convey the depth of the four novel story arch. Suffice it to say, this final book sees loose ends tied up and characters following the natural progression of their development. More than any of the other three books, this one really had me feeling like I was part of the family. Hilderbrand's writing placed me amongst the laughter and the tears as the Quinn family experienced life with each other.

Winter Solstice and the entire Winter series is a wonderful read for the holiday season. The themes of family, life, death, love, and loss permeate each page of the book through characters who are as engaging as they are dynamic. Hilderbrand's writing is able to convey varying emotions and alternating perspectives with language that is easily digestible by readers. I couldn't imagine a better book to end the year on.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2018, 47)

Winter Storms by Elin Hilderbrand

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A new year brings new triumphs and challenges to the ever-engaging Quinn family. Kelley, the patriarch of the family, has been reunited with his estranged wife Mitzi after she left him for the family's former Santa. Kelley has overcome a health scare and is happy to have his wife back by his side, running the family's Winter Street Inn like old times. Kelley's eldest son is about to be released from his prison term, his middle son is raising a family and opened a successful business, and recent revelations about his youngest son's missing military group provide hope that has been absent for the last two years.

All the good things aside, it wouldn't be a Quinn holiday without some drama. Kelley's daughter Ava is currently juggling relationships with two men, his daughter-in-law is dealing with a secret opioid addiction, and his former daughter-in-law is the drug dealer! If all that isn't enough, the Quinns are diligently preparing the inn to host a family wedding all as the holidays approach. When a huge winter storm threatens to derail all of their holiday plans, the Quinn's are forced to confront their personal tribulations and come together to make the season a success.

With Winter Storms, the third book in her Winter series, author Elin Hilderbrand recaptures some of the magic that made the first novel such a delight. The previous novel had a lot of plot to lay down, so there wasn't as much time devoted to the quieter character moments that made me fall in love with the characters in the first book. With a solid narrative foundation set, Hilderbrand is free to let her characters dictate the pace and tone of her story. She deftly combines the magic of the holiday season with the real-world struggles of an everyday family to craft a drama that is both emotionally engaging and narratively intriguing. Winter Stroll is the perfect reading companion for the holiday season.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2018, 46)

Winter Stroll by Elin Hilderbrand

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The get-togethers are over, the presents are all unwrapped, and I'm left in the afterglow of another successful Christmas. Amongst the hustle and bustle of the season, I somehow found time to binge the rest of Elin Hilderbrand's Winter series. Book two, Winter Stroll, picks up one year after the events of the first novel Winter StreetThe Quinn family has certainly changed in the last year, but they are just as engaging as ever.

Kelley Quinn is finally settling into his next phase of life at the Winter Street Inn. His second wife has found happiness in her new relationship with the inn's former Santa. Kelley has rekindled a cordial relationship with his first wife who has used her fame and fortune to keep the struggling in afloat. One son is serving out a prison sentence for insider trading while the other has just welcomed a beautiful child into the world. Kelley's daughter finally seems to be in a relationship that provides the kind of love he always knew she deserved.

Things are really looking solid for Kelley. This weekend is the annual Christmas Stroll and it promises to be a time of family and fellowship. Still, troubles of the real world linger within the idyllic halls of the inn. Kelley's youngest son is still MIA after his military convoy was intercepted in Afghanistan. One year in and they still don't know if the men are alive. The facade of a picture-perfect holiday begins to fade further as revelations of unhappiness, second guesses, and a few people from darker times in the past emerge.

Winter Stroll by Elin Hilderbrand is a book that felt like checking in on old friends. The previous novel really set the foundation for the family drama, and this book took the ball and ran with it. Each of the characters was fleshed out more from the surface level that many of them were written in the previous book. This sucked me into the world even more than before. My only real complaint with the novel is that it didn't end with any definitive closure. Instead, Winter Stroll tees up the next book for even more character development. Fortunately for me, I have the next two books ready to read!

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, or Goodreads.
(2018, 45)



Elevation by Stephen King

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In recent years, Stephen King has strayed from his horror roots to write novels that focus more on real-life scenarios. The Outsider, released earlier this year, arguably combined the best of both old-school-horror and Kings more recent sensibilities. In Elevation, an end of the year novella, King again combines a focus on real-world issues with a touch of fantasy.

Elevation is probably best described as a fable. Scott, a resident of Castle Rock, has an interesting medical dilemma. He's losing weight each day, but nothing he physically does seems to stop that process. He loads his pockets with heavy metal, but his weight is exactly the same. As time progresses, the weight loss starts to speed up. At the rate he's going, Scott only has a couple months before the scale hits zero.

As Scott is coming to terms with his dwindling mass, he's also battling it out with his new neighbors. One half of the married lesbian couple runs through the neighborhood each day. She brings their two dogs with her, both of whom have no problem using Scott's front yard as their toilet. After a pretty ugly confrontation, Scott decides to put things to rest and befriend the couple. He's heard the murmurs from other townspeople who don't approve of the couple's same-sex relationship. Determined to right some wrongs, Scott formulates a plan to set things right between the town and the couple.

Elevation works as a story of moral integrity and acceptance, themes that grow more and more poignant as the year has progressed. Those of you expecting a terrifying read from Mr. King should probably steer clear of this one. I've seen that the book was chosen as Goodreads best horror novel of the year, but that genre doesn't really reflect what Elevation is. Instead, it is a well-written and timely tale of one man's will to leave the earth a little better than when he got here. It wasn't what I expected, but it was ultimately a very quick and rewarding read.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2018, 44)

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