50 B00KS FOR 2018

Book Number 15

Armed and OutrageousArmed and Outrageous, Cozy Mystery (Book 1) (Agnes Barton Senior Sleuth Mystery) by [Johns, Madison]

by

Madison Johns

 

I’m making my first attempt at writing a cozy mystery and thought this book would be a good primer. The characters are my age, there is humor, and the setting is Michigan. I really wanted to like this book, but I did not! I got three-fourths of the way through and just could not read any more.

Here’s why:

The writing: I can excuse a grammatical error here and there, a typo now and then, a misspelling on occasion, even an error of fact. A sentence fragment. Redundant Repetitions. But there were so many in this book they were a distraction. The worst were the misplaced modifiers. One character was standing in his ass, for example. Was there an editor?

Character description: When I started reading, I remembered I’d tried the book before and gave up almost immediately because I didn’t like the character description. First, the main character’s name, Agnes. I have known several women with that name. All of them were born before 1920. I suppose the author wanted her main character to have a name that matched the era she was born in. Nope. By the forties, Agnes was not a name people gave their daughter. Just like that, the author had aged her. Agnes is in her early seventies and has her aches and pains, which is understandable, but she seems to fall (or is tripped or pushed) on the floor and usually manages to get right up. She wavers between decrepit and spry. And then there is the issue of false teeth. I have many friends the age of or older than Agnes and they all have their own teeth. I think the author gave Agnes ill-fitting false teeth to make her funny. Didn’t work for me. The portrayal of older people was demeaning and inaccurate. We don’t all have banged up cars because of poor driving skills, we don’t get into hair-pulling fist fights with each other, and we are not sex-crazed. Why does every senior citizen in this book receive their social security check on the first of the month when everywhere else the checks are spread throughout the month? And when we do receive those checks we don’t run to Walmart and harass each other and the staff while fighting over the groceries.

Setting: I like that the story is in Michigan, even though in an area I’m not familiar with. I could picture it fairly well from the description. But how can you stand on the shore and look east across Lake Huron to see the sunset?

Humor: I was hoping for snappy repartee. Agnes is just crabby and mean to many people. She is sex obsessed and what could be a cute side of her comes across as crude and juvenile. My friends and I laugh a lot and sometimes make remarks with a little innuendo, but Agnes and her friend Eleanor carry the joke too far and it loses its humor. A full chapter of the characters farting has them acting and talking like fourth-grade boys on their worst days. Agnes, smitten with her former boss, acts like a giddy, impetuous thirteen-year-old around him. The author misses the mark with her crude and slapstick humor. It all adds up to a story that is unrealistic, dumb, and boring.

Plot: The premise is promising— a series of missing girls (one is Agnes’ granddaughter which gives her a good excuse to become involved with the investigation) with the latest one’s mother having disappeared years before. I really wanted to know what happened to these young women and why. But I never got to the end. Agnes’ investigations involved running around being suspicious about everyone without any substantive clues. By the three-quarter mark in the book, I should have an inkling of what happened, but I was no closer to figuring it out than Agnes. Forget the lame, unrealistic episodes of this silly woman and get on with the mystery!

All I learned from attempting this book was don’t write like that! Sorry, zero stars for this one.

 

 

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50 BOOKS FOR 2018

Book Number 14Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by [Vance, J. D.]

Hillbilly Elegy

by

J. D. Vance

In his autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance recounts growing up in an industrial town in Ohio but credits his roots as being rural Kentucky. The explanation seems to be that you can take the hillbilly out of the holler, but you can’t take the hillbilly out of the boy. His grandparents’ family is made up of rough and ready poor folk, given to cursing and fighting. Vance’s immediate family is made up of himself, his drug-addicted mother, and his older sister.

Vance relates many incidences where his mother’s poor choices (drug use, the continual adopting and rejecting boyfriends or husbands, lack of self-control) threaten the family and drive him to his Mamaw and Papaw. He credits the grandparents with providing the only stability in his life and keeping him on the right track. He admires everything about them, even the use of rough language, threats, and violence.

In spite of the odds against him, Vance works hard, learns discipline in the Marines, graduates from college and eventually from Yale Law School. He recounts his early struggles due to the chaos in his mother’s home, how his Mamaw provided stability and encouragement, and the problems he had adapting to a society that was a rung higher than he had grown up in. Because of the desperation and fear he grew up with, he missed many social skills and had to learn how to conduct himself in his new life outside of the “hillbilly” culture. He also relates the difficulty in trusting people, expressing emotion, and controlling misplaced anger—all problems brought on by childhood trauma.

Vance attempts to define the problems of the hillbilly culture from his personal experiences. He doesn’t acknowledge that the problems of poverty, drug addiction, violence, and just plain giving up are not only a problem in Appalachia. The same “culture” exists in many areas from large cities to the most rural parts of our country (and even more universally.)

Vance suggests solutions based on his personal experience. To be fair, he does cite a few sources and uses other people as examples too. His conclusion is that a person will not overcome the problems of poverty and poor upbringing unless they have a support system—people who will always have your back, who set an example, and who continually encourage you and say you can succeed.

Vance also calls out “hillbillies” for their lack of initiative, their denial of their responsibility in creating their own conditions, and their blaming of others for their tough luck. He says the solution is for “hillbillies” to hold themselves accountable, get off their duffs, and solve their own problems.

Unfortunately, the solution is much more complex than that. Several reviewers criticized this book for not giving more detailed, researched, and proven solutions. In my opinion, Vance is a good writer who presented an honest autobiography, but as a treatise on how to resolve problems, it doesn’t work.

50 BOOKS FOR 2018

Book Number 13

A Spool of Blue Thread

by

Anne Tyler

 

Anne Tyler is an exceptionally fine writer. If you want plot and action rather than character development, she won’t be your cup of tea. But if you admire the attention to detail, the focus on the ordinary, and the exposing of a person’s foibles, feelings, thoughts, and motivations, then you will like A Spool of Blue Thread.

The novel, which moves back and forth through time, covers four generations of the Whitshank family. As each character’s story unfolds, we get an authentic view of who they are. Ms. Tyler weaves the tales so adeptly the narrative voice changes to capture the character’s story as if we are experiencing his or her thoughts and feelings.

Junior and Linnie Mae are bound together in a marriage that works because Linnie goes for what she wants and accepts what she gets. Junior seeks to climb the social ladder, Linnie strives to remain her own true self. Hard working Red and open-hearted Abby share a less volatile marriage, but aging forces them to adapt to change. Stem always does the right thing, continually trying to be a true Whitshank, while his brother Denny is the lost child. Their sisters, Jeannie and Amanda, worry about parents and brothers while working through family relationships.

Another character is the Whitshank house. Built by Junior who vows to someday make it his own, the house plays a major role in everyone’s lives.

The novel is plotless in that it does not tell a story with beginning, middle, and end. Instead significant (and mundane) events are recounted, some without resolution. Just like real life. I think there is much to examine and consider in these stories and I wish I knew who else has read this book because it warrants a good discussion between readers.

50 Books for 2018

Book Number 12

Romanov CurseRomanov Curse by [Cromartie, Sam]

by

Sam Cromartie

 

 

Although I enjoy history and historical fiction, I was afraid this book might be ponderous, and full of complicated Russian names that serve to confuse the reader.

It was a pleasant surprise to see how well Sam Cromartie introduced history and characters with accurate, interesting, easy to follow descriptions. The story carries us from World War I and the rise of the Bolshevik Revolution, to the Stalin era, and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The story is populated with interesting characters, all with secrets that endanger them.

Valentina, a cousin of the Tsar, flees Russia only to live in constant fear, first that she will be found, and later, that she will become entrapped into supporting Adolph Hitler.

Ivan, a strong supporter of the revolution, regrets mistakes he has made and is pursued by a life-long enemy.

Twins, Yuri and Karl, unknown to each other, live very different lives, one in Russia, one in Germany.

This fast-paced novel is filled with history, intrigue, action, and romance. It is well written and invokes sympathy for the characters.

The ending, though quite satisfactory, leaves me wanting more.

50 Books for 2018

Book Number 11

The Leisure Seeker

by

Michael Zadoorian

 

 

Ellie and John, married for 60 years, embark on one final vacation in their ’78 Leisure Seeker RV despite protests from their son and daughter and their doctors. John has Alzheimer’s and Ellie has cancer, but they still retain their determination and self-reliance.

With John as driver and Ellie as navigator, they journey from their home in suburban Detroit to Chicago and beyond.  Their goal is to travel the whole of Route 66 and make one last visit to Disneyland. On the trip, they experience wonders, complications, tenderness, and aggravation.

I especially like the voice of Ellie, the narrator of the tale. She is honest in her opinions, direct in her interactions, and plain in her speech. She sounds like many a Michigander I know. Her love and patience for her husband could easily make this a syrupy story. But she is human and doesn’t hide her anger and frustration with him as he forgets things, repeats questions, becomes hostile, and needs continuous care. Ellie knows to appreciate the small gifts when John is lucid and reminiscent of the man she shared a life with. In spite of his failing memory and deteriorating behavior, John has many good-natured moments and provides physical assistance to frail Ellie.

Travel is indeed an adventure and throughout the story, Ellie shows us difficulties a couple who are aged and in poor health must cope with. Yet, they persevere.

Throughout the story, Ellie reflects on her 60-year marriage, her children, past friendships, life, and death. She is a brave woman who accepts life as it comes to her (not without complaints and sometimes inappropriate reactions.)

The description of the places they visit is interesting and authentic. Ellie has no qualms about expressing her opinionated impressions.

I chuckled a lot while reading The Leisure Seeker, but was very touched by the relationship of a couple in their declining years.

50 BOOKS FOR 2018

Book Number 10The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

by 

Phaedra Patrick

 

I was charmed by this tale.

Arthur Pepper is a quiet, introverted widower who leads a simple life of routine and solitude. He tends his fern, Frederica, and tries to avoid his neighbor, Bernadette. Bernadette comes by frequently with lovely home cooked foods and a concern for Arthur’s state of mind. On the first anniversary of his wife’s passing, Arthur pulls himself together to begin the task of disposing of her clothing. He finds, hidden in a boot, a small box containing a charm bracelet. Discovering the origin and meaning of each charm becomes Arthur’s obsession and leads him on adventures he never dreamed he would take. Arthur’s desire to unravel the mysteries of his wife’s past means looking at himself.

The story is populated with unique characters—people Arthur would have never imagined getting to know. On his quest, he learns to come out of his shell and to tolerate, even appreciate, people unlike himself. He learns to expand his horizons and open himself to the possibility of closer relationships with others, including Bernadette and his children.

The bulk of the story takes place in England and is the debut novel of the British author, Phaedra Patrick. I enjoyed the deliberate pace, the minute details, and the descriptions of all things British. The food, the terminology, the environment, the characters’ temperments, and the quaintness of Arthur’s everyday life were all well portrayed. This was a fun peek into Arthur’s past, his foibles, his self discovery, and his transformation.

 

50 Books for 2018

 

Book Number 9

Evicted 

by

Matthew Desmond

 

This was a difficult book to read. The topics of poverty and eviction are not pleasant to contemplate. Additionally, the way the book was structured sometimes led to confusion.

Matthew Desmond follows several families in inner-city Milwaukee as they experience the effects of being evicted. He also presents the perspective of two landlords.

I had difficulty keeping the cast of multiple characters straight. Desmond gives a lot of detail about their lives, past and current, to explain how they became impoverished (in most cases born into poverty and/or addiction to drugs), how and why they were evicted, and the subsequent problems they needed to solve. Because he gives us bits and pieces of one person or family then quickly shifts to another, I found their stories hard to follow.

But each family suffers the same problems: lack of money, substandard housing options, and poor choices.  The lack of money apparently stems from three causes: unemployment due to little education, no marketable skills, drug addiction, and/or other barriers; reliance on SSI, food stamps, and charities to provide for needs even though those resources are not enough to cover everything; poor spending habits, drug addiction, trusting the wrong people, failure to take care of what little they have, having children they cannot afford to care for, and making other poor choices.

The landlords are, for the most part, cast in a poor light. They treat the tenants unequally, favoring some and punishing others. They ignore requirements to provide safe homes. They ignore broken appliances, doors falling off hinges, clogged plumbing, and other dangers. Unfortunately, much of the damage is caused by the tenants themselves. Most of the tenants Desmond followed broke the rules and had many more people living in their rental units than they were supposed to. Many refused to do even the most basic cleaning of their apartments. They made poor choices.

This book is intended to explain how the housing situation has become such a problem. Desmond sprinkles some interesting (often shocking) history throughout to explain the deterioration of affordable housing options for the poor.

The relentless and redundant telling of the problems the people experience wore me down. Perhaps it was intentionally written in this manner to parallel the relentless, repetitive nature of the problem, but I finally decided to skip ahead and see if a solution was offered.

Simplistically put, the problem is defined as the impoverished are caught in a costly cycle of being unable to find decent, affordable housing. The solution Desmond suggests is for the government to provide vouchers which allow people to move from poor areas and find safe, sound, properly maintained housing.

I couldn’t buy into this as a viable solution. Yes, adequate housing should be available to everyone. No, the government shouldn’t have to provide it. I personally don’t believe that helping someone to live in a nice home in a “good” neighborhood is going to resolve the issue. Not until people learn to make better choices and to accept responsibility.  We need to figure out how to help some poor people break the cycles they are in. Along with the availability of proper housing, there needs to be a cultural change.