Sorrow Road by Julia Keller

sorrow-roadThis one is the fifth in the Bell Elkins series, and Julia Keller proves she can still craft a page turner.

It’s expected that there will be deaths at a new care facility for Alzheimer’s patients, but the most recent three occur very close to each other.  The latest deceased is Harmon Strayer, and his daughter Darlene thinks something is suspicious.  She’s come all the way from Washington DC to discuss this with Bell, the prosecuting attorney in adjacent Raythune County.

Needless to say, Darlene doesn’t make it back to DC.  Due to a significant snowfall, the mountain roads in this part of West Virginia are quite treacherous, and her car is found shortly after, off the road after a particularly nasty switch back.

Darlene’s partner arrives wanting answers.  The body count jumps when an aide at the care facility and a friend of hers are found brutally murdered.  And things get even more interesting when Bell’s daughter, twenty-one and with secrets of her own, comes back home to live.

The author has kept it consistent with this whole series.  Keller’s books are highly readable, and she is not averse to including social issues in her books.  The beauty of rural West Virginia and the hard living of its people always play a part in this series.  Along with poverty and drug issues, Sorrow Road takes on the situation of Alzheimer’s and doesn’t flinch, and for that alone, I commend the author.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

When in French : Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins

An American woman marries a Frenchman and lives happily ever after – but first, it helpswhen-in-french to learn French.

Lauren is living abroad for the first time in London when she meets Olivier.  She’s fine with dating him and Olivier, after years of study and exposure, speaks English well, although their differing approaches to the language make for some headbutting.  It’s when they marry and Olivier is transferred to Geneva, Switzerland that Lauren realizes two things:  A long distance marriage won’t work, and if she moves with him to Geneva, it’s inevitable that she learns to speak French.

Along her journey to be a competent Francophone, Lauren has plenty of time to muse on the complexities of language itself and how speaking (and living) in a different tongue than her own will change her perceptions.

So Lauren meets her in-laws (who turn out to be fabulous people, actually), struggles through French classes, and meets lots of other people who are outsiders like her.  She also comes to terms with her limitations.

When in French alternates between family narrative and explorations of human speech and culture.  The family and personal situations are funny, as when the author describes her early failures with summer camp or recounts her fears of culture clash when her parents come to visit her French in-laws.  Her ponderings on other things tend to get heady, but these sections are still worth reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

wrightThis is a fascinating, readable biography by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

A small flying toy fascinated Wilbur and Orville Wright when they were young children, and Orville told his first grade-school teacher that someday he and his brother would make a real flying machine.  As a young man, Wilbur, in one of the most important letters in history, asked the Smithsonian for a list of books about the problems of mechanical and human flight.  The brothers took the list, studied the books, observed birds in flight, and began building their first plane.  They faced many obstacles – lack of college education, limited technical training, a lack of funding except for money earned in their bicycle shop, errors in the calculations of earlier researchers, and their inability to find an engine or propellers suitable for their project – but they overcame them all.

After their successful flight in 1903, there were new problems – limited government or public interest in their achievement, their lack of experience with complex business negotiations, lawsuits attempting to prove that the Wrights were not the first to invent the airplane, a serious accident – and again, they succeeded.  In 1909, the world’s first international airplane race included twenty-two planes.  Wilbur and Orville’s thorough documentation in diaries, letters, and notebooks eventually proved without a shadow of a doubt that they were the inventors of this world-changing invention.

The brothers’ contemporaries were often as impressed by their ability to avoid being spoiled by success as by their invention.  I liked the following excerpt from a reporter’s summary of their activities on the day when their hometown held an all-day celebration for them.  “9 A.M. Left their work in the aeroplane shop and in their shirt sleeves went out in the street to hear every whistle and bell in town blow and ring for ten minutes.  9:10 A.M. Returned to work.  10 A.M. Drove in a parade to the opening ceremony of the Homecoming Celebration. 11 A. M. Returned to work.”

The story of the Wright brothers has a special interest for North Carolinians.  The brothers chose Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks for their first attempts at flight because of the suitable winds in that area, and it was there that they succeeded.  The book includes a glimpse of life on the North Carolina coast at that time.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Hike by Drew Magary

Ben is supposed to meet his vendor during a business trip at some odd mountain top hotel.the-hike  As Ben arrives first, he’s game to explore the terrain surrounding the inn.  And indeed, there is a defined path that seems tailor-made for a woodsy stroll.

Ben’s hiking bliss does not last.  And in the next few days (years) of his life, it will seem that Ben’s every nightmare and bad memory manifest themselves into things more horrific to be imagined.  He tangles with homicidal dog-faced men, a man-hungry giant (literally), and all other sorts of creatures that seem determined to steal his very being.  Ben also meets help along the way, including a vaguely familiar older woman who gives Ben some valuable seeds, and a talking crab who adds some comic relief along the way.

Ben learns, and often the hard way, that remaining on the path is crucial to his survival, and return to his real life.  It’s tough to adhere to a path that cuts through ocean and terrain alike, but Ben manages, even though he bungles along through most of his travail.

The Hike is a modern-day fairy tale, a hero’s journey of sorts, a Bildungsroman of a grown man who badly needs to let go of the horrors of childhood. The book is by turns horrific and whimsical.  Ben is a believable Everyman, an average Joe that you will cheer on even when he’s being an idiot.

I started this one after plowing through a shorter book that I didn’t like.  The Hike was a much, much better choice.

Pair this one with John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, another good book brimming with fantastical, scary, and humorous elements.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Wrapped in Rainbows : the Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd

wrappedSome years ago, I read Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but, before reading this biography, I didn’t know much about this famous African-American author.  Her experiences were extraordinary!  She grew up as an imaginative child in a totally African-American town in Florida.  When she was thirteen years old, her mother died; Zora’s father ceased paying for her education and sent her away from home.  Although she had to postpone her education for a number of years to support herself by working in a variety of jobs, she eventually earned a college degree from Barnard College in New York City.  In addition to her distinguished writing career, she collected folklore and customs of black people in the Southern United States and the Caribbean.  This research included apprenticeships with a number of voodoo practitioners.  The biography includes information about her part in the Harlem Renaissance, her three marriages, and her shocking arrest on a false charge.

Zora had a connection to North Carolina; she taught briefly in Durham at the college that later became North Carolina Central University.  During that time, she attended Paul Green’s playwriting seminar at Carolina, and, in recent years, many people urged Carolina officials to name a building after her.

The book includes summaries of her novels and many of her short stories.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Children by Ann Leary

Whit Whitman was an eccentric to family and friends alike.  The heir of a large fortune, the-childrenWhit “retired” early on to pursue hobbies and enjoy the company of Joan, his second wife, and stepdaughters.  When he dies of cancer in his mid sixties, Whit leaves a considerable trust to his widow.  Although the Connecticut lake house that they lived in belongs to his sons from his first marriage, it is stated in the trust that Joan can stay there until she passes away.

And so Joan remains there, along with Charlotte, her youngest daughter, now in her late twenties, who disdains the outer world for the comforting sprawl of the lake house and its property.  Sally, the bipolar older daughter, resides mainly in New York City, but visits fairly often.  The three bicker when they’re together but generally get along.

Mother and daughters come together somewhat when the younger of Whit’s sons announces his engagement.

Spin is the golden boy of the family – decent, kind-hearted, smart.  His fiancée Laurel is everything that the sisters are not – outgoing, glamorous, and overachieving to a fault.  In other words, she’s a little too perfect, even for their beloved stepbrother, though he apparently adores Laurel.

The sisters, snoops to the point of perfection, begin to figure that Laurel is more sinister than she lets on, and enough things happen during the family’s annual July 4th party to ratchet up their suspicions.  It would seem, in the aftermath, that their ramshackle home is no longer an easy haven.

Mix in flings with the estate caretaker and a series of burglaries attributed to “Mr. Clean” and you have a great family soap opera, well-written and catty as hell.  The dynamics of this crazy mixed family are enough to keep you flipping pages, or as I did, flipping backwards at times, just to piece together some missing hidden gems.

The plot idea isn’t new (interloper invades tight-knit yet dysfunctional family) but in The Children, the author puts it together into something fresh, funny, and shocking.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

As Good As Gone by Larry Watson

as-good-as-goneCalvin Sidey is an old school cowboy and a loner.  Ever since he deserted his children years ago, he’s been eking it out on the high prairie of Montana.  Solitude suites him just fine.

His grown up son Bill comes from town needing a favor; his wife needs surgery in far-off Missoula and they need somebody to watch out for the kids.

At first, it’s hard to tell whether Calvin is miffed or bemusedly pleased that his son still considers him close enough to ask for this very personal favor.  Regardless of what, back into town Calvin comes.

Despite his laconic manner, the grandchildren respect Calvin, even though they’ve had little exposure to him during their growing-up years.  Ann is a teenager, has a job, and is responsible.  Will is a tender-aged eleven, a generally good kid who is a ball of confusion.  Ann has boyfriend issues, and Will has buddy issues.

Calvin is the type to dispense his own sense of justice then he has grievances; this may be the reason he left town abruptly so many years ago.  When he notices certain things – derelict tenants of Bill’s, a sinister car whose driver appears to be after Ann – Calvin is not hesitant to go after any perceived perpetrator.

Add to this the attentions of the widow next door and his disillusionment with town life, and Calvin is a ready powder keg.

As Good As Gone addresses how Old West values clash with 1960s suburbia, and how a grim isolationist manages to navigate himself into this strange (for him) new world, sometimes disastrously.

Calvin Sidey is the sort of character that I am not sure you will root for on all accounts.  He certainly has a sense of honor and doesn’t shirk from his role as protector.  But Calvin doesn’t bend for anybody and hasn’t had to do so for a long time, so he really is out of his element in the town environment.  He’s a quintessentially stubborn old cuss and in some ways a force of nature, but even Calvin hits his hurdles.

The author has written for years about the hardened natives of Montana and North Dakota.   A writer from the West, rather than a “Western” writer, Larry Watson is worth a shot if you like books set in this area of the country.  I read his previous novel Let Him Go, and liked it very much.

(William Hicks, Information Services)