Tag Archive | audiobook

Book Review: Dark Places

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

I’ve read other books by Gillian Flynn, so when I noticed that this one was available at the library website, I decided to check it out.

Libby is a woman in her early thirties, trying to escape her past.  When she was 7, she was the survivor of the murder of her mother and two sisters; her 15-year-old brother was convicted of the crime.  Libby heard her brother in the house that night, even though he told police he was not at home.

Dark Places

The sympathy money that has kept her going all these years has finally run out, and Libby is forced to accept the fact that she is broke and in need of a job.  She receives an offer to appear at The Kill Club, an unfortunately named convention of sorts, where amateur sleuths convene to swap tips and try to solve their favorite cold case murders.  Libby learns that there is a significant group of followers who believe that her brother is innocent.  But why?

Led along by the small sums of cash offered by the group, she agrees to meet with her brother for the first time in almost 25 years, and begins to harbor a nagging doubt that her brother murdered her family.  What if Libby’s testimony was wrong?  She had to find out the truth…

As is the case with all of Flynn’s books, the reader is taken on a roller-coaster ride of ever-changing facts, opinions and realities.  As she weaves in the stories of Libby, her mother and her brother, both then and now, the reader begins to realize that nothing is as it seems.  A well-planned thriller that kept my interest, if not somewhat unbelievable in the end…

3 stars.

Book Review: The Japanese Lover

Alma is a young Polish girl, sent to San Francisco by her family to live with a distant and wealthy aunt and uncle after the Nazis take over Poland in 1939.  She meets and befriends Ichimei, the Japanese-American son of the family gardener.  They are drawn together in a friendship that reveals the different worlds from which they have come.  So begins a love story that lasts their lifetimes.

The Japanese Lover

Alma grows, up goes to college, and lives an entire rich, full life.  Her path crosses with Ichimei’s time and time again, even though she possesses wealth and privilege that he does not.

Allende also introduces Irina, a poor girl with a trouble past who becomes the now-elderly Alma’s caregiver.  Irina tries to discover the secrets of Alma’s past, while trying to keep her own.  Irina enlists Alma’s grandson Seth in her attempts to uncover what Alma is hiding, and they discover they have more in common than just an odd, old woman.

Allende is an incredible writer, and she weaves a timeless story of love into the complexity of life, exploring themes of race, class, the Holocaust, and prejudice against Japanese-Americans during World War II.  It is very different than her other works, as it does not employ the suspension of disbelief that is a theme in her other novels.  However, as always, her character development is second to none, and each character has their own struggles and motivations.  You find yourself cheering for their successes, and mourning their losses, and gain a deeper understanding of the power of love.

4 stars

Book Review: Valiant Ambition

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Despite being very interested in history, I haven’t spent much time on the Revolutionary War. Maybe it is the stockings… or the wigs… both things I have a long-standing aversion to. Just ask my mom about the time when they dressed me up as Princess Leia in Star Wars, complete with the funny buns on the side of my head. I was about five, and I don’t have much hair, so she did the hairstyle with a wig. Which I removed and refused to put back on about two houses up the street. Times have not changed…

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

But anyway, back to the book. As one might now have guessed, this is a book about the Revolutionary War. It weaves its way through various parts of the war, from Washington’s struggles at the beginning, to Benedict Arnold’s glorious victories early on, to later events where Washington changes his strategy and starts seeing success. And of course, it recounts Benedict Arnold’s eventual treason and defection to the British Army.

It is a fascinating overview of the long years of the war, hitting several highlights for the Northern, Central and Southern corps of the Continental Army (they were called something else, but you get the gist). It tells the story through the perspective of several officers on both sides of the conflict: Washington, Arnold, Gates, Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as weaving in stories of some of the soldiers who were fighting on the front line.

While Philbrick follows a generally chronological timeline, he does bounce forward and back some as he shifts between storylines. The reader should also be aware that the book is not intended to be a complete history of the Revolutionary War, with Philbrick covering some portions and leaving others out entirely. Of course, a comprehensive history would be far outside the scope of one book, but he does seem to pick and choose which events he portrays, and some seem less relevant that others. I say that even knowing that the book is focused on Washington and Arnold…  That said, it is a worthwhile read that gave me a good general overview of some of the major points in the war that founded our country.

Extra points for the fact that the audio-book was read by Scott Brick, one of my favorite readers!

3 Stars.

Book Review: All the Single Ladies

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, by Rebecca Traister

This is a book of non-fiction.  And a good one at that.

Traister, through an analysis of research studies, vital records and interviews with women around the United States, wrote a book that examines the costs and benefits of singlehood.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation

Throughout history, it has been notoriously difficult to be a single woman.  With laws and patriarchal rules that prohibited women from owning property, limited inheriting, forced women into arranged marriages, made it difficult for women to get custody of children in a divorce, required women to quit their jobs if they married, prohibited voting and any amount of other nonsense, it was tough for a woman to choose to not marry.  Only relatively recently have women been able to make a different choice.

Traister explores several issues surrounding women’s marital status – both the pros and the cons:

  • the social stigma of being unmarried
  • the pain that women face if they are unable to find a suitable partner with whom to have children
  • the “mommy penalty,” which affects women’s careers and salaries after they have children
  • the impact of loneliness
  • government programs that are designed to encourage women to marry, instead of fixing the underlying problems of why they aren’t
  • the fact that women are perceived to be more loyal to their careers if they remain unmarried
  • that fact that women’s socio-economic status is closely tied to marriage
  • the rich friendships that single women can develop when they are not devoting time to a spouse

She tells the stories of some of the incredible unmarried women in history, who used their free time to advance women’s causes, such as suffrage, contraception and equal rights, as well as those to rose in the ranks to positions of power.  She tells the stories of a few incredible women who decided to ultimately get married too.

Traister doesn’t advocate for singlehood or married life, and instead simply advocates for women to have the choice, free from the hassle of absurd public policies that limit that choice.  While at times the book is a bit repetitive, and it is a slow read due to its focus on research and historical facts, it was an interesting deep dive into the institution of marriage for women and what leads some to follow a different path.

As a single woman, one who has a terrible experience with marriage, and who did not get the opportunity to choose to have children, this book resonated with me.  At times, being single has been a source of deep despair for me.  However, being single has also given me some incredible flexibility, to buy a home, advance my career, travel and plan for an early retirement, all on my own.  It is a double-edged sword, and one for which I am now incredibly grateful.

Bravo!

4 stars.

Book Review: The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian woman.  She was middle-aged and unmarried, living with her father and sister Betsie and running a clock and watch shop when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands during World War II.

The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

Of course, the Nazis soon began arresting and deporting the Jews to the concentration camps.  Ten Boom and her family couldn’t stand by and watch their neighbors be rounded up and taken away family by family, so they began sheltering Jews in the home.  Gradually, as things became more desperate and more dangerous, the ten Boom family connected with the Dutch Resistance, participating in acquiring counterfeit food ration cards and having a false wall built in their home to hide the Jews staying there.

Eventually, they were ratted out and ten Boom, her father and her older sister were arrested, detained and sent first to a prison, where her father died.  Corrie and her sister were eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  You already know how conditions were in a concentration camp, and it was no different for Corrie and her sister. They leaned heavily on their faith, setting up evening prayer services and Bible readings in order to make it through.  As Corrie allowed herself to hate the Nazi guards, her sister taught her forgiveness, even of the monsters who imprisoned them.

I was surprised that I had never heard of this book, even though it was published in 1971, before I was born.  It tells an important story of the regular people throughout Europe who did what they could to fight the Nazis.  The story is timeless now, but still needs to be heard.  People need to understand what happened, or history will repeat.

4 stars.

Book Review: Furious Hours

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep

This is hands down one of the best books I have read in a while.  I checked it out from the library’s online audio book selections because it was available, without knowing anything about it.  Was it non-fiction?  Fiction?  Did Harper Lee sue someone over book rights?  Was she sued?  I was intrigued in my ignorance.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

As it turns out, you get two fascinating non-fiction stories for the price of one.  Enter the Reverend Willie Maxwell.  A smooth talking, well dressed man, who supervised a lumber crew by day and preached by night.  And who had a thing for insurance.

As it turned out, over a period of two years, six people close to the Reverend died (five were family members), most in “car accidents.”  Except they didn’t look like your typical accident; the vehicle in each situation was not damaged enough for investigators to believe the accident would have killed someone.  Six people: two of Maxwell’s wives, his second wife’s first husband, his brother, his nephew and his adopted daughter.  And oh, isn’t it interesting that there happened to be multiple insurance policies on each person, purchased by the Reverend, with Maxwell listed as the beneficiary?

The Maxwell case took an unexpected turn, and Harper Lee decided to take a trip to Alexander City, Alabama to research the case and write a book, her first since To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lee had helped her close childhood friend Truman Capote research his best-selling novel, In Cold Blood, and Lee thought that this would be her ticket to her own true crime book.

In addition to the story of the Reverend Maxwell, Cep also chronicles the life of Harper Lee, from her childhood in Alabama, her process of writing and publishing To Kill a Mockingbird, and her struggles after the book immediately became one of the most influential books in history.  Lee was not fond of the fame the book brought her, and began to live as a near recluse, turning down almost all requests for interviews and appearances.

Lee also struggled with profound grief; she had always had a complicated relationship with her mother who died young after struggling for years with mental illness.  She was much more affected when her brother died suddenly shortly after at the age of 30.  He had been her anchor and the sibling she was closest to.  Her father, whom she deeply admired, died after a long, slow decline – even though she was older, his death was hard for her to cope with as well.

Lee’s life was often messy, with decades spent trying to create the next novel to follow Mockingbird.  She developed close friendships with her agents and editors and outlived them all.  She struggled with alcoholism.  She had her ups and downs with Capote, eventually losing touch with him entirely.  She had a love/hate relationship with New York; loving its bustle and culture and the anonymity it afforded her but feeling the pull of small town Alabama.  Her one constant was her family.

The book is candid about Lee’s life, neither idolizing nor maligning her for the way that she lived after Mockingbird came out.  Cep simply tries to tell it like it was.  Cep’s writing fully develops the characters in a way that few authors do, and that is difficult when you are trying to accurately portray real people.  I listened on audiobook and couldn’t wait for my drive so I could start back up where I left off.  Brilliant.

5 stars.

Book Review: The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

A man walks into The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and tries to attack a painting with a knife. Fortunately, Robert Oliver is restrained before doing any damage to the painting, and ends up being involuntarily committed for mental illness.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlow, begins to treat Oliver and in doing so, embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of the beautiful old-fashioned woman whom Oliver is obsessed with painting. His journey takes him to Oliver’s former wife and former lover, as well as halfway around the world. What he uncovers is a tragic love story; while along the way he finds a love of his own.

The Swan Thieves was written by the same woman that wrote The Historian (I recommend it highly), and Kostova weaves an intricate tale of love and relationships, and the nuances of the human mind. Her character development is superb, with each character possessing their own strengths and flaws; their own triumphs and tragedies.

I was captivated from beginning to end, trying to anticipate what was around the next corner, hating to put the book down to go back to the real world. The conclusion leaves questions, and just like life, things don’t always get wrapped up neatly. As is always the case with true love, the story will stay with you long after the end.

Note: I listened to the audiobook version, which was wonderfully narrated by different voices.

The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

My most recent audiobook read was The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, by Kate Clifford Larson.  Published in 2008, it is a comprehensive study of the role Mary Surratt played in the plot to kill President Lincoln.

The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

Larson begins her story with her belief that Mary Surratt was innocent of the charges that she was tried, convicted and hanged for.  It is a fair assessment; there certainly are plenty of people who believe that Mary was caught up in the public fervor to swiftly find and punish the guilty parties.  But then, she begins presenting the research, and the evidence stacks up.

Larson methodically presents the case, beginning months prior to the assassination, going over Mary’s role and what she knew, and how her actions convinced investigators of what she knew.  She interweaves the story of Mary’s family life, abusive marriage and eventual life as a widow trying to clear her alcoholic husband’s debts after his unexpected death.  It has the rhythm of a novel, so you are never bored with the numerous records that she introduces and the facts she describes.  She describes Mary in vivid detail for the reader, so you really end up feeling like you know her as a person.

She describes the arrest, the subsequent investigation and interrogations, and the trial of the conspirators before the military tribunal.  She doesn’t glorify either side, pointing out the flaws in both the prosecution’s and defense’s case, and explaining the part that media and public opinion played in the trial.  She detailed the fragile emotional state of both Mary and her daughter Anna, and how it influenced observers both in her favor and against.

She matter of factly describes the shortcomings of Mary’s inexperienced attorneys, and how Mary’s own unwillingness to provide any sort of alternate explanation against the mountain of evidence was critical in sealing her fate.  And of course, one cannot ignore that fact that Mary basically took the fall for her son John Surratt, who undoubtedly had significant knowledge of the plot, but remained hidden after Mary was arrested, tried and executed.  Would the outcome have been different had John come forward to stand before the tribunal?  We will never know.

Larson also describes the execution, making the reader feel that they understood what happened, without making it into a gory scene.  And finally, she examines the debate about Mary’s innocence by firsthand witnesses and her attorneys that continued well into the early 1900s.  The pendulum swung from the public believing in her guilt, to outrage over what was thought to be the execution of an innocent woman.

In the end, Larson has made it clear that the project did not reaffirm her belief in Mary’s innocence, as she expected it would, but led her to a deep understanding of Mary’s guilt and her knowledge of the plan.

Well researched and well written, this book is a must read for anyone who wants to more fully understand a humble, pious woman’s role in the conspiracy to kill the President.