Thursday, February 14, 2019

The River

The River by Peter Heller    272 pages

It’s hard to pigeon-hole this novel into one genre; It’s part wilderness adventure, part thriller and part horror story, with a bit of “Deliverance” thrown in.

Jack and Wynn share a love of literature, camping, canoeing and fishing. “They were best friends at Dartmouth, who had decided to take the summer and fall quarters off.” Fall was closing in as the two were reaching the last few days of their canoe trip on northern Canada’s Maskwa River. They do not foresee the trouble that lies ahead. But if there isn’t some sort of dilemma ahead, there isn’t much tension to the story. 

Their days are filled drifting in their canoe, fishing for their meal, picking wild blueberries and long discussions of literature. The descriptions of the landscape and the animals puts the reader right there in the canoe with them.

The book opens with a major concern: “They had been smelling smoke for two days.”  After setting up camp that night, they “followed a game trail to a ledge of broken rock…looking northwest they saw it…and they knew it was a fire.” It was humongous.

Time became more pressing. They had to reach the landing, several days still away, before the flames could catch up with them.

Further downstream, on a fog-shrouded night, Jack and Wynn heard a couple arguing. They decide against warning them about the fire. The next day, a man appears and stops at their campsite. He is alone, but looks as if he’s been beaten.  Wynn, ever the trusting soul, believes the story the man concocts, but Jack isn’t buying it. He believes that the man killed the woman and would kill them if he got half a chance.

Jack and Wynn slip away, but they backtrack to look for the woman. Once they find her, it becomes a race for life as the struggle to reach civilization.

A heart-pounding read, except for one thing. Heller’s preferred format of chunky blocks of text kept throwing me out of the story. It felt like a self-published book where the author was trying to get attention by the unexpected format.  It turns out that Heller formats all his books like that.  Still, I found it highly irritating, and that is why “The River” receives 4 out of 5 stars in Julie’s world.

Lethal White

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, 650 pages

This is the fourth book in the Cormoran Strike series. Strike is a former military police officer who has been building up his detective agency. His less experienced partner in the agency is Robin Ellacott.

The prologue picks up where the last book left off. Strike has come to talk to Robin at her wedding reception and something she finds out leads to a rocky start to her marriage.

Skip forward a year and a man named Billy comes to Strike's office seeking his help. He is obviously suffering from mental illness and says he saw someone killed but he leaves and Strike can't find him. Something about his story has a ring of truth and Strike can't let it go.

Meanwhile, a government Minister hires Strike to try to get some dirt on a couple of people who are blackmailing him so he can get them to back off. They are close to getting the information they need when things take a turn and their investigation must go in a different direction. Throughout, Strike is trying to track Billy down and figure out if the current case is related to what Billy saw.

Parts of Robin's and Strike's personal lives and their work relationship are woven into the plot and that is part of the reason I like this series.

I felt the last two books in the series were getting a little too formulaic so I thought they were good but could have been better. I would say this one departed from the formula somewhat and rate it as very good.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A nearly normal family

A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson,  Rachel Willson-Broyles  390 pages  I read a galley - book is due to be published in June, 2019 (not on order yet for SLPL)

How well do you know your child? If you suspected they were capable of murder, how far would you go to protect them? Could you ever forgive yourself?

19 year-old Stella is accused of murdering a man almost 15 years old her senior. An ordinary teen from a solid, upstanding family, it seems incomprehensible that she could have committed this crime. However, even as her parents defend her, there is doubt in their minds. How did Stella even know this man? And is she capable of murder? Told from three different viewpoints, this book takes you through the story from the perspectives of Stella's parents and Stella, herself. It's clear that Stella may not be forthcoming about what happened, and also clear that her parents may be willing to cross dangerous lines to protect her.

This story isn't just about solving a did-she-or-didn't-she mystery, but grapples with family dynamics and explores just how far a parent will go to protect their child, even as they doubt them. For Stella's father, a pastor, there is also the exploration of questioning one's own faith, which gives an added layer to this story. The tautly written story, told in an unusual three-part perspective, does something which I found especially intriguing: it reveals things about the characters and how they relate to each other, while at the same time only giving glimpses of what the truth about the murder is. It makes this story intensely suspenseful in multiple ways, which made for a fascinating read.

This is a good choice for readers who enjoy being kept on the edge of their seat with suspense, and who like books by Megan Abbott and Tana French.

Save me the plums: a memoir

Save me the plums: a memoir by Ruth Reichl   265 pages   I read a galley - book due out in 4/2019

If you read Gourmet magazine or The New York Times, you may know Ruth Reichl --- she is a food writer, restaurant critic and was editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine from 1999 until the magazine ended in 2009. She is also the author of several memoirs.  This book, focusing on the time in her life when she was offered the job at Gourmet, is more than a memoir about her life; it's an insight into popular culture during that time period, when chefs began transforming into celebrities and then the farm-to-table movement started to rise. Written in Reichl's fluid and evocative style, you get a true sense of not only what it took to transform Gourmet magazine from its rather stuffy (and outdated) format into a cutting-edge magazine, but also how her own life, as well as the lives she touched, was transformed i the process.

I have read all of Reichl's books and enjoyed them, so I jumped at the chance to read this advance copy. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, feeling like I was getting an insider's view into not only what it took to transform a magazine I had grown up reading, but also into Conde' Nast publishing, itself. My mother had a subscription to Gourmet, and I remember reading and enjoying it, especially the essays by Laurie Colwin. However, I don't remember my mom ever making any of the recipes, which seemed like they were always a bit complicated (and usually also contained ingredients that would require some sleuthing to find). I had continued to read the magazine over the years, picking up a copy now and then from the library or reading it when I was visiting my parents. However, I started really noticing the magazine again around 2000; the covers were eye-catching and while I wasn't up to making any of the recipes at that point, I felt like the magazine was a more interesting read than it had been for years. And now I know why: Ruth Reichl. It totally makes sense to make, understanding her approach to food, her love of writing, and her creative approach to opening people's eyes to the wonderful culinary world around them. However, after reading this book, I really understand what it took to transform Gourmet, and how that job really changed Reichl, as well. Her passion for life really comes through in this book, and I got a good sense of how she worried that becoming an editor of this magazine could mean sacrificing her passion to become successful.  The good news is that she never did: her passion and dedication meant that the rest of us got to enjoy Gourmet and feel invigorated when we read it.

Definitely a good read if you have read her other books, although it's not necessary to have her back story before reading this one.

New Life, No Instructions

New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir by Gail Caldwell    Audio Book:4 hrs. , 30 min       Paperback Book:  192 pages            

A look into the life of Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times Best Selling Author, Gail Caldwell.    Gail developed Polio in 1951 and her life was changed forever after that.   She likens it to being on a train and getting off at the wrong stop    You are still you, the you that got on for the ride, but, now it is you in a strange and unexpected place that you now have to figure out how to manage your way through to get back to some semblance of what you know.   She tells the highs and lows of her life – low being Polio that she says she doesn’t want to give power to by demonizing it and saying everything changed because this happened, she would rather say, this happened it was just simply that she was one of the people that it happened to but she woud rather give strength to herself by going further saying, this happened and  then this is how it turned out because I learned to deal with it and go on with my life from there.     She talks about how many dogs she has loved better said adored over the years.   We aren’t talking about tiny little yip yip lap dogs, we are talking big Alaskan sled dogs that can pull a tractor.    She found comfort and solace in these big loving friends who have been beside her all through her struggles with health problems, Polio, hip replacements, recovering from broken bones from her falls due to Polio having made her body unsteady over the years.    She talks about grief and sorrow at losing both of her parents.   She spins loving tales of times they shared over the years.   She talks about feeling all alone and devastated due to her contracting Polio but realizing how blessed she really was with her force field of familial love and loving friends surrounding her and bolstering her spirits.   While we may have a certain path in mind sometimes our lives turn out to be completely different stories that was expected it to be.    She talks about how much she enjoyed sharing walks along the sand on the east coast with her various dogs over the years and how good it felt to take her shoes off and feel the sand and water flowing over her toes.    She talks about the joint love she has shared with family, pets and friends over the years when she felt like it was a solo adventure she was going through only to find she had her own tribe surrounding her and bearing her up when her strength started lagging.      She talks about how all big changes in our lives originally start out as something small then it accumulates and how we can create hope out of where sorrow used to be.    Very insightful just showing how good can come from tragedy if we forge on no matter how hard the struggle or how much life seems to try to hold us back or hold us down.   Fortitude will get you through and when you get through and look back at how far you have come from where you started you will not only be amazed but you will also feel good to know you overcame the odds.  And how good that will make you feel and yeah, humbled by the circumstances but proud of the inner strength, too.     A spiritual journey into the darkness all the way through to the light on the other side.     A good story, lots of great wisdom and teaching moments to be be found here.    It starts out a little dodgy,  You will ask yourself, “Where is she going with this?”  But then she gets in her groove and the reader will be saying, “Oh that is what she was getting at.   Ah!  Now I see.   Good book insight into what it is like to be down with a devastating diagnosis and how to find the inner strength to perservere through it and come back stronger.    The definition of Vas micht nicht umbringt mach me schtarker – that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.    Good book.    A good read for any age, I think

 - Shirley J.

After Anna

After Anna by Lisa Scottoline            Audio Book: 10 hours, 51 minutes     Paperback Book  416 pages               

Another winner by Lisa Scottline.    This is the first title I have read by Lisa Scottoline of her murder mysteries and it was just as good as her other writings.   I am such a fan of her work.   I know now that if Lisa Scottoline wrote it I will like it.    In this story,  Maggie Ippolitti goes through post partum psychosis after giving birth to her daughter.   Her husband at the time was wrapped up in his career and more seldom spending much time at home, never helping Maggie with the baby nor taking her pleas for help seriously.    Finally one day, Maggie calls a neighbor to come and get the baby without really going into why.    Maggie knew something was wrong but she couldn’t seem to make it right.    She told the neighbor when she arrived to please take the baby that there was something wrong with her and she needed medical attention.   What was actually going on was Maggie was hearing voices telling her to drop the baby on the ground and Maggie didn’t want to obey the voices.   She admitted herself to psychiatric care and was diagnosed with post partum psychosis and began treatment for it.    While she was institutionalized her husband got custody of their daughter and eventually divorced Maggie, had her proven an unfit mother and legally gained full custody of their daughter.   He moved out of the country with their daughter, Anna and swore Maggie would never see her again.    Maggie finally was released but believing she still might be a threat to her daughter decided not to try to see her again as she feared the voices might come back and she loved her daughter and didn’t want to take the chance on hurting her believing it would be better to be broken hearted than to take a chance on harming her beloved child.  Her ex-husband remarries and remains in France sending Anna to boarding school.    Maggie felt Anna was being slighted by her father but did not raise a fuss about it hoping in spite of their rocky beginning that she and Anna might somehow meet again one day.   In the meantime Maggie meets Dr. Noah Alderman, a Pediatric Allergist and widower with a young son.   They fall in love and marry, and are living a happy life together.   Boom, Boom, Boom – Maggie’s ex and family suffer a fatal car accident in France.   Anna was spared because she was away at boarding school but her father, step-mother and two siblings are killed in the wreck.   Now after all these years Maggie may get the daughter back she lost so many years ago but now at 17 years of age, while a reuniting may be imminent how will Anna feel about that?   How will Maggie’s new family feel?    Can there be a happily ever after?   Maggie worries about her mental illness recurring.   Is she truly cured?   Could Anna be a trigger?    Her husband’s son, Caleb, and Maggie got along, but, Caleb had never called her mother but only by her name, “Maggie.”   Will the kids get along?    Her new husband, Noah, is a great guy, but, he didn’t sign on for this.   Will he be o.k. with bringing her daughter into their family.   She told him about Anna, but, this will change their family dynamic but hopefully for the better.     I will let you find the answers and so much more good storyline and it soars from that point to the end.   Unexpected twists and turns and so many things going on.    Dealing with grief, angst, feelings of losing control, betrayal, and when the big stuff starts happening it is like a dam bursting!   GOOD BOOK!  I highly recommend this book to everyone.   

- Shirley J.

The Undoing of Saint Silvanus

The Undoing of Saint Silvanus by Beth Moore    Audio Book:  12 hrs., 20 mins   Paperback Book:  496 pages                  

I enjoyed this story a lot.   I could picture this being turned into a film with Niecy Nash or Jennifer Lewis playing Adella Atwater.   Jillian Slater lives in San Francisco with her mother.  She hasn’t seen her father in 20 years.   Her mother never had a good word to say about him but when Jillian was a child she loved her father and remembers bits and pieces of time spent with him at her grandmother’s home in New Orleans.   Out of the blue Jillian receives word from her grandmother that Jillian’s father has died and that if she would like to attend his funeral, her grandmother will provide a roundtrip airline ticket for her to come and will provide a room for her to stay as long as she likes.   Jillian thought of her father as a ne’er do well and worse, compliments of her mother’s feelings about him.   Jillian’s mother had always referred to her mother-in-law (Jillian’s Dad’s mother) as the witch or the Ice Queen because the woman never allowed herself to show any emotion and never expressed any compassion toward anyone.    Jillian’s grandmother had been loving and happy when she was a young wife with a baby boy in tow, but, her husband’s philandering and under-handed business dealings hardened her to life and she got harder and more distant with every passing year.    She hired a woman named Adella Atwater to oversee her property and Adella took to the position like a duck to water.   Lots of mystery and intrigue, people with two-faces and loads of ulterior motives.    Jillian decides, what the heck and takes her Grandmother up on the free trip to New Orleans and once she arrives things take a number of freaky turns.   Throw in a bit or two of Tarot, some beignets and you have a strange Cajun brew oh yes, and lots and lots of French Press coffee, too.   Things aren’t always what they seem, and Jillian is not always the nicest person you want to meet.   Past and present class.   Some reputations are earned, some seem one way but not necessarily so.   Good book keeps you interested cover to cover. 

 - Shirley J.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Night of Miracles

Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg    288 pages

Author Elizabeth Berg returns to the small town of Mason, Missouri, in this follow-up novel to her wonderfully sweet tale, “The Story of Arthur Truluv.” In this “Winesberg, Ohio,”-ish tale readers get to reconnect with some of the characters from that earlier novel. This work is considered a stand-alone, and Berg does a wonderful job in providing readers with the information they need to know, but it’s a much better read if readers get to know Arthur, Lucille, Maddy and Nola first.

Lucille still lives in Arthur Moses’s house. Maddy and Nola have moved out of town and Maddy is finally pursuing her college degree in photography. Nola is five years old. While they move in and out of the plot, Lucille is the character that takes center stage, and she’s as busy keeping up with the goings-ons and gossip as she can be.

Her baking classes have become quite popular. So popular in fact that a woman of her age just can’t do it all anymore. She hires one of the town's new residents, Iris Winters, who is still trying to move on from her divorce as her assistant. 

Another character readers meet is Tiny Dawson, who operates the local taxi. Tiny takes most of his meals over at Polly’s Henhouse. He’s not there solely because of the food---he’s smitten with one of the waitresses, Monica Mayhew. He wants to ask her out, but can never seem to find the right words. And unbeknownst to Tiny, Monica is equally as smitten with him. Will they get together?

Lucille finally sells her house, which is right next door to the Arthur’s house. She keeps a close eye on the house, which has been purchased by a young couple and their son. A cancer diagnosis turns their world upside down, and Lucille pitches in to help.

I’ve read that Berg plans to set future novels in Mason, Missouri. I hope so. And I hope that she continues these sweet stories about real people facing real problems in a small town life.  I truly enjoyed “Night of Miracles,” and it receives 5 out of 5 stars in Julie’s world.

We Hope for Better Things

We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels    400 pages

As a reader and a writer, I’m always looking for compelling reads that linger long after I’ve turned the last page. Erin Bartels’s debut novel, “We Hope for Better Things,” is such a novel. Bartels startles with her ability to take three separate timelines and weave them into one excellent story.

The story lines cover contemporary times, 1960s Detroit and Civil War-era Detroit outskirts. At the heart of each plot is forbidden love, one of the most that forbidden loves of all times, between whites and blacks. There are also the stories of race relations of each time period that could easily overpower the story, but Bartels uses her skill to not let that happen.

The main protagonist is journalist Elizabeth Balsam, who works for the scandalous rag, the “Free Press.” She is about to break a story that will have major repercussions in Detroit’s political powerhouse. Before that happens, Elizabeth has been contacted by a man who claims to have a box of photos and a camera that belongs to her family. Someone she has never heard of.

Elizabeth, who loves a good story, rather reluctantly agrees to take the camera, and if she can contact the woman named Nora, and if she wants the, she’ll arrange to have the photos returned.

Nora is Elizabeth’s great-aunt on her father’s side. Her sister knows of her as does a cousin, Barb, that is also a stranger. In contacting Barb, now unemployed, Elizabeth has somehow managed to agree to see if old Aunt Nora is still fit to live alone. Elizabeth goes to visit Nora, and there she begins to learn her family history, a history that is foreign to her, and one that she participates in.

Sometimes the timelines between the contemporary story and the 1960s story was a little confusing. Nora is such a major character in those periods that it threw me off a tad when the story switched, although Bartels clearly delineates each section.

 “We Hope for Better Things” is a wonderful read, and it receives 6 out of 5 stars in Julie’s world.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, 500 pages

Haidt is a social psychologist who has studied moral psychology for more than twenty-five years. He divides his book into three sections. Each section has an accompanying metaphor. At the end of each chapter he summarizes the main points of the chapter.

The first section is: Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second. Haidt provides evidence for the contention in the title. This quote is an appropriate summary for where morality comes from: “We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.” Much as we might think we can be dispassionate, we need emotions to make decisions. And it seems that social and political judgments are particularly intuitive.

The second section is: There’s More to Morality than Harm & Fairness. Along with care/harm and fairness/cheating foundations, Haidt has identified four other foundations for morality. The other four are loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. According to the studies Haidt, along with other in some cases, conducted liberals base their morality more on the care and harm foundations while conservatives base their morality on the first five but more so on loyalty, authority and sanctity. Basing their morality on more moral foundations has given Republicans an advantage over Democrats when trying to sway voters. This is part of what divides people. The second part is what he talks about in section three.

The third section is: Morality Binds and Blinds. The title of the section doesn't need a lot of elaboration. Shared morality binds groups of people together. Haidt provides multiple reasons for why we are so groupish. The blinding part means that as part of the group we become blinded to valid arguments of the other side.

The first two sections are great and are well supported with evidence. The third is good but is more speculative and harder to confirm. I liked this book a lot and feel that it is very insightful.
I would recommend this to anyone interested in the current state of public discourse.