The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

Do you ever wish you could read some classic Russian literature, updated for the 21st century but still retaining that essential everyone-ends-up-unhappy, nihilistic vibe? Look no further than The Family Chao, the newest offering from Iowa Writers’ Workshop maven Lan Samantha Chang! However, if you aren’t familiar with Dostoevsky’s parricidal classic The Brothers Karamazov, fear not–The Family Chao is still a good read, and you will be surprised with the twist at the end.

The Chao family are five: parents Leo and Winnie, who migrated to the U.S. from China and run the Fine Chao restaurant in Haven, Wisconsin; and sons Dagou, Ming, and James. As the story opens, Winnie has recently left the womanizing Leo, and the sons have all returned to Haven for the restaurant’s annual Christmas party. Each son has a complicated relationship with his parents. Dagou, a gifted chef, works at the restaurant but struggles with the demands and cruelties of the temperamental Leo. Ming is a very successful real estate broker in New York who wants to bury his Chinese heritage entirely. College freshman James loves his family deeply but is pulled in different directions by his loyalties to father, mother, and brothers.

When Leo Chao is found dead the morning after the Christmas party, the question is not who had motive to kill him, but rather who didn’t? What follows is not a whodunit in a traditional sense, but rather a family drama that happens to involve a murder. The characters–especially young James–are brilliantly drawn and vibrantly real, and the reader empathizes with each of them in turn. The twist ending will surprise non-Dostoevsky readers, and even satisfy those of us who knew what was coming. Just don’t look for anybody to end up happy; we all know that it is better to be content than to be happy, anyway.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC CHANG)

Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro Vol. 1 by Nanashi

Reviewed by Jess H (Library Staff)

High school junior, only known as Senpai, ends up in the sights of sophomore Nagatoro. Senpai is a generally nervous, quite guy who keeps to himself and wants to pursue his interest in art in private. Nagatoro is his pretty and popular underclassman who is dead set on working Senpai up into a ball of nerves.

Don’t Toy With Me Miss Nagatoro plays on the trope of if someone likes you, they’ll pick on you. The manga is pretty funny and drawn well. The only downside is that the volumes are incredibly short.

Though the characters are in high school, I would say this is more for young adults and the older side of teenage.

Located in Manga (MANGA DON’T TOY)

Have You Seen Gordon? by Adam Jay Epstein & Ruth Chan

Reviewed by Andrea Bisordi (Library Staff)

Have You Seen Gordon? is an absolutely delightful picture book. It starts off like a Where’s Waldo? book, and that seems like a lot of fun since we are searching for a fun little purple anteater named Gordon. The illustrations reminded me of a Richard Scarry book, with many animals engaging in all sorts of activities. There’s a snake jumping rope, a parade with a walrus dressed up as a pizza, and a group of animals doing yoga on the beach. But then there is a rather big twist, and the real adventure begins.

Highly recommended for those who like seek and find books, silly books, and engaging lap reads.

P.S. Keep an eye on the axolotl for another layer of engagement!

Located in Children’s Picture Books (E EPSTEIN)

The Retreat by Sarah Pearse

Reviewed by Cassidy Hammel (Library Staff)

After devouring The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse, I had high expectations for her second novel titled The Retreat; however I have mixed feelings after finishing it. Was I compelled to finish the book after getting to know all the characters? Yes. Was I thinking all along that the novel seemed suspiciously similar to her first one? Yes. That disappointed me and I can’t mention much so I don’t spoil anything but it seems she stole the recipe from her first novel and just chose the exact opposite setting, a summer beachside instead of winter mountains and in/on a suspicious location.

There was one small detail that surprised me near the very end but I’d say The Sanatorium packs more chills. Of the two Pearse has written, I’d recommend trying that one, or if you already have, skip this in favor of any of the other titles currently buckling your bookshelf. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent mystery but I had higher hopes.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC PEARSE)

The Wrong Victim by Allison Brennan

Reviewed by Emily Terasa (Library Staff)

The third book in the Quinn & Costa series by Allison Brennan, The Wrong Victim follows the mobile FBI unit as they try to discover if a bomb that exploded on a sunset charter cruise was the act of domestic terrorism , or if someone on the boat was the primary target. Special Agent Matt Costa and Detective Kara Quinn work together with the rest of their team to try to solve the murders.

This book had lots of twists and turns and I enjoyed the trying to solve the case along with the FBI team. I’ve read other books by Allison Brennan, and I enjoyed this one and am glad to know she has lots of other books in different series. So if you are looking for a crime thriller author, check out Brennan.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC BRENNAN)

What Happened to the Bennetts by Lisa Scottoline

Reviewed by Cassidy Hammel (Library Staff)

What Happened to the Bennetts is Lisa Scottoline’s latest novel about a family who suffers a great injustice and the lengths the father, Jason Bennett, will go to right the scales as best as can be done given the circumstances. Parents have been known to exhibit otherworldly strength in times of crisis and Bennett is one of them. There is an apt quote at the beginning of part two, “The fight don’t stop until the casket drop.”


When numerous people in positions of power turn on Bennett instead of helping him, which, by law they are required to do, he feels hopeless to protect the ones he loves. He’d been a relatively complacent man before his family’s tragedy, he didn’t rock the boat, he chose a safe life. However, his hopelessness morphs into anger and anger can be productive. Jason has never in his life had more of a reason to fight and he needs to rise to the occasion because this fight really won’t stop until someone’s casket drops. The book asks the reader to consider, would you shelter in place waiting, hoping people will do the right thing to save the lives of your family or would you do anything you could to fight back?

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC SCOTTOLINE)

The Spanish Love Deception by Elena Armas

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

I am not a regular reader of romance novels, but when a book gets very popular it can sometimes pique my interest. So it was with The Spanish Love Deception, by Elena Armas. More than 100 people on the holds list can’t be wrong, can they? As it turns out, they can, and I wish to save you from being deceived by The Spanish Love Deception.

The description on the back of the book promised the usual rom-com delights of an enemies-to-lovers fake-dating scenario, set at a wedding in sunny Spain. But the first two hundred pages of the book take place in boring New York, and the reader is equally bored with the supposed tension between zany Lina and stern Aaron. The author underscores the fact that the two hate each other so frequently that I was never able to fully buy into the change of heart that eventually happened–once they finally got to Spain.

Once the soon-to-be-lovers get to Spain, a switch is flipped and they are suddenly not only extremely attracted to one another, but also more communicative, more social, and generally nicer people. I got the feeling that the author originally wrote the New York part of the book and the Spain part of the book as two completely different stories, then tried to combine them into one narrative arc. It doesn’t work; the main characters truly seem like entirely different people in the second half.

And the one place where they seem the most different from their former selves is in the bedroom. Chatterbox Lina is suddenly a tongue-twisted, melting damsel, while gruff, terse Aaron suddenly turns tender and also uses lots and lots of words that I am not at liberty to share here. I’m no expert, but I don’t think people’s communication styles usually change that much when their clothes come off.

Speaking of communication, I have one more quibble to share. The dialogue occasionally felt stilted and unnatural. I think the author, like her character Lina, is not a native speaker of English, so I’m willing to give her a pass on less-than-perfect syntax. If the book could have passed under the eyes of a skilled editor, the dialogue might have been ironed out and seemed more realistic. But, alas, the days of actual human copy editors have passed.

Don’t waste four weeks of your life waiting for your name to creep to the top of the holds list for The Spanish Love Deception. There are lots of better options in the genre, without the wait. If you are in the market for a cute enemies-to-lovers story in a fun, exotic location, I recommend Shipped, by Angie Hockman.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC ARMAS)

Where’s the Elephant? by Barroux

Reviewed by Diane Basting (Library Staff)


Some picture books work on different levels and this is one of those stories. On the surface it’s about finding the three animals hidden in each illustration which becomes easier and easier each page of the book. Below the surface it’s about lost habitat and what happens to animals when the place they lived no longer exists and they can no longer hide? I picked up the book because who doesn’t love a hide and seek book and while I enjoyed reading it and finding the animals older picture book readers will get the message long before the Author explains why he wrote the story.

Located in Children’s Picture Books (E BARROUX)

The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

The Woman They Could Not Silence is author Kate Moore’s follow-up to her bestseller The Radium Girls, and I found it just as compelling as its predecessor. I stayed up past midnight to find out what would happen at the end, which is something that doesn’t happen often with nonfiction books!

The titular “woman they could not silence,” Elizabeth Ware Packard, was a housewife and mother of six in 1860 when her husband, a Presbyterian minister, forcibly committed her to an insane asylum. The evidence he provided was that she was disobeying him and not following his religious instruction. At the time, it was possible for a husband to have his wife committed without any medical or judicial determination of her insanity–if he said she was insane, she was. Elizabeth eventually spent three years in the asylum at Jacksonville, Illinois.

She learned in the asylum that she was one of many entirely sane women who were committed by their husbands, generally for disobedience and free thinking. She also learned that women who were truly mentally ill were regularly abused and their conditions left entirely untreated in the so-called hospital. When she supported other women’s charges of abuse and attempted to better their conditions, she was herself punished.

When she eventually gained her freedom–due to some combination of her own efforts and the asylum superintendent’s frustration with her–she devoted herself to exposing the horrific abuses in the asylum system, as well as changing the unjust laws that allowed husbands total legal control over their wives. She wrote books, went on speaking tours, and lobbied legislators for the rest of her life.

I found Elizabeth Packard’s story both horrifying and uplifting, and told in Moore’s signature narrative style it was up-put-down-able. Anyone interested in women’s rights–in the past and today–will find it a compelling read.

Located in Adult Nonfiction (303.48 MOO)

The Self-Made Widow by Fabian Nicieza

Reviewed by Cassidy Hammel (Library Staff)

My fingers were itching to get Fabian Nicieza’s newest title, The Self-Made Widow after reading his first novel, Suburban Dicks. What can I say? The man has a way with catchy titles.

Andrea Stern is a former FBI profiler who’s been juggling five children and a growing sense that she chose the wrong direction in life. Stern lives and breathes profiling. A tragic incident in her childhood forever altered her outlook on the world, she approaches things with a hard cynicism and couldn’t change the way her mind is wired even if she wanted to. Stern takes in all details, each angle, considers every possibility and does so in seconds flat. Her husband does not see her anymore, seems to be up to something nefarious, again, and discourages her from following the work she was born to do. When Andrea is confronted with the shady circumstances of her friend’s husband’s sudden death, she has to choose if finding the truth is more important than steamrolling all the people it will hurt in the process.

I like this novel because it’s honest and gritty. Parents don’t like their kids all the time, relationships are messy and hard work, time changes how people feel and, sometimes, it’s all you can do to hold still long enough to ask yourself if your life is what you want it to be.

If you liked Suburban Dicks, you will enjoy the mysteries in The Self-Made Widow. If you haven’t read either one, read both!

Available through the Bridges Library System

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