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Reviews by Cathryn Conroy

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Euphoria
by Lily King
A Piercing and Perceptive Tale of the Havoc Wreaked When Egos Collide and Sexual Tensions Run High (4/5/2024)
This is a sneaky book. It starts off at a crawl with the characters and plot unraveling at a slow, deliberate, and measured pace…until wham! At about the halfway point, the book just grabbed me in an intense, haunting, and almost disturbing way. I was sucked into it like quicksand. At first it was nothing, and then it wouldn't let go. And I couldn't stop reading.

Written by Lily King, this is award-winning literary fiction that is a diamond in the rough. It's the early 1930s. American Nell Stone and Brit Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen, are married anthropologists studying primitive tribes living along the Sepik River in New Guinea. Nell has just published a mainstream book (that is, not an academic treatise) on Samoan child-rearing that includes information on their sexual practices. The book is a bestseller, giving Nell publicity and money. All Fen has done is publish a single academic monograph. He is deeply envious of Nell's commercial success, which has also landed them a lucrative grant for their work in New Guinea. As they are leaving one tribe, they meet up with another anthropologist, Andrew Bankson. At first, his friendship supports and strengthens Nell and Fen's troubled marriage, but soon enough Bankson's erotic feelings and sexual desire for Nell create a love triangle that infuriates Fen, who is determined to do something completely inappropriate and unethical—and as it turns out, tragic—to cement his own professional status over Nell.

The book is written primarily from Bankson's perspective in the first person. But other chapters from Nell's perspective are written in the third person, as well as excerpts from her journals that Bankson is given years later. Bankson has his own issues. His father and two brothers are dead, and Bankson has tried, but failed, to die by suicide. His professional life is stalled. He is deeply unhappy. But everything changes when he meets Nell.

And the ending is oh so sad.

This is a piercing, and perceptive tale of the human heart and the havoc that is wreaked when egos collide, sexual tensions run high, and smart people lose their sense of boundaries.

A note: The book was inspired by events in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead and her relationships with her second and third husbands, R.F. Fortune and Gregory Bateson. Some of the story is true to Mead's life, and some of it is imagined.
Fin & Lady
by Cathleen Schine
I Loved This Book! Tender and Sweet, Bold and Brash…and Parts of It Are Hilarious. (4/3/2024)
Oh, I loved this book! Tender and sweet, but also bold and brash. And parts of it are hilarious.

It's the spring of 1964. Fin Hadley is a happy 11-year-old boy who lives on a farm in Connecticut until his widowed mother dies, and he is suddenly an orphan. His only living relative is a 24-year-old half-sister named Lady Hadley, a rich woman living in a posh apartment in New York City with a full-time maid/cook named Mabel. Lady is stunningly beautiful, sometimes cruel, completely unpredictable, and often inattentive, but also kind, tender, and charming. She quickly drives to rural Connecticut in her turquoise-colored convertible Karmann Ghia to retrieve her new charge. Fin moves into Lady's posh high-rise apartment with his dog, Gus, and the two adapt amazingly well. Since there are only two months left in the school year, Lady declines to enroll him, spending their days instead exploring the city, eating ice cream for lunch, and having a wonderful time.

And then the honeymoon is over. Lady resents living in a gilded cage, so they move to the bohemian Greenwich Village, along with the wonderful Mabel, into a half-furnished townhouse and set up housekeeping there. Lady charges Fin with finding her a husband. Three suitors, only one of whom is acceptable to Fin, parade through Lady's life as this free spirit is determined to be married by the time she is 25. Lady may be Fin's legal guardian, but it is Fin who slowly begins to take care of Lady as much as she takes care of him. True to her capricious nature, Lady secretly runs away on her 28th birthday, April 1, 1968, and she takes with her the love and security of Fin's life.

This is also a salute to the turbulent 1960s—from the beatniks to the Vietnam draft. Try as she might, Lady is out of touch with the times, being more a debutante at heart than a hippie.

Written by Cathleen Schine, this heartwarming novel has its surprises, beginning with the mysterious narrator. (Don't waste time trying to figure out who it is…all will be revealed in due time, and when it is, well, it's perfect.) This is a smart, sassy, and delightful story about what it means to be a family even if it doesn't fit the traditional definition. As characters, Fin and Lady are each exquisitely described, so much so that they seem like real people with their little quirks and habits. Adding to the magic, the dialogue is pitch-perfect.

And, oh, the ending…it is the happiest saddest ending I have ever read.

Insightful and perceptive, this novel is not only a pleasure to read, but also brilliantly captures an unconventional meaning of family that filled my heart with love.
Absolution: A Novel
by Alice McDermott
Brilliant! A Story of Vietnam You've Never Heard Before…A Story of the Women, the Wives (3/30/2024)
In a word: brilliant!

This is a book about Vietnam in the very early days of the war, a story you've never heard before. This is a book about the women, the wives of the important men—diplomats, engineers, intelligence officers, attorneys, and military brass. These bright young men were sent to Saigon in the early '60s to do mostly secret work while their pretty little wives threw garden parties and cocktail parties with local servants doing all the work. This is a book about two of those women, who didn't exactly fit the mold.

Written 60 years later as a kind of memoir/letter by Tricia to her friend Charlene's daughter, Rainey, this is the story of a brief stint in Vietnam in 1963. Peter and Tricia are working class Irish Catholics from Yonkers. He is eight years older than she and is in Vietnam working as an attorney for Navy intelligence. They are desperately trying to have a baby. Charlene and her husband, Kent, have been there a while with their three children, 8-year-old twins Rainey and Ransom and baby Roger. Charlene is pretty, smart, bossy, a bit of a bully, and a vivacious hostess; she also has a passion for "doing good" that is wonderful but heartbreaking in who gets hurt in the process. Life is so different for these women, and not only because they are in Vietnam. They are considered nothing more than "helpmeets" for their husbands. Trish often writes, "You have to remember how it was in those days. For women. For wives." They are women on the periphery. Women no one takes seriously. Meanwhile, outside their wealthy, guarded compounds, Vietnamese children are starving, families are living in abject poverty, and people are dying in surprise attacks by the Viet Cong. What is the moral obligation of these protected, pampered wives as they seek absolution in a broken, tragic place that is gearing up for a horrifying war?

Bonus: Barbie dolls have a big part in this book—a part that is both surprising and appalling.

Beautifully written with so many details and lush descriptions that it transports the reader back to this time and place, this remarkable novel is an enlightening and provocative expose on unseen women with unseen lives. This is a story of Vietnam you've never heard before.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Joy Fowler
An Impressive and Intriguing Novel: Colorful Characters, an Unusual Plot, and Pitch-Perfect Writing (3/14/2024)
What a remarkable book! This is a wildly original spin on that classic novel plot of being part of and then breaking away from a dysfunctional family.

Written by Karen Joy Fowler, this is the story of Rosemary Cooke, the younger of two children—or three children, depending on how you look at it. It's the mid-1970s. When Rosemary was one month old and her brother, Lowell, was six years old, their parents decided to raise a baby chimpanzee they named Fern as Rosemary's twin sister. Or something close to that. As a psychology professor and researcher of animal behavior at Indiana University, her father was quite literally bringing his work home and that included six graduate students who assisted with the research. Because of what their parents told them, both Lowell and Rosemary thought of Fern as their sister. They truly loved her. And one day when Rosemary was five years old, Fern disappeared. They were told she went to live on a farm. (Yeah, right.) And then they never talk about Fern again. What really happened to her? That is a central part of the story and how Lowell and Rosemary react to Fern's disappearance both immediately and years later—after all, she was their sister—is very different with long-lasting and difficult consequences for them both. And oh, the ending. It's perfect.

The book is creatively written. It begins in the middle of the story when Rosemary at age 22 is in her fifth year of college at the University of California, Davis. In these early chapters, we get the background on the family so when the story begins at the beginning—when Fern joined the family—we understand the family dynamics.

This is a story about family, memories, and the anguish of facing the truth. The colorful characters, unusual plot, and pitch-perfect writing combine to make this an impressive and intriguing novel.

Bonus No. 1: This is a literature geek's dream book with numerous literary references, including quotes that introduce new chapter from Franz Kafka's short story "A Report for an Academy" about an ape named Red Peter who has learned to act like he is human and gives a report to an academy about how he did this.

Bonus No. 2: If you love words, especially words that are new to you, you will enjoy reading this. I had to use the Kindle look-up feature a lot.
Lazarus is Dead
by Richard Beard
Powerful and Profound! An Ingeniously Plotted Novel That Creatively Combines Fiction and Theology (3/13/2024)
Wow! This is a profound and powerful novel that is an extraordinary hybrid between fiction and theology that left me stunned (in a good way).

Deftly written by Richard Beard, this is the story of the biblical Lazarus—before, during, and after his death. The raising of Lazarus from the dead only appears in the Gospel of John where it is the seventh of Jesus's miracles, the first of which is turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.

As Beard tells this tale, Jesus and Lazarus were born weeks apart in Bethlehem, escaped to Egypt with their families, and grew up together in Nazareth as best friends—inseparable friends. Then something happens that tears them apart and each goes his own way, Lazarus to Jerusalem and Bethany while Jesus at first remains in Nazareth and eventually begins his itinerant ministry. Lazarus lives in Bethany with his unmarried sisters, Martha and Mary. One day, just after they hear that Jesus has turned water into wine at a wedding reception, Lazarus gets sick. He brushes it off as nothing much. As Jesus performs each subsequent miracle, including walking on water and feeding the 5,000, Lazarus becomes sicker…and sicker. He eventually develops many illnesses, including scabies, dysentery, malaria, and smallpox. He stinks. Oh, does he smell of sickness and impending death! As his body disintegrates, so does his life because he cannot work or do anything without severe pain. Martha and Mary despair that Jesus, who is only a few miles away, doesn't come and heal their brother.

You probably know what happens next. Lazarus dies. Jesus does come to Bethany, but only after Lazarus has been dead for four days. And then Jesus performs his greatest miracle of all: raising Lazarus from the dead, which occurs one week and a day before he himself rises from the dead on Easter morning. Lazarus is a foreshadowing of Jesus's Resurrection.

But the novel doesn't end here. That's the middle. Beard richly imagines Lazarus's life after he was given the ultimate of second chances. Roman officials, who are threatened by Jesus's ministry, want Lazarus dead—and soon. But Lazarus manages to escape their wily plots and goes on to become one of the greatest disciples of Jesus. Some scholars think he is the mysterious and unnamed "Beloved Disciple" in the Gospel of John.

What makes the novel so special is that this fictionalized account of what Lazarus and his sisters saw, heard, discussed, and felt is interspersed with theological, historical, and biblical accounts of what was happening then. These are not set off with italics or spaced breaks; they are interspersed with the fiction. At first this was a bit disconcerting, but I quickly caught on and think this is the secret sauce that makes this novel so profound and powerful.

This is a deeply researched book. Dozens of theologians are quoted or mentioned from ancient times to modern day, including the Jewish historian Josephus and Khalil Gibran, as well as references to Lazarus by some of the world's literary giants, including Czech writer Karel ?apek, Greek writer Nikos Kazantakis, British authors Robert Graves and Thomas Hardy, Irish poet W. B. Yeats, and Americans Norman Mailer and Eugene O'Neill, among many others.

Another fun literary device is the chapter numbers. The chapters begin at No. 7 and countdown to zero when Lazarus dies. We are now in the middle of the book. Then the chapter numbers begin with zero when he is raised from the dead and continue escalating to No. 7 when the book ends.

This is an ingeniously plotted novel that tells the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in a unique, creative, and compelling way.
The Water Museum: Stories
by Luis Alberto Urrea
Imaginative and Exceptional Collection of 13 Short Stories: Smart, Perceptive, and Thought-Provoking (3/7/2024)
Written by the incomparable Luis Alberto Urrea, this collection of 13 short stories alternates from heartbreaking to hilarious. Almost all of them are about identity and community—those who are safely on the inside and those who are left outside.

Many conclude open-ended, which leaves the reader hanging…and thinking. What happens next? Well, that's for the reader to fill in. It felt frustrating at first, but it also meant I couldn't stop thinking about these stories and their deeper meanings.

In a word: brilliant!

Some of my favorites:
• "Mountains Without Number" is the story of a middle-aged woman barely making a living in a diner she owns and operates by herself in a small, economically depressed town in the desert Southwest. She keeps staring out the window at the nearby butte which is covered in brightly-painted numbers: high school graduation years. The ending is so powerful that I had to stop reading for a few minutes.

• "The Water Museum," the title story of the collection, takes place in a drought-stricken United States where children don't know what it's like to have enough water—so much so that one little town has a museum about water. A middle school field trip there ends in a heartbreaking way.

• "Amapola" is a sweet and sexy teenage love story—until suddenly with an undercurrent of brutal violence, it's the scariest thing I have read in a while. (It won the Edgar Award!)

• "Taped to the Sky" tells the story of a teacher from Cambridge, Massachusetts whose wife has left him. He stole her car and is driving around the country trying to forget her—from Lafayette, Louisiana to Vidor, Texas to El Paso and up the Raton Pass to Colorado and finally to Wyoming where his car dies. What happens then is the heart of this story.

• "Young Man Blues" is the story of Joey, a young man who works on Mondays caring for a wealthy and very sweet 92-year-old man. Joey's dad was in a gang, and is now in prison, but some of his gang member buddies are now threatening Joey. They want to rob the old guy, and Joey is their ticket. Will he be an accomplice?

This is an imaginative and exceptional collection of short stories that are smart, perceptive, and thought-provoking.
The Long Haul: A Trucker's Tales of Life on the Road
by Finn Murphy
An Eye-Opening, Intriguing Insider's Account of What Really Happens When You Move (2/14/2024)
What an eye-opener this is! This is an intriguing book for anyone to read, but especially for those who are planning a move be it locally or long-distance. You'll find out what really happens once the movers cross your doorstep--and it's not all good.

The author is Finn Murphy, a man who is now in his mid-60s but started in the business at age 17. He's seen and experienced it all, and now he's sharing it with us. Murphy is not your typical mover. He grew up in a large middle-class Irish Catholic family in Cos Cob, Connecticut, attending parochial schools as well as a three-year stint at Colby College in Maine. He dropped out one year before graduation to become a full-time mover, much to his parents' chagrin. (Well, so much chagrin that son and parents didn't speak for two years.)

Murphy is a rare breed. He truly loves being a mover. Always has. OK, there were a few years when he walked off the job in anger, but he came back to it. A typical day is 12 hours long and involves much physical work, including packing boxes, hauling heavy furniture up and down stairs, loading a van with precision so everything fits and doesn't roll around in transit, and after all that, driving hundreds or even thousands of miles. Then rinse and repeat on the other end. Don't forget the lousy food, sleeping in the truck, and showering at truck stops.

This well-written book, which is peppered with SAT-worthy vocabulary words (such as "hegemony," "sanguine," "impecunious," and "mendacious") is a memoir of Murphy's professional life as a mover, but is packed with tidbits, warnings, and inside secrets that anyone who hires a mover will be happy to learn.

Among many other things, find out:
• Why movers know more about you in 30 minutes than your best friends will ever know about you in 30 years.
• Why do people dislike and distrust movers? (Even the movers want to know the answer to this question!)
• Some of the retaliatory measures movers may take if you don't show them a bare modicum of respect.
• How much money top movers can make in a year. (Hint: The answer will surprise you!)

The best parts of the book are the many stories about the homeowners and renters Murphy is paid to move. Some are hilarious, some are zany, and some are truly surprising.

This book is humorous, shocking, and filled with mind-boggling revelations about the moving industry.
A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President
by Jeffrey Toobin
Not for the Prudish! A Well-Researched and Balanced Historical Account—Except for the (2/13/2024)
This is not a book for the prudish.

While author Jeffrey Toobin has written a deeply researched and (in my opinion) balanced account of the two sex scandals that enveloped President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s—Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky—there is a definite "ick" factor when reading this book. Ick. Ick. Ick.

The book was published in December 1999 and in a new introduction written in January 2020, Toobin admits what many now think: "Do the lessons of the #MeToo movement change our understanding of what happened between them and how we, as a society, responded to their affair? In a word, yes." Monica was not a victim of sexual harassment as she initiated most of their encounters, including the first one, but she was a victim of the media and public opinion. And no matter what, he was a powerful man—some would say THE most powerful man in the world—and she was an unpaid White House intern at first and then a low-level federal employee at the Pentagon.

This is a historical account and legal analysis of the events that led to the unsuccessful impeachment of Bill Clinton on December 19, 1998 on grounds of perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice. Translation: He had a sexual relationship and lied about it.

But even more than this, it is the story of individual people—from Monica Lewinsky to Linda Tripp, from attorneys on both sides who were either defending or trying to upend a presidency under the tawdriest of circumstances, and from a president and first lady whose marriage became the brunt of gossip and late-night TV jokes.

We see people at their worst in this political soap opera that quickly turned from a civil matter to a criminal one:
--Pathetic, lovestruck, and troubled Monica
--Meanspirited, duplicitous, and angry Linda Tripp
--Greedy, foolish, and unhinged Paula Jones
--Petty, conniving, and mean Lucianne Goldberg
--Biased, wrathful, and inept Kenneth Starr
--Lothario and compulsive liar Bill Clinton
--The dawn of Internet reporting, specifically The Drudge Report
--The media that capitalized over and over on the adage that sex sells.

This is a highly readable book with fair reporting on all sides, making it an excellent historical account—except for that "ick" factor.

Ick. Ick. Ick.
The Frozen River: A Novel
by Ariel Lawhon
Magnificent Storytelling! Page-Turning Historical Fiction Wrapped Around a Riveting Whodunit (2/10/2024)
Oh, what a novel! It just pulled me in and wouldn't let go.

Before you read this book, know two important things:
1. Clear your schedule! Once you start reading, it will be really (really!) hard to stop. Yes, it's THAT good.
2. When you finish it, you will have a whopping book hangover.

Magnificently written by Ariel Lawhon, this is page-turning historical fiction wrapped around a murder mystery. It takes place from November 1789 to April 1790 in the small village of Hallowell, Maine during a particularly frigid, icy, and stormy winter. Martha Ballard is a 54-year-old midwife and healer, lovingly married to Ephraim, and mother of six (mostly) grown children. One night in late November after a town dance (called a "frolic"), Joshua Burgess is found dead in the mostly frozen Kennebac River. It takes seven men to haul him out. But this isn't a man who drowned. He has distinct rope burns on his neck, indicating a hanging, as well as bruises and broken bones, indicating a beating.

The plot thickens. The dead man, along with Joseph North, one of the leading and most powerful citizens of the town, are together accused of brutally raping the minister's wife, Rebecca Foster, who becomes pregnant with the baby of one of the rapists. Was Burgess's murder connected to the rape? Outspoken, fearless Martha is determined to solve this mystery and seek justice for the victims even at great risk to herself and her family.

The novel is not only a riveting whodunit with smart twists and turns, but also a brilliant story about life in these difficult times early in our country's history. I was completely captivated reading this imaginative tale with colorful characters, a bit of love and romance, and magnificent storytelling.

Be sure to read the "Author's Note" at the end, as it describes in detail what is and isn't historical fact in this novel. I was quite surprised at how much of it is true. But don't read the "Author's Note" until you have finished the book, as it's filled with story spoilers.

Bonus: Quotations from Shakespeare's plays run throughout the novel, and many of them are the best ones—the ones that so eloquently insult and defame. Read them and laugh!
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
by A. J. Jacobs
One Man Spends a Year Living the Bible Literally: It's Laugh-Out-Loud Funny and Deeply Spiritual (1/31/2024)
This book should come with a warning! Beware reading it in public places because you will be laughing out loud—repeatedly—and you risk getting the same wary looks from strangers that author A.J. Jacobs endured for the year he decided to live biblically. That is, he lived his life, both in his actions and physical appearance, following the Bible as literally as possible.

For quite a few years now, part of my daily spiritual discipline is to read one chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures and one chapter of the New Testament. I get to the end and start over. I'm now on my fourth reading of the Hebrew Scriptures and tenth of the New Testament, and I thought it would be fun to reread this book now that I better understand what Jacobs was trying to do.

Here's the dichotomy of "The Year of Living Biblically": It's both hilarious and spiritually moving—at the same time.

Having grown up a secular Jew—no synagogue, no sabbath dinners, no bar mitzvah—Jacobs decided to read the Bible cover to cover and then try to live out its rules, regulations, and dictums as closely as possible. There are 613 Jewish commandments found mostly in the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jacobs calls himself agnostic, and he was curious as to whether living the Bible's rules would make him more spiritual and turn him into a believer as he was obeying the Ten Commandments, loving his neighbor, and tithing his income.

Unlike most people who believe the Bible literally, Jacobs's goal was not to pick and choose what to do, but to do it all, including stoning an adulterer, keeping the Sabbath, not wearing clothes of mixed fibers, blowing the shofar on the first of the month, visiting a (real) Samaritan, and playing a 10-string lyre. Yes, some of it is farfetched and attention-getting and a lot of it is sarcastic (but never snarky), but almost all of it is enlightening as he tries to live a life where the ultra-religious customs of Abraham's day clash directly with the mores of the secular 21st century.

He split the quest into two parts. He devoted eight months of the year to the Old Testament, and four months to the New Testament, which included consulting with and interviewing experts, including rabbis, ministers, priests, and scholars of all persuasions—from ultra-conservative to liberal. He ponders big questions, such as how can the Bible be so wise as well as so barbaric? And he considers the seemingly impossible, such as how to make an animal sacrifice on the streets of New York City in 2007, how to become a shepherd, and how to best eat locusts. (He succeeds with all three!)

To look the part, he grew his beard, which became an unruly bird's nest (no trimming allowed!), wore only white clothing, strapped a paper with the Ten Commandments to his forehead every day and adorned his clothes with tassels—all following ancient Jewish law. Then he went about his business in New York, including his day job as a writer for Esquire magazine.

The funniest parts of the book are the reactions he gets from strangers, friends, and family, but no one is funnier in this book than his beleaguered wife, Julie, who must put up with so much!

And then this happens: Jacobs unexpectedly becomes closer to God, discovering the wisdom and poetry of the Bible, finding solace in prayer and meditation, and immersing himself in the mystery of God and the universe. Is he still an agnostic in the end? You'll have to read the book to find out.
The Funeral Cryer: A Novel
by Wenyan Lu
So Disappointing! A Thin Plot, One-Dimensional Characters, and a Stilted, Jarring Writing Style (1/30/2024)
With stilted, almost awkward writing, a thin plot, and one-dimensional characters, this dark and sorrowful book by Wenyan Lu is a disappointment because it has the potential to be so much more.

Taking place in modern-day China but in a remote, rural village that hangs on to the old customs, this is the story of a middle-aged woman who is never named. None of the characters is named except for a few who are given nicknames. The woman is married to a man she refers to as "the husband," and they have one grown daughter, who lives in Shanghai. It is a loveless marriage, bordering on abusive. The husband is unemployed. She works as a funeral cryer. It is her job to lead the mourners in crying. Meanwhile, she suspects her husband, who spends his time playing mahjong, of having an affair with a woman named Hotpot, while she herself is making eyes at the local barber. Because of her job as a funeral cryer, she is thought to bring bad luck and to smell of the dead. She experiences discrimination from others' superstitions about death—so much so that she is refused admittance to her father's nursing home and is ostracized by those in the village.

The underlying theme of the book is death and dying—our fears, anxieties, and trepidations. Being surrounded by death weighs on the woman, and eventually she decides to live a better life. Even though the novel was leading up to this all along, her change of heart is quite sudden, so it feels forced and implausible.

The writing style is characterized by short, jarring sentences and abrupt paragraph changes, while the dialogue is stilted and boring and often doesn't serve to move the story forward, focusing on the mundane aspects of life.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
by Hallie Rubenhold
An Important and Fascinating Fact-Filled Entry into the Myths of Jack the Ripper and His Victims (1/18/2024)
Jack the Ripper, a brutal, evil, psychotic murderer who stalked the foggy nighttime streets of London's East End slums in 1888 is the stuff of legend. He was never caught and still hasn't been identified more than 135 years later. And the women he killed? Oh, they were just prostitutes, most would say. That too, is a myth.

Who were these unfortunate women? There were at least five, possibly more. The five "canonical" murders ("canonical" meaning recognized or authoritative in this case) took place in September and November 1888, and this prodigiously researched book by Hallie Rubenhold does what history has ignored until now: Elucidates these women's stories as daughters, wives, and mothers and gives them names and faces and lives.

The introduction, which is titled "A Tale of Two Cities," explains what life was like in London in 1887 when Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee—50 years wearing the crown—and what life was like in the underbelly of the city, namely in the notorious slums of the East End. It is in the introduction that author Hallie Rubenhold describes the grisly murders of the women, all of whom were killed in their sleep. And that is all we hear about the ghoulish killings. The rest of the book focuses on the lives and loves, the joys and sufferings of the five women.

Their names are Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Find out fascinating facts:
• Only one of the women was a prostitute (Mary Jane Kelly, who was murdered in November, while all the others were murdered in September), but all of them were alcoholics and all either had failed marriages or no marriage. All were on their own without a husband, a dangerous and precarious hardship in this age. There is no hard evidence that the first four of them were prostitutes; the police made that assumption when their bodies were found in a dark yard or street. Find out what it was like to live their lives as single women without male protection.

• Because the police were so convinced the women were prostitutes, the entire investigation was slanted that way and absolutely tainted. Worse, they ignored the one thing the five homicides did have in common!

• Find out how the focus of the murder investigations became a moral inquiry to the women's lives.

• Learn about the horrific reality of what it meant to live in the East End, especially Whitechapel, the most notorious and sordid of the London slums and where all the Jack the Ripper murders occurred. It was here that an entire family might inhabit one eight-foot by eight-foot room that was infested with vermin along with broken windows and damp walls. Outside there were stagnant pools of disease-breeding water, slicks of sewage, and rubbish-filled roads.

• Find out what it was like to be a woman, especially an unmarried woman, at a time when women had no voice, few rights, and just by being poor they would be labeled lazy and degenerate—or worse. This is how history has viewed these five murder victims, which is almost as great a crime as that committed by Jack the Ripper.

Bonus: Be sure to read the final chapter titled "Just Prostitutes" for the author's impassioned and eloquent opinions as to why the victims were labeled as prostitutes and how the story of Jack the Ripper is a narrative of a killer's deep and abiding hatred of women.

My heart broke for these five women and the tragedies that led them to Whitechapel with lives so precarious that they had no idea where they would eat next or sleep that night. This is an important and fascinating fact-filled entry into the myths of Jack the Ripper and his unfortunate victims.
Five Tuesdays in Winter
by Lily King
An Impressive Collection of Short Stories: From the Delightful to the Dark, Each One is a Gem (1/17/2024)
I read a lot of short story collections, and it's rare that almost all the stories in the collection are excellent. This is one of those rare collections. Each of the 10 stories has a compelling plot, characters that seem real, and just the right amount of tension or conflict to keep the reader interested.

My favorites (and it was hard to choose!):
• "Creature": This is the story of a 14-year-old girl whose parents are in a messy divorce. She takes a two-week job as a mother's helper for two children ages four and two while they visit their grandmother in a posh Massachusetts mansion. All is well until the grandmother's married son appears, and then some confusing things happen to Carol. (The ending is perfect!)

• "Five Tuesdays in Winter": This is a love story taking place in a bookstore between Mitchell, a curmudgeonly, taciturn divorced man in his 40s and Kate, a younger woman in her 30s. Mitchell's extraverted 12-year-old daughter, Paula, is a wonderful foil between Mitchell and Kate. It's brilliant.

• "When in Dordogne": Ed and Grant, two college students spend the summer with a young teenage boy while his somewhat emotionally-detached parents travel to Dordogne, France in the hopes of alleviating his father's clinical depression. It's an eye-opening adventure for the boy, including a first kiss with a special girl.

Some of the stories are just delightful to read, while others are emotionally searing. Relationships are complicated. Love isn't always easy. A few of the stories are dark and one is somewhat violent, but they all offer a greater meaning and important life lessons. Each one is a gem written in prose that demands to be savored.
Unlikely Animals: A Novel
by Annie Hartnett
Quirky and Absurd: A Highly Imaginative, Colorful, Roller-Coaster of a Novel That I Highly Recommend (1/15/2024)
Quirky and whimsical. Peculiar and absurd. Is there a genre for eccentric literature? That's the best way to describe this highly imaginative novel by Annie Hartnett that almost gave me whiplash with the many sudden shifts, changes, twists, and turns of the characters and the plot. Readers, fasten your seatbelt!

This is the story of Emma Starling, who grew up in the very small town of Everton, New Hampshire. Her 68-year-old father, Clive, is a poetry professor at the local Meriden College and wears his gray hair in a braided ponytail, sports numerous tattoos (some of which he inked himself), and drives a motorcycle with a sidecar. Her mother, Ingrid, is 16 years younger than her husband and is a librarian at Meriden College, president of the Everton Historical Society, and the sole caretaker of a local historical mansion and its extensive grounds; she is Clive's fourth wife, and the first to bear him children. Emma's younger brother, Auggie, is a recovering drug addict, who lives at home without a job or real purpose.

When the book opens, Emma, 22, is returning home for Thanksgiving from Los Angeles where she attended college and is supposedly in medical school. On her way from the airport in her rental car, she picks up a hitchhiker—a big white dog she names Moses. Her father is dying from a mysterious brain disease that causes hallucinations, forgetfulness, and tremors. He was recently fired from his job when he hallucinated dozens of cats crawling around his classroom and in his panic inappropriately touched one of his female students. Clive hallucinates a lot, mostly animals but also the ghost of naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes, the real-life Doctor Doolittle of New Hampshire, who gives Clive some weird ideas of what to do with his last months on Earth, including helping him order a pet fox from Russia that he names Rasputin.

In addition to having to face her father's final illness, Emma has a big secret that she needs to confess to her parents: Although she was admitted to medical school at UCLA, she got scared and never showed up. Emma was pushed into being a doctor because ever since her birth, the townspeople have believed she has magic healing hands—something the town called "The Charm," but what is also known as charismata iamaton. Meanwhile, Clive is obsessed with finding Crystal Nash, Emma's best friend from high school, who is a heroin addict and has seemingly disappeared. Or is she dead?

Auggie's drug habit, which began with legitimately prescribed opioids for a high school football injury and turned into a heroin addiction, is mirrored many times over in this little town. Emma gets a job as a long-term substitute teacher at the elementary school because the teacher is on leave as her husband, the local used car salesman, is on trial for dealing drugs. There are only eight children in the fifth-grade class, but there should be nine: One of the little girls recently died of leukemia. And, of course, just to add something else to this complicated plot, Emma is falling hard for the former high school hunk who is now a biology teacher at the school.

And there is more! Included in this small New England town is an enclosed, private park of 26,000 acres that is populated by a wide variety of animals, most of which are not native to New Hampshire. It was fenced in 135 years ago by a 19th century robber baron as his grand retirement project. Several anonymous millionaires now own and vacation inside the park, commuting in and out to their hunting cabins by private helicopter.

Here's the quirkiest feature of all: The omniscient narrators of the book—much like a Greek chorus—are the dead people in the town's Maple Street Cemetery.

Whew! See what I mean about literary whiplash? But I give author Annie Hartnett big kudos for making this absurd roller coaster of a book come to a complete and safe stop by ensuring that the loose ends and weird wanderings all fit together in a most fun and enjoyable way. The ending is perfect!

This is a highly imaginative novel with colorful characters and a tragic/comic storyline that borders on hectic it's so busy, but it's always delightful with underlying messages and wisdom about the angst of guilt and shame, the pain and loneliness of grief, and the value of life and love.

More than anything, it is a love letter to animals—from frogs to foxes and bears to boars. Highly recommended!

Bonus: Do read the author's note at the end to find out what (surprisingly!) is true in this novel that apparently is all in the author's imagination.
Young Mungo
by Douglas Stuart
A Literary Triumph: A Brilliant, Brutal, and Tragic Gay Love Story That Broke My Heart Over and Over (1/11/2024)
This book is brilliant...and brutal. It's a magnificent gay love story wrapped around horrific, shuddering violence. It is deeply profound with a storyline that is heartbreaking, tragic, and difficult to read. And I couldn't put it down.

Masterfully written by Booker Prize-winner Douglas Stuart, this is the story of Mungo Hamilton, a 15-year-old Protestant boy living in the east end of Glasgow, Scotland, who comes from nothing. No money, little love, and lots of uncertainty and instability. His mother, Mo-Maw, is an alcoholic who takes up with men and moves in with them, temporarily abandoning her three teenage children. Mungo's older brother, Hamish, is the father of a baby with his 15-year-old girlfriend and alternates living at home and in his girlfriend's mother's flat. He is a gang leader, callously sadistic, and has physically and psychologically brutalized Mungo for years, often forcing him to participate in his bloody and brutal gang fights. Jodie, Mungo's older sister, is the only constant in his life. She is smart, she loves Mungo, and she cares for him like a mother even though she is only a year older than Mungo.

Mungo has grown up without friends, but one day he meets James Jamieson, a Catholic boy his own age with his own heartbreaking story to tell. James raises pigeons in a shanty-like doocot (dovecote) as a way to escape his otherwise bleak life. The two become friends—well, more than friends. And for the first time ever, Mungo is happy. But their love must be a deeply guarded secret, not only because they are gay but also because one is Catholic and one is Protestant.   

This tightly nuanced novel has two distinct storylines adeptly woven into each other. One tells the story of Mungo's life in the low-income housing tenements on the wrong side of Glasgow while the other tells of a weekend fishing trip his mother arranges for him to take with two of her creepy acquaintances from Alcoholics Anonymous, both of whom were recently released from prison for sex crimes. Mungo is gay, and while he has come to privately accept this, his mother thinks this fishing weekend will make a man of him. But things go terribly, shockingly, irreversibly wrong, turning what had been up to that point a coming-of-age/love story into a violent thriller.

Bonus: Do read Douglas Stuart's short essay, "The Birdmen of Glasgow" at the end of the book that was first published in Literary Hub in April 2022. It's a fascinating look at growing up in the east end of Glasgow (the setting of the book) and the "doo men" who raised pigeons in doocots all over the edges of the housing tenements.

One note: The novel's dialogue is in vernacular Scottish, and most of it was easy to figure out—even though I had never seen these words before. That said, when I couldn't decipher/translate a word, the Kindle dictionary/Wikipedia helped and failing that, Google came to the rescue.

And a warning: Violence permeates this novel, and it is graphic. Just know that before you choose to read this book.

This book truly is a literary triumph. With vivid, colorful characters and a bold, multilayered storyline that doesn't shy from the truth, this is a remarkable and compelling novel that seared my heart and soul. It is a terribly sad and elegiac book that is emotionally devastating in places, so read with caution.
The Vaster Wilds: A Novel
by Lauren Groff
A Daring Literary Achievement: No Plot, One Character, a Very Sad Ending…and I Couldn't Stop Reading (1/10/2024)
I will confess right from the get-go that Lauren Groff is one of my favorite authors. If she writes it, I read it. That said, while I am in awe of the literary power of this book, it is not for everyone.

There is no plot. There is only one character, and she doesn't have a name other than "Girl," although she is sometimes called Lamentations Callat, Wench, or Zed. Much of the narrative reads and feels like a fever dream. And the ending is sad…so very, very sad.

It's the early 1600s. Girl, who is about 16 or 17 years old, flees in the middle of a frigid winter night from an early colonial American settlement, probably Jamestown. Everyone is starving. People are dying of hunger and disease. She steals the boots of a boy who died of smallpox and swipes her mistress's heavy cloak. Into a sack she packs a pewter cup, a flint, a knife, a hatchet, and two lice-infested brown coverlets. And off she goes, running as fast as she can in the hopes she can escape before they come looking for her. She knows they will come searching, and if they find her, it will be a violent end. So she must get away—fast. Because what she did is not forgivable.

Girl survives by her wits, battling nature from winter's cold to wild beasts, battling herself and her body's need for food, water, warmth, and rest, and battling man, including one who tries to stone her to death. Taking place over a few weeks, the novel is the story of her flight and survival through the wilderness as she tries to walk to Canada (without any real idea of where she is going), as well as numerous flashbacks to her life in England and her life in the colonial settlement. Until she was four years old, she was in an orphanage/poorhouse in England when she was purchased by a family needing a servant. The mistress treats her kindly, adopting her as a kind of pet, but the teenage son abuses her horribly. The mistress is widowed, and her second husband, a minister, takes the family to the New World against their wishes.

Deftly written in a way that makes prose seem like poetry, this is a book to be savored and reread. It is not suspenseful, it is not a page-turner, but it is captivating and almost seductive. I felt Girl's fear, her body's cold, her hunger, her determination, and her courage. I felt like I was out there in the dark forests with her as she trudged north, as she slowly reveals her secrets to the reader.

This novel is an inspired tribute to the power of the individual to choose a life that is different from the community, to forge a path that no one else has taken, to live a new life. Lauren Groff has written what I can only describe as a daring literary achievement.
Old God's Time: A Novel
by Sebastian Barry
A Profound, Extraordinary Work of Fiction, but Oh, It Is a Dark and Desolate Tale (12/21/2023)
This is a profound, extraordinary work of literary fiction, but it's not easy to read for two reasons. First, it is written in a kind of stream of consciousness that flits from one thought to another and then back again. Second, the subject matter—Irish Catholic priests sexually abusing young boys and girls—is abhorrent, but a vitally important tale to tell.

Masterfully written by Sebastian Barry, this book, which was longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, tells the life story of Thomas Kettle. We meet Tom at age 66 in the 1990s as he is settling into a lovely retirement flat attached to a Victorian castle overlooking a busy harbor in Dalkey, a suburb of Dublin. Tom has retired after working for decades as a garda (police officer). He is a widower; he and his beloved wife, June, had two children. Winnie studied to be an attorney, and Joe became a doctor and moved to a remote part of New Mexico to care for the indigenous population there.

Tom and June were both orphans, growing up without parents or siblings and knowing nothing of their birth origins. They have one other awful thing in common: Both were sexually abused by priests serving their orphanages, and it is this destructive, depressive legacy they both carry into adulthood and their marriage.

One night, about nine months after Tom has moved into his little flat, two men knock on his door. They are with the police department and have come seeking his expert assistance on a 30-year-old unsolved cold case. A priest had been brutally murdered in the 1960s, and the police are hoping modern-day forensics might help solve it. This crime catapults Tom back into time, dredging up all sorts of memories he thought he had buried. But what is real? What is imagined? And what is dreamed?

This is a book about aging, memory, and the meaning of life. The phrase "old God's time" means a period beyond memory, and this is such a perfect title for the book as Tom ventures ominously into his own old God's time and place. Oh, this is a dark and desolate tale, but it is so brilliantly written that I was smitten with the words, the language, and the meaning.

Just be aware: The descriptions of priest-abuse of very young children are quite graphic and extremely disturbing, but essential to the story.
The Soul of a Woman
by Isabel Allende
A Hybrid of a Book: Part Memoir, Part Feminist Manifesto, Part Meditation, Part Romantic Advice (12/19/2023)
This book is a hybrid: part memoir, part feminist manifesto, part meditation, and part romantic advice. It's a bit of everything!

Written by the brilliant novelist Isabel Allende, this short nonfiction book primarily examines the role of women in society, as well as offering powerful, but concise, life lessons. And for the most part, it's excellent. That said, there are times, especially in the last third of the book, that the text rambles and is a bit disjointed.

Allende's take on feminism is slightly different than so many others I have read. She is by her own definition a romantic feminist. Married three times, including the last time in her 70s, she is a woman who believes in romantic love and how it enriches her life. The life lessons in the book are wide-ranging, including her candid thoughts not only romance, but also sex, aging, motherhood, the patriarchy, family, and the power of female friendship.

And this may make curious men want to read this book: Isabel Allende reveals what women want the most. And it's exactly right!
The House Is on Fire
by Rachel Beanland
Magnificent Storytelling! A Riveting Tale of Tragedy, Heroism, and Redemption That Is Unputdownable (12/13/2023)
This riveting story of tragedy, heroism, and the power of redemption is magnificent storytelling about a dark time in our nation's history.

Written by Rachel Beanland, this is a fictionalized account of the true story of the horrific fire that destroyed the only theater in Richmond, Virginia on December 26, 1811 with more than 600 men, women, and children inside—dozens of whom were trapped and perished in the flames and smoke.

Ingeniously plotted, it is told from the point of view of four different people:
• Sally Henry Campbell: Now a young widow, the daughter of Patrick Henry attends the play with her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Archie and Margaret Campbell, sitting in a third-floor box along with about a dozen other people.

• Jack Gibson: A 14-year-old working backstage, whose actions cause the deadly fire.

• Cecily Patterson: A young slave who accompanied her mistress to the play but sat in the gallery with the other slaves and freed Blacks. She escapes the fire but realizes that if her master and mistress assume she has died, this is her chance to run away to the north.

• Gilbert Hunt: A middle-aged slave and blacksmith who is a giant of a man—in body and heart. When he hears about the fire, he races to the site and heroically saves about a dozen women by catching them as they jump out the windows.

The story is plotted daily from the night of the fire on Thursday, December 26 to Sunday, December 29, following historical events through the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the four characters. As officials try to discern the cause of the fire, the theater company tries to cover it up, blaming it on a nonexistent slave rebellion, which in turn creates mayhem for the local slave population.

Meanwhile, Sally comes to a startling conclusion about why so many of the 72 people who died that night were women, and Cecily's plans to run away may be thwarted as she involves her family with potentially deadly consequences for them. Gilbert Hunt is lauded as a hero, but his cruel master is disgusted and appalled at the adulation and takes it out on Gilbert. Jack is tormented between supporting the lies started by the theater company about the slave rebellion causing the fire and confessing his own guilt in the matter.

This is historical fiction at its finest! The plot is riveting, and the writing is superb. Each chapter focuses on one of the four characters, and it doesn't take long for those chapters to end in cliffhangers, making this one of those unputdownable books.

Bonus: Do read the fascinating Author's Note at the end as it details many facts about the fire and its aftermath years later.
Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World
by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter
What a Treasure! It Made Me Smile, It Made Me Tear Up (a Lot!), but Most of All It Touched My Heart (12/10/2023)
Oh, this book is a little treasure. It made me smile and it made me tear up (a lot!), but most of all, it touched my heart. If you love cats, reading, and libraries—or any one of those—this is a must-read.

Written by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter, this is the astonishing and heartwarming story of a fluffy orange cat named Dewey Readmore Books. Vicky Myron was the director of the Spencer (Iowa) Public Library, and on a frigidly cold morning in January 1988, she found an 8-week-old kitten someone had stuffed into the library after-hours book return box. After a bath, warm blankets, cuddles, and food, the kitten was transformed from a gray, shivering mass to a fluffy orange kitten that captured everyone's heart. It was decided that they would keep the kitten, and its home would be the library.

This book is the story of Dewey, a cat with an outsized personality whose goal in life was to greet everyone who came into the library and then make each person fall in love with him. The individual stories of Dewey's antics are precious, especially how he deals with disabled children, lonely seniors, staid businessmen in fussy suits, and feisty children.

As much as this book is about Dewey, it is also about the author's unlikely and difficult path to library work, the challenges facing all libraries, especially small-town libraries, and the difficulties endured by Heartland communities that have traditionally relied on family farms as their economic driver. Most of all, it is a tender love letter to libraries and their vital importance to the health and welfare of communities.

Bonus: The book is filled with pithy life advice all based on how Dewey acts towards people and makes them feel. Here is my favorite:
"Find your place. Be happy with what you have. Treat everyone well. Live a good life. It isn't about material things; it's about love. And you can never anticipate love."

This is a delightful, almost magical book I will long remember.

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BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.