Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Book Reviews February 2017

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  This book had been on my kindle for a long time, but I kept skipping over it because I didn’t feel quite up to reading about racism and the death penalty.  I could finally ignore it no longer though, and was quite surprised at how readable it is!  So I recommend it because I think it is important for us to know what goes on in our judicial system, and also as a very interesting read.  Stevenson writes very well and does an excellent job conveying the humanity of the people on death row.  I wasn’t surprised at how unfair death row convictions tend to be, but I was surprised and dismayed at how unequipped our system is at dealing with cases that have clearly gone wrong.  That is, when someone CLEARLY has not gotten a fair trial, the resources available for disrupting the process are very, very limited.  Stevenson is a fascinating person too – he moves down to Atlanta after graduating from Harvard Law School in the eighties and starts working at a foundation that defends those on death row – which means in mostly southern states.  He also starts work defending those who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were under 18 – and sometimes way under, like 13.  Thankfully, he has many successes in changing the rules for child “criminals”.  It is all fascinating and very frustrating; there is so much more work to be done.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore.  I don’t remember how this book got on my kindle – it must have been recommended to me because I don’t know anything about the author.  It was excellent.  It’s about an English family in the early sixties, and Simon, the husband and father gets accused of spying for the Russians.  We as readers know that he is being set up, because you also get the point of view of Giles, who actually was doing the spying.  Simon is married to Lily, who as a child was a Jewish refugee with her mother from Berlin.  So when the police come to her house, it is like Berlin all over again.  The chapters go from Simon to Lily to Giles and it is all fast-paced and well done.  Lily is doing all she can to keep their three children safe:  she lets out their house and moves to the countryside in Kent and works as a housekeeper.  Meanwhile, the forces who are after Simon turn their attention to Lily.  Oh no!  Read it. 

On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman.  I adore Elinor Lipman’s books in general and this one is a true delight.  It is funny and happy – and it is hard to find a book that is both happy and well-written.  She always reminds me a bit of a modern-day Barbara Pym.  Her characters are wry and smart and small-town and funny.  This one concerns a development officer, Faith Frankel, who when the novel begins has moved back to her home town and is buying a house on Turpentine Lane.  She’s engaged to a ne’er do well who is off finding himself, and so she buys the house herself before discovering that it was the site of several crimes in the past.  Meanwhile, Faith’s parents are splitting up, and she is also getting to know quite well a work colleague, Nick.  When police come and dig up her basement for evidence, she decides to find out what had happened herself.  It’s a very fun read.

Noonday by Pat Barker.  Pat Barker is one of my all-time favorite novelists, but I had trouble getting into this one.  It’s the third in a trilogy, and I think what I should have done is re-read the first two, as I only had a vague memory of what had come before.  In my defense, I don’t thinkNoonday works completely as a stand-alone book.  She doesn’t explain much about the characters (assuming you know them from the first two), and thus no one comes across as very likeable or compelling.  Elinor, Paul, and Kit are now dealing with the second world war, and are all part of rescue teams or ambulance drivers helping people nightly after the Germans bomb London.  They are all in their own way dealing with the ghosts from world war one, and Elinor and Paul are still painting.  Elinor’s dead brother Toby figures large in this book too.  Her writing is just as understated and marvelous as ever, so I was happy each night to read a few chapters, but I did not – yet – find it gripping.

Your 4 Year-Old: Wild & Wonderful by Louise Bates Ames & Frances L. Ilg.  I’ve read these books each year as Owen reaches the age and have found them helpful.  All the other books were really about the half-age, so for this one I waited until he was 4 ½ to read it, and of course this one is about 4 year-olds in general.  They can be a bit old-fashioned as far as gender goes (your boy will play with trucks and your girl with dolls, etc.), and this one had a weird chapter on whether your child is an endomorph, ectomorph, or one other –morph, but in general they do a very good job of portraying and explaining what the age’s general characteristics are.  The consensus seems to be that four is pretty great, and I am definitely finding it so.  They say that at five kids become all of a sudden more conservative and cautious and rule-following, which should be interesting. 

My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry.  This novel started out good, and with a lot of suspense, but I was disappointed with it on the whole.  When the book begins, Lily is a young lawyer who is trying to get a convicted murderer out on appeal.  He becomes involved in her life in disturbing ways.  Also when the book begins Lily is newly married to Ed, and their marriage is rocky.  They start helping out a young Italian girl who lives in their apartment building, Carla.  Half of the chapters in the book are from Carla’s point of view, as she grows up and returns to England.  It’s a novel of suspense, and in the prologue of the book you learn that someone is wounded and dying, and throughout the novel that scene is returned to for a page or two.  But even with that foreshadowing, and the psychotic prisoner, the story is a little too easy and the characters a little too flat.  It’s an easy read, and I was eager to find out what happened, but it could have been a much better book.