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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Library Checkout, November 2018

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Library Checkout is a monthly library-use meme hosted by Rebecca at Bookish Beck. Please do visit her blog, she always reads so diversely (and in massive quantities, too!) Here is a snapshot of my library usage in November:

LIBRARY BOOKS READ:

There There – Tommy Orange ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Death of Mrs. Westaway – Ruth Ware ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The House at Sea’s End – Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway mystery #3)                 ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ I am LOVING this series!

Dark Sacred Night – Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch mystery #31/Renée Ballard #2) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ I don’t know how Connelly does it. He’s a MASTER of compelling, propulsive writing. I still care about Bosch 31 books later. I’m excited to see the new direction he’s taking now that he’s partnering with Ballard.9780062368607_p0_v3_s550x406

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life – Ed Yong ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (Review to come)

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times – Pema Chödrön ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

CURRENTLY READING:

51LSDwIJIUL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row – Anthony Ray Hinton

A Room Full of Bones (Ruth Galloway #4) – Elly Griffiths

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ:

Dare to Lead – Brené Brown

Spy School – Stuart Gibbs (middle-grade fiction – I’ve been meaning to get back into reading MG fiction for a while now)

IN THE HOLDS QUEUE:

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

Becoming – Michelle Obama

Fox 8  – George Saunders

Gmorning, Gnight!:Little Pep Talks For Me and You – Lin-Manuel Miranda40854717

Go Tell it On the Mountain – James Baldwin (My Classics Club spin book!)

Plus, 6 more books on hold that I’ve had on hold for a while now and keep pushing back using my library system’s “suspend” function. I’m starting to wonder if I really want to read these after all! It might be time to let some of these go.

Anything from my selections look interesting to you? What have you checked out from your local library lately?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood #MARM

Marcie at Buried in Print and Naomi at Consumed By Ink have been doing such a lovely job hosting Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM.) When I heard that they were doing this it was just the prompt I needed to reread her earliest novel, The Edible Woman. I first read it pre-Goodreads, which for me means before 2007. I remembered that the main character had some kind of eating disorder, but that was really I remembered. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it very much and it was definitely worth the reread.71t3FqjWmoL

Published in 1969, this quirky novel centers on Marian, a young working woman who lives in an apartment with her roommate, Ainsley, and dates the handsome and respectable Peter. She has a less than thrilling job at Seymour Surveys, revising questionnaires designed for housewives. Four months in she’s asked to join the pension plan, which shakes her in a big way.

It was a kind of superstitious panic about the fact that I had actually signed my name, had put my signature to a magic document which seemed to bind me to a future so far ahead I couldn’t think about it. Somewhere in front of me a self was waiting, pre-formed, a self who has worked during innumerable years for Seymour Surveys and was now receiving her reward. A pension. I foresaw a bleak room with a plug-in electric heater. Perhaps I would have a hearing aid, like one of my great-aunts who had never married.

Ainsley is trying to deliberately get pregnant, while Marian’s other good friend Clara is deep in the chaos of motherhood with two small children and a baby on the way. When Peter proposes to Marian (after a disastrous evening out with Ainsley and a doozy of a fight) Marian thinks of Peter as the savior rescuing her from a life of drudgery and the dreaded pension.

I was seeing him in a new light: he was changing form in the kitchen, turning from a reckless young bachelor into a rescuer from chaos, a provider of stability. Somewhere in the vaults of Seymour Surveys an invisible hand was wiping away my signature.

Everything starts to change, however, once Marian meets a strange, scholarly young man at the laundromat and then starts experiencing some unusual visions and thoughts whenever she eats a meal. Just as she gets what she thinks she wants, the promise of being a wife and someday a mother, her world starts imploding bit by bit.

This is an unusual novel in that the characters don’t always do what you think they might do. Marian is a frustrating character in that she doesn’t seem to know herself very well, but her journey is interesting to see play out. And of course societal conventions of the time and place (late 1960s Canada – Toronto? It wasn’t clear to me) are sometimes tedious and offensive to this modern reader. But this novel was more entertaining and thought-provoking than anything. It’s neat to see how Atwood got her start. I see the seeds of her witty, subversive writing here. If you’re a fan of her writing and you haven’t yet read this, I think you should add it to your list.

Oh, and on November 18th, Atwood’s birthday (79 years old,) I ate cake! Just a simple piece of store-bought cookies and cream cake from the grocery store, but it was delicious and I enjoyed every bite. May Ms. Atwood celebrate many more happy birthdays.

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The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Classics Club books #8 and #9)

I read two books in the September and October that qualified for both the R.I.P Challenge and my Classics Club listkilling two birds with one stone. I had read Jane Eyre before but it had been since I was about 14 or 15 years old – long enough that it was almost like new to me. The Shirley Jackson had been on my TBR list for quite a while. I’d read her classic story “The Lottery” in high school as well, and was thoroughly chilled. I didn’t know what to expect from the rest of her stories. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed them and was surprised by both books.

51Uz5FayRhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_First, impressions of Jane Eyre. It’s a classic, and deservedly so. I chose it for the R.I.P. Challenge because I remembered the Gothic feel and the mysterious person (or supernatural being?) who kept making scary things happen at Thornfield House. Turns out what I most remembered about the novel, the part where Jane is employed by Mr. Rochester at Thornfield, is only about a third of the book! I had somehow totally blocked out her horrible childhood, unwanted and unloved by her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her terrible experiences at the boarding school she was sent to. I also totally forgot about what happens when she is later forced to leave Thornfield. (I’m trying to be vague because I’m sure there are some who haven’t yet read this.) Therefore, the first and last thirds of the novel felt juuuust a smidge overly long. (St. John! Oh my goodness! What a pill!)

I was terribly impressed, however, with how spunky Jane herself was, right from the get-go. She was no shrinking violet but instead a girl and later a young woman who stood up for herself even when it got her into trouble. I admired that. One early exchange between Jane and her aunt particularly impressed me:

“Don’t talk to me about her, John: I told you not to go near her; she is not worthy of notice; I do not choose that either you or your sisters should associate with her.”

Here, leaning over the banister, I cried out suddenly, and without at all deliberating on my words, –

“They are not fit to associate with me!”

And since I reread this for the R.I.P. Challenge, I thought I would offer a creepy passage from the book:

Good God! What a cry!

The night – its silence – its rest, was rent in twain by a savage, a sharp, a shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall.

My pulse stopped: my heart stood still; my stretched arm was paralysed. The cry died, and was not renewed. Indeed, whatever being uttered that fearful shriek could not soon repeat it: not the widest-winged condor on the Andes could, twice in succession, send out such a yell from the cloud shrouding his eyrie. The thing delivering such utterance must rest ere it could repeat the effort.

All in all, a very enjoyable, romantic, insightful classic novel that I would recommend to everyone, and a perfect choice for autumn reading.                       ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Shirley Jackson has become one of my favorite authors over the last few years. I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, and The Sundial. I just have the rest of her short stories, one more novel, and her nonfiction still to read. The Lottery and Other Stories was the only story collection published in Jackson’s lifetime (1949.) Many of these stories are not scary or Gothic in feel like some of her longer fiction. But they are unsettling, often depicting people new in town, people in unfamiliar surroundings, people who don’t quite have a firm hold on reality.89723

There were a few stories that also dealt with racism and “otherness” quite overtly. One of these that impressed me was “After You, My Dear Alphonse.” The title refers to a silly phrase that two young boys, Johnny and his friend Boyd, keep saying to one another as a game. Johnny brings Boyd home for lunch after they’ve been playing outside. Right away, as soon as she sees that Boyd is black, Johnny’s mother Mrs. Wilson starts making assumptions. She scolds Johnny for making Boyd carry in a load of wood, but Johnny responds, “Why shouldn’t he carry the wood, Mother? It’s his wood. We got it at his place.” Then when she serves the boys stewed tomatoes, Johnny tells her he doesn’t want any and that Boyd doesn’t eat them either. Instantly Mrs. Wilson says, “Just because you don’t like them, don’t say that about Boyd. Boyd will eat anything.” She goes on to explain that Boyd wants to grow up to be big and strong so he can work hard, presuming that he will have to work in some sort of manual labor. The assumptions keep piling up, and it becomes almost comical how Boyd thwarts Mrs. Wilson’s expectations at every turn.

 “Sure,” Johnny said. “Boyd’s father works in a factory.”

“There, you see?” Mrs. Wilson said. “And he certainly has to be strong to do that – all that lifting and carrying at a factory.”

“Boyd’s father doesn’t have to,” Johnny said.  “He’s a foreman.”

Mrs.Wilson felt defeated. “What does your mother do, Boyd?”

“My mother?” Boyd was surprised. “She takes care of us kids.”

“Oh. She doesn’t work then?”

“Why should she?” Johnny said through a mouthful of eggs. “You don’t work.”

In the end Mrs. Wilson tries to reinstate her percieved cultural dominance by trying to make Boyd take something he doesn’t want and very politely refuses. Johnny and Boyd leave and go back to playing, shaking their heads at the “screwyness” of mothers. I thought this story was a brilliant depiction of the ways in which racism can show up very subtly – Mrs. Wilson is enlightened enough to have Boyd share a lunch table with her son, but she persists in making assumptions about what Boyd’s life and future will be like. Her growing annoyance at being shown her mistakes portrays that she’s not as enlightened as she might like to think. It’s interesting how relevant this story feels – the insidiousness of subtle racism shows up often in modern life.

As with any collection some stories are better than others. But overall this was a very good read with hardly any clunkers. Jackson skewers conventional mid 20th-century American society with insight and wit, making her reader question the nature of both identity and personal agency. Many of her characters are taken out of familiar places and situations and have to deal with the frightening and confusing consequences. I think I expected a certain kind of story when I approached this collection – stories more in the vein of Hill House or Castle. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jackson’s range extended even wider than I had imagined.                  ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either one of these? If not, do they intrigue you?  

 

Five Sentence Reviews: Three 2018 Novels

I feel like my reading mojo is returning. I’ve been on a streak of four-star reads lately.

There There by Tommy Orange. This one made me cry. I’d never read a novel told from the perspectives of urban Native Americans before (Sherman Alexie’s reservation-centric stories 36692478were my only reference.) So many characters occasionally had me reaching back to the beginning to get my bearings. And the ways in which the characters all intersected in the end felt just a wee bit too tidy. But the passion and emotion of the writing kept me invested and makes me want to read Orange’s next book. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say, “Get over it.” This is the thing: if you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. What fun! This classic-style mystery with Gothic flare kept me turning pages so quickly I didn’t even take notes. You’ve got a crumbling, spooky estate, an inheritance at stake, family secrets and intrigue galore.51yGj5z3JtL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ Plus, a menacing, Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper looming around every dark corner. Highly entertaining – Ruth Ware is becoming one of my go-to mystery writers.             ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: Then she turned the handle of the door and pushed.

Nothing happened.

Hal felt her breath catch in her throat, and her heart seemed suddenly to be beating painfully hard.

The bolts. The bolts on the outside.

But no – it wasn’t possible. She would have heard. Surely she would have heard? And who – why?

Transcription by Kate Atkinson. One of my very favorite authors, Kate Atkinson’s last two books utterly wowed me. This novel, a story of a young, inexperienced woman named Juliet who is recruited to be a spy for MI-5 in the early days of WWII Britain, 37946414wasn’t as magnificent in scope or in emotion as those. But it was typically Atkinsonian in that it was an entertaining mix of heavy and light, serious and witty. It reminded me a lot of one of her earliest novels, Human Croquet, in tone especially. Fans of Atkinson should definitely read this. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: The brooding landscape they were currently traversing, the lowering sky above their heads and the rugged terrain beneath their feet, were all conspiring to make her feel like an unfortunate Brontë sister, traipsing endlessly across the moors after unobtainable fulfillment. Perry himself was not entirely without Heathcliffian qualities – the absence of levity, the ruthless disregard for a girl’s comfort, the way he had of scrutinizing you as if you were a puzzle to be solved. Would he solve her? Perhaps she wasn’t complicated enough for him. (On the other hand, perhaps she was too complicated.)

Thoughts on any of these? What makes the difference for you between a four-star read and a five-star read?

Library Checkout – October 2018

I love this library usage meme that Bookish Beck hosts each month. Do check out her blog here.

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Books Read: Because I’ve been reading my OWN BOOKS (yay!) – Lethal White, The Lottery and Other Stories, and Transcription – I’ve only read a few library books this month.

  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neal Hurston.       ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
  • Babymouse: Queen of the World by Jennifer Holm & Matthew Holm (juvenile graphic novel) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
  • 34137106A Different Pond by Bao Phi (a semi-biographical picture book I read with my son – terribly moving, about an first-generation little Vietnamese boy and his immigrant father and beautifully illustrated.) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Currently Reading:

  • I Contain Multitudes:The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (library digital audiobook – I’m at 63% and my loan expires today so I have to get it again – I may try to finish it in paper form. Very interesting!)
  • When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
  • Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know by Timothy Beal

Checked Out, To Be Read:

  • There There by Tommy Orange
  • The House at Sea’s End – Elly Griffith
  • The Death of Mrs. Westaway– Ruth Ware

In the Holds Queue: (Besides 7 books still on hold from my August list – I’ve been suspending the holds for a while!)

  • Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver41hE+t2wE-L._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_
  • Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly
  • Daring to Lead by Brene Brown

Cookbooks: (I’m adding this category because I don’t feel like they really fit in well with the other kinds of books I check out regularly – I don’t read them from cover to cover.)

  • Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines (I made the Cinnamon Squares and they were AMAZING!)
  • Debbie Macomber’s Table by Debbie Macomber ( I made the Lemon Shortbread Streusel Bars – also delicious, picture below!)

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Anything from my list appeal to you? What have you checked out recently from your library?

 

Brother by David Chariandy

But during that first night in Mother’s birthplace, I remember feeling afraid, though of what I did not know. Something old and unburied in the darkness, something closer to us now than ever before. I remember lying awake with Francis and hearing for the first time the scream of a rooster, my brother’s hand pressed hard in mine. The sun still hadn’t risen, and I remember looking at Francis, who lay beside me very still with his eyes wide open. I remember searching for a clue about our situation in some slight movement of his ear, or of his jaw, or of that expressive space between his mouth and nose. And when he caught me looking at him, he swallowed and nodded.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

36672820Oh my goodness. This book. I don’t know that I’ve read a book that made me feel more in 177 short pages. David Chariandy’s Brother was highly recommended by three bloggers I trust, Anne @ I’ve Read This, Fiction Fan @ Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews, and Naomi @ Consumed by Ink (links to their reviews if you click their names.) They did not let me down. It’s a book that I could have read in a day or two but I deliberately drew my reading out longer because I wanted to savor the writing and really let the story sink in.

Set in Toronto, flashing back from present day to the 1980’s and 90’s, Brother is the story of Michael and his older, cooler brother Francis. Growing up in a part of town called Scarborough, home to immigrants from many nations, the brothers are smart but swimming against both the high expectations of their hard-working Trinidadian mother and the low expectations of their community. The specter of gang violence haunts their nightmares and impacts their waking hours too. Their father has disappeared and their mother works two or even three low-paying jobs but still doesn’t have enough money to fix a rotten tooth. But the boys find small ways to escape and experience peace through food, music, and through visits to a nearby park called The Rouge Valley.

When we were very young, we’d build forts and hideaways in the brush, using branches but also cardboard and broken piece of furniture occasionally dumped here. We’d race twigs in the creek, spot the little speckled fish swimming together in the blowing current, hunt for the other small lives that had managed to survive in the park unnoticed. The tracks in the mud of a muskrat or a raccoon or maybe a turtle…. One fall we piled the stuff of this land over our bodies like blankets. Coloured leaves and pine needles, branches and the barbed wire of thistles. Also plastic bags and foil drifting down with smashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces were already the colour of earth.

This is a coming-of-age story as well as a story about grief and identity. The possibility of young love gently permeates the tale, lending the narrative a bit of needed lightness. There is not a word wasted in this book. I marveled at Chariandy’s craft in creating such a powerful story in so few pages. Small details, like a mother gently pinching her son’s earlobe “lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf” are the kinds of things that made me want to linger instead of racing through the pages.

There is tragedy here, and the reader knows this from pretty early on, so I was bracing myself while simultaneously enjoying the beautiful, searing writing. Yet even with the devastating pain of loss there is still a note of tender hope here, that lives can be patched back up to form something new. This is Chariandy’s first novel published in the United States, and his second novel overall (2007’s Soucayant is one I must somehow find a copy of.) I am so thrilled that I learned about Brother from my blogger friends, and I hope that you will give it a try if you haven’t yet read it. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.