Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan

 

I’d heard a lot about this author and was interested to read her work.

This is the second book in the series about Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly. His girlfriend Emma, a brilliant scientist stumbles upon a girl who has been the victim of a hit and run. It turns out the girl has been murdered and the only thing she has on her is the swipe card of another girl, Carline Darcy. Carline happens to be the granddaughter of a wealthy man who owns the largest pharmaceutical company in Ireland. The company has many tentacles including funding research and employing Emma. When a second murder occurs, the investigation takes a twist and Emma herself becomes a chief suspect.

Although this was a second in a series, it didn’t seem to matter as it stood on its own quite nicely. I enjoyed the complexities and twists in the plot. The character development was well done and I appreciated the relationships particularly within the police investigation team.

I wondered about the inclusion of Detective O’Halloran and her personal life. Her story, unless it’s set up for the next book didn’t really add much value. The other thing that jarred a little was the repetitive nature of the information. It revealed itself in several different ways and for the reader I felt it was overdone. For example, Cormac at the end explains the case to Emma and apart from a titbit of new information, there was nothing new for the reader. The interesting part for me was Emma’s reaction and perhaps that should have had more focus.

Overall, an easy to read, well written novel. Now, I’m interested to read the first one, The Ruin.

Book Review: Hollow Bones by Leah Kaminsky

An enlightening fictional story of real life German scientist, SS officer, Ernst Scafer was an eye opener. Ernst is obsessed with nature and in particular a hunter of animals and a taxidermist. He is tasked by Himmler and Goring to lead an expedition into Tibet to confirm the origins of the Aryan race. I’d never heard of the so-called World Ice Theory which is as bizarre today as it was then except for the fact that the Nazi hierarchy were consumed by it.

Kaminsky paints a picture of what life in Germany is like from 1937 to 1939. We learn about Ernst as a boy as well as his love for Herta who as a woman must go to Bride School and learn how to be a good SS wife, must be of pure origins and who challenges her husband and his involvement with the Nazi regime. Ernst, however is a man of ambition who uses the regime as a benefactor for his scientific pursuits whatever the costs.

There is a lot in this book and Kaminsky has done a remarkable job researching and piecing a story together. I found the first half of the book about the growth of Herta and Ernst relationship the most interesting and wondered if perhaps this should have been explored more. I found myself wanting more about them and Herta’s missing sister. The second half of the book is mostly about the expedition to Tibet and at times seemed almost a non-fictional account from the research. The current day chapters from the point of view of a slaughtered and stuffed animal slowed the story down for me and jarred. And if you are at all squeamish about animal slaughter it might not be for you.

It’s a very descriptive and well written book which is nevertheless gives a fascinating glimpse about this little known period but it’s not really an easy book to read. The afterword was particularly interesting as it detailed what happened to Ernst and his fellow colleagues and their culpability during the war and afterwards. It’s quite a sickening eye-opener.

Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

It’s 4th August 1892 and Lizzie Borden discovers her father dead in the home they share in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her step mother is later discovered upstairs. Both have been brutally slain by an axe. Strangely, Lizzie and the maid, the only two at home heard nothing. This is a respectable, wealthy family and the police and neighbours speculate about who could have done it.

The story mostly covers three days; the day before the murders, the day of and the day after. Schmidt retells this true story from multiple points of view; Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid, Bridget and a stranger, Benjamin who had been sent to have words with Mr Borden the very morning of the murders.

We quickly learn that not all is right within this family. The sisters striving for independence still remain at home and unwed. They have a tight bond with each other which borders on the obsessive. Money seems to be at the root of the unhappiness. The father is very wealthy yet the family scrimps on basics. Lizzie, although almost thirty seems to be a lost soul striving for her father’s attention and her sister’s love, almost obsessively. Yet, she suffers from a type of amnesia and can barely recollect the events of the morning of the murders. The police appear incompetent and we never really get to the bottom of it. Bridget, the maid has her own problems and is desperate to leave.

The imagery is vivid; rotting pears, decapitated pigeons, rotting mutton soup and foul smells in an upstairs bedroom will leaving you feeling nauseas. Perhaps these repetitive images are a tad overdone, but it all adds to placing us right into this fascinating and intriguing story.

The author does a great job of interpreting the facts. The weak link for me is the penultimate chapter which was from Benjamin’s’ point of view and it jarred. Benjamin comes back to see the sister’s years later and we find out about Lizzie’s arrest and acquittal although little else. Then, the very last chapter takes us to Lizzie’s point of view and back in time again. I think the book might have been better without Benjamin’s chapter.

It’s very well written and the cover is superb. The timeline of facts at the end was also very helpful. We are kept guessing right up to the end. Did Lizzie do it or not? You need to make up your own mind.

Book Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This book rocked me to the core.

It’s very hard to read. I don’t mean the writing, because that’s brilliant, I mean the content. It’s brutal and tragic and if you were watching it as a movie you’d probably close your eyes in parts.

Yaa Gyasi has written a story about two half-sisters living in Ghana three hundred years ago and who never meet. Gyasi has very cleverly traced the descendants from these two women. One sister, Effia is married off to an Englishman living in relative comfort in a castle whose dungeons deep below house her half-sister, Esi and many hundreds of others who wait to be shipped as slaves to America.

The cruel legacy of slavery affects each generation as does the picture of what it means to be seen as less of a human being because your skin happens to be a different colour. And if you’re also a woman, it’s even worse. The author takes us at first into the patriarchal village where men have several wives and many children. Tribes fight for power or territory and those captured are sold into slavery set up by British colonialization.

Luckily, there is a family tree to refer to. We are given short vignettes about each descendant and travel through time and place in Africa and to America until we reach current day. It’s a very clever structure and we quickly grow to know the characters well in a very short time. The stories themselves reveal the deprivations, betrayals, secrets and suffering. Yet, interwoven is an enormous amount of love binding them together. We travel through time, the Civil War, the end of slavery but not the end of racism.

“Whatchu done wrong?” H asked, returning his gaze to the white man.
Finally, the words came out. “I killed a man.”
“Killed a man, huh? You know what they got my friend Joey over there for? He ain’t cross the street when a white woman walk by. For that they gave him nine years (in jail). For killin’ a man they give you the same. We ain’t cons like you.”

As we reach current day, it almost feels biographical and perhaps it is. The author was born in Ghana and her family went to America when she was small. The ending however for me is probably the weakest part being perhaps a little too convenient but nevertheless it doesn’t lessen the impact.

Yes, it’s a tough read. But a necessary one to educate and remind us that every human being deserves respect regardless of their sex or colour or indeed, any other difference. This book shows us what happens when it doesn’t. If you know anyone who thinks otherwise, buy this book and get them to read it so they can walk in another’s shoes and know what it feels like. Or just buy it or read it just to remind yourself.

Book Review: Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

I closed the last page and had to go for a walk to clear my head and take in the colour of the day. The brilliance of blue sky contrasted with the red, yellow and green of the falling leaves helped me  contemplate what was in this book. The walk brought me into the ‘now’ of savouring my own ordinary day.

Leigh Sales explores what happens to a person when they’re blindsided by a moment they never see coming. She carefully treads through her own life as a mother, wife and award winning journalist, who you think would be resilient having had to confront other people’s tragedies on a regular basis. But journalists are only human too and she readily confesses to her own blindsided moments.

People like Walter Mikac who suffered tremendously when his wife and two young daughters were gunned down; Stuart Diver, who buried under tons of earth and rubble was unable to save his wife; Juliet Darling whose husband was brutally murdered by his son; the list goes on. Sales talks to each one about their trauma and grief and what they valued most from those around them in their road to recovery.  She talks to detectives, medical personnel, families and friends to learn from them. The discussions are honest and at times raw causing Sales to examine the role of journalists and the media and in particular her own actions in the past of pursuing a story despite the cost for the person who has suffered from a trauma.

I was very interested in the role of support and what it is that gets people through. While  Sale weaves in some scientific theory with facts and figures it’s not heavy handed. It’s matter of fact and down to earth and easy to read. At times, it’s confronting but thought provoking enough for you to learn something, if not be inspired.

Book Review: The Corset by Laura Purcell

 

This is a difficult book to review without giving away spoilers. But boy, it’s a book which stays with you for some time.

Dorothea, a young, wealthy woman studies the science of phrenology when visiting women in jail. She meets sixteen-year-old Ruth, who is facing the death penalty for murder. Dorothea wants to test the theory that the shape of a skull reflects a person’s propensity for crime and redemption. After getting to know Ruth, she considers another idea, which is that it may be possible to kill with a needle and thread by supernatural means.

Set in Victorian, England this is a fascinating read as we enter the points of view of both women. Ruth tells Dorothea her story; her childhood, dictated by poverty and horrific circumstances meant she had little choice than to become a seamstress for a madwoman. When she loses the people she loves, she takes on the blame. Sewing herself into a corset, Ruth believes it will offer protection against the needle’s evil power to do bad things to the people she sews for.

Dorothea’s ideas are challenged by Ruth’s frankness and she struggles to believe her story. She identifies with Ruth – their mothers both died when they were young. Their fathers are weak. Dorothea, secretly in love with policeman, David, is an unmarried twenty-five-year woman turned Catholic. Her father is desperate to get her off his hands by marrying her off to anyone eligible he finds and Thomas is perfect. She has other ideas and when her father announces that he is to remarry, she takes matters into her own hands with disastrous consequences.

The themes of poverty and wealth in society are explored particularly for women whose wealth is dependent on men. It was fascinating to learn about debtor’s prisons where prisoners were unable to earn money to pay their debts and so were doomed as soon as they entered.

As a reader, we’re swept up with the idea of superstition and the ‘magic’ of the needle and thread. Purcell weaves an intricate and clever plot with unexpected twists and turns. I wondered about the two men in Dorothea’s life – David and Thomas – who seemed to fade away and I would have liked to know what happened to them. However, this may be deliberate as we are left wondering about Dorothea and what she has become, long after the last page. The ending is masterful and reading each word carefully is a must. It’s a pity I can’t reveal more.

It’s a definite page-turner, although grisly and gruesome in parts. Beware! Just check it out for yourself.

Book Review: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

 

Romy Hall is a young woman serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanford Women’s Correctional Facility in California. Outside, in the free world is her mother and her seven-year-old son. Inside, is a world where she has no rights, where hustling to survive is the norm and boredom is rife. Her upbringing by her single mother was less than ideal and she does what she can to escape the cycle of poverty which was pre-ordained from her childhood. Working in various jobs, dabbling in drugs, she ends up as a dancer in a strip club where a man stalks her and that’s where the trouble begins.

The Mars Room, short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 is the name of the strip club where Romy worked. We are in her head, observing and feeling the desperation and despair of prison life. Detail slowly unfolds until we find out the reason for her incarceration.

The legal system is frustrating and her overworked legal counsel is barely adept because she can’t afford anything better. Her side of why she did what she did wasn’t permissible and the injustice of it all permeates.

Her lawyer explains, “Even in these unbelievable cases, where the lawyer is totally out to lunch, they (the judiciary) still side with him. One guy fell asleep during cross-examination of his client. Another was a felon himself, handing a murder case as community service, but had no experience as a trial lawyer. Think those guys were ‘ineffective’? Not according to the Supreme Court. You got a very tough deal. There’s no question, and I feel for you.”

The author takes us on a bleak ride into the gritty and raw lifestyle of people who are down and out, abused and drug addicted, and into an institutionalised system where prisoners are barely treated with any human dignity. The characters are well drawn and Kushner does a remarkable job to show not just their flaws but their vulnerability and humanity particularly fellow women prisoners. Kushner gives us brief interludes into other points of view, mostly men; Doc the corrupt detective, Hauser, the teacher and even the stalker.

I’m in two minds about this book. On one hand it’s a fascinating look at life through the eyes of a prisoner. On the other hand, it was disjointed as the chapters flipped in and out of Romy’s point of view and I found this to be a bit laboured. I think I would have preferred to see the world only through Romy’s eyes which was quite rich enough. It’s very well written and the  ending was incredible stayed in my head long afterwards. It’s definitely a book worth checking out.