Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Before We Were Yours

Lisa Wingate | Fiction



(I have been traveling, can you tell?  Three reviews at once!)

The Tennessee Children’s Home Society operated a black market adoption agency in the first half of the 20th century, often kidnapping indigent children, glorifying and misrepresenting their pasts, and selling them for a huge profit to wealthy and often famous adoptive parents.  This much is known to be true.

Before We Were Yours tells the fictional, though representative, story of five children who lived on the riverboat Arcadia and were kidnapped from their home in 1939 by the Tennessee Children's Home Society.  Rill Foss, 12, is the eldest child.  And, it tells the story of modern day lawyer Avery Stafford, the daughter of a US Senator, who discovers there may be some hidden secrets in her well-to-do and politically successful family.

This is an extremely well-told story that will hold your attention in the alternating chapters about Rill and Avery. It is sad yet ultimately hopeful.  I recommend Before We Were Yours enthusiastically.

Careful What You Wish For

Hallie Ephron | Fiction



It calls itself a “suspense” novel, but it is light reading.  At first, I was concerned it was rather juvenile ... fits perfectly in the “written for grade 6” NYT list.  It IS rather juvenile, easy to read and enjoy.  About half-way in, we get to the murder and the plot thickens considerably.  At this point, it becomes more intriguing and more “who done it?”

The plot is original.  The main character, Emily, has just opened a professional organizing business, Freeze-Frame Clutter Kickers. One weekend, she and her business partner Becca acquire two new clients, Mrs. Murphy, who just discovered her recently deceased husband had a storage unit she knew nothing about, and Quinn Newell, a woman suddenly desperate to remove all of her belongings from her husband’s house.  It turns out neither of these clients are quite what they seem; not at all.  And a murder ensues.

I want to recommend Careful as beach reading, but it is October.  It will do fine for a rainy autumn weekend, along with a cup of tea, when you don’t want to tax your brain.

Recommended by Jamie Lee Curtis in Time magazine



Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders | Fiction



I was intimated by Lincoln in the Bardo from the first I heard of it.  Over 100 characters.  But then my friend and college roommate Janet (Janet is an Abe Lincoln aficionado.  She even belongs to a Lincoln book club.  At which she met the author George Saunders) shared the secret with me ... listen to the audiobook.  Audiobooks typically have one, sometimes two readers, but Lincoln in the Bardo made publishing history. There are 166 voices in the audiobook.  All professionals.

I feel like I am writing a review of a play.  Listening to all those voices drew a surprisingly vibrant picture of the Bardo; it doesn’t feel like a book to me.

The Bardo is the place souls go when they disconnect from their bodies after death, but before they are reincarnated again.  The tale begins with the (historically accurate) death of Lincoln’s son Willie, at the age of 13, from typhoid fever.  The thread that runs through the book is Willie’s experience in the Bardo ... his first full day.

I wondered if a greater knowledge of history was important, but two of the major characters, Hans Vollman (voice by Nick Offerman) and Roger Bevins III (voice by David Sedaris) appear to be fictional characters.  We meet many other characters (another 160 or so!) in the Bardo.  It is a rather disheartening place, where souls bring all the good and bad of their lives in the “previous place” to be examined and often judged harshly.  But we keep returning to Willie and his father Abe, tying the story together.

There are wonderful interludes in which the narrator reads from a vast array of historical books and papers on whatever subject us at hand ... from the color of Abe’s eyes to Willie’s funeral.  No two historical records seem to agree on much of anything!

I could have rated this book 2, 3, or 4 hearts, at various times in the listening.  Truthfully, I don’t quite understand it.  I wonder why Saunders found it so important to have so much sex and swearing,  but he did.  I do not know if there is a message, or even a plot.  Yet, it is quite a vivid experience to read/listen to it.  A week later, I keep thinking about it.

Go ahead, give Lincoln in the Bardo a try, and, do, for heaven’s sake, comment here!

Recommended by Sara in book club and reconfirmed by Janet.


Ayesha at Last

Uzma Jalaluddin

Fiction, 2018


Debut novels tickle me.  Sometimes I want to shake the authors and tell them what few tidbits I might have on character development or grammar usage.  And sometimes I simply delight in a new perspective, a new story, a new voice.  Ayesha at Last is a delightful new voice.

The setting is a Toronto, which immediately captured my heart.  The major characters, Ayesha, Khalid, and Hafsa are young 20-something Muslims trying to make their way in the modern world.  Given their religion and traditional families, everything is called into question, from love, to arranged marriages, to women at work, to relationships with mothers.

Immature Hafsa is plotting to receive 100 marriage proposals ... a personal goal. But other people in her life can get hurt by such a strategy.  Her cousin Ayesha, older and more mature, working as a teacher, is much more sensible and knows she doesn’t want someone else choosing a husband or a career for her.  She gets herself drawn into a false identity, which stretches the credibility of Jalaluddin’s story a bit, but helps us to see Ayesha’s complexity and loyalty to family. Finally, Khalid, smart, conservative, educated, well-employed, judgmental, and awkward is also authentic, honest, and handsome — a worthy love interest!

Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed Ayesha at Last and it comes with my full recommendation.  The back cover says it is “A modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice. Huh.


The Friend

Sigrid Nunez

Fiction, 2018


Wow, this is a great book!  I find myself gravitating towards the word “mature.”  It is a story of wisdom, honesty, friendship, love, loyalty, grief.

An unnamed narrator guides us in every chapter.  None of the major characters have a name except for the 180-pound Great Dane, Apollo. The unnamed voice is grieving her friend, both of whom were/are writers and teachers of writing.  This book is about literature and life at its core, not about a dog.  The Friend is beautifully written from the view of the narrator, talking to her friend after his death.  The narrator relays to us conversations she and her friend had, and then, more and more, as the chapters progress, she is talking to her friend in the present. The Friend is imbued with well-researched and appropriate quotes and stories from real authors, such as these: “Dogs are the best mourners in the world, as everyone knows.”  (Joy Williams) and Rilke, who writes of love as “…two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.”

Yes, Apollo plays a very important role in the tale, as he is abandoned by “Wife Three” to the narrator.  Apollo and the narrator combine to form a whole; a whole experience of grief, as Apollo is mourning as much as the narrator.  They become therapy dog and therapy human to each other. However, The Friend is not sentimental, nor mushy, nor predictable.

Thank you, Teresa, for this excellent recommendation.  Don’t miss this one, blog readers!


Barbara Kingsolver |  Fiction, 2018


I shelved this book in my suitcase, flying home from Baltimore.  I became bored and frustrated.  And then I decided to wait to write my blog posting until after book club.  Hearing my friends’ view of Unsheltered, I picked it up again and finished the last 150 pages.  It still is not my favorite book, for certain, and Kingsolver’s writing leaves me rather chilly.

Unsheltered follows two families living in the same house at two separate time periods in Vineland, New Jersey. The novel alternates between the 21st- and 19th-century stories, using the last words of one chapter as the title of the next one.  In both situations, the house is falling apart.  Willa and Iano are our modern-day couple, with extended family members living with them, holding a range of political and social allegiances.  Thatcher and Rose are the 19th century couple, also with several extended family members living with them.  This novel was written recently enough that we meet “The Bullhorn” who quips that “he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.”

My book club members discussed the many metaphors, as well as the intentional analogies between the two families attempting to live in a falling-down house, 140 years apart.  There are many, as Kingsolver gives us lectures on Darwinism, the beginning thoughts of evolution, climate change, recycling, the workings and failings of the financial systems, the roles of the educational system and religion, politics, racism, parenting, love, grief, inequality, and women wearing trousers (!) to name a few!

I can’t put my hand on what I don’t care for in Kingsolver’s novel. The parallel stories are interesting (most reviewers and Casting Crew Book Club members preferred Thatcher and Rose’s time period, the 19th century. ) Her characters are a bit cliché, especially given their strong political allegiances, but I don’t find them too shallow for the work she was writing ... the quantity and diversity of views were interesting in and of themselves. I didn’t need to know the intellectual or emotional source of their viewpoints. One reviewer describes Kingsolver as a “political novelist” who “has only the shallowest understanding of political reality.”  I understand that review, but I wasn’t reading her for her political commentary.  Sometimes, the “cliché-ness” was fun!

I guess I just found Unsheltered tedious.  I became bored.  Maybe it was just the travails of airport and airplane air.  Finishing Unsheltered allowed me to upgrade my rating from one heart to two hearts reaching up tentatively towards three.  It is worth a perusal to see if you like it; I think many of my readers would.  My book club did.


Past Tense

Lee Child | Fiction



Another mindless but enjoyable Jack Reacher novel; a quick and engaging read.  Reacher plans to travel across the country, from Maine to California, but becomes distracted as he passes the town where his father was born.  He stops, detours and, to no reader's surprise, finds a whole lot of trouble as he meets interesting people in New England towns.

At the same time, a young Canadian couple begins to make their way towards New York City when their car breaks down at a lonely and remote small hotel.

Of course, these stories intertwine, and bizarre mysteries reveal themselves. Reacher tries to untangle his family tree at the same time the Boston Mafia begins searching for him.

I’d like to remember to pass on the next Lee Child novel.  His writing is engrossing; his stories are creative; his ideas are novel; but once again the violence of the climactic moments leaves me a bit disturbed.


Still Life

Louise Penny | Fiction



Three Pines is a remote village south of Montreal.  It is a tiny and peaceful hamlet, where everyone knows everyone.  Early one Sunday morning during hunting season, an important elderly community member, Jane Neal, is found dead in the woods, with a lethal wound from an arrow.

We meet Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team of investigators who eventually solve the mystery of Jane’s death, and of her secret artwork.  Thus begins Louise Penny’s thirteen Armand Gamache mystery novels.

I found this book fun and delightful.  Suggested by my friend Janet, it kept me company all the way from Baltimore to home, when I just couldn’t bear to open Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver again (more on that in a future blog post).  I enjoyed Louise Penny’s ability to draw characters quickly and succinctly, and to explore both their inner and outer relationships.  Her storytelling, however, didn’t quite compel me.  It was a little slow, a little gentle.

That being said, I have decided to read book #2 in the series before I commit to read, or not read, all 13.  More to follow after I read A Fatal Grace.

Charlie Parker Played Be Bop

Chris Raschka, 1997


Washington Post “100 Books for the Ages” Age 4 *

I liked it!  I read it three times.  Of course, it is only 95 words.  It truly is best read aloud, even if you are just reading for yourself.  I don’t really understand what a four-year-old would like, so here are some words from some reviews.

“The brief text sings and swings and skips along, practically of its own volition, while the pictures add humor and just the right amount of jazziness ... " The Horn Book

“... Regardless of whether they’ve heard of jazz or Charlie Parker, young readers will bop to the pulsating beat of this sassy picture book.  [A] read-aloud that’s hard to resist.  And that’s no jive.”  Publishers Weekly



Black is the Body

Emily Bernard

Nonfiction, 2019


Black is the Body is a captivating book written by a Black woman who chooses to live in Vermont.

What intrigues me about Bernard’s writing is what is not there.  She is not the least bit preachy.  I never feel like she is trying to make me understand the Blackness of her reality.  Instead, she tells us stories, about her twin daughters, about her family and her White husband, about her profession, about Vermont, and because she is who she is, there are, of course, racial and cultural implications in the stories she tells.  I feel she does an excellent job of enlightening us about her life and highlighting how she experiences life situations through the intimate and unavoidable lens of her race.

Yes, definitely four hearts.

Thank you, Claire, for this thoughtful recommendation. I began reading it on your birthday, in honor of you.