Reviews by Becky H

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The Daughters of Mars
by Thomas Keneally
The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally (5/9/2013)
I had a hard time getting used to the lack of commas and quotation marks in this tale of two sisters who nurse for Australia during World War I. Although slow and quite lengthy, the book held my interest with details of nursing under primitive conditions during war conditions. The most interesting parts for me were the descriptions of life aboard ship on the journey to Egypt from Australia and then in the war zone of Gallipoli. The horror of war was clearly indicated in the details of battle injuries and the care available both in the Dardanelles and later in France. The tragedy of the influenza epidemic of 1919 makes up the later part of the book.
The sisters, their nurse companions and the soldiers they work with and fall in love with comprise the characters in the novel. Book groups will find many topics to discuss including class distinctions, city versus farm life, Quakers and war, biological weaponry, courage under great duress, disfigurement and disability, and the roles of women.
Palisades Park
by Alan Brennert
Another winner from Brennert (5/4/2013)
Brennert writes generation spanning novels that are well researched and well written with engaging characters, vivid place descriptions and enticing plots. In Palisades Park he does not disappoint. lthough Palisades Amusement Park itself is the main character, Eddie Stopka the main human character, his children and his friends are by no means shorted in either characterization or plotting.

Brennert' people react the way ordinary folks would in similar circumstances. His plot twists are reasonable but not mundane, exciting but not overwhelming. These are people you know and care about. Their story is arresting and satisfying and you are sorry when the book ends.

One of the things Brennert excels in is incorporating "real" people, places and events into his story line. Even if you are knowledgeable about the actual historical events they are so seamlessly incorporated you find yourself wondering only why you "didn’t remember" the fictional parts. Perhaps because I am from Chicago, I especially appreciated the inclusion of crime and mob influences. He handles racism with sensitivity and realistic drama. World War II and the Korean War are touched on in ways that will resonate with those affected by today’s military incursions. Divorce, women’s roles, faith, bullying, dysfunctional families, immigration and business practices are all timely and timeless topics well covered.

And, if you haven’t yet read Moloka'i and Honolulu his two previous best sellers – well, you should!
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
by Mary Roach
Macabre, but fun too (4/27/2013)
For anyone interested in the “messy” part of human science, this is the book for you. Mary Roach has a unique sense of humor that makes her off beat topics fun to read. You will learn many facts while being amused and bemused.
STIFF tells what happens to the human body after death whether that death is natural or not. You will discover how long decomposition takes and exactly what happens. You will find out who did the first autopsy and the first anatomical dissection and why those activities were and continue to be important. Roach covers plane crashes and gun shots and automobile crashes among other ways humans die. She discusses funeral practices and all the other topics dealing with death that you might (or might not) have ever wondered about.
The style is straightforward, no medical background is necessary. Teenage boys will love it. Girls will be grossed out and parents may be dismayed, but everyone will learn something – rather painlessly
Orphan Train
by Christina Baker Kline
Finding a family (4/27/2013)
This novel will appeal to both teens and adults. Orphan Train tells two interlocking stories. The first concerns a frustrated, angry teen who has been bounced around the foster care system from one uncaring “home” to another, unloved and generally unwanted. Molly, half Indian, has stolen a library book and is now forced to do 50 hours of community service. Through her boyfriend she finds herself helping Vivian, a 90 year old woman who wants help “clearing out” her attic of a lifetime’s worth of boxes and mementos.
Vivian’s story, told in flashback and the more fleshed out of the two stories, is that of an Irish immigrant child orphaned and then sent from New York to the Midwest on one of the “Orphan Trains” organized by the Children’s Aid Society. The children are often no more than “cheap labor” to the receiving families and this is Vivian’s fate.
Realistic in both tales, the novel gives a vivid and accurate portrait of life for unwanted children in two eras. Mother/daughter book groups will find much to discuss - family, adoption, family services, poverty, child labor, education, faith, “acting out”, tattoos, belonging – among others. Adults will likely find Vivian’s story easier to relate to, especially the topic of adoption and seeking one’s birth family.
Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger
ORDINARY GRACE by William Krueger (4/16/2013)
Frank, a thirteen year old on the cusp of manhood, is the main character in William K Krueger’s book “Ordinary Grace.” On its surface it is a tale of death - a murder, an accident, in war, stupidly or deliberately done, of age or illness. On a much deeper level it is the story of a family, the love that binds them together and the faith that sustains them. This is not an explicitly “Christian” book and yet you will finish the book and know why faith is and what it is.
Krueger uses words in wonderful and unique ways to evoke a time and place that will live with you long after you finish reading this book. His description of a mother’s sorrow is expressed “She was flesh without spirit, eyes without sight” (page 182) and setting sun “was caught in the branches of the trees and the light across the lawns was yellow-orange and broken" (page 133).
This is a lovely book. Now that I have finished it, I want to read it again – only slowly so I can savor each word. His writing is believable. You know that is just what each character would say or do or think. His metaphors and similes are precise and unique and exactly right, yet they do not make think “oh, he learned that lesson on metaphor well.” Instead you are simply lost in the time, the place and the character.
All Woman and Springtime: A Novel
by Brandon W. Jones
ALL WOMAN AND SPRINGTIME (4/10/2013)
A mesmerizing book that many will find hard to read. Gi, the main character, changes from a brutalized, terrified 10 year old to a near catatonic teen to a woman of untapped strength in this tale of a North Korean girl condemned and then rescued from a concentration camp. She finds a friend in the orphanage but when it is their time to leave the orphanage and strike out on their own, they are betrayed by Il-Sun’s lover and sold into trafficking in South Korea. When they try to escape they are transported to the US in a sealed container on a ship and become sex slaves. Eventually Gi is able to escape and finds a new life because of her ability with numbers.
North Korea and human trafficking are shown graphically, but not exploitively. The sex (and there is indeed sex) is used to convey the horror and terror of young girls trapped in a life they cannot escape. I read this nearly 400 page book in just two days, compelled to keep reading and sorry when they book ended. Although horrifying, the book is also a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. Americans may find themselves seeing the homeless and immigrants with a sense of unease and guilt after reading this book.
A Land More Kind Than Home: A Novel
by Wiley Cash
A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME (4/4/2013)
Wiley Cash has a way with words. He can make you see a rain storm or love with equal clarity. In A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME he has written a beautiful elegy for love and death, faith and fear, condemnation and redemption. Told in three very different voices, the tale unfolds in starts and pauses and then backtracks on to itself. Occasionally Cash loses his way and the story loses momentum. But stick with him because in the pulsing end, you will know you have found a wonderful new voice.

A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME follows the inhabitants of a small back country Appalachian community. They include an outsider Sheriff and the drunk the sheriff blames for his son's death, the drunk's son and his church obsessed wife, their two young sons - one a mute, a spellbinding preacher with a hidden past and the area's "healer" woman. Cash is point perfect in detailing the culture of Appalachia, the speech patterns of his characters and an atmosphere of foreboding.

Book groups will find a wealth of topics including family dynamics, faith and faith that becomes oppressive, guilt and how it can poison relationships, fear of the unknown, outsiders, understanding disabilities, alcoholism, infidelity, and secrets.
Shadow on the Crown: A Novel
by Patricia Bracewell
SHADOW ON THE CROWN by Patricia Bracewell (3/25/2013)
SHADOW ON THE CROWN is an intricately plotted historical novel based on the early life of Emma of England, a little remembered queen of the medieval period. Emma, youngest daughter of Richard of Normandy and ancestor to William the Conqueror, is sent to England to marry the newly widowed and much older King AEthelred. The marriage is supposed to prevent the Danish Vikings who are indebted to Richard from sacking English towns.

Instead Emma discovers she is surrounded by intrigue, plots against the King, a Lord's daughter who insinuates herself into the king's bed, stepsons who resent her (and one who loves her), a husband who both ignores and abuses her, and in peril from the Vikings.

Well researched and well written, the novel is part mystery, part history and mostly intensely absorbing. You will need the glossary at the beginning of the book for all the medieval words and the cast of characters to keep all the unfamiliar Anglo-Saxon names straight. I longed for a more complete map with both medieval and modern names - who knew Jorvik was really the city of York. You will discover in the afterward that this is the first book of a trilogy. Then you will wait impatiently for the next book to be published!
Out of The Easy
by Ruta Sepetys
OUT OF THE EASY by Ruta Sepetys (3/21/2013)
OUT OF THE EASY tells the tale of Josie Moraine, the 17 year old daughter of a prostitute in 1950’s New Orleans. Sepetys gives a clear picture of the brothels, gangsters, and night life of the city while showing the life of a teen who is willing to work and sacrifice for something better. Josie dreams of entering an elite college in the East and leaving her loser mother far behind.
Peopled with a madam who brooks no foolishness, a driver who cares for Josie, a famous writer broken by crime, two honorable male friends, prostitutes who vary from pigtailed to mute to kleptomaniac to sweet and kind hearted, to gangsters who murder and threaten to maim, to a mother who doesn’t deserve the term, to one prominent businessman who is murdered and one who seeks to bring about Josie’s downfall, the characters are clearly drawn with their speech and actions showing their character.
The plot is tight and carries the story quickly along. You will like Josie and root for her to succeed in her aspirations and her choice of boy friend.
Although billed as a young adult novel, this work of historical fiction is not for anyone younger than 14 or 15. Some of the situations and phrases are not for younger teens. This is a good book for cross over to the adult reader. Book groups will find much to discuss, especially the very obvious class distinctions and snobbery. Crime, “juice” loans, college admissions and cost, friendship and loyalty, discrimination and perception are all addressed here.
Those who read and loved Sepetys’ previous book - BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY – will not be disappointed in this new and very different book.
The Burgess Boys
by Elizabeth Strout
A compelling read (3/20/2013)
After starting slowly, The Burgess Boys became quietly fascinating. I kept reading and reading until I finished it in just two days (with many life interruptions). Although I didn’t like Jim, he was spellbinding in his dysfunction. Bob, the much more likeable brother, was engaging in his own brand of dysfunction. Susan, and her son Zach, were simply damaged by life and therefore potentially damaging to everyone around them. The supporting characters were as carefully drawn as the main characters and compelling in their own way.
I appreciated the way Strout revealed her characters in drips and drabs, constantly leading you further into an understanding of their emotions.
The incident that brought all the characters together was never fully explained – possibly because the perpetrator didn’t know – or even have – a reason. The incident that initially damaged the family was revealed in the ending, but could be inferred much earlier in the book.
This was a lovely book, well written and engaging. The family dynamics would lend themselves to an interesting group discussion. The two “incidents” would also generate discussion. Other topics useful for book groups are birth order, twins, divorce, unfaithfulness in marriage, women’s roles, race relations, criminal punishment, defense lawyers who defend those they know to be guilty and family roles.
A Murder at Rosamund's Gate: A Lucy Campion Mystery
by Susanna Calkins
Restoration England in love and murder (3/18/2013)
I enjoyed this murder mystery with a bit of a love story entwined. The story is engaging with hints dropped carefully without revealing the murderer until the end. I liked the parts about "newspapers" and "police" and thought they added depth and realism to the story. The main character – Lucy, a chambermaid soon elevated to Lady's maid – is interesting with a backstory and a future that may include sequels to this book. The supporting characters are well drawn and add to the story.
The ending may not satisfy all, but does support the notion of sequels. Possible subjects for book groups might include the role of women in society, the lack of education or the ability to read, religious leaders as role models, how catastrophic illness is treated, marriage as political/monetary entity, the power of the press and the power of money and position.
Restoration England (1665 AD) is carefully portrayed with only one glaring "Yuck" (on page 59), a word that was unlikely to be on the lips of a chambermaid in a wealthy home. The everyday life of servants and gentry is clearly shown.
Lone Wolf: A Novel
by Jodi Picoult
Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult (3/14/2013)
I loved the parts of this book that dealt with the wolves! I learned a lot about the pack: its members, their roles, their calls (howls), how they eat, etc.
The “humans” were just not as interesting, perhaps because Picoult has written this book before. (In MERCY, she tells of a mercy killing with many of the same themes found in Lone Wolf.) The slowly revealed lies and omissions of Luke and Georgie, and, most importantly, Edward and Cara make this book resonate with family drama over the bed of the badly injured Luke.
Joe, Dannie Boyle, Helen Bedd and Zirconia are interesting characters that I hope make further appearances in Picoult’s books.
Picoult writes fiction drawn from headlines with sympathetic characters that tug at emotions AND she does it well. You will find yourself trying to decide “what would I do” in a similar situation. She is careful to make all options appealing and defensible.
The final chapter of this book offers an additional dollop of “what is really happening here” that animal lovers will find intriguing.
The Burgess Boys
by Elizabeth Strout
great book for discussion (3/5/2013)
After starting slowly, The Burgess Boys became quietly fascinating. I kept reading and reading until I finished it in just two days (with many life interruptions). Although I didn’t like Jim, he was spellbinding in his dysfunction. Bob, the much more likeable brother, was engaging in his own brand of dysfunction. Susan, and her son Zach, were simply damaged by life and therefore potentially damaging to everyone around them. The supporting characters were as carefully drawn as the main characters and compelling in their own way.
I appreciated the way Strout revealed her characters in drips and drabs, constantly leading you further into an understanding their emotions.
The incident that brought all the characters together was never fully explained – possibly because the perpetrator didn’t know – or even have – a reason. The incident that damaged the family was revealed in the ending, but could be inferred much earlier in the book.
This was a lovely book, well written and engaging. The family dynamics would lend themselves to an interesting group discussion. The two “incidents” would also generate discussion. Other topics useful for book groups are birth order, twins, divorce, unfaithfulness in marriage, women’s roles, race relations, criminal punishment, defense lawyers who defend those they know to be guilty and family roles.
The Aviator's Wife
by Melanie Benjamin
Fame can be terrifying (2/27/2013)
This well written fictionalization of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s life from just before she meets Charles A Lindbergh until his death in 1974 is thought provoking. Approximately equal time is given to “the events of 1932” (the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh’s first born child), the early days of the their marriage and Anne’s development as an aviatrix and navigator, and Anne’s life as mother usually left alone as her husband is increasingly absent. Charles’ possible antisemitism and both of their positive opinions of Germany under Hitler’s early days is briefly touched upon.

The novel is the story of their marriage and Anne’s transformation from naïve and easily compliant young girl to confident, self-reliant woman sure of herself and confident of her ability to write. Charles is portrayed as arrogantly self-confident, selfish and controlling of both his wife and children even while also needing Anne’s unflagging support.

I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to others interested in reading/learning more Anne, her marriage and the early days of “women’s liberation”. This book will provide much fodder for discussing marriage, family dynamics, child rearing methods, news gathering and reporting, and America during the Nazi era and during wartime.
A Good American: A Novel
by Alex George
A wonderful book (2/16/2013)
A lovely book that explores 4 generations of a family. Carefully drawn characters and a love of music permeate this novel that begins in Germany in 1904 and ends in Missouri in 2009.
Gone Girl: A Novel
by Gillian Flynn
Gone Girl (1/27/2013)
From the moment Nick announces he has lied 10 times, you will wonder! When did he lie? Is he telling you a lie now? Is Amy telling the truth? Is Amy really dead? Has she been kidnapped? By whom? Who is the “bad guy? Amy? Nick? Go? Maribeth and Rand? Anyone of a several other characters? Is there a “good guy?”

Well written and entirely plausible, Gone Girl will keep you guessing to the end. Book groups will find a wealth of topics for discussion – family, siblings, lawyers, divorce, murder, friendship, mental health, marriage, fame, wealth – among others.
Mystery fans and those who prefer love stories or family dramas will find something to love in this psychological mystery.
The Kashmir Shawl: A Novel
by Rosie Thomas
A great story and great writing (1/15/2013)
I loved this book. The writing is gorgeous. I found myself rereading passages to savor the words. That is, until I got caught up in the story! Now I am planning to reread the book so I can appreciate the writing skill that is so evident.
The characters are real. The conversations are real. The situations the characters find themselves in are real. The only flaw (if it is a flaw) is that all of the ends are tied up so neatly – especially Farida and Zahra – that one was just too pat.
The differing marriages that are explored would make a great topic for book groups – what makes a marriage or fail, what is a failed marriage, how are marriages different, what forces do family and culture play on marriage, who is responsible for making a marriage work, etc.
I learned a lot about India that changed my perspective on the current situation with China, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. I also enjoyed learning a bit about World War II and British India.
There were times when I would have appreciated a glossary of the Indian terms and occasions used in the book. I wondered what “afternoon bread” was and how it differed from other breads. A map would have been helpful – I printed one off the Internet, but, of course, not all of the places mentioned were on any one map and trying to overlay them just didn’t work.
I would strongly recommend this book to book groups that are interested in family issues, history, ethnic culture, mystery and just great writing. I could not decide if this was “women’s” fiction, historical fiction, romance, and finally decided literary fiction was the most accurate.
I have a pashima from my daughter’s two and a half years living in Kazakhstan – of course not nearly as elegant or beautiful as Nerys’ - but even with only two colors, the design woven in fine wool threads on my shawl, is different on the two sides so I can appreciate the intricacy of the “Kashmir Shawl” described in the book.
The World Without You: A Novel
by Joshua Henkin
The World Without You (1/7/2013)
Henkin, as in MATRIMONY his first book, is a wonderful writer. Unfortunately, I don’t know ANY of his characters. But more importantly, I don’t WANT to know them. The father is distant, the mother is self-absorbed. Clarissa, who has turned her back on a career as a cellist, is unhappy with her current life and sure a child – HER child, and only HER child - will complete her world. Lily is angry at everyone for unknown and unknowable reasons. Noelle, a wild child to the extreme, has become an orthodox Jew, sure that only blindly following every jot and title of every law will fulfill her. Thisbe, the widow of the only son of the family, valiantly tries to remain normal. Who are these unhappy people? Surely there must be someone Henkin can write about that is at least marginally happy. If there was a happy ending to this book, I could not find it. I was not looking for a saccharine sweet book, I was just hoping for something other than unrelieved unhappiness. I’ll look for another author for my next book.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
by Erik Larson
In the Garden of the Beasts (1/7/2013)
Lovers of history will find this a fascinating peek at Hitler’s Germany. Everyman William Dodd is made Ambassador to Germany in 1933 almost by accident. Dodd, a professor at the University of Chicago, goes to Germany with his wife, an adult daughter in the middle of a divorce and an adult son. The daughter is enamored with the glitz and pomp of the German officers she meets and has a number of affairs while her father is increasingly at odds with the career officers who are supposed to support him and are actually undermining his eyewitness account of events. Dodd, increasingly aware of the persecution of Jew, the censorship of the news and newly instituted and frightening laws, is largely ignored back home by the State Department. The last fourth of the book deals with the mounting terror of the Dodds, the disappearance of friends and acquaintances and finally, the return of the Dodds to the US. Somewhat slow, with many pauses to insert background, the book is still compelling. Give yourself time to appreciate the detail Larson includes throughout the book. History geeks will find the 75 pages of notes especially interesting.
The Intercept: A Jeremy Fisk Novel
by Dick Wolf
The Intercept (1/7/2013)
Be ready for heart pounding excitement when this novel reaches its climax. Jeremy Fisk is an NYPD detective assigned to Intelligence. His job – find out if the terrorist who attempted to hijack the airliner was nut case who was working alone or is he part of a sinister plot to attack the heart of America by killing the 6 intrepid citizens who foiled the hijacker.
If you like intelligent thrillers you will love this first of a series. Great characters, clear plotting, enough clues to keep the mystery fans guessing. Only one small gripe that can’t be revealed without giving away an essential plot detail. So no spoilers here – you’ll just have to read the book!

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