Friday Book Whimsy: Ghosts of Harvard

Twists and turns run rampant in Ghosts of Harvard, a book by Francesca Serritella. The book can’t decide if it’s a mystery, a ghost story, or a teaching tool. Despite a few flaws, I decided it was, in the end, just a good book to read during a quarantine.

Cady Archer can’t come to grips with the fact that her brilliant, but schizophrenic, brother killed himself while attending Harvard University. Against her parents’ wishes, she elects  to attend the prestigious university to find out first hand what drove her brother to jump out his dorm window to his death. Armed with her brother’s notebook that contains his thoughts and unexplained and indecipherable numbers, she sets out to find the answers to her questions.

But before long, Cady begins hearing the same voices that haunted her brother. Is she also schizophrenic or are there actually ghosts that haunt the Harvard campus? The ghosts, however,  don’t slow her down, and she doesn’t give up until she solves the puzzle. She nearly loses her life in the process.

I learned a bit about schizophrenia and what it can do to a person’s life. And not just the person suffering with the disease, but the entire family. I also learned a lot about what life is like at a prestigious and very challenging university with lots of history, both good and bad.

It’s true that some of the book made me roll my eyes. I struggled a bit with the Cady, who is the main character. Perhaps it’s because I am a mother, but I really, really wanted her to stop skipping classes and not studying for tests. But it wasn’t a book that I was interested in abandoning. And I’m glad I finished it, because the ending caught me by surprise.

Ghosts of Harvard served its purpose in providing a break from some difficult times.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Holdout

A few years ago, The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore, was surprisingly among my top three books of that year. Surprising, because that novel was about the invention of the light bulb. Who da thought? Not only did I learn a lot about electricity from The Last Days of Night, But I also learned that Graham Moore was an extremely talented writer. The Holdout once again demonstrates the author’s talent, this time telling a story of the power of persuasion.

Jessica Silver is a 15-year-old girl, missing and presumed dead. Not just dead, but murdered by Bobby Nock, one of her teachers and African American. He is, in fact, on trial for her murder, and it appears to be an open-and-shut case. However, after lengthy deliberation, Maya Seale, the only jury member to question Nock’s guilt, manages to convince the other jury members that the prosecution hasn’t proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They vote to acquit. However, one of the jury members regrets what he did, and spends the next few years trying to prove Nock’s guilt, even though he can’t be tried again.

Ten years later, the jury members reunite to participate in filming of a documentary about the trial. Later that night, one of the jury members — the one who regretted his decision — is found murdered, and Maya, now herself a successful defense attorney, is the chief suspect.

This new murder investigation provides clues to the original murder trial in unexpected ways. The author cleverly gives the reader insights into the minds of each juror by allowing each one to tell their story. Their own stories leads to a surprising conclusion.

I loved this book, and recommend it very highly.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Westering Women

Author Sandra Dallas is a favorite of mine for two reasons: a) She writes many novels About the Old a West; and b) She lives in my hometown of Denver. Well, really three reasons, the third being that she tells a hell of a yarn that almost always feature strong women who work together to care for one another.

Westering Women begins with an advertisement for adventuresome women of good moral character to join two ministers on a cross-country trip from Chicago to the gold mining community of Goosetown, California. It’s 1852, so the trip will not be easy. All manner of women with all sorts of backgrounds volunteer to undertake the journey, which will undoubtedly be difficult. Each one has their own reason for looking for escape.

And difficult it is, as the women face extremely dire circumstances from abusive men to challenging terrain to extreme weather conditions. Over the months it takes to complete the journey, the women grow stronger, more self-reliant, closer to one another and more trusting.

Maggie is escaping from an abusive husband, whom she thinks she killed in self-defense. She brings her daughter, who is shy at first, but learns to trust the women. She grows most fond of the woman named Mary, who is as strong as a man, unattractive, but loved by all.

I enjoyed seeing how the women went from being strangers to being sisters. Seeing how they gained confidence and a sense of worth made the novel a great read.

I have enjoyed all of Dallas’ books, and this is one of my favorites.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Mr. Nobody

What would you do if you woke up in an unfamiliar place and couldn’t remember who you are or why you are there? It’s a frightening notion, and one that author Catherine Steadman makes us think about in her new novel, Mr. Nobody.

A man awakens on an unfamiliar English beach, and hasn’t the slightest idea who he is and is carrying no identification. His past is a complete blank. He is found by a couple of police officers, and taken to the hospital where he is treated for dehydration and shock.

As officials reach out to the public to try to learn the man’s identity, the public’s interest is piqued. He is nicknamed Mr. Nobody, and held in the hospital until more can be learned.

In the meantime, Dr. Emma Lewis receives a telephone call from a renowned psychiatrist for whom she has the greatest respect. He asks her to become the chief doctor on this man’s case. It is the break for which Emma has been waiting, too good to turn down.

But then she finds out that she will need to return to the area in which she grew up, the area that she and her family had to flee and take on new identities because of something that happened. Nevertheless, she decides to risk it.

And then Mr. Nobody sees her, and says her name. Her real name. How could this be?

What follows are many twists and turns that made the novel very entertaining. I will admit that I felt as though the author made me wait waaaaay too long to find out about Emma’s past. In fact, the novel moved a bit slowly until the very end. Still, I finished the book in a couple of sittings, and I love when endings are unpredictable as this novel’s was.

I recommend Mr. Nobody to people who enjoy thrillers.

Here is a link to the book. 

Friday Book Whimsy: Once is Not Enough

I recently read an article written by someone unknown to me who said that during the recent months of quarantine, people have been re-reading books at an unusual rate. Interesting observation, though I have no idea how she knows what books we are all reading. Perhaps since Apple and Amazon and Pinterest and Instagram all seem to be fully aware of what we are doing at all times, they spilled the beans to this particular writer (who they interrupted while she was re-reading Little Women for the 27th time). 

I don’t want to disappoint the writer, but I haven’t re-read a single book for quite some time. It’s not that I don’t re-read books; I have my favorite books that I have read on many occasions. But I continually put e-books on hold at two libraries, and they have been keeping me busy. I think people are reading more than they normally read because they have nothing else to do while they’re drinking their Bloody Marys at 10 o’clock in the morning. So the books are coming to me at a furious rate.

According to the writer of the article, the reason people are re-reading is that during this time of restlessness and insecurity, readers enjoy their familiar authors and the memorable story lines. That could well be true in my opinion. For me, there are certain novels that make me feel like I’m sitting with an old friend or a beloved family member.

One of my favorite novels, and a book that I re-read regularly, is the first novel by Colorado author Kent Haruf entitled Plainsong. The story is good, but I will tell you the truth: I don’t love the book because of the story. The plot isn’t remarkable. I love the book because of the dialogue. One hundred percent. As I read the words written by Haruf and spoken by the two bachelor brothers who raise cattle outside of the fictitious town of Holt, Colorado, it’s like sitting and listening to my uncles talk. The dialogue is the most accurate and comforting of any other book I’ve ever read.

Voice is really important to me. I discovered that when I used to listen to books on tape (and yes, they really were on tape) as I commuted to work. It never took me long to figure out whether the book’s author had a gift with dialogue when you hear someone reading the book out loud. There are books where every person’s voice is interchangeable. If the sentence wasn’t attributed to a character, you wouldn’t know who spoke.

The books in the Mitford series by Jan Karon are another wonderful example of books that I could (and do) read again and again. Perhaps the characters are too good to be true, but what’s wrong with that? I want each and every one of them to be my friend. I want Fr. Tim to JUST ONCE come and pray with me. Or pray for me. The author has given each character a unique voice.

So, though I have admitted to being too busy keeping up with my library holds, I can certainly see why people are re-reading their favorite books. It’s like hanging out with someone you love.

Here, by the way, are SOME of the books I have re-read…..

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
At Home in Mitford, by Jan Karon
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
My Antonia, by Willa Cather
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
True Grit, by Charles Portis
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Hercule Poirot books by Agatha Christie
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

What have you re-read?

 

Friday Book Whimsy: Mistress of the Ritz

If I had a bucket list (which I decidedly don’t), one of the things on the list would be to spend a week at the Paris Ritz Hotel. The trickiest part of achieving that goal would be that I would want to visit the Ritz during the period of time that Claude Auzello was the director of the famous hotel, and his wife Blanche was its mistress.

Mixing fiction with interesting fact is the bedrock of a good historical novel. Melanie Benjamin’s novel Mistress of the Ritz focuses on the period of time during World War II, specifically when the Nazis had taken over Paris, and subsequently made the Ritz Hotel their headquarters.

Claude Auzello fell immediately in love with Blanche, an independent American who now lived in Paris. She soon loved him back, and they married shortly after they first met. Much to his surprise, Blanche wasn’t interested in allowing Claude to have a mistress in the way French men do, at least according to Claude. Still, the two made a good and loving partnership as Claude worked his way up to director of the renowned hotel, stomping grounds of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Coco Chanel during World War II.

Mistress of the Ritz tells the love story of Claude and Blanche Auzello, but also the love story of Blanche and Claude with the Ritz Hotel. As the world was going crazy around them, the Ritz provided a solid foundation.

With Claude unaware, Blanche becomes associated with the French resistance movement, and eventually is discovered. But Claude has secrets of his own. No secret, however, is greater than the fact that Blanche came from a Jewish family in New York City and had changed her name to protect herself.

I loved this book, both for the history and for the romance. I give Mistress of the Ritz a big thumbs up.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Sun Down Motel

Those who follow my reading choices know that I’m a big fan of mysteries. What most people don’t know is that I have developed somewhat of an interest in scary books. Not horror novels like Bring Me Flesh; I’ll Bring You Hell, a book by an author named Martin Rose, of whom I’ve never heard, and whose books I will never read. But a good ol’ gothic mystery novel with a side of ghosts can bring me satisfaction. The Haunting of Hill House, by writer Shirley Jackson is a good example of the type of scary book to which I’m drawn. Hauntingly scary, but no Freddy Krueger popping out of the closet.

So when a book called The Sun Down Motel, by Simone St. James, an author noted for her creepy novels, comes across my computer screen, you can understand why I was immediately hooked. Last year I read The Broken Girls by the same author, and was suitably impressed. And I have stayed at enough motels with signs that looked just like that illustrated on the cover to be drawn in.

Carly Kirk is at loose ends. She misses her deceased mother. She isn’t finding satisfaction in college. And she has always wondered what happened to her Aunt Viv, who went missing 30 years earlier, before Carly was born. So she drops out of school, and heads to the upper New York town of Fell to retrace the steps of her aunt, and make a true effort to find out what happened and why the police were never able to close the case. All she knows is that Viv ran away from home and found work as the night clerk at The Sun Down Motel in Fell, NY.

Carly arrives in Fell, and begins renting the apartment in which Viv lived.  Soon she accepts a job as the night clerk at The Sun Down Motel. In the course of retracing her aunt’s steps, Carly faces some of the same challenges faced by Viv. The challenges include nightly visits from the victims of the serial killer the police and Viv’s family think murdered Viv.

The Sun Down Motel is part ghost story, part romance, but mostly a mystery with an ending that might take you by surprise. I found the novel to be a great escape from the trials around me.

Here is a link to the book. 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Overdue Life of Amy Byler

My reading interests have changed somewhat during these two months+ of sheltering in place. If you told me I had to read Crime and Punishment or Moby Dick, I think I would break down and cry. I don’t need deep thinking or meaningful literature; I need comedy or romance or if I’m feeling really spiffy,  a good mystery.

Given this state of mind, I set aside some of the beefier books that I had downloaded from the library and began reading a book I had purchased some time ago dirt cheap because I liked the title. The Overdue Life of Amy Byler, by Kelly Harms, provided some fairly easy reading that contained a pretty good message.

Amy Byler hasn’t quite recovered from her husband and the father of her two kids — a girl teen and a boy ‘tween — leaving them without a thought of what would happen to them. Amy worked hard as a school librarian to keep the house where their family had lived since the beginning. With work and raising two kids all by herself, there is little time left for herself.

Then one day her husband shows up after being gone for three years, ready to forgive and forget, and eager to make up for lost time with his kids. He encourages Amy to attend a conference in New York City and connect up with her friend who lives there. And, what’s more, he gives her his credit card.

This leads to that which leads to an almost magical two weeks, in which she agrees to be part of her friend’s magazine article in what they are calling a Momspringa. A chance for overworked and tired and isolated mothers to take time for themselves. In this case, she receives almost a complete makeover, and a chance to see most of New York City without worrying about her kids. 

The Overdue Life of Amy Byler offers readers a chance to dream about a life of luxury and indulgence. I can’t say that I could particularly relate to Amy’s life situation, but there are a lot of single mothers who definitely could. However, even for me, the book provided some laughs, a little romance, and a peek into how the other half lives in an exciting city.

The message to take away from this book, even for those of us who are not overworked parents, is that we all need time for ourselves.

The Overdue Life of Amy Byler was a fun and relaxing read. I enjoyed it very much.

Here is a link to the book.

 

 

 

Friday Book Whimsy: Book Challenge, The Last

Today I will conclude the book challenge I have been pondering for the last few weeks. Click here to see Part I and Part II.

A book that reminds you of home: It sort of depends on what I consider home. For this purpose, however, I am calling home the place where I spent my formative years — Nebraska. Therefore, the book that most reminds me of my home is My Antonia, by Willa Cather. I, of course, am nothing like the main character — Antonia Shimerda. Her family are Bohemian immigrants who lived and farmed in southeast Nebraska in the late 1800s. She befriends Jim, who is newly arrived from the east coast. The reason this reminds me of growing up in Nebraska is because the people are down-to-earth, hard-working, honest, and live simple lives. That describes my experience growing up in the Midwest.

Favorite romance book: Can you really get more romantic than Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte? I mean, the wild and enormously troubled Mr. Rochester sees the good in the poor orphan girl who has led a tragic life up until she becomes a governess to Mr. Rochester’s child. the book apparently illustrates classism, sexism, and all sorts of -isms, but I simply adore the love between the two main characters, even after he loses his eyesight. Oh, and the crazy wife in the attic.

Favorite male character: Lots of favorite male characters, but I’m going to go with Father Tim, from Jan Karon’s Mitford series. I wish that Father Tim could be my spiritual advisor and my friend.

Favorite female character: I like many female characters, but one who has stayed in my mind is Eleanor Oliphant, from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. I loved everything about Eleanor Oliphant. I love her outlook on life, I loved how she rose above her dysfunctional upbringing, and I loved her friendship with Raymond. I reviewed the book here.

Your favorite writer: Man, this is a hard one to pin down, but given my answer to the last question which follows, I think it would have to be the late Kent Haruf. When this Colorado author passed away in 2014, I literally cried, knowing that there would never be another story about fictional Holt, Colorado. I own every one of his books, and since I’m a dedicated library enthusiast, that’s saying a lot.

Your favorite book of all time: That would have to be Plainsong. The story takes place in the fictional small town of Holt, on the eastern plains of Colorado. It introduces a group of people who are only marginally connected, but who come together as though they were a family. The dialogue is as true as in any book I have ever read. The writing is lyrical and spoke to my heart. The characters are realistic and likeable, though some are broken. The McPheron brothers — two old bachlors who are ranchers — are wonderful and true.  Eventide takes over where Plainsong leaves off.

Well, what do you think of all of my choices? What are your choices?

Friday Book Whimsy: Book Challenge, Part II

Today’s post will continue the Book Challenge I found recently on Pinterest. Read last Friday’s post for Part I.

A book that made you laugh: I often find author Bill Bryson to be smug and mean-spirited. But he’s often enormously funny. A Walk in the Woods is a book that caused me not only guffaws, but often laughing until I had tears rolling down my cheeks. It’s a book that makes me forgive him for his smugness.

A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving: I purchased the Kindle version of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple when it was first released without knowing much about the book. When I took a look and saw the format, I was immediately uninterested in reading it. The book is mostly a series of text messages, memos, school documents and so forth. There is very little narrative. So it sat in my library for months before I dove in. I loved the book, as I indicated in my review.

The first novel you remember reading: What else? Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. Oh, I read Nancy Drew and other kids’ mystery books, but Little Women was my first real novel. I loved it the first time I read it, and the many times I’ve read it since. And I always cry when Beth dies. Oh, spoiler alert.

A book that you wish more people would read: I have no way of knowing how many people read any given book, but I have a general sense that author Julia Keller is hugely underappreciated for her dark and richly textured Bell Elkins series. The stories take place in West Virginia and feature a county-prosecutor-turned-private-detective in partnership with the former sheriff and former deputy. The novels are not cheerful, but the characters are interesting and likeable, and Keller’s descriptions and stories ring true.

Favorite title of a book: I’m a sucker for a good title. I’ve also been known to pick a book from its cover. One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow has both. The book, written by Olivia Hawker, will be one of my favorites of 2020. Read my review here.

A book you love but hate at the same time: There has only been one time that I can recall that upon reading the ending, I literally threw the book across the room. Thank heavens I wasn’t yet reading on Kindle, because I’m not sure I would have been able to resist the impulse even then. That book is Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. The story was so compelling that I couldn’t put the book down. But that ending. Oh. My. Goodness. And that’s all I’ll say in case you’re one of the 10 people in the world who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie.

That’s all for this week. To be continued.

By the way, I would love to get your answers to these same questions. Last week’s too.