Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (2018)

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In her latest book, prize-winning author Barbara Kingsolver (whose book Prodigal Summer I adore, read a review here: https://wp.me/p6N6mT-pZ  ) ties together two stories: one modern family saga and one taking place at the dawn of scientific modernity, the 1870’s.

Our modern main character is Willa Knox. She and her extended family, who are forced to move to a dilapidated house (inherited from a deceased Aunt) in Vineland, NJ after a series of financial and emotional disasters. Willa’s circumstances have left her exhausted and furious: both she and her husband — after years of hard work and education — have been laid off. He is now under-employed and she not at all. To make matters worse, they were evicted from previous home and upon moving to Vineland, have become the care-takers of her severely ill father-in-law; her adult daughter who has left college to drift between menial jobs; her newly-widowed adult son and his months-old son.

The family’s financial state continues to deteriorate after the move: medical bills, repairs, expenses for caring for the infant, debits now coming due from everyone in the house; pushing Willa to her limit. How in the world will they manage? Will she spend the rest of her prime years caring for a baby and (abusive, ungrateful) dying man? If the house collapses, will the six of them be homeless? Where is the “better” life she was always told was just around the corner?

In a desperate search for any information that might help the family, Willa enters the town’s historical society and learns that it is possible her home was once lived in by a very famous female scientist named Mary Treat. Mary was a respected biologist whose research (often published under her husband’s name) hugely influenced Darwin, Asa, and several other modern scientists. The thought that enters Willa’s mind: is her home was once Mary’s perhaps a grant or gift to preserve it might save them all.

In the alternate chapters, we travel to Vineland, NJ circa the 1870’s to meet Mary Treat and her neighbors, the Greenwood’s. Mary is a vibrant woman, defiant of societal norms imposed on women, diligently conducting multiple scientific studies about the flora and fauna of New Jersey, and staunchly defending the (at the time) widely reviled theory of evolution put forth by her colleague, Charles Darwin. Defending scientific modernity was still a risky endeavour at the time, as it was seen as a challenge to both the church and to the “common sense of man.” How could unseen forces (such as molecules or gasses) be affecting man? What could humans have in common with insects? How could plants be beneficial, beyond providing food?

In the face of this wide-spread ignorance, Mary must continue her work. Falling under her spell is her neighbor, Thatcher Greenwood. An idealistic science teacher from Boston with hopes of teaching the young minds of Vineland about the amazing natural world around them. Thatcher is frustrated and disgusted to learn that his ideas about modern science are considered blasphemous and are not allowed to be taught at the local high-school. Mary becomes his only ally in his defense of science. However, Mary is a woman with some financial resources, some powerful colleagues, and international fame. She can, to some degree, manage to upset the local authorities with her work. Thatcher Greenwood cannot. He is responsible for a household of women for whom nothing is as important as conformity. If he stands up to his employer, he risks the livelihood of his entire family. The closer he grows to Mary, the more ardent he becomes a supporter of theories of modern science.

Exploring political and social themes that marked the late 1870s and today — such as political powers that exploit the working class, authorities denying scientific evidence, and the worsening gap between the rich and poor — Kingsolver tries to uncover reasons so many to fight violently for the status quo, refusing to change with the changing times. People must evolve too, they must adapt to new ideas, new realities, and be willing to flexible about what the future may hold for them. The future is coming, whether we are ready or not.

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Blue Monday by Nicci French (2011)

Book #1 in the Frieda Klein Series

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Frieda Klein is a gifted psychoanalyst living in London seeing patients in her private practice and in a free clinic. She is presented to readers in very small doses, with the vast majority of her thoughts, feelings, and past kept from us as the story unfolds. This novel, it seems, is not the time to share Frieda’s story, but rather to share Alan Decker’s.

Alan Decker is a patient that is thrust upon Frieda when a colleague of hers finds himself in the midst of his own mental crisis. Displeased to have to take on a client without warning, and knowing she must tread carefully because Alan Decker is a volatile man who was deeply hurt by her fellow doctor negligence, she nonetheless agrees to see him.

Alan is a man whose life has been suddenly controlled by crippling anxiety attacks, mood swings, and terrifying mental images. He is obsessed with becoming a father, which Frieda originally assumes is related to the stress that he and his wife are under trying to conceive. Quickly though she realizes that his obsession is not with becoming a father generally, but with becoming the father on one, very specific, five-year-old boy. Alan has visions of a boy that are crystal clear: what he looks like, what toys he favors, his personality and his exact age: five and a half.

The clarity of these visions startles Frieda, but it is not until a small boy who fits the exact description of Alan’s yearned-for son goes missing from his primary school, that she becomes alarmed. Tormented by thoughts that Alan may have taken the boy, Frieda goes to the police.

Frazzled and under enormous pressure to find the missing boy, the lead detective on the case, Karlsson, lashes out of Frieda for bringing him these unsubstantiated claims about Alan. He is on the verge of throwing her out when she mentions that Alan had a similar “attack” 22 years earlier, but that time, Frieda tells Karlsson, he had been obsessed with being the father of a five-year-old girl.

This stops Karlsson in his tracks. The only case in all of London that police analysts have linked to the missing boy was a 22-year-old cold case of a missing girl named Joanna. Although largely unsure how Alan’s visions, Frieda notes, the cold case and the missing boy all fit together, Karlsson feels convinced they connect and are currently his only lead. He makes an agreement with Frieda, if he investigates Alan, would she be willing to analyze Joanna’s sister — Rose, now 30 — who was with the little girl when she went missing, to see if a repressed memory of the abduction is lingering in her subconscious.

Everything about this agreement is unsettling to Frieda, the missing boy, Alan, and the non-traditional therapy with Rose, but she agrees with Karlsson; there really seems to be something connecting these people and events and she cannot turn her back.

 

 

 

The Witch Elm by Tana French (2018)

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Toby Hennessy is a lucky man, even he would freely admit to it. The first 28 years of his life had been trauma (and drama) free. He grew up in a loving family that happened to have plenty of money to help ease his way through life. He was educated, well-employed, and in love with a wonderful woman. In fact, things had always gone so smoothly for Toby, that he often found he could bend the rules — just a bit, here and there — without consequences. Until, of course, his luck changed.

In short order, Toby intentionally defrauds his employer and is caught. Then, he is brutally attacked and left for dead inside his Dublin apartment. When he wakes, life as he has known it is over.

The attack severely injured Toby’s brain, leaving him partially paralyzed, unable to talk without slurring, and nearly incapable of  processing information or making decisions. Additionally, he is suffering from PTSD and crippling anxiety caused by knowing that the men who attacked him have not been caught by the police. After weeks of care, Toby leaves the hospital hardly recognizable to his family and friends.

When months pass and his recovery is stalling out and his mental health deteriorating quickly, Toby begins to worry that he may not be able to survive the world on his own. Then, a call from a cousin changes everything.

Their beloved Uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer and needs someone to live with him and help care for him in his final months. The family wants Toby to move to Hugo’s large ancestral manor house outside of the city to become his Uncle’s companion.

Toby initially refuses, certain that his inability to care for himself precludes him from caring for Hugo. Once persuaded that he was the only one for the job, he agrees. Although the change is grueling: new routines, larger house and grounds to maneuver, new things to learn and try to remember, Toby finds himself relaxing for the first time since the attack.

Being back in the beloved Ivy House with a favorite uncle is healing in ways he never expected. Both men are struggling to walk, talk, and remember, but together they create simple and calm routines that suit them both. Away from the city, Toby’s fears about crime diminish and having to care for his uncle keeps the worst of his anxieties at bay.

Toby is — almost, almost — lulled into complacency once again. He feels that this new life might be manageable and he might just recover after all. Everything bad that could happen, has, he believes. Things can only improve. Of course, he is wrong again.

When the remains of a missing person are found in the gardens at Ivy House, the entire family is thrown into chaos. No one, more than Toby; whose fragile mental state, shoddy memory, and physical limitations grow worse as the police investigation unfolds.

Slowly, connections between Toby’s past, his attack in the summer, the body begin to form. Is it possible that the robbery on his apartment was not random? Could the body be connected to something Toby did as a younger man; one of those pranks he brushed off as harmless? Most importantly, can the damaged, fragile Toby handle the new nightmares that were coming his way?

Tana French is a wonderful author, but one whose work I do not always connect with. (I love her book The Likeness, reviewed here https://wp.me/p6N6mT-32E ). This book, although slow to start, is worth sticking with through the twists and turns. (Be warned: some of her “how I did it” speeches are long-winded.) Her flawed, damaged main character adds a layer of complexity to the story and the setting and atmosphere — the crumbling manor house, the start of chilly Autumn — are spot on. Enjoy!

Happy Halloween! The Scariest Books I’ve Read this Year!

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A little Halloween reading humor courtesy of the Far Side by Gary Larson

Happy Halloween! In honor of one of my favorite nights of the year, here is a list of some of the best spooky and scary books I have read this year…enjoy!

Ink and Bone (https://wp.me/p6N6mT-33S ) and In The Blood (https://wp.me/p6N6mT-34d ) both by a master of scary novels, Lisa Unger, were the two best thrillers I read this year. All of her novels are amazing, but these two kept me up at night. Highly recommended! Reviews of nearly all of Unger’s books can be found following the tag “Lisa Unger” on this site.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (https://wp.me/p6N6mT-363 ) is a twisty, complicated, and extraordinarily well-written book about the dark relationship between two highly competitive women. Everything by Abbott is worth reading; reviews of several of her books can be found by clicking the “Megan Abbott” tag on this site.

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich ( https://wp.me/p6N6mT-33s ) is a science-fiction dystopia in which evolution has been thrown off course and the future of humanity is in flux. Women who are of child-bearing age suddenly find themselves the property of the government, including the main character who seeks help from her Native American relatives.

The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (https://wp.me/p6N6mT-35j ) is the first book in the Joona Linda series by this Swedish author. A serial killer is on the loose and a now-disgraced hypnotist might be the only person who can unlock secrets locked inside one of the surviving victims. Scary, fast-paced, and intense!

In The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn (https://wp.me/p6N6mT-35g ) an agrophobe with a drug and alcohol problem witnesses a murder but has an almost impossible time getting anyone to take her seriously. The more she insists that she did witness a woman’s death, the more her own life is put in jeopardy.

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter (https://wp.me/p6N6mT-33V ) is a well-written legal thriller that has subtle echoes of The Crucible. Now a prominent lawyer, the main character  returns to her small town — facing an abusive father and high school bullies still holding a grudge — and stirs up a ton of trouble when she opens an investigation into a company that employs most of the town.

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@ Far Side by Gary Larson

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@ Far Side by Gary Larson

 

 

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (2018)

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“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them. Every day he was reminded of their grit, their courage in the face of obstacles, the quiet grace with which they shouldered their troubles. They were stronger than any man he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger then the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they had designed laws specifically to keep women down.” 325

A mentally unstable, religious fanatic enters a women’s health center — the last center in the state of Mississippi that offers abortions — with a gun and opens fire. What follows is a blood bath, for certain, but also the author’s exploration of the private lives some of many, many women (and men) who visit, work at, and rely on women’s health centers across the country.

Going a step further, Picoult also attempts to explore the rationale behind the pro-life protestors who work tirelessly (outside the clinic and in the Mississippi state legislator) to block access to abortions; the mindset of the loved ones of the women who visit the Center; and even the women who cannot get care at places such as the Center and the dire choices that they face due to lack of access.

“[The doctor] imagined what it felt like for them — to have made a decision that came at a colossal emotional and financial cost — and then to have that decision called into question. Not to mention the implication that they were not capable of managing their own healthcare…Those white men with their signs and slogans were not really there for the unborn, but there for the women who carried them. They couldn’t control women’s sexual independence. This the next best thing.” 58

When George Goddard drives hours from his home in rural Mississippi to the Center in Jackson, he has only divine vengeance on his mind. His reasoning: the people in the clinic end lives and, as a punishment, God has ordained him to end theirs. He has no real understanding of what happens in the clinic — despite his pastor’s attempts to convince George that is is a factory in which women are unwillingly forced to have gruesome and nearly fatal abortions — and so the situation he finds inside the Center is confusing for him.

“[George] had pictured himself like an avenging angel, swollen to comic-book-hero proportions, bursting through the doors of the clinic and leaving destruction in his wake. Revenge, in theory, throbbed with adrenaline and was clean with conviction. In reality, it was rushing into a house on fire and forgetting to map out your exit.” 103

He does not find a torture chamber, staffed with evil doctors; but instead a small women’s clinic, staffed when nurses, social workers, doctors. The Center is being visited not by those imagined “loose and immoral women,” but regular women. Some of those women are there for abortions, but George cannot make sense of the others– some very young, some much older than he expected — who are there for other types of care. This confusion does not stop George from firing into the clinic: killing many, leaving some wounded, and taking the rest of the people hostage. He is not there to try to understand the other side of the issue, he is there to play God.

As readers get to know the people inside and outside of the Center, Picoult begins to introduce some of the many, many paths that have led them there on this fatal, terrible afternoon. There is the doctor, who performs abortions in the hope that he will spare women the terrible fate that befell his own mother, who bled to death trying to end a pregnancy that could have led to her being lynched. Or the elderly cancer patient, who is seeking care from a old friend, a women who just happens to be a nurse at the Center. There is a young girl, trying to do the right thing and get on birth control before becoming sexually active and her caring Aunt who brought her. There is a woman there to have an abortion to preserve her dreams of finishing school and building a future; and even a pro-life activist who thought to expose the Center as illegal, who instead finds herself inside a totally unexpected nightmare.

The story is told in reverse, with the final moments of the stand-off opening the story and the author, slowly, slowly reversing time, revealing to readers what led George and the hostages to be in the Center that day.

Picoult is attempting to humanize the extremely complicated issues surrounding abortion; to move the dialogue from “right versus wrong” and try to show readers that reasons for abortion are are diverse as the women who seek them. She also attempts to show that women’s health centers — like the Center in the book — are often closed or so highly regulated that life-saving healthcare for poor or rural women is eliminated. Her characters diversity are an effort to show that there is no “one kind” of woman who seeks to end a pregnancy; nor is abortion the only reason that women seek out services at places that offer them.

Notably almost all the characters in the book — even those who are pro-choice — seem in their hearts slightly conflicted about whether terminating their pregnancies is the right thing to do. I feel that this oversight eliminates the point of view of the millions of women who aren’t the least bit conflicted about abortions: the women who have them without regret, for whom the only emotion they feel afterward is relief. If the picture is to be complete, then we must extend all women’s points of view into the dialogue in order to prevent readers from assuming that it is always — at least a little bit — the wrong decision.

Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich (2009)

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Stephanie Plum series #14.5 (an in between the novels, novel)

Just in time for Halloween, I packed my battered paperback copy of Plum Spooky to read on vacation. I am a unabashed fan of Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels: even though the are anti-intellectual, irreverent, and often down-right ridiculous, I cannot resist reading (and re-reading) them. They are always great fun!

In Plum Spooky, the largely inept bounty hunter and trouble-magnet Stephanie Plum is back for more hilarious attempts at bringing Trenton, New Jersey’s low-rent criminals to justice. This Halloween, however, things are more complicated than usual. Along with her usual side-kicks — a prostitute turned file clerk, an Army Ranger turned security expert, and her sassy grandma — this time Stephanie is paired up with Diesel, a mysterious (and possibly magical) man who needs her help to find out exactly what is happening in the Jersey Pine Barrens. Oh, Stephanie and Diesel bring a mischievous monkey along with him, just to keep things interesting.

Reluctant to get involved in a wackier-than-usual situation, Stephanie finds that she cannot resist helping solve this extra spooky mystery. It doesn’t hurt the Diesel is super sexy and definitely interested in Stephanie. The rag-tag team of misfits heads into the autumn woods determined to solve whether the Pine Barrens really are haunted once and for all…and hilarity ensues.

 

Harry Potter: My Favorite 7 Books of All Time!

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This week, I am traveling to Florida for an amazing third visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. The park is an absolute marvel and a must-visit for any Harry Potter fan. The world so richly and vibrantly conjured by JK Rowling comes to life in exquisite detail: from the Cornish pasties at the the Leaky Caldron to a weeping Moaning Myrtle in the girls bathroom…and everything in between. Due to scheduling conflicts, this trip to WWHP will feature only my husband and I (the kiddos, poor things, will have to stay home with grandma and go to school) and I have to admit we are thrilled to get to explore the park with the drama that three boys can bring and the endless snacks they require!

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In honor of the trip, I am posting some pictures from my previous trips to the park. Enjoy!

Tri Wizard Cup WWHP @ Uni

The Dragons Challenge roller coaster is now gone, but the walk through the ride was a trip into the TriWizard Cup!

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I cried the first time I stepped onto Platform 9 3/4. The ride on the train is a thrill: you become a student heading to Hogwarts along with all your favorite characters!

 

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They built Hogwarts! Need I say more??!

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They also build Gringotts, complete with a (spoiler) fire-breathing dragon on top.