Book Reviews/Discussions

Review: The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

It is true that neither of these titles is new, but they are worth consideration for mystery fans, especially fans of the mystery sub-genre, lovingly called “cozies.”

If you are looking for a little light reading to get you through quarantine, these two Horowitz gems may do the trick.  Full disclosure–I am a Horowitz fan!

These are sort up updated versions of an English Cozy mystery, starring Hawthorne, an ex-cop who is something of a mystery himself.  The gimmick, if you want to call it that is that these are Roman a clefs of a sort–Horowitz has made himself a character in the books and there are real people who appear in the stories, like his wife, Jill Green a television producer, and even Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson). So the identities are not secret as in a traditional Roman a clef, but there is the sense that the reader is in the “real” world of famous people.

First, the positives.  Since Horowitz is the narrator, the reader never has to really fear for his life, even when it looks like the murderer might get him.  He has to live to finish writing the book! The mysteries are serviceable, though if you are a frequent mystery reader, you may figure it out before the narrator.   I think perhaps Horowitz is letting the reader feel smart by writing them that way…They are not too long and the reader does get most of the clues–I hate it when there are unknown clues at the end during the big reveal. Horowitz is fairly self-deprecating as the narrator and there are Easter eggs for Horowitz fans, enjoy! The pacing is good and there is a decent amount of suspense.

Now the negatives. Hawthorne is kind of strange and mostly unlikeable, not a deal killer, but I did feel like in both books the narrator spent rather too much time trying to figure out Hawthorne and too little on the actual mystery. As is often the case with a Roman a clef-ish book, there is a lot of name-dropping.  This can become tedious and tiresome; making the reader feel excluded rather than included in the world of the glitterati. Some of us would really like to get on with solving the crime and don’t really care about blowhard actors, etc.

I think these two titles will most appeal to readers who are already fans of Horowitz’s television writing (Midsommer Murders, Foyle’s War).  His earlier mystery–The Magpie Murders was much superior. It was a cleverly done novel within a novel–a frame story. But these are nice ways to pass the time on a rainy day.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun

If you are a GenX woman, this is the support group you’ve been looking for–you are not imagining it, being GenX sucks. Squeezed between Boomers and Millenials, GenX has gotten a bad wrap for being whiners, but as this book shows, we’ve got plenty to whine about.

It’s not all bad news, though.  If you are a woman of a certain age, go immediately to chapter 9: Perimenopause for a section that will make you laugh out loud and give you hope, because you’ll know you are not alone. 

And really, that is the main takeaway from this book–you’re not imagining it and you’re not alone! Reading this book is ultimately an exercise in hope; give yourself permission not to excel at everything. Sometimes your family has to eat take out and sometimes you buy the birthday cake and it’s okay–society doesn’t come to a screeching halt.  Also, maybe your career isn’t glamorous or especially fulfilling, but that’s okay, too. The world needs all kinds of people doing all kinds of jobs. Learning to let go of unrealistic expectations if the first step toward feeling better–and know this: midlife, like most things, including coronavirus, won’t last forever. Things will get better and GenX can still save the world!!!

Book Reviews/Discussions

The Holdout by Graham Moore

Ten years ago Maya was on the LA jury that acquitted Bobby Nock, accused murderer of one of his students with whom he was having an inappropriate relationship. The jury’s names were leaked to the press and none of them have had any peace since.  Most of the public believed Bobby was guilty and they could neither understand the jury’s decision nor leave them alone after the trial. In the intervening years, Maya has become a defense attorney, determined to make the system work better. Most of the jurors haven’t really kept in contact, but for the 10th anniversary, a reality TV show wants to get them all together to rehash the trial and their verdict.  Rick, another juror, claims to have found evidence that will prove Bobby did in fact commit the crime; Maya is still convinced he was innocent and would rather pass on the TV show, but her boss convinces her it would be good for the firm for her to be on the show. When another murder takes place during the reunion, Maya is propelled into a search for the truth in both the past and the present.

Told from varying perspectives–each juror has a story–interwoven with Maya’s story, The Holdout is a thriller that does not disappoint.  Readers of Moore’s earlier novel, The Sherlockian, will enjoy this one as well. Suspense, mystery, a level of both unpredictability and storytelling skill that is sadly lacking in most thrillers.  

If you are looking for something to read while you wait out the Corona Virus, pick this one up.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with the premise that most people who have jury duty see it as an important responsibility related to self-government?  Why or Why not?
  2. Do you think the setting of Los Angeles adds to the story, or could the novel be set anywhere? Why or why not?
  3. Before the final reveal, where had you landed on Bobby’s guilt? What made you think what you did?
  4. Which juror’s story did you most identify with?  Why?
  5. How does this novel change the way you view the justice system? If not, why not?
Book Reviews/Discussions

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

I was really looking forward to reading this book.  I love classic Hollywood movies and I had seen movies with Hedy Lamarr when none of my friends even knew who she was.  I was further thrilled several years ago, when I found out she was also an inventor. It was so cool! So, I thought the story would be great…sadly, Benedict took a fantastic story and made it into a bland dime a dozen romance novel. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

The writing was flat, the characters were dull, even Hedy, and the prose was laced with anachronisms.  If you are going to write historical fiction PLEASE do your research. I did not keep an exhaustive list, but the term “pimped out” was used, which would not have been used that way in the 1930s. 

We still managed to have a good discussion for our book club, but mostly because we discussed the real Hedy Lamarr, not the book. It is not actively bad, but it just wasn’t very good, and I would think that when one has source material as rich as Hedy Lamarr, Austria in the 1930s, Hollywood, and revolutionary communications technology, one could do better. The narrative was extremely limited by the author’s choice of first person point of view.  I think that was probably the most damaging mistake beyond the obvious lack of research for the dialogue. The use of so called symbolism was too heavy handed and ineffective. If the symbols are too overt, they lose meaning. I wish her editor had been more active and helped her to make better choices in her writing. I have also read Carnegie’s Maid by the same author and found it disappointing as well. I will not be reading future books by this author unless she ups her game significantly. I appreciate her desire to bring women’s stories to readers, but I would like to see the stories told with more skill and care.

If your book club chooses this one, here are some questions that might be of use to you:

  1. What did you think of Mrs. Kiesler’s explanation to Hedy about why she had been distant toward her?  Do you think it was believable? Why or why not? 
  2. Given the choices Hedy had, what do you think of the decisions she made: to marry Fritz? To escape? 
  3. Hedy was very brave in her escape from Austria, what aspect of her journey would you have liked to know more about in the book?
  4. Do you think the first person POV was effective in this novel?  Why or why not?
  5. What do you think about Fritz’s theory about money and power? How did that work out for him? 
  6. Did you think the “symbolism” of masks was effectively used in the novel? Why or why not?
Book Reviews/Discussions

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Basically, this is a love letter to librarians, so I was definitely in. Moyes tells the story of the pack horse librarians of the Depression through a set of brave and likable female protagonists. Alice married Bennett Van Cleve after whirlwind courtship in her native England while he was on holiday, only to come down to earth in rural Kentucky where  she and her husband still live with her domineering father-in-law. Margery O’Hare is a strong-willed woman with a mind of her own during a time when that quality is not universally admired. (Has it ever been?) Izzie has suffered from polio and the social difficulties produced by it. Sophia is a highly educated African American woman whose brother was wounded in a recent mining accident. She has trouble fitting in anywhere, but the library provides her peace and purpose. Coal is king, and the Van Cleves own the mines. Alice doesn’t realize until most of the way through the novel that her family is literally living on the back-breaking work of the poor families in town.

The Giver of Stars touches on many issues which are still relevant without being heavy-handed.  The characters are warm and complex–even the villains. There are some unexpected turns, both good and not so good.  Happily, as most librarians would wish, knowledge and enlightenment triumph over ignorance and venom.

This would make a good discussion for book clubs.  Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Which of the four librarians do you identify most with?  Why?
  2. Did you guess the departed Mrs. Van Cleve’s true plight before it was revealed? What were the clues, either looking back after you knew or that tipped you off?
  3. What would you say is the theme of the novel?  What supports this idea?
  4. Who do you think the “Giver of Stars” in the title is?
  5. Why do you think the pack horse library program came to an end?  What are some modern equivalents to the idea?
  6. Put yourself in 1935 Kentucky. Would you have volunteered to be a librarian given the risks involved?  Why or why not? 
Book Reviews/Discussions

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

First, a Shout-out to a local Austin writer–yay!  This novel combines a few of my favorite things: spies, intrigue, and literature, oh my! I am sure other reviewers have pointed this out, but I would also like to make sure everyone notes the irony of the author’s first name being the name of the main character in the novel that this book is about, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. I think there might be some backstory there.  

The Secrets We Kept conjures up the early days of the CIA, when Ivy League frat boys dreamed of a world without communism and thought that they could win the propaganda war with the Soviets. The office girls were mostly typists and secretaries, but a few worked their way up–I have made a note to myself to do some research on early CIA work–there have been a rash of new histories and biographies coming our telling the stories of women we never knew about from the files, now that they are being declassified. I have found it inspirational lately that there are more writers and historians telling women’s stories.  Women who had previously been footnotes have been getting more press; some like Hedy Lamar, are even getting long overdue recognition. So I appreciate Prescott’s novel for going behind the scenes from a woman’s point of view.

The story follows a group of women who work in the typing pool of the CIA offices, when they were located on E Street in D.C, before Langley. The point of view changes as the story unfolds, with different women, some main characters, others bit players, but this is one of the best tools Prescott uses.  The shifting first person narrative lets the reader know more than any one character knows, so even though the reader is not omniscient, she almost feels that way. Parallel plots unfold. The first fictionalizes the circuitous route Boris Paternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago took–smuggled out of Russia and published first in Italy, then throughout the West.  This plot includes the now well known tale of its publication in Russian by the CIA and distribution to Soviet citizens attending the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. Read more about that here. Pasternak was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As is often the case, the women in Pasternak’s life, including his inspiration for Lara don’t fare so well.  You’ll need to read the book. The other plot in the novel concerns a second generation Russian immigrant, displaced by the turmoil of World War II when her mother fled to the United States and her father was grabbed by secret police just as they were about to board a ship. Irina gets a job at the fledgling CIA as a typist, but is marked out early for “other work” because of her Russian background, fluency in the language, and various talents. 

The Secrets We Kept has much to recommend it. The characters are interesting and Prescott uses the chapter titles to track their growth and change over the course of the novel. Suspense abounds, especially in the scenes at the World’s Fair and the Italian publisher’s party, but neither gratuitous violence nor action derails the plot.  The reader sweats bullets when Irina is dressed as a nun trying to convince Russians to take the little book back to the USSR, read it, and pass it on. Prescott does a wonderful job evoking the period; the clothes, the manners, the way the men treat the women, it’s all there. In addition, the reader is treated to a different look at Boris Pasternak–he is a genius, but he had help, as so many geniuses do from the women in his life, who largely went unacknowledged. It is the Mistress’s story that gripped me the most.  She suffered for his art more than he did, at least in this telling.

This is a quiet novel, which will give the reader much to think on.  It successfully threads the needle by presenting the past without nostalgia and without harsh judgement by modern standards.  It is a story of struggle, love, and hope for the future. It is also the often untold story of women in history and literature.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which character was your favorite and why?
  2. Do you think books can change the world? Why or why not–give examples.
  3. What do you think were the secrets referred to in the title?  How does the title have multiple meanings?
  4. Does this book make you want to read Dr. Zhivago?  Why or why not?
  5. Can you think of other examples where the history we know is not the whole story? 
  6. How can we make sure that “the rest of the story” is told moving forward?
  7. There are a lot of sacrifices in the novel–Irina’s mother and father, Pasternak’s mistress. Which characters in the novel do you think suffered the most? Which sacrifices were the most meaningful?  Can you think of any real life examples of sacrifices like the ones in the novel?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Once again I will be out of sync with the consensus.  I really hated this book, in fact, I was angry when I finished it because I felt like I had wasted my time.  I read it because my book group was reading it and because several people had told me it was wonderful–it also had glowing reviews in most of the usual places.

Well friends, they were all WRONG. Spoilers follow, so if you want to read the book and not know what is going to happen, stop reading this review now.

The idea that a little girl could raise herself in the swamp is just one of the many ridiculous plot devices readers are supposed to swallow. Since I did not see evidence that we were engaged in magical realism, I assume the writer meant for us to to think the story could have happened the way she describes. I won’t belabor it too much, but I would like to point out that it is possible to create characters who are damaged and have interesting backstories without making them objects of abject neglect and abuse by a WHOLE TOWN. (See Gillian Flynn or Louise Doughty) But then magically, a boy teaches her to read so she turns into a wildlife writer. Wait, maybe it was supposed to be magical realism after all, there is not really another explanation. Hmmmm…

She’s lonely, so of course she enters into a sexual relationship with someone she KNOWS to be unreliable, that makes total sense.  Also, the identity of the murderer was no surprise, she telegraphed it all the way through. Owens does get points though, for the poems.  They were interesting and added a dimension to Kya’s character. The mother. Come on–maybe you leave, but you walk off and leave a 5 year old child with an alcoholic abuser? I don’t buy it. I also don’t buy that NOT ONE of the siblings ever so much as considered taking Kya with them when they left or even checking on her until 20 years later. Please.  Consider the limits of my credulity exceeded.

So, I am not going to post any discussion questions for this one.  If you liked it, you can find questions on another site. I am still a little piqued that I wasted valuable reading time on this book. 👿

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Golden Hill by Frances Spufford

Golden HIll is an interesting niche novel, for those who enjoy older forms of writing, including a self-conscious, slightly intrusive narrator.  While I enjoyed the writing immensely, I will have to confess that I found the plot a little lacking. The book is set in 1746 New York. Richard Smith arrives from London mysteriously bearing a bill of exchange for an immense amount of money by New York standards, which he promptly presents to a local merchant.  Speculation about Smith’s purpose in New York runs rampant from the beginning, and where Spufford excels is the finely drawn characters and the web of connections between them, of which Smith is at first ignorant, but comes to know all too well by the time he leaves New York.

Perhaps this is why I was ultimately disappointed.  The writing is wonderful, the pace a little slow, but enjoyable, and the characters are all interesting, with backstories eked out gradually by Spufford for the most part.  However, when Smith’s errand is ultimately revealed, it seems to be a little anticlimactic–the clues to his true identity are still somewhat murky. One can’t help feeling let down, having read the whole book, that the end is not really an ending.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave one wishing for a sequel, although that could be its purpose. It feels more like Spufford ran out of steam and decided to just write the ending already. This reader wanted to know more about Smith, and why Tabitha has the reaction she does to him at the close of the novel. 

I am fully aware that this may have been a conscious decision by the author, but to this reader, too much was left unexplained at the end, and there was a hint of deus ex machina, again perhaps intentional.  Motives were not fully revealed, and actions that didn’t make sense occurred with too much frequency toward the end of the story, and many, many loose ends were left dangling.

If you choose to read this book anyway, and I probably would, because the positive aspects outweigh the negative–the clever asides and author to reader jokes alone are worth it–do so in the full knowledge that you may be left with a vaguely unsettled feeling at the end and not a full understanding of what just happened, which may in fact have been the author’s intent all along.

Here are some discussion questions for your book group:

  1. What historical aspects of the story did you find the most interesting? What were you unaware of, historically speaking, before reading this novel?
  2. Did you find Richard Smith a likeable character?  Do you think he was meant to be the hero of the story, or was someone else?  Explain.
  3. There was a lot of political maneuvering and spying in the novel. How do you think this works in the narrative? Does it reveal or obscure? Does it propel the main plot, or is it a subplot? Explain.
  4. Why do you think the author chose to reveal so little of Richard’s backstory?  What do we know versus what do we guess to be true about him?
  5. Which characters would you like to know more about?  Are there other characters whose stories you would like to see in a follow up novel? Which ones and why?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Full disclosure.  I am a HUGE fan of Atwood in general and The Handmaid’s Tale specifically, so keep in mind that my comments regarding this work are not unbiased.

First, I love the format. The alternating viewpoints give a full picture of what is happening in Gilead and outside of it, but interestingly, the first person narrator of each point of view still constrains what the reader can know. I know that some readers do not like this, but I find it an interesting format, reminiscent of an epistolary novel, which can be challenging for writers, but fantastic fun for readers. Les Liaisons Dangereuse or Lady Susan anyone?

Spoiler alert:  if you haven’t read the book, stop now.  The following paragraphs will discuss plot and character points that you will not want to know if you have not read the book.

I LOVE that Aunt Lydia turns out to be a resistance fighter!  Plus her character contains many contradictions, just like real people.  She wants to fight the patriarchy, but to do it, she decides that she may do some short term harm.  She enables resistance with her behind the scenes machinations–my favorite instance the one in which she manipulates Aunt Vidalia into doing her bidding. She moves the people around her like pieces on a chessboard and one cannot help but admire her ability to do so, however objectionable she is as a person. There is much fodder for a good book group discussion here, because Lydia raises the age old question–”Is it permissible to do wrong in the short term, if the ultimate goal is right?”  Or, to phrase it more simply, in Machiavellian terms, “do the ends justify the means?” I would argue that they do not, however, I am well aware that there is room for nuance. I would also argue that there is always a way to work for good by doing good; that trying to do good through nefarious means is the lazy way. If I use Aunt Lydia as an example of this–she could have made choices to do good at several turns, but she chose to stay silent and gather power around herself in order to do what she would claim was good in the BIG picture.  I would argue that she could have achieved the same purpose by being willing to sacrifice at some earlier point in the story. She herself acknowledges this when she writes about her early meetings with Commander Judd. She rationalizes her choices by saying she always had working against the system in mind, but is that really true? I am not sure she is a reliable narrator, which is something else to consider.
I also wonder how plausible it is to think that there would be enough resistance to topple a regime as repressive as Gilead in the short amount of time it exists.  I can see that having been used to freedom before, people would be less likely to accept severe limitations, but people in general can be extremely stubborn in defending something that is nonsensical. The question further arises, would there be a large enough number of people willing to make the sacrifice necessary to engage in real resistance, or would the sheeple just follow blindly as long as they were being fed and clothed? Something else to discuss.

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood evokes America’s Puritan past to great effect by taking it to the extreme.  Fifteen years ago, I would have argued that something like Gilead could never happen in the modern world, but I think that recent events have proven me completely incorrect in this judgement. What I see as possible now is a new puritanism of the Left, which is just as unforgiving and inflexible as the religious puritanism of the past. The characters are finely drawn and fabulously imperfect. The suspense about the final outcome for the rulers of Gilead is palpable. I finished The Testaments in 4 days, and it only took that long because I had to go to work.  I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy dystopia, Atwood, or just want to read something infinitely  discussable.  

Below are some discussion questions for your Book Club.  Enjoy!

  1. How long had it been since you read The Handmaid’s Tale?  If it had been a long time or you had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, do you think it hindered your enjoyment of The Testaments?  Why or why not?
  2. Which character was your favorite and why?
  3. If you were casting a movie, who would you cast as Lydia?  As Becka? As Judd? Any of the other characters?
  4. What do you think you would do if you were rounded up as the women were at the beginning of Lydia’s story?  Do you see a way to respond to the situation that would have a better/different outcome to the way she responded?
  5. What parallels do you see between Gilead and modern society in the United States?  What parallels do you see between Gilead and Medieval Europe?
  6. How does intolerance manifest itself in Gilead? How does it manifest itself in modern society?  
  7. What role does the Bible play in Gilead’s society? 
  8. Even though it is not explicitly revealed in either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments, what kinds of events, issues do you imagine led up to the fighting which gave birth to Gilead?
  9. Why do you think Atwood chose the title she did?
  10. If you could give one piece of advice to your favorite character, what would it be?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess


I got this book as an e-galley and I was really looking forward to it.  It had rave reviews and the pre-pub buzz was great. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. I should have known better, when I saw the protagonist referred to as a female Philip Roth. Full disclosure–though I have tried many times to read various titles by Philip Roth, I have never made it all the way to the end of one.  Usually I get about a third of the way through, and that is only because I make myself. Call me a Philistine if you want, but he is way too pe— absorbed for me. I have always found him self-consciously literary, and not in a good way. I mean, really, how literary is one man and his constant obsession with sex and his Johnson? Overrated, in my humble opinion…

Our heroine, if we dare call her that, is Eve Rosen, an aspiring writer who works for a small publishing house that really only has one author who makes them any money. Eve is desperate to become a part of the East Coast Literati, mostly snobs who summer in Truro, Massachusetts, summer playground of Boston academic and artistic elite. She leaves her publishing house gig to work as an assistant to one of these literary giants, Henry Grey. What follows is a boringly predictable May/September romance, in which Eve becomes Henry’s willing partner in adultery, brushing aside the much more interesting and actually available Jeremy Grand, who has incidentally written the next great American novel, and whom the Owner of the said small publishing house hopes will save him from bankruptcy and ignominy. Jeremy has an interesting secret, which I will not reveal in case any of you want to read the book.

What Dukess does well is depict the New England Literati as mostly self-absorbed and useless, though I am not sure if that was the point.  The reader wishes Eve were smarter than she is, though she eventually figures out that Henry is not worth her time. I suppose if you like Philip Roth, you might like this book, but for the rest of us (I would guess about 90%), it really isn’t worth spending your time reading it.  I finished it because I was on a plane without a lot of options, having already exhausted my video downloads and the print books I brought with me, if that tells you anything.