Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt

wolvesThis is a complicated book. Its central character is 14 and has that bouncy back-and-forthness of wisdom and childhood coming out in lovely sentences like “That’s what being shy feels like. Like my skin is too thin, the light too bright. Like the best place I could possibly be is in a tunnel far under the cool, dark earth.”

The book is about June, her older sister Greta, their late Uncle Finn, and Finn’s partner Toby. Finn is June and Greta’s mother’s brother, and both adults are talented artists. But one is doing taxes and one is dying of AIDS. Like I said, it’s complicated.

The writing is beautiful. Some of the main points are kind of unbelievable–like two girls from Westchester can get up in the middle of the night and drive to Bellevue without their parents noticing, etc. But overall the emotional range of the characters and the plot driven by their needs, angers, and hopes holds up well. Everybody wants something. Not everybody can say what they want, or why they don’t want some of their other family members not to get what they want. That’s the point around which the action rotates.

If you like character-driven drama, you will love this book. If you remember ’80s AIDS–ignoring, exploring, deploring–you will love this book. If you have no patience with unresolved plot points, you might not. There are some loose threads left dangling, but as Stephen King says, “Life has a lot of those. Why shouldn’t writing?”

The weirdest part for me, but the part that many reviewers liked the most, is how the sisters used a painting their uncle had done of them to communicate with each other. Worth a lot on the art market, the girls deface it to send coded messages when words fail them. It was an intriguing take on the art book genre.

Overall, I love the way Brunt writes, and how intensely she draws her main characters. One paintbrush up for TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME.

 

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The Monday Book (series) GUEST AUTHOR WILLIE DALTON

ad picThis week’s Monday Book comes from my friend and fellow cat rescuer Willie Dalton. I don’t normally care for paranormal romance, but her series was so imaginative, based on such an interesting premise, that I read and enjoyed it tremendously.
“You’ll never guess what happens next…”
    That’s the tagline on my logo, and I tend to hold true to that.  In the writing world there are plotters, and there are pantsers, writers that write by the seat of their pants and wing it, I’m the latter. I’m usually just as surprised by the twists my books take as anyone who reads them. I like things this way though, I’d bore myself otherwise.
    My most recent works “The Gravedigger Series,” takes you on the journey of life and death through the eyes of Helena Pierce. Hel, is a small town gravedigger, following in the footsteps of her adopted dad, Ray. She’s tough, both physically, and emotionally from being in a male-dominated line of work. It surprises her as much as anyone when she falls in love with the mysterious Raphael who shows up in her cemetery one day and it makes it all the worse when she meets her own unexpected death soon after.
  Hel wakes up in the underworld and takes on the role of reaper, but there are no black cloaks and scythes, just another shovel. Now she’s digging people up from the other side of the grave so their souls can move on. Vampires roam the underworld, and a new lover has her intrigued but she can’t move past everything she left behind.
  In, “Digging Up the Dead,” and most recently, “Digging to Hell,” the underworld opens up even further and Hel finds herself in the presence of gods she thought only existed in myths. Was chance the driving force behind this life of death and heartache she knows so well, was it love, or was it fate?
  A lot of people ask me how I came up with the idea for this series. Sadly, it came from my other passion as a kitten rescuer. Many tiny kittens come to me each year, too fragile and weak to last more than a few hours, or days. I have spent many hours digging tiny graves and grieving for these lives that didn’t stand a chance. I’ve poured my blood, sweat, and tears into the ground to give these babies a final resting place while their spirits sprint over Rainbow Bridge. I found a solace in writing these books, and a way to channel the heavy emotions that the work brings on. Digging a grave, even for an animal, is humbling and raw. Growing up, it was always men who would bury pets that passed, partly because it was very physical and partly, because men are less emotional. I think the idea of women digging graves adds in that nurturing, emotional element that takes us from the ones who bring new life in, and then see it to the end.
Facebook.com/authorwilliedalton

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The Monday Book: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

This week’s review is by Jack – –

BriefHistoryTime

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this. Probably it’s because I assumed it would be dry, very scientific and heavy going. Instead it turned out to be (mostly) the very opposite!

There were certainly a few places where I had to read and then re-read in order to get my head round some pretty startling and deep stuff. But Hawking leads his readers on a gentle upward slope through history while paying due respect to all his scientific predecessors, colleagues and contemporaries.

We begin with Copernicus and end in a black hole!

In many ways this book is an autobiography as it details Hawking’s developing theories while also occasionally giving brief glimpses of his personal life and its challenges. I loved the part where he gave up his PhD studies following his diagnosis and being told he only had a few years to live, only to get married and realize he had to get a job. So he completed his studies, got a job that became his raison d’etre and lived for many more years.

The writing style is pitched at the non-learned casual reader and is gently humorous throughout.

I particularly liked how generous he was towards others working in the same field – collaborators, colleagues and even rivals.

Finally, and most intriguing of all perhaps, is his frequent reference to a ‘creation event’. He is very careful not to discount the idea of a ‘creator’ with all that implies. He suggests that the more we delve and discover, the more there is to find – – –

All in all, a very well deserved best seller which I can now thoroughly recommend to anyone else who might have been wary, like me!

 

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The Monday Book: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury

The-Martian-Chronicles(picture courtesy of By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31139878)

Sometimes you pull out an old favorite – or to be specific, you’re shelving in the bookstore and it falls off as you’re putting something on the shelf, and you pick it up and that’s you lost the rest of the evening.

But gained so much more. I love Bradbury’s writing, and I’d forgotten how he saw the slow progression of Earth people onto Mars, the many ways he’d envisioned people’s hearts moving through Space and not changing much once they landed in a new destination.

Chronicles is a mishmash of short stories, all centered around the theme of Earth colonizing Mars over time, but each a freestanding piece with few overlapping characters. I LOVE the ones where he explores social justice, as in Black People go live on Mars and when the White People blow up Earth, they have to ask permission to come ashore. I love the one where forgotten scary characters from Folklore take up residence because Earth minds don’t have room for them any more. I love the one, early in the book, where an unhappily married Martian couple wind up being the demise of the first explorers. Think of it: the colonization of another planet, ended by a jealous husband?

Bradbury thought of this and so much more in his Chronicles. They don’t feel dated. Even though he invented things willynilly and didn’t see half of what technology actually delivered coming, Bradbury’s writing feels timeless because it focuses on people: what we want, what we fear, what we crave (which is a little different than wanting) and what we pretend we don’t fear. So very interesting to read in the lyrical prose he pulls together. He’s so quick, like a comic caught in print.

This judge gives Martian Chronicles all the stars.

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The Monday Book: DEATH ON THE MENU

The Monday Book is reviewed this week by Martha Evans Wiley.

Death on the Menu, by Lucy Burdette

Wendy knows my predilection for cozies and asked61ZCCieFZNL._AC_US327_QL65_ if I would like to review the newest release in the Key West Food Critic Mysteries, published by Crooked Lane Books. Although I haven’t read any of the earlier books in the series (there are seven), I soon found that isn’t necessary to enjoy the story.

Hayley Snow, the protagonist, is indeed a food critic who lives in Key West, and the setting is integral to the plot and the characters. Having never been to Key West, this was a vicarious journey through the historic architecture and tropical feel of the city for me.  Hayley lives on a houseboat with an elderly friend and gets around town on a scooter, quirky details that lend an air of authenticity to the overall exotic yet small-town feel of the locale. Along with the sights and sounds of a bustling community, Burdette focuses on the food, itself an important part of the Cuban culture. Whether we’re sampling restaurants with Hayley for a review or watching her caterer mother cook for a crowd, the food is almost as important to the story as Hayley herself – so important that the author includes recipes at the end for all the mouth-watering dishes she refers to throughout the book.

The story revolves around crimes committed during a conference planned to promote relations between the cities of Havana, Cuba, and Key West. There’s a lot riding on this, as anyone who keeps abreast of current events might imagine. Tensions rise, personalities clash, and throughout it all is the lingering pain and legacy of the mass emigration of Cuban refugees to the US in the 1990s, and the parallels to the current plight of the migrants on our southern border cannot be ignored.

Burdette at times gets carried away with filling the story with topical references that can distract from the meat of the tale. Former President Barack Obama makes an appearance, as do Jimmy Buffet and an NPR reporter. More germane to the subject matter are the gone-but-not-forgotten figures of President Harry S Truman, who lived in the Little White House where much of the action takes place, and literary giant Ernest Hemingway, whose legendary status still looms large over the island.

Hayley Snow is a likeable hero, with all the predictable foibles  of feminine amateur sleuths – headstrong, anxious, romantically involved with the local police chief, naive and yet loyal to the end. The characters are believable and for the most part endearing, and as mentioned earlier, Burdette’s descriptions of the Cuban food and the colorful beauty of Key West provide the real enjoyment of the book.

It won’t be long before  winter rears its cold head, and I for one plan to curl up with more of Burdette’s Key West mysteries for a snowy day escape.

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The Monday Book: THE SOUND OF HOLDING YOUR BREATH by Natalie Sypolt

breathThis book is out from West Virginia Press and I received a review copy for the Journal of Appalachian Studies. (I’m their book editor.) If anyone would like to review it for the Journal, please drop me an email or PM.

The short stories in Sypolt’s fiction debut are engrossing character studies. Most have wonderful characters who drive the plots around them. Siblings who see through each other’s deepest weaknesses. Young people who find reasons to stay or go. Nasty and nice Christians. In many ways, it’s like Sypolt took a classic Appalachian problem and wrote a “what if” story about it: what if you were gay and couldn’t tell your parents, but your elder sister knew because you fancied her husband? What if you were young enough to leave home and old enough to know you’d take your upbringing with you wherever you went?

Although you might be able to read the slim volume in a couple of hours, I recommend savoring. The prose is well-crafted, the words backlit with mountain sunsets. If it sounds like these are bib overall hayseed stories, think again. Stereotypes exist to be played with not to make the stories go. For instance, in one story of summer lake holidays, a boy aware of his beloved elder brother’s proclivities to violence suddenly finds himself seduced by the girl he thinks is pure. These are not easy straw characters. A preacher’s daughter finds nothing redeeming in her dad, but the way the story goes down gets complicated. Nobody gets off easy in a Sypolt short story.

If you are interested in Appalachian politics, culture, and families, you will find much to chew on here. If you like short stories that are well-written and character driven, you’ll love Sypolt’s debut. And remember, order it from your favorite local bookstore, not Amazon.

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The Monday Book: WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler

contentYes, yes, I know it’s Tuesday. YOU try making the buses run on time the week after vacation. *grumps*

Sad thing is, although I really enjoyed reading it, this book didn’t cheer me up at all. I got it from Rachel, our shopsitter, when I went rushing through the bookstore the day before we left on holiday.

“Something to read, something to read,” I muttered, and Rachel almost without looking hauled this baby off the shelf.

“You’ll love it. It’s amazing,” she said, and I grabbed it from her hand and packed it.

And almost lost my mind night after night in the lodgings as I entered a world where chimp and human babies were raised side by side in an experiment that was subject the vagaries of funding, public pressure, and human fickleness. You can see from the beginning (and also the back blurbs) that this is a heartbreaking book. You know from the beginning what’s going to happen; in fact much of the book is tracing back from what happened. I like the way the author says, “I’m going to start my story in the middle, then go back and fill in, but on the way we’ll stop at the ending.” That’s not an exact quote but that’s what she does.

Her depictions of life through the eyes of a narrator you can’t quite trust, of events that seem surreal, among characters you feel you know (remember I’m a sucker for characters, and it is true they drive plot)… amazing work. I kept reading EVEN WHEN I KNEW A KITTEN WAS GOING TO DIE because Fowler writes so matter-of-factly about hearts and feelings and fear and hope. It’s just life, she seems to say. Get on with it.

My guess is that tender-hearted people and CEOs read this book on two different levels, which really interests me. It is hard to get a story going that holds humor and lessons that vary by reader, but Fowler has created a “He said/she said” that doesn’t answer questions so much as ask them: What does it mean to be human? What is our responsibility to each other? Who’s in charge here?

Two opposable thumbs up for We are all completely beside Ourselves.

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