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Will the real murderer please stand up?

The Trespasser: A Novel - Tana French

The Trespasser, Tara French, author; Hilda Fay, narrator

From the first page, the book holds the reader in thrall. Antoinette Conway is a young, angry detective working for the Dublin Murder Squad. Although she really wanted the job, she has a chip on her shoulder and a persecution complex about the way the other members of the team treat her. Still, she has the makings of a really good detective, if given a fair opportunity. She works with her partner, Steve (another newbie like she is); he is one of the few male detectives not engaged in harassing her periodically, often in heinous ways. Antoinette has a tongue that is often vicious and crude in its attacks on fellow workers, and she has a temper to go along with it that seems in desperate need of being curbed.

When a young, beautiful woman, Aislinn Murray, is discovered brutally murdered in her own home, Antoinette and Steve are assigned the task of solving the crime. They are also asked to work with a more experienced and rather arrogant detective named Breslin. He has decided it is a case of domestic violence and is dead set on solving this crime quickly so he can get back to his more important cases. Their prime suspect turns out to be the victim’s new beau, Rory Fallon, who had a dinner date with her on the night she was murdered.

As the story investigates all of the people involved, the victim, her friend and family, the suspects and their backgrounds, the methods, motives and tactics of the police and journalists play a powerful role in the process. The picture painted of them is not pretty. The one seems intent on solving the crime, regardless of innocence or guilt and the other on promoting scandalous publicity for their own personal gain. Residents and politicians scream for a quick solution so they can go back to their normal lives. They seem to care little for the lives wrecked by the investigation which often attacks and implicates innocent people. The methods used by all investigators, journalists and concerned citizens seem more like blackmail than an honest attempt to solve the crime and put the criminal away. Everyone seems to have some kind of an agenda.

I was disappointed in the way Antoinette was portrayed. I was not sure why the color of her skin was emphasized. It seemed to play no pertinent role in the story. Also, I was disappointed that she was portrayed so vehemently as such a hard-nosed woman with a filthy mouth and a chip on her shoulder that she kept challenging others to knock off. She leapt to the nastiest conclusions and was overly judgmental. Her own personality bled into every action she took, rather than her skill as a detective taking precedence. She always felt the need to prove herself and her past behavior had left ugly rumors in their wake which others judged her by, even though some were often untrue and/or exaggerated. Her overly defensive behavior lent them credence. I would love to read a book about a female without baggage, one who achieves success, regardless of her race, religion or background, because she is skilled and worthy of respect from the get-go.

The book, I thought sadly, seemed to point to a society of crooked cops that gathered round to protect, each other even when innocent victims paid the price for their fellow officer’s crimes. Those officers and citizens brave enough to give evidence against the “bent” detectives were afraid that exposing them would negatively affect their own futures. They were often threatened with harassment and persecution. They would be shunned and maybe even injured. Their careers would be over. Journalists were portrayed as bloodthirsty cretins searching for a byline at any cost to those they smeared. Judging from the way news is covered today, this depiction may be closer to the truth than fiction!

The coincidence of the detective, Antoinette, and the victim, Aislinn, having been abandoned by their fathers worked well in the story. The knowledge of that connection allowed Antoinette to see herself more honestly and perhaps to mature and deal with others, and herself, more fairly. I found it interesting to watch Antoinette morph into someone who finally showed a bit of humility and introspection at the same time as the case also went from one that jumped to conclusions to one that was more interested in the truth. The two, the detective on a personal level, and the police on the criminal level of the investigation, seemed to work out the problem of ethics and the honest search for a solution, concurrently. As the story was revealed, both the detective and the squad were faced with the same dilemma of searching for answers, not creating them. How they each approached it was what made the story most interesting to me. Instead of looking for and relying on circumstantial evidence of crimes committed against herself personally in the squad room, and the crime committed against Aislinn, Antoinette and the detectives were forced to stop taking the easy way out, jumping to conclusions, often false, and instead were forced to deal with hard facts to reach the ultimate conclusion and solve the crime.

Although the language was over the top crude, there was no gratuitous sex to titillate readers. The story itself was the total draw! Although it was a bit longer than necessary, perhaps overly detailed at times, it was an interesting study of interrogation methods, criminal behavior and society’s ills when it comes to family, values, policing, and news coverage. The affects of all these patterns was exposed and would make for interesting and thought provoking discussions in a book group.

Some book group questions

1-Because the issue between Antoinette and her missing dad are not cleared up, do you think there will be a sequel?

2-Has the author left any clues about her next book?

3-What are the similarities between Antoinette and Aislinn? (the “d” and the “vic”)

4-What are the similarities between the prime suspect and a cop on the case? (Rory and McCann)

5-How did Antoinette react to her hidden anger and pain?

6-How did Aislinn react to her hidden anger and pain?

7-How did Rory react when he was dumped?

8-What were some similarities between Rory and McCann when it came to self-esteem?

9-Why were Rory and McCann so surprised that someone beautiful would care about them?

10-What kinds of feelings did the book promote about the police and journalists relationships?

11-What kind of feelings did you get about the police tactics and journalist’s behavior?
12-Did you like or dislike any of the characters?


The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis--and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance - Ben Sasse

Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse, author and narrator
This book which purports to be about a vanishing population of the hard-working, ethically motivated American, an American that does not concentrate on or live to collect material wealth but rather to grow intellectually and spiritually, seems to really be about promoting the author. I couldn’t help wondering, as I forced myself to continue reading what was fast becoming overly detailed and boring, if he was planning to run for another office and was kicking off his campaign by writing a book that put him in the exalted position of scholar and instructor for those of us beneath him, those of us who did not have the proper lists or rules to guide us in our own lives or the lives of our children.

His theories seemed a bit lofty and patronizing as he haughtily presented them. I thought that he was attempting to quote from every author and book he had ever read and his success in that effort only made the book seem to have been written by a self-important, arrogant person with a superiority complex. He covered every topic from soup to nuts and promoted his way as the one right way for all of us, all of us who have lost our way and are busy collecting things rather than learning to understand what is really important in life. He covers birth to death and our approach to all that occurs in between. I felt, after reading the book, that Sasse may sincerely believe we have lost our way and are busy collecting things rather than learning to understand what is really important in life, and that we may be pursuing based on “consumption” rather than “redemption”. In many ways, I agreed with him, but I also thought that his rules were too broad and there were far too many of them. I love and value books, and I did appreciate his effort to promote good reading habits, but most of his dialogue was written almost as a “how-to” text, and it became overwhelming with instruction.

I have one rule of my own to offer. Authors should generally not do the audio of their own books, especially, I think, when they are non-fiction and relate to their personal lives. Some come off too dry and intellectual, some come off as if they are trying too hard and some simply sound like they are tooting their own horns. I will leave the decision as to which category Ben Sasse falls into, to the reader. Just let it be known that I often zoned out during the reading because his presentation was not engaging enough or seemed falsely emotional.

The main thrust of the book was supposed to be that our young people may not be growing up into mature adults, but rather they are being held back by the demands of others who try to protect them at every turn, preventing them from dealing with any kind of difficulty enabling them to grow and become more responsible. He believes they do not have the opportunity to properly “suffer” (author’s term, not mine), through certain coming of age moments, certain maturation experiences, certain growing pains, certain hard work experiences that will teach them that their needs and wants are separate entities, one being necessary and one being desirous. In his effort to explain his views on the subject, he outlines the changes that have taken place in our society concerning views on child rearing, education, personal behavior, respecting the rights of others and to rules that have taken on too much of a PC culture to function adequately, holding back the developing child. If a child can’t learn how to play tag because he might get scraped, or he can’t do hard work because he might get tired or even, perhaps, hurt, he cannot grow up. He remains a child. Parents that helicopter parent are delaying a child’s ability to become an independent adult, perhaps ever.

He concentrates a good deal on the sixties when moral values began to change and rules began to loosen governing children and sexual behavior, while rules governing the behavior of the adults in charge tightened, preventing them from being in control, in some cases, and making it easier for them to pass along the parenting responsibility onto others. While dress codes and moral codes relaxed, so did educational goals and religious affiliation. Devotion to family and faith began to wane as sexual freedom increased and acceptable modes of behavior broadened. As our values changed, so did the desire/need to have pleasure first and responsibility later. Children were being protected from injury and hard work, in an effort to give them self confidence, but instead, it seems to have created a perpetual child, and in my belief, a lazy parent more interested in working to provide material possessions than guidance and family values.

Sasse outlines rules for creating an atmosphere in the home and the outside world for children to live, play, work and grow because he believes that if children are exposed to alternate life styles and hard work, they will prosper emotionally and mentally.

Because he overly referenced and intellectualized the concepts with quotes and readings from the works of others from all fields of endeavor, I found the book overwhelming. I (sarcastically) wondered how many authors wrote this book along with Sasse. I also found that at every turn he began to sound somewhat like a martyr, a bit pompous and condescending. I did not feel that observing a friend’s wife deliver a child was a necessary prelude to understanding one’s own spouse’s experience. I did not feel that a child had to suffer to grow. A child simply has to experience life and not be overly protected in order to mature. A child has to know there are expectations he has to fulfill and standards have to be set that challenge the child to improve and succeed. I believe that trophies that are given for non-performance are worthless. Some of his examples for experiences children should engage in seemed a bit extreme and some seemed to simply be common sense. After awhile, I began to dislike his presentation and could understand why he is the contrarian in Congress. The book simply became all about him.

In every chapter, Sasse name dropped using references from classical authors to authors in the modern day. He quoted philosophers, educators, musicians, religious leaders, politicians, etc. He over thought the problem and presented what seemed more like a memoir or a text book, rather than a self-help handbook.

There were just too many references and asides from others to allow the narrative to flow smoothly. This list represents only a small fraction of those mentioned.

Adam Smith
De Toqueville
St. Paul

I had high hopes for a book that would explain the morphing of our society into one that was unwilling to accept the responsibility of adulthood, but instead it morphed into a book about the self-promotion of its author. Now I know that Ben Sasse is very smart and very capable, but I know little about the vanishing American or how to help recreate him/her.

Will the lying game have consequences?

The Lying Game: A Novel - Helen Ruth Elizabeth Ware

Author Ruth Ware knows how to keep her readers totally involved in the narrative, guessing until the end at what the outcome will be. In Salten, England, four teenage girls, Kate Atagon, Thea West, Fatima Chaudhry (nee Qureshy), and Isa Wilde, become the closest of friends at their boarding school. Whatever mischief they engage in, they do it together. Their favorite game is “the lying game”. They get points for fooling unsuspecting dupes by convincing them with their stories, of things that are untrue, often humiliating those victims when the lie they told is discovered.

Without regard for how their tales will eventually affect other people’s lives, they are united in the effort to willfully tell stories, competing for points earned from telling the most convincing lies. Soon, they also earn the not too stellar reputations of troublemakers who can’t be trusted. Young and unaware of the consequences they may face in the future, they are simply engaged in having fun pushing the envelope. In the end, will they still think that their lying game is fun or will it become an albatross around their necks?

Eventually, their behavior seems to get them expelled from school, and they go their separate ways, all four rarely coming together again, until after 15 years pass. Suddenly, Kate Atagon, who has remained in Salten, sends each of them a plea for help with a text message on their phones that simply states, “I need you”. They all drop everything and leave their lives in the midst of whatever they are doing, to answer the call. They all text back, “I’m coming”.

In the present day, 17 years after they have left school in ignominy, Isa is a lawyer, Fatima is a doctor, Thea has a gaming license, and Kate is an artist who lives pretty much, hand to mouth. Each woman is now in her early thirties, but she picks up and risks everything to return to help a friend, knowing she would never have sent the text if it wasn’t absolutely urgent.

When they were in school, Kate lived in the Mill House with her father Ambrose, the art teacher, and her step-brother Luc. It was their hangout. It was then, and is now, a home that is in disrepair, and it is slowly being reclaimed by the sea as it sinks into the sand.  Still, ignoring the danger, when they arrive back in Salten, they return to Kate’s home. After only a short time, she reveals why she has called them all back to a place they never wished to return, and they discover that their former lying game may have very dangerous consequences for their current lives. Apparently, while strolling along the beach, a dog walker’s dog found a human bone in the Reach near Kate’s home. This discovery could have monumental consequences on all of their lives. A lie that they told 17 years ago is now coming back to haunt them.

What can they do? Should they continue to lie? Do they tell the truth? Can they trust each other? Are they in danger? What exactly are they afraid of? What did they do in their past that is so upsetting to them? The author will keep you guessing until the last pages as to the nature of all the secrets that must be revealed.

What I particularly liked about the book was the fact that the story isn't hackneyed. It is original and creative. The reader will not feel that they have read the same thing dozens of times before with a different title. The author has also chosen the narrator very well, for she portrays each character with such clarity that you can visualize them in every scene from their appearances and personalities to the tone of their voices. This is a good, fast read that will keep the reader involved and on edge waiting for the ultimate conclusion.

Although it seems obvious at times, it is quite the page turner!

The Breakdown - R B Paris

Although the mystery may seem obvious from the beginning, the author’s sleight of hand will keep the reader guessing constantly. This is the first book I have read in a long time that literally kept me on the edge of my seat from page one even though it was uncomplicated. I loved the “double entendre” of the title. Was the main character having a nervous breakdown or was the book about a car that had been on a forested road during a terrible storm and suffered a breakdown, resulting in the loss of life? Was Cassandra (Cass) Anderson losing her memory as her mom had, from dementia, or was something else afoot? The reader will wonder and wander in different directions, testing out different theories and scenarios until the last page. The ending is somewhat of a surprise, although perhaps it should have been obvious; yet, it works!

One stormy night, in mid-July, while traveling through the wooded road her husband had begged her not to use, Cass came upon a car blocking the bumpy and unsafe flooded road. Swerving to avoid it, she attempted to look back to see if the person needed help. All she could see was the face of a woman who showed little emotion and whom she could not readily identify. Since the woman did not reach out for help in any way, and since she was afraid to get out in the violent weather, she drove on. The next day, she learns the woman was murdered, and it was someone she knew, someone she had recently met and liked very much. Ashamed of herself for not offering the woman help, he tells no one she saw her, and she grows consumed with guilt. She believes that if she had stopped and offered help, her new friend Jane Walters, might still be alive. She tells no one, not even her husband, that she saw her car on the road that fateful night, believing that she will be judged badly, and then ridiculed, or perhaps even suspected of being involved in the foul play.

Cass was only married a year to Matthew Anderson. She had kept other secrets from him, like the fact that her mom was diagnosed with early onset dementia in her forties, so when she grew more and more absent minded and forgetful, she wondered if she should have warned him before they married, that she might one day have the same disease. The only one who knew all of her secrets was her quasi sister and best friend, Rachel Baretto. Rachel’s mom had worked long hours, so she spent a great deal of time with Cass and her parents as she was growing up. She was thought of almost as a daughter. Cass was even afraid to confide her secret of the night of the murder to Rachel.

As the weeks and then months pass, with the murderer still at large, she becomes obsessed with her guilt and fear. She fantasizes that the killer knows who she is and is stalking her. Slowly, she seems to fall apart, losing her memory, becoming more and more afraid that she is in mortal danger. She begins receiving phone calls with no one on the other end. She believes it is the murderer taunting her. At the same time, she begins to forget how to operate the everyday appliances she always used, like the coffee pot and the washing machine. She forgets to take her purse with her or to keep appointments she has made. A doctor prescribes medication to alleviate her stress, and she begins to sleep much of the time. She neglects to prepare the lesson plans due for her teaching position, and she rarely leaves the cottage. She seems to be descending into the same dementia that her mom had suffered from and she is distraught. Her misery, coupled with her fear, is driving her slowly mad. Although Matthew at first seems to be offering support, after weeks pass, he seems to be losing patience with her failures and her fears.

The reader will easily follow the events that are presented carefully and logically. The twists and turns, the misdirection and the character setups work to hold the readers at bay, so that they are never sure which way the book will end, never sure what the mystery is exactly; they are always wondering who is the murderer, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Just what is the connection to Cass’s downward spiral and what is not, just what is real and what is fantasy? Is it what seems obvious or is it something else?

Is Cass suffering, as her mother did, from early onset dementia or is there is a diabolical plan afoot to make her think so? Is it related to the murder of her friend Jane Walters or are both issues totally unrelated? Is she being stalked by the murderer? Is it something else entirely that is driving her mad? Some answers may seem obvious to the reader, at times, but the reader will never be sure until the very end, about exactly what occurred and why.  This author is skillful at sending out clues leading in many directions at once, essentially misdirecting the reader at every opportunity. It is a great read that will keep you guessing and wanting more.

An interesting analysis of family, relationships and consequences!

The Heirs - Susan Rieger

The Heirs, Susan Rieger, author; Kimberly Farr, narrator

This novel can aptly be described as the anatomy of a family. Rupert and Eleanor Falkes’ lives were the stuff of fairy tales, or at least his, Rupert’s, was the stuff of a folk story. He was born in 1934, into a world of poverty, in England. He was abandoned as an infant and raised by the Reverend Henry Falkes, who ran an orphanage. The Reverend adopted him and gave him his name. As he was growing up, by a combination of his sheer force of will and his great good luck, he achieved scholastically and attended the best schools on scholarship. His good luck followed him to America where he attended Yale and became a successful lawyer, married into the high brow and influential Phipps family, members of the upper class, made wise investments and grew very wealthy. Eleanor Phipps was born in 1938. She was brought up very properly, complete with a debut. She was born into a life of luxury. His life was a tale of rags to riches and hers was a tale of rich to richer. In 1962, Eleanor had her first child, Harry. Then she had another son every two years afterwards named Will, Sam, Tom and John (Jack), until there were five, at which time she decided to cease and desist having children.

The book traces the lives of this family, looking backward into their ancestry and forwards into their future progeny, for several decades, ending around the turn of the century. Everyone that each of the characters dealt with was explored and exposed. They did not always make wise decisions. Sometimes they were headstrong and rash and had to deal with the consequences. How they dealt with them depended, often, on their stature in life or ultimate goals. The analysis of each individual life and background was insightful and spot on. Although the loose ends seemed a bit too neatly wrapped up at the end for me, the novel was engaging and held my interest completely. Everyone had some secret, some personality quirk, some private issue that they had to deal with and come to terms with as time passed; each of the circumstances presented was realistic and possible in real life. The difficulty that existed was in keeping track of each of the characters and their time frames as they kept changing.

The personalities and attitudes of different classes of people and religions were dealt with deftly. The first part of the 20th century and continuing onward, was a time when the differences between people were highlighted rather than subdued, understood and accepted. Men were considered superior and often pushed the envelope without taking full responsibility for their behavior, often abandoning their pregnant paramours and cheating on their wives. They were often duplicitous. The inequality that existed prevalently among those of different sexual proclivities, race, religion and class was almost acceptable. Women were largely dependent upon men for their success in life which made them more vulnerable. Higher education for women was considered the road to matrimony while for men it was the road to success.

I did not feel that the book was realistic in the way it handled homosexuality, which was largely hidden and frowned upon in the time frame of the novel, but not presented in that way. The racial and religious issues of the day were portrayed stereotypically. The Jewish mother instilled guilt with rude remarks and judgments, often to hide inadequacy and insecurity, sometimes creating secretive and defiant children. The “Wasp” mother felt superior and raised children who were arrogant and selfish. Although they were well bred with good manners and speech, they felt better than others, mocking those beneath them. They often relied on family money to maintain their lifestyles, and in the process they used and discarded those that did not measure up to their standards. The fathers were generally free from major penalties for their sins. The attitude was almost acceptable that boys would be boys and thus deserved forgiveness, to a point. The differences between the way in which the British, more reserved, and the Americans, more gregarious, reacted to and handled issues seemed fairly accurate. The consequential moments were handled pretty much in conventional ways for the times. Even those who marched to the beat of a different drummer, marched in step with the moment or point in time. Some of the brothers were better developed as characters than others, but for the most part, all of the characters were real and visible on every page.

Each life was examined in minute detail, and the reader was not spared from learning any of the secrets they harbored. Their clandestine relationships, first loves and last loves were very much alive and well on the page. There were a great many loose ends, but they were all tied up in the end, a bit too neatly, perhaps. Nevertheless, I liked the fact that all of the mysteries were alluded to or revealed.

Each of the characters, parents, children, extended families, friends and lovers were completely fleshed out. Their relationships with each other, from parents to grandchildren, as they married, became parents bringing children into the world who grew up and also brought children into the world, was fully illustrated and was filled with insights about each of them and those with whom they came in contact; their careers, and even their sex lives were laid bare.

Through this detailed exploration of their lives, the reader learns a great deal, but only minimally of the events during the time of the novel, from the mid thirties to the beginning of the millennium. The book concentrates more on the lives of each person, than any current events. Their weaknesses were exposed as were their strengths. Background, religion, homosexuality, infidelity, loyalty, wealth and class were almost made characters in the novel. The times, the personalities of the upper crust, their view of those of lower stature, and the way they interacted and behaved was perfectly presented by the author. It was spot on.

Oddly, anti-Semitism seemed more apparent while there seemed to be little homophobia or racism. The arrogance and rudeness of both Jews and Gentiles was displayed, although the “Wasp” portrayal seemed the more successful and positive presentation of the two, even when negative issues were considered. The three quarters of a century over which the book took place represented great changes in our society and through the lives of the characters, their development and secrets, it was fully illuminated. The reasons for marriage from the middle of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st, changed dramatically. The way racial, religious and sexual prejudice was dealt with became radically different as avenues of interrelationships and more open dialogue changed the way the world and its inhabitants was viewed. I think this was illustrated well by the author, as well as the changing values and mores of our times. It was sometimes Pollyanna in its presentation, but I truly thought it worked very well and would recommend this book as a really good read which will leave the reader thinking long afterward.

Because I was brought up during the time of the novel and was familiar with all of the places mentioned from the restaurants to the neighborhoods, the attitudes, schools and prejudices, I found the book particularly interesting and nostalgic at times, if not enlightening. I remember the same New York neighborhoods and edifices, frequented some of the same haunts and recognized the names of many posh restaurants and addresses.

The narrator’s presentation was compelling and drew me into the story with her interpretation of each scene and character. Reading the book might be a bit drier than the audio, especially at first, because it is so detail oriented. Sometimes, an audio can be better than a print book as the reader can imbue the novel with emotion and interpretation. So long as the reader does not become the story and knows his/her place, I find it often enhances the book’s presentation.

This author knows how to keep the reader fully engaged!

Into The Water - Paula Hawkins

Into The Water, Paul Hawkins, author; Laura Aikman, Rachel Bavidge, Sophie Aldred, Daniel Weyman, Imogen Church, narrators When the story begins, a young girl is being immersed into “the drowning pool” in order to discover if she is a witch. If she floats, she is one; but if she sinks she is not. Although the child sinks and pleads for them to stop, there are some in the crowd who are merciless. The description of her experience will immediately capture the reader. As the book then enters the present, in the year 2015, the reader discovers that the pool is still the stuff of local legend. Over the years, others have drowned there, either by accident, design or under a cloud of suspicion. The Abbott sisters, Julia and Danielle had been estranged for years because of an incident that occurred in their teens. When one suddenly drowns, the events surrounding her death grow more and more curious. At first, it was believed that while investigating the area, Nell (Danielle) slipped and fell into the water accidentally. She had been conducting research for a book she was planning to publish on the town’s unusual history of drowning deaths and had been at the site of the “drowning pool”. When her sister, Jules, (Julia) returned to become the guardian of her daughter, Lena, the situation became fraught with tension. Lena was defiant; she disliked her aunt immensely based of stories her mom had told her. Aunt Jules was still resentful and angry with her sister, because of how Nell had treated her when they were young. She believed Nell had a mean streak. Jules had been overweight and unattractive. Nell had been a beauty who made fun of her sister. She thought Nell was cruel and designing, and as the investigation into her death began, it became enmeshed in tangential theories which created disharmony in the community and conflict in families. The community wanted their secrets kept. There were a great many characters to sift through as the mystery developed, but each chapter in the book is labeled with the name of a character so that it was relatively easy to sort them out and follow the thread of the story as it proceeded or to refresh one’s memory about the circumstances surrounding each character’s place in the novel. There was a feeling that evil was lurking behind closed doors, and there was definitely an overlay that hinted at elements of the supernatural as some characters appeared to be communicating with the dead who provided them with clues about the unnatural circumstances surrounding some of the deaths. What started out as a simple investigation into the death of Nell Abbott, surrounded by a bit of controversy since her project was widely resented by the residents of the community who did not want the drowning pool’s history published or used for personal gain, soon evolved into a mystery concerning other deaths and affairs of the heart. Many of the characters harbored deep resentments toward each other, and many seemed to be hiding secrets or were withholding information. Because of the existing biases toward some of the townspeople, clues were misinterpreted and false assumptions were made pointing fingers in all different directions, accusing some of crimes they did not commit and misdirecting those involved, preventing them from discovering the truth. The misinterpretation of events created chaos. In the end, there were two connected crimes that were revealed. Both were related peripherally, but they were separated by more than four decades. In the end, the loyalty and devotion of parents and children was examined and the lengths to which a parent would go to protect an offspring was exposed. The narrators were wonderful, creating mind images so that the story played out like theater in the mind. I do have a preference for narrators with British accents, as I find that the Brits seem to portray the characters very well without getting in the way by putting too much of themselves into the story. I have both the audio and a digital copy, without which, I would have been a bit lost because of the different themes and numerous characters introduced. Although I loved the audio, I recommend the print copy for that reason. It is simply easier to refer back to a print copy.

Really good book about the lives of four unrelated women as their lives intersect!

'Round Midnight - Laura  McBride

This is a tale about characters that led unconventional lives, following their hearts more often than their heads. It is a powerful story about four women who came from completely different backgrounds, backgrounds charged with controversy and conflict. As young women they made drastic decisions that altered their lives completely. Each one lived in Las Vegas, a city they hoped would allow them to realize their dreams and forgive their own sins.

I recommend that the book be read as if it was four separate novellas. It covers many decades. Each story can really stand on its own; each one is riveting, except perhaps for Engracia’s, the final character introduced, because she is not as fully developed, but she is very important since she is the catalyst that unites them all, in the end. I found that treating each character as separate and apart from the other, it was easier to keep track of who they were and easier to follow the thread of their lives that eventually knitted them all together.

June Stein was a young Jewish girl who was both non-traditional and non-conventional. When she was 19 she entered into an unsuccessful marriage. After a year, she left him. At 21, she ran to Las Vegas to seek a new life. She liked excitement. When she met Odell Dibb, her life took a turn in a different direction. They married and ran his casino, the El Capitan, together. When Del hired Eddie Knox to sing in his casino, her life turned full circle, sucking her into a scandal Del hoped to squelch before it got out. Del and June both loved each other and both accepted each other’s idiosyncratic ways. Both loved Eddie Knox. In the 1940’s, a relationship between a white woman and black man was illegal in Las Vegas.

Coral was an illegitimate child. She was brought up in Las Vegas by Augusta. She wanted to know her true parentage but could not discover anything. She made all sorts of assumptions about her mother and father, but none were realized. Her non-biological family was loving and so she survived the confusion and the “not knowing”. She was of mixed heritage in a time when black/white relationships were forbidden. The woman who raised her, and became her one true mother, was strong and defied the stares of others as she pretended that Coral was her own dear child. Her siblings accepted her and loved her unconditionally. Eventually, Coral fell in love with Koji, a man who was Japanese. Their relationship eventually flourished producing children of mixed race, but the times had changed, and in some places, society accepted their marriage and their offspring.

Honorata was from the Philippines. As a teenager, she fell in love with Kidlat. She ran off with him. He betrayed her, refusing to marry her, and further, he influenced her to make a porn film that brought shame to her and her family. Because of the humiliation, she was forced to leave her home.  Her uncle betrayed her. He basically sold her to a man in America named Jimbo. He made Jimbo believe that “Rita” wanted to come to him, that she had been the one corresponding with him, instead of the uncle who was pretending to be her. Jimbo believed that she had been complicit, although she had known nothing of her uncle’s schemes. At first, he had been kind to her and intended to marry her, but when he found out about her past he felt betrayed; he became cruel and would no longer honor his pledge. One day, he decided to take her with him on a visit to Las Vegas. While there, lady luck smiled upon Honorata and she won a major jackpot at the El Capitan. Now Jimbo wanted to marry her, but June explained her rights to her. If they were not married, the money was hers alone. She escaped from Jimbo’s control to begin a new life. When she discovered she was pregnant with his child, she kept it a secret. She believed that he was evil. She did not love him. She wanted to begin again.

Engracia Montoya loved Juan. He loved her, as well. They entered America illegally. They moved to Las Vegas. He was arrested and served time in prison. They had a child, Diego. Juan felt unsafe in America and returned to Mexico, but Engracia wanted a better life for her son and remained in Las Vegas where tragedy struck their lives.

There are several common themes expressed in the narrative. Women’s rights, civil rights, family, infidelity, illegitimate children, civil disobedience, immigration issues, affairs of the heart, secrets and betrayals appear throughout. No life was perfect, but each developed with its own purpose and character. All four women were brave, in their own way. They had dreams and forged their futures independently.

Although the reviews seem to emphasize the importance of the Midnight Room at the club, I thought the women’s backgrounds, choices, decisions and lifestyles spoke far more to me. I have both an ARC and digital version of the book.

Not his best!

Camino Island: A Novel - John Grisham

Camino Island, John Grisham, author, January LaVoy, narrator

Mr. Grisham has written a book that will work well as a serialized television program once it is spiced up a bit with the romance and violence emphasized. Essentially, priceless manuscripts have been stolen from Princeton University by a gang of five men. The book is about the search for them and their ultimate return to the rightful owner. The very beginning and the very end were more interesting than the middle which was very thin with some brief mentions about the value of rare books and manuscripts and the nefarious behavior that some booksellers engage in as collectors.

There was often too much extraneous information about silly romantic moments, binge drinking, and character backgrounds that added nothing to the story. Many scenes were contrived, emphasizing the emotional dysfunction, rudeness, and alcohol dependence of the writing community. The characters, by and large, appeared either empty headed or overly impressed with their own ability. The women were portrayed very negatively as greedy, rude, sex-seeking shallow individuals. Amorality or immorality was very much alive and well!

The FBI, after their initial success in the investigation, was made out to be a bit incompetent, failing to recognize obvious clues or to pursue obvious leads in a timely way. Stupid errors were made allowing for the crime to actually pay. Insurance companies were driven by greed, not right or wrong. The criminals sometimes seemed to be the brightest bulbs, although some did, although rarely, actually pay a high price for their shady behavior.

Most of the characters were self serving and unlikable, and the story was unbelievable. Basically, it is about a young, out of work writer who is broke and having a dry spell. She is past due on a book for her publisher and in need of money. When approached by an insurance company to help find the stolen manuscripts, she suddenly becomes a well known writer and capable investigator/spy.  Although I thought she seemed hopelessly naïve and immature, she is portrayed as competent and sure of herself in very compromising situations. She neither had the experience or talent to be the spy she becomes. I found the story silly, the romance manufactured, the characters shallow, and the relationships totally artificial. The best part about this book was the narrator who gave the weak story vitality.

Once again, it will be a very good television series, but as a book, it left a lot to be desired. This author seems to be writing his books more for the entertainment world than the literary one.

A story that will capture your heart!

Before We Were Yours - Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours: A Novel, Lisa Wingate, author, Catherine Taber, narrator

Based on a horrific truth in our history, this is a story that vacillates between heartbreaking and hopeful. It begins in 1939 with Rill Foss narrating her family history and ends in the present day with Avery Stafford telling her family’s story. It is based on the crimes and cruelty of the very real Georgia Tann and her involvement with the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. According to the author “Georgia Tann was once heralded as the “Mother of Modern Adoption” and was even consulted by Eleanor Roosevelt on matters of child welfare.” Truth is often stranger than fiction!

The early story is about the Foss family: Briny, Queenie, Rill, Lark, Fern, Camellia, and Gabion. The oldest was Rill who was 12. The youngest was Gabe who was 2. Rill was in charge of keeping all of them safe when their dad Briny took their mom Queenie to the hospital to deliver her twins. At that time, the children were all spirited away, basically kidnapped by the police who were working with Georgia Tann. Their parents were tricked into giving them up, unaware that the papers they signed in the hospital gave up their rights to them. The year was 1939 and for the next several decades, each of their lives traveled in different directions. They were taken to an orphanage, eventually adopted and separated. Because the story is based on facts, on a cruel hoax that was actually perpetuated by someone who stole children and made money basically selling them for adoption to wealthy and/or famous people, it steals the heart of the reader. Georgia Tann’s prominence kept the truth about her adoption scheme from coming out for at least three decades, from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. The cruelty to which the children were subjected often resulted in tragedy. They were fed poorly, treated very unkindly, often abused in the most awful ways and punished unmercifully, except on those occasions when they were cleaned up and paraded out for adoption. The stories about their backgrounds were made up out of whole cloth, and their names were changed to prevent them from being traced and retaken by their birth parents. Hospital staff and law enforcement was often in collusion with her.  Records were sealed to prevent the discovery of the truth. Oddly enough, some of the children were actually rescued from abusive homes and many of the stolen children did relatively well in later life, in spite of what they experienced; some were adopted by decent families, some by prominent families; but some also suffered in their new environments. Some achieved an education and life they would not have otherwise been able to, but nothing can change the fact that they were basically kidnapped and ransomed to strangers leaving their families in despair.

The present day story takes place when Avery Stafford meets May Crandall in a nursing home. She is struck by the difference in the level of care that her grandmother receives in another facility, but pleased that this place is well staffed and well maintained.  When May mistakes her for someone else, the wheels begin to turn that lead to the discovery of her grandmother’s secret past. Although she is warned to let sleeping dogs lie, in order to protect the reputation of her father, a Senator up for reelection, and her own political future, she keeps trying to unravel the mystery. When she does, it changes her life’s path in almost as dramatic a way as that of the Foss children after leaving the Arcadia. Her investigation uncovers the story of the Foss children and her family’s involvement and connection to their lives. Will the ramifications of uncovering the truth be worth it?

I have read some reviews that said the author missed the mark in some aspects of the book, but I can't help feeling that those reviews may have been written by men who identify with books on a different emotional level. I felt totally immersed in the lives of all the characters and felt as if I knew each and every one on a personal level. The audio narrator portrayed each voice authentically and with just the right amount of accent and emotion. I highly recommend this website for further very enlightening information.


Not just for teens, but an important read for adults as well.

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas, author, Bahni Turpin, narrator

Starr and her brothers straddle two worlds. In one world there is a strict code of behavior and an excellent education with kids from wealthy families and in the other there are gangs and drive-by shootings and poverty. Starr lives in the ghetto and attends school in a bubble neighborhood of privilege. Her mom is a nurse and her dad, Maverick, runs a market where Starr helps out. He is an ex convict. He covered for another gang member who would have been a three time loser, sacrificed himself, and spent three years in prison. He is respected and has a lot of positive influence in his ghetto community of Garden Heights. He has no intention of ever going back to prison.

Starr is a senior at Williamson, a posh private school. She has created two personalities for herself. One is her ghetto half in Garden Heights, and the other is the one she takes to Williamson. The two worlds do not mix and even her mode of speech changes from place to place. What is cool in one place is definitely not cool in the other. No one in the private school world knows much about the Starr from the ghetto, not even her boyfriend Chris, a very wealthy white teenager who is also a senior. She keeps the two worlds separate and apart, unwilling to expose both sides of her self in either place, unwilling to expose herself to ridicule.

Chris’s world is completely different from Starr’s. Her house could fit into one of the rooms in his house! He took her to the prom in a Rolls Royce. He believes that they have been totally honest with each other and is surprised when he learns that he knew so little about her, that her world is so different from his. He is hurt when he discovers the secrets she has kept from him. When he learns that her ten year old friend, Natasha, was murdered in a drive by shooting, and that she witnessed the recent shooting death of Khalil, her close friend, by a police officer, he wants to be there for her, but she is not sure she wants him to let him into her worldview or to experience her lifestyle.

The author highlights the differences in the lives of Starr and her family when compared to her private school friends. How can the differences, injustices and misunderstandings in our “bubble” communities be addressed? Why are there so many misinterpretations and over-reactions by those in the two communities and those charged with protecting them? Why do police officers assume that a person of color is immediately suspect? Why do minorities distrust authority? I haven’t walked in the shoes of those who live in oppressed neighborhoods, although I am part of a minority, as a Jew. My background’s oppression has been different, although horrific as well. I don’t believe that I can fully comprehend the mindset or the prejudice that exists in poor minority communities.  I haven’t watched as my friends were harassed by law enforcement or seen their unarmed friends senselessly gunned down. Living “while black” is not a condition a white person can understand or judge alone. For an honest assessment of the issues and concerns presented in this book and perhaps an honest approach to changing them, an honest dialogue between all parties is required, honest being the watchword. Some responsibility exists on all sides of the dilemma and must be acknowledged.

I had questions, as I read, that still remain unanswered, questions that a person of color might mock, i.e. why would a black person want to sound uneducated to be cool? Why is that cool? I wanted to lose my Jewish inflection as fast as I could so that I would fit in with the mainstream of America and open locked doors. Why wouldn’t a person of color dress for success? I can understand why some turn to lives of crime, almost as if they have no choice, because they need money, but why do so many turn to a life of crime? Why are the gangs in charge? Why is education mocked? Why is crime glorified in the so-called “hood?” How did the gangs get so much control that even the residents live in fear of them? Why are policeman so afraid in those neighborhoods, that when they are confronted, they become trigger happy? As a white person, I can’t answer those questions? My initial impulse is to respect authority, not to ignore it, to obey police officers and not to defy them. So if I am told to stop, I stop. If they tell me to keep my hands in one place, that is where my hands stay, if they speak to me in a way that I do not like, I generally swallow my pride and hold my tongue, I do not run because I am afraid to show defiance or resist their authority, but I am not afraid that I will be shot or hauled off because of my color.

The author has left me with the impression that the teenager was wrongfully murdered and had no responsibility in the outcome that took his life. His personal behavior seemed to have no bearing on what happened and was not interpreted to represent a threat to the officer. Only he was guilty, period. It didn’t help that the officer was portrayed as a blatant liar. The author wanted the reader to believe that the officer was totally guilty and the victim totally innocent. I believe that there has to be some gray area between the black and white of guilt or innocence.

The community wanted respect, once and for all, and when a verdict came down that they disapproved of, that wasn’t what they expected or hoped for, they took to the streets looting and rioting. Then when the police came to maintain order, they cried police brutality. If respect was demanded from the police, why wasn’t it also given to the police? If unlawful behavior like looting and rioting was the common practice everywhere, our society would be chaotic, and law enforcement would be completely powerless. Anarchy would prevail. There would be no safe space for anyone. Why, in protest, should a neighborhood’s lifeblood be destroyed to show disappointment? Why disabuse the merchants of their positive reasons to serve the community by destroying their investments?

Still, overall, I found the novel to be eye-opening. No one deserves to be murdered by a policeman or a rival gang member, but the aura of false bravado that is being elevated to acceptable standards seems to be a false solution. The author has done a wonderful job of showing how a community can come together to fight against what is destroying it. She reveals and explores the layers of distrust that exist.  I don’t think enough emphasis was placed on the broad fear that the police officers’ have for their own safety. Denying the reality of the danger in their community won’t correct the situation that exists, let alone eradicate the outright bias on both sides. Still, beyond the shadow of a doubt shooting an unarmed man is problematic, but what should a policeman do, if his authority is mocked, if he is disobeyed and fears for his own life? Should he presume someone running away is innocent of criminal behavior? Should he let the suspect get away? I wondered which came first, the community’s fear of law enforcement or law enforcement’s fear of the community. Then I had one final thought, if a policeman is harassing a victim, does the victim have the right to fight back and if so, how?

The author’s political persuasion was pretty obvious, even though the dialogue in the book was subtle. She referred to one news network that she thought was prejudiced, and it was easy to guess which one it was. Why is an alternate opinion so difficult to accept and address? How can the problem be resolved if it is unaddressed?

The “hate u give” of the title refers to the idea that the minority community is underserved. It does not prepare anyone for a successful future. So, why is it that when alternatives are offered, there is resistance, especially if it is not offered by the left? Why not improve conditions regardless of how the offer is advanced?

I hope this book opens up some meaningful dialogue to help bring all people to the fount of success. This book cries out for discussion. In some ways it was flawed, i.e., the interracial nature of the relationship was really shown as a problem for Starr’s family, while Chris’ got barely a mention. He seemed to have pretty much free range to date whomever he pleased. However, overall, the main message of the story seemed authentic as it represented the collision of two disparate worlds. The narrator expertly portrayed each character in terms of personality and dialect and I was truly immersed in the book, feeling all of the emotions of the characters, all of the tension and all of the frustration. What I didn’t feel so much were the kumbaya moments.


A powerful tell-all!

Kennedy Babylon: A Century of Scandal and Depravity - Howie Carr

The unimaginable, blatant corruption involving blackmail, theft of records, possibly murder, certainly payoffs is mind boggling and is evidence of that same kind of entitled liberal behavior we are witnessing today. To gain control, it would seem that nothing is beyond the pale. The fixing of elections, falsely attacking opponents and arranging positive personal publicity has been a long standing practice in the politics of the Kennedy family, and now, it seems it has spread to the party at large. The Kennedy’s obviously believed that they were above the law, and their contacts insured that they were able to project and maintain that image. They slept with strange bedfellows, literally and figuratively. Somehow, their money and influence controlled all of the powers that be and their willing co-conspirators, a team of “good old boys”, went along with all of their schemes. Their friends were in high places, and they respected and revered the Kennedy name, yet it would seem, in retrospect, that it was an undeserved homage. The book centers its focus on the scandals of the Kennedys and all of the people associated with them. They lived their lives with abandon, chewing up people and discarding them. They disregarded the laws that most people feel compelled to obey. Drugs and alcohol, sex in any form, and outright lies, seemed to be de rigueur for all of them. There was no law that was inviolable, no rule that they wouldn’t break, no lie that was beyond them in order to protect themselves or each other. There certainly was honor among those “thieves”. They seemed impervious to normal standards of decorum. For me, the worst observation about their lifestyles was the fact that those who could have exposed them for what they really were, actually supported their horrific behavior; they were actually in cahoots with them, colluded with them to protect them from scrutiny and appropriate verdicts and sentencing even when laws were broken beyond the shadow of a doubt; they prevented them from being punished and their victims from attaining appropriate retribution and justice. They painted a picture of the Kennedy’s that was indeed a fairytale, that truly was a fictional Camelot, but surely it did not exist in America. Yet the myth pervaded the country, especially after the death of JFK. They and the people surrounding them were dishonest, corrupt and corruptible. They were sycophants, plain and simple; but how could there have been so many, so willing to cover for them for their own fifteen minutes of fame? There are secrets revealed in this book that are titillating, but today these same kinds of stories are not secrets, but are worn as badges of honor. President Clinton wore his badge named Monica Lewinski among others, without real detriment, and he still enjoys the praise and respect of his party and his followers, even as they cast aspersions and condemn those who have done far less. The Democrats were apparently corrupt for years under the Kennedy dynasty’s leadership, fixing affairs of the heart, hiding affairs of the heart and arranging affairs of the heart. They dealt with anyone who could advance their causes, bar none, and that may be ultimately what brought them down, in the end. You lie with dogs, you do get up with fleas. The patriarch, Joe Kennedy was the worst one. Among other things he was a bigot. He began the crusade of lies, secrets and threats that invaded the family history. He used his money to buy influence and peddle it. He bought the office in the Senate for his son and later the Presidency as well. Still, those on the left don’t own up to this charade and still honor the memory of the Kennedys as superheroes, even though they were no better, in retrospect, than the mob. They were thugs. They were lords of the manor and had their own personal fiefdom. They also had more than their share of tragedy. This first of a two volume tell-all book, will be an eye opener and a shocker for most readers who were brought up with the absolute fairytale idea of Camelot and JFK. Their collusion with mobsters, the bribes and the strong arm tactics they used seem quite truthfully, horrifying, and even more so today, because they are the stuff of reality, not fiction. One has to wonder if this kind of corruption continues. I am not sure that this book will be fully comprehended by those who have no real knowledge of politics in Massachusetts. In some cases, it felt as if the author assumed everyone who was going to read it was from Massachusetts and was familiar with the commonplace corruption and shenanigans still ongoing today in the party as a whole, a party that has, by and large, not played by the rules for years, as evidenced by their underhanded tactics in our most recent Presidential election of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton. The book is not a fast read because there is so much “dirt”, that turns out to be real that it is hard to absorb it all at once. On a practical note, I thought the heft of the book itself was too heavy, and it made it hard to handle easily. My advice for the second volume is to try and use paper stock that is lighter and more pliable. Also, since I couldn’t recognize all of the cartoon caricatures on the cover, I suggest they print a name underneath, or include a footnote identifying them. Also, after attending a very entertaining presentation of the book by Howie Carr and then reading the book, I realized he presented too much about the book in the public forum, so that when reading it, it felt repetitive. It would be better if he simply hinted at information in the book because exposing it with a detailed powerpoint presentation. It almost made it unnecessary to read the book, and it would be a shame if it didn’t get the readership it deserves.

Good science fiction!

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova, author; Joanne Whalley, Dennis Boutsikaris, Rosalyn Landor, Martin Jarvis, Robin Atkin Downes, Jim Ward, narrators

Does Vlad Tepes, Count Dracula still live? That is the subject of this book. The reader will travel all over the world with the characters as the search for his tomb begins. Will it be discovered?

Professor Bartholomew Rossi has decided to revisit his research on Dracula. He advises Paul, a graduate student, who has come to him to ask about an odd book containing a dragon symbol that he has suddenly discovered in his possession. It turns out that the book is related to Rossi’s research on Vlad Tepes. He also has a little blank book with a dragon symbol on it. He begins to explain his research to Paul and gives him some papers to read on the subject. When Rossi suddenly disappears under suspicious circumstances, Paul searches for him, and in the course of events, he meets the Professor’s illegitimate daughter, Helen Rossi, from Romania. Together, they both try and find the missing professor before it is too late, albeit for different reasons. They fear he will be terminally infected by Dracula and condemned to the life of the undead. Their search takes them to several countries and places where they believe Vlad Tepes may have been buried, where they believe he has hidden the professor. They believe that Dracula still lives. Will they be successful?

Years later, Paul is traveling with his daughter. When he suddenly leaves her a note telling her to return home, but does not tell her where he has gone, which is totally out of character, she searches through his papers. The secrets she discovers are intriguing and she sets out to attempt to find him. She believes that he may be in danger. Apparently he is searching for her mother, yet she believes her mother is dead. She did not know anything about her, however, until she found letters and papers that her father had hidden away and never shared with her. Will she find her father? Will he find her mother?

There are three parallel stories that are covered. One takes place when Paul is a student, searching for his professor, one takes place when his daughter is a high school student searching for him as he searches for her mother, and than a third takes place, years later as his daughter, now a professional herself, discovers an odd book is suddenly in her possession.

Although the story is not believable, it is well written and very interesting as Dracula’s history is related. I was drawn into it.  In my audio, there were several narrators, all of whom I enjoyed. I found it advantageous to have different voices for each character, which kept them distinct. For science fiction fans, this book will be a treat.

The vulgarity was disappointing and made it difficult to complete.

Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) - David Sedaris

David Sedaris has compiled a book consisting of his diary entries from 1977 to 2002. This is the first volume. A second is to follow. In the past, I have appreciated his dry humor and enjoyed his poignant stories. This audio book, however, was beyond my ability to complete. Although he reads it well, in his deadpan manner, the subject matter and language is simply too low class and vulgar; the people he encounters and describes are simply all bottom feeders. Everyone is troubled, doped up, hostile and violent. He denigrates everyone on the basis of color, religion and sexual orientation. His portrayal of his life experiences in the first 2 ½ hours that I was able to listen to him was beyond what would be acceptable in polite company. I am not sure why he selected the particular incidents he did, perhaps for shock effect, but for me, it really fell flat.  The content simply got too gross. Perhaps someone more open minded will enjoy it. Perhaps as the author gets more mature and more grounded, with a realistic direction for his life, his entries in the diaries will be more palatable, rather than a sample of a variety of trashy anecdotes which are unpleasant to learn about. For those faint of heart, stay clear.

"When we see each other, what do we really see?"

A Horse Walks into a Bar: A novel - Jessica Cohen, David Grossman

A Horse Walks Into a Bar, David Grossman, author; Joe Barrett, narrator, Jessica Cohen, translator

The book is well written, but I don’t think it will be universally enjoyed. I believe it is for a narrow audience that is familiar with Jewish humor and its universal ideas about guilt and shame.  A stand-up comedian in his mid fifties, Dov Greenstein, is performing in a small nightclub that seems a bit second rate, in Netanya, Israel. He has invited a former school chum, a judge, to attend his performance as a special favor. He has not seen Ashivai Lazar for years, but he has followed his career. Dov has asked Ashivai to come to his performance and tell him honestly how he perceives him. In the audience, possibly by chance, there is also a woman who was a neighbor of his from his childhood. She is now a manicurist and a medium. He calls her Pitz. Each of these three characters has a defining characteristic which is important to the story. How does each of them “see” Dovela? How do they see themselves?

I did not find the story funny, although it features Dov’s entire stand up routine of the night. Interspersed between jokes Dovela relates’s, the background of his life. The two characters who knew him are privy to some of his memories and are affected by them, but the audience experiences frustration when the jokes stop and the monologue grows serious. Some get up and leave, some become drawn to his story. Readers will experience the same ups and downs. All will be forced to think about how things are perceived and how that perception shapes their lives and the lives of others.

This odd little book examines how we all see each other and ourselves. It examines how that perception effects how we all turn out. The humor is often dark and inappropriate. Dr. Mengele, “the angel of death” from the Holocaust Concentration Camp, Aushwitz, is referred to as his family doctor. His mother was a survivor who did not survive wholly well. It is intimated that she is emotionally unstable. Dov walked on his hands to escape from reality and to protect his mother from the stares of others. It drew attention away from her making him the subject of ridicule, instead. It offered him a way to escape from his life, as well. Upside down, he was smiling, not frowning. His father was a brute who physically abused him.

Dov’s jokes and language are crude, even vulgar. His physical description is unpleasant. His performance concerns subjects we don’t usually consider funny. He jokes about cancer, the Holocaust, death, sex and a horse that walks into a bar, which is a joke begun by a driver who is taking him to the funeral of someone who has not yet been identified to him, but he knows there has been some kind of a tragedy he will have to experience against his will.

All three of the people that the story focuses on have had difficulties because of how people saw them, without really seeing them. They made people uncomfortable. Was this performance meant to expose the shared frailties of everyone? He wonders what people think of when they see him! Do they really see him? Do we all wonder about that? I would describe the book as a comedy/tragedy. The reader will decide which takes precedence.

A story about the Holocaust from the point of view of the Germans!

The Women in the Castle - Jessica Shattuck

The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck, author; Cassandra Campbell, narrator

It is 1938. The place is Burg Lingenfels, in Germany. A traditional yearly party is being planned by Marianne von Lingenfels for her aunt, the countess, who is confined to a wheel chair and no longer able to supervise the arrangements for this yearly festive celebration at the castle. It is also a terrible time of foreboding for certain segments of the German population. Hitler is in power and is being extolled and lionized, more and more, by his followers. The worst is yet to come as he puts his plans in motion. Some Germans sensed the approaching onslaught and wanted to do something to prevent it. Others faced the rumors of German brutality with disbelief, and there were some who were simply in denial because it served their purpose to pretend blindness and reap the benefits of German cruelty and injustice. Others outright supported his plans for a “Final Solution”. Who was guiltier? Who was free from guilt? The story seems to be an attempt to understand and humanize Nazi sympathizers. They had their reasons for doing what they did, and in the end, didn’t they suffer as well?
Three women are the main characters. Marianne, the niece of the countess, is married to Albrecht von Lingenfels. He is of the aristocracy, wealthy and well thought of, and he is very much involved in conversations about setting up a resistance movement against the policies of Hitler, but he needs some additional convincing.

Another is a beautiful young woman, Benita Fledermann, the wife of Connie Fledermann a man who actively pursues the effort to resist Hitler and hopes to create a resistance movement. She, however, is a Nazi sympathizer. She met Connie when she was 19 and was the leader of a group of young girls in the Bund Deutscher Madel, the BDM, Belief and Beauty, a branch of the Nazi Organizations Female Youth Group.

The third woman calls herself Ania Grabarek when she meets Benita and Marianne. She was once the wife of Rainer Brandt, a leader of a Landjahr Lager, a place where German youth were trained to become part of Hitler’s new agrarian society. When she met him, he persuaded her to join the Nazi Party. When she met Marianne, she was pretending to be a displaced person rather than someone who had once been a Nazi sympathizer married to a devout Nazi. She had become disillusioned with Hitler when she witnessed atrocious behavior by his followers and had taken her children and run away from her husband and the Party.

Circumstances evenutually placed all three women together, sharing a living space. Each had a different agenda and hidden secrets. Each had a different way of looking at life, of surviving during and after World War II. Marianne believed in doing the right thing, in honoring the memory of the resisters, in helping those who were hurt by Hitler’s minions. However, she was self righteous and cold hearted at times, unable to forgive the things she did not approve of or to accept the wrongdoing of others, for any reason. She did not want the black deeds of Germany to be relegated to the forgotten shelves of history. Was she self-serving? Belita wanted to go forward and to lose the burden of her memories and her pain. She wanted to begin again, to have a new life, forget the past, but would it be possible? Ania wanted to escape from her past. She had always disregarded her own deceptions and created a false history, distorting the things she had done in order to excuse her own complicity and guilt. When she could no longer do that, she reversed course and wanted only to remember and would not forgive herself for her sins. Was that the right path?

While the story is interesting as it presents the effect of Hitler on Germans of all backgrounds, rather than only his specific targeted victims, it attempts to make those complicit with his ideas sympathetic in some way. I could not do that, perhaps because I am Jewish. I know the impact of the monster named Hitler, and his followers, on real people. There was no one who was truly blind to his madness, as far as I am concerned. There were simply those who chose to turn a blind eye to it because they saw only benefits for themselves and saw no downside. 

Perhaps the author wanted to figure out what it was that created the Nazi or how it was possible for Germans to go forward with such a stain on their country’s history. What was the motivation for their brutality, what was the reason for their acquiescence, their hate? In a simplified explanation, perhaps it was because Germany had suffered a devastating defeat after World War I and was totally strapped and shamed. It was a self-inflicted wound to a country that had sought once again to overpower weaker neighbors. So, perhaps Hitler was the result of a disastrous economy and humiliated citizenry. They were demoralized. However, couldn’t it also be blamed on jealousy and greed, on a lack of a moral compass, on religious bias, and pure prejudice, coupled with a disregard for the lives of humans they decided were worth less than themselves. More likely it was about a pervasive ignorance of common decency and the Germanic personality which was orderly and cold, rigid and mechanical. Emotional responses were not highly valued. Little compassion was felt for the victims because the end result was considered good for Germans and Germany.

I simply cannot feel sorry for their suffering, therefore, which I feel was truly deserved because of their own belligerent, reprehensible behavior. Their actions were the harbinger of their own disaster. Where did they think the empty apartments came from? Where did they think that the clothing that was dispersed came from? Where did they think the people were resettled to? How did they not notice the cattle cars, the smell of burning flesh, the people who suddenly disappeared? Where did they think the disabled and mentally deficient people disappeared to? Why did they even think the Jews needed to be removed? What did they think would happen to their possessions that were left behind? Did they not notice the slave laborers who looked like zombies, the emaciated people marching through town? Who did they think were filling the jobs at the factories?

This is a story about Germans before the war, and in its aftermath, and it is an attempt to explain the way they became the people they were, but it is also the story of all of us, as cruelty still abounds and a lack of personal responsibility flourishes even today. Far fewer fought Hitler than complied with his ultimate plan. Perhaps it was greed at first, and fear of Hitler, later on, that made so many go along with his diabolical ideas, but that only explains the motivation behind their behavior, it cannot and does not justify the things that the Nazi sympathizers did or ignored. They did everything they could in order to benefit and preserve their own families, even as they tolerated the injustices done to the families of “others”. They did not recognize their own complicity in the contemptible policies of Hitler. If we look around today, we will see evidence of the same kind of blindness, the same pattern of blaming others for one’s own failures, the same inability to judge one’s own behavior honestly.

I can out Germany’s tragic history behind me, and surely history will, but I wonder, should they be forgiven?  Would forgiveness open the door to the idea of forgetting and perhaps to another Holocaust? Perhaps the answer is to accept the fact that it happened and to work to prevent it from ever happening again, to anyone, and to understand that we are all valuable. None are less or more than any other. Will the strong continue to prey upon the weak, the wicked to do evil if we don’t continue to remember?

Finally, a book that makes you smile! Sit back, relax, enjoy :-)

Class Mom: A Novel - Laurie Gelman

I won this book from Early Reviewers on librarything.com, and I am so glad I did. What a relief it was to read a book that made me laugh, chuckle or smile on every page, a book I hated to put down because it was such a pleasure to read.

As this short novel explores the kindergarten year in the life of Maximilian Dixon through his mom’s hilarious portrayal of the class mom, the personalities and relationships she encounters are examined and exposed with all of the human frailties “that flesh is heir to”. Jen Dixon is the class mom extraordinaire, although at first that is not a universal opinion. The reader will witness the interaction of all of the Dixons, with their friends, fellow kindergarten parents, kindergarten children and their teacher. Life’s little pleasures will pop out of the story in expected and unexpected places. If nothing else, the book surely proves that we are all young inside our heads, no matter how old we are on the outside, and we all have our little secrets and dreams. It will prove that our lives shine no brighter than when we are happy and taking life in stride.

Jen Dixon is lucky and she knows it. She is enjoying the dessert of her life, as she describes her youngest child, five year old Max, who has just begun kindergarten. She has two older daughters who are already away in college. Her friend Nina who heads up the PTA has leaned on her to become a class mom. She certainly has had world class experience having been one for both her daughters. She provides a laugh a minute with her sarcastic emails, requests and expectations of the other moms, although some take umbrage at her style and do not laugh at all.

Anyone who has ever been a class mom or school volunteer will nod in agreement compulsively as Jen relates her activities and the pages fly by; they will find their lips turning up into a knowing smile as requests are made and duties are performed. Anyone who hasn’t had any experience in being a class mom will thoroughly enjoy her experiences vicariously, taking pleasure in being a voyeur into the life of Jen Dixon as she navigates her home life as a wife and mother and her outside life with all of its various temptations!

Max’s teacher is unusual. She presents a persona that alternates between a sex pot and a puritan. She is full of surprises, and she confounds some of the parents when they try to understand her. There is a parent and a child who never appear for the entire year; no one has met them! There are show offs, flirts and chronic complainers; in short, the book presents a picture that represents a slice of all of our lives, warts and all. The novel was nostalgic for me. It took me back to my days of being a school parent, my PTA days, my fundraising days, school party days and play date days. It reminded me of the camaraderie of neighbors, of watching each other’s children, of car pools and overnight sleepovers. It also reminded me of the friction that sometimes displayed itself which was followed by unity and friendships that blossomed when necessary to support a common cause. It brought back memories of happy children, school yards and school dances. The book reminded me of the dessert of my life.

Jen Dixon was what every parent might want to be even though she could be abrasive at times, because her tongue in cheek dialogue and messages were genuine, she was sincere. She spoke her mind; she was involved, and she was really a nice person when you scratched her surface. She was a joy to discover.