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A Year in Books

Recommendations from 2020

Reviewer: Stephen Harkleroad

of Butler, formerly of Kittanning

Sid Meier’s Memoir: A Life in Computer Games: Sid Meier, the designer of such classic computer games as Railroad Tycoon and Civilization, recently wrote a memoir about his time in the industry. I’m a sucker for stories about the personal computer industry in the 1980s, when nerds built gadgets in their garages and then became millionaires. Meier’s story is more about game theory and development, but it was fun to read about the development of one of the best-selling franchises in PC history. It’s a good reference for those who want to know about the outsized personalities that often funded the wild west of early computer gaming.

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Normal Ohler is the history that is largely told in two parts: the first part is Germany’s chemical and pharmaceutical industry during the early years of the war, when they developed methamphetamine. The mass production and distribution of the drug fueled a large part of the early war effort. The second part largely details Adolf Hitler’s personal (and extensive and unorthodox) drug use, which predictably gets worse as the war drags on. It’s a fascinating look into a very weird part of that war.


Reviewer: Tiffany Harkleroad

of Butler, formerly of Kittanning

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones: This novel follows a newlywed couple as they encounter a difficult situation. The storytelling is so artful, and the characters are compelling. My heart broke for the characters in this story. The book tackles topics related to race, class, fidelity, and legal injustice. While all of Tayari Jones’ books are good, this one is the best.

Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism by Omise’eke Tinsley: This books explores the space where race, sexuality, gender, and feminism all intersect, filtered through the lens of popular musician Beyoncé.

Going into this book, I was not all that familiar with Beyoncé’s work; this book turned me into an instant fan. The author explores the true artistry in pop music, and how music and videos can be used to protest systems rooted in inequity.

I was riveted the entire time.

Honorable mentions:

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Reviewer: Linda Trego

of Ford City

Elsewhere by Dean Koontz: I have been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember. When we used to visit my grandparents in northeast Pennsylvania, in a small town called Susquehanna, up near the New York border, I remember excitedly poring over the books in their attic bookcase to find gems to read. Most of the books were written long before I was born; the characters were old fashioned, and the stories seemed quaint to me, at the young age of 9 or 10. My favorite school memory in 5th grade was the day the book orders arrived. I loved burying my face in the new-smelling books, anticipating all the new adventures I would experience. To this day, I never go anywhere without a book in hand, either a hardcopy or digital, just in case I am waiting somewhere and need something to read.

So, when I was asked to review a favorite read for 2020, I was stumped. It was a difficult choice. I’ve read about two dozen books over the year, some of them new books, but many of them just new to me. First, I’ll list some of my favorites of this year, and then I’ll tell you a bit about the book I selected: Elsewhere, by Dean Koontz.

The runners up were:

  • I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella. If you need a good belly laugh, or a bunch of them, read this book!

  • Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. (I love this author and enjoyed his earlier book, A Man Called Ove. This one was a close second. I enjoyed how Britt-Marie evolves in his book.)

  • The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. This book about Cussy Mary Carter, a Book Woman with the Pack Horse Library Project in rural Kentucky in the 1930s, kept me enthralled. I yearned for a happy life for Cussy, who was otherwise known as Bluet, because of the color of her skin. Bluet had a difficult life because of the prejudice of many around her, and I was inspired by her character and strength, her love of books, and her desire to bring books and learning to others.

  • The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny (3rd in a series of 15 to date). This is a poetically written and suspenseful mystery series, with great characterizations, written in the tradition of Agatha Christie.

  • Shakespeare’s Counselor by Charlaine Harris. (This is one of Harris’ Lily Bard Shakespeare Series; other enjoyable series are her Gunnie Rose Series and Aurora Teagarden Series.) I enjoy Harris’ strong female characters, who are flawed, but quirky and interesting.

The Winner: Elsewhere by Dean Koontz. Dean Koontz has long been a favorite writer of mine. He is compared to Stephen King, but I like Koontz better. I feel that his newer books are more positive and inspirational than his older ones, with less gore, and are a bit less scary than Kings’ books. This book was an enjoyable roller coaster of adventure, and I rooted for the two main characters, Jeffy Coltrane and his 11-year-old daughter, Amity, the whole way.

The book begins as a stranger visits a library in the town of Suavidad Beach, California, in the middle of the night, looking for information about Jeffy and Amity, and Jeffy’s wife and Amity’s mother, Michelle. He finds that Michelle has been missing for more than seven years, and that Jeffy has sought to dissolve his marriage to Michelle. This stranger assumes that Michelle is dead and thinks that her death is both a tragedy and a cause for celebration, but we don’t find out why until much later in the book.

Shortly after the library scene, Jeffy is visited by Ed, a homeless friend of his who often stops to visit on Jeffy’s front porch. Ed entrusts Jeffy with the Key to Everything, which Ed says, “they must never get their hands on.” He told Jeffy to hide it for a year, but under no condition should he use the key. If Jeffy does not hear from Ed within a year, he is to place the key in a barrel of cement, and deposit it at sea. Ed says that the fate of humanity depends on the key never falling into the wrong hands.

Unfortunately, a mishap occurs, and the Key to Everything is accessed. We soon find out that the Key to Everything can be used to transport the users to unlimited other versions of Earth, some that contain indescribable horrors, and others that have advanced technologies and alternate civilizations that don’t exist on this version of Earth.

Jeffy and Amity soon are running for their lives while trying to keep the key from evil men masquerading as employees of the National Security Agency. The evil men want to use the key to take over the world, kill and enslave others, and gain riches and power. Meanwhile, Jeffy and Amity wonder: on another version of Earth, could there be an alternate version of Michelle, their wife and mother, who is looking for them?

I enjoy the characters of Koontz’ books, and Jeffy and Amity are no exception. Jeffy loves to repair antique radios from a simpler time; he says he wants to slide back a little ways to when people didn’t spend all day staring at screens and trying to tell people what to do and think, back to when a day seemed twenty-four hours long instead of twelve, when you could breathe. He is a kind, simple yet strong character, and is trying to be a good father and raise his daughter on his own while mourning the loss of his wife. Amity is a precocious youngster who, although perhaps not realistic as an eleven-year-old with her quick presence of mind and intelligence, keeps us rooting for her and wishing we were like her when we were eleven.

Will Jeffy and Amity succeed in keeping the Key to Everything from the evil men and stay alive? Will they find Michelle? Read Elsewhere to find out!


Reviewer: Jillian Larko

of New Castle, formerly of Ford City

The Chill by Scott Carson: I read The Chill earlier in the year and it has stuck with me as one of the most unique horror novels I’ve read this year. On top of being a spectacularly creepy read, you also learn quite a bit about the inner workings of dams, which was unexpected and super interesting.

The story takes place in upstate New York, set around the fictional Chilewaukee reservoir (The Chill), a man-made lake that purposefully flooded an old village to give residents downstate easier access to fresh water. The families who were driven from their town had been there since the country’s founding and most were not thrilled with their forced removal. Of course the wealthy New York City politicians backing the project had ulterior motives and a century later, many of The Chill’s residents remain as vengeful spirits lurking beneath the water’s surface, biding their time to enact revenge.

An inspector is sent to the dam due to increasing reports of its imminent failure, and to his horror, he finds that the reports are correct. Not only has nature begun to wear away at the neglected dam, but the former townsfolk have also been working diligently to undermine the dam’s integrity over time, a detail that is of course not noticed by the current residents of the area.

The inspector makes to immediately report the severity of the issue, but the spirits have a self-imposed prophecy to fulfill. Should the dam fail, every town to the south will be destroyed, as well as their ultimate goal of New York City if the warning is not put out soon. A number of other characters are interlaced into the story to show different perspectives of the impending disaster and give the reader some people to relate to. The tension and immediacy of the danger are keenly felt as the reader works through this novel and its twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat.

If you are looking for a good horror novel, I highly recommend The Chill. A unique story of revenge, literal ghosts of the past, and a very real world issue, the deterioration of a dam, make this story a good read for a chilly, rainy day.


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