Social Commentary in an Elegantly Written Novel - "Unsheltered", by Barbara Kingsolver

This is my first time reading work by Barbara Kingsolver, and I’ve clearly been missing out. Her newest, Unsheltered, is her 15th published book. It is focused on protagonist Willa Knox, her charming and handsome husband, Iano, his ailing father who lives with them, and their two children in various stages of early adulthood and discovery.  Willa and Iano are doing all the right things - working hard, saving, kind and loving; yet things are literally falling apart around them - Iano cannot get tenure at the college where he teaches; Willa’s magazine has shut down and she’s now freelancing; her father-in-law’s health is deteriorating, and insurance doesn’t cover enough of the costs; and the house they recently moved into at Sixth and Plum is crumbling around them. Oh, then there are her two children - Tig, the caring, but mostly distant daughter who lives at home; and Zeke, trying to make it in a new career with an infant.

Unsheltered: A Novel
By Barbara Kingsolver

Willa has a lot going on, and while she works to hold everything and everyone together, including herself, Kingsolver introduces us to a parallel narrative over a century earlier - of a truth seeking science teacher with troubles of his own.  Thatcher Greenwood finds himself newlywed to a privileged wife, along with her sister and social climbing mother, living in a crumbling house…on the corner of Sixth and Plum. Thatcher’s progressive, Darwinism ideas is at odds with the local establishment. He is quite confined by both his family and employer, but holds rather dangerous friendships with both a woman scientist, Mary Treat, and a local newspaper editor who is at odds with the towns’ restrictive leadership. They both encourage Thatcher to work to change the traditional notions of science and learning - a dangerous path, as he discovers. Kingsolver has researched the real Mary Treat for this novel, a nineteenth century biologist, to bring her to life for us as a somewhat eccentric, intelligent, and lovely character.

The house is not the only common thread between Willa and Thatcher. Societal and dogmatic parallels can be found in characters across the years.  In Unsheltered, while Kingsolver displays a very human side - a happy marriage beset with adversity, children finding their way in adulthood, and well-intentioned people struggling with day to day conflict. She openly shares her social and political stance through her characters, and there is a bit of self-righteousness that comes through. While Willa is a super human to manage the crises that keep coming, it’s the fluid writing and authentic dialogue that really make this book special.

Published: 2018
Publisher: Harper

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars

"Southernmost", by Silas House - Book Review

Southernmost starts with a flood of biblical proportions. And sends its (mostly) protagonist preacher, Asher Sharp, awash in his own doubts. After a gay couple loses their home yet helps Asher and his son, Justin, to safety during the storm, Asher’s wife refuses to allow them to seek shelter with the Sharps because of their homosexuality. Asher begins to question every bit of his faith. As he internally wrestles with his feelings, he implores his congregation to do the same. Unfortunately, the most scalding portion of his otherwise reasonably tempered speech was captured on video by a child. And it went viral.

With the completely expected ouster from his church and demise of his marriage, Asher cannot accept his limited court granted access with his tender-hearted son, Justin, so he kidnaps him. Is it really kidnapping, you think, as you empathize with his desperate love for his child? Well, yes, taking a kid without letting the other parent know you are doing so and disappearing into the night to places unknown is exactly that.

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"I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer", by Michelle McNamara - Book Review

McNamara, comedian Patton Oswalt’s late wife, was obsessed with the serial rapist and murderer she dubbed The Golden State Killer. And when I say obsessed, I mean all encompassing, decades long, detective like obsessed. This book is the result of her obsession and to show just how much it affected her personally, at one point, she casually states, “There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.”

Because what she was obsessed with was terrifying.

The book is a murder mystery of epic proportion and frustration. At the time of McNamara’s death, the book had not yet been published nor had the mystery been solved. She died without seeing her monstrous (pun intended) efforts in print and not knowing just how close officials were to getting her man. She died not knowing what we all know now. In April of this year, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., was arrested and is being held without bail as the Golden State Killer.

The acronym McNamara used throughout the book, and one used by official types, was EAR-ONS: East Side Rapist/Original Night Stalker. This guy carried on a reign of terror and destruction from the late 70s through the mid 80s and he simply could not be caught. This, despite the fact that once he escaped a crime scene on a stolen ten-speed with officers in cars hot on his tail. As McNamara’s title indicates, he was a master of the dark.

To say that McNamara’s research is extensive, is to understate it grievously. She even became a contact for detectives along the way who took her theories and suggestions as seriously as they would from other law enforcement. But she writes a methodically researched subject like a novel. Interspersed with the facts, she adds anecdotal stories of her own life that shine a light into her as well as giving some softness to a book that is both brutal and clinical in its facts and details.

After McNamara’s tragic death in April 2016, her lead investigator and a well-schooled investigative journalist put all of her diligent work together into what resulted in this book. Their task must have been overwhelming and, if McNamara hadn’t made such an important impression on them, there is no way they would have undertaken it. Her husband, Patton, lovingly writes the afterword and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame wrote the foreword.

McNamara’s obsession with the Golden State Killer drove her to some dangerously dark places. After her death was ruled an accidental overdose of a lethal combination of prescription drugs, it isn’t hard to imagine that she may have used medicine to dull the edges of her gruesome hobby.

And, who could blame her? As of her death, the killer was still on the loose and constantly on her mind. Oh, how I hope her spirit knows that her real-life demon has been caught and that she’s finally able to lie peacefully at rest.   

Published: 2018
Publisher: Harper

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

An Intimate Portrait of Friendship in "The Ensemble", by Aja Gabel - Book Review

The Ensemble is the perfect debut novel - unique and authentic. Author Aja Gabel brings her musical background to the forefront with the Van Ness Quartet - four musicians who meet, form friendships, struggle, and evolve together. Gabel was herself a musician, playing cello from childhood, so she brings experience with her in writing of these musicians, the music itself, and their emotional struggles. 

We meet the quartet in conservatory, and each have a role in conveying their story throughout the novel. Jana is first violin and the clear leader of the group; Brit, a pretty self-conscious orphan, is second violin; Daniel, who has the least natural talent, is the hardest working of the group on cello; and Henry on viola is the handsome, happy prodigy.  Gabel provides vivid emotional narratives of her characters as they grow up together - through family and personal drama; reliance upon each other; distrust and envy; but always deeply intimate and intertwined.

As the book progresses, her characters mature in different ways, and so does her writing it seems. Her characters’ revelations about themselves and those to whom they are so closely attached become more accurate realizations instead of idealizations, and each member provides an acceptance of other’s successes and flaws alike. They are a cohesive unit that will succeed or fail together, and their futures hinge on the collective mood.

Gabel’s The Ensemble provides us with a different kind of story, and she skillfully succeeds with her first novel.  I’m looking forward to seeing more from her.

Published: 2018
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars

An American Hero and "8 Seconds of Courage", by Flo Groberg and Tom Sileo - Book Review

It’s hard to know where to begin with this review. Maybe it’s with Flo Groberg, one of the authors whom this book is primarily about. Perhaps it’s with the our war in Afghanistan. Or maybe it’s with the Gold Star families and our brave soldiers. All intertwine, and Groberg, along with Tom Sileo create a powerful retelling of Groberg’s experience as a soldier in Afghanistan, of those we’ve lost, and of coming home.

I attended a USO benefit recently, 8 Seconds of Courage was given out at each seat, and Groberg was one of the keynote speakers. His charisma and energy had the large audience completely rapt. Hanging back after the dinner was over to catch up with people, over walks Groberg, so I asked him to autograph two books, and we spoke for a few moments. This young man has enough positivity and drive to power a rocket; and genuine excitement for the future. As he demonstrates in the book, his care for his finance Carsen is endless, and he mentioned their engagement to me. So, I knew the book was jumping to the top of my “to be read” pile.  

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The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses), by Terri-Lynne DeFino

Having read fantasy and romance from DeFino, I wondered how a straight up fiction novel of hers would be. I know that DeFino dislikes being pigeon holed into genres since she sees so many books falling into more than one. Which is exactly the case with The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers. In fact, her straight up fiction book has both romance and fantasy neatly inserted within its pages.

Set in, yes, (you guessed it), Bar Harbor at, yes, (you’re right again), a retirement home for aging writers, DeFino quickly introduces a cast of diverse and thoroughly developed characters. Of the writers, there is Alfonse, a sort of elderly Dos Equis man, the most famous of the authors. Then, there is Olivia, his ex-lover and quick-witted marijuana smoker; Judi, the group stenographer who laments the realization of her increasing dementia, and Switch, the taciturn, good hearted spoil sport. On the employee side, there is Dr. Kintz, kind and flustered, as he tries to manage these aging autocrats as well as his trove of damaged employees. And, Cecibel, the physically marred orderly who becomes Alfonse’s muse; Sal, the massive black nurse who moonlights as Wispy Flicker, the drag queen; and, Fin, the convicted murderer. Yep, I have that right.

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Murderous London in "Death in the Air", by Kate Winkler Dawson - Book Review

Death in the Air was an unexpected find at last year’s BookExpo that I finally got around to reading. The subtitle is what got me - “The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City”. I wondered how author Kate Winkler Dawson would weave together these two stories of serial killer, John Reginald Christie and the four day smog that killed thousands. The story comes together in Parliament of all places - competing priorities and differing political agendas. Death in the Air is an interesting history lesson of murder that was never completely resolved.

It’s a 1952 London winter. Fog is a common occurrence in London, as we know. Post war England is financially struggling, they are in rebuilding mode, and industry is pumping out toxic fumes along with production. Coal is the primary source of energy, with two kinds in circulation - a “higher quality” and expensive black coal; and nutty slack, a cheaper, more toxic heat source that the working class use to fill their fireplaces. As a fog descends upon the city on December 4th, factories continue to operate and people go to work. During this time, it’s reported that you would hardly be able to see your hand in front of you, driving is impossible, criminals have their way, and the soot is everywhere, clinging to hair and clothing, being ingested into lungs. After five days of the smoke and fog thousands die from the poisonous gases. It’s not until a year later a report is released stating 4,000 people died due to the smog. And it’s some 50 years later, when the true, staggering number is released - over 12,000 people dead due to the smog.  

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The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, by Jack E. Davis - Book Review

Phew. Four months after starting this deeply researched and richly written tome, I turned the last page. Ironically, I did so after having spent my first weekend in Cedar Key, Florida, an island which Pulitzer Prize winner Jack E. Davis uses as an example of a current success story of gulf coastal sustainability and reasonableness.

With tens of pages of citations, this book was not written quickly or haphazardly. Honestly, knowing the Gulf is a place near to Davis’ heart, a place he grew up on as a boy, it’s hard to believe he actually finished it.

The man-driven destruction of the Gulf, its coastline, its estuaries and the rivers which flow into it is legendary. And almost all of it is related to capitalism and industry or the direct result of greed. Dead zones, red tide, algae blooms….all man-made disasters.

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Coming of Age in Post WWII London in "Warlight", by Michael Ondaatje - Book Review

I’ve read all but one of Michael Ondaatje’s novels, with varying degrees of enjoyment - ranging from really good to wonderful. Each are unique in subject and in method of unraveling their stories; however, all retain Ondaatje’s style. It’s a style that is hard to describe - at once uncomplicated in prose, yet with depth of character and emotion.  I suppose he is able to say so much with so little.

Ondaatje’s latest release, Warlight, shows such restraint. From the innocence of a child whom we follow into adulthood, we hear from protagonist Nathaniel, unraveling his own life and that of his mother’s. Nathaniel is 15, his sister Rachel is 17 when their parents supposedly depart for Singapore for a year. The opening line lures the reader in with, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”. Nathaniel takes us through his strange adventure of post-war England; of London, a city still dark with destruction from German bombs; of dim lights and persistent fog - all that form the silhouette of warlight.

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"Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine", by Gail Honeyman - Book Review

Oh Eleanor, you’re completely wonderful! You will go down on my list of favorite main characters.

Eleanor, a single thirty-year old living in Glasgow, has worked the same job since she was 21. She is a woman of routine. She goes to work, 9-5, five days a week and on Friday after work gets take home pizza and enough vodka to keep her not too drunk/not too sober to make it to Monday morning when she starts the whole process all over again.

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