A powerful, moving novel

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They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Joe Chayefski is a highly respected American neurologist. At the beginning of his career, he moved to Finland to marry the woman he loved.  They had a child, Samuel.  But Joe has difficulty adjusting to Finnish life and work.  When his marriage falls apart, he returns to the US, leaving his ex-wife and child in Finland.  His work flourishes in the US and at the present time, he’s married with two daughters.  Animal activists start targeting Joe and his family and it appears that his estranged son, Samuel, may be involved.

This is a many-layered novel which I can’t praise enough. There are all of the social issues it addresses – animal testing and activism, the dangers of social media and internet news and the futility of trying to fix the world but still the need that steps must be taken.  And then there are the in-depth characterizations that Mr. Valtonen has created.  He bares his characters’ hearts and souls to the world.  As Joe struggles to save his work reputation, to protect his family from the violence directed at them by animal activists and to protect his daughters from the internet dangers they’ve been exposed to, the author then turns his readers’ attention to Samuel and his mother, showing the other side of the coin.  To watch these characters’ actions that lead them deeper and deeper into misunderstanding is absolutely riveting.

Animal testing is an issue close to my heart and I find it hard to read bout. Thankfully, this novel, while it delves deeply into both sides of the issue, doesn’t go into specifics about the testing being done.

This is the first of Mr. Valtonen’s novels to be translated into English and I am now longing for his others to be translated.

Most highly recommended. This may well be my top read of the year that has been filled with wonderful books.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review

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Entertaining but without the emotional punch promised

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The Goddesses by Swan Huntley

Book Review:  3 out of 5 star rating

Things haven’t been too great for Nancy and her family. Her husband has cheated on her and her teenage sons are lighting illegal fires. It’s time for a change. Their move to Hawaii is an effort to make a fresh start. And things do seem a bit better there. Nancy and her husband have some romantic evenings and she’s hopeful that their relationship has a chance. She begins a yoga class where she meets Ana. Ana is very different from Nancy. She isn’t married, has no children and is a free spirit. Nancy is quickly pulled under Ana’s spell. Instead of calling her Nancy, Ana calls her Nan, which is the letters of the alphabet contained in both of their names – ying and yang. But as their friendship grows and Nancy is pulled more completely into Ana’s world, things take a darker turn.

The blurbs I read about this book promised an emotional punch but I never became emotionally involved in this book at all. I didn’t care about any of the characters and found the two women to be quite annoying. The story does pick up towards the end and I found some interest in it. I was saddened to see the teenage boys taking the brunt of their parents’ poor choices. Overall to me it was an average book with some entertainment value.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Positive approach on aging

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Ageless Soul:  The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy by Thomas Moore

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Thomas Moore has written a very compassionate and optimistic book on aging and how to do it well. He points out that it’s not just our bodies that age but also our soul.  And while our bodies may have its limits when it gets older, our soul knows no limits and can mature and improve throughout our lives.

We have all of our past ages now residing in our soul. We have a youthful soul that it’s important to stay in touch with.  We need to keep those souls in harmony, not too much of an old soul, but not too much of a young soul either.  We’re not a complete person if we not retain each of the ages of our soul.  We start our aging process as soon as we’re born and we need to continue to build our character as we age.   Some of us only age physically, while our soul remains stagnant and never really develops.  We need to remain open to new opportunities and learning and how to connect with others.

Mr. Moore writes about how older people can become “elders” and help mentor the young. That’s something that seems to be missing in our society.  It’s a youthful society and the merits of learning from the wisdom of its elders is not as important as it once was.

We need to embrace the experience of growing older instead of dreading it. Mr. Moore has written a beautiful book that can be referred to again and again throughout our lives.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Lacked the emotional impact expected from such a story

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Crimes of the Father by Thomas Keneally

Book Review:  3 out of 5 star rating

Father Frank Docherty seems to attract controversy. He’s a good man and a good priest but his beliefs are sometimes at odds with the Catholic Church.  He was banished from the Australian church in the sixties due to his religious beliefs and he truly wants to return to Australia and their church so he can be near his aging mother.  But events come about that bring him into direct confrontation with the same Cardinal he’s trying to win favor with.  He’s become aware of several incidents of child abuse by a now well-known and respected monsignor.  His conscience won’t allow him to turn a blind eye to these horrendous betrayals of trust.

I had a bit of a problem getting into this book.  In the beginning there are somewhat long essays about church dogma that I didn’t find particularly interesting.  There was nothing in there that was new to me.  And at times the book read almost like case studies instead of a novel.  I found the beginning to be quite dry and didactic.  It took a while for the character of Father Docherty to grow on me.  Certainly the stories of the child abuse and the way the church tried to cover it up were very shocking and disturbing.  But I wasn’t drawn into the story line until late in the book.  Once I was pulled into the story, I enjoyed it more.  I remember reading “Schindler’s List” with much more emotion than I did this one.  His newest book lacked the emotional impact that I had expected from such a story.

I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway and am under no obligation to review it.

The fierce bond of family

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Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

“I had always believed my father capable of a massacre. Whenever I heard on the news that there had been a killing spree, I would hold my breath, unable to relax until it was clear that it couldn’t have been him.”  (Wording may not appear the same in final published edition).

Randolph Tiefenthaler grew up with a father who had an extensive gun collection. Not only were the guns loaded but Randolph’s father had a bit of a temper.  Randolph always had a fear that one night his father would come upstairs and kill him and/or his brother.  Randolph is an adult now with a wife and children when his father is arrested for murder.  It all started when Randolph moved his family to a new building where Dieter Tiberius is living in the basement apartment.  Dieter is an odd character who turns into a menacing one when he starts to stalk Randolph and his family and accuses the parents of sexually abusing their children.

This is an excellent psychological thriller with deep insight into family bonds and the fears implanted in us as children that we continue to live with throughout our adult life. I’ve seen other reviews saying the author lectures about issues but I thought the whole book was fascinating.  I hung on every word and loved the buildup of suspense.  No one seemed to be able to help this family – not their lawyer, not the police and not children’s services.    At times I thought, just move away, but they hadn’t done anything wrong to lose their home, but since it involved children, I would have been out of there.  Regardless, I was quite impressed by this author.  Apparently, the book is loosely based on the author’s own experience with a stalker so he had firsthand knowledge of what this type of situation can do to a person.

The author is from Germany and he has written 8 novels, many of which, including this book, have been adapted for film, television and radio in Germany. “Fear” is the first to be translated into English.  I’ll be keeping an eye out for any others that will be translated in the future for sure.

I don’t usually give thrillers 5 star reviews as I reserve 5 stars for books that really have a profound impact on me. But in a way I think the book did have a profound impact on me as I’m still thinking about it though I’m writing this review weeks after reading the book.  This story showing how quickly our immediate world can become one that’s horribly distressful fills my thoughts throughout the days.  If you’re looking for a thriller with psychological insight, I highly recommend this one.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

The Dangers of Superstition

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The Good People by Hannah Kent

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Troubles have arrived at the Leahy home. When Nora and Martin Leahy’s daughter, Johanna, dies, they are left with their 4-year-old grandson to care for.  But Micheal is not as he was when they last saw him two years ago.  At that time, he was talking and walking and a normal little boy.  Now he’s unable to walk or even stand and he doesn’t talk.  He screams out in the night and flails his bent arms.  Nora sees nothing of her grandson in him but with Martin’s help, they care for him as best as they can.  But when Martin dies suddenly, Nora has difficulty dealing with her grandson and all of the other work now on her shoulders.  She hires a young woman, Mary, to come and help with the house and Micheal.

The entire town starts to have troubles. The cows aren’t producing much milk and the hens aren’t laying many eggs.  Could it be the fairy people (the Good People as they are known) who are causing their troubles?  Or is it the odd little boy, Micheal?  Is he a changeling left by the fairies?  Nora takes Micheal to Nance, the old woman who is known to have “knowledge” of the fairy world in the hope that she can bring back her “real” grandson who has been changed for this distorted version of Micheal.

I enjoyed this book very much. The author quickly creates a tense, unsettled atmosphere.  This Irish community in the 1820’s is inundated with superstition and folk lore.  They see signs in everything and their fears grow out of control.  The book is actually based on a real-life incident.

I’ve had the author’s first book, “Burial Rites”, on my TBR list for quite a long time but just have never gotten to it. I definitely will now.  This author reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Sharyn McCrumb, who writes of the people of the Appalachian Mountains with their own superstitions and knowings.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

An average unreliable narrator book

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Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

Book Review:  3 out of 5 star rating

What a perfect husband Paul Strom is and what a perfect husband and provider. He’s happily married to the lovely Mia and has two sons.  They’re financially well off with no worries.  At least that’s what Paul would like you to believe.  He’s planned the “best day ever” for he and his wife by taking her to their lake house for a romantic weekend of wining and dining.  But how will that get away end?

The whole book encompasses one day in the lives of Paul and Mia. It’s a very easy to read and quick moving book and whenever I had to put the book down, I did look forward to picking it up again.  Paul is an easy character to despise.  The reader learns fairly early just how psychopathic Paul is and once you learn that, I felt that he quickly became very annoying.  I also had a hard time relating to Mia.  I also found the book to be too predictable with very few surprises.  I didn’t feel the wrap-everything-up-neatly ending was necessary as I had already “gotten it” from what had previously been told and felt it was just repetitive.

But it was a fun read and I’m glad I gave it a try. Maybe I’ve just read too many unreliable narrator books lately.  But if you enjoy this type of book and haven’t been overloaded yet with the unreliability aspect, then I think you’ll enjoy this entertaining book.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Quite a literary journey

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

This is the story of one man’s life. The book starts off when 16-year-old Catherine Goggin is thrown out of the Catholic Church because she’s pregnant and unwed.  Her family wants nothing to do with her and she’s forced to leave her home.   She travels to Dublin where she gives birth to a baby boy who is later named Cyril.  Cyril is the narrator of this book and it’s his life that the book follows.  Catherine gives up her baby and Cyril is adopted by Charles and Maude Avery.  Charles and Maude never abuse Cyril but don’t show him much affection either and constantly remind him that he’s not a “real” Avery.  This is the story of Cyril’s life-long search for identity.

 

Wow, this was quite a literary journey. I don’t believe I’ve ever given 4 stars to a book that I so often wanted to stop reading.  I was pulled into the story at the beginning and loved reading about Catherine.  And I loved young Cyril and his friend Julian.  However, it’s at this point that the author chooses to direct most of his story to the sexual desires of his characters.  And it’s not just the young Cyril and Julian who are young and curious but everyone they come into contact with.  At first I thought it was humorous and then I became bored with it and then I didn’t want to continue with the book any longer.  It went on and on for hundreds of pages.  I believe the author was trying to show the hypocrisy of Ireland’s sexually repressed society, causing all the people to constantly think and talk about sex.  But it was done in almost a comic manner that I didn’t care for.

But I’m very glad that I continued reading because the second half of the book was gorgeously written and full of heart. Cyril’s struggle with the secrecy of his homosexuality is told in such a forthright manner.  This is an epic novel that covers so much ground – the Catholic Church’s power over the people, society’s cruelty to homosexuals and their struggle to be accepted.  Cyril can be incredibly selfish and then again he can be incredibly compassionate.  He’s a conflicted man who the author completely brought to life.  The loves and tragedies of his life make for a compelling read.  The second half of this book more than compensated for the rocky first half.

Recommended.

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This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

Very well written and compelling novel

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Elena Richardson has always played by the rules. She has a beautiful home in Shaker Heights, a loving husband and four teenage children.  She also has an inherited house that she rents out to those she feels can use a helping hand.  The top floor of the house is currently being rented by Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl.  Mia is an artist and single mother whose nomadic life intrigues each of the Richardsons.

When friends of the Richardsons decide to adopt a Chinese-American baby, the resulting custody battle divides the Richardsons and the Warrens on opposite sides. Elena vows to unearth each and every one of Mia’s secrets.  Elena learns the hard way that playing by the rules doesn’t always ensure safety.

This is a very well-written novel and drew me in completely. I really felt a part of this story.  Each of the characters were alive in my mind and I cared about them.  The author has a wise view of the world and knows how to construct a great story.  I found the custody battle to be a very emotional one and couldn’t pull myself away until I found out how it ended.  The author expertly builds up the tension in the relationships between the Richardsons and the Warrens.  The book is absolutely riveting, the story complex and I loved it.  The only reason I couldn’t give it 5 stars was that I felt the reason for Izzy’s act at the end of the book to be unrealistic and her behavior overly dramatic.  It just didn’t feel right to me.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Fascinating novel based on the true story of the case of the Greenbrier Ghost

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The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Sharyn McCrumb is a long-time favorite author of mine. Her ballad books are food for my literary soul, with her hauntingly beautiful tales of the Appalachian Mountains folklore. This time she’s veered away from those ballads with a historical novel based upon a true incident. There actually was a murder trial where the accused, Erasmus Trout Shue, was brought to trial for the murder of his wife, Zona Heaster Shue, based on the testimony of his deceased wife.  Zona’s mother attests to the fact that her deceased daughter appeared to her and told her how she was murdered, an autopsy was ordered and Trout Shue was brought to trial.  The murder took place in 1897.

The author has done a marvelous job of pulling out the facts from all of the folklore surrounding this murder. She researched census records, birth and death certificates, property records, maps and photographs and a long paper trail.  She brings these people back to life and I was completely captivated by their story.  The author lets her story be told alternately by Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, and by Shue’s attorney, James P.D. Gardner.  Interestingly, Gardner tells his part of the story to a psychiatrist while he’s confined to a mental hospital in 1930.  Gardner was the first black attorney to practice law in the State of Virginia and this is his most memorable case.

I would have given this fascinating account of such a very unusual trial 5 stars except for the quite lengthy examination of the checkered career of the lead prosecutor, W.P. Rucker. While I can certainly understand why the author wanted to include this since it’s of historic interest, that part dragged a bit for me.  My main interest in the book was the mother’s quest for justice for her beloved daughter’s murder.  I felt such empathy for her as she struggled with her fears for her daughter as she entered this obviously unstable marriage and her grief when her daughter’s life was so brutally ended.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.