Book Review: Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Hour of the Witch
Chris Bohjalian

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Here’s an excellent historical suspense set in 1662 Boston about twenty-four-year-old Mary Deerfield, who is desperate to get away from a violent marriage. When the court magistrates deny a petition for divorce, Mary must return to her husband. Fearful of more cruelty, Mary plots her escape, while mounting evidence of witchcraft threatens to send her to her death.

I enjoyed reading about this time period in early America and how Puritans used God and the Devil to explain things that happened in their lives. Mary is sure she has been framed, but even she secretly wonders if she is possessed by the Devil. The author also highlights the treatment of women during Puritan times. Although her husband is violent, the odds are against Mary when she petitions for a divorce. From the beginning, readers see that Mary is strong-willed and resourceful. She’s willing to accept being ostracized if her divorce is granted, a difficult future, but better than her marriage.

Ultimately, even though her father and one of the magistrates believe her husband has mistreated her, they support the Puritan rules. The reason? Back then, it was acceptable for a husband to physically discipline his wife if it was to teach her to be a good “helpmeet” and to follow the laws of God. Better to send Mary back to her husband to work things out, they reason.

In addition, readers get a closer look at the harsh punishments for other infractions, such as adultery. Anyone suspected or caught in adultery had to face the stocks and a whipping. The author also shows how, although the Puritans relied on herbal remedies and medicines, they feared that those administering them were witches.

I enjoyed this account of Puritan New England, when the fear of God and the Devil ruled. Truly a page-turner, readers will need to untangle characters’ complicated motives and the mystery of the witchcraft evidence. The reward is a better historical understanding of these early settlers’ lives.

This book is a lot different from the other books I’ve read by Chris Bohjalain. It’s much meatier and more historical, although I’ve only read three others, so I’m not an expert. I read Double Bind a long time ago, so it’s not here on my blog, but you can check out these others, which I thought were very good:

The Flight Attendant
The Guest Room

Have you read Hour of the Witch or any other books by Chris Bohjalian? Leave a comment!

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Book Review: The Family by Naomi Krupitsky

The Family
Naomi Krupitsky

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You know when you pick a book by chance and it turns out to be a great read? That’s what happened to me with The Family. As I browsed books online, I was attracted to the cover and the storyline. I’m a big fan of The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, and because I grew up in northern New Jersey, I like reading about places that are familiar to me. But I hadn’t heard of The Family.

Although there’s always a storyline in these movies and shows about getting out of life in the mafia and the dangers that go with leaving, what’s unique about The Family is that all the main characters struggle with the choices they’ve made. They ask themselves two questions: “What would I have done if I hadn’t been pulled into the Family?” and “What control can I take over the life I do lead?” Some, desperate to escape, ask, “How can I get out of this alive?”

The story spans twenty years and begins in 1928 Brooklyn. Readers meet two girlhood friends and next-door neighbors, Sofia Colicchio and Antonia Russo. Sofia’s father, Joey, is ambitious. Antonia’s father, Carlo, however, is not cut out for the violence.

“By the time Carlo was keeping a shaky-handed, shallow-breathed watch outside of rooms where unspeakable acts of violence were doled out for minor infractions against the Fianzo Family, it was too late for him to extract himself.”

Lives and family dynamics change forever when Carlo disappears and Joey is put in charge of his own faction.

Written from a third-person omniscient point of view, readers enter into each character’s inner thoughts and reasonings. Tension develops in a multitude of ways. Lina Russo, Carlo’s wife is trapped. She hates that the Family takes care of her after Carlo’s disappearance and does all she can to withdraw. And though they don’t know the details of the Family business, Sofia and Antonia understand they are part of a family they can never truly leave. Their tendencies waver between making their own lives and accepting their lot. This is especially true when they marry and have children. One thing they do know is that neither wants to be like their mother.

I really liked the historical aspect of this book. The author shows how Italian immigrants played an important role in building New York at the turn of the century, but they resented the lack of respect they got. She describes how the Italian mafia developed and changed during Prohibition and the Depression and how they took advantage of new opportunities during World War 2. What’s interesting are the conflicting roles the Family plays during this time. For example, during the war, they got into the forgery business, selling new identities to Jews fleeing Europe. So, helping desperate people, but charging them to be safe.

The author also describes the Jewish mafia and introduces Saul Grossman, one of the most interesting characters in the book. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop there.

If you’re considering reading The Family, I’d describe it as more literary and introspective than sensational. The theme of choosing an alternate life reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books, Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.

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Books from the sea

Read and reviewed

Summer is a great time to read books about water and the sea. Take a look at this mix of classic tales, popular fiction and nonfiction:

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
What happens to a group of young British schoolboys when their plane is shot down and they land on deserted island in the Pacific?

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The classic Hemingway story of Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman who has not caught a fish in eighty-four days

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
Light historical fiction and romance written into the history of the Titanic’s voyage, its passengers and the disaster’s aftermath

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
A story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, who live alone on an island off Western Australia

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Fast-paced, coming-of-age fantasy tale for adults about the mysteries of life, death, nature, the past, and the present

We Are Water by Wally Lamb
A rotating narrative about abuse over time and generations, and its range of effects

The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Touching coming-of-age story about an eleven-year-old American boy living on the island of Curaçao during World War II

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
True survival story of the whaleship Essex, attacked and sunk by an eighty-five foot sperm whale in the Pacific

Read but not reviewed

Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville
A classic Melville story about the battle between good and evil

Jaws by Peter Benchley
Gripping suspense novel about a killer shark off a Long Island beach

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Ahab takes on a killer whale.  Classic story inspired by the whaleship Essex

Gift from the Sea by Ann Morrow Lindbergh
Meditations about love, marriage and family written by Charles Lindbergh’s American wife

Old-time classics

The Happy Return by C.S. Forester

Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Shōgun by James Clavell

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Do you have any favorite tales about the sea?

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Book Review: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

Love and Ruin
Paula McLain

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

You may know that I’m a big Ernest Hemingway fan. I’ve read all his books except To Have and Have Not and many of his short stories. I’m also a little obsessed with the person behind his books, how he started out and his relationships, especially with his four wives. I’d read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain years ago and liked it very much. That’s about Hemingway’s early career and his first marriage to Hadley Richardson. During those years, he wrote The Sun Also Rises, his first novel. Love and Ruin is the story of Hemingway’s marriage to Martha Gellhorn, his third wife. I didn’t know about her, but she was a novelist, travel writer, and a famous and fearless war correspondent, the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day and report on the invasion first-hand. For sixty years, she covered every world conflict that was out there.

Hemingway wrote what may be considered his best book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, while he was married to Gellhorn. Before they were married, they had spent time in Spain reporting on the Spanish Civil War, while Hemingway was married to Pauline Pfeiffer. That’s when their affair began.

Love and Ruin is the story of two very strong egos. It’s about Hemingway’s overwhelming and selfish personality and Gellhorn’s insistence on having her own career, which meant being away from home for long periods of time. Hemingway hated that, felt abandoned and behaved poorly. In this account, Gellhorn was just as stubborn as he was and there was a competitive vibe between them, especially when his books did better than hers. I got the feeling that they both acted selfishly in part to one-up the other. It was obvious to me that Gellhorn was a formidable opponent, not the kind of domestic wife Hemingway really wanted. She was also a trailblazer for women and careers.

I liked Love and Ruin, but I didn’t think it was as good as The Paris Wife. The first half reads more like a history book and I had a harder time getting to know Gellhorn, even though it’s written from her point of view. I liked the parts that helped me see the early seeds of For Whom the Bell Tolls and I learned a lot about Gellhorn’s impressive career. I also learned some new things about Hemingway and his sad decline. McLain did a tremendous amount of research to write Love and Ruin and it shows. Gellhorn burned all her personal papers before she died, so McLain had to piece together what she could about their marriage. I enjoyed the second half of the book, which really dug into the meat of their marital conflicts.

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Check out my review of The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

Like Hemingway? Me too! Check out my reviews:

The Sun Also Rises

A Farewell to Arms

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Old Man and the Sea

A Moveable Feast

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

“Hills Like White Elephants”

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”

Book Review: The Second Mrs. Astor: A Novel of the Titanic by Shana Abé

The Second Mrs. Astor: A Novel of the Titanic
Shana Abé

Rating: 4 out of 5.

For fans of historical fiction, here’s an engaging story about Madeleine Talmadge Force and her brief marriage to Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, America’s (and maybe the world’s) richest man at the time, cut short when they boarded the British passenger liner Titanic. In just two years, Madeleine would become a young bride, a widow and mother to a baby boy.

In 1910, Madeleine Force was only seventeen when John Astor caught her performance as Ophelia in a Junior League summer production of Hamlet. The two were immediately smitten with each other and their courtship began, despite the twenty-nine-year age difference! The world knew all about Astor and the scandal surrounding his divorce from his first wife, Ava. The ever-present press didn’t seem to bother Astor, but Madeleine struggled being in the public eye and felt vulnerable to their gossip.

The couple married in 1911 and, to escape the press, embarked on an extended honeymoon to Europe and Egypt. On their return, they boarded the Titanic in France and braced themselves for the paparazzi in New York. When the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and began to sink, her husband helped Madeleine, now pregnant, climb into a lifeboat with her maid and nurse. Astor stayed back and died when the ship sank.

I enjoyed reading this highly researched story which is loaded with details about the fashions, social lives and opulent lifestyles of the rich, including the more subtle dynamics between these wealthy people. Although the press hounded the newly married couple, high society snubbed them, and they had few close friends. One friend was Margaret Brown, a former shop girl who had become rich from mining investments in Colorado. She was also a passenger on the ship and later known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a reference to her efforts to rescue other passengers. I also liked reading about Madeleine’s family, especially her sister, Katherine, and about Astor’s son, Vincent, who was just one year older than Madeleine. He hated her for marrying his father and blamed his death on Madeleine.

Of course the drama abord the ship was also interesting and now I want to rewatch the movie Titanic, as I know many of the characters in the movie are also in this book!

Although Madeleine and her son were well provided for after her husband’s death, Vincent inherited the bulk of his father’s estate. I enjoyed looking these people up and finding out what happened to them later. Madeleine remarried and divorced two times and had two more children with her second husband, William Karl Dick. She died at age forty-six of a heart condition. You can really go down the rabbit hole researching these people. I liked that the author included websites and other resources in the Acknowledgements section for readers who want to research more. That would be me!

I think the author did a great job describing these people and their relationships to each other. I enjoyed reading their dialogues and the author’s interpretations of their thoughts and emotions. I recommend The Second Mrs. Astor to readers who like historical fiction and stories about a seemingly distant period of time because of how different our world is now.

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On my list – these books about libraries!

Maybe I’m slow in seeing this trend, but have you noticed there are more and more books about libraries? For me it started with The Library Book by Susan Orlean (read my review here). That was a couple years ago. Here are four fiction books I’d like to read (all descriptions from Goodreads). For many more, check out the links at the bottom of this post.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson: In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles: Based on the true World War II story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, this is an unforgettable story of romance, friendship, family, and the power of literature to bring us together, perfect for fans of The Lilac Girls and The Paris Wife.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray: The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian—who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray.

I’ve read a couple other books about libraries. Click the links for reviews.

I Work at a Public Library by Gina Sheridan
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Beyond the Bookends
Book Riot 1
Book Riot 2

What are some of your favorite library-themed books?

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Book Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco

I finished this massive book over a month ago and I wasn’t going to review it. To be honest, I didn’t really like it, but I know a lot of other people did and not just people I know. The Name of the Rose was first published in Italian in 1980 and was translated into English in 1983. It has sold more than 50 million copies and is one of the best-selling books ever published. The 1986 film version starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater was also very popular. I hear the movie is very good but I haven’t had the chance to watch it.

My paperback version was 592 pages of dense print and unlike many books, reading just ten pages took me about an hour, as there are many references and quotes in Latin. I knew it was going to take a long time, so I planned ahead and finished it in plenty of time for my book discussion. What follows is a very brief description, meant to help you decide if this is the kind of book you might like.

The book is narrated by an old monk named Adso of Melk who, before he dies, wants to document the catastrophic events at a Franciscan abbey in Italy, back when he was a young Benedictine novice. This story begins in 1327 where the members of the abbey are at the center of an investigation into heresy. Brother William of Baskerville, a former inquisitor, arrives with Adso ahead of a big meeting where many will argue about whether Christ was poor and who should rule Europe, Pope John XXII or Louis the Bavarian, the Holy Roman Emperor.

When a young monk is found dead at the bottom of a cliff, William begins an investigation and within a week, six more are dead. At the center of the investigation is a book, hidden away in a secret room in a maze-like library full of tricks, deceptive mirrors and intoxicating fumes. William uses his deductive tools to solve many riddles that will eventually lead to the secret room, but also to ultimate disaster.

There’s no doubt that this tumultuous period of time in religious history resulted in all kinds of factions and wildly varying opinions about church and government. I would never be able to explain it all because I found it confusing to follow. But some of the things they argue about include the church’s ownership of property, whether laughter is a sin, things as small as whether there should be images drawn in the margins of their manuscripts, and most important, who should have knowledge (hence the book hidden in the library’s secret room that only a couple people know about). In addition, it’s really a big power struggle between the top guys at the abbey and bad feelings about being passed over for the librarian’s job who is traditionally the next in line to become the abbot.

I’d probably get a C+ at best if I handed this in for a class, and if you see anything I’ve gotten wrong, please say so in the comments. I want to get credit for reading this, though!

So, what do you think? Have you read it? If not, do you want to read it?

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Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I just finished reading Lincoln in the Bardo and I wanted to get a review out right away, to tell you about an excellent book and an important read, especially for me.

Lincoln in the Bardo was first published in 2017 and it’s been on my reading list for almost that long. When my father died in 2018, my brother Rick spoke at the funeral and, in his remarks, he talked about this book in which Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie. To give you perspective, this is in 1862 during the first year of the Civil War as the nation looks hard at Lincoln to do something about the war. So now Lincoln is mourning his son’s death, but he’s also shouldering an immense responsibility as war casualties grow at an alarming rate.

In an effort to understand why his son was taken, Lincoln visits the crypt where Willie’s body rests. There, but without his knowledge, Lincoln is surrounded by the ghosts of those who have died, but are trapped in the bardo, a Buddhist term for the intermediate stage between life and rebirth. Lincoln, still grief-stricken, tells his son he will be back and Willie’s spirit resists being taken to the next stage so that he can see his father again and help him make sense of it.

The book includes a multitude of ghosts whose features take varied and exaggerated forms that reflect their time on earth. Saunders features three main ghosts, a young gay man who died by suicide after his lover spurned him, a middle-aged printer who died in an accident before he could consummate his marriage and a minister who passed away peacefully after a presumably honorable life. These three ghosts act as narrators and also coordinate an effort to help Willie and his father move forward. In addition, they discover much about themselves and each other.

At the end, Lincoln finally understands that he must return to his life because he has important work to do, to make things better, as a father and husband, of course, but also as president of a warring nation. My experience reading this book, especially when I reached this point, became emotional because I felt I could see into my brother’s mind as he prepared his remarks for our father’s funeral. The very ideas in this book, realized by Lincoln, became the words that my brother spoke to us all, urging us to honor our father’s memory by continuing with our own important work. You may know that my brother Rick passed away in August and the words he spoke just three years earlier about continuing with a purpose have taken on a greater meaning to me. So a book that has more than 20,000 reviews on Goodreads reached me on a unique personal level.

Lincoln in the Bardo is described as an experimental and supernatural novel and it takes a lot of work to read it. Some sections read like a play and some present actual and fictional historical accounts. Readers will need to think hard about the ideas and setting as well as trust the author to provide a story. Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize and is ranked as one of the best novels of its decade.

I felt rewarded at the finish and if you read it, I hope you do too.

Rick talked about another book in his remarks, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I’ll be reading that soon.

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Book Review: The Address by Fiona Davis

The Address
Fiona Davis

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve always enjoyed reading stories set in New York and have been meaning to read The Address for a long time. In this 2017 novel by Fiona Davis, Sara Smythe and Bailey Camden live in New York, one hundred years apart. They are connected in indeterminate ways to the 1885 murder of the fictional architect Theodore Camden. Set in 1884 and 1984, their narratives revolve around the famous Dakota, an apartment building in New York.

The Dakota is a real place. Located on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, its tenants include famous musicians, artists and actors. It’s also where John Lennon was murdered in 1980. When it first opened in 1884, the Dakota was actually in a remote part of NYC, if you can believe it. Designed to attract the newly wealthy, the building opened its doors to a full staff and plenty of luxuries.

Sara’s story begins in 1884 when Theodore Camden recruits her from the London Langham Hotel to become the first managerette (how do you like that job title?) of the Dakota. Unmarried and in her thirties, Sara works as the head housekeeper. She’s ready for a change, however and drawn to Theodore’s charms, despite the fact that he’s married with three young children. In a bold decision, Sara quits her job and crosses the Atlantic to start a new life during New York’s gilded age. She lives at the Dakota and confidently manages a large staff of housekeepers, porters, maintenance crew and the tenants’ maids. Unable to resist their mutual attractions, Theo and Sara begin an affair that leads to Theo’s ultimate death and the end of Sara’s career.

Jumping to 1984, interior designer Bailey Camden must rebuild her life after a struggle with drugs and alcohol. Out of rehab and jobless, she visits her wealthy cousin Melinda Camden, who lives at the Dakota, in the same apartment where Theo was murdered. Bailey’s family connection to the wealthy Camdens began when her grandfather became Theodore Camden’s ward. Melinda will soon inherit trust money, but Bailey, whose family has learned to live without, will not. In a gesture of seemingly good will, Melinda hires Bailey to redesign her apartment and agrees to let her live there until she gets on her feet. When Bailey discovers personal items belonging to Sara and Theo’s family, she will soon learn more about the affair and just how she fits into the Camden lineage.

I enjoyed this novel which is part mystery and part historical fiction. Davis explores the messy themes of money, class, inheritance and family and entertains the reader with images of New York’s upper and working classes and the city’s development and its varied architecture. In addition, a special appearance by investigative journalist Nellie Bly provides an up-close look at the horrors of Blackwell Island’s Insane Asylum. I recommend The Address to fans of New York stories as well as readers who like historical fiction, interesting characters and themes of money and class.

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Book Review: We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet

We Must Be Brave
Frances Liardet

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This historical novel is set during World War II near Southampton, England and follows the story of Ellen Parr, a woman whose strong thoughts about motherhood are tested when she and her husband, Selwyn take in a young girl who has lost her mother.

The story begins in 1940 during the aftermath of a German bombing when Ellen discovers five-year-old Pamela asleep in the back of an evacuation bus. Ellen brings the girl back to their home in the fictional village of Upton where they have offered shelter to other evacuees.

Offering temporary shelter is one thing, but as time passes and no relatives come forward, Ellen becomes emotionally attached to Pamela. Married just one year, Ellen and Selwyn must confront conflicting feelings about family and parenthood. Selwyn, forty-one and a veteran of the Great War, believed they would not have a family, choosing instead to run the mill he inherited from his uncle. Ellen, still very young, was only eighteen when she first met Selwyn and had just landed on her feet. As a girl, she had endured tragedy, poverty and loss. Now at twenty-one, Ellen has agreed with Selwyn. No children. But Pamela pulls her heartstrings and Ellen sees endearing traits of fatherhood in her husband. So maybe things could be different…

Of course, the inevitable happens and Ellen must choose what’s best for Pamela over her own feelings. But these feelings haunt her and, over decades become a problem that seems impossible to fix.

Parenthood, especially motherhood and “what life is meant to be” are the central themes in this story that spans over eighty years. Told mostly through Ellen’s point of view, the author returns to 1932 and provides the reader with Ellen’s back story. Letters and jumps to the future fill the reader in on the full story, which comes to a neatly tied-up, though somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this book, though at 452 pages, seemed overly long with repetitive descriptions of Ellen and Pamela’s connection. The author introduces many characters, who over the years become Ellen’s lifelong friends. I liked reading about her friendship with various villagers, including her friend and former classmate, Lucy Horne, Lady Brock, who lives in the grand Upton Hall and William Kennett, Lady Brock’s benevolent gardener. The World War II backdrop is always interesting to me, but does not play into the story much except to frame it. Fans of historical fiction may want to give it a try. I’d call this a light historical fiction, good for casual reading.

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