Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead |  Fiction

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Wow.  I mentioned after my last blog (Bullseye by James Patterson), that I was going to choose a more meaningful book, and I certainly fulfilled that intent!  This is a haunting, devastating, and decidedly meaningful novel.

The Underground Railroad begins on a vicious Georgia plantation, where escape is on the minds of all.  The early pages are very difficult to read; not that it gets easier later. I was shocked and stunned to learn about the brutality among slaves, not only just perpetrated by slave-owners upon slaves.   

The author tells us Cora’s story, who flees the plantation where she was born, risking everything in pursuit of freedom, much the way her mother, Mabel, did years before.  Colson Whitehead consistently conveys the fear, humiliation, and loss of dignity of a slave attempting to be free. Cora finds herself swept into the great secret undertaking that is the underground railroad.  And here is where the novel astonishes.  Whitehead has taken the historical metaphor of an “underground railroad” and made it real, complete with stations (some magnificent, some just dirt), stations agents who risk their lives to inform runaway slaves about the hidden entrances, and trains with no regular schedules. It is a magical metaphor.

This beautifully written book was on President Obama’s reading list for 2016. Amazing.  Will our next president suggest such a read to us?

The ending(s) – plural because there are a few – are poignant and powerful.

This book should be required reading for us all.  Do not expect to be thrilled by it.  Expect to be evocatively and deeply moved.

 

Bullseye

James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge  |  Fiction

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I have to give it two hearts because I must assign it, "don't bother to read."  This is not a Patterson I recommend.  I wonder if it is the influence of the second author, Michael Ledwidge?  Bullseye (which is stupidly named and would be way more clever, though not as broadly appealing, if it was named Matryoshkas from a conversation in Chapter 76 about the situation facing the main characters being like nested Russian Dolls.)

There are too many characters and their development is too shallow. This is the ninth book featuring Detective Michael Bennett, but the first one I have read, and the authors forgot to give us the two sentence explanation of who Michael is.  He seems to be a single dad with ten children in Catholic school, a girlfriend/nanny named Mary Catherine (can't get much more Catholic than that!) and a priest named Seamus who hangs around the house for some reason.  But we don't get any explanation about why Detective Bennett is in these particular life circumstances.  Is he divorced?  Widowed?  Promiscuous?  Did he somehow acquire an orphanage?  There is one clue almost 300 pages in.

This book was written in 2016, and Vladimir Putin is suspected of being behind the attempt on the life of the President of the United States (Bullseye's plot).  Too close for comfort?  There are not one, but two married couples in this book who are co-assassins.  Is this a new language of love?  One of the couples is quite endearing! 

If you want something mindless to entertain you on an airplane, you might choose this.  But otherwise, don't waste your precious time sitting by the fire with this book in hand during this, one of the worst winters in years on the North American continent.

I am going to read something more meaningful now.  And feed the fire.  (It is 7 degrees F [-14 C] as I type).

 

A Man Called Ove

Fredrik Backman |  Fiction

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I wonder why people in my life who love me keep suggesting books about death, such as On My Own and Saturday Night Widows and movies such as Always and Heaven Can Wait.  I don’t quite understand – are they supposed to normalize my experience? Make me feel as though I am not alone?  Do they figure I will find these pieces interesting, now that I have an experience along the same lines?  I don’t know. I know they are well-meaning. But mostly I find them incredibly sad and nearly impossible to read or watch.

A Man Called Ove is the notable exception.  While it did incite my tears a number of times, I also laughed and found myself with a warmed heart.  It is difficult for me to describe A Man Called Ove.  Basically, it is about a man’s experience after his wife dies.  But that is such an understatement.  It is much cleverer than that.  First of all, we all thought Beryl was a curmudgeon.  He talked about writing a blog he was going to call “The Curmudgeon’s Rant.” In fact, he tried out a few on his family members!  Well, it seems he was a baby-curmudgeon-in-training.  Ove is the REAL curmudgeon!  You will laugh at how curmudgeonly he is!  (How can that be funny?)  He is such an interesting character, you will want to discover what makes him tick. Without giving the plot away completely, I will say the book often reminded me of my favorite all-time movie, Harold and Maude.  But with very different intentions.

I think it takes real talent to write in a way that makes the reader laugh or giggle.  Fredrick Backman is that talented.  Oh yes, also, I want to share a few of his colorful sentences:  "She laughed and laughed and laughed until the vowels were rolling across the walls and floors.” (pp 288/9)  And this one:  “Jimmy is perspiring like a bit of pork left on a sauna stove.”  (pp 236)  HUH?  I don’t understand either of these sentences, but how visual they are and what fun to roll them around my mind!

Despite the underlying sadness of the story line, this is a warm, comical, interesting - even fascinating - book.  Enjoy!

 

A Murder in Time

Julie McElwain |  Fiction

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My friends Lois and Paul were on the Queen Mary 2 on their way from South Hampton, England to New York, over Thanksgiving weekend.   Paul was perusing the library when he ran into this book, A Murder in Time.  "Lo," he said, "I think this one is for you."  An FBI agent, Kendra Donovan, accidentally enters a wormhole and finds herself transported back 200 years, to 1815, to the Aldrich Castle in England. There, it seems, her skills are invaluable, if somewhat misunderstood, as she investigates and ultimately discovers  the identity of a brutal serial killer. 

Since Lois and I are great fans of the Outlander series, she knew I would enjoy this book as well.  The copy I read was NOT from the Queen Mary 2 ... it was a local Deschutes County Library borrow.

I loved this book!  Engaging, great characters, interesting tidbits about nineteenth century England  morays, values and social structures, and clear fast-paced writing all collude to make this a great read.  This is McElwain's first novel.  She is employed as the editor of a magazine on "daytime dramas."  But don't get the wrong idea!  This book is way more about mystery than romance.

The only criticism I have is this.  You know how mystery writers bury a clue or two so that when the murderer is revealed, it all makes sense?  Well, the author's clue was too obvious and too easy to spot.  Even though I knew before the end who the "unsub" was, i was still fascinated to see how it unfolds.

Enjoy this riveting read!

p.s.  I just this moment learned McElwain's second novel, A Twist in Time, will be released on April 4.  Oh boy!

 

 

The Woman in Cabin 10

Ruth Ware  |  Fiction

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The Woman in Cabin 10 is a fun read; I read it easily over a weekend.  An Agatha Christie-esque-style novel … “How can the woman in cabin 10 be murdered?  There IS no woman in cabin 10!”

Lo Blacklock has landed the assignment of a lifetime.  A travel journalist, she will be reporting on the maiden voyage of the private exclusive sailing of the Aurora.  Yes, the Aurora, which has only ten cabins for guests, sails to Norway from London for a luxury viewing of the Aurora Borealis.  But Lo’s visit to the Northern Lights begins quite unpleasantly, as she witnesses the woman in cabin 10 being thrown overboard.  But all guest and staff are accounted for and there is no one staying in cabin 10.  What did Lo actually witness?

The mystery is fun as it unravels and sweeps the reader in.  Lo, however, takes some getting used to.  She drinks too much.  Constantly.  It takes a bit to warm up to Ms. Ware’s main character.  Eventually, though, I became intrigued with the mystery and suspense and, of course, the surprising resolution.  Also, I personally would hesitate to hire the two editors mentioned in the Acknowledgments.  The Misses Alison and Alison seem as enamored as Ruth Ware of Lo “gritting her teeth,” which she does, I swear, 10 or 12 times.  Perhaps another expression could be used occasionally to portray her angst?

In summary, for a light and easy read over the holidays or on the beach, I recommend this tale!

 

 

Missing, Presumed

Susie Steiner |  Fiction

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Edith Hind is a beautiful graduate student at Cambridge University.  When this tale begins, she has been missing for 24 hours – her door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor.  Manon Bradshaw is a well-respected member of the Cambridgeshire police force, who lands the Edith Hind case.

Thus begins a standard crime novel, yes?  But Steiner does not follow the path of many crime fiction writers.  Manon is a not the perfect detective. While she yearns for love in her life, and attempts to find it through the Internet, we soon learn she is quite a flawed character … not the perfect detective that sometimes appears in crime fiction.

The characters in this novel are all rich and complex ... Edith’s parents, Edith’s boyfriend Will, her girlfriend Helena, Manon’s partner Davy, and even the crime boss who is befriended by the missing woman.  We watch the characters change throughout the search for Edith ... some of them grow, some of them disassemble.

At first, I was a little frustrated by the British idioms, such as “knees-up” and “the lounge.”  And I never fully understood all the acronyms used by the police: DS, DI, DC, CCTV and MIT.  But after a bit, I just smiled and enjoyed the twists and turns on the English language that I know as an American.  I look forward to Ms. Steiner's next nove; I wonder if Manon will be a major character?  This was a fine book to read while snow fell outside and, warm and cozy, I fed the fire.

 

 

 

 

 

Commonwealth

Ann Patchett  |  Fiction

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Frivolous is the word that popped into my mind about mid-way through Commonwealth, and I will stay with it.  Patchett writes about a typical blended family, with the various parents and step-whatever's, and the functional and dysfunctional aspects of the six children in the blend.  And nothing interesting ever happens!  Yes, Albie, the youngest kid, is fed Benadryl (disguised as Tic-Tacs) to quiet him down.  Yes, Cal, the oldest boy, dies from a bee sting.  Yes, Franny takes up with a famous author, Leon Posen, for five years.  This is the exciting stuff.  Yawn!

Reviewers are most intrigued about the relationship between Franny of the blended family and the 30-years-her-senior Leon Posen.  There may have been some meat there, but Patchett spends little time in the relationship.  The greatest possibility for intrigue is the book that Posen writes, which is very clearly the story of Franny and her family.  This book, also called Commonwealth, sells to a movie house.  When the movie comes out, there is understandable angst among the family members depicted.  But only three characters actually go see the movie, and they walk out part-way through.  A perfect metaphor for Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.  Even the movie is not compelling enough for the main characters to finish.

 

Wonder

R.J. Palacio |  Fiction

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“I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.”

I am a little late getting on the Wonder bandwagon (thank you to Mary's book club for putting this book on their reading list!)  Wonder is a warm and delightful read.  Yes, it is a teen book, but, as with many juvenile books, it certainly has a message for adults.  The message I received from reading this first novel by R.J. Palacio, is to remember to be kind.  “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”  (Wayne Dyer.)

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a genetic craniofacial deformity that prevented him from attending a mainstream school, until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, his first foray into a real school.  Auggie is just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face.   

This book touches on diversity, acceptance, appearance, kindness, love, and bullying.  While I truly enjoyed the chapters written from Auggie’s perspective, his sister Via’s section talks about what it is like to have a sibling who is the center of family attention and worry.  And the Julian section – the last section – blew me away.  Julian is the bully who never really accepts Auggie.  His story is rather amazing.  The marketing on this book quips, “You can never tell a book by its cover,” a reference to the heart and soul that Auggie presents beneath his deformed face.  But that is also true about Julian, Via, and others.  I guess it is true for all of us.

My favorite quote is Auggie’s favorite:  “Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives because we all overcometh the world.”  (August Pullman) 

There is a lot of buzz about this book online.  The author has started this anti-bullying website: http://choosekind.tumblr.com/, and if you poke around, you will find many other activities, including how schools are integrating this book into their curriculum.

What a marvelous first novel for Palacio!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Doctor’s Wife

Elizabeth Brundage  |  Fiction

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Imagine you are about to make a sandwich with your favorite bread ... sourdough?  16 grain?  Brioche?  Wonder bread?  Whatever your choice, is it luscious!  Then imagine that you smear peanut butter and grape jelly (nah, no one uses grape jelly anymore, do they?) make that strawberry preserves, on the two pieces of bread, in just the right quantity.  Now, add a second layer of PB&P.  Now add a third layer of PB&P.  You now have a lovely sandwich with so much goo in the middle that your mouth gets stuck trying to chew it.

That’s what The Doctor’s Wife is like.  The two pierces of bread are the meat (sorry for the reverse pun) of the story.  They are about Michael Knowles, an OB-GYN doctor who is passionately committed to providing safe abortions as part of his work.  In the beginning, and in the end, the story is compelling.  It is about his kidnapping by Lydia, a member of a radicalized right-to-life organization.  These pages are spell-binding; true mystery genre.

But the middle – the long and drawn out middle is about the affair between Michael’s wife Annie and Lydia’s husband Simon.  It’s a little bit like a romance novel plopped into the center of a crime novel.

Now romance isn’t all bad.  There are intriguing and interesting pieces in the center of this book. And it is important for the complex relationships among these four characters to be visible for us to see all the angles.  Lydia and Simon especially have a somewhat astounding relationship.

With that preamble, I think you may enjoy The Doctor’s Wife.  I did.  I simply thought the author overdid one story line, to the detriment of the other.

 

 

Woman of God

James Patterson & Maxine Paetro |  Fiction

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Yes, I know, I have been on a James Patterson kick.  And yes, Beryl really liked him, so it makes sense I am exploring this most prolific of writers!  Woman of God is not a murder mystery … it is one of his “stand-alone” books.

I loved the main character, Brigid Fitzgerald. She is a young physician who selflessly works and heals in the war-torn Sudanese desert. Her faith and her personal values are tested and challenged over and over, as well as her physical safety. 

The prologue is twenty years in the future.  The books itself begins in the current day and takes us along on Brigid’s journey over the next 20 years.  She leaves Sudan and returns to her home base in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  And then, through a series of events and relationships, she becomes a founder and very visible woman in an expanded alternative to the Catholic Church, JMJ.   JMJ is a church that is inclusive and compassionate; a church that eventually, near the end, inspires the Pope to invite Brigid to meet with him at the Vatican in a private Papal Audience.

Patterson’s and Paetro’s writing style is engaging and effortless to read.  Almost every chapter is a mere 2.5 pages.  It is easy to read a bit, put it down, stir your dinner, and then pick it up again.  Please enjoy this interesting read!  It will make you think.