Reviews by Becky H

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This Dark Road to Mercy
by Wiley Cash
THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY (12/19/2013)
Two little girls who have just lost their mother to cancer are in foster care about to be sent to Alaska to live with Grandparents they have never seen. Enter their n’er-do-well father, a failed major league pitcher with a dark past and a sudden interest in his daughters. Dad also suddenly has LOTS of money, a damaged baseball player and the FBI following him. A former cop turned guardian ad litem is the girl’s only advocate when Dad kidnaps them and tries to disappear.

Cash shows us that he can write fragile, failed, caring, evil, greedy, selfless, kind, merciless and merciful characters with a tight plot. THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY will have you reading far into the night to find out what happens to Easter and Ruby, the money, and the dad.

In Cash’s debut novel, A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, he gave us an atmospheric Southern gothic novel. DARK ROAD invests more in character in this thriller that at times seems like a friendly family drama – but be not deceived, this novel has true darkness as well as true mercy. Well worth your time!
The House Girl
by Tara Conklin
THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin (11/1/2013)
Josephine is a 17 year old slave in antibellum Virginia while Lina is a twenty something up and coming lawyer in present day NYC. The lives of these two become entwined when a wealthy Black client of Lina’s law firm starts a “slave reparations” law suit that becomes entangled with an art dealer’s contention that Josephine is the true artist and not her widely acclaimed mistress.
Both life in a high powered law firm and life in the slave owning South are presented believably. Lina and Josephine are both sympathetic and well-drawn characters. The story line for both is engaging. While the sub plot involving Lina’s mother is rather thin and too neatly concluded, the artistic element is a link for the two stories.
Book groups will have a variety of subjects to discuss; some very superficial and entertaining and others quite serious and profound. Race relations now and then permeate both stories. The question “Who is Caucasian and who is Black?” may form the body of the discussion. The value of a piece of art and how the artist’s name recognition determines price is another point for discussion. Motherless children and how they and their families cope could form another topic.
The Wedding Gift
by Marlen Suyapa Bodden
Read The Help or The Color Purple instead (9/14/2013)
I’m still not sure where or when the prologue was supposed to take place – perhaps it was a dream?

After some very stilted conversations and an inconsistent use of dialect, the story is interesting and holds your attention to the end. However, there are too many coincidences and the slaves are often well cared for (or allowed a lot of free time) by slave owners we are supposed to be appalled and repelled by. That is not to say slaves were not ill-treated and horribly abused, they were. Just that the depiction is as inconsistent as the dialect.

Fathers in the antebellum South are shown as overbearing, browbeating, abusive scoundrels. Mothers are meek and cowed. Sons are distant and uncaring. In other words many of the characters are caricatures. Still I enjoyed the book.

Book groups will be discussing slavery, abusive husbands and fathers, the role of women, education priorities, gossip and social ostracism among other topics. A comparison with The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird and/or The Color Purple would be an interesting discussion.
The Screaming Staircase: Lockwood & Co.
by Jonathan Stroud
The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (9/6/2013)
Lucy, Anthony and George are Lockwood and Company, a trio of children who can see, hear and sense ghosts. When ghosts become malevolent and plentiful in London and only children can defeat them, Lockwood and Company goes to work. Delightfully scary, with lots of blood and mayhem, THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE will have middle graders asking for more. A good introduction to the characters and a tight plot make this first in a series a good choice for middle school libraries and a good choice for reluctant readers who will devour the chills and screams. Even older kids will like trying to solve the mystery before our intrepid trio saves the day (and their jobs). The ghosts and blood will appeal to the boys, and the inclusion of a girl in the trio means girls will approve of this series also.
In the Kingdom of Men: A Novel
by Kim Barnes
Living in a company town (8/21/2013)
One of my friends lived in an ARAMCO compound during the 1960’s. The life depicted in THE KINGDOM OF MEN is much as she described it. Gin is running from a constricted life with a fundamentalist grandfather and finds herself living in the even more constricted fundamentalist Saudi kingdom. Even though she and her husband are living in luxurious surroundings, life for Gin is boring and racist for her husband.
By befriending both her driver and her houseboy Gin is in violation of both ARAMCO and Kingdom policies. Mason in attempting to live the ideals of Martin Luther King also violates policy and then uncovers greed and corruption. Both find themselves in fear for their lives and those of their friends. Although the ending is unsatisfying, the novel as a whole is worthwhile.
An interesting story with characters you like (and dislike) teaches a fair amount of history of the Kingdom and oil. Book groups will discuss fundamentalist religions, ethnic differences, the position of women in society, dealing with boredom, whistle blowers and company corruption, Americans in foreign societies, interactions between men and women and the price of gas.
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
by Sheri Fink
Five Days at Memorial (8/13/2013)
Five Days at Memorial is two books in one. The first relates, through the eyes of those present, the happenings at Memorial Hospital during and after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Louisiana. The nurses, doctors, visitors and patients tell their stories as they happened with the result that it is sometimes difficult to follow the time line of events as the story shifts from floor to floor and person to person. Nonetheless the horror and fear is palpable as the storm rages and then as flood waters rise trapping those in the hospital for five days of increasing confusion and deprivation. No one appears in charge. No one appears to aid those trapped. Help is not on the way. Decisions are made and rescinded. Offers of help are sent, but do not arrive.

When help finally does arrive, many of the patients are dead and fingers begin to point.

The second part of the book covers the investigations into the allegations of murder or, more charitably, euthanasia, the resultant trial and the aftermath of the verdicts. Five Days is chilling reading, all the more so because of Fink's straight forward reporting style. She makes no conclusions of her own, simply letting the participants words and actions speak.

Book groups will find many topics for discussion including euthanasia, DNR directives, patient/doctor relations, decision making in times of extreme distress, preparedness for disaster and governmental readiness.
The Art Forger
by B A. Shapiro
self-fulfillling prophecy run pampant (8/7/2013)
This book will have you thinking about ALL the times you (or others) are influenced by what you EXPECT rather than what you actually see or hear or experience.
Although Shapiro uses real artist’s names and works, the novel is only loosely – very loosely – based on an actual robbery. Claire has been blackballed because of art work she has done that was attributed to another and hailed as a masterpiece. Now she is asked to copy (forge?) a masterpiece by Degas that is part of the well-known heist of artwork from the Gardner Museum. I enjoyed learning the “art’ of forgery as much as I enjoyed the plot of the novel. Claire is believable and likeable. The work of the artist is written so that even artistic ignoramuses (like me) can understand the process.
The plot is engrossing and keeps your attention even through the art process sections. Book groups will have a field day with self-fulfilling prophecy, ethics in the work place, art appreciation, collecting objects (especially valuable ones from other cultures), family secrets, black balling, stolen art and over reaching police. A visit to an art museum, especially one with several Degas works, would be a great introduction or wrap-up for this novel. A corollary discussion might be our attitudes towards novels by “best-selling” authors.
Letters from Skye
by Jessica Brockmole
A lovely story told in the lost art of letter writng (8/4/2013)
This was a lovely story with interesting people telling of their hopes and dreams in letters. A bit of a mystery is thrown into the mix in the last quarter. Just as in actual letters sent to strangers the characters become known bit by bit as they write about themselves, their lives, their ideas and opinions. In the same way, you will want to know more than is revealed.
Book groups will find the ongoing discussion of education, choosing a career and choosing a life path a worthy topic for discussion. Other good discussion topics might be courage in attempting or reacting to new things, revealing your past to a child, choosing to serve in the military or not, reactions to loss and family secrets and, finally, how a person's attitudes and dreams change as time passes. A question to consider might be "how long would YOU wait at St. Mary's Cathedral?"
These letters are generally short and deal with only one topic at a time so the comparison to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is not really valid.
Inferno: A Robert Langdon Novel
by Dan Brown
Close calls and constant danger abound (7/31/2013)
INFERNO continues Brown’s tightly plotted, though rather incredulous, tales. The intrepid Robert Langdon is in Florence suffering from a head wound and amnesia. His foil is the intelligent and beautiful Sienna. Together they must save the world.
Brown’s characters are fairly wooden and never quite become knowable. His digressions to tell us about the history and/or architecture of the places the unfolding plot takes Robert and Sienna are interesting and generally accurate. It is not necessary to know anything about Dante’s Divine Comedy as we are told all that is needful to follow the plot.
Those who enjoy a convoluted and constantly changing plot line will enjoy this romp through Florence, Venice and Istanbul chasing a flawed master mind out to destroy the world.
The Cuckoo's Calling
by Robert Galbraith
THE CUCKOO’S CALLING by Robert Galbraith (J K Rowling) (7/25/2013)
Rowling has written an engaging and tightly plotted mystery. The characters are well delineated and clearly drawn. I was especially impressed by how “true” the characters remained to themselves as the plot thickened (when I thought this was a debut novel). The situations with the paparazzi were interesting in retrospect as I wondered how much her own experience with the press and fans influenced her depiction of them.
We learn enough about Rowling’s damaged detective, Cormoran Strike, to like him and want to know more in succeeding installments of this obvious first in a series. His backstory with military service, marriage/divorce and law enforcement “friends” offer opportunity for additional story/plot nuggets for the future. His Girl Friday, Robin Ellacott, is intelligent and a worthy foil to Strike, although the boyfriend/fiancé is unknowable and likely to quickly disappear from the scene.
I liked that both entirely likeable and entirely unlikeable characters played a part in the plotting. There are several clear candidates for the villain and plenty of red herrings along the way. The ending is always in doubt until the final chapters. It is testament to Rowling’s ability that Lula, who is already dead when she first appears in the tale, emerges in totality even without the benefit of including “back flashes” as the book proceeds.
I hope that Rowling continues writing mysteries with Cormoran and Robin in many future novels.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot (7/25/2013)
It seems silly to go over the “plot” of this biography of Mrs. Lacks again, so I will just say that this non-fiction work details how Mrs. Lacks and her family were lied to, misled, ill informed, taken advantage of and used by the medical community after her cancerous cells were found to be able to multiply indefinitely. Without compensating, or even acknowledging, the person from whom the cells were obtained, her cells were first given away, then sold, in order to advance medical knowledge.

The book is exceptionally well written, reading at times like a medical thriller. But at others, it serves as an introduction to medical/scientific ethics and experimentation. Skloot writes clearly enough so that even those who failed high school biology will get the gist of the medical experience of the Lacks family. Author Skloot becomes a major player in the book when she engages Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, as friend, mentor and ally. The author’s involvement in the story and with the central players may become a topic for book groups to discuss. How “disinterested” a writer can an author be when they are so intimately involved in their investigation that they become a part of the story. Would the book have been a bestseller if Skloot was not a part of the story? Could it even have been written?

Book groups will find the ethics of the various medical teams to be incredulous in the face of today’s laws concerning medical privacy. Groups may want to investigate the case of John Moore, a “modern” lapse of medical ethics, mentioned briefly in the book.
Loyalty
by Ingrid Thoft
LOYALTY by Ingrid Thoft (7/11/2013)
LOYALTY will have your heart pounding right along with “Fina”, the female and only non-lawyer member of the Ludlow family. Fina is a private investigator trying very hard to remain loyal to her family while solving the murder of one of her sisters-in-law and striving to stay alive herself. Occasional clichés notwithstanding LOYALTY is a well written, well plotted, heavy action mystery that will keep you guessing until the final pages. The Ludlows are a family of shady lawyers – ambulance chasers and defenders of disreputable characters -- with some redeeming qualities and a coterie of assorted friends, cops and “helpers.” Fina is the answer to their need for a PI, a hard working, hard living, hard loving female who is intensely loyal to her family even if her brother is the prime suspect. Each character is well defined although you may need a list to keep them all straight at the beginning of this engaging and thrilling tale. By tale’s end you will be hoping Fina and her family appear in many sequels.
Loyalty
by Ingrid Thoft
LOYALTY by Ingrid Thoft (7/10/2013)
LOYALTY will have your heart pounding right along with “Fina”, the female and only non-lawyer member of the Ludlow family. Fina is a private investigator trying very hard to remain loyal to her family while solving the murder of one of her sisters-in-law and striving to stay alive herself. Occasional clichés notwithstanding LOYALTY is a well written, well plotted, heavy action mystery that will keep you guessing until the final pages. The Ludlows are a family of shady lawyers – ambulance chasers and defenders of disreputable characters -- with some redeeming qualities and a coterie of assorted friends, cops and “helpers.” Fina is the answer to their need for a PI, a hard working, hard living, hard loving female who is intensely loyal to her family even if her brother is the prime suspect. Each character is well defined although you may need a list to keep them all straight at the beginning of this engaging and thrilling tale. By tale’s end you will be hoping Fina and her family appear in many sequels.
The Sandcastle Girls: A Novel
by Chris Bohjalian
THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS by Chris Bohjalian (7/10/2013)
Follow Elizabeth, a proper Bostonian who is nursing at Syria’s Aleppo Hospital, and Armen, an Armenian engineer who fights with the British army in the Dardenelles, through 1915. The horror of the deportation of women and children into the Syrian desert after the massacre of the older boys and men in Armenia is explicit.
Nevart, an adult woman, and the child, Hatoun, who have both somehow survived the desert, offer a clear picture of the “poor starving Armenians” my grandparents spoke of when encouraging me to clean my plate. You will learn a great deal about the “slaughter you know next to nothing about” through the eyes of those who survived it and in the context of an engrossing tale that covers death, sorrow, despair, cruelty, charity, kindness, hope and love with a dash of mystery.
The intertwining story of the Armenian family in 2010 Boston is peripheral, yet vital to the plot. Well written, with interesting and clearly drawn characters, this very believable story is true to history as well. Book groups will love Elizabeth, root for Nevart and Hatoun, despair with Armen and be surprised by the end.
City of Women: A Novel
by David R. Gillham
The City Of Women (7/10/2013)
I started this book with great hope for a fascinating read. Kirkus and the New York Times promised a tale of love and intrigue. By the 100th page I was bored and didn’t like any of the characters. Sigrid seemed especially shallow. The plot hadn’t appeared yet and I quit reading. Sorry.
Children of the Jacaranda Tree
by Sahar Delijani
Interesting but Disappointing (6/19/2013)
I found this book to be both enormously interesting and vastly disjointed. It was difficult to follow the characters and time lines. Characters came and went with alarming frequency. Time jumped back and forth from the early days of the Iranian Revolution to the present with stops in the middle.

My attention was immediately captured in the first few paragraphs, but then the next chapter moved to another time and place with new characters and I was left lost and wondering. Perhaps this was the author’s intention as those same disjointed feelings were evident in each of the (many) characters.

Delijani captures the sense of loss and “disconnectedness” the characters felt as their lives were disrupted, ended and changed from moment to moment with no clear resolution in sight. The descriptions are lovely. The characters are generally well drawn. Situations are rendered in often harrowing clarity. However, I had a hard time with the younger generation. I couldn’t remember who the parents were or what had happened to them or worse, if I had even “met” them before.

I wish I could say I liked this book and give it 5 stars. I wanted to..…but….. The book needs a list of characters with notes to their relationships. A glossary would help, for example, a “manteau” was defined as a “medieval garment like a coat” in my dictionary, I’m still not clear on what kind of garment was meant.

I read this on an e-reader – perhaps not the best choice for this book. But thank you Net Galley who provided the book in exchange for this review.
Amy Falls Down
by Jincy Willett
A "good" read (6/15/2013)
After a slow start I really found myself enjoying the witty (though very dry) humor in this book. Amy grows on you as you discover more of her character and background. I especially enjoyed the names of the chapters, trying to see if I could find the relationship as I read. Another part I liked was the "topics" Amy lists as story ideas/titles. They give another clue to Amy's persona. Amy's students are delightful, clearly and carefully drawn.
While the entire book is a put down of pretentious authors, it is also the story of a very human woman who has great sorrows to surmount. As is true with all good humor, there is also tragedy to provide contrast. Willett deals well with both. (spoiler alert – Maxine's recovery is the one deviation from realistic outcomes in an otherwise well-paced and plotted tale.)
Anyone who enjoys a "good read" and, equally, a "bad read," will enjoy this writer's delight. If you are a potential novelist, there is much food for thought.
Book groups will have a field day with a variety of topics – truth vs fiction, honest criticism, how you see yourself as opposed to how others see you, marriage of convenience, dealing with rude/stupid/ignorant people (and being rude/stupid/ignorant yourself), personal growth and change, phobias and others.
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
by Mary Roach
GULP by Mary Roach (6/8/2013)
I always learn something when I read one of Roach’s books. And I usually am laughing when I learn it! Roach has a great (some would say twisted) sense of humor (don’t overlook the footnotes!) that enlivens a book that could be deadly dull. Never fear, Roach will entertain you even while discussing feces and other products of the human body.
Gulp takes the subject of food and its ability to pass through the body while giving nourishment and pleasure to the human (and seventh grade boys a scintillating topic of conversation) and delves into the most intimate phases of digestion and excretion. She finds unique and interesting studies (both legitimately scientific and the just bizarre) and explains what was learned in a way understandable to laymen.
One thing I learned is that 90 percent of taste is actually smell, so the alimentary canal begins with the nose and ends with the anus (another smell!) Sorry, I couldn’t help it – that is what reading a Mary Roach book will do to you. Enjoy!
Sisterland
by Curtis Sittenfeld
SISTERLAND by Curtis Sittenfeld (5/29/2013)
Twins, Kate (Daisy) and Violet, are psychic. One of them becomes a wife and mother and denies her ability. The other embraces it and actually earns a living by using her “senses” as a medium. When Violet, and later, Kate become convinced that a tragic earthquake will strike the city of St. Louis, a long simmering estrangement comes to a head.
Sittenfeld has written an engrossing tale that occasionally bogs down in minutia, but ultimately achieves its goal. The ending is unexpected and wrenching. Those who want a “quick read” should find another book. This one will take a while but will appeal to those who are looking for a love story, a coming of age novel or a family story. Does it end happily ever after – you will just have to read it for yourself.
Book groups will find many topics to discuss – distant (and controlling) moms, ESP, fidelity, relationships between sisters, male-female friendship, abortion, premarital and extramarital sex, mothering styles, divorce, Black-White relationships and class distinctions among others.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
by Anton DiSclafani
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (5/23/2013)
This big, rich novel covers only a year but manages to convey an entire lifetime. Thea, the main character, is a twin, a lover of horses and a girl who wants. Unfortunately what she wants is not necessarily good for her or her family or those she loves. Sent away from her home because of her actions, she spends a year at a “camp” that is actually a cross between a finishing school for wealthy girls and a riding academy. The background of Thea’s infraction is explored in many backflashes as the book progresses. DiSclafani gives us a whole world set in depression era southern Appalachia. Her characters are well drawn and appealing. Her descriptions provide a moody backdrop to a story filled with angst, teen girls and horses. While the characters are teens, this is not a young adult book, but a sizzling sex tale set in a Victorian horse show.
Book groups will find a plethora of topics ranging from teen sex to family roles to education of women to the importance of money among many others.

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