Crowing About “Hollow Kingdom”

I’m not wishing for the end of the world any more than I long for a murder to happen but I do love reading about both of them.  So many interesting things happen in novels about the apocalypse.  Remember R.E.M‘s song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”?  It’s a checklist of perfectly terrifying elements that make a captivating story – “Birds and snakes and an aeroplane”, “Governments for hire” and the “Furies breathing down. your neck” – all the best parts of great Apocalyptic fiction.  I don’t want the end of the world to happen but when the writing is so good well, I do feel fine.  Thank you, Michael Stipe.

So many books featuring a possible apocalypse stand out when I think of my ‘best ever’ books, starting with Stephen King’s The Stand (which I first read way back in high school).  We get to meet the characters in these books when they are at their weakest, when everything is stripped away, so we really get to know them.  I still remember conversations between Stu and Franny in Stephen King’s book more vividly than I do the actual content of any class I took in high school.  It’s also fascinating to see how authors like Emily St. John MandelEdan Lepucki and Neal Stephenson choose to end our world – what exactly are the  catastrophic mistakes that they see our society making that takes us to destruction?  How do they imagine our society will rebuild?  These are the nitty gritty details that I love about this type of book.  If an advance review mentions genetic engineering gone wrong, pandemics-getting-out-of-hand, any instance where the CDC makes a mistake and tries to cover it up then I place my hold right away.  At least they will be an entertaining read and the really beautiful ones give me a chance to ponder what we value in our civilization – what would we miss if it all starts to fall apart?

I knew that I would read this debut novel about the apocalypse seen through the eyes of a domesticated crow (these were the keywords thrown around for the last few months when Hollow Kingdom was being chatted about online) but I didn’t know if it would just be a quirky read or one that rises above ‘book about a crow’.  I also wondered who I might share it with. How many other readers would like to read a book written from the perspective of a crow? From the first chapter I knew that it was a book for everyone.  Everyone!

The story begins with S.T., his human friend Big Jim, and their dog, Dennis, enjoying a fine day outside their home near Seattle. Looking back S.T. realizes that there might have been other indications that Big Jim’s health was declining but when one of Big Jim’s eyeballs falls out and rolls across the lawn he knows that things are starting to get serious. S.T. is a clever bird. Crows are, of course. He thoughtfully scoops it up and puts it into one of the cookie jars in the kitchen in case it can be used by Jim later and then spends the next few days trying to cure Jim of this terrifying illness. He tries everything – brings him the keys to his truck, tries feeding him Cheetos, carries him their favourite photographs from the fridge door, brings some medication from the local Walgreens – but nothing works.   With Dennis by his side (he attaches Dennis’s collar to a leash and leads him away from their home) they go on a mission to see if there are any uninfected humans who can help Big Jim.

It’s horrifying like all good infection-turns-humans-into-zombies novels but it’s wonderfully different because it’s all told through the language of animals and how they see us.  Author Kira Jane Buxton must have enjoyed books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down when she was a kid because she has the natural world built to perfection.  If the violence level weren’t so high I would be tempted to share this book with junior readers because there was so much to love and her passion for animals is evident throughout.

S.T. is the main voice but he is joined by Dennis and they meet other crows and dogs throughout their adventure.  We see some of the adventure from the perspective of moles, a poodle, a seagull, an armadillo, a polar bear and an octopus and it is all bewitching.   Their travels take them across the state, through a university campus, into abandoned neighbourhoods, a large zoo, an aquarium, forests and to the beach and it leads to a wide variety of discoveries about humans.  Some work out well for our team of crow and dog and some really do not.

I’m trying not to spoil the plot of the story (or the ending) but with many of the remaining humans preoccupied with their zombie thoughts this leaves an opportunity for the natural world to take over and it is all beautifully described by Buxton.  Seeing the destruction of the human world through S.T.’s opinionated eyes is the very best view. He was perfectly content being a crow who felt like he was almost human.  He has more enemies than friends among animal kind so the challenges that he and Dennis face together are doubly hard.  It becomes an opportunity for the reader to fall hard for both of them; especially as the author describes them as “a rejected crow with an identity crisis partnering a bloodhound with the IQ of boiled pudding.”

There are some moments in this book that were a little scary to read and had to be returned to – if I could have read them with my eyes partially covered like you watch a horror film, I might have done so.  I read this book quickly because I almost couldn’t believe how clever it was, how she was able to make her crow’s voice seem authentic, and yet I didn’t want to finish it because the time spent with S.T. and Dennis seems far too short.  It’s the classic problem with a book that you love – reading it fast because it is perfection but just not wanting it to end.

Yes, Hollow Kingdom can also be described as a zombie novel, and it is narrated by a Cheetos-eating crow with a name that is so profane I can only share the initials in this blog post, but there were moments in this book that moved me to tears and caused me to want to write down quotations from Buxton’s beautiful text.  I could needlepoint them on a pillow with a cute little crow and dog image maybe?  The author might be trying to send us a message about the environment or the dangers of relying on technology.  She might be saying all or none of this and wants to remind us of the importance of animal welfare.  It’s an unforgettable book about the end of world as we know it and you really should read it – Cheetos optional.

— Penny M.

Someone We Know

Shari Lapena, the Toronto-based lawyer-turned-author, is on my short list of ‘Favourite Suspense Authors Evah’. With her latest book, Someone We Know, she once again provides her readers with a fast-paced, suspenseful and twist-riddled whodunnit.

This was a thrilling ride through a suburb that is full of secrets, deceit and a dead woman with a complicated past. Ooooo, right? Lapena provides great twists and many plausible suspects leaving readers to question pretty much every character’s motives. The characters are a diverse and complicated bunch, but each felt well-developed and featured a wide range of personalities – with some being not so likable and others hiding deep, dark family secrets with smiles on their faces. You just don’t know who to trust.

My only beef is a small one – it’s but a wee moo – but I found there were a lot of characters to keep track of and with the police sometimes referring to characters as ‘Mr. so-and-so’ versus their first names, it got a bit confusing remembering who was who. The author is good at reminding the reader but this suburb has a lot of residents that readers will have to keep track of.

I don’t want to give away any secrets or twists but I’ll just say that Lapena has, once again, written a clever, compulsive, hard-to-put-down suspense read with a long list of culprits that will keep readers guessing (and second guessing) until the bitter end. You’ll want to get your hands on this book ASAP. As luck would have it, WPL has copies of this title in regular print, large print and audiobook on CD that you can borrow!

— Laurie P.

Great Teen Reads to Start the School Year

The days are growing shorter and the leaves are starting to change colour. This can only mean one thing: the school year is about to begin. If you are looking for a good book for a novel study or just a great story to read in your spare time, the Waterloo Public Library has got you covered with a great selection of teen reads.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
We Set the Dark on Fire is a perfect blend of the classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the teen bestseller Divergent. In the story there are three social classes: upper class, lower class and those that live beyond the wall. Men in the upper class have two wives: a Primera and a Segunda. A Primera is responsible for fulfilling the needs of his household. A Segunda is responsible for fulfilling his sexual needs. Young girls in this society are sent to school to learn how to properly serve their future husband.
Daniela graduates at the top of her class and is chosen by the wealthiest family to serve as a Primera. It is the highest honor that a girl could receive. However, Daniela is keeping a secret that could destroy everything– she was born beyond the wall.

A group of insurgents discover her true past and threaten to expose her, unless she aids them in their rebellion against the upper class. Daniela soon finds herself sympathizing with the rebellion and works to bring down the unjust class system.

There are so many parallels to our current political climate – the role of women in a male dominated society, the power of the rich elite over the poor and the vilification of those who live outside our borders. It prompts a lot of questions about the society we live in today – why do we settle for things the way they are? We Set the Dark on Fire opens the door for a lot of discussion.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Xiaomara is a lioness. She’s a fierce, independent young woman with a voice of her own. The problem is her family wants her to be a sheep. Her mother wants her to fall in line with religion, to silence her voice and obey.

With her voice gone, Xiaomara begins to pour her emotions onto the lines of a leather notebook, creating raw poetry. She keeps her words locked away from the world until she joins a slam poetry club. For the first time she has a platform to express herself and people are listening to what she has to say.

The book is written in verse, making it a quick read but it is full of so many different themes: family, friendship, sexuality, body image and self esteem.

The poetry Xiaomara creates is both genuine and sympathetic. She questions why things have to be the way they are simply because she’s young and female. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider will relate to her words.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
The earth is damaged beyond repair. The icecaps have melted. The far north is submerged. Earthquakes have caused the west coast to drop into the ocean. The Great Lakes are so polluted that the water has turned into grey sludge. Hordes of people now scavenge the land looking for clean water and scraps of food. But perhaps the worst part of all – people have lost the ability to dream.

The only dreams that remain are those that live within Indigenous people, who are now being hunted for their bone marrow.

At first glance, The Marrow Thieves may seem like a basic dystopian novel, but it is really about the resilience of Indigenous people. The story echoes the real life residential schools that once tried to kill the culture and the dreams of Indigenous people. But in this novel it is the reverse- Indigenous people are being killed to restore the dreams of others.

The Marrow Thieves won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Kirkus Prize and the White Pine Award. It is the kind of book that sweeps you into the story from the first page.

The Art of Breaking Things by Laura Sibson
Skye is a teflon girl. Nothing sticks to her. Nothing bothers her. Everything just slides right off. She might party too much. She might use more drugs than she should. She might get too familiar, a little too fast with any boy who gives her a second glance. But that’s just her style – she breaks the rules and pushes boundaries.

The truth is that Skye’s rebellious attitude is just a cover. Underneath she is struggling to bury her past. Something that’s too painful to remember. The only outlet she has is her art. Art helps her express what’s going on inside – what she keeps hidden from everyone.

The Art of Breaking Things is a realistic story that deals with difficult subject matter. The character of Skye is beautifully complex. She works hard at keeping a bad girl image, yet inside she is incredibly damaged and vulnerable. Her path to healing is powerful and full of emotion. Readers will be reminded of the character Melinda from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

— Lesley L.

The Stationery Shop

A stationery store is unsurprisingly the focal point in this story by Marjan Kamali which tells the tale of four families and their inextricable connections to one another.

Based in Iran from 1916 until the present, we watch the blush of young love between forbidden classes unravel against the backdrop of political conflict and rebellion.

The Stationery Shop opens in New England 2013 with an elderly couple preparing to visit a seniors home to visit someone who has yet to be identified. As the narrative unfolds, we are transported back to 1953 Iran to a stationery store owned by a kind, gentle and learned man named Mr Fakhri. His shop is an oasis of intellectual and literary treasures. It is also, as it turns out, a location where forbidden love is given a chance to blossom.

Enter the main characters Roya and Bahman, two teenagers who are instantly drawn to each other with a power neither of them understands or can suppress. The stationery shop is their nesting ground for the love that is flourished between them. When the time comes to introduce family into the picture, we find that Bahman’s mother has totally different marriage plans for her son, plans that are not to be altered.

The tale takes another turn when we are transported to Iran 1916 where a young man from the upper class falls madly in love with the melon seller’s daughter, clearly a match that will be vehemently opposed by his family who has already chosen his future bride.

The character’s stories begin to intertwine and the reader becomes aware of the interconnections of the families, and the devastation that has rained down on the ill-fated lovers. Through it all, we witness the political turmoil within Iran during the 20th century. Pro-Shah and pro-democracy groups collide throughout with deadly results. The influence of the oil-hungry western world upon the machinations of ruling parties continues to this day and weighs heavily upon the lives of the characters in this story.

This is an easy read and yet packed with romance, political intrigue, and best of all, Persian cuisine. The reader can almost smell and taste the dishes that are offered throughout.

— Nancy C.

Books About Books

I find it hard to resist a novel that features a librarian or bookseller as the main character. Part of the thrill of reading these books is in finding out whether or not the author has been successful in getting the nitty gritty of working with books exactly right. It’s entirely possible that I won’t identify with the character in the same way that all chefs don’t feel an instant sense of kinship in reading about other chefs. I might not feel like the bibliophile at the centre of the story is someone I could be friends with but I really like seeing similarities in their work life and mine. If the author has done their homework and put some time into making sure that the details are top notch then I love this kind of book more than any other. And I love to put these in the hands of co-workers and library customers. Books about people who love books!? It’s the best kind of reading, I’m certain.

I try to never miss any “books about books” that come across our desks (even those that focus a little less on actual library work like The Librarian and the Spy by Susan Mann, a fun book but not so much cataloguing or reference work) but this summer there were two spectacular choices that rose above many of the other books I read this summer. Both novels were choices that I enjoyed so much I kept talking about them weeks after I read them and purchased copies to give as gifts.

If an author has created a character with a personality and sense of humour that makes me long to have them come alive and join me for lunch then I think they’ve gone beyond crafting a good story, they have created a world that I wish I could inhabit. Not for the rest of my life – I’m not logging off and buying a plane ticket out of here – just a book that is so good I know I’ll read it again and think of those characters when something reminds me of them.

With both of the main characters in these books I felt as if their life choices, friendships, families and work environments were entirely believable and that isn’t something that happens often in ‘domestic fiction’ and even less so if the books are sold with a romantic arc involved. The vibrant colours on the covers and spine and the snappy text chosen by their marketing department might scare you away but I’m telling you that the women inside of these novels are like flesh and blood humans that you will be so glad you got a chance to meet – oh yes.

In the case of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler we encounter our book-loving character just as she has finally gotten into the groove of being a single parent and full-time teacher-librarian in the same school her two children attend in rural Pennsylvania. Her daughter Cori is fifteen and son Joe is eleven and it takes everything she has to get them to school, activities, maintain their aging house and try to make acceptable meals – her social life takes a back seat but she knows she should make it a priority ‘someday’. At least when she isn’t wondering why her husband left them to find himself in Hong Kong several years before (this is how her life becomes ‘overdue’, a truly great pun). When that long absent father/husband decides to reinsert himself into their lives to get to know the kids again she thinks her best plan is to head out of town for a while and, practical person that she is, she finds a library conference in New York City. She will accumulate some professional development hours while she takes a break from the routine at home and visit an old friend at the same time. Amy is so sensible in her choices! Her college friend, Talia, edits a successful fashion magazine and thinks using Amy as a makeover candidate will help rejuvenate her brand. Win-win? This leads to some super Devil Wears Prada fashion montages and great jokes about uncomfortable shoes and outfits. Initially Amy is reluctant to make changes in her clothing, hair, and makeup but agrees to give it a try when Talia and her assistant start sending her out on blind dates as part of their unfortunately named ‘momspringa’ feature articles on the magazine’s website. Author Kelly Harms uses romance in this novel with a light touch and it is more the story of a person trying to decide the direction that their life should go.

With The Bookish Life of Nina Hill the setting could not be more different than Amy Byler’s. Instead of rural Pennsylvania Nina lives in Larchmont, California, a small neighbourhood that she has never wanted to leave (I looked it up – you would never want to leave either) where she works in a small independent bookshop. Nina’s life has been carefully crafted around her interests and the anxiety she has managed since childhood. She plans her day carefully each morning in her planner and knows what will happen today, tomorrow and the days that follow. She is not a spontaneous person but she is always ready for a touch of fun and has an inner monologue of observations about herself and the world around her. She lives with a charming and remarkably funny cat named Phil. One of her weekly activities is a trivia competition with her team named “Book ‘em, Danno” and they have been kicked out of several bars – not for being rowdy – but for winning too often. Her passion and knowledge for literature is prized on the team and through this group of supportive friends she meets her love interest, Tom (I won’t spoil it and tell you what his occupation is – you must read to the end).

Like Kelly Harms does in her novel, author Abbi Waxman doesn’t make Tom the most important part of this story. Nina discovers that she has a large extended family beyond her single mother, a substantial and mysterious inheritance, she learns that the bookstore she loves is in jeopardy, and everything triggers her anxiety – the possibility of romance is often the last thing on her mind. Nina has priorities and reading is often first on the list, or in her planner, she devotes entire Thursday nights to it. Although she is at a much different stage of life from Amy Byler she is also trying to decide on her direction in life and you can’t help but be inspired by the way that finds a way that is right for her quirky, lovable personality.

Books, authors and literary quotes are sprinkled throughout both novels (in the case of Nina’s life it is a weekly occurrence because of her extremely competitive trivia team) and the characters of teacher-librarian and bookseller are letter perfect. When Nina describes the customer who walked up to the counter and asks for a refund on a copy of Pride and Prejudice because she didn’t like it and Nina has to refuse (the customer had read it all the way through before coming to back to the store) I was reminded of a similar experience from my own working days in a bookstore. Nina’s bookstore world, and her sarcastic bookstore manager/owner, are so true to real life. It’s a delight.

Amy Byler is an absolute treat of a bibliophile, as well as a gem of a devoted teacher-librarian, and the experience in that book is multi-layered because her daughter Cori is spending the summer with ‘assigned’ reading from her own mother and her comments (in letter form) are included, so we see the book-loving relationship from all sides. When Amy attends the library conference in New York City she is required to make a presentation about an ongoing project in her school library and the details about this effort are quite interesting, the conversations she has with other professional librarians 100% credible and the books they are discussing absolutely relevant. If I met Amy at a conference I would love to sit down and talk to her – I’d probably have asked for her business card and checked in with her a few weeks later. I’m almost sad that she doesn’t exist. Same thing with Nina but her trivia skills are intimidating… maybe she would let me feed her cat.

Books about librarians and booksellers are always being published – across all genres – vampire librarians, librarian spies, booksellers who solve mysteries, and I read them all with great happiness. This summer has been a particularly good one for newly published titles but I have other favourites from years past that I take from the shelves over and over as a part of my comfort reading. I turn to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore when I want a dash of fantasy, I look up Jenny Colgan when I want to be transported to Scotland and I can read about A. J. Fikry and his wonderful shop on Alice Island on any day. The story of how his life changes is absolute perfection and I’m a little nervous to hear that an actor and director have been assigned to the film based on the book – what if they don’t get the details right? What if they are not able to evoke Fikry’s love of Roald Dahl on screen the same way it exists in the novel? Sometimes a book is perfect just the way it is, especially when it is a book about books.

— Penny M.

Staff Picks for Summer

WPL staff love sharing what they’re reading…or looking forward to reading! If you’re looking for a new great read, why not check out our Staff Picks List for Summer 2019. This list of fiction and non-fiction is for adult readers.

We’re also sharing our top picks for kids and teens. We hope you have a summer full of sunshine, good times and great reads.

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WPL Book Club Picks for August

Join us for book club conversation at any meeting. No need to sign up. No need to clean your house. The WPL Book Clubs have “open” membership, so you can drop in once in a while, or come faithfully every month.

Monday, August 12, 2019 – Monday Evening Book Club
The Outsider by Stephen King
Main Library, Auditorium, 35 Albert Street

An unspeakable crime. A confounding investigation. At a time when his brand has never been stronger, Stephen King has delivered one of his most unsettling and compulsively readable stories.

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

Goodreads rating = 4.02 and reviews
Place a hold on a WPL copy of the (print) book, the eBook or the recorded book (audiobook on CD)
Consider the discussion questions found on Goodreads

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Thursday, August 15, 2019 – Thursday, Afternoon Book Club
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Main Library, Boardroom, 35 Albert Street

A historical novel about an early 19th-century Englishman transported to Australia for theft, The Secret River explores what might have happened when Europeans colonized land already inhabited by Aboriginal people.

Goodreads rating = 3.97 and reviews
Place a hold on a WPL copy of the (print) book or the eBook
Consider these discussion questions found on LitLovers

If You Want To Make God Laugh

After recently reading an advanced copy of If You Want To Make God Laugh, I can now say that South African-Canadian author Bianca Marais has officially secured a spot in my “must read” author list.

I first came across Marais in 2017 after reading and loving her previous book, Hum If You Don’t Know The Words which was a beautifully written story that tackled big topics with compelling characters, heart and compassion.

With her new book, If You Want To Make God Laugh, Marais has once again written an engaging story but this time there is a personal connection as she draws from her own experiences as a volunteer with HIV-infected children in her native South Africa. These experiences bring a depth, authenticity and emotion to her writing as she describes life in 1990’s South Africa as Apartheid is ending and the AIDS epidemic is firmly taking hold.

I appreciate that Marais doesn’t shy away from the big issues – such as the stigma of HIV, racism, homophobia, religious corruption and abuse of power. She sets these issues within a touching story that follows the lives of three women and the little boy who brings them together. These women learn to find strength in each other during a time of much suffering, rampant bigotry and ignorance. (Note: fans of Hum If You Don’t Know The Words will also enjoy the brief cameo of two of its characters within this story.)

I highly recommend this well-written, powerful and poignant story that focuses on the resiliency and tenacity of women, from different backgrounds, as South Africa experiences its turbulent transition to democracy.

— Laurie P.

We have a great summer read for you!

Summer is upon us and that means a double edition of Featured Titles! With 14 Non-Fiction and 14 Fiction titles to choose from, we’re sure you will find a book (or two or … ) to sit back, relax, and enjoy the summer sun with.

Looking for even more great reads? Check out our Staff Picks List for Summer 2019 too.

We hope you have a wonderful summer full of beautiful weather, happy times with family and friends and, of course, great reads!

Summer Reading for Kids

Summer is here! That means sunshine, vacations and being outdoors. While you are enjoying the warm weather, continue to make time to read with your kids. Summer reading is critical for students to retain the skills they learned in the previous school year.

Every year WPL has summer reading fun activities to help keep children engaged in reading. The activities are free to join, just drop in to any WPL location to sign up, then check out some great titles to keep your child reading all summer:

Picturebooks

How to Catch a Unicorn by Adam Wallace

Rainbows, glitter and unicorns, oh my! This is a beautiful book. It is about a group of children who set up a series of clever traps hoping to catch the elusive unicorn. The brightly coloured illustrations are enough to keep young ones engaged all through the story.

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt

Three warriors seek to find an opponent worthy of their fighting skills. Rock, Paper and Scissor finally meet and the legendary game is born.  I loved the narration style in this book.  It makes for a great read out loud story that will entertain parents and children.

Junior Fiction

Song For a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Iris is the only deaf student at her school. Communication with others is difficult and this often leaves her isolated. Blue 55 is a whale who sings at a different frequency than other whales. Communication with other whales is impossible and it leaves Blue 55 isolated. Iris is determined to create a song for Blue 55 to let him know he is not alone. Iris is a bright, spirited young girl and I admired her tenacity. This story taught me so much about deaf culture and the deaf community. It is a beautifully written story full of emotion and adventure.

The Almost Epic Squad: Mucus Mayhem by Kevin Sylvester

This book is gross, disgusting and completely revolting. Kids absolutely LOVE it. It’s about snot, phlegm, goobers and farts.  The main character Jessica Flem has allergies. I mean really bad, tissue devouring, allergies. It turns out that she was exposed to an element at birth that made her develop super allergic reactions to just about everything. But once she hits the age of 13, she also starts developing super powers. Now some malevolent forces want her power for their own gain.

Chase by Linwood Barclay

The Institute has successfully integrated computer software into canine bodies.  Chipper is a dog with enhanced intelligence and a USB port implanted into his body.  He escapes from the Institute and is found by a young boy named Jeff. Now both Chipper and Jeff must run before the Institute captures them. Author Linwood Barclay puts every bit of suspense and anticipation into his young adult books as he does with his adult fiction novels.

Junior Graphic Novel

Breaking Cat News by Georgia Dunn

Three cats make up the Breaking Cat News team:  lead anchor Lupin and field reporters Puck and Elvis. They report on news that matters to cats. This includes hard news stories such as: when a bee infiltrated the bathroom and the time the kibble dish was left empty. This is a great book for reluctant readers. The story doesn’t have to be read from cover to cover. You can open the book at random and start reading.

  • Lesley L.