Dusty Shelves Book Blog
Julie Christine Johnson | Fiction
As In Another Life opens, our main character, Lia, has just arrived in Languedoc in southern France. It is 18 months since her husband Gabriel died. As I read page one, it is 17 months since Beryl died. I am astounded by the similarity of Lia's emotions and my own, and am immediately drawn into her character. She has come to this land to stay in a friend's stone cottage. She has come to consider the next steps in her life. It hasn't even occurred to me to consider my next steps. It never even crossed my mind. Well, I guess it has now!
But this blog post is not about me ... it is about this book. On the front cover, a reviewer claims it is “evocative of Outlander.” As a guzzler* of the Outlander series, this caught my attention. The structure differs from Outlander. Let me tell you a bit about the plot, to better explain the “time travel” aspect of In Another Life.
Lia returns to Languedoc in part to continue work on her abandoned dissertation, which is about the Cathars, and in part to discover her life's "next steps." In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church incited a Crusade against the Cathars, a heretical religion according to the Catholic scholars of the time. While in Languedoc, Lia’s inner historian is enlivened again and she learns a great deal about the powerful players from the year 1208 who facilitated or resisted the Crusade. I think it is sufficient to say, without giving away too much of the story itself, that the Cathars believed in reincarnation. So “time travel” in this novel occurs as rich characters who were incarnated in 1208 interact with our modern day characters.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! I like the exploration, the mystery, the time travel, the depth of the characters, and the romance. This is a book club book and I know at least one member of book club did not like this book. Our conversation will be interesting!
*(Ha ha, I just learned the word tachyphagia - it means to eat rapidly or fast. I thought “guzzle” was little more user-friendly!)
Jodi Picoult | Fiction
Intense. This book begins light and easy. Sage Singer is a baker; you can almost smell (but not quite taste!) the delicious breads and pastries she bakes every night. One day an elderly man walks into the bakery and Sage and Josef strike up a conversation and then an unlikely friendship. Nice so far, eh?
Josef asks Sage to help him die. Now the story picks up a bit more heat.
And then we enter into the real meat of the seemingly credible novel … Josef’s tale about his experiences as a Nazi SS leader. Eventually we also get Sage’s Grandma Minka’s story as a Holocaust survivor at Auschwitz. Of course, Josef’s and Minka’s paths crossed all those many years ago.
Their tales are riveting. In full Picoult style, it is hard to put this book down, even though the bulk of it is definitely intense. Yes, absolutely, it is worth reading.
Footnote: In March of this year, a Nazi SS Officer, 98 years old, was revealed, living in Minnesota. Picoult's book is not far-fetched.
Thrity Umrigar | Fiction
This is a story about the relationship between a young Indian woman, Lakshmi, who attempts to commit suicide, and her therapist, an African-American woman named Maggie. Lakshmi is totally delightful. She does not speak English well, but it takes you only a page or two to understand her. She uses words like “ascare” for scared and “courage” for encourage. She doesn’t understand why “the husband” calls it a “coffee table” when thy only drink chai. Throughout the book, we learn more and more about Lakshmi’s story, and how she came to be in the United States and the tragedies and joys of her complex life. Fascinating.
On the other hand, Maggie has been drawn as a very shallow character. She never does much of anything, and what we learn of her life is, well, rather immature and insensitive. And so their friendship is a bit difficult to grasp. A number of reviews I read were distraught that Maggie breaks the rules of therapy and befriends Lakshmi. I, on the other hand, felt the other way. I wanted her to eschew the rules and boundaries and really befriend Lakshmi, but she stays on the fence and emotionally distant.
I like a place of grounding in a book. If it is placed in Boston, I picture Boston. If it is Dubai or Atlanta, I will get out maps and be able to “see” the place. I don’t know what Umrigar was thinking when she placed her characters in Cedarville. That’s all we get to know. I assumed that it was near New York, as the seasons began to change. But then we learn that Maggie used to live in New York. By the end of the book we discover that Cedarville is about 1000 miles from San Diego. Huh? At one point I googled Cedarville and discovered there was one in California and one in Ohio. We learn in the first few pages that they are not in California. So maybe it is Ohio. Until Maggie talks about the snow she sees on the mountains. I felt, well, lost.
Read this book for Lakshmi and her Indian hertitage. Her story will stay with you and make you think. Don’t read it as a tale of friendship between women; it would be a disappointing friendship for sure.
William Kent Krueger | Fiction
I remember one event clearly from the summer I was 13. I went to Bob-Lo Island, an amusement park on an island in the Detroit River, and met my first love, Randy. What do YOU remember about the summer you were 13? Well, this book is the summer Frank Drum was 13, and there is A LOT to remember! Granted, it is a novel, so the author can imagine events in order to create richness of experience and memory. And that he does!
Written from Frank’s perspective 40 years later, he tells a spellbinding story about the summer he was 13, during which accident, suicide, murder and deaths occurred. Frank and his younger brother Jake live in a small town on the Minnesota River ... a town in which, in 1961, it was impossible not to know everybody's business, and all the interwoven goings-on. This is a MUCH more interesting and intriguing story than my own first summer as a teenager.
Krueger also recalls and knits in the times so well. An example: “She wore a pair of dungarees and a blue denim shirt over a white top and she’d bunched the shirttails around her waist and tied them in a loose knot in a way that I’d seen Judy Garland do in a movie about show people.” (page 238, large print edition).
Krueger isn’t a spectacular mystery writer. I anticipated many of the events and “whodunits” before they actually happened. But that didn’t really matter. The story held my interest. This book actually kept me awake until midnight one night and 11:00 PM the next. Very unusual for this early-to-bed-early-to-rise reader.
Put this one on your list and enjoy!!
Paul Bloom | Non-Fiction
On page 4 of this book I was convinced. It was like that moment when I said, “I am no training to people’s weaknesses in the corporate world, but only to their strengths.” I made a radical shift. I am no longer interested in developing someone's (or my own) empathy. I am interested in developing their compassion.
Briefly, Bloom’s contention is that that problem with empathy – with feeling another’s feelings – is the spotlight nature of it. He talks about empathy as having decidedly unsatisfactory traits: narrow focus, innumeracy, bias, and specificity. His argument is that empathy can lead us in quite the wrong direction, especially in society. Feeling empathy towards another individual is always just that – it is individual. So if I work to solve your problem, it may very well be at the expense of a more strategic solution for a broader group. I cannot feel empathy for the broader group – but I can feel compassion for the strangers I don't know.
Plus, what good does it do me to feel your pain? (Yes, it might do me good to feel your joy; that point is well-taken!) If I actually FEEL your pain, as an empath, I can become immobile. Here is a quote form Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki, researchers in this arena: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.” (page 138)
I heard Bloom interviewed on NPR and was eager to read this book. It doesn’t take long to read – it is short and succinct (mostly). Though I did have to wait a while for a copy to become available at the library! If you are a coach, or a trainer, or a parent, or work in any way with the psychology, behaviors, or emotions of others, this is a must-read for you!
It fell from four hearts because the last two chapters seem like filler to me. I don’t know why they were included, unless Bloom's editor said that he needed more words! If you read this book, I would especially like to hear your opinion on these last two chapters, “Violence and Cruelty” and “Age of Reason.”
Becky Masterman | Fiction
Brigid Quinn is a 60-year old retired FBI agent, in a later-in-life marriage. I like that she is 60! She leaves her Tucson home to travel to Florida, where her father is dying in a hospital, and her relationship with her mother is as complex as ever. AND, of course, she reconnects with her colleague Laura Coleman who is working to exonerate Marcus Creighton, a man on death row, just days before his execution for murdering his wife and children. There are familiar, complicated family dynamics at play in this novel, as well as a juicy mystery to solve. And Brigid Quinn is highly involved with both!
I like Masterman's writing. Here is an example of what I found interesting, page 98: “Sebastian, Vero Beach’s lower-middle-class neighbor, nestled unapologetically, almost with a smirk, beside her wealthier enclave.” “Unapologetically, almost with a smirk”? I like this creativity, turn of a phrase, anthropomorphism! Ms. Masterman's story moves fast and is engaging. It is complex enough to keep you wondering.
Why not four hearts, then? Well, it isn’t a must-read; it is a fun read! Despite its over-dramatic title, it draws you into relationships and circumstances. If you are ready for a break from this year's reads about WW2, Appalachia, and grit, A Twist of the Knife will satisfy.
(BTW, this is another Nancy Pearl recommendation ... I trust her a BIT more now!)
Mick Herron | Fiction
(A reminder about two hearts: “I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.”)
I really liked the premise of this mystery novel. “Slow Horses” are British Intelligence Agents who screw up on a case, but stayed employed. They are shipped off to a building called “Slough House.” Of course, in this novel, they collectively do something right, redeeming themselves at least in part.
Unfortunately, IMHO, Herron simply does not deliver on this premise. We do not enter the story of the book until page 94. Up to that time, he gives us vignette after vignette of every Slow Horse currently housed at Slough House. There are too many of them to keep them straight – I wanted a table in the front of the book to help me keep track of who was who. And so, of course, once the story actually begins belatedly, it is difficult to care about any one character.
Later on Herron spends about 100 pages gathering all the Slow Horses from their various haunts one long night, as the mystery is about to be solved. BORING.
Finally, the conclusions are unclear. You are left hanging – not hanging in a good sense; more like hanging because he seems to have forgotten to wrap things up with a number of characters.
This is a Nancy Pearl recommendation. I am disappointed because I thought just maybe I had found another reviewer whose judgments were similar enough to me, that I could trust.
Yes, I finished it. I can be a sucker for a mystery and I wanted to see how the mystery resolved itself. But you may want to read a Connelly or a Grisham or a George or a Christie or a Reich or a Le Carre.
Scarlett Thomas | Fiction
OK, I give up. I have been trying for four days and 80 pages to get into this book. I find the characters completely meaningless. Bryony, for example, is obsessed with her weight ... not obsessed with losing it, just obsessed with it; with feeding it; with how well her husband bakes; with what clothes she can wear. Now I know the crux of the story is that when Oleander dies (who is the grandmother, sister, or friend of all the other characters in the book, and runs Namaste House, a retreat center for famous people like Paul McCartney), she leaves everyone a seed pod. Apparently the seed may bring good fortune or bad; may be deadly or bring enlightenment. That’s sounds like a rather intriguing plot!
Unfortunately, that event has not happened yet and I don’t frankly care if the characters reach nirvana or die. Or both. I am moving on.
Ben Montgomery | Non-Fiction
In the 1950s – in ALL of the 1950s – only 14 people completed hiking the 2050 mile Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine (or from Maine to Georgia!) One of them was Emma Gatewood, known affectionately and more famously as Grandma Gatewood. With 11 children and 23 grandchildren, at the age of 67, she was the first woman to solo hike the AT. In 1964, she became the first person to hike the entire trail three times. Go ahead, do the math!!
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is her story. I know many of you are avid hikers, often on foot, sometimes via armchair. In 2016, 1110 people completed the Trail, 29% of them women. As an avid reader of hiking books, and a four-year follower of Wired, as she travels around the world thru-hiking, I notice that today, hiking the AT is a very different experience from when Grandma did it. Hikers today carry all their supplies in lightweight packs, spend most nights sleeping on the trail in tents and cooking their food. Interestingly, back in 1955, the Trail was so new and such a marvel, that Grandma Gatewood, while she did spend many nights sleeping under picnic tables, also spent many nights at the homes of people along the trail. She would knock on doors and ask them for shelter; something you wouldn't see today except in an emergency.
She was famous for wearing only “Keds” tennis shoes and carrying a small knapsack, with no sleeping bag, tent, or cook stove. The author, Ben Montgomery, weaves in information about our culture at that time of Gatewood’s hike, and for the years immediately following, putting it in context for what hiking was like in the 50s, as well as the roles of women. He worked with Gatewood’s diaries, her correspondence from the trail, her heirs, and also the numerous articles that were published about her once she was "discovered” on the trail. And she is not Cheryl Strayed! Whether you loved or hated Wild, you will find Grandma Gatewood’s tale to be quite different and without the angst, errors, and inner turmoil of Strayed's hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Grandma Gatewood simply walks.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is an easy and enjoyable read. It is also inspiring. As I told a friend last night, it also makes me feel a bit languid ... I mean, I am not about to hike the Appalachian Trail. Nosiree! And I am a few years younger than Grandma Gatewood.
My one criticism of this book – and it is not big enough criticism to lower my heart rating – is that Ben Montgomery clearly is a reporter (he is a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times). As such, his writing is, I find, dispassionate. After just completing Coming Into the Country by John McPhee, who clearly wants to pass on his passion and enthusiasm, Montgomery is rather emotion-less in his communication.
Nevertheless, you will be delighted to know this story better! Emma Gatewood is an unsung hero of our modern day world!
Jacqueline Woodson | Fiction
This book is a Huffington Post recommendation. For the first few pages, I couldn’t understand why this quick, short book was recommended. It is a very fast read. I read it in an afternoon, lakeside, during which I also finished a watercolor painting and took a spin on the lake in my kayak.
It is the story of four girls who become friends on the chillingly dangerous streets of Brooklyn in the 1970s. We learn in the afterward that the author herself grew up in this place, though her characters are all fiction. The reader can feel that Woodson knows the place about which she writes; knows it intimately and personally.
The four young women tell themselves lies as they encounter disappearing mothers, madness, and not-so-innocent men and boys. Another Brooklyn packs a hard punch. It is memorable and satisfying. Take but a few hours, do yourself a favor, and read this award-winning pencil-thin book.
John McPhee | Non-Fiction
I was delighted by this book from the very first page. McPhee’s writing is like having a conversation over coffee. It is easy, engaging, curious, unhurried.
Before I opened this book, I thought I had made a mistake. Other travelers give you books to read before you travel somewhere. I received an extensive list from Off the Beaten Path for my tip to Alaska (which I didn’t even find until the day before I left.) Anyway, I digress. I began this book after I returned from Alaska, and I loved that I had seen a number of the places McPhee writes about. I wasn't totally dependent on my flawed imagination. I could truly picture what he saw. Of course, McPhee shares a common Alaskan comment, “I’ve flown it but not walked it.” That is very true for me and my “seeing” of the spaces and places.
This book is actually three separate stories, woven together by McPhee and his experiences in Alaska. In the first, “The Encircled River,” he travels down a Brooks Range river with a cadre of men from various government agencies – the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, for example. I loved this true wilderness story. It spoke to the only fantasy I left Alaska with; to maybe, someday, float a river in the spectacular Brooks Range.
The second book is about urban Alaska – a minuscule but important part of the state. In “What They Were Hunting For,” we go on an air-and-land search for new state capital, after a 1972 initiative passes the voters. The difficult-to-access town of Juneau was (and is) the state capital. In the initiative, the capital could not be Anchorage nor Fairbanks, or within 30 miles of either city. Eventually the Capital Selection Committee selects Willow as the new capital, and we see the lands they explored on their way to that decision. (Funds never were allocated for completion of this capital and it remains Juneau.)
Finally, the last book, “Coming into the Country” is more than half of the total read, in which McPhee tells story after story about the people who choose to live a subsistence life in the very remote back-country Alaska interior. These are fascinating, sometimes sad, and often inspiring stories. (Reminded me of the style of a favorite author, Studs Terkel). McPhee also portrays and explains the considerable challenges encountered over time among and between the values of the Alaskan white people, Indians, Eskimos, and the Federal government. I find myself using these stories today to speak to topics of risk, adventure, values, principles, self-sufficiency, life and death.
Coming into the Country deserves four hearts. It is a strong read. I have not read other John McPhee, but I understand all of his books are a force to be reckoned with and good way to while away winter hours. A part of me wanted to give this book three hearts, but I realized this was my failure, not the failure of the author. Coming into the Country was published in 1976/77. McPhee incorporates many interesting statistics, such as the price of milk, the number of people living in Eagle, the journey and cost to bring a large CAT machine into the back-country, and the percentage distribution of lands that are federal, state and private. These statistics are all very dated – they are more than 40 years old – and I found myself constantly wondering “What is it today?” Unfortunately – no, fortunately – I read Coming into the Country while camping at Little Crater campground and had no internet service to distract me with the answers to these questions!
Enjoy this book! And please let us know what other John McPhee’s you have read. What did you like or dislike?
Dominic Smith | Fiction
I really like the story line of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. Sara de Vos is a not-very-prolific painter in Amsterdam in 1631, and the first woman master painter in the Guild of St. Luke. Centuries later, 1957, Ellie Shipley is a struggling art student in New York City, when she paints a Sara de Vos forgery. Of course, her single moral failure haunts her all her life, and comes to roost in Sidney in the year 2000. Here is her nadir, against the allegory of an old painting: “For two days she has had the sensation of seeing her own life under an X-ray – the hairline fractures and warped layers that distort the topmost image. She sees her private history, the personal epochs and eras in foreign cities, with a clean, clinical detachment. They have all led to the cracks on the surface and it is time to take responsibility for those flaws. Last night, she drafted two letters of resignation, one to the museum and one to the university.” (Page unknown ... it is page 371 in the large-print edition)
It took me a while to become engaged in this book, in part because of the jumps in time. Although each chapter is clearly marked, I still had a bit of trouble wrapping my head around who, where and when. As the novel begins, there are four settings: two in New York in 1957; Sydney in 2000; and Amsterdam, 1635.
The other challenge is becoming accustomed to Mr. Smith's writing. I find it rather flowery and hard to grasp. Some of you might quite enjoy his writing! Here is an example of what kept me at a distance from the novel for the first half (page 155, large print edition): “Tulp is a man on the ascent; as a city anatomist he is said to have personally signed the fitness reports of the first settlers in New Netherland. With mayoral aspirations, he regularly publishes essays in the newspaper about apothecary reform and the plague and the circulatory powers of human blood.”
Eventually, however the story takes over and the language moves into the shadows. All in all, if the topic sounds interesting, yes, read this clever tale.
Velma Wallis | Fiction
This writing is the retelling of an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters in the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska. In this legend, two old women are abandoned by their tribe in a brutal winter. Yes, in the legend, they survive and thrive.
I believe legends like these are interesting in their telling AND also communicate messages for parallel circumstances. As I read this legend, I found myself reflecting on how I contain elements of both of these women ... the courage and fortitude of one; the fear and sadness of the other. I find it a useful and inspiring tale for myself while I continue to process my grief and try to create a life for myself.
I highly recommend this book. It is very short – small in size and only 127 pages long. I bought it in the Fairbanks airport, and would like to give it away to whomever of my blog readers feels drawn to it ... just let me know.
Anita Shreve | Fiction
This is the book that compelled me to clarify my four-heart rating system. It is a perfect two hearts: “I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.”
This is a novel based upon the ferocious 1947 fire that broke out all along the coast of Maine (yes, fires have a significant place in recent blog postings!) It tells the made-up tale of Grace Holland, a 24-year old woman whose house burns down and her challenges as she is left with two toddlers to protect and support.
Unfortunately, it is too saccharin for my tastes. I don’t believe Ms. Shreve manages to convey almost any of the angst, anger, and pain such a disaster would instigate. Grace’s resolutions come too easily and are not believable.
Shreve’s writing style is, however, absorbing. This novel is fast-paced, a quick and easy read. I DO recommend it if, given that it is late July, you are looking for a rather mindless beach read. It is perfect for that! If you have more important, more satisfying books on your reading list, then defer this one and move on.
Pamela Royes | Memoir
In the early 1970’s Pamela Royes, discouraged with college, was trying to find her path. She makes her way to the Hells Canyon area of eastern Oregon ... a remote and wild wilderness … and proceeds to blossom into a strong and capable woman, living in the back country, learning to survive on a horse, in a tent, sometimes herding sheep. She falls in love with an austere place and a Vietnam veteran, Skip. Together they carve a home out of the wilderness.
I liked the story; I liked Pam's resilience; I liked her realism; I admire her courage. This is NOT something I had the tenacity to do (Pam and I are almost the same age), even though there were times I dreamt of it.
Her writing is not always perfect, and there are a few small inconsistencies, but if you like to read about the wilderness, growing into adulthood, or the journey of strong women, you’ll like this read.
We will be discussing at book club this week. Perhaps I will have some additional comments then.
Timothy Egan | Non-Fiction
On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, the national forests of Washington, Idaho and Montana raged with forest fire. I love reading outdoor adventures, from climbing Annapurna to trekking the Continental Divide Trail to fighting wild fires. However, I hate reading history.
This book, which tells the story of the Big Burn within the context of Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot was too much history and not enough adventure for me. I couldn’t get through it. (Sorry, Rene!)
In thinking about The Stars are Fire (blog posting is on its way!) I was struggling between two hearts and three hearts and decided it would behoove the Dusty Shelves Book Blog if I defined the hearts system a BIT more clearly. Given that it is really a compilation of scales, and rarely all one rating or another, here’s my best attempt to explain what my hearts mean:
Like it a lot or loved it; I recommend it; put it on your list!
Like it; I recommend, with some reservations.
I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.
I couldn’t get through it.
Stephen King | Fiction
A friend sent an article that posed a challenge … to read something you don’t normally read. Now, I SUPPOSE that meant I should read a book about the history of the relationship between North Korea and South Korea, or maybe a tome on the rise of the drug cartels in South America. But no! The first thing that popped into my mind was to read a genre I had assiduously avoided ... a horror novel by Stephen King. And so I picked the one King himself describes as “the most frightening book I’ve ever written.” I was curious to see why this author is so popular.
Well, okay, I am now done with horror again. Not because it was so scary, but because it was boring! King writes to a general audience, and so he does not provide a lot of depth or subtlety or complexity. I like his use of short quick sentences, however. I found them engaging and fast-moving.
This story line in this book is what you might imagine – bury your pet it this place and it will come back to life, though typically meaner and scarier and more evil than it was before it died. Of course, the characters in this book begin to see applicability for humans as well.
About half-way through I really wanted to put the book down, but I decided to complete my commitment to myself. What I learned about this style of writing is that while there are hints of horror to come, really there is a lot of plot and storyline that needs to happen before the horror can have any emotional impact. The horror in this book all happened in the last 50 or so pages (it’s a 400-page book).
So, don’t waste your time. And, in the future, I promise to consider carefully what challenges I accept.
Eowyn Ivey | Fiction
This novel is based on an actual 1885 expedition by Lieutenant Henry T. Allen.
Eowyn Ivey’s character, Colonel Allen Forrester, travels up the Wolverine River with a small band of men (and soon, one woman and one dog) into the vast untamed Alaska Territory. There are three simultaneous story lines. Forrester’s journals create the main story line. He writes of the Alaska expedition, complete with cold, ice, encounters with native peoples, near starvation -- all the challenges you would expect. His wife Sophie, a feminist who has been left behind in Oregon, also keeps a journal, which makes the second story line. The third story emerges from the delightful current day letters between one of Forrester’s descendants, Walt, and a museum curator, Josh, in Alaska. In addition, there are period photographs, drawings and diagrams sprinkled throughout the book.
I wondered what magical realism might appear, given Ivey’s predilection towards it in her first novel, The Snow Child. And there is a rich theme of magic in To the Bright Edge of the World that shows up in the Old Man, a raven, the woman Nat’aaggi, and various events, which would prove to be spoilers if I told you about them!
My friend Mary suggested this novel as a preparatory read before I travel to Alaska later this month. An excellent choice! It isn’t dry history, but it did imbue me with a sense of the vastness and the hardships of Alaska, brought alive by Ivey’s fine imagination.
If you read it, please weigh in on who you think is the author of the infrequent journal entries that begin with latitude, longitude and the weather (page 84 and 207 are but two examples of these.) One person I know thinks these writings belong to Pruitt, one of the men on the expedition. I think it is the Old Man and the raven, who I believe are one and the same. Or are they reports from Nat’aaggi? Who do YOU think it is?
Lawrence Hill | Fiction
The book is the perfect follow-up novel after reading Homegoing and learning about the slave trade, and appreciating The Underground Railway about slavery and the fight for freedom. Someone Knows My Name is another fictionalized book about slavery, but in this novel, the slave truly does gain her freedom. Her journey from Africa to South Carolina to New York to Nova Scotia to Africa to London is a truly remarkable story.
Solidly based in history, Aminata Diallo is stolen from her African village in 1756 when she is eleven. She endures many hardships, cruelties, and humiliations. However, this novel explores her journey towards freedom, with its myriad of experiences -- disappointments, setbacks, mistrust, trust, and occasional compassion. Aminata becomes the author of the Book of Negroes, a record of 3000 black women, men, and children who served the British during the Revolutionary War, in exchange for freedom and transport to Nova Scotia from New York and other places in the east. (You can see The Book of Negroes in the National Archives of the United States, Canada, or England).
I loved this book! It is well written, compelling, and fascinating. It is about 500 pages, so it takes a while, but it is one of those long books that you don’t want to end ... every chapter reveals something new and intriguing. Three times I checked to confirm that Someone Knows My Name was written by a man. I am always in awe when I feel a male author can truly represent the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a woman, and Lawrence Hill does that unerringly. And then to reach the end and discover that he is a Canadian, born and raised in Toronto – I was even more impressed. While he wrote about slavery in the not-yet-united-states, I suspect he was inspired by the role Nova Scotia played in the salvation of these slaves.
I fully recommend Someone Knows My Name. And I am very grateful to Jan D, from the Casting Crew book club, who suggested in this book as a 2016 read, and when we rejected it, fought for it again in 2017. She was right all along!
Yes, I'm traveling outside my own box here and reviewing a movie, Wonder Woman, viewed yesterday with my friend Deby. There's a lot of hype about this movie, especially from, about and for women. And hype it is.
I enjoyed the first two-thirds or so. I thought the story of Wonder Woman's roots in the community of Amazons, and the visual imagery in this portion were both quite beautiful. I also quite enjoyed her transition to London, and her wonder (no pun intended) at this world of men, poverty, filth, cars, fashion and general malaise.
But then Wonder Woman saves the world. And again. And again. There was too much violence for me in the last third and, more important, the fighting sequences became boring. I was anxious for it to be over. There is a bit of a twist, but I saw it coming, so even that little surprise fell flat for me. My chair was squeaking in the theater, so I was trying to be really quiet and sit perfectly still and it was HARD.
So, IMHO, see it, but don't expect to walk out awed. Or inspired to save the world.
Paulette Jiles | Fiction
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a “runner” after the Civil War. He travels throughout north Texas giving readings to people from worldwide newspapers, for 10 cents a listener. He eschews Texas newspapers, because they excite his audiences and wreak havoc and fistfights among his listeners due to the divisive post-war politics in Texas. One day he agrees to deliver Johanna, previously stolen by an Indian tribe, to her aunt and uncle in south Texas. This is the tale of their journey.
This short book (I read it flying home from Dallas) is sweet, but predictable. There are few surprises and, other than the intrigue of learning about the profession of a runner, I found it not all that compelling. It's a nice book for a plane ride, but not something to put on your “must read” list. I think, too, this book did not have an editor! Before you are too far into this book, you will read that Johanna’s hair is colored honey, biscuit, taffy and ocher. And then taffy again. I have no idea why the author is obsessed with describing Johanna's hair. (Late in the book, Jiles uses a clear word to clarify her hair color. I won't tell you what that word is … it would be a spoiler, in a book that requires few spoiler alerts). Likewise, Ms. Jiles more than once describes the moon as “rolling backwards.” It is irritating that no one seemed to read and edit this book for repetition.
If you want a sweet little read, go for it. Otherwise, there are many juicier books calling to you and me!
Sheila Nevins | Biography/Memoir
You Don’t Look Your Age is a collection of short stories and poetry, loosely yet clearly woven together, about the life of Sheila Nevins. Sheila Nevins is the President of HBO Documentary Films and has made over 1000(!) documentaries. She has been credited with the “rebirthing” of documentaries.
Not typically a short story reader, I found my own self on these pages. As a woman entering business in a similar time frame (she is 14 years older than me, but had a later start in the professional world), I related to many, though not all, of her stories about work, men, friendship and personal growth. The decade of the 60’s, the decade that Ms. Nevins and I did not share, DID make a difference for the role of women in the workforce. However, friendships and the trials of womanhood seem to remain much the same.
The very last story particularly resonated with me, as she writes about her mother’s struggle with an inherited disease, Raynaud’s phenomenon. This is a disease I was diagnosed with 45 years ago, inherited from my own mother.
I like Nevins’ style – she writes interesting and important stories from her life, but not in a boring chronology. She emotes -- at times funny, at times sad, at times angry. This is a quick and easy read, though once or twice emotionally painful. I give it three hearts because of the short story format – not my personal favorite. Such a successful woman, I find she almost seems to take herself too lightly. Otherwise, it is a four heart memoir.
Sarah Waters | Fiction
It was 1862 in London when Sue Tinders, orphaned at birth, comes to live with Mrs. Sucksby and her “family” of fingersmiths – petty thieves, all. By the time Sue turns 17, she finds herself in the midst of an elaborate conspiratorial plot. The plot evolves to reveal truth and falsehood, loyalty and disloyalty, love in many forms, betrayal, exploitation, manipulation … well, the list goes on!
I loved this book! Because it was difficult to get my hands on, and it was a book club read, I had five days to read this 600-page book cover to cover. It wasn’t hard. Water’s writing creates a page-turner, attested to by most members of the Casting Crew Book Club.
Here is but one example of her evocative and visual writing (page 114): “Besides, the days at Briar were so very regular, it was quite like some great mechanical show, you could not change it. The house bell woke us up in the mornings and after that we all went moving on our ways from room to room, on our set courses, until the bell rang us back into our beds at night. There might as well have been grooves laid for us in the floorboards; we might have glided on sticks. There might have been a great handle set into the side of the house, and a great hand winding it …”
Sarah Waters is a fine storyteller. This book will stay with you and haunt you for a while. There are twists, turns and inevitable conclusions. I highly recommend this book, especially for a summer read; it is engrossing and unique. Personally, I am going to explore Sarah Waters’ five prior novels. I have already requested Tipping the Velvet at the library.
In thinking about The Stars are Fire (blog posting is on its way!) I was struggling between two hearts and three hearts and decided it would behoove the Dusty Shelves Book Blog if I defined the hearts system a BIT more clearly. Given that it is really a complication of scales, and rarely all one rating or another, here’s my best attempt to explain what my hearts mean:
Like it a lot or loved it; I recommend it; put it on your list!
Like it; I recommend, with some reservations.
I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.
I couldn’t get through it
J.D. Vance | Memoir
I wanted Hillbilly Elegy to explain to me why Appalachia voted for Trump. I guess if I really want to know, I better read a non-fiction that attempts to answer that question. Any recommendations? Hillbilly Elegy gave me some insight with which to answer that question, but not much. More on this below.
This is a tough blog to write! Hillbilly Elegy is difficult to compartmentalize. The book is a memoir by a man who grew up in Appalachia and eventually left. He tells his personal story about being poor and white in Appalachia, and attempts to draw sociological conclusions from it. His memoir is much larger than the analysis. This disappointed me. I wanted more of a researched, nuanced analysis.
The first half of the book is pure story. I was rather amazed at the direct parallels to my own life. JD writes a great deal about the physical and emotional connection among family in Appalachia. My mom, in Detroit, married the boy across the street. Two of her sisters married two brothers from a few doors down. There was a time when all of my family was concentrated in just a few blocks in Detroit. And then came “white flight” to the suburbs and the next generation departed, leaving only my grandparents to die in the city. While my mom was not quite as addicted as Vance’s mom (prescription drugs for my mom, not street drugs) and certainly did not go through boyfriends and husbands like Vance’s mom, still there were parallels in how these women related to and abandoned their children. And I had to laugh at the section about Appalachia adults hating Japanese cars. Well, being from Detroit, this was a common sentiment!
I later learned that many readers could not relate to this family dynamic at all. It occurs to me that it is a common dynamic, perhaps, in the cities that were populated by early 1900’s immigrants … Italians, Poles, Serbs, Germans ... all looking for better work in America. Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis ... all of these towns experienced some of what Appalachia did, though with less debilitation.
In the center of the book, pages 139 – 142, the author begins to hypothesize how Appalachia Democrats became Republicans. It is an interesting, if very cursory, explanation. Frankly, it is not very complimentary, making Appalachia sound reactive and resentful. A bit later, around page 191, he talks about sentiment regarding President Obama and social changes of that era, and he presents the opinion of his people as though it is all made up; not grounded in any fact.
Near the end, Vance attempts to rescue his book (okay, I KNOW I am attributing to him something he would never attribute to himself!!) and he presents some useful and insightful arguments for what has occurred in this region of the country, and what can help.
My friend Deby found the author’s writing “annoying.” I did too, though neither of us could put our finger on precisely why. My best explanation is that this is written like a “How I spent my summer vacation” essay. It is chronological and rather immature in writing style.
That all being said, I actually think you should read this book. I am completely confident you will not agree with all of my opinions, and that is what is interesting and where the learning is. I am fascinated to hear what you think of this book. I know many of you have already read it. Please opine!
After hearing from some of you that you don't see replies to your comments, I did some research. It is below. If this doesn't help, I will contact my web designer and see if there is something else to be fixed!
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Julie McElwain | Fiction
I don’t understand how I can give Ms. McElwain’s first book, A Murder in Time. four hearts, and I can’t struggle my way through her second novel. It is like a movie sequel in which the sequel is simply a flop. I have been working on this book for days, and I am only on page 94. I am abandoning it. There seems to be nothing new and fresh in this novel. The setting remains the same … FBI Agent Kendra Donovan is still caught in England in 1815 as an unwilling time traveler. She is investigating a second murder now. But except for the fact that a different society Lady has become our victim, nothing new seems to be happening. Kendra remains befuddled by the norm differences and societal changes in 200 years. She has the same manner of shocking people with her modern-day assertiveness. She has the same sweet way of telling her benefactor, Duke Aldridge bits and pieces of life in the 21st century, while being fearful of saying too much so as not to change history. There is the same sexual/romantic tension between her and Alec.
Nothing is engaging me. I am moving on.
Jodi Picoult | Fiction
I became nauseous twice while reading this novel. While there was little physical violence per se, reading about the inner thoughts of a white supremacist quite literally made me ill. I considered quitting the second time this occurred, and then I read some reviews. Eleanor Brown of the Washington Post describes small great things as “frank, uncomfortably introspective” and a book that will challenge readers. With that perspective and the encouragement of my friend Linda, I continued. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/small-great-things-is-the-most-important-novel-jodi-picoult-has-ever-written/2016/10/12/f18e0fdc-7eb4-11e6-8d13-d7c704ef9fd9_story.html?utm_term=.fa0c3dc900d3
This is the story of Ruth, an African-American highly experienced labor & delivery nurse, who is restricted from caring for a newborn per the request of the newborn’s parents, who are white supremacists. But then an emergency occurs, the baby dies and Ruth is sued by the parents, charged with murder and negligent homicide. The novel is based on a real situation that occurred in Flint, Michigan.
The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Ruth, her white attorney Kennedy, and the father of the baby, Turk. This novel will definitely challenge you to look at your own racism, not just in terms of hate, but also in terms of privilege. It is also a good story! Picoult writes well ... I think an author who can make me nauseous just by relaying the thoughts of one of her characters has to have superb skills.
I gave small great things three hearts, however, because a) I cannot recommend this book to everyone; you have to be ready for it, and have the stomach for it; and b) I think it is a somewhat over-written. I think the some elements of the conclusion were manufactured out of thin air and quite unnecessary and unbelievable. I would like to hear what you think about the ending – without any spoilers! Particularly unreal to me is what happens to the couple, Brit and Turk.
If you read this, please post your opinion! And have a bottle of Pepto Bismol nearby.
Yaa Gyasi | Fiction
I started Homegoing on CD, while driving to Cannon Beach Oregon for a watercolor workshop at the ocean. And I became a bit confused. That evening, however, when I opened a print copy of the book and found an organization chart (no, that's not what it called. Cripes, I have been working in the corporate world for way too long!) Anyway, once I found the family tree, and backed up a little on what I had listened to, Homegoing began to fall into place and I found my rhythm with the book.
The author writes about a character in each of 9(?) generations, beginning on the Gold Coast of Africa in 1764 and through the 1990’s in Palo Alto. The way she tells the story, you don't have the opportunity to follow one character. It is on a timeline, not all at one point in time. That is a bit frustrating. Still, the depth of the story illustrates Gyasi’s ability to immerse her readers in Black family culture and the slave trade through the generations. Her storytelling raises this novel to a full four hearts for me. The only "character" who remains consistent through the generations is a black stone pendant that is handed down from generation to generation. It is the stone that ties the story into one piece.
This novel is the Deschutes County community read for 2017, and I can see what inspired this choice. You receive an education as well as entertainment. I will be hearing the author speak on May 7, and will edit this post if I learn anything insightful to add!
Hope Jahren| Non-Fiction
- Wood is still our best material for building. Nothing human-made is as strong, flexible and lightweight.
- Leaves mature from tip to base.
- Plants are the only things in the universe that create sugar from non-living organic matter.
- Trees have conduits that move soil water up and other conduits that move sugar water down.
- When plants freeze, they die. Do you know how trees keep themselves from freezing?
- If you consider a modest maple tree, about the height of a street lamp, and pull off every leaf in the summer, you'll have about 35 pounds of leaves, every ounce of which has been created from air and soil, using the sun as energy, and absorbing and evaporating 3000 gallons of water in just a few short spring months. In these 35 pounds, you have enough sugar to make 3 pecan pies and enough cellulose to manufacture 300 sheets of printer paper.
- Trees talk to each other to ward off disease.
If these factoids fascinate you, you will love Lab Girl. Yes, it is officially Hope Jahren's autobiography, but fully 80% of her book is about her passion for plants, especially trees, and only the basic structure of her life is presented in typical autobiographic cadence. And Jahren was trained as a writer before she became an geochemist, geobologist, and a professor. Her profound ability to write makes this book a page turner.
Someone in my hiking group, Sole Sisters, (Leslie, I think) recommended this book when I was running on about enjoying The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (see my blog review at sagecoach.com/dustyshelves.) To spark your memory, Gilbert's main character is the moss woman.
Lab Girl is a very interesting book if you have any affinity for the out of doors. I recommend it. Spring is the perfect time of the year to read this book!
Brit Bennett| Fiction
Huffington Post recently published a list, 10 New Books By Women Writers Of Color To Add To Your Must-Read List. So, I decided to oblige. I checked with my dear friend and reading buddy Mary and she had recently read and enjoyed The Mothers, so that’s where I began.
At first I thought The Mothers was simply a story about Nadia, a young woman in Southern California. The more I read, the richer this book became. And I was only a tiny bit biased by Nadia’s departure from California to go to college at my alma mater, the University of Michigan!
The three main characters are Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, three black teenagers as the story begins. Yes, there are many entanglements among these three people in their teenage years and later in life, as you might expect. About halfway through, the intersections of these three lives become more complex and the book becomes more compelling.
This is (yes, again!) another debut novel. I hope we see more from Ms. Bennett, who has insight and understanding of the complexities we can create between one another, and how these complexities impact our lives. I trust her writing will become a bit tighter and more mature.
My only real criticism is that I believe the author does an inadequate job of flushing out her title, The Mothers. The Mothers are the women elders in the church that is central to Luke’s, Nadia’s, and Aubrey’s lives, but we don’t really learn about the mothers until Chapter 12 of this 14-chapter novel.
The Mothers receives four hearts from me ... but it isn't a wild and enthusiastic four hearts. Read this book if it sounds interesting to you. It is not a “must read” however. I’d give it a solid 3.6 hearts, if I weren’t so committed to my 4-heart rating (and if I had a clue how to make a .6 heart!)
Naomi J. Williams | Fiction
In 1785 the Boussole and the Astrolabe set sail from France under the leadership of Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse. For three years the expedition of two frigates and 200 men attempt to circumnavigate the globe for science and for "the glory of France." This inventive novel is based upon their journey.
Landfalls explores the indigenous peoples the expedition encounters, the science the savants on board attempt to learn, and the relationships of the men. Though there is a structure ... each chapter tells about the adventure from a different point of view and from a different place upon the earth ... the author, Naomi J. Williams, weaves this structure together with a true story-teller's expertise. It isn't even obvious that this is the structure she is following. As a reader, you are simply swept along on the journey.
Once again, I must say, this is a remarkable first novel! Williams richly develops her characters. She avoids the caricatures we may have in our minds about long-ago sailors. No one is brutal. Drunkenness is not a major element of her story. Instead, these are real men on a real journey trying to do real work. I think one secret to her magic is how she incorporates the scientific curiosity of the sailors. I love the arguments about the value (or not) of fresh water. I am intrigued that sailing expeditions had ship's artists to capture plants, animals, land formations and people.
Landfalls (an apt and descriptive title) is definitely worth your time. Your imagination and your curiosity will be grateful.
Amber J. Keyser | Non-Fiction
I heard the author of The V-Word interviewed on NPR but didn't realize until I was well into this book that it is a teen book. I found the 17 vignettes of how young women lost their virginity decidedly interesting. Straight, gay, questioning, uncertain ... there is quite a range of stories. The author defines assault, rape, unwanted or coerced sex as violence, not sex, and such stories are not included. All the vignettes are about women choosing sex for the very first time.
Some stories made me smile; some made me cringe. And I found my own story amidst the telling. (Joe and I were both virgins so "trying to figure out how to insert tab A into slot B" took me back a few years and made me laugh!)
The last 60 pages of the 200-page book were useless to me ... the vignettes were complete, and this section was advice and perspective for young women. Not something I needed!
Since my few blog readers are all friends, I will say, reading about sex was difficult at times. Those of you who are widowed, or single, or simply have not had sex in a long time (and would like to!) be forewarned ... The V-Word will certainly make you think about such intimacies again!
Lee Child | Fiction
This was a fun read, in-between more serious books! Someone is buying something worth $100 million, in two-decades-ago US dollars. What could be bought, sold and transported on the black market for 100 very large bills? Jack Reacher, of course, is put on the job to find the item, the seller and the buyer. Eventually, he uncovers the item and the seller in Hamburg, neither of which make their way to the buyer, and the world is safe again. Intrigue, fast-paced, not overly violent ... Jack Reacher novels are a nice respite.
Now, I splay out my possible reads on the kitchen island and make a decision where to turn my attention next. Oh boy!
Sherry Thomas | Fiction
I’m confused. This book, which I finished primarily so I could write a blog post, simply confused me. I was half-way through before I figured out what was going on. Was I dense? Or did the plot really not reveal itself until half-way in? Charlotte Holmes assumes the name of Sherlock Holmes and searches for the culprits in three murders. It IS on the back of the book – I guess I should have known earlier that Charlotte was operating a ruse, under the name of Sherlock Holmes, but I didn't seem to connect to this information until nearly halfway in. And then, with three murders and multiple suspects, I continued to be confused. And when it ended and all was revealed? Well, suffice it to say, I was still confused.
So, you may ask, why not one heart? Because I finished it. I loved Charlotte's character — she is a renegade; she fights the morals of her time; she meets some delightful people along her journey. Especially Mrs. Watson (I assume that her name was appropriately tongue-in-cheek!) However, I don’t think I will pick up another Sherry Thomas soon. I have way too many books on my “must be read” list.
Genevieve Valentine | Fiction
I can’t quite say why I enjoyed this book so much. The story is not that compelling (more on that below) but the writing is just delightful. Valentine has a style that is easy to read and enjoy.
The story centers on Jo, the eldest of 12 sisters who live in the upper floors of a Fifth Avenue townhome in the 1920s. Their mother died after giving birth to #12, and the girls now live with their controlling and extremely distant father, who is profoundly disappointed that his wife never gave him a son. Actually, their father has abandoned the sisters in all ways except to provide food and housing. As a matter of fact – hard to believe – a number of the sisters have never met their father. Jo is usually the go-between. When he wants to communicate something, he sends one of the house servants up to ask Jo to come to his study.
Jo teaches her eleven sisters to dance and for eight fairy-tale years they sneak out at midnight to explore the speakeasies of New York City, where they dance to their hearts' content, never giving their names to anyone.
The sisters call Jo “The General.” An apt name for their substitute mother! I wonder if Jo is in some way reminiscent of Jo in Little Women. (I did my compulsory read of Little Women as a young girl, but the book I read over and over again every summer that still sits on my shelf today, is Little Men. I wonder what this presages about my life and career?)
An example of Genevieve Valentine's delightful writing is how she names the two sets of twins in the family, Hattie & Mattie and Rose & Lily. An oddity is her considerable overuse of parentheses. I never quite understood why so many of her sentences are in parentheses.
I gave this novel three hearts instead of four because it isn’t a “must read.” I wouldn’t talk about it on a hiking trail with my friends and proclaim, “You must read this!” It is an interesting and enjoyable short book. I reserve the right to add to this post after we discuss The Girls at the Kingfisher Club at book club this week! For a snowy weekend by the fireplace, I recommend this read!
Liane Moriarty | Fiction
I give up. I have wasted two weekends on this book, hoping the characters become less vapid and a plot actually develops. I have made it all the way to page 198, almost half-way, and this morning I awoke with clarity. It is time to move on. Oprah called it “Gripping.” The Washington Post, “Powerful.” Family Circle called it “Mesmerizing.” I guess that should have aroused my suspicion.
If you read this and liked it, I would LOVE to hear about it!
Marie Semple | Fiction
This book is NOT about Bernadette’s physical disappearance (see my rant below.) However, it is about her emotional, intellectual and mental disappearance from her life. Bernadette is an incredibly interesting character … she presents as somewhat daft ... but then again, she presents as very rational. Can someone be “somewhat” daft? (Heck if I know; I’m a coach, not a psychiatrist!) As she lives her life as a mom and a wife and neighbor, living in a house that is literally being taken over by blackberry vines, you wonder how she can be called sane. But then you observe her relationship with her husband, her reasons for using a virtual assistant, her astonishing past, and her arguments with her neighbor and with her daughter’s school administrators and you unabashedly cheer her on! To fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to designers, she's a revolutionary anomaly of an architect; and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
This is an odd book ... the story is primarily contained in notes the characters write each other ... usually not e-mails and not faxes, but “notes.” The author doesn’t explain how these “notes” get delivered. Odd, yes, but once you become accustomed to the style, quite engaging
This was the January read for our book club, The Casting Crew. (Nicole Kidman won the spot of Bernadette!) I can't remember the last time we discussed a book for so long. For the nine women sitting around Pam's dining room table, there was resonance with the character of Bernadette, as well as many laugh-out-loud moments while reading.
Yes, pick this novel up, get yourself accustomed to the odd and playful style, and enjoy.
Rant: I have been reading book reviews much more since I started the Dusty Shelves book blog, sometimes before I read the book, sometimes after. I need to start paying attention to the reviewers' names and see if I can find a few I like and trust (sort of like the old days with movies and Siskel and Ebert. Any suggestions, blog readers??) I have noticed that so many reviewers zero in on an event in a book that they find particularly enticing and then write about that, pretending that the exciting event they picked out is what the book is about, thereby tantalizing you by this event. (Actually, publishers and their jacket notes are even more to blame than reviewers!) Did you read any of the reviews claiming Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a mystery about Bernadette's (physical) disappearance? Well, it isn’t! Bernadette doesn't disappear until page 213; more than 2/3rds through the book. This event-focused review does the author and the book a disservice, I believe.
Colson Whitehead | Fiction
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.
James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge | Fiction
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).
Fredrik Backman | Fiction
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!
Julie McElwain | Fiction
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!
Ruth Ware | Fiction
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!
Susie Steiner | Fiction
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.
Ann Patchett | Fiction
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.
R.J. Palacio | Fiction
“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!
Elizabeth Brundage | Fiction
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.
James Patterson & Maxine Paetro | Fiction
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.
Steve Chandler & Rich Litvin | Non-Fiction
(for a limited audience) I LOVED this book. I just devoured it last week. It isn’t relevant to me … I don’t need any more clients. But I thought of all of you who coach, with every single page I read. I was fortunate enough to have somehow come by some of these concepts early in my business 20 years ago. However, there were many great ideas I never heard before – I and wish I had known then.
Read it. Really. I believe you will find something very valuable. (And it is an easy read, with lots of white space!
p.s. Do not bother wasting the 30 seconds it takes to read The 30-Second Guide to Coaching Your Inner Critic by Susan Mackenty Brady. Sometimes your return really does match what you invest.
M.J. Carter | Fiction
This is one of the most boring books I have read. Throughout, I was reminded of our Improv Director, Rhonda, who often declares, “Don’t tell us what happened … show us!” M.J. Carter writes of endless meetings and endless dialogue in her novel. There is very little action, though if you make it to page 250, finally something does happen! Then there’s 70 pages of action, intrigue, and breath-holding passages before Carter descends once again into incessant meetings and dialogue. I read the entire book because it was a Book Club book, and I prefer to engage in our conversations. If I were on my own, I would have taken this book back to the library pronto!
I fear the author fell victim to the shortcomings of first-person narration. From a blog on the “Most Common Writing Mistakes” I was able to glean some confirmation for what I suspected was the underlying snag in this book: “The first-person narrator, more than any other type of narrator, is inclined to lapse into self-centered telling, in which he overpowers the story, at the expense of the other characters and even the plot itself. ... <Two of the challenges of writing in the first person are> … Telling thoughts instead of showing; and inserting lengthy narrative at the expense of action and dialogue.” I believe M.J. Carter trapped herself into the worst specimens of first-person narration.
Back-cover reviewers used words like “rip-roaring” and “gripping.” I THINK the publisher swapped in reviews from some other book! Find something else to read as the leaves turn color and fall from the trees.
James Patterson | Fiction
I am not going to post about each of the 15 books (so far?) in this series. Suffice it to say, they are fun reads, if you like mysteries, intrigue, solving thorny problems, and smart women! Excellent for long plane rides. The miles fly by (no pun intended. Ouch.) I suspect these are also good beach reads, but it has been so many years since I lived near a beach, I can't attest to that as fact.
I am wending my way through the series. #3 is on my book pile right now. Enjoy!
Samuel Western | Fiction
“Ward sets down Gwen’s shotgun, picks up his own, and opens the driver side door. As he reaches in to place the shotgun on the gun rack, he touches the trigger of the unfired barrel. The birdshot goes through the rear window and directly into the back of Gwen’s head.”
In Chapter 1 of Canyons, Ward accidentally kills his girlfriend, Gwen, twin sister of Eric, who witnesses this horrific event at Ladderback Ranch in Idaho. This novel is about Ward and Eric 25 years later, when together they confront the demons and furies they have held on to for the intervening years.
Sam Western is a friend of my book club member Katie W., and so I began this book feeling like I was doing a favor for someone ... reading the book of a friend of a friend. Ha! I was immediately drawn in and stayed engaged throughout this short – though not easy – read. Western tells a compelling story about two self-destructive former friends. The author must have a big heart himself to be able to write about the inner thoughts and feelings of these two men.
Aside from the fact that Western has an odd tendency to not use the article “a” when it is called for, this is a beautifully written book. I hope he writes another novel soon!
Emma Cline | Fiction
The Girls tells an intriguing story of a cult, a commune of sorts, in Northern California in the late 1960’s. Evie Boyd is a bored and drifting 14-year-old, who is captivated by the group after she encounters “the girls” in a park near her home: “I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed. Then their jewelry catching the sun. The three of them were far enough away that I saw only the periphery of their features, but it didn’t matter — I knew they were different from everyone else in the park.” Evie is mesmerized and is soon drawn in by Suzanne and the charismatic leader of the group. Russell.
It is a story of the vulnerability and naiveté of teenagers, especially at this time in our country where drugs, freedom, and frayed long granny skirts were rampant.
Unfortunately for the story, it is clear this is Ms. Cline’s first novel. Her story is compelling; her writing is not. For some unknown reason, she tells the story from the viewpoint of Evie as a grown woman, decades later. This trick of the writing trade adds not an ounce of interest. Fortunately, she only returns to modern-day Evie three or four times, but each time is a jarring waste of effort. Second, the author does not yet have the skill to build suspense. You know there will be murders. This is mentioned early in the book, and then again around page 200 for a few pages, and then she abandons it again until page 312. There is way too much time in-between these hints of what is to come to create a sense of anticipation in her writing. I imagine a friend of hers reading the draft and saying, "You need to plant a seed of the murders earlier in the book," and Ms. Cline randomly obliges her friend.
Finally, and most difficult of all, the book is overwritten. An example on page 200: “I got up once to get Suzanne a glass of water, and there was a domestic gentleness in the act. I wanted to meet a need, put water in her mouth. Suzanne smiled up at me as she drank, gulping so fast I could see her throat ripple.” The last sentence – even the last two sentences – added not an iota to the story. The author has many filler sentences like this. I can just imagine Ms. Cline writing out her story in a rush of ideas and creativity, and then painstakingly working her way through her tale, word by word, inserting words like “rupture” for “path” and substituting “yoke” for “yank.”
I hope in her next novel she writes from her imagination, and leaves it at that, without trying hard to add “interesting” words. Her prose, then, will mature and perhaps captivate us, as the ranch captivated Evie.
Elizabeth Gilbert | Fiction
A sincere thank you goes out to friends who convinced me to give Elizabeth Gilbert one more try! I found The Signature of All Things interesting, compelling, intriguing and rich. This is the story of Alma, born in 1800 to Henry Whittaker, the richest man in Philadelphia. The novel portrays her entire life, from birth to death. Alma becomes a brilliant and talented botanist with, as was the norm for young women of this time, no formal education. We are privileged to witness this remarkable woman, who, with her independence her passion, her brain and her conversational skills, is way ahead of what we might expect for a well-heeled woman of the 19th century.
Gilbert takes us into Alma’s thoughts, fears and dreams. We also are witness to how fine scientific minds view the world, and to the growth of all arms of science in this period. The setting for this interesting novel is not only Philadelphia – Alma does travel as well, and we witness some other parts of the world through her eyes.
I was lukewarm on Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic (see my blog post on the latter). I found Gilbert to be stuck in her own frame of reference and not very good at making her revelations applicable to other readers in these non-fiction books. But her fiction – wow! I definitely recommend this tale for a captivating read.
Jack Thorne (NOT J.K. Rowling!) | Fiction
When I was in third grade I wrote a play. My lovely third-grade teacher (Mrs. Cahill if memory serves??) was kind enough to let me direct and perform the play. It was a great way to develop a baby budding writer! Since that day, I have had an affinity for play scripts. Even today, I will occasionally pick one up to read and enjoy. So, as you may imagine, I was excited to get my hands on a copy of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
And how disappointing! The children in the play are progeny of Harry and Ginny, and Hermione and Ron, and Draco Malfoy. It was intriguing to observe the next generation of wizards developing in the shadow of their famous parents. Unfortunately, that is just what the author, Jack Thorne, relies upon – how these children fare in comparison to their enticing ancestors. As a matter of fact, in the main story line, the children travel back to a time when all the adults were young and at Hogwarts. How un-creative! Thorne could not even develop a NEW adventure for young Albus and Scorpius to explore and be challenged by. It was boring! There was nothing new, no new magic, no new intrigue, virtually no creativity. Sad.
The other error Thorne makes, in my opinion, is to tell the story of the five adults simultaneously. So there is an inter-weaving of the adults, and their insecurities and proclivities, with the children’s adventures. And it wasn’t a clever interweaving. The tales about the adults simply dragged down any energy that Thorne created about the children.
I miss J.K. Rowling immensely in this story.
Téa Obreht | Fiction
She deserves four hearts; I am certain of it. Ms. Obreht's novel, however, is intricate and complex, and I must read it a second time before giving her her due. (Be forewarned, Casting Crew Book Club; I will be suggesting The Tiger’s Wife as a 2017 read!)
The Tiger’s Wife is a beautiful, mesmerizing tale. She tells of a doctor and the death of her beloved grandfather, set in an unnamed Balkan state mending from war. But it is more than this. It is a compelling mix of reality and myth, of history and fairy tale. She also tells of the encounters with the “deathless man.” Michiro Kakutani of the New York Times writes, “…she demonstrates an uncommon ability to move seamlessly between the gritty realm of the real and the more primary-colored world of the fable.”
As delightful as the story itself, it is also important to note that this is Téa Obreht’s debut novel. And she is “twenty something.” I was unable to keep track of the artful wording and phrasing she creates on every single page. So, instead of writing down pages to share, I decided just to open to a random page while writing my review, guaranteeing myself I would find a superb example. Let’s try. Okay, page 91. “His thirst insane, the tiger lapped up pools from the leaky fountain where the flower women filled their buckets and then put his nose into the face of a sleeping child who had been left, wrapped in blankets, under the pancake stand.” How can anyone write with such beauty, clarity and eloquence?
Read this book! And please, leave a comment!
Jesse Ball | Fiction
I grow weary of coming of age novels in which the protagonist loses both parents to not-quite-tear-jerking circumstances, and survives "in spite of it all.” Lucia’s story, the main character in How to Start a Fire and Why, sounded so familiar, it bored me.
The publisher, however, spoke highly of her arsonist capabilities which, in my mind, made this novel sound intriguing. (Am I really saying that? I WANT to read about arson?) The inside jacket states “Jesse Ball’s singular, blistering new novel tells the story of a teenage girl who has lost everything – and will burn anything.”
This is, well, a blistering lie! (Spoiler alert coming if you want to read this thing…) Lucia sets her first and only fire on page 281, exactly two pages before the end of the book.
What I did like about this novel is Ball’s quick and witty style. With lots of white space, it is a very fast read. Next time I want a fast read, however, I will pick up Time magazine and at least acquire some knowledge.
Martha Whitmore Hickman | Non-Fiction
This is my go-to book on grief. I read it every single day. Organized by date, it has 365 pages, each with a quote, a viewpoint on the quote, and then an action or affirmation for consideration. This lovely little book gives me a new perspective nearly every day, and puts my grief in helpful context, allowing me to shift just a bit how I am perceiving, analyzing or feeling.
Here is one quote I have asterisked, just to share a flavor of the book … “It isn’t for the moment you are stuck that you need courage, but for the long uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh
The author uses the term “loved one” so it is useful whether you have lost a spouse, parent, friend, child … whomever. I absolutely recommend you buy a copy of this book for yourself or anyone you know who is in mourning.
Diane Rehm | Non-Fiction
A number of people recommended this book to me, and I can see why! Diane Rehm, host of the Diane Rehm Show on NPR since 1979, writes about the death of her husband John, and what it is like being “on her own.” I found her writing style to be easy, honest, and compelling. Perhaps part of why I appreciate this book is because her situation parallels mine in many ways. No, it is not her situation that parallels mine, it is her perspective. She is a dynamic, engaged, intelligent woman struggling to reconstruct her life. She and John were married 54 years! Wow!
Many of her stories resonated with me, such as … putting on a dress (okay, I NEVER actually put on a dress) and then simply not going out to an engagement, because she had no energy to smile at people or talk with strangers. Yesterday and today both I cancelled engagements for the same reason.
Of course, she also helps me to see things differently! For instance, she writes about moving to the center of the bed. Really? Never even occurred to me!
Ms. Rehm’s most compelling message is about how her husband chose to starve himself to death because he lived in a state where death with dignity was not possible. At nearly 80 years old, Diane Rehm is working with Compassion and Choices (compassionandchoices.org) to broaden the availability of physician-assisted death. It is inspiring to read about her passion and commitment!
This 161 page book is not exactly an easy read, but it is a quick one. Her style is conversational. I guess you might expect no less from a woman who hosted an enormously successful radio show for 35 years!
James Patterson | Fiction
James Patterson has written 147 novels. He has had 114 New York Times bestselling novels, and holds The New York Times record for most #1 New York Times bestsellers by a single author, a total of 67. Wow. Amazing.
The 15th Affair is the fifteenth book in the Women’s Murder Club series co-written with Maxine Paetro. In this novel, Lindsay Boxer, the San Francisco police detective and main character, encounters a four-person murder in a downtown luxury hotel; an explosion that rocks the city, the country and the world; and a husband who goes missing. The Women’s Murder Club has four members, and Lindsay uses her esteemed female colleagues to help her solve these mysteries.
Patterson's writing is intriguing and suspenseful. While this is not a book to read for your dissertation research (unless you happen to be working on a Doctorate in Mystery Literature and are studying Patterson!), it is good, solid, interesting, edge-of-your-seat mystery. I liked it enough that I just requested from the library the first book in the Women’s Murder Club series, 1st to Die.
Noah Hawley | Fiction
What do you, blog readers, think about The New York Times Best Seller List? Sometimes I find books on it that I love ... and often, well, it seems to appeal to a somewhat different sort of reader. A reader who is, perhaps, more mainstream? I can’t find a way to say this and maintain political correctness ... a reader who perhaps has not partaken of quite as much formal education?
Before the Fall is a disappointment from the NYT Best Seller List. A private plane crashes into the ocean soon after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs, a struggling painter, and a four-year-old boy, JJ, who is now the heir to a media mogul’s family.
Hawley proceeds to weave into his novel the back stories of the 11 people, crew and passengers, who were on the plane. And, of course, there are the media and law enforcement types who also weave quite amazing potential motivations and sinister plots into their musings and interviews. But frankly, Hawley does not develop any character into a person you care about, except Scott Burroughs. There are simply too many people in this novel, many of whom receive their own chapter, but not their own character. I found I only cared about Scott and JJ, and whether or not Scott would fall prey to speculation that he must have sabotaged the plane, because he survived.
I am grateful to this book for one lesson – it helped me clarify what a “two heart” rating is. A two heart rating means I tried to put the book down, but was curious enough about the end to skim the last third so I could find out what happened. I was sufficiently unimpressed with the writing to maintain the effort to read sincerely.
If you read it and have a different opinion, please post your thoughts, as well as your perspectives on the NYT Best Seller List!
p.s. I am finishing ANOTHER book from the NYT list right now … this next one will likely receive a more favorable review.
Roz Chast | Non-Fiction
At various time in the last two weeks, I rated this book one heart, two hearts, three hearts and four hearts! I finally settled on four hearts because frankly, I couldn’t put it down.
This was the first foray into graphic novels, for most of us in my book club, The Casting Crew. And Roz Chast is a master! The topic of the book is quite sobering … it chronicles the death of her parents, who are well into their nineties when they die. Chast’s writing, and even more, her AMAZING illustrations, really communicate with brutal honesty the funny, incisive and often painful experiences of these years. You’ll witness laughter, rage, hysteria, love, despair, guilt, and roll-on-the-floor antics. If you don’t recognize a bit of your mom or your dad or a grandparent or a friend’s parent in this tale, then you will likely recognize a bit of yourself.
While, yes, it was difficult to read at times when comments, stories or drawings cut too close to home, Chast inspired a profound conversation in book club about parents and our own thoughts about death. You will choose olives and not red sweaters for her dad. You’ll watch her mom eat a tuna sandwich at a striking time. And, of course, you will fulfill the title over and over again, as her parents had NO intention of ever talking about anything like death, dying, illness, hospitals, leaving their apartment or, for heaven's sake, "Rest Home Prisons.”
I am excited to try another graphic novel. If you haven’t ventured into the genre yet, these books are not Archie revisited. The illustrations add so much depth to the story – when you can see the expressions on the faces of the characters, you experience their veracity in a way that words alone often fail to do. A picture truly is worth 1000 words ... at least with Roz Chast’s talent.
Nevada Barr | Fiction
I enjoy Nevada Barr and her mysteries about Anna Pigeon, a National Park Ranger. I think it is my own fault, and not Nevada Barr's, that I give Boar Island only three hearts instead of four. I am still recovering my ability to focus amidst my grief, and I found myself confused in the beginning of this book as Barr tells two stories that relate to one another, but do not overlap for quite a while.
Anna Pigeon encounters a new experience in Boar Island, the cyberbullying of Elizabeth, the 16-year-ol daughter of her friend Heath. When Anna accepts a position as acting chief ranger at Acadia National Park, she, Heath and Elizabeth take the opportunity to temporarily move Elizabeth away from her cyberbully by traveling to Boar Island in Maine. Except the cyberbully follows, and Anna finds herself immersed in an intriguing Maine murder.
On page 253, the murderer describes her own actions as absurd. Well, yes, they are absurd! And the absurdities begin to make sense when the two stories merge in powerful manner on page 293. I flew through the last 180 pages of Boar Island, once the tales merged. Interestingly, and rather Nevada Barr-esque, ALL of the major characters in Boar Island are women.
So, whether or not this book has a slow start (I don't fully trust my own assessment here) it certainly has a fast and engaging finish!
Sherman Alexie | Fiction
This is a young adult book, but it kept coming across my radar, so I decided to give it a try. Besides, I devoured Harry Potter and those are young adult books!
Junior is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Born with physical challenges, he is picked on by everyone. But he decides to attend an all-white school outside the rez, and then is branded a traitor. Can you tell this is a funny book? Sherman Alexie is amazing!
Inspired by his own life and wit, this book addresses all of life’s saddest challenges – from domestic abuse to alcoholism, racism to low expectations, poverty, death, fisticuffs, basketball and love – with humor and clarity. This would be a great book for teaching a young adult about what life is really like – and is a great opportunity for us as adults to see the world through the ideas of a witty writer and cartoonist.
Here is an example of how Alexie describes a difficult situation with quick cleverness: Mr. P. grabbed me by the shoulders and leaned so close to me that I could smell his breath. Onions and garlic and hamburger and shame and pain. (page 42) Wow. He says so much in one short sentence.
Junior finds a new friend at his new school, but learning to communicate with nerdy Gordy is a task onto itself:
"A metaphorical boner!" I shouted. "What the heck is a metaphorical boner?"
"When I say boner, I really mean joy," he said.
"Then why don't you say joy? You didn't have to say boner. Whenever I think about boners, I get confused."
"Boner is funnier. And more joyful."
Gordy and I laughed.
Yes, I suggest this book. It is a quick and interesting read and a succinct statement on the times in which we live, and the circumstances we shield ourselves from seeing.
Joan Didion | Non-fiction
In the weeks after Beryl’s death, some friends told me I must read this book, and some told me to steer clear of it. Well, that was enough for me to accept the challenge and pick up the book. It didn’t upset me, as some anticipated. It sort of bored me. In a nutshell, it is her story about her husband’s sudden death in the middle of their daughter’s protracted very serious illness. Didion writes honestly about this difficult year in her life.
I found myself becoming impatient with the details of her daughter’s illness because I was, just 30 days after Beryl’s death, much more interested in how she handled her husband's death. Of course much of the book was also about his heart attack and death ... but much of her experience I could not relate to.
The gem for me in the book, however, is Chapter 17. Early in this chapter she gives me a solid piece of wisdom to hang my hat on ... “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” (page 189)
Creative Living Beyond Fear
Elizabeth Gilbert | Non-fiction
I decided to wait to write my blog on Big Magic until after book club, and I am really glad I did! My perspectives and insights are now much broader.
Some members of book club, including one well-trained and highly competent artist, loved Big Magic. They found it inspiring, intriguing, and useful. One member was going to read it a third time!
Others of us found the content to be valuable; we took exception to Gilbert's writing. Much like our reaction to Eat, Pray, Love, we experienced the style of her writing as shallow or condescending --- different assessments from different ones of us.
I did appreciate her passion and commitment to the entire creative process... The ENTIRE process.... All the failed attempts, the trials and tribulations, as well as the occasional winning success. I thought of my students at The Coaches Training Institute frequently, and how her words could inspire them in the early and difficult stages of building a business. For example, she writes on page 118, “I started telling myself that I enjoyed every aspect of my work. I proclaimed that I enjoyed every single aspect of my creative endeavors – the agony and the ecstasy, the success and the failure, the joy and the embarrassment, the dry spells and the grind and the stumble and the confusion and the stupidity of it all. I even dared to say this aloud.”
On the other hand, I thought Gilbert did a very poor job of translating her learning about creativity as a writer to other modalities, such as painting, performance art, music, or the creativity with which we do our work. I find that to be the major shortcoming of this book. The creative reader has to do all the translation themselves.
Gilbert tells a very intriguing story about her belief that ideas come to visit, and if you are ready, willing and able, you will be inspired by the idea and you get to develop it. And if you are not ready, the idea will go visit someone else, to take up its cause. If you read nothing else, read her story about her new friendship with the writer Ann Patchett, pages 47-54.
All in all, while I will not rave about Big Magic nor Elizabeth Gilbert, I find this book to be worth reading. You will likely glean at least a few new perspectives for yourself ... And maybe, like Jan and Louise in book club, many of Gilbert’s words will inspire you.
Subtitle: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife
by Barbara Bradley Hagerty | Non-fiction
I began this book the weekend before Beryl died, and finished it the weekend after. An odd choice perhaps for the time surrounding his death (which, of course, I didn’t know when I began it ...) however the title alone, Life Reimagined, gave me hope, perspective and a sense of, well, life.
I read the whole book, cover to cover. I expected it to be a self-help book and was very pleased – it is not! It is all about the science of midlife … about our brains, about relationships, the power of our thoughts, the need for purpose. This wonderful former NPR reporter doesn’t tell us how to do it … but she does educate us on what is important; what is vital.
Two messages I want to pass along. When the author interviewed Robert Waldinger, the current Director of the lifelong study of Harvard men, she asked him, “What are the one or two or three big insights that predicts fulfillment at the end of life?” His answer, which surprised Ms. Hagerty and many readers: “Engagement,” he said instantly. “Maintaining engagement with the world.” (page 42).
And, of extreme importance, page 30 and 388. “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
Read this book if you are in midlife, or planning to be in midlife, or have recently left midlife. It will inspire you.
Subtitle: How Great Leaders Inspire Action
by Simon Sinek | Non-fiction
Start with Why was making the rounds of Opportunity Knocks (a local non-profit that supports the growth and development of entrepreneurs) and I was excited to read it. The timing was perfect, as I was about to design and launch my new website and this book blog. Knowing “why" seemed imperative!
Sinek did convince me that having a strong "why" for the work you do in the world inspires others, attracts them to you, and creates loyalty. Fantastic! Figure out the "why" before the "what" and the "how." A great idea! He talks about Apple as a company with a clear "why" that inspires real brand loyalty. Apple's "why” is "to challenge the status quo" and "to empower the individual." I am hooked and raring to go! How do I do that?
And then we go nowhere. What a disappointment. First and foremost, Sinek never guides you in how to discover your "why." He tells you in the last couple of pages to look backward. Hmmm. Second, he speaks almost exclusively to big companies .... About breeding trust among employees. I was looking for a great resource for entrepreneurs. Not this tome.
Third, he is very repetitive. He stretched and stretched a short article into a book ... Like making pizza dough and pushing it the edges of your pan. Fourth, I wonder if he was funded by Apple. I was so tired or reading about Apple, with the same examples used over and over again, I wondered if I could abide typing up this posting on my iPad.
Simon Sinek held my interest for a while. I give it two hearts because it didn't put me to sleep. But if you read the title, and really take it in, you can stop there. Find something else to incite your creative thinking.
Subtitle: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson | Non-fiction
On Saturday, May 8, 1915, a father receives a telegram from his son ... "Am saved. Looking for Cliff." Five minutes later another telegram arrives from his other son, "Am saved. Looking for Leslie." Dad knew what his sons didn't ... They both survived the sinking of the Lusitania.
I just discovered Erik Larson this year, with my good friends Jan and Mary recommending The Devil in the White City and then Dead Wake. Ever since I was mesmerized by Katherine Boo who wrote Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, I have learned to appreciate the great skill of an author who can write non-fiction in such a compelling manner, it reads like a page-turner fiction.
Dead Wake was a page turner for me. Larson explores the lives of a few passengers on the Lusitania, the global environment as WW1 heats up, the hard to imagine decisions of the British Admiralty as the German U-boats indiscriminately target merchant as well as military ships, and the personal sorrows and fears of Woodrow Wilson. But what will stick with me the longest is how Larson sketches the captain of the u-boat, Walther Schwieger, who makes an independent decision to torpedo this luxury liner.
I happened to finish this book on the exact day, 99 years later, when Wilson signed the resolution for America to enter the war, April 6, 1917. If you haven't read Dead Wake yet, it would be an excellent addition to your list before April 6, 2017.
I heartily recommend this book ... 4 hearts out of 4.