Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

West with Giraffes

Lynda Rutledge

Historical Fiction 2021 | 355 pages


The story is narrated by Woodrow Wilson Nickel, a fictional character. When the story opens, he is 105, and being the age he is, he wishes to write of the experience of a lifetime, one he had when he was only seventeen.

Inspired by true events, the tale weaves real-life figures with fictional ones, including the world's first female zoo director, at the San Diego Zoo.  Two giraffes, named Boy and Girl, travel from Europe on a ship in 1938, and as they enter New York harbor, so does a hurricane.  West with Giraffes is the story of Woody Nickel who, having lost both his parents and his baby sister in the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle, has traveled east to find Cuz, the boss of his third cousin.  He sees at the harbor these two giraffes, barely alive, and manages to finagle his way to sign on with Old Man to help drive Boy and Girl to San Diego.  And the adventures begin.

The story line is awesome; the connection to truth is intriguing.  There were moments I couldn't wait to turn the page, and many other moments I was simply bored. The writing was very inconsistent to me.  I read a lot of magazines while reading West with Giraffes, because I was often drawn to distractions, so I could put the book down.

One problem I had is I could not picture the rig, which made virtually every scene rather foggy. Rutledge was much better at telling the story than showing the story ... a writer's curse of death.  I finally looked this up on google and found about a half-dozen photos of rigs, all decidedly different, all carrying two giraffes each.  These photos gave me a better feel for what they may have been traveling in and wiped away a bit of the fog.

One reviewer wrote that the sentences were passive.  Even once I read this, I couldn't pick out passive sentences, but I had the feeling there was a dampening of the story, like the reader had on headphones or was under water.

Another reviewer writes:

"Woody drives for a while.
They stop so the giraffes can eat.
They run into road trouble.
Red is following them and takes pictures.
They solve their trouble.
They stop for the night.
Repeat the same sequence tomorrow, and the next day."

I think she hit the nail on the head.

I do not know quite how to explain this ... it is something we talk about in coaching ... putting a lid on it. I felt the whole time that there was a lid on this story, holding the energy down and trapping it inside.  If she had had fewer crises (instead of one every day) but let them explode ... be deeper, bigger, more interesting, more filled with action and emotion (I SO wanted to know more about the seven Black brothers and the big family's granddaughter) ... the story would have been more compelling.  If she had explored Old Man or Red in greater depth, instead of being obsessed with their secrets, we might have discovered more about who they are, what they felt, even their histories, about which we knew nothing, the story would have been more compelling.  We only came to know one coming-of-age character, Woodrow Wilson Nickel, and that was not enough.

Two members of my book club recommended West with Giraffes for our March read.  I will be fascinated to hear what they have to say.  In the meantime, I don’t recommend this book.  Guess I will return to my magazines now.

February 2024






The Art Thief

Michael Finkel

Nonfiction 2023/ 225 pages


Stéphane Breitwieser, along with his girlfriend Anne-Catherine, is believed to be the most prolific art thief of all time, conducting 239 heists, typically in broad daylight, from 172 museums, and amassing $2 billion in art works. Different from most (all?) other art thieves, during his heyday, he never sold or attempted to sell a single piece of work.  He stole them for their artistic beauty and displayed them all in the attic bedroom and salon he shared with Anne-Catherine.  Check out this book if for no other reason than to see the drawing of these two rooms.  He was obsessed with the beauty of exquisitely completed art, much of it from the Renaissance period, and all from a wife wide range of media ... painting, sculpture, ivory, metal chalices, wood, weapons ... a large and diverse range.  His thieving eventually transforms from love to compulsion to obsession to maniacal.

And his story is absolutely true.  This is a "true crime" book.  For that reason, it deserves a read.

However (I know, it has been weeks since I did not give a book four hearts) I found it poorly written.  It reads like a spreadsheet to me. He stole this piece, from this museum or show or gallery, by removing 4 or 8 or 30 screws or two locks and stashed it under his jacket or his backpack or Anne-Catherine's large purse, and walked out of the building in the middle of the day, often chatting with a guard or patron.  This pattern repeats itself through the book, without much interlude.

Do I recommend The Art Thief?  Mildly.  The story is interesting, but I will be curious to hear/remember why my book club selected this short read.  It just didn't quite woo me.

February 2024



The Covenant of Water

Abraham Verghese

Fiction 2023 | 725 pages


I picked it up at the library, and then took it back unread.  Then I did it again.  And then a third time.  I was intimidated by the length (900 pages large print; 725 regular print).  But this last time, I committed and read it through.  What a profound, delightful, meaningful, engaging, powerful, interesting book. (it took me 19 days to read).

We begin in 1900 and follow a family for three generations and across two continents, until Ammachi's granddaughter makes some astounding discoveries at the end of the book, in 1977.  We learn early on about "The Condition," so named by Ammachi, the 12-year-old Indian girl who is forced into an arranged marriage and who eventually becomes the beloved matriarch of this family.  She notices, as does the generation before her, that in every generation, someone dies from drowning.  The drowners also hate the water, and refuse to go near it all of their lives, from fussing under the baptismal font until their final accidental encounter with water.

But soon the book becomes not only about the family, but about land, and the caste system in India, and land growth and development, and leprosy, and advances in the medical field as well as in cultural and social norms.  There is a section near the end about the Indian caste revolution and the democratic election of a Communist government.

The family is complex, with their "secrets" like any family and generations-old relationships both within the family itself and the lower caste that serves them and their land.

Verghese is a doctor who decided mid-career to train at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has gone on to achieve distinction in both fields.  You will enjoy his considerable medical knowledge as well as his very engaging characters and story development.

I must recommend this tome ... it is destined to be a classic.  AND, know that snow days or beach days will help you navigate the length, complexity, and depth of The Covenant of Water.  Please post your thoughts and reactions here.  I will be eager to read what you think about this delightful book.

February 2024



The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Heather Morris

Historical Fiction 2018 | 288 pages


This short book is another gem ... only this is one everyone SHOULD read, not only might enjoy reading!

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of a young Slovakian Jew named Lale Sokolov who was taken from his home to save his family in 1942, and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a German Nazi concentration and extermination camp, in Poland.  While there, he worked as the camp tattooist (Tätowierer) and fell in love with a Slovakian Jewish girl named Gita Furman. She saw no reason to get to know him, initially. To her, "they were never going to leave that place, other than through the chimney."  But they did and after the war, the lovers found each again, and were married for 58 years.

As such, the book depicts not only the nightmarish wartime reality, violence, humiliation, degradation, starvation, murder, and completely inhumane day-to-day life at a concentration camp but also describes a love story that survives despite the enormous difficulties.

For many years, this history was known only to the closest family of Lale and Gita. Lale was simply afraid to discuss his past so as not to be accused of collaborating with the Germans. Only after the death of his beloved Gita in 2003, when he first met the writer Heather Morris, did Lale decide to tell Heather about everything that had happened during the war.

Claims of factual inaccuracies have been made by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center.  For example, they say that a tattooist never had this role as his job.  The assignment at tattooists was more random and short-term than represented in the book.  Somehow, I don't find it necessary to ferret out truth from fiction in "historical fiction."  If there is a core element of truth, with attempted research behind it, and the book raises my awareness about a time period or an event, I consider myself well-served.

I heartily recommend this book.  It is insightful, yet hopeful.

February 2024



Shelley Blanton-Stroud

Fiction 2020 | 309 pages


A book cover with a picture of a boy and the words " tom boy ".

Tomboy is an excellent sequel to Shelley Blanton-Stroud's first novel, Copy Boy.  In Tomboy, Jane Benjamin reverts to her rightful gender, female.  She has been accepted at her SanFrancisco- based newspaper, the Prospect, in a low-level cub reporter role, but, still, as a young woman during the Depression Era.

Through a series of flukes, Jane gets herself on a trip to report on a female tennis star at Wimbledon, which proves to be more than Jane bargained for when the tennis star’s coach drops dead at the game. On the trip back across the Atlantic, more questions arise, and Jane soon finds herself researching another mystery.  She wants to be a gossip columnist but keeps running into real news to write about!

I loved the way the author handles Jane's trip across the sea to England, and back again, on the RMS Queen Mary.  Each chapter opens with the deck of the Queen Mary that is the setting for the chapter, and it is fascinating to watch the workings of the ship, as well as Jane and the hardships she encounters.  I swear, I could feel the rocking of the great ship.  Jane is befriended by the tennis star, Tommie, and their relationship is complex.  They serve as mirrors to each other, right down to what shoes they wear.

Jane is not an easy-to-love character.  She lies, steals, and uses people.  She is irresponsible and selfish; naive and moody.  And yet, because she sees clearly who she is and begins to admit it to herself, she is endearing and you root for her. She is also feisty, ambitious, resourceful, and determined.  In the end, she does her best to not hurt people.

I urge you to climb aboard the lively Blanton-Stroud train.  A friend of a friend, the author recently retired from teaching writing at Sacramento State.  She is a mature writer, even in this, her second novel.  I am at the edge of my seat, awaiting the third novel, The Poster Girl. RECOMMENDED!

January 2024




Keegan Claire Keegan

Fiction 2010 | 95 pages


A book cover with a house on it

Now I understand why everyone says, “I didn’t want this book to end….”

An unnamed girl is given to her aunt and uncle for a few weeks of fostering on the Irish countryside, while her mother delivers yet another baby.  While this girl has few words or experiences to describe her emotions, she soon learns what love is.

This novella will take you two hours to read, and it is worth every minute.

February 2024




Claire Keegan

Fiction 2010 | 95 pages


Now I understand why everyone says, “I didn’t want this book to end….”

An unnamed girl is given to her aunt and uncle for a few weeks of fostering on the Irish countryside, while her mother delivers yet another baby.  While this girl has few words or experiences to describe her emotions, she soon learns what love is.

This novella will take you two hours to read, and it is worth every minute.

January 2024

p.s.  Published twice because this doesn't seem to have gone to the mailing list.  My apologies if you receive twice!




A Woman of No Importance

Sonia Purnell

Biography 2019 | 368 pages


You can't read this like a fiction book. There is no skimming! Every single paragraph has an important piece of information in it.  I have returned to reread many a paragraph when my mind wanders.  I am not certain I have ever read a book so deep and intense in its research, and resultant writing.

A Woman of No Importance is a captivating biography that unveils the extraordinary life of Virginia Hall, an American spy during World War II. Purnell skillfully narrates Hall's courage, resilience, and contributions to France, offering a compelling and inspiring story of a woman who utterly defied expectations in a male-dominated field. The book sheds light on a lesser-known hero and provides a gripping account of espionage and bravery.  (This last paragraph written by Chat GPT, edited some by me. Thought I would try an experiment. While factually accurate, it just doesn't sound like my voice, does it?)

Virginia Hall amazes me. She gathered, committed, and outfitted resistors to the Germans. She created safe houses and received secret packages of food, clothing, supplies, and cash for the men and women she recruited. She planned safe routes, actions to sabotage the movement of Germans through blowing up bridges, destruction of roads, etc. She planned and helped resistors escape from jails, prisons, and concentration camps. She learned to "play the piano" of a radio which allowed her to pass on information to her "bosses" in London. Perhaps most important of all, she created and maintained relationships with everyone from royalty to power brokers to brothel owners to clergy which allowed people with certain values and beliefs about peace, freedom, and courage, to direct their energy, do something useful, and in many cases put their lives on the line, saving their beloved country (Virginia's adopted country) of France.  She did all this with no guidance, no mentors, no training, no experience, no advice and counsel.  She relied solely on her wisdom, her own thought processes, her natural skills, her amazing brain, her warmth and care-taking, and her astounding strategy skills.

Some she saved from sure death wrote, "They had enjoyed nearly forty years of freedom since spending a mere couple of months in Virginia's presence in 1944.  But the warrior they called La Madone had shown them hope, comradeship, courage, and the way to be the best version of themselves, and they had never forgotten." (Final page of Chapter Twelve.")

And we don't know her.  She was a hero we should have studied in high school.  She was the first woman to do so much, with so much strength and courage, we should have had a chapter on her in our high school history books.  Just as important, I learned a great deal about the REAL war and what it was truly like to resist losing your freedom to a ruthless invader.  I learned about the real people in the war, not just the politics.

Thank you, Jan Baker, for this recommendation.  Although it is a bit long, I cannot help but recommend this incredibly well researched and intriguing biography to everyone.

January 2024





Watership Down: The Novel

Richard Adams

Teen Fiction 1972 | 475 pages


What a delightful book and story!  On the very same day we decided to read a classic in book club, there was an article on NPR talking about the new Watership Down:  A Graphic Novel that was just released  earlier in the week.  We chose to read either the graphic novel, or the full original novel, or both.  I read both.

Richard Adams begins this story as a tale for his daughters while on a car journey, but gradually it grows into a life of its own.  The story is about a warren of rabbits, Sandleford,  who leave their home in search of another place to live, in part because of some destruction by humans, and in part because there are no does in the warren, and without does, there will be no kittens, and without kittens, there will be no warren in a few years.

They travel across Watership Down … an area of pasture and relatively flat land in England, in search of a new home and other rabbits.  Fiver, who has extra-sensory powers,  and Hazel, the warren’s wonderful compassionate and creative leader, are among the major rabbit characters, along with Bigwig, Bluebell, Dandelion, Wouldwort and others.  Each has their own special skills.  Each has their own special personality.

Yes, they talk as humans do, often using two primary rabbits languages that Adam created, LaPine and Hedgerow.  And we are privy to all of their delightful conversations!   This anthropomorphizing, along with violence and prejudice, (and, not noticed by many until recently, the total lack of any personality or action among the females in the book, the does) led to this being a controversial book.  Though never banned nationally, some school districts would not allow it on their shelves.  Of course, in a book this long, there are many interesting travels (along the metal road; in something that floated on the water) and many fights with Efrafa, a warren that is dictator-led, aggressive, and not compassionate or kind.  And we learn many rabbit-isms!

Many reviewers and critics say this book is an allegory for WWII and the various leadership styles … Hitler, Eisenhower, Churchill, but please allow me to quote from Adam’s 2005 introduction to a new publication of Watership Down.  “I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable.  It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car.” (page xvi).

If your read/reread both versions (and I DO recommend you do so), I would read the novel first and then the graphic novel.  Because the novel is so rich, the graphic novel cannot begin to capture all the action.  It will make more sense and hold more context if you read the graphic novel second.  And, oh, to see the marvelous rabbits and land that the artist Joe Stuphi draws!  Beautiful!

January 2024



The Girl from Everywhere

Heidi Heilig

Fiction 2016/ 454 pages


Sixteen-year-old Nix is a time traveler, traveling with her father in a pirate ship called the Temptation.  The challenge is, however, they can travel across distance, mystical worlds, and times ... but only if they have a map that can get them there.  Her father is obsessed with getting back to Honolulu in 1868, in time to keep his wife from dying in childbirth with Nix. Nix understands her father's obsession, but also enjoys the simple adventures of going back to China a few centuries ago, or to modern New York City, or going to a fantasy land where fish provide power and light.

The relationships were fun ... Nix is good friends with a fellow shipmate, Kashmir, who is a master thief.  Nix and her dad Slate have a very loving relationship.

I think conceptually the plot is very clever.  The relationships and the individual characters were well-developed.  However, I think the author misses the mark on the story.  So much more could have been included. We see little of the places they visit and experience no real sense of the cultures.  The author jumps around in time, especially in Hawaii, making it a bit hard to follow.  The story, the context, the various settings, including The Temptation, lack vividness, wonder, fantasy, visual clarity for me.  I could seldom "see" where they are.

The Girl from Everywhere is an easy read.  I can recommend it, but not whole-heartedly.

January 2024