Thursday, September 24, 2020

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang


When their Ba, father, dies, Lucy and Sam are left alone in the mining camps of California.  Their parents were immigrants from China but Ma has been gone for a while and now Ba has died.  Lucy and Sam are young girls, not even teenagers as they decide to pack up what they can and move on.  Their father hoped to become rich mining gold but that didn't work out.  He took a job as a coal miner and as pay got cut, left Samantha cut her hair and masquerade as a boy in order to work alongside of them.

As Lucy and Sam travel, Lucy takes charge.  Sam is the hunter but Lucy is the one with a plan.  They ward off men on the trail and those who would try to map out their lives for them.  After they bury Ba, they travel to a town.  Lucy longs for other people, education and a structured life and she moves into town and finds work.  Sam is less settled; her life working alongside Ba in the mines and the gold fields has left her with a quest for adventure and she takes off after a while by herself. 

The two girls try to interpret the family stories they know bits and pieces of.  As they unravel the past, they learn about the family secrets and how they impacted their family life.  The two eventually reunite and decide to move back to China and find themselves there in their parents' first home.  

This novel was nominated for the Booker Prize.  It is a fascinating view of an underreported minority in the immigrant stories of the American West.  The hardships the girls meet and conquer are daunting and will make one wonder if our children today could be as hardy.  The love the two girls share and their quest to understand their family and to carve out a life for themselves is inspiring.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Real Life by Brandon Taylor


Wallace is working on a biochem graduate degree.  But he seems out of place in this midwestern university.  He is not the typical graduate student.  He is black, gay and comes from a challenging childhood.  As a child, he was largely self-educated as no one in his family valued learning.  His family life was chaotic with his father abandoning the family while Wallace was a child.  Although his father only moved a few blocks away, he made it clear that he was cutting all ties with his family, something Wallace never understood.  Through a desire to move to a better life, Wallace managed to study and catch the eye of teachers who helped him work toward a goal of a different life.

Now he is in a stressful graduate environment with a limited social life.  The hours in the lab are long and grueling and his research is not going particularly well.  He doesn't have the favor of the graduate supervisor and in fact, she takes the word of other students, mainly female, against Wallace.  He is considered to have come with deficits and his supervisor and his peers are open about speaking about this as if there is nothing Wallace can do to compensate for it.

His friends are not much more help.  The novel follows a weekend where Wallace interacts with his circle of acquaintances.  He starts an affair with another student.  He gets caught up in the relationship of two of his friends as one of them pushes for the relationship to become open to other people.  He is insulted and insults others.  

This novel was a Booker nominee and in fact, is shortlisted.  Other critics call it a searing portrait of youth and coming of age.  I found it a challenging read with lots of negativity and the expectation that this is the experience of most young people.  That goes against my experience with this age group although I'm sure it is true of some of this group.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Three Seventeen by Darren Shell


From the Greensboro News And Record, author Nancy Mclaughlin

Darren Shell didn't decide to write a book about suicide after his father and best friend took their lives. It was after being awakened by a voice shortly after 3 a.m. one morning, years later.  "It's a higher power ... telling me to get up and write," recalled Shell, 49.

The losses had been devastating. Ed Shell, just 59, shot himself in 2006 — two days after holding his son's newborn daughter.  For Darren, the sermon at church the following Sunday seemed to address his hesitation. He didn't decide to write the book as much as he was pushed in that direction it seemed.

"I went into this with a blind promise that there is at least one person who needs to read it," Shell said.  This is his story of taking two of the worst days of his life and making the decision to not let it define him but work to prevent suicide. On Sept. 29, the 14th anniversary of his father's suicide, Shell's book,  "Three Seventeen: A Suicide Loss Survivor's Story," officially goes on sale.

Released during Suicide Prevention Month, the book tells the story of Shell's struggle, survival and recovery. People contemplating suicide might not think anyone will care or that they will be missed, Shell said. They're wrong. Suicide always leaves survivors. "I've not sat in an empty church yet," Shell said.

Before starting on the book, Shell spoke to his mother and his best friend's wife, mother and sister about what he planned to do. "I said, 'I need y'all to be OK with this," Shell recalled.

Suicide claims the lives of at least 132 people a day in this country. But research shows that for each of them, their deaths affect scores of other people. According to experts, those struggling are often too ashamed to admit they have suicidal thoughts and might only offer a hint at what they are feeling — if at all.

The April day in 2014 he hung himself, the Rev. Robert McKeehan — a High Point pastor, husband and father — got up and went to the gym. Afterwards, he posted a humorous account on Facebook. His death made national headlines. As did the suicide that same year of a young man who posted "suffering is optional" on social media before jumping off the downtown Marriott parking deck.

Shell's father had been Darren's hero for as long as he could remember. Well, him and Major League Baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan. Shell always spotted his father in the stands at his baseball games, despite the elder Shell working two jobs to pay his son's way through school. Before his death, Ed Shell had health problems related to a battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and he carried baggage from his childhood. His mood lifted, but it didn't stop him from taking his life.

In the months after his father died, Darren threw himself into helping his mother and being a husband and father. He later sought therapy and learned how to better deal with his emotions. "You only learn to accept it," Shell said of the grief. "It never goes away." As he struggled to understand what happened, Shell was caught in a cycle of shock, anger and immense pain. The "what-ifs" haunted him. "Did he not think what (his suicide) was going to do to Mom and me?" he said. "I was surprised at how mad I was." Overwhelming guilt followed. He had been on the phone with his dad hours before and would repeatedly relive their conversation, trying to find any indication that his father was planning to take his life. "You spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you could have done different," Shell said.

And then his friend was gone, too. When Shell started writing the book, he didn't spend his time delving into the "whys" of what happened in either case. "I don't know what happened," Shell said of the deaths. "And it wasn't fair for me to add anything to that. You spend months or years trying to find an answer and the person who can provide the answer isn't here."

Shell's book is self-published, so he has taken on a larger amount of the risk that anyone will pick it up. A friend took photos and another friend served as editor — which Shell said was a monumental task because even his sixth-grade teacher will remember how horrible of a speller he can be. The COVID-19 pandemic has doomed all the fall book festivals Shell was hoping to attend. "I wanted it to be more than my mother and three people buying the book," he said.

A friend pushed him to set up a website for the book when Shell was happy just to get it on Amazon. "He was like, 'No, you are going to get lost in the crowd,'" Shell said. He's already looked into dropping off a few free copies at local libraries. Co-workers have been supportive.

"I did what I was supposed to do," Shell said.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Crime Beat by Michael Connelly


This nonfiction anthology is a collection of various newspaper articles written by the novelist Michael Connelly during his time as a newspaper reporter.  Some are from his time in Florida while others are from the time he spent working in Los Angeles.  It is possible to see from these short pieces, the genesis of Connelly's most famous character, detective Bosch, and the attitudes and habits he brings to his work.  Connelly worked the crime beat in both places and has a wealth of stories to share.

The book is broken into three sections.  The first is The Cops, the second is The Killers and the last is The Cases.  In the cops section, my favorite piece was Crossing The Line which showcased the procedure of trying American criminals who fled to Mexico there and having them serve their time in Mexican prisons.  This was controversial as the same legal protections don't apply in other countries.  In The Killers section, I liked Killer On The Run which was about the serial killer Christopher Wilder who drove across the country, posing as a photographer and killing women.  I remember this case when it was in the news so it was interesting to see a piece about it.  In The Cases, I liked Death Of An Heiress about the murder of Judy Kanan, a businesswoman with so many enemies that the police had a multitude of suspects although they eventually charged her nephew.

This was an interesting book which allowed the reader to watch the development of Michael Connelly as a writer over the years.  The pieces are much drier than the fiction readers are used to as they are another category of writing all together.  Several of the pieces had a short conclusion where as an afterward the conclusion of the case was given, as newspaper articles rarely have that perspective as they are written during or immediately after the events.  This book is recommended for true crime readers and those interested in the development of Michael Connelly's career and skills as an author.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie


The novel opens with an airplane crash, probably a terrorist bombing.  The passengers are thrown out into the air, to plummet to the sea and die.  All but two passengers.  Those two, both Indian actors, are named Gibreel and Saladin.  They clutch each other, spiraling downward and somehow through their combined efforts, they survive.  But they are not the same.  They are two sides of the coin, evil and good.

After the wreck, each becomes an extreme example of one side or the other.  Gibreel becomes an angel, Gabriel specifically, and has visions of what the world will become.  Saladin becomes the embodiment of evil, an actual devil with horns and hooves.  Each is still tied to the other, any win of one is mirrored with a loss of the other.  

Each mirrors each other in other ways.  Each is in love with an English woman while an Indian love beckons them from afar.  Each has issues with their fathers and with reconciling their native country and cultural backgrounds with the experiences of being an immigrant and trying to fit in and be successful in a different culture.  Each must find a way to handle their issues in order to move forward, although this may require them to be in a lifelong battle with the other.  

This novel was written in 1988.  What most people know about it is that it is the novel that ended with Rushdie being put under fatwa or death sentence by the Islamic faith.  That forced him into years of seclusion having to live his life and write under constant police guard.  The portions of the novel that caused the trouble is a small portion that claims to be Indian legend about how the Koran was written and the role of three female Indian goddesses in it.  I don't know the culture or history well enough to know if this is indeed a legend or something Rushdie made up.  

What is clear, however, is the wonder of this novel.  It is full of characters, each of whom's life story is set out.  It is full of miracles and horrible deeds, of the interplay of good and evil, the constant battle to see which will emerge successful in their conflict.  It is full of magic realism, of a torrent of words that carry the reader along, of all the wonderful ways that Rushdie engages with his readers.  It won the Whitbread Prize.  This novel is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran


The location is Santiago, Chile and the time is after the dictatorship that decimated the country.  Felipe and Iquela are young adults who were children during those violent times.  Their parents were involved in the resistance and were responsible for others being killed.  People disappeared from the streets or from their homes and were never heard from again.  Those remaining were those who did nothing to offend, who stayed below the notice of others.  Felipe parents were killed and he was sent to be raised by his grandmother.  She periodically brought him to Iquela's home to stay as she blamed her situation on Iquela's parents so the two grew up almost as brother and sister.

Now that they are grown they have not grown past those days.  Felipe has occasional work as a manual laborer but spends his days searching for dead bodies, his mission to account for them all to get back to ground zero.  Iquela spends her days holed up in her apartment, translating for a living.  Her only expeditions are the eight blocks between her apartment and her mother's home where she goes several times a week.  

Paloma is the daughter of German parents who were in Chile for a while during The Disappearance and then returned to Germany.  Now her mother has died and Paloma has brought her to Chile to be buried.  But the airline has lost her body and she comes to Iquela and Felipe for help.  The three drive to a town up in the mountains where they believe the body might be found.  What they find is beyond belief and a sight that sums up all the horror of the times. 

This novel was nominated for the International Booker Prize.  It is an analogy for the violence of war and the residue that the survivors of such wars carry for life.  It is a bleak volume and readers might be negatively affected by some of the images but it carries an important message.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell


Hamnet is a retelling of the family life of William Shakespeare.  He and his wife, Agnes, had three children.  First was a girl and then there were twins, a boy and a girl.  The first part of the novel explores Will and Agnes' courtship; Will was a tutor to Agnes' brothers.  Agnes was considered a 'wild child', a woman who spent her time outside gathering herbs, flying a falcon and could see the future.  Many considered her a witch or next to one.  Will was from a family of tanners and glove makers.  His father was an abusive man and Will was his main target.  He feels constrained by village life.

After their marriage, the couple finds a way to live together.  They live in a house which is joined to the family house of the Shakespeares.  There is still tension with the father but he has lost much of his power. Agnes is closest to her brother Bartholomew.  She goes to him when she has issues or needs advice.  With his help, Agnes comes up with a plan that allows Will to go to London where he is out from under his father's thumb and where he grows successful, starting a playhouse.  She and the children remain in the village of Stratford as the younger girl is too frail to handle life in a city.

But disease can find you anywhere.  One day the girl, Judith, is fine before supper and deathly ill by night.  She has the plague and there is little hope.  Will is sent for but when he arrives he finds that Judith has rallied and instead her twin brother, Hamnet, has contracted the illness and died.

The rest of the novel explores the grief of losing a child.  It is one of the finest stories of this grief I've ever read.  Each parent is consumed with guilt about the boy's death; each must find their own way of grieving and moving forward.  There are the other children to be considered and life must go on.  But how can it go on without their Hamnet?

This book won the Woman's Prize For Fiction this year and the announcement was made as I was in the midst of reading it.  I can heartily concur with its selection.  The writing is fresh and immediate and it is a retelling of life in that period that the average person can connect with.  The death of a child was so common in this time and the novel explores what that fact must have been like and what effect it had on marriages.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Lost City Of The Monkey God by Douglas Preston


For centuries in what is now Honduras, there have been folklore rumors of a vast city full of treasures in the jungle.  It was often called The White City or the City Of The Monkey God and it was rumored that anyone who went there would sicken and die which was the reason the original inhabitants had disappeared and deserted the city.  It was one of the last remaining mystery locations that explorers have on their bucket list.

In 2012, technology and resources met in a way that allowed an expedition to be mounted to find this city.  A new technology named lidar, similiar in some ways to radar, allows a three dimensional image to be formed from a plane flying above a site.  Prior work had narrowed the possible location to several tracts in impenetrable jungle and after the lidar work, there were three possible sites that might be profitable to explore.  An expedition was formed of archologists, geologists, explorers and media to try to find the city.  

It was a daunting expedition.  There were no roads and even the roads closest to the jumping off place were controlled by the wars of the drug dealers in the area.  There was hostility from the inhabitants whose ancestral cultural artifacts would be disturbed.  The terrain was unimaginable and there were snakes, insects and other natural obstacles.  Yet the exploration went ahead and a city of treasures that advanced knowledge of the cultural background of the area was found.  There were obstacles even after discovery.  Looters are a constant threat in this world as the artifacts found can be worth thousands.  The Amazon jungles are being clear-cut, sometimes for logging and often for agriculture.  There is tension between the government which sees this as a boon for their country and those opposed to the exploration.  Preston documents all of these.

There are also other issues.  Many of the expedition later were diagnosed with a parasitic disease called leishmaniasis.   This disease is common in tropical areas.  Preston discusses how climate change means that many of the diseases found in tropical areas are now spreading into the United States and even Canada and will be a challenge in the coming years.  He also discusses the war between academics over exploration and whether such sites when discovered should be removed or left in situ.  If left, they are in danger of destruction; if removed there is the possibility of destroying cultural barriers that prohibit such actions.  Preston documents the exciting nature of the find and the difficulty the expedition encountered.  This book is recommended for nonfiction readers.  

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Better Sister by Alafair Burke


Chloe Taylor seemed to have it all.  A prestigious job as a writer at a woman's magazine and fame for her series on sexual harassment.  A successful attorney husband.  A stepson she had raised from the time he was two and whom she considered her own child.  A Manhattan apartment and a house out on the coast.  What more could anyone want?

But under the surface, things are not as enviable as they seem.  Chloe got her marriage and stepson by marrying her sister's ex-husband after taking his side in the marriage breakup.  Her sister, Nicky, was taking drugs and drinking and had endangered her son's life in the backyard pool.  Chloe and Adam had cut Nicky out of Ethan, the son's life after that.  Chloe's job is high stress and she's been getting a lot of negative press and social media lately.  Adam seems to resent her success and money and hates the job he took to make more money to compete with her.  Now Adam and Ethan seem to be caught in a typical teenager stormy relationship that fills the house with tension.

But when Chloe walks in on Adam's lifeless body at their beach house, she knows things won't ever be the same.  There's no way to avoid the negative press, especially when the police focus their efforts on Ethan and arrest him for the murder of his father.  Chloe must reach out to Nicky after years of estrangement as they fight to free Ethan of the charges against him.  Who killed Adam if Ethan didn't?

This was my first Alafair Burke novel.  There were lots of twists and turns and a main character that I had a hard time relating to.  As the reader progresses, more and more secrets are revealed as Chloe's perfect life is peeled back layer by layer.  This book is recommended for mystery readers. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

A False Report/Unbelievable by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong


This book is the basis of the hit Netflix documentary series Unbelievable.  It was first published as A False Report but is now being sold under the title Unbelievable.  Regardless of title, it is a sobering oversight of the status of rape reporting in the United States.

The book focuses on the issue through the lens of one serial rapist who terrorized Seattle, Washington while he was stationed there in the military and then in the Colorado suburbs around Denver.  The first known victim in Washington was a young woman named Marie.  She had a troubled upbringing and had spent most of her life in foster homes.  Now as an eighteen year old, she part of a program that supported teens such as her.  She had her first job and her first apartment.  That was where she was attacked one morning around dawn.  

Then and in his later attacks, the rapist had a pattern.  He would restrain the women, often blindfolding them.  He would rape them multiple times over hours.  He would take pictures incessantly, telling the women that if they reported him, he would put their pictures on the Internet.  Afterwards, before he left, he made them shower for at least twenty minutes and he took anything he thought might have evidence such as clothes and bed linens.

Marie did everything right.  She reported immediately and went to the hospital for an examination.  But by the next day, things started to go wrong.  For some reason, her former foster mother called the police and expressed reservations about whether Marie was telling the truth.  The police investigator, with minimal sexual crime experience, was quick to pick up on this and interrogated Marie, calling her a liar until she recanted.  She later disagreed with this but was again browbeaten into saying she was lying.  The sympathy she had gotten disappeared.  She lost her job and was in jeopardy of losing her apartment.  The crowning blow was when the policeman heading up the investigation charged her with making a false report, giving her a criminal record.

Several years later, a different police force handled the cases they had much differently.  There the investigators were mainly female and had trained for the work extensively.  They were quick to do things that had not been done in Washington.  They looked for other cases that fit the pattern, even out of their jurisdiction and were quick to cooperate with other divisions.  They spent extensive time taking the victims' statements, looking for connections and clues.  They, most importantly, believed the victims and threw enough resources at the case that they were able to identify and arrest the perpetrator.  

This is an important book.  It outlines the severity of the rape crisis and the many ways that it is downplayed and given minimal investigative resources in many cases.  Rape is not a primarily sexual crime although it is expressed in a sexual fashion.  It is a crime of power and control and those who are serial rapists often escalate trying to get the same feelings of mastery.  The steps that need to be taken in rape cases and the counseling afterwards is clearly defined.  This book is recommended for those interested in women's issues and social justice.  

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Land Of Marvels by Barry Unsworth


The time is 1914 and the place is Mesopotamia (now Iraq).  In the leadup to the First World War, a collection of individuals from around the globe have gathered to attempt to attain their goals.  Somerville is a British archaeologist and believes that he has found an undiscovered Assyrian palace.  He has financed the expedition himself to a large extent and he is desperate to make a momentous discovery and assure his place in history.  He is accompanied by his wife, who chose him over more prestigious matches because she found his quest fascinating but now that she is here, she is bored and looking for excitement. 

Others in the party include graduate students who have found romance with each other and of course, the native men who do the actual work.  Jehar is one of these men, a scout whose main interest is getting enough money from this work to pay the dowry of his love and make her his wife.  He is scouting and reporting back on the progress of a railroad to Baghdad which Somerville is fearful will come through his digging and ruin his plans.  There are also government officials who have paved the way for Somerville's work and a shadowy businessman who cares not a whit about the upcoming war, ancient history or what will happen except for how it affects his fortune.  These last two make a pact with Somerville.  He will allow an American geologist, Elliot, who is scouting for oil reserves to join his expedition, hiding his true plans behind that of being another archaeologist.  

Tensions mount as each individual pursues his own agenda.  Somerville makes a breakthrough in the excavation and it appears that he does have a major find.  Elliot is also successful in his explorations and believes that he has discovered a massive oilfield.  He knows that there are both business and military rivals that would do anything to know his discoveries.  Jahar becomes more and more frantic as the time grows shorter for him to find the money to marry and he comes up with a plan to blow up the railroad works to delay their progress.  Somerville's wife starts an affair with the American out of boredom and fear that her husband is not as impressive as she believed when she married him.  The tension rises and it is inevitable that there will be clashes between the opposing agendas.  Who will emerge victorious?

Barry Unsworth had a long and distinguished career as an author.  He wrote seventeen historical fiction novels, usually with some connection to the British Empire.  He was shortlisted three times for Booker Prize and his novel, Sacred Hunger, won the Booker in 1992.  This novel with its' conflicting agendas and personalities is an exploration of the urges that drive men to complete amazing feats and their willingness to do whatever it takes, good or evil, to accomplish their goals.  It starts slowly but the tension and pace increase until the book reaches its thrilling climax.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.  

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Fair Warning by Michael Connelly


Reporter Jack McEvoy is surprised to find LAPD homicide detectives at his door.  They are there about a woman who has been found murdered and Jack had briefly dated her a year ago.  The detectives are suspicious of him and even though Jack offers up his DNA for elimination purposes, they seem to be treating him as a suspect.  Jack uses his reporter training to try to find out more about the woman and the murder and that makes the detectives angry, with Jack even ending up in jail for a night to give the detectives probably cause to search his apartment.  

Jack finds that the woman's neck was broken in what is called an internal decapitation.  Using his contacts, he finds that there are other women who have died this way recently and they all share a common trait; they all used a specific DNA testing service.  Now Jack starts to believe that there is a serial killer on the loose who uses the results from that service to target women who are vulnerable to his approach.  

Jack realizes he needs help with the story and more importantly, the investigation.  He contacts Rachel Walling, a former FBI profiler and his former lover.  She is now doing investigative work and agrees to help him.  His editor also assigns another reporter, Emily, to help him with the legwork and writing.  Together the team starts to make breakthroughs to finding the killer but the killer soon realizes that someone is on to him.  He starts to kill those involved in any way who might know his identity and then starts to target the investigative team.  Who will be successful, the killer or those seeking him?

This is the third novel in the Jack McEvoy series.  Jack was the reporter who found The Poet, a serial killer that was the subject of one of Connelly's best ever novels.  His relationship with Rachel has ebbed and flowed over the years and usually ends up badly due to Jack's inability to fully trust anyone and his unfortunate trait of putting his career and the story ahead of any relationships he is involved in.  The novel also highlights the ethical issues involved in the popular DNA testing that so many have participated in.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan


George Washington Black is born as a slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the early 1830's.  The slave plantations were known as the worst of the slave environments and Wash, as he was known, saw evidence daily of the brutality and indifference to human life that those plantations embodied.  His life was constant brute physical labor in the fields, punctuated with the sudden cruelty of overseers or his master, whose only goal was the total domination of the individuals who worked there.  He did have one protector, a huge powerful woman named Big Kit.  

When Wash was eleven, his master demanded that he and Big Kit serve at the table one night.  This was unheard of, as field slaves had no idea how to serve or take care of the fine china and crystal.  They suspected that it was only a showpiece designed to end in some punishment meant to serve as a warning to the others.  But they went.  His master was a cold man but his brother, Christopher, seems a different sort.  Christopher is a scientific man, interested in exploration and discoveries.  He sees in Wash someone who might help him with his latest obsession, a hot air balloon.  He asks his brother to give him Wash's services and the brother surprisely agrees.

Thus begins a different life for Wash.  His master starts to educate him, showing him how to make various measurements and to read  Christopher, or Titch as he is known, is shocked to see the artistic talent that Wash has and soon Wash's life is full of new knowledge and ease.  He is content for the first time but when a man on the plantation dies in Wash's presence, both he and Titch know that someone will have to pay for the death and Wash is the most likely candidate.  The two escape at night in the balloon and soon are off to the colonies and then on to the Arctic to find Titch's father.  

Over time, Wash moves from the Arctic to Nova Scotia, where he meets a famous marine biologist and his daughter, and then to London.  He becomes separated from Titch along the way and he realizes that his life won't be complete until he can see Titch again and resolve the mysteries of his childhood.  He travels the world until he finds him and learns what he can about his origins.

This novel was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2018.  It is a searing look at the repulsive practices of slavery and the absolute waste of intelligence and talent such a system entailed.  Yet the character of Wash is such that he never gives up hope and fights to insure that he can live a life of meaning.  This book is recommended for readers of historical and literary fiction.

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Wolves Of Winter by Tyrell Johnson


Life is hard for Lynn McBride.  She and what's left of her family have fled to the Yukon after the lives they had were devastated by nuclear war and the flu that was released as a bio-weapon.  She lives with her mother, uncle, brother and a young boy whose father died but was her uncle's best friend.  Her days are consumed with getting enough food for the family to live.  She spends her days hunting, her weapon a crossbow.  She is a young woman now but there is not much hope of forming her own family as men are few and far between.  

Then Jax appears one day with a dog.  Dogs are rare now and Jax, a young man on his own, is an even rarer entity.  He is hesitant to befriend the family after being on his own but slowly comes to trust them.  That trust is shattered when members of the Immunity come looking for him.  This is the group that created the flu that ravages the population and now they are searching for an antidote.  It turns out that Jax was raised in their camps and survives now due to the experiments he underwent there.

Jax takes off after he is forced to kill the Immunity who came searching for him.  Lynn goes after him and her uncle and is captured.  It turns out that Lynn has her own secrets as her father, who died from the flu, was a research scientist and injected her with his secret antidote when she got sick as well.  Now Lynn's blood can cure those who are ill and she has become a prized resource.  Can Lynn and Jax survive the attempts of the Immunity to capture them and use them as subjects in another terror war?

This is a debut novel.  The beginning is quite interesting as the author details the life of survivors who have had to move further and further into the wilderness in order to survive the horrors man has unleashed on the world.  The action picks up with the introduction of Jax and questions of morality and what one would do to protect their family arise.  This book is recommended for readers of dystopian science fiction.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey


Mabel and Jack had never foreseen what their lives would be like in middle age.  They had come from comfortable families on the East Coast, Jack raised on a farm and Mabel in a scholarly family.  But as middle age approached and their lives had not turned out as they had hoped, they had an urge to make a change.  That change took them to the Alaskan wilderness where they became homesteaders.  The work was hard, even grueling and they soon wondered if this decision was a mistake.

The biggest issue in their married life had been the absence of children.  Mabel had miscarriages and even one child who was stillborn.  She longed for a child and it was now apparent that there would be no children.  She and Jack did what they could to build a happy life without the blessing they had been denied. 

One night in the first snowfall, they made a snow girl.  For some reason, they spent extra time constructing her.  Jack carved out her face with care and Mabel brought out a red coat and mittens.  Then they went inside and soon forgot about it.  

But something strange happened.  Soon a young girl started to appear at the homestead.  No matter how cold the temperature, she appeared happy in her ragged clothes.  She disappeared whenever they spoke to her but kept coming around.  Slowly, over weeks, she grew bolder and the day came when she even agreed to come inside.  Mabel was estastic and wondered if the snow girl they had made out of love had come to life.  She remembered the fairy tales she grew up on about a couple and their snow maiden.  

Jack knew better as the girl took him to her home up in the mountains and showed him a corpse.  This was her father who had been a trapper and who had raised her in the woods but then drank himself to death.  Jack buried him and then he and Faina, the girl, had a secret.  Faina visited Jack and Mabel all winter but then as the spring approached, she disappeared.  They worried that she had died of exposure or in a hunting accident or any of the many ways Alaska could bring death but Mabel was full of hope.  She knew in her heart that Faina would reappear the next winter and so it was.

There were other children around.  Their nearest neighbors had a quartet of strapping boys.  The youngest, Garrett, seemed to have an interest in Jack and after Jack was injured in an accident, Garrett moved in for several months to help with the planting that would keep Jack and Mabel alive for another year.  The couple grew close to Garrett and to his parents.  There were few people in the wilderness and anyone who could be a friend was treasured.  

I've been interested in reading this book for several years.  I avoided it due to the thought that it was a fantasy that could never be true.  Once I realised that Faina was a real girl, wild and almost feral to be true, but flesh and blood, I was much more interested in this story.  Her growth and the ability of Jack and Mabel to reinvent themselves and to improve the life of anyone they met was a fascinating study on homesteader life.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Merciful by Jon Sealy


A young girl, Samantha James, is killed on her bicycle one night, late, riding home from her summer job at a restaurant in Overlook, a town near Hilton Head, South Carolina.  Her boyfriend finds her body when she doesn't make it to his house for their agreed upon date.  The police come and then leave, notifying her family who will never be the same after this night.  But they have no clues as to the culprit.

After several days, the man who hit Samantha comes forward.  He is Daniel Hayward, a successful man in a tech startup.  He had been out to dinner with a customer and had perhaps too much to drink.  He probably shouldn't have been driving on the narrow, dark road leading to his house.  When he hits the girl, he gets out but doesn't see what he has hit.  He assumes it may have been a deer which, injured, has run off.  Only the next day when he examines his car in the light of day and hears the news does the full extent of what has occurred hit him.

His wife, Francine, is less than supportive.  Although theirs had been a great college romance, the marriage had been showing signs of trouble lately.  She knows that the dinner the night before was with a woman customer and suspects Daniel was on his way to an affair with this woman.  Francine calls Daniel's college roommate, Jay, to come and support him.

As the weeks go by, the town turns against Daniel.  There was no excuse for this hit and run death in their opinion.  Samantha's sister holds memorials and rallies feeling against Daniel.  The newspaper is full of editorials and letters to the editor that rail against this man who dared to kill someone and drive on home.  Daniel loses his job and will soon lose his home in the upscale development that he took such pride in.  He is a scoundrel, roundly condemned and hated.

Jon Sealy has written an indictment of modern society.  While the reader might expect that this novel would be a plot-driven one, it is instead a collection of deep character studies.  Every individual involved, the victim, her family members and boyfriend, the culprit, his wife, his acquaintances and busines partners, the prosecuting attorney, the defense attorney and the judge are given a character sketch that makes them familiar to the reader.  It is a fascinating take on modern society and the role media, especially social media, plays in our perception of events.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Deep As Death by Katja Ivar


The year is 1953 and the place is Helsinki, Finland.  Midwinter in one of the coldest winters in memory.  A prostitute is found drowned, caught under the ice that imprisons the water and now her body.  Did she slip and fall or was she pushed?  When she is found to have been pregnant, the scales tip towards murder.  

Hella Mauzer used to be on the police force.  When she was labeled 'too emotional' after a suspect shooting, she was transferred to Lapland for several years.  She finally decided it would be better to leave the force and come back to Helsinki where her life was and is now working as a private investigator.  Everyone acknowledges her intelligence and hard work but private investigative work is hard to come by.  She is at a bad place.  Funds are running low and she has just broken up with her long time boyfriend.  When the police suggest her to follow up on the death, she jumps at the chance.

Inspector Mustonen used to be Hella's partner.  Now he is trying to rise up through the ranks of the police department, his need fueled by his society wife.  The higher he rises, the more he is exposed to the fact that there are two justices; one for the rich and powerful and one for the rest of society.  When more prostitutes begin to show up drowned, he is brought into the case but his superiors are hamstringing him for fear that he will step on the toes of the influential.  Which investigator will find the killer first?

This is the second in Katja Ivar's series about Hella.  The writing is different than mysteries written in English, with short chapters that propel the pace along and a fatalistic view of society.  Hella is a groundbreaker in her chosen field but her emotional nature also can be her fatal flaw as it leads her to jump to conclusions and find evidence after the fact.  There are many suspects and the reader will be surprised at who the killer turns out to be.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Praise Song For The Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden


Abeo Kata is a happy child living in Ghana with her mother and father.  At nine, her life is a round of school and playing with her friends and spending time with her family.  Her father's mother lives with them and she has aunts and uncles and cousins.  Abeo's father has a good government job and they live in a nice house.  She has everything a child could want.

But then things change.  Abeo's father has issues at work and is suspended from his job.  He starts to drink heavily and then the marriage has issues.  His mother tells him there is only one way to reverse the family's luck.  He should observe trokosi with Abeo.  Trokosi is a ritual sacrifice of a young girl who is taken and given to a priest in a shrine.  There the girl is left for years or even life, her service an atonement for some evil done by the family.  Abeo's father refuses but as more and more bad luck occurs he finally snaps.

He takes Abeo far out into the country and leaves her with the priest and his servants.  Abeo is struck immediately and her nice clothes are taken away, replaced with rough clothes.  She is forced to work all day in the fields and is fed little and only gruel.  Along with the other girls in the shrine, she is beaten, forced to hard labor and when her period starts, given to the priest as a sexual slave.  The girls often become pregnant and their children grow up in the shrine, the girls to repeat the cycle and the boys as servants also.  Abeo cannot imagine what she could have done to deserve such a fate.

Eventually, after fifteen years of servitude and tragedies that will live with her for life, Abeo is ransomed by an aid organization.  When she is reunited with her extended family, she finds that she was an adopted child, her birth mother someone she had considered an aunt.  Abeo is actually an American citizen as she was born in the United States and brought back to Ghana to be raised by the family.  She is able to go and live in New York where she tries to recover.

The practice of trokosi is a real one.  It was finally outlawed in Ghana in 1998 but even today it is estimated that there are 4000 to 6000 girls in this horrific system.  The girls are enslaved and their lives become one of servitude and the reality that they belong to someone else who can do anything to them.  

This book was nominated for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction.  It outlines a practice that most people have never heard of, nor would believe is still practiced.  The book is difficult to read but the reader must realize how much more difficult it is to live and only publicity and knowledge will allow trokosi to be stamped out.  This book is recommended for readers interested in other cultures and those who want to improve women's lives.  

Monday, August 24, 2020

What You See by Hank Phillippi Ryan


It's a busy, confusing twenty-four hours.  Jane Ryland, former TV reporter and Jake Brogan, homicide detective, are moving towards a serious relationship and deciding if their careers will be an issue.  Jake is called to the scene of a homicide.  A man has been killed-knifed in the back-right outside City Hall.  Jane has gone in to talk with the executive at a rival TV station now that she is back on the job market, and when the news comes in about the homicide, he asks Jane if she can rush down there and file a report as a contracting reporter.  She agrees.

Inside City Hall, there is controversy.  A young college student is monitoring the cameras.  She sees the activity and starts to record the scene, only to be overruled by her supervisor.  When the police come to see if there is footage, she has to report that there isn't but she doesn't know about the secret cameras that record everything.  On the street, Jane is approached by a young man who happened to take pictures of the event and who now sees his big break into journalism if he can only get someone to pay attention to what he thinks he has; the biggest scoop of the year.

But there are other things going on.  Jane's sister is about to get married and has flown in for the weekend for the rehersal dinner and other events.  She is staying with her groom's ex-wife and young daughter but the daughter, Grace, doesn't seem to be there.  Jane's sister calls her and asks her to come over as Grace is missing as is the ex-wife's new husband.  Does someone have them both?  Is a ransom demand soon to be delivered or is this a case of the husband using his stepdaughter in a power play with his wife?   As all these subplots play out, the cases start to converge and secrets are uncovered.

This was my first Hank Phillippi Ryan book and it won't be my last.  The plotting was intricate and the characters are faced with dilemmas that could happen to anyone in their situations.  The book explores the ideas of everyday privacy in the age of CCTV located everywhere, the tensions inherent in marriages breaking up with children involved and the difficulties the police face as they go about their work.  Jane is an interesting woman with an interesting career and her ability to juggle work and her relationship with a police detective is another relevant theme.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie


Afi Tekple has a hard life in Ghana.  After her father's death, she and her mother were thrown on the mercy of his family for a place to live.  Her mother ekes out money for food working in a flour warehouse while Afi hopes to be a seamstress one day and takes in what mending and sewing work she can find.

Imagine her surprise when her mother returns from work one day with news that will change their lives forever.  Her boss, known as Aunty due to her charitable works, has come to her mother with a proposition.  Her middle son, Elikem, is mixed up with a Liberian woman the family is not pleased with.  She does not honor or respect them, refusing them free entry to the house of their son and brother.  She doesn't dress as a Ghanaian woman would and doesn't care that they don't like it.  Aunty wants to do something that will get rid of the woman.  She wants to marry Elikem to Afi.  Although he is with the other woman, he will bow to his family's demands in this.

Elikem does not come to the wedding; his brother stands in for him in the ceremony.  After the ceremony, Afi is whisked away to a large, clean apartment in the city where Elikem's business interests and those of his family are.  She is left there to amuse herself as she will but Elikem does not come there although he calls her frequently.  He does not come there for two months.

Afi doesn't know what to do.  Materially, her life is a hundred times better.  Elikem gives her money, a driver.  She can buy whatever she wants.  Slowly, the two become a couple and finally are sleeping together.  She falls in love with him but knows he still leaves her to go to the other woman.  While she is the first wife, she is not the legal wife without a church ceremony.  The other woman hasn't even had the ceremony Afi had so is considered the second wife or the mistress.  But she has a hold on Elikem that, for whatever reason, cannot be broken, no matter how loving Elikem seems to Afi or how much he sees it hurts her.  Can Afi get what she wants, a husband to herself?

Peace Adzo Medie has written an interesting novel that gives insight into the Ghanaian culture.  It is a culture that is based around family and family respect much more than that of Americans.  A Ghanaian woman would never marry anyone her family did not like.  Even after marriage, honor for the elder members of her own and her husband's family is paramount and the worst thing that can happen is estrangement from the family.  It is also a book about a dilemma that is common in all cultures; what to do when the person you love also loves someone else?  This book is recommended for readers looking for knowledge about other cultures and for those who enjoy women's fiction.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

War For The Oaks by Emma Bull


Eddi McCandry's life is in turmoil.  She has just broken up with her boyfriend, Stuart.  That also means the band in which they both played has also broken up.  She and her best friend who plays the drums in the band, agree to meet tomorrow to discuss what to do going forward and whether they should start their own band.  But before tomorrow, Eddi's life will change forever in a way she could never have predicted.

As she goes home, she encounters a large black dog near a fountain.  It seems to be herding her toward the water and as she nears, she sees a woman emerging from the water.  She is a beautiful woman but unearthly.  When she looks around, the dog has changed into a man.  Together, they tell Eddi that she has been chosen as the champion of the fae and that a war is about to occur.  It is unbelievable but watching the dog change back and forth to man and the cold beauty of the woman makes it conceivable.  

Eddi goes home with her head reeling.  Not the least of her consternation comes from the fact that the man/dog whose name is Phouka will now be her bodyguard and living in her apartment.  When the next day comes, she and her friend, Carla, start discussions about their new band.   Carla knows a keyboard player and they post notices and get a lead guitarist and a bass player.  But a new band is not all that Eddi is facing.

The Seelie Court of the Fae and the Unseelie Court are warring for dominance.  Eddi is shocked and changed forever when she witnesses the first battle and realizes that her new band members are also Fae.  She is pushed and pulled between the two sides with the Unseelie Dark Queen singling her out for manipulation.  Which side will win and will Eddi's life ever be the same?

This is a debut novel and thoroughly enjoyable.  It won the Locust Award for Best First Novel.  The book is filled with music and love and a sense that there is more to the world than what we see.  Eddi is an interesting heroine who defies the world to live life on her own terms and who is unstoppable  in attaining her goals.  This book is recommended for fantasy readers.   

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Affliction by Russell Baker


Wade Whitehouse's life hasn't turned out like he expected as a young man.  Back then, he was a local high school athlete, then a young husband and father, known to everyone in town.  He had a job at which he expected to progress and had even been named as the town's policeman.  But like his tired New Hampshire town, life hadn't been kind to him.

Now Wade is approaching middle age.  His athletic body is long gone, overlaid with the residue of many years of eating junk food and drinking till the bars close.  His marriage has broken up, taking with it his daughter and the house he had built himself for his family.  His job is a dead end and the police job is nothing more than a glorified traffic guard and bar bouncer.  He is known by everyone in town but he can't think of many who like him.  In his darkest hours, he knows he is nothing more than the failure his father always predicted he would be.

When an out of town union leader is killed on opening hunting day, Wade starts to come out of his fog.  He suspects that the hunting accident may not have been an accident at all.  It may have been a way to hide the fact that the mob has been using union funds to purchase land all over town.  A new skiing resort is in the works and the few influential men in town are all in on the plan.  Wade is determined to find out the truth and expose the plot.  Will he be successful or is it just another dream destined for failure?

Russell Banks has written a searing expose of masculine expectations and the slow realization in midlife that things don't always work out.  Wade has positive qualities but he is his own worst enemy and he can quickly turn gold into dross and ruin everything he hope to achieve.  It is heartbreaking to watch him attempt to change his fortunes repeatedly only to have his temper and drinking overcome his dreams.  It is my first read of one of Russell Bank's novels but it surely won't be my last.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Impersonation by Heidi Pitlor

 Allie Lang is a single mother, by choice.  She lives with her five year old son, Cass and her on-again, off-again boyfriend.  Allie is a ghostwriter by profession, although she has to supplement her income with substitute teaching and landscaping odd jobs.  Her childcare is shaky.  She can't afford a fulltime program so she has Cass in a childcare center one or two days a week for the socialization and then she has a neighbor watch him on other days.  Unfortunately, the neighbor is elderly and getting forgetful but it's what Allie can afford.  Her days are filled with uncertainty and she can't plan for the future like those in more stable situations are able to.  But she has tons of time to spend with her son and she is her own boss, reliant on herself and her creativity to carve out a life.

When her latest ghostwriting assignment blows up, Allie is at loose ends.  Then a dream job comes her way.  Lana Breban is a famous woman, a feminist who has come to embody the struggle.  She is a household name but her team feels that a biography would humanize her, showing her as not only a revolutionary but a wife and mother.  They hire Allie and she is ecstatic as Lana is one of her heroes.  But the work doesn't go well.  Lana is constantly off somewhere, at conferences and rallies, brainstorming with corporate heads and lawmakers.  She gives Allie very little material and it becomes apparent, there is little to give.  Lana has been a very hands off mother, leaving the raising of her child to a housekeeper and nannies.  Under pressure, Allie slowly begins to substitute in her own memories and struggles of being a mother.  Lana is pleased and tells Allie to do more of that and when the book is finished it is more Allie's story than Lana's.  But trouble is waiting in the wings.

Heidi Pitlor has worked in the publishing industry for most of her career.  She is also the senior editor of the Best American Short Stories series since 2007.  Her inside knowledge of the publishing industry makes this novel authentic.  She is a wife and mother to twins so she knows the difficulties of motherhood.  In Allie, she has created a woman that the reader can instantly relate to and cheer for.  The novel illustrates the difficulties women face without being preachy about them.  This book is recommended for readers of women's fiction and relationships.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Booksie's Shelves, August 16, 2020


Week way too many of the virus and its isolation.  We're still staying at home and wearing our masks on the rare occasions we go out.  We did go for a lovely drive to a marina yesterday just to get out and see some different scenery for a bit.  Our daughter has moved home after her recent university graduation and we're waiting to see what will be next for her.  The Booker Prize nominees were released since I wrote and this year's thirteen candidates include several debut novelists.   I've read six of last years nominees and I own all the rest so I'll get to them sooner or later.  I was thrilled to see Anne Tyler in the list this year; she has been a favorite author of mine for many years.  Here's the newest books I've acquired:

  1.  Impersonation, Heidi Pitlor, literary fiction, sent for a book review
  2. The Merciful, Jon Sealey, legal thriller, sent by publicist
  3. Under Your Skin, Rose McClelland, mystery, sent by publicist
  4. A Crown Of Swords, Robert Jordan, fantasy, purchased
  5. His Only Wife, Peace Adzo Medie, women's fiction, sent by publicist
  6. Hench, Natalie Walschots, literary fiction, won in contest
  7. The Prince Of Mournful Thoughts, Carolina Kim, anthology, sent by publicist
Here's the ebooks I've purchased since my last Booksie's Shelves:
  1. Bull Mouontain, Brian Panowich, literary fiction
  2. Spying On The South, Tony Horowitz, nonfiction
  3. Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evisto, literary fiction
  4. Plague, C. C. Humphreys, historical mystery
  5. Visible Empire, Hannah Pittard, science fiction
  6. Spilled Blood, Brian Freeman, mystery
  7. Blood Orange, Harriet Tyce, literary fiction
  8. Tower Lord, Anthony Ryan, science fiction
  9. Make Me No Grave, Hayley Stone, mystery
  10. Don't Ever Forget, Matthew Ferrell, mystery
  11. House Of Rain, Craig Childs, nonfiction, history
  12. Fate Of Dragons, Alisha Klapheke, fantasy
  13. Song Of Kali, Dan Simmons, horror
  14. Nine Perfect Strangers, Liane Moriarty, mystery
  15. Hyperion, Dan Simmons, science fiction
Here's what I'm reading:
  1. Fair Warning, Michael Connelly, Kindle
  2. The Overstory, Richard Powers, audio
  3. Land Of Marvels, Barry Unsworth, paperback
  4. The Wolves Of Winter, Tyrell Johnson, Kindle
  5. Deep As Death, Katja Ivar, paperback
  6. The Lost City Of The Monkey God, Douglas Preston, hardback
  7. War For The Oaks, Emma Bull, paperback
  8. What You See, Hank Philipi Ryan, hardback
  9. In Plain Sight, Kathryn Casey, Kindle
  10. All The King's Men, Robert Penn Warren, Kindle
Happy Reading!

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Atlas by William Vollmann


The Atlas is a collection of essays written by William Vollmann during his travels as a journalist, many times in war zones.  The places written about include the following; Sicily, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, various parts of the United States, Madagascar, France, Canada, Thailand, Cambodia, Germany, Israel, Jordan, Hungary, Egypt, India, Australia, Burma, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Mauritius, Tasmania, Somalia, Switzerland, Poland, Belize, Bosnia and Croatia.  

These are not happy traveling essays.  Rather they depict the underside of society, the poor, the ill, the desperate.  Most of the essays took place in the early 1990's and there was war in many places.  AIDS was the epidemic that was sweeping the world and the people Vollmann associated with were most at risk for it; poor, sex workers and those willing to do anything to stave off the boredom of their lives.  He spends a lot of time with prostitutes as they seem to be his love interest but the women tend to cheat him of his money and leave him after false promises.  It is a life where one can expect little of others and even that little tends to be too much to expect.  

Vollmann is an interesting writer with books such as Europe Central which won the National Book Award.  This collection is a glimpse into his mind which is an uncomfortable place to visit.  He seems to seek out the dregs of society and make his friends among those who society chooses to ignore.  It is a place of depression and anxiety where hopes are crushed and life is brutal and short.  This book is recommended for nonfiction readers and those interested in Vollmann's life and thoughts.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Phantom Prey by John Sandford


Lucas Davenport is bored and a little depressed.  He is often depressed at the end of the winter in Minnesota.  He knows he needs a good case, one that's out of the ordinary to kickstart his brain and get him moving.  When his wife Weather asks him to speak to a friend of hers whose daughter has been missing for several months, he is reluctant but finally decides to.  Other than that, he's on a detail that is staking out the apartment of the wife of a fugitive and waiting for him to sneak home to see her. 

When Lucas goes to see Alyssa, Weather's friend, his interest is piqued.  At the time of her daughter's disappearance, Alyssa had been a recent widow, her husband having been killed in a small plane crash.  She and her daughter, who had recently graduated from college had a strained relationship as the daughter was upset that Alyssa's marriage had been strained at the time of her father's death.  Alyssa came home one day to find blood and signs of a cleanup.  She hadn't been expecting her daughter that day, as she had her own place, but the blood tested out to be her blood and she hadn't been seen since.  Was she dead?  If not, where was she?

Frances, the daughter, had been flirting with the Goth lifestyle for a couple of years.  Her friends wore black, listened to Goth music and were serious about it to varying degrees.  Frances was about through with it as she had too much business background from her parents to be happy not producing something but it was a slow removal.  When other individuals in the Goth life who knew Frances started to be murdered, Lucas knew it was all related somehow.  He discovered fifty thousand missing from Frances' accounts and now he maybe had a motive.  Can he find the killer before more people are murdered?

This is the eighteenth novel in the Prey series.  Lucas is his same self, a magnet to women who he faithfully turns away as he is a family man these days.  His ability to handle multiple investigations, his relationships with his men, and his ability to shake up a stalled investigation are some of the qualities that keep readers coming back to read more about his exploits.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Locked Doors by Blake Crouch


Andrew Thomas has been on the run for seven years.  Seven years ago, his life was almost perfect.  He was gaining fame as a novelist.  He lived on Lake Norman in North Carolina surrounded by friends.  Then his brother returned and Andrew's entire life exploded.

His brother was a psychopath.  He was also a serial killer and he and his partner, Luther Kite, had killed many people for years.  Now they pulled off their master plan, killing Andrew's mother and burying the body on his property.  They also threw in several other victim's bodies to make the deception work and it did.  Suddenly, Andrew Thomas was wanted everywhere, his picture on every news show and he made the FBI Most Wanted list.  

Andrew fought back.  Along with his best friend, Steve, he went out to track down his brother and Luther.  At the end of his trip, his brother was dead and he left Luther dying in the desert.  Unfortunately, Steve was also killed and Andrew buried him in a remote place.  Then he hit the roads.

He lived as an undocumented person, always on the move, working menial jobs for a few days or weeks when he could find them, then moving on.  Finally, he has ended up in a remote village in the Yukon.  There, he lives peacefully under an alias, finally putting his past behind him.  Or so he thinks.

But two things converge to ruin his sanctuary.  An aspiring writer, working in a bookstore, recognizes Andrew when he comes in to browse and is determined to track him down and interview him.  Far worse, Luther survived his desert ordeal and has decided to draw Andrew out of isolation.  He kills Andrew's former fiancee in a very public manner and kidnaps Steve's wife.  When Andrew sees this, he knows he must give up his peaceful life and finish what he started seven years ago.  Along with a young police detective, he tracks Luther down for one final confrontation from which only one of them will emerge.

This was my first Blake Crouch novel.  He grew up in North Carolina about eighty miles from my location.  I always like to read and feature North Carolina authors and it's wonderful to see how famous Blake has become in the years since he graduated from Chapel Hill.  This novel was suspenseful and full of twists.  It is recommended for readers of suspense novels.

Friday, August 7, 2020

With Or Without You by Caroline Leavitt

 They shouldn't work as a couple.  Stella is logical and grounded, a nurse who is a great at her work.  Simon is mercurial and creative, a musician whose band almost made it to the top.  Stella's best friend, Libby, is a doctor at the hospital where Stella works.  She can't understand why Stella would stay with Simon who seems childish and self-centered to her.  Stella supports all of Simon's dreams and where does that leave Stella?

Now Simon has one more chance to make it big.  The band has been asked to go to California to open for a rising star and it could mean the start of something new.  When Stella tells Simon she doesn't want to go with him, they argue and then end up partying to try to make up.  The next morning Simon wakes up determined to talk things out but Stella doesn't wake up.  She is in a coma.

The coma lasts for several months.  During that time, Simon starts to change.  He begins to grow up and realizes that his role is to be there for Stella no matter what she needs.  Libby helps with Stella's care and sees the changes in Simon.  As she gets to know him better, she changes her opinion of him.  He seems more mature and giving now.

But when Stella finally awakes from her coma, all is changed.  She is a different person.  She likes different food and different things while her old habits don't interest her at all.  She starts to draw and then paint people and a huge talent flows through her.  Soon she is in demand and she finds the fame that has always eluded Simon.  Simon is confused at the changes and draws even closer to Libby.  As they inevitably fall in love, they try to find ways to justify the betrayal of Stella.  When Stella discovers their relationship, everything comes to a crisis.

Caroline Leavitt has written a warm and wise novel about human lives and how none of us lives just one life.  We all change throughout our lives and what defines us at one point may not interest us at all at another.  What does love mean in this kind of changing and unfolding of lives?  Does a true love change with the people involved or does it have a finite timeline?  The reader will find themselves challenged to think through these questions and to relate them to their own lives.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction and those interested in our relationships and connections to each other. 

Monday, August 3, 2020

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

In the 1970's, Annie Dillard, twenty-seven, spent a year near Tinker Creek in Southwest Virginia near the city of Roanoke.  Pilgrim At Tinker Creek is her memoir of her time spent observing the wildlife in this area and thinking about the bigger philosophical ideas of how nature works and what role, if any, God plays in this marvelous, cruel, breathtaking world.  

Open any page and the reader will find a sentence that stops them in their tracks.  Dillard's attention to detail and her ability to portray what she sees poetically is rarely found in a book.  Few of us take the time to observe as closely as she does.  She may spend four hours sitting in one spot without moving in order to observe a muskrat whose survival depends on being able to spot any predators in the area.  She spends hours observing insects and how they lay their eggs, hatch, grow and die.  

Not everything is perfect.  She spends a chapter talking about the ten percent of all living organisms that are parasites.  Some are amazingly specific, a mite which only resides on one species of bird in one area.  Some are common and annoyingly familiar such as a mosquito or tick.  She returns several times to an incident where she saw a frog suddenly collapse as it's insides were sucked away by a water bug.  This horror is part of the same nature that can stop one with its beauty.

She did see lots of beauty.  She narrates the occurrence of a monarch butterfly migration.  She notes the flowering plants that follow the spring and the colors of autumn.  She can also find beauty in creatures such as a copperhead that most of us would never find beautiful due to repulsion.  As she watches, she meditates.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.  It is a fascinating read for those interested in the natural world around them.  I was particularly interested as I was living in this same area at the same time so I could relate to most of what was written.  Those who are not religious can enjoy the book on a different level than those interested in her ideas about God.  This is a masterwork by an author at the top of her form and is recommended for nonfiction readers who enjoy nature.  

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Daniel Rooke grew up a lonely child.  He was bright, much brighter than his classmates and shunned by his classmates.  He rarely spoke.  His salvation occurs when the local doctor notices his intelligence and arranges for him to receive a place at the Portsmouth Naval Academy.  There his intelligence is seen as the positive thing it is and he becomes entranced with astronomy.  But there is no place for another astronomer when Rooke is ready to find work so he instead becomes a lieutenant in the Royal Navy.

After his one encounter with battle, Rooke is left with what would be called PTSD today.  He is at loose ends when he hears of an opportunity.  It is 1788 and an excursion is being planned to the uncharted territory of New South Wales.  The king has claimed sovernity but the land is uncharted and nothing is known of the people, animals or food of the area.  The trip will last for three years.

Rooke has used his astronomical knowledge in the Navy as a navigator and he continues on this trip.  Once the ship has landed at what they name Botany Bay, he moves away from the main camp and sets up an astronomical and scientific observation station.  He prefers this lonely life, living by himself and only seeing his military companions once a week for dinner.

As time goes on, the expedition tries to make contact with the natives.  Of course, no one can speak their language but rudimentary attempts are made.  The natives start to visit Rooke at his station and he begins a study of their language and soon can converse with them.  He develops a strong relationship with a young girl of around ten.  As the military commander decides to take stronger and stronger steps to be in command of the native population, Rooke finds himself in conflict between his feeling for the natives and his obligation as a military man to follow the change of command.  This conflict leads to a confrontation that will change everything.

Kate Grenville is one of Australia's most famous authors.  Previous novels have won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize as well as the Orange Prize and been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  Her knowledge of the landscape and native population allows her to visualize what it must have been like for the first English military settlers.  She can clearly see and knows the history of the relationship between the native people who lived there and the new inhabitants and how that relationship progressed.  This book is recommended for readers of historical and literary fiction.