The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad
by
Colson Whitehead

Rating:

Cora is a young slave on the Randall cotton plantation in antebellum Georgia when Caesar approaches her with a plan to escape. He tells her she will be his good luck charm, but he’s picked her because he knows she can make it. Cora’s strong and determined personality will help them escape the brutal treatment they can no longer endure. And as a young woman, she is now defenseless against Terrance Randall’s abuse. Cora’s mother, Mabel ran for her own freedom when Cora was a girl. Now Cora is an outcast living on the plantation’s “hob,” a place where slaves are banished by other slaves.

Shortly after they run, they are chased by a group of slave catchers and Cora kills a boy who attacks her. Via the Underground Railroad, they find their way to safety in South Carolina. But something isn’t right and Cora is soon on the run again. And she’s being pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway whose reputation is at stake. Ridgeway failed to capture Mabel when she ran. Now he’s determined to succeed and restore Terrance’s confidence in him.

In Whitehead’s interpretation, station agents from a real underground railroad system, built by blacks and white supporters of freedom, help Cora move from state to state. The risks are great for Cora and those who help her and some will pay with their lives.

What do I say about a book like this, read at a time like this? Though Whitehead’s depiction of slavery and oppression is from a grim time in American history where slavery in the south was accepted, his characters’ messages continue to ring true. Cora’s story is a reflection of innumerable stories of how poorly blacks have been treated in this country.

What makes this book excellent is how Whitehead’s characters represent complicated and nuanced views of slavery and oppression.

For example, Colson offers a keen insight into Ridgeway’s belief in what his own father taught him about a Great Spirit. He tells Cora, “All these years later, I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.” That’s a scary quote, but these are the shameful words that others throughout history and in present day have spoken.

Cora’s fight for her own freedom is the most central to the story because it represents an imperative for basic human rights. The people who help her, blacks and whites, have varied reasons for helping and for me, offer hope as I relate her story to present time. White shop and saloon owners who live above railroad stations, station agents, and citizens offer help. In particular, Martin Wells, a white station manager in North Carolina, risks his family’s life to hide runaways in his attic, despite his wife’s opposition. His wife, though, is terrified and has her own complicated story. Elijah Lander is a biracial and outspoken abolitionist, who grew up in privilege and uses his stature to make speeches and distribute pamphlets.

One complicated and realistic character is Mingo, a former slave who purchased his own freedom and believes blacks should disassociate themselves from weaker blacks. For Mingo, his cause is his own and his view is narrow.

But the character who tugs at my conscience is John Valentine, a light-skinned Ethiopian who marries a black woman and buys her freedom. He starts a farm in Indiana to help runaways. Valentine explains,

I didn’t grow up the way you did. My mother never feared for my safety. No trader was going to snatch me in the night and sell me South. The whites saw the color of my skin, and that sufficed to let me be. I told myself I was doing nothing wrong, but I conducted myself in ignorance all my days.”

Something in the front of my mind.

Thanks for reading.

 

Book Review: The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

The Flatshare
by
Beth O’Leary

Rating:

Tiffy Moore owes money and is short on cash. And she needs to get out of her ex-boyfriend’s place as soon as possible. Leon Twomey has an apartment and also needs money. To earn extra cash, he’s been working the night shift as a palliative nurse, but how to get more? Why not rent out his apartment while he’s at work? That should work, right?

Tiffy has looked everywhere and when she sees the ad for Leon’s place, she thinks this unusual arrangement just might work. Since she works days at a publishing company, they could share the apartment and never even meet. One tricky part is that the flat is so small that they will also be sharing a bed, at different times, of course.

That’s the premise of this cute romantic story, about two people who aren’t looking to get together and must learn what to do when the sparks fly.

The story takes place in London and is told from both characters’ points of view. They get to know each other through running conversations on Post-It notes, stuck in various places in the flat. For me, this is the best part of the story. The notes are clever and fun and reveal their personalities as they become more comfortable telling each other about themselves.

But they both have problems and emotional baggage and these back stories slowly come out, making The Flatshare more than just a fluffy story. And while readers know they are in for a romance, it’s not clear how Tiffy and Leon will get over the many hurdles they encounter.

I enjoyed this story because of its pure entertainment value. The characters are likable, modern and fun. While the plot is improbable and sometimes silly, there’s no harm in giving in to a story like this. I can picture The Flatshare as a romantic comedy film.

I recommend The Flatshare to readers who are looking for a quick romantic story, with a little spice.

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If you want to read more, check out these blogger reviews.

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Our Book Boyfriends
Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Stuck in the Book

Book Review: Yellow Door by C. Faherty Brown

Yellow Door
by
C. Faherty Brown

Rating:

If you’re looking for something calming to read, take a look at Yellow Door by C. Faherty Brown, a quiet reflection of one woman’s bold choice to upend her life.

The author describes the book as “a journal of a wish lived out, in fiction.” “When you have a wish” she explains, “you imagine it, how it will be, how it will happen. Instead of imagining it and leaving it in my thoughts, I wrote it down. I created my wish and lived it in this book. It is adventure, perhaps low key, but it is a real wish. A wish of travel, exploration, living on an island, visiting history, learning and discovering about a place. And about myself.”

As Faherty describes, it’s a fictional journal of a woman who quits her job, sells her house and rents a cottage on an isolated island off Ireland, much to the shock of her friends and family. Although open to day visitors and some overnighters, the only people who live on the island are the narrator and the island’s caretakers.

Her desire is to escape from a hectic life with an undefined meaningful purpose, from the constant bombardment of media, political dissention and too much technology and return to a simple life. And she wants to write. It starts as a private blog (she has internet for that), for her close friends and family. Named “Yellow Door” after her new home’s door, her daily posts are both updates and a glimpse of her private thoughts.

Her journey across the ocean is, of course, a metaphor for the journey she takes in her mind and soul. Experiencing the beauty of nature and understanding her place in the world and chronicling her time there are some of the steps she takes. She learns what is important for her, which is not to isolate herself from people, but from the traps of modern life. She welcomes tourists and wants to know them. Her other goal is to learn as much as she can about the island’s history, its people and what it was like to have lived there centuries ago.

I enjoyed this introspective read. Brown’s unique writing style has created a brave and humble character, someone who is open and easy to know. Yellow Door is a great way to imagine how a simple life can refresh and redirect your inner self.

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Book Review: Woman on the Edge by Samantha M. Bailey

Woman on the Edge
by
Samantha M. Bailey

Rating:

The last thing Morgan Kincaid expects while waiting for a Chicago subway train is for someone to come up to her, thrust a baby in her arms and jump in front of a train. Nicole Markham’s last words to Morgan are, “I know what you want. Don’t let anyone hurt her.” And then she calls Morgan by her name.

Morgan, a social worker, could see desperation in the woman’s eyes. But who was she, how did she know Morgan’s name? What made her give up her baby and take her own life?

Those are the simple questions, believe it or not, but both women’s back stories complicate the investigation even more and soon Morgan is a person of interest. Morgan is determined to clear her name, at great risk.

What a great premise for a psychological thriller! This is a fast-paced read, with plenty of momentum. I don’t want to give too much away because these books are better to experience first-hand. There’s a good supply of suspicious secondary characters with questionable agendas that kept me wondering how the story would sort itself out.

The psychological aspect plays into Nicole’s story. She’s just had a baby and is having trouble remembering things. She’s also the CEO of a publicly-traded company called Breathe which sells yoga wear and mindfulness products. Her assistant is keeping things running while she’s out, but there’s a power struggle going on behind the scenes

I enjoyed reading this debut novel. I thought the plot was well-developed, and the author did a good job typing up loose ends at what was a wild finish, requiring the standard suspension of disbelief. I thought the details of Nicole’s work situation were a little silly, however, but that’s something readers need to go along with, rather than get bogged down by an unrealistic scenario.

I like the double play of the title, too. And, while not a heavy book, the author touches on important themes of marriage, betrayal and most importantly, postpartum depression. I recommend Woman on the Edge to readers who like quick thrillers and look forward to reading future books by Bailey.

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Audiobook Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On
by
Rainbow Rowell

Rating:

Here’s an example of how my reading tastes may get in the way of a proper review. I downloaded this book on a whim. I knew it was Young Adult, a genre I usually like, but I didn’t read about what Carry On was about ahead of time.

Carry On is a teen love story that takes place at a magic school outside of London. The magic people are at war because the Insidious Humdrum is eating holes into the atmosphere. If the Humdrum goes unstopped, the world of magic will disappear.

Simon Snow is in his last year at Watford School of Magiks and he is the chosen one, the only mage who has a chance of defeating the Humdrum. He’s an orphan and is under the tutelage of the school’s director, The Mage. But Simon is clearly not ready to take on his predetermined role in defeating the Humdrum. He is often clueless and his spells need work. At Watford, he has a girlfriend, Agatha, a best friend, Penny and his nemesis roommate, Baz, is a vampire. Despite their magic, the four are typical teenagers with the usual problems and angst.

The story begins in the fall of the kids’ last year at Watford. Simon is glad to be back after a summer with the Normals. When Baz is late returning to school, Simon is both relieved, but strangely worried. It’s the first sign that something is going terribly wrong at Watford. Will Simon and Baz be able to get past their problems and will the friends be able to stop the Humdrum? Can they count on The Mage, who’s often away, to help them?

I don’t want to spoil the story for fans of this type of book. Rainbow Rowell is a popular writer in this genre. Simon is also a character in another one of her books, Fan Girl, a fanfiction story. But Carry On is written in the first-person point of view of each character, so it’s a separate story. I must also mention the obvious similarity to Harry Potter. There are heated debates about whether this is okay. I’m not at all into Harry Potter (I know, sorry…) or fanfiction, so I will only just mention it. I also found the audiobook a little confusing because the subtle changes in the narrator’s voice made it hard to know who was talking.

But I thought the story was well developed, with good building tension in the plot. There are clear good guys, villains, some I was unsure about and plenty of lesser characters that make important appearances later on. For me, the plot was a little too crazy and the finish was really out there. Fans are guaranteed lots of magic and vampire stuff, plenty of romantic twists and an action-packed conclusion. I thought the wrap-up was good because it gave me a clear view of how the characters will move on with their lives in the second book of the Simon Snow series, Wayward Son.

So for me, just okay, but I’m clearly not the designated reader. I was glad to learn more about the genre, however, and think those who like books about magic and vampires would enjoy Carry On.

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Book Review: A Hero of France by Alan Furst

A Hero of France
by
Alan Furst

Rating:

If you’re looking for an excellent spy thriller, check out A Hero of France, published in 2016. It’s the first book by Alan Furst I’ve read, but he has written many. Furst is considered the master of historical spy novels and I can see why. In A Hero of France, a man known as Mathieu leads an important cell in the French Resistance. They are helping downed RAF pilots escape occupied France, so that the men can get back in the air and beat the Germans.

There’s nothing complicated about their goal. It’s both practical and patriotic. But no life can be more complex, and dangerous, than the secretive life of a Resistance leader. Set in Paris, in 1941, Mathieu has collected a group of loyal resisters, including an arms dealer/nightclub owner, a teenage girl who works as a bicycle messenger, a wealthy woman of the upper class, a Jewish teacher and a young female aristocrat. On another floor of the abandoned Saint-Yves hotel where Mathieu is based lives Joëlle, who has fallen in love with her mysterious neighbor.

This fast-paced story starts with one successful crossing and progresses into more complex arrangements involving an ace Polish pilot who needs to get back in the war. Mathieu must depend on instinct and nerve to make the right decisions about the contacts he makes. Some are ruthless and some can’t be trusted, including those who say they want to get in the game and a British connection with another agenda. Soon a German investigator is sent to their Paris office, charged with hunting down resisters.

Furst gives readers a good look at Paris during the German occupation, at a time before the United States entered the war. Curfews, blacked out windows, dangerous streets and more dangerous skies set the way of life for all Parisians.

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical story. It’s a quick read and is both entertaining and educational and I recommend it to readers who like historical fiction and stories about spies and intrigue.

I look forward to reading more books by Alan Furst.

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Book Review: The Tenant by Katrine Engberg

The Tenant
by
Katrine Engberg

Rating:

If you like mysteries and police procedurals, here’s Katrine Engberg’s debut novel set in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Tenant is the first in a new series.

Esther DeLaurenti is a retired professor of literature and has settled back onto the third floor of the building she owns, ready to write her first mystery. But fiction and real life cross a dangerous intersection when one of Esther’s tenants, 21-year-old Julie Stender, is murdered on the first floor. As investigators uncover crime scene clues, Esther is shocked to discover that the murder closely mirrors the plot in her manuscript, including the violent killer’s chilling message.

Jeppe Kørner is the lead police investigator and joins up with his partner, Annette Werner. Under pressure to solve the crime quickly, they enlist their team of detectives to find Julie’s killer. Like all mysteries, the investigators have their own pasts that influence how they do their jobs. Kørner is newly-divorced, battling back pain and emerging from a depressive episode. He clashes with his partner and her irritating ways. And the dynamics among team members suggest grudges and hidden agendas. But the investigation continues, raising questions about the men in Julie’s life, including Kristoffer Gravgaard, Esther’s awkward friend and a new love interest, the “Mysterious Mr. Mox.” Equally strange is Julie’s father, whose alarming reactions raise warning flags and of particular interest is a suspicious dinner party held at Esther’s apartment earlier that year.

Some of the story takes place at the Royal Danish Theatre, where Kristoffer works as a dresser and Kørner had once trained as a performer, a dream career given up for more practical police work. The author knows this world well—she is a former dancer and choreographer in television and theater.

A second dramatic murder is no doubt related, placing additional pressure on Kørner, just as his personal life gets reckless. When the killer begins an online dialogue with Esther, Kørner takes steps to protect her, but will that be enough?

Many of Enberg’s characters struggle with the shame of loss and abandonment as they work to own painful and spiteful decisions of their pasts. These struggles, including Enberg’s, muddy up the investigation and keep the reader from figuring things out too soon.

I enjoyed this story, although it was a little slow getting started and the various subplots were complicated at times. I also liked reading about the different sections of Copenhagen, its historic buildings and the Danish way of life. Now that the author has established the main characters, I look forward to the second book in the series.

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Short reviews from 2013: The Cay, The Giver and Orphan Train

As I approach my 7-year blogging anniversary, I’ve been looking at some of the old reviews I posted. A lot of them are pretty short, with limited plot descriptions, and mostly my opnions. I’d love to go back and beef them up a bit, but I think I’d have to re-read the books before I did that. So today I’m just going to share three short reviews of books I liked, but didn’t say too much about!


The Cay
by
Theodore Taylor

Rating:

This is a touching coming-of-age story about eleven-year-old Phillip Enright, an American boy living on the island of Curaçao during World War II. When Phillip and his mother leave the island to escape the dangers of the war, their boat is hit and sunk by a German U-boat. Phillip is struck in the head and thrown into the water and he wakes to find himself on a raft with Timothy, a large, old, black man from the West Indies. The blow to Phillip’s head causes him to lose his sight as the two of them float aimlessly in the Caribbean.

This unlikely pair struggles to survive first on the water, and later on a tiny uninhabited island. But the biggest struggle is within Phillip, whose preconceived ideas about a black man run counter to what we see in Timothy. Timothy pushes Phillip to learn how to fish, climb trees and find his way around the island on his own, without his sight. Timothy is both kind and patient and through his wisdom, Phillip learns the true meaning of friendship and sacrifice.

I think this story does a great job showing how an eleven-year-old boy thinks and feels, from selfish, angry and scared to generous and caring.


The Giver
by
Lois Lowry

Rating:

The Giver is a terrific read for anyone, but it’s perfect for middle school students because it is so thought provoking. It is the story of a controlled society in which there are no choices or conflict. When Jonas turns twelve, he must train with The Giver and prepare to receive all the memories of love, happiness, war and pain. During his training, Jonas learns the hard truth about his community and its rules and knows he must act decisively to bring about change.

The best part about this book is that every word counts. Lois Lowry is great at describing her characters and their community. She includes meaningful foreshadowing that leads the reader through a gradual understanding of what might initially seem like an acceptable way to live. She accomplishes this by revealing just enough details and we realize the facts just as Jonas does.

The Giver ends just as you want to learn more. And thankfully, there is more to the story in Messenger, Gathering Blue and Lowry’s newest, Son.


Orphan Train
by
Christina Baker Kline

Rating:

I liked this book that parallels the story of a young girl sent west on an orphan train from New York City in 1929 and a present-day Native American teenage girl who has struggled in the modern foster care system. I think Kline does an excellent job showing us how Niamh Power and these destitute orphaned children, both numb and frightened, must have felt as they traveled and met up with their matches, which were often far from perfect. Molly Ayer’s present-day story of a rebellious, Goth girl whose father has died and whose mother is addicted to drugs is somehow less powerful, but provides a necessary structure to the story. Molly meets ninety-one year-old Niamh, now named Vivian, when she is assigned to a community service punishment for stealing a book. The two form a friendship as Molly helps Vivian sort through her attic and together they relive Vivian’s story.

I liked Vivian’s story very much. I think Kline is great when she describes Vivian’s feelings and her desperate situation. It is very easy to imagine these children and their simple desire to live in a home where they are wanted, or at least fed and clothed and treated kindly. It’s somehow both shocking and understood that these orphans don’t always get that.

I enjoyed the book. It’s a look into a time that, because of the changes and struggles in those years, is full of stories.

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Audiobook Review: Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes

Hidden Bodies
by
Caroline Kepnes

Narrated by Santino Fontana

Rating:

I just finished listening to Hidden Bodies, the sequel to You by Caroline Kepnes (read my review of You here). It’s the continuation of Joe Goldberg’s twisted serial-killing narration as he leaves the New York bookstore he manages and heads out to Los Angeles. Joe is on a revenge search for the new girl in his life, Amy who has taken off with rare books from the bookstore.

As is expected, Joe is full of sarcasm with a huge chip on his shoulder. But in some ways, he’s like everyone else, searching for love. The problem is, he just can’t let things go. In addition, Joe still has problems on the East coast. His biggest mistake is the DNA he left at Peach Salinger’s family mansion. In addition, the wrongly convicted therapist in jail for killing Beck has a team working on a reversal and cops are sniffing around.

Out in California, Joe gets mixed up in several situations, and the killing continues, but then he meets Love Quinn and falls in love. But Love’s twin, Forty is a big problem. He’s a wannabe script writer and drug addict with a sharp instinct for taking advantage.

Joe’s life on the West coast is a running commentary on the shallowness of the place and the stupidity of everyone he meets. His disdain for consumer culture, social media and false conversations contributes to the pent-up anger that propels him into murder. Joe’s intense rants are what makes this story so appealing. Yes, he’s a serial killer, but he has a point. And, buried deep in Joe’s anger is a someone soft and, can I say lovable? Well not in real life, but in a story, yes.

I especially enjoyed listening to Hidden Bodies because the narrator, Santino Fontana, is fantastic as Joe. Fontana also narrates You, but I read the print copy, so hadn’t experienced how much he nails Joe’s personality. Having the story in your ears like that is an intense listen. I don’t think Hidden Bodies is quite as good as You. Sequels are always hard. And if you’re thinking of reading or listening to it, be warned, it’s what I call a little racy! But I recommend both You and Hidden Bodies for readers who like twisted stories about complicated characters.

If you’d like to read more about Hidden Bodies, check out these other bloggers’ reviews.

GritLitGirls Book Review Nook
Reens Reads and Writes
What Jess Reads

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Book Review: A Mother for His Twins by Jill Weatherholt

A Mother for His Twins
by
Jill Weatherholt

Rating:

There’s never been a better time to pick up a feel-good book and A Mother for His Twins by Jill Weatherholt was the perfect remedy for me. Weatherholt’s book is part of the Harlequin Heartwarming Inspirational Romance novels, in which modern characters with real-life problems learn to let go of sadness and past mistakes, to grab that second chance at love.

In this story, Joy Kelliher is a first-grade teacher in the small town of Virginia’s Whispering Slopes, nestled in the Shenandoah Mountains. She’s working on her master’s degree because her biggest dream is to honor her father’s legacy and become principal of the school. Sure she will never have a family of her own, Joy’s work and being around children has taken on a profound importance.

Then Nick Capello returns to Whispering slopes and Joy’s life is turned upside down. They were high school sweethearts, with plans to marry, but he’d left town suddenly and with no explanation fourteen years earlier. Now he’s back with young twin sons and is vying for the same principal job.

Readers hope that Joy and Nick will find their way back to each other, but each faces unique and shared hurdles of deeply-buried pain, anger, resentment, jealousy and misunderstandings. In addition, both have questioned their faith when bad things have happened to them.

I enjoyed this polished and loving story, the characters and community of Whispering Slopes, a place that offers the appeal of small-town living, and where friends and family care about each other. Weatherholt writes smartly with both humor and realism and, through Joy and Nick, shows readers that there is a way to get past hurt and loss.

In a note to readers after the book, Weatherholt talks about how her characters get trapped in the “if only” mindset. “If and only—two words that can start a person down the road of self-doubt.” There’s always a way to start down a new road and this story shows how.

Jill is the author of two additional Love Inspired novels, Second Chance Romance (read my review here) and A Father for Bella. Learn more about Jill Weatherholt here.

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