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The best of May books

Donna Chavez is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and the American Library Association's Booklist. She is also a freelance writer and a writing coach who has numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Tim...

It's summer reading time!

Books are the perfect for a summer getaway. Sand resistant, they come in all shapes, sizes and languages and they travel well. Best of all: No assembly required. Here are a few of my suggestions to carry to the beach or pool in that nifty new aqua Gucci canvas tote.

It's summer reading time!Angels Fall (A Mike Travis Novel) by Baron R Birtcher, fiction, 3.5/5:
I'm not sure which I liked better: the descriptions of the lush Hawaiian scenery or the laid back character of Mike Travis. Even though the story is not all that mysterious (for a mystery, hey), this is a fun read. Ex-LA cop Travis lives on-and-for his 72-foot blue-water sailing yacht, Kehau, and supports himself...well, I don't know how for sure. But I do know he reluctantly calls up his latent cop skills to solve the occasional crime. Such is the case when the friend of a friend's daughter (Are you keeping up here?) asks Travis to find her missing teenage sister.

Even though her holier-than-thou parents have not acknowledged the girl's disappearance and have not called the local police the younger sibling is worried.

So single, childless Travis, who has strong opinions about parenting, takes up the search and discovers the missing young woman was just the tip of a very nasty iceberg. Meanwhile, he has to deal with a spoiled nephew who has run away from the home of Travis's overbearing brother. With the splendid Hawaiian scenery this is a natural for summer reading.

It's summer reading time!Comfort: A Journey through Grief by Ann Hood, memoir, 4.5/5:
Hood's collection of penetrating essays following the sudden death of her five-year-old daughter from an antibiotics-resistant strep infection grabs at a gut level and doesn't let go.

Her grief spills through the pages like tears as she recounts her own brand of insanity and numbness as friends and family offered sincere, if unwelcome, advice on how to recover from her loss. Her account of how she eventually threw herself into knitting as therapy is as close to worthwhile self-help advice as you can get from someone who's been there.

There is a happy ending even though the images of her grief come dangerously close to searing themselves into your mind.

It's summer reading time!Eyes of the World by Rob Palmer, fiction, 3.5/5:
It's an election year and our hero Mike Stanbridge shares a dirty little secret with the first female president of the US. Mike and longtime friend, President Carolyn (Lynnie) Connor, are clandestine lovers. She is seeking re-election and there is a pack of politically influential bad guys determined to make sure she loses in November.

But instead of taking the easy route of exposing her extramarital affair this group plans a scheme that will just about nullify everything she's ever accomplished. Mike becomes inexorably involved in her, and ultimately his own, defense as the plot becomes incredibly complicated.

This is a timely and enjoyable fluff of a thriller that may leave you scratching your head but the good news is, if you leave it on the beach before you've finished it you shouldn't feel too badly.

It's summer reading time!The Marriage of True Minds by Stephen Evans, fiction, 5/5:
If you enjoy the snappy banter of old William Powell/Myrna Loy movies you will love this little tome about Nick Ward and Lena Grant, recently divorced ex-law partners who can't seem to stay apart. Mostly the problem lies with the off-kilter Nick who, despite Lena's best efforts to keep him at arm's length, turns to her at every opportunity.

He gets himself into a bit of a situation, involving live lobsters and the mayor's swimming pool, with the law, is declared insane and is remanded to Lena's custody where he is committed to wreaking havoc in her life.

There is a happy ending here too but it's not what you'd expect. You can tell Evans is a playwright because the edgy repartee all but carries the entire story. Nevertheless, pick this one up to read at the beach. But don't leave it behind. You'll kick yourself if you do.

It's summer reading time!The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris, fiction, 2.5/5:
This uneven sequel to Chocolat picks up the life of Vianne Rocher four years after she and daughter Anouk left Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, where Vianne's brand of magic turned the small town topsy-turvy. After a lifetime on the move Vianne, who now goes under the name of Yanne Charbonneau, has decided to give up magic and settle into a life of anonymity in the Montmartre district of Paris. She lives with Anouk and younger daughter, Rosette, in a flat over the chocolate shop she inherited from her recently-deceased landlady. Yanne and developmentally disabled Rosette are happy enough but 11-year-old Anouk yearns for excitement. Enter the glamorous and mysterious Zozie de l'Alba in her candy red shoes and skirts jingling with bells. As soon as Anouk gets an eyeful of this seductive stranger there's no turning back. She is so smitten with Zozie's flashy magic, as are all the local residents and chocolate shop's customers, that the woman can and nearly does get away with anything. I don't know if the fact that the story is narrated alternately by Vianne/Yanne, Anouk and Zozie is to blame or if Harris tries to put too much into it but the plot goes from interesting to plodding by turns. There was a point about two-thirds through that I just about quit reading when the story finally took a twist that held my attention until the end. Maybe Harris fans will find this one to their liking. As for me, it was pretty put-downable.

It's summer reading time!Why People Get Sick: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection by Darian Leader and David Corfield, nonfiction, 3.5/5:
When most people hear the term "psychosomatic illness" they immediately assume that the illness is "all in somebody's head" or, for lack of a better description, imaginary and thus nonexistent in any real sense. But when researchers Leader and Corfield talk about psychosomatic illness they are referring to real illnesses that manifest themselves in ways that are influenced by the mind. For example, the brain chemistry of someone who has recently experienced the loss of a loved one is different from that of a person who has not suffered such a loss.

That altered chemistry affects the body's immune system and can cause a person to become sick with a variety of illnesses that they would not have gotten if their loved one had not died. Indeed, there are a number of mental states that can affect not just the immune system but other body systems as well. The result can range from a head cold to allergies to heart arrhythmia to death. I found this to be an interesting topic but by the end of the book I got tired and felt like, enough already. So maybe it's better to keep this one on the nightstand to be read in small doses.

It's summer reading time!Dying Breath by Wendy Corsi Staub, thriller, 4/5:
Whether it was caused by a traumatic childhood or not, Camden Hastings started "seeing" images of people in their last moments before a violent death when she was a young woman. The fact that she never knew who these people were and thus was helpless to intervene made the visions that much more disturbing. So she began to self-medicate with alcohol to keep the visions at bay.

Older now and the soon-to-be-single mother of a teenaged daughter named Tess, Cam learns she's pregnant and has to quit the booze. Sadly as soon as she does the old images return. While vacationing with Tess at the Jersey Shore she sees the impending brutal death of girl around Tess's age and sets out to make an effort to prevent the assault. Staub's portrayal of Cam's personal anguish combined with the page-turning tension make for a very good read.

My rating system for books is:

5 = An extraordinary book! I will keep it to read again and again!
4.5 = This book is either very clever, highly creative or brings new information to the table. I'm recommending it to my friends.
4 = This book accomplishes all the author seems to have intended. (I "get" it.)
3.5 = This book held my interest regardless of topic/genre.
3 = I enjoyed reading and/or I learned something from this book
2.5 = I could have easily put this book down and forgotten about it.
2 = This book is either poorly written or seems underdeveloped, like an out-of-focus photo. (I don't "get" it.)
1 = Don't bother.

Donna Chavez is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and the American Library Association's Booklist. She is also a freelance writer and a writing coach. She has numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Glancer and Shore magazines. Visit her website http://www.thewritecoach.com.

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