Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: Race to the Pole – Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Jack is the guest reviewer this week –

This is the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the south pole in 1912.

Scottgroup

I started reading this and almost immediately thought I wouldn’t like it!

Fiennes is clearly an upper crust member of the British establishment with an inflated sense of his own importance. All through the book he compares himself to Scott and a goodly part of it is about his own travels to the south and north poles.

But despite all that he managed to suck me in!

Fiennes really did do good research and approaches the more contentious issues very fairly. He also goes outside of the central story to get different points of view. This was also where I had some questions, though. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, beat Scott by a month to the pole and is presented here as somewhat devious and a bit of a cheat. I see here Fiennes buying into the old story of the ‘above board’ British against those dastardly foreigners.

What is also well explained is the context of Scott’s doomed attempt – British exceptionalism, Government under-funding, class divisions, civilian/service divisions, limited meteorological knowledge etc. What also comes through clearly, though, is Scott’s abilities as a leader. He made difficult decisions, led by example and persuaded his team to incredible feats of endurance!

So my take away from this book is that Scott really was a doomed hero and Fiennes is a bit of a narcissist!

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The Monday Book: VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

This week’s review comes from crowd favorite Paul Garrett –

anne tyler

Dr. Battista, an obscure researcher of autoimmune disorders, has been slaving away in obscurity, almost forgotten by his employer, Johns Hopkins University. Now he feels he is on the verge of the breakthrough he has been searching for all his professional life. There is only one problem: Pyotr, his research assistant and right arm is about to lose his visa and be forced to return to the Eastern European country of his birth. Dr. Battista is terrified that all his work will go down the tubes (pun intended? Maybe, maybe not.) without Pyotr there. He hatches a plan to save his project and his lab assistant. All that has to happen is for Pyotr to marry Dr. Battista’s daughter.

Nobody thought to ask his daughter.

Kate Battista is a tall lanky girl approaching what used to quaintly be called spinsterhood. Almost thirty with no love interest and no prospects, she spends her days gardening, working as a teaching assistant at a preschool and looking after her widowed father and younger sister. She is awkward socially and has a habit of saying exactly what is on her mind, to the detriment of her relationships with just about everybody, especially the parents of the little crumb crunchers who are entrusted to her care.

Anne Tyler’s novel Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, 2016) Is a nod to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as the poor and equally awkward Pyotr, along with the help of his boss try to woo the standoffish Kate.

Tyler is one of the few authors (along with Kurt Vonnegut) who can make me laugh out loud.  Her tragicomic style is on full display as the characters careen from one mishap and plot twist to the next.  The rehearsal dinner scene alone makes the book worthwhile.

Unlike in T.C. Boyle’s preachy Tortilla Curtain, Tyler avoids the controversies of the American immigration system, preferring to stick to the Shakespearian template and leave the intellectual heavy lifting to others.

This is a small volume for Tyler, but she manages to pack it full of her normal cadre of oddballs, miscues and mishaps. The story ends with an odd (for today’s audience) soliloquy on the plight of men in society.

The book’s brevity may be the only drawback, as Tyler felt the need to add an extensive epilogue. Brief or not, Tyler fans won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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The Monday Book: A FORGOTTEN PLACE by Charles Todd

The last of our Todd reviews – we hope you’ve discovered some new series ideas!

A FORGOTTEN PLACE: Unforgettable!Forgotten place

 

Looking at the cover of this book, if you are an avid follower of Bess Crawford (British WW1 nurse who has been to the front line in France many times), you have to wonder what sort of post-war trouble the heroine will encounter.  You can tell she is in a desolate place, a surprise since the story picks up after the Armistice in 1918 and her return to England.  Bess is looking away from the reader, and you expect her to turn her head and ask you where you’ve been and what took you so long to arrive. It isn’t your fault it takes so long to get your hands on the book that follows A Casualty of War (2017, Harper Collins/Wm Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-267878-2), but you cannot tell her that.  You just go with her into the depths of a forgotten Welsh village named Caudle, located on the Gower Peninsula.  And I promise, you will not sleep a wink until you get to the end of this book because the darkness of it seems far worse than the Great War itself.

Bess Crawford’s work in France is done when Matron sends her back to England with a Welsh unit commanded by Captain Williams.  Every man is an amputee, and as they are miners, they have no future in their coal mine village. Bess is worried about her charges and goes to Wales to check on them—without informing her parents or friends of her intentions. By the time she arrives in the village where Captain Williams said he’d be, almost everyone in the Welsh unit is deceased, and she hurries to Caudle to check on the Captain when she finds out he left to help his widowed sister-in-law with her meager sheep farm.

From the moment of her arrival, you realize that every word you read moves Bess, the Captain, and Rachel (his sister-in-law) closer to danger, closer to death.  But you cannot help yourself because the story is so compelling, and the characters of the village make life dark and dangerous.  There is jealousy, greed, several brutal murders, and neighbors who watch Bess’s every move.  She is stranded in Caudle, a guest in Rachel’s home, and each day she digs for the truth about the village, the residents, and the dark secret they have kept through many generations.

The storms and murders, and the residents’ unwillingness to let Bess leave the village or settle with her lot because her parents and Sergeant-Major Simon Brandon do not know her whereabouts, make you stakeholder in her resolve to get to the bottom of a mystery and survive.  You, the passive participant in this adventure, cannot stop puzzling over the characters, the clues, and the desire to find a murderer before Bess, the Captain, and Rachel come to any great harm or end up buried in an unmarked grave near the Rectory or tossed into the angry sea to wash ashore weeks later.

The village has a secret it protects. Newcomers are not welcome. No stranger leaves alive, and you set your jaw and resolve to make sure Bess Crawford gets away before the killer gets away with murder. Hers.  When Simon discovers her whereabouts, you want to relax and see how it all falls into place, but you cannot—because he has to leave temporarily, and it is up to you to stand watch as you read.  Before he returns, Bess has to figure out a way to protect the villagers and their dark secrets without letting the killer get away.

As it is with all Bess Crawford novels, you marvel at A Forgotten Place because the last pages are a reveal that leaves you in awe.  Even if you think you know it all, you discover you do not!  When Bess leaves Caudle and heads home, you wonder if you stand to live the year in your time while she moves within a few weeks of hers. You want her to settle down and stay out of harm’s way, but you cannot resist counting the days until the next Bess Crawford mystery is in your hands.

 

 

 

About the Reviewer:

Liz Phillips is a middle school educator and writer living in Southwest Virginia, another forgotten place. Contact her at lizphillips.author@gmail.com.

 

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The Monday Book: THE GATE KEEPER by Charles Todd

THE GATE KEEPER                                            

by Charles Todd

(Feb. 2018, Harper Collins/Wm Morrow)

320 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0062678713

 

 

 

 

 

            When Stephen Wentworth climbs down from his motorcar to talk to the person standing in the country road that leads to the village of Wolf Pit, he has no idea that he is not going to see Christmas 1920.  Nor does his companion, Miss McRae, expect to see him shot through the heart at close range.  Scotland Yard Detective Ian Rutledge, whose sister Frances has just been married, takes leave from Scotland Yard to sort his feelings. Restless, he decides to take a drive (longer than he expects) and discovers he is on his way to Ipswich.  He shrugs it off and continues until he has to put on the brakes to avoid the car in the road and the woman with bloodied hands standing over a man’s lifeless body.  The deceased is a well-liked bookstore owner, and Rutledge tells the Yard he’s on the case.

And what a case it is!  Rutledge finds there is nothing routine about the murder, and no real suspect emerges as he digs into the Wentworth family’s cold treatment of the victim. The villagers and monied residents alike have no dark tales to tell, and when a second murder victim is discovered, the sinister mystery intensifies.  Rutledge has to piece the puzzle together by investigating people who appear to be strangers or mere acquaintances.  A third murder in Sussex gets his attention, and even though Stevenson is on that case, he tracks down a man who started the catastrophic events in Wolf Pit.  The problem is, he’s been murdered as well.  Even so, Rutledge has enough to go on, so when he returns to Wolf Pit, he works his detection to a solution that stuns the reader to no end.

It is fortunate Rutledge was driving to Ipswich that night.  The murder victims would have been buried after inquests that stated the murderer was unknown.  This novel has the reader speculating from the start, and as usual with any Todd novel, the reader is taken aback by all the interwoven plot elements that are tied together in the end.  concerned will never be the same.  Certainly not Ian Rutledge’s life as he confronts another difficult case.

 

 

About the Reviewer:

Liz Phillips is a middle school educator and writer living in Southwest Virginia, a forgotten place in the Appalachian Mountains. Contact her at lizphillips.author@gmail.com.

 

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The Monday Book: A CASUALTY OF WAR by Charles Todd

This week’s Monday Book comes from writer Lizbeth Phillips, author of a pending YA fantasy series set in Abingdon.

A CASUALTY OF WAR toddby Charles Todd

(2017, Harper Collins/Wm Morrow, 377 pages)

ISBN 978-0-06-267878-2

The Great War: Living Casualties and Murder

 

Bess Crawford, a British nurse stationed at the front lines in France during the Great War, understands that the Armistice is just weeks away. Yet, the fighting continues.  On her way to the front line after her orders are changed, she meets an English officer, Captain Alan Travis, who is from a plantation on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean.  After a cup of tea, they part ways, but their brief encounter sets the novel into motion.

In the midst of all the gunfire, Captain Alan Travis arrives at a medical station with a bullet graze that skimmed his skull.  He tells her that his cousin, Lieutenant James Travis, shot him as Germans were fleeing Allied forces. He is sent back to the front lines after being patched up.

He returns in an ambulance days later with the same claim about his cousin.  Bess is curious about his unusual case and decides to investigate as the war comes to its end. She discovers the accused was dead when the shootings took place, but she cannot believe Captain Travis is lying or has lost his mind.  Who shot at him if it was not his cousin?  The war ends, and Captain Travis is evacuated to England to be treated at a brain injury hospital.

When she finds time, Bess travels to check on Captain Travis and discovers he is locked up for a brain injury and shell shock.  Everyone thinks he has lost his mind. Everyone but Bess.

Determined to prove the officer has not lost his mind, she follows leads to expose the truth about cousin James Travis, a complex family history, and greed that threatens the Captain’s life.  She will not stop until she has the truth, even when she puts herself in grave danger.

A Casualty of War drives the reader to the realization that the war is over, but the fighting at home has just begun.  Dark deeds committed under the umbrella of war have come home to England to haunt villages and to taunt Bess Crawford in hopes she will give up.

 

 

 

About the Reviewer:

Liz Phillips is a middle school educator and writer living in a forgotten corner of Southwest Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains. Contact her at lizphillips.author@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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The Monday Book: Life without Parole – by Victor Hassine

Jack’s guest post is actually the Monday book so could be on time or not –

life without parole

I have been a regular monthly visitor to our local Federal Penitentiary for nearly five years. Each time I visit with two inmates for around an hour with each and we talk about all sorts of things.

But the hardest thing is to get any idea of their everyday lives before and after the visit!

I got some idea from ‘Orange is the New Black’ by Piper Kerman, but that was from a woman’s perspective. However Wendy gave me Hassine’s book and that really opened my eyes. His experiences were in a state prison but I’m sure they would have been much the same in ‘the pen’.

‘Life Without Parole’ is a series of essays or interviews by an inmate sentenced to life in 1981 who was an educated and thoughtful man. He documents his experiences over time, his conversations with fellow prisoners and his observations on the culture of prison life.

Hassine makes no attempt to excuse his crime or to suggest he doesn’t deserve his punishment. He simply relates his life behind bars.

This book spares nothing and describes a desperate and harrowing world that I have had the tiniest glimpse of. Hassine doesn’t try to excuse either himself or any of his prison community, yet draws us in and shows us a parallel world that ‘there but for the Grace of God’ any one of us could only too easily be part of!

His analysis of the various problems with the prison system is scholarly and erudite and makes for gripping reading. Each chapter features an introduction written by eminent criminologist Robert Johnson, and the book is divided into three sections: Prison Life, which introduces readers to the day-to-day aspects of Hassine’s life in prison; Interviews, which presents a series of candid interviews with Hassine’s fellow inmates; and Op Ed, in which Hassine addresses some of the most significant problems within the current prison system.

The author was an Egyptian born immigrant to the US and a law school graduate. He died in prison in 2008 under unclear circumstances although it seems likely he took his own life following an unsuccessful appeal.

I can thoroughly recommend this book, which is now in its fifth edition, to anyone interested in prison life.

 

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The Monday Book: THE RED ADDRESS BOOK by Sophia Lundberg

This week’s Monday Book is reviewed by Kate Belt

 

red addressMany recent novels have dealt in a comic way with the theme of older folks rebelling against the loss of independence and beating the system that infantalizes or abuses them. This is not that novel, though it is not without humor After Wendy recently reviewed one of those and didn’t love it, I suggested this book as a more satisfying read. That’s how I find myself writing this review.

 

After some medical incidents, 96 year-old Doris cannot return to her Stockholm apartment and mostly independent lifestyle, but resists being taken into care. Her beloved niece, her only living relative, comes from California to  support Doris in whatever comes next. She finds an address book in her aunt’s home with decades of entries. It is up to date. Many names are crossed out and noted as “dead.” She also finds a box of vignettes written about each person in the book. These shed light on Doris’ life history, spanning many decades from pre-WWII to the present.

 

After her dear father died, Doris’ mother sent her into service at age 11. Doris’ employer eventually moves to Paris taking her along. An agent from a top modeling house notices  the tall, beautiful, 13 year-old Doris. With her mistress’ blessing, she becomes a runway model, leading to adventures, travel, and opportunities far beyond the station to which she was born.

 

This novel has the common themes of ageism, life review, perserverance, courage, and family betrayal, . Lundt addresses them in a fresh and original narrative. It is almost equally atmospheric, character driven, and event driven. Lundberg’s story telling and writing are excellent. Character development goes deep. It held my attention from beginning to end. The one weakness in the novel is the niece’s relationship with her children and husband in California waiting for her return. That part of the narrative and its resolution  didn’t ring true for me, but they are a minor part of the story that could have been mostly omitted.  I still loved the book and recommend it because it kept my attention from beginning to end. If you love novels with historical context and strong women navigating life’s challenges, this is for you.

 

I believe this book would have strong appeal for anyone who loved Alyson Richman’s The Lost Wife or Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos. It might also be for fans of  Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes.a Walk, but with less comedy.

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