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Hallie Michaels first appeared in Deep Down as an Afghanistan vet who returned home to South Dakota after the unexplained death of her sister. Hallie was unusual not in that she had been injured while serving in the US Army but because she actually died--for 7 minutes--and came back. In South Dakota she found her father, a childhood friend and an attractive man in the person of Deputy Boyd Davies. She also found out that her sister shouldn't be dead, that there were mysterious forces at work in her hometown and magic was in the air.

Oh, and Hallie was in the middle of everything.

In Wide Open the story continued with the character of Death and the thin line between here and there and Hallie's precarious position as someone once dead putting her at extreme risk. There was also a lot about the weather (really) and Boyd's ex-wife, and plain old murder.

Now, in the final book in the trilogy, Strange Country, a very old mystery surfaces and Hallie and Boyd (and the sheriff's office) must investigate. There are still lingering remnants of magic, especially around Hallie's ranch, and the couple is entirely comfortable with the fallout from Wide Open. (This is where I tell you that you really have to read these books in order.)

But initially, with a murder by bullet, it seems like Strange Country won't be as much rural fantasy as police procedural (albeit with a few supernatural twists). But then Boyd starts following clues and making discoveries and before you know it there is a discussion about going to see Death, threats from the other side and lots of bad feelings (as in "I've got a bad feeling about this").

By Strange Country readers know Hallie well and they trust her. We like her because she is smart and thoughtful and not afraid to say she is sick and tired of the crazy that her life has become but still determined to do what she has to do to get stuff sorted out. Her relationship with Boyd has matured as has her friendship with gal pal Brett. Her father is only a whisper of a character in this outing (which is a shame) but there are appearances by several residents from town and the sheriff's department never disappoints. in fact we have so much invested in Hallie and Boyd and crew that the stakes seem much higher now--we really don't want anything to happen to anybody.

Yeah. We're going to get hurt. (Although I will say that it's okay to love all the horses and the dogs as none of them die.)

The Hallie Michaels series is not terrifying nor edge-of-the-seat-thrilling and I feel like I'm underselling it by simply saying that it is solidly entertaining. But these are good books--enjoyable books. I like the characters, I like the setting and I like watching the plots unfold. Hallie became a friend very quickly and that is cemented by the time we get to the end of book 3. We rarely see urban fantasy in the west, let alone South Dakota (thus the rural fantasy tag here) and I welcome it. I hope Coates returns to West Prairie City at some point in the future and gives us more of Hallie and Boyd (and Maker and the rest). She has created something that hits all the marks with these books and I'm sorry to have turned the last page.

Oh, this is such a bleak book.

It feels small to write that because I don't think bleakness is truly appreciated anymore. We get our heartstrings tugged so frequently, so casually by many authors. What David Connerley Nahm does with Ancient Oceans of Kentucky is much more than convenient sadness as a plot point though. He takes sorrow to a whole other level and infuses this novel with so many careful layers of emotion that you feel drained by the end.

This is bleakness of the Scottish moors in a 19th century novel kind of sadness and the fact that it takes place today in Kentucky is just another layer of heartbreak.

The plot hinges on the childhood disappearance of Jacob, the little brother of protagonist Leah. There is no mystery here though--the missing boy is deep in Leah's past and there are no police to swoop in now and uncover clues and find him (living or dead). Jacob's disappearance is just the first of many haunts in Leah's life, the ghost that she revisits as the narrative wanders back and forth in time and Jacob disappears again and again in her memory.

It is not surprising that Leah has not gotten over the loss of her brother or wishes still for that thing we call (so casually) "closure". But Namh doesn't just give readers a character with an eye on the past; he gives us overworked Leah at her non-profit job helping desperate families in desperate situations and failing again and again at giving them what they need. (And not even trying for what they might want.) Leah can't save these people--there is no money to save them, no resources, no places to take them in or programs to give them assistance. All she can do is try and as anyone who reads the news these days knows, all the trying in the world isn't enough for all the need.

Leah is overworked and underpaid (of course). She's lonely and sad and can't forget her brother (of course). She feels guilty for what she said and did and didn't do when they were kids (of course). Her family was never the same after Jacob disappeared and now, she doesn't seem to remember what a family is anymore or why it matters. And she watches all the families come in her door and their disappointments break her heart even more. And then, maybe, Jacob comes back.

In some ways Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky seemed almost too much for me to bear as a reader. But for all that this book includes a child abduction (a very unusual event), it is primarily a story of the most mundane aspects of life. It is about getting by, about hanging on, about the falling apart that happens when a family doesn't pull together. There are a thousand familiar stories in Leah's days and as Nahm uses her to anchor his novel, he touches on many of them. His fiction thus forces us to open our own eyes a bit more, to look a little deeper, to recognize the bleakness that fills our world.

The back cover copy says that "Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is a wrecking ball of a novel..." This is incredibly true; it reminds us just how horrific a wrecking ball truly is.

Clotilde Perrin uses a smart idea to show how similarly people live around the world in this stunning (stunning!!!) picture book. Starting at 6AM in Dakar, Senegal, she takes young readers into the lives of children on six continents as they eat, drink, go to school, play and sleep all at the same hour of the day. So, while a child is waking up in Senegal, another is sound asleep in Brazil. This helps get the notion of time zones into the heads of early readers (and Perrin's informational notes at the end help as well.)

Mostly though, while At the Same Moment Around the World is an educational book it is also a beautiful one and a chance to learn some geography (includes a map at the end) and see how much alike children and families are around the world.

Perrin takes readers from Keita in Senegal to Benedict in Paris then Mitko in Sofia, Bulgaria, Yasmine in Baghdad, Nadia in Dubai, Ravshan and Yuliya in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Lilu near Mount Everest, Khanh in Hanoi, Vietnam, Chen in Shanghai, Keiko in Tokyo, Kate traveling between Ayers Rock and Sidney, Matea and Joany in New Caledonia, Ivan in Anadyr Russia, Abby in Samoa, Allen and Kiana in Honolulu, William in Anchorage, AK, Sharon and Peter in San Francisco, Samantha in Phoenix, Pablo in Mexico City, Diego (just born!) in Lima, Peru, Ana in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, Lexi in Nuuk, Greenland, Antonio on the island of Fernando de Noronha and finally to Chloe onboard a ship in the middle of the Atlantic.

They are all living different lives and yet doing similar things. They are different colors, in different clothes in different landscapes (and different beds) but still, they are all the same and they are all living in the same moment. Perrin thus gives her readers not only something to learn from and think about but also a great lesson in the diverse face of humanity.

I call this a win on every possible level and a book that will be appreciated by adults and children alike.

For another look, Jules reviewed At the Same Moment Around the World for Kirkus in her column there and then followed up at her blog with some more interior spreads from the book.