Dark Witch by Nora Roberts
(Berkley, 2013, 342 pages)
Iona Sheehan is desperate to find her roots and her place in life. She decides to quit her job, sell her belongings, and take her grandmother’s advice to fly to Ireland and start anew. She books a week-long stay in the old castle that now serves as a luxurious hotel. She plans on pampering herself and taking in some scenery. She ventures out on her first day to find her cousins, Branna and Connor O’Dwyer. Along the way she encounters a huge dog, but later finds out that he belongs to Branna and was sent to fetch her. Branna embraces Iona, offers to find her a job in the horse stables, and encourages Iona to move in when her time runs out at the castle.
Iona soon realizes that her cousins possess mystical powers. She had been told stories of the Dark Witch, her ancestor, by her grandmother, but she begins to understand that there is a reason and a purpose for which she has been drawn to Ireland. Iona’s arrival means that the three cousins will be able to join forces against the dark one, Cabhan. However, before the summer solstice, Iona will learn the trade of witchcraft and fall in love with a horseman. This is book 1 of the Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
(Riverhead Books, 2015, 323 pages)
I admit, I started reading this bestseller because I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about. The basic plot begins with a woman (Rachel) noticing a couple (she nicknames them Jason and Jess), who she sees daily through her window on the train. She invents a bucolic narrative of their life in direct contrast to her own unfortunate current reality. All is not well, though, when the woman (Megan) mysteriously disappears and the woman’s husband (Scott) becomes a suspect in her disappearance.
As the book progressed I became disturbed, disgusted, and disappointed with it (not necessarily in that order). Most of the characters were either vile, pathetic, or otherwise annoying – and though there were plenty of exciting plot twists, particularly at the end, I was glad to finish this book – both because I wanted to find out what happened, and I also simply tired of reading it. I enjoyed the actual writing; author Paula Hawkins spins a very vivid story in which the characters come alive. I grew so very tired, however, of “protagonist” Rachel’s alcoholism and mourning for her failed marriage with so little growth. (As I tend to read fiction for entertainment, I realize that my not being overly entertained doesn’t mean the book isn’t good – but if you read more for entertainment than for the literary experience itself, you, too, may be ready for this book to be done.)
Other reviewers have noted themes related to female empowerment throughout this book. The book tends to deftly paint some of those issues without offering much in the way of their resolution. I felt grief for the characters, particularly Rachel and Megan, as I kept hoping they would do something redemptive.
All the above said, The Girl on the Train is still an incredibly engrossing novel. I appreciated it very much for its great writing and skillfully-told story from multiple moments and points of view – but if you prefer your reading to have unambiguous characters and a story with just a little conflict, save this one for a day on which you feel you can be more at peace with humanity’s inevitable shortcomings.
You can also check out reviews of this title from Julia and Theresa.
Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief by Bill Mason, with Lee Gruenfeld
(Villard, 2005, 384 pages)
The thrill of a jewelry heist is, for those of us uninterested in prison or any other trappings that may come with that territory, one to be experienced vicariously. Lucky for us, Bill Mason (with Lee Gruenfeld) provides his readers with hours of excitement in Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. In this page-turner, Mason generously lets us into his mind and life from his somewhat troubled adolescence on the wrong side of the tracks through to his harrowing moment of retirement as a notorious jewel thief. The book moves from the inner drama of what led him to his avocation as a jewel thief, to the outer drama of the heists themselves, from secret and elite Shaker Heights, Ohio clubs to equal parts Florida beaches and prisons.
Mason’s account of his life of sparkling crime tends to be more gritty and less glamorous than some fictional accounts of jewel thievery, though the amounts of money with which he deals may raise the eyebrows of some of us with less-well-padded bank accounts. Mason considers, however, the human cost of his exploits – mostly to his family, but also to those from whom he stole jewelry. Readers may find their moral hackles raised at some of what he writes, and some reviewers have remarked upon Mason’s willingness to take responsibility for his actions without necessarily working toward any type of repentant justice regarding his crimes. As a reader of this work, though, my interest in the story was primarily in the first-person perspective of a jewel thief, and less as a tale of redemption. While I may have had my own moral scruples toward his story, I appreciated the apparent candor with which Mason tells it.
Those looking for a redemptive morality tale won’t find it here – Mason, as many of us do, unabashedly rationalizes his actions. While apologetic toward those he relieved of their jewelry, one senses he has given up his life of crime more due to age and a personal need for peace than any idea of it being inherently wrong to rob people. With all that in mind, if you seek the kind of vicarious thrill that comes from reading about someone else’s bad behavior and want to learn more about what it really feels like to commit audacious crimes of this nature, this book certainly delivers the goods.
Haunted Webster Groves by Patrick Dorsey
(Factual Planet, 2015, 131 pages)
This book by Patrick Dorsey provides fourteen riveting accounts as told to him of unquiet spirits in and near the area of Webster Groves, Missouri. As a ghost agnostic, I am generally fascinated by and open to hearing people’s accounts of interactions with ghosts. This 131-page book is divided into two main section: “Legends,” being more a compilation of experiences that many people have had over many years, and “Firsthand Accounts,” in which Dorsey interviews several Webster Groves-area residents about their up-close-and-personal experiences with these spirits.
Regarding the writing style of the book, sometimes I was charmed by the way in which the author inserted his own editorial commentary into the stories; at other times, I wanted him to get out of the way a little more and simply let the stories speak for themselves. However, a book of this nature is at least in part personality-driven, and the playful treatment of this subject matter provides a bit of non-ghostly levity to the stories. Dorsey notes that he is “a storyteller and a writer, not a ghost hunter” (p. 10), and that the reader will thus find more story and less science. This book is good reading for the casual ghost hunter looking for an entertaining and spooky evening, particularly one familiar with or interested in the Webster Groves/St. Louis County area.
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
(W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, 489 pages)
Someone Knows My Name is also known by another title, Book of Negroes, which is the title it was originally published with in Canada. Aminata is kidnapped from Africa as a young child and sold into slavery. This book is meant to be the story of her life told from her perspective. The book starts off in the early 1800s with Aminata as an elderly woman in London who is there in support of abolitionism. She then reflects back on how she came to be in the circumstances she’s in today.
Aminata’s story takes us from Africa to North America. We experience the inhumane conditions of life onboard a slave ship in addition to being exposed to what life was like as a slave in North America. Aminata was fortunate that her intelligence was noted, she was taught to read and write and this enabled her to really move ahead in the world. Eventually she was enlisted by the British Army to write in the Book of Negroes, a record of all those people of color who went to fight on the side of the British during the Revolutionary War.
A unique aspect of this book is that it touches on an aspect of history that isn’t often recounted in slave literature. We journey with Aminata to Nova Scotia where she is promised freedom but is faced with still more hardship. From here she is finally able to fulfill her dream of returning to Africa as she travels with many other Nova Scotians to settle in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, reality has a way of shattering the dreams we thought we had…
I liked this book and would recommend it if you’re a fan of historical fiction. I wouldn’t say it was the best book I’ve read on the topic, but I really appreciated the different perspective Hill offered. It made me reflect on slave narratives I read in the past and would like to revisit in addition to reminding me to pick up a number of books relating to this subject that have been on my to-read list for quite some time.
P.S. This book was made into a mini-series on BET which you may have heard of.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
(Doubleday, 2015, 736 pages)
I have to admit right off the bat that the cover to this book almost turned me off to the whole idea of reading it. I know, don’t judge a book by its cover… Well, what finally prompted me to pick up A Little Life was the fact that I was hearing about it everywhere. It was highly praised on a podcast I listen to called “Books on the Nightstand” and then it was getting shortlisted for numerous literary awards. I couldn’t resist the pull any longer.
A Little Life follows a group of 4 friends as they proceed through adulthood. The friends, Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB, met in college where they all shared a suite in their dorm. The book takes place after they have all moved to New York City and are finding their way in the world. The central figure in the book (and in their friendship circle) is Jude. Jude suffers from episodes of debilitating pain that seems to stem from damage to his legs that occurred when he was younger. In addition to this physical pain, it’s clear that Jude suffers in other, more emotional, ways but he’s not one to talk about himself or his past – not even with those closest to him.
This novel is about love, friendship, forgiveness, and coming out on the other side of tragedy. We see the men grow over a span of decades and Yanagihara’s focus on character development is pretty great. Every time I was forced to put it down I couldn’t wait to get back to the book because I was so invested in the characters. I was definitely still thinking about them after finishing the book.
I will say that there were some elements of the novel that felt a little unfinished. But overall this is a book I would certainly recommend. Despite its size it reads fairly quickly. And it certainly isn’t a “light” read so prepare yourself for some dark elements. Some people talk about how this book had them sobbing – there were certainly moments where I teared up, so if you’re looking for that kind of read, this is a good one to pick up. Plus, it has gotten rave reviews and, as I mentioned previously, it’s shortlisted for all kinds of awards.
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
(GRAPHIX, 2014, 208 pages)
Sisters is the follow-up to Smile and explores Raina’s love-hate relationship with her sister. Flashbacks are prominent throughout the story and evident by sepia-colored pages. It follows 13-year old Raina, and her sister, brother, and mom on a road trip from California to Colorado for a family reunion. Raina just wants to listen to her music through headphones, while her sister wants to annoy her. Later they realize that their parents haven’t been getting along after their father takes a plane to the reunion instead of riding with them. This story wasn’t quite as upbeat as Smile, but I still enjoyed it.