Mini-Reviews: A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve been doing some good reading lately, although so far this weekend I’ve barely cracked open a book (gasp!) I’m about halfway through Anthony Ray Hinton’s memoir The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row and it is SO GOOD, people. This man has an amazing spirit, despite being condemned to die in an utter TRAVESTY of a trial. I need to finish it quickly, because it’s a library copy and there’s still a waiting list. It was due Thursday (yikes!) But I’m NOT turning it back in until I’m finished with it, so too bad. (Confessions of a bad library assistant.) Oh well. Both of the books I’m writing about today were also library books, written by two of my favorite authors.

The fourth book in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, A Room Full of Bones, was a good,download (1) solid read and a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Elly Griffiths has thus far written a series full of multi-dimensional, interesting characters. Even the secondary characters are delightful (especially everyone’s favorite warlock/shaman/pagan Cathbad!) In this installment, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is trying to balance motherhood and work, gently dipping her toe into the dating world again after a long absence, and getting ready for her daughter’s first birthday. She is supposed to be supervising the opening of a coffin containing the bones of a medieval bishop. But when she arrives at the museum, she finds the young curator dead on the floor. There’s another death not too long after, someone else associated with the museum, and Ruth and DCI Nelson are once again drawn into an investigation. Aboriginal bones, cultural appropriation, ancestral curses, horse racing, and snakes all play a part in this page-turning mystery. I love how Griffiths seems to find an element of the supernatural to add to her stories, making the rational Ruth and Nelson (and the reader) question the rigidity of their views. I also love the complicated nature of the relationships in the primary and secondary characters. For the first time we see Ruth and Nelson’s wife interact on a deeper, uncomfortable level and it’s compelling stuff. I continue to really enjoy this series and am quite addicted! It won’t be long before I pick up the next book. Four stars.

downloadBarbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered was a delight. She is one of my very favorite authors. I flew through this book because I simply liked spending time with the characters. That is one of Kingsolver’s greatest strengths – she knows how to create compelling, sympathetic characters. Willa Knox is the heart of this book. She’s a free-lance journalist, a wife, mother, and new grandmother who has had to uproot her life in Virginia and move to an old inherited house in New Jersey. The college where her professor husband had tenure unexpectedly closed, leaving the couple grasping for financial security. Not to mention that they have recently taken in her husband’s seriously ill father, Nick, who is a raging bigot and fan of Fox News. Her two grown children, Zeke and Tig, have come back home after trials of their own, and Zeke is now left with a baby to care for on his own after tragedy strikes. As financial troubles mount and the house starts to crumble around them, Willa must find a way to right the ship. She starts investigating the history of the house, hoping for some kind of historical grant that would at least enable restoration.

Enter the second story line, set in the same town in the 1870’s. A young science teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, lives at the same address with his young bride, her mother, and her younger sister. Thatcher is passionate about opening his pupils’ minds to the new teachings of Darwin and other like-minded scientists, but his principal forbids it. We follow Thatcher’s journey as he comes to know his next-door neighbor, the spirited and scientifically minded Mary Treat (a real-life biologist who corresponded with Darwin) and butts heads with the town’s leader.

Kingsolver alternates the two story lines, drawing parallels between them among the forces of stagnation and progress. Both main characters are caught in times of intense change, whether it be climate change and an increasingly interconnected world or a new place for humanity with the dawn of evolutionary theory and archaeological discoveries. I was more drawn to the contemporary story line because I loved Willa so much. Kingsolver always knows how to write a mother/child relationship, and some of the best stuff is the back and forth between Willa and her independent daughter, Tig. Willa is reckoning with mistakes she made as a mother and trying to see her adult children as they really are now, not as the roles she assigned to them when they were growing up. I also love that Willa and her husband have such a physical, sexual relationship – it’s nice to see older characters explore that dimension of marriage.

Some reviews have mentioned Kingsolver’s tendency towards preachiness. At this point, after having read and loved so many of her novels, I don’t even care anymore if she’s preaching to me – the story she’s created here mattered more to me than any notion that I was being taught a lesson. I feel like Willa is representative of a lot of people in the Baby Boom generation; she’s asking legitimate questions and trying to figure out how and why things have changed so much in the last 30-40 years in terms of climate, technology, economic instability. I came away from this book with a sense of hope, which is not a small consideration in 2018. I’m torn between four and five stars for this one, but I’m going with five because I feel such tenderness for Willa and her family. (And because Kingsolver writes with such heart and sincerity.)

 

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23 thoughts on “Mini-Reviews: A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. I think there’s a big difference between the author preaching to me through characters who are just representatives of ideas (like Kingsolver does in Prodigal Summer) and the characters being so fully-drawn and compelling that readers feel the urge to consider what they think (like she manages in this novel).

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      1. For me the characters in Prodigal Summer were some of the most fully realized in her work; I knew people at the time I was reading it who were very similar to them in many ways, and it was a joy to read. I’ve not started this new one yet, but I’m itching to begin!

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  2. The Kingsolver is next on my list, once I’ve finished Kate Atkinson’s ‘Transcription’, which I’m very much enjoying. Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series has been one of my favourites, but I was very disappointed by the most recent, ‘The Dark Angel’, so I am looking forward to the publication of ‘The Stone Circle’ in the New Year with some trepidation. Have you read her one off (I think) ‘The Stranger Diaries’? If not, I very much recommend it.

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  3. I am a huge Kingsolver fan, too, but when I read about Unsheltered I was worried that it would be too depressing (I can only take so much these grim days). But your comment that it gave you hope gives ME hope. It’s on my list. Thanks so much, as usual, for your insightful reviews.

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  4. Oh that Kingsolver book sounds so good! I don’t think I’ve read enough of her, and I definitely want to read more because she’s the kind of writer I love. And I know exactly what you mean re: hope in this day and age!

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  5. I’ve only read one Kingsolver book–Animal, Vegetable, Miracle–and found it not only preachy, but so belittling to many readers that I haven’t visited her work again. The inmate memoir sounds good. I have a book about a man who was sentenced to prison for murder and writes a memoir about forgiving the person he was. I’m going to read it in 2019. It’s called Writing My Wrongs.

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  6. I have not read the Kingsolver book but you have given me more hope about it. The contemporary storyline does seem the more appealing of the two. Sometimes one storyline falls by the wayside in comparison and you wish there were just one going on.

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    1. I did like the historical story line, especially the interplay between Thatcher and his neighbor, Mary. She was a fascinating character and I enjoyed her perspective on the natural world. But yes, I was more drawn to the contemporary thread. I hope you enjoy this if you give it a try.

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  7. Why have I never read any Barbara Kingsolver? It’s a mystery, because her books always sounds so good! I do have The Poisonwood Bible on the TBR – must make an effort to actually read it! Glad you’re still enjoying the Elly Griffiths – this is another of the ones I missed, I think. Another one to add to the TBR, then… grrrr!!! 😉

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    1. Ha ha! I often think of you when I read these Elly Griffith books and then you tell me you’ve not read that one or this one, LOL.

      I think that Poisonwood Bible is Kingsolver’s masterpiece, so if you’re only going to read one, that’s a good one.

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  8. I’m so glad you loved Unsheltered! I felt the very same way but have heard so many people complain about it being slow or heavy-handed- and I didn’t care about either thing! I loved her characters (except for Nick- I was not unhappy when his time came) becasue they felt like a such a rela presentation of modern day life. Wonderful review!

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    1. Oh thanks! I’m glad to hear you feel similarly about Unsheltered. I get sort of tired of hearing that particular criticism about Kingsolver. I don’t think in this case it’s fair, because I feel like these characters are truly grappling with tough questions and new ideas. I didn’t feel like they were a mouth piece for the author herself. I also didn’t grieve Nick, BTW.

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    1. Stephanie, I think you would like it. Particularly as you are a fan of gardening and ecology. She has some lovely reflections on the natural world, as always, and the characters are grappling with some valid questions about how to be a human being and what it means to live a “good” life in 2018. Climate change and use of resources figures heavily in their discussions. Plus, it’s a great story about a family. (Oh, and the historical story line is good too.)

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  9. All these 3 books sound interesting. I especially like the sound of The Sun Does Shine. It sounds so inspirational. Hopefully, you will get a chance to finish it soon 🙂 Happy reading Laila. Ps: I really like your job.

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