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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More Five Sentence Reviews: The Radium Girls, Ongoingness, and The Janus Stone

I hope everyone is having a good week so far. It’s August! It’s hot. I just saw the new Mission Impossible movie yesterday and it’s terrific! Non-stop action. I’m currently reading books 16 and 17 from my 20 Books of Summer list, taking my time especially with George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline because it’s dark. Very good, but dark. And, in this current political hellscape,  I can only deal with so much dark at once. Plus I’m still trying to savor short story collections rather than blazing through them quickly. But I’ve got a stack of overdue reviews, so here is another batch of Five Sentence Reviews.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. 51GLNSdDDqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Young American women considered themselves lucky to have jobs painting illuminated watch and clock dials in the 1910’s-1930’s. They licked the brushes, dipped them in radium-mixed paint, and painted, over and over again all day. When they started falling ill, the companies who employed them disavowed any responsibility. I’m so glad the stories of these brave women (who fought back against the companies despite grave illness and horrific injury) are finally being told. But important as that is, I felt like the narrative was disjointed and repetitive – and also very sad. (3 Stars.)

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso. A 95-page memoir and exploration of the keeping and letting go of a meticulous daily diary, full of meditations on identity, motherhood, the passage of 81aIlYK3KLLtime, memory. I marked many passages, especially once Manguso became pregnant and had a child. I related to so much of what she wrote. “Before I was a mother, I thought I was asking, How, then, can I survive forgetting so much? Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.” (3 Stars.)

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway mystery #2.) I barely took any notes on this one, I read it so quickly. This mystery series is the perfect mix of realistic and cozy – not too gruesome for me to handle, but not too precious or 51+aKyKRIeL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_cutesy to be believable either. In this one forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called to investigate a child’s bones found at the demolition site of a former Catholic children’s home and, before that, a private residence. Someone is trying to frighten her off the case, of course, and she continues to work with the attractive (and married) DCI Harry Nelson. Their bond continues to be complicated, and I am really enjoying this series. (4 Stars.)

So how has your August in books been so far? Still going with 20 Books of Summer? Have you read any of these, and if so, what did you think?

(These three books are numbers 10, 11, and 12 from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (20 Books of Summer #3)

Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, spotted with stunted gorse bushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams. Sometimes, at this time of year, you see great flocks on wild geese wheeling across the sky, their feathers turning pink the the rays of the rising sun. But today, on this grey winter morning, there is not a living creature as far as the eye can see. Everything is pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white as the marsh meets the sky. Far off is the sea, a line of darker grey, seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly desolate and Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.

6688087Elly Griffiths came to my attention through a couple of bloggers I follow, Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books and Fiction Fan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews.  I love a good mystery, especially one set in the UK, and this one was right up my alley. The Crossing Places has a great sense of atmosphere, a likeable heroine in forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, and even a bit of believable romantic tension. I’ve mentioned before how mysteries are my bookish “palate-cleanser” and my go-to escape genre, and this one was an absorbing read that made me eager to read more in the series. I read it in two days!

From Goodreads: When a child’s bones are found on a desolate beach nearby, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls Galloway for help. Nelson thinks he has found the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing ten years ago. Since her disappearance he has been receiving bizarre letters about her, letters with references to ritual and sacrifice.
      The bones actually turn out to be two thousand years old, but Ruth is soon drawn into the Lucy Downey case and into the mind of the letter writer, who seems to have both archaeological knowledge and eerie psychic powers. Then another child goes missing and the hunt is on to find her. 

Besides the descriptive sense of atmosphere, where the Norfolk-area marshy landscape is practically a character in the book, I liked that Ruth was a fairly level-headed, smart, competent woman, late 30’s, good job, happily living with her cats in a fairly isolated area. The only thing that bothered me really were a couple of comments about her weight. She discloses early on that she’s 12.5 stone and I Googled that – being an American I have no clue what a stone is! It translates to 175 pounds, which IS NOT THAT BIG. It certainly wouldn’t preclude a woman from being able to fit in a car or being able to walk a couple of miles to a marshy crime scene without being out of breath (both little comments made in the story.) I’m sensitive about this issue, I admit, but honestly I don’t think she’s big enough to even make mention of it for character development’s sake. Oh well. One good thing is that it didn’t seem to stop her from enjoying the attention of men – thank goodness for that! (There are a couple of men interested in Ruth – I won’t spoil anything but things do get a bit messy and I’ll be interested to see how things develop in later installments!)

Not much in-depth analysis of this one, really. I didn’t mark many places as I read  – I was turning pages too quickly! It was a realistic feeling mystery that wasn’t too gory or gruesome – a delicate balance in this genre, I find. Appealing characters, absorbing mystery, and I didn’t guess the “whodunnit” until very late in the game. I have the second in the series, The Janus Stone, checked out and sitting on my bedside bookshelf. I don’t know when I’ll get to it but I may make it one of my two remaining “Reader’s Choice” picks for 20 Books of Summer.

Have you read anything by Elly Griffiths? Do you like your mysteries on the cozier side or the more realistic side?

(This is the third book I’ve written about so far from my 20 Books of Summer challenge list.)