Tombland by C.J. Sansom

Matthew Shardlake is one of my favorite characters of all time. A hunchback lawyer during the Tudor era of England, Shardlake must overcome his own disability, negotiate some very nasty political traps, elude power hungry sycophants, maintain his integrity and reputation without a whisper of corruption or treason, while still giving necessary impartial legal advise to the crown. With all that just to begin with, you know that each book will be full of political intrigue, impossible choices, and a rich tapestry of historical characters and colorful details of the time period. Tombland, the seventh in this series, does not disappoint at all!

Matthew Shardlake was Henry VIII’s personal lawyer but after his death, Shardlake began working for Princess Elizabeth, as she began to manage her own estates and property. It is spring, 1549 and Edward VI is on the throne but since he is only eleven years old, his uncle, Edward Seymour, Lord Hertford, runs the country as his regent and Protector. Lord Hertford, however, is not doing a very good job. The country over extended by a long war with Scotland is on the verge of economic collapse and and rebellion is erupting among the peasantry all over the country.

In the middle of this instability, Princess Elizabeth asks Shardlake to investigate the mysterious death of one of her distant relatives at her summer estate. No sooner have Matthew and his assistance Nicholas arrive than another murder takes place. As tensions rise among the peasantry around the summer estate, Shardlake must find out who has been murdered and why, as well as any connections these murders may have on the peasant uprising that soon engulfs them.

Sansom takes a little known part of history and breathes life into it. Rich in detail, with numerous characters that Sansom takes care to fully realize, he creates a window into the past that makes you feel as though you are watching it unfold in front of you. This of course comes at some cost, since at 844 pages this is not a light read, but it is more than worth it! Enjoy!

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 out 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian

Book Study Worthy? Yes

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Posted in Detective novel, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Legal Procedural, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Series, Suspense | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag

In 1793, in Stockholm, one early autumn morning, two children find Mickel Cardell, a man of the Watch, in a drunken stupor, and shake him awake.  At first he can’t figure out what they are saying, but slowly their words sink in. There is a body, they say, at the edge of the pond called the Larder. Although once pristine and clear, the Larder is now a stinking cesspool of refuse and sewage and bodies often show up there. But the children are obviously terrified and their terror finally motivates him to follow them. What he finds shakes him to the core. It is worse than anything he ever seen, even in the war where he lost his arm, even the vice, corruption and the depravity he has seen in Stockholm as part of the Watch, for the corpse was bizarrely mutilated with specific and terrifying intent.

As part of the Watch, once Cardell notifies the authorities his job is done, but he cannot shake the vision of the corpse and offers his services to Cecil Winge, the lawyer who is put in charge of the case. Winge is mortally ill but the case motivates him and gives him a strength he did not know he possessed to pursue the truth.

As they try to identify the mutilated body and who killed him, Cardell and Winge must reveal the worst parts of Stockholm: the thieving guttersnipes, the madams who traffic in the poor and destitute, and mercenaries who are looking for their next mark. They follow the trail of a farmer’s son who encounters betrayal and treachery when he comes to Stockholm to make his fortune, and uncover the grievous miscarriage of justice carried out when an orphan girl is consigned to a workhouse that starves and brutally beats the women who work there. Soon they discover the connections between these unfortunates and the rich and powerful who benefit from their misery. As Winge and Cardell get closer and closer to the answer they realize that the gruesome body from the lake pulls together disparate members of society; wealthy and beggar, pious and hedonist, powerful and desparate and in that collision they reveal their secrets.

This is the first novel by Natt och Dag, a member of one of the oldest noble families in Sweden. Reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose in its portrayal of the gritty reality of life and its labyrinthine plot. this book is a deep dive into the culture, values and history of eighteenth century Sweden. Readers should know that this is not an easy read with many descriptions of casual and brutal depravity, which was probably very common at the time.  But in spite of that there is much to appreciate. In particular Natt och Dag’s character development of Cardell and Winge is quite deft. Initially it is difficult to identify with them, but as their own stories and characters are revealed they become more sympathetic and relatable. I look forward to more from this gifted new author!

Brenda’s Rating: **** (4 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this Book to: Marian, Keith, Sharon and Ken

Book Study Worthy? Yes!

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Posted in Detective novel, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Suspense | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver

I am not really a poetry person, or at least I say that to myself, but if a Mary Oliver book of poems shows up in my life, I devour them.  That is what happened this last weekend when I went on Silent Retreat.  I am not really a silent retreat person either, but I go every year because “they” say it is good for me.

On Silent Retreat we are silent for about 36 hours. During that time you can walk the beautiful land where the retreat center is located, sit on the porch of the Lodge where we gather for meals and reflections, or sleep. This time, although the sun was shining the wind was cold and bitter, so I did a lot of sleeping or sitting in the main room of the Lodge wishing we could have a fire in the fireplace. Tending the fire is a good way to spend your time when you are on silent retreat. There in that room a Mary Oliver book of poems appeared on the table next to where I was sitting. It was her collection called A Thousand Mornings and soon I was entranced by her writing and her deep insights.

Here is one called, I Go Down to the Shore.

I go down to the shore in the morning

and depending on the hour the waves

are rolling or moving out,

and I say, Oh I am miserable,

What shall __

What should I do? And the seas says

in its lovely voice:

Excuse me, I have work to do.

Just the word I need to hear when I am taking myself too seriously! I love the idea of having conversations with the natural world; the sea is never angsty or filled with indecision, it just does what it needs to do.

Then I read this one a few pages further entitled The Gardener.

Have I lived enough?

Have I loved enough?

 Have I considered Right Action enough, have I come to any conclusion?

Have I considered happiness with sufficient gratitude?

Have I endured loneliness with grace?

I say this or perhaps I’m just thinking it.

Actually I probably think too much.

Then I step out into the garden,

where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,

is tending his children, the roses.

Here it is; all our angst and uncertainty about the existential questions of life, and it ends with a simple re-framing metaphor of a gardener in the garden tending his beloved roses.

Maybe I am a poetry person after all, at least if the poet is Mary Oliver! And with these two poems to gnaw on, ruminate over let sink deep into my psyche, Silent Retreat wan’t so bad either!

Brenda’s Rating: ***** ( 5 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian, Lauren and Keith

Book Study Worthy? No, but should be read and savored.

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SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson intrigues me. When I read Cryptonomicon I was totally hooked by both the subject of cryptography and the thriller/suspense plot. But then the Baroque Cycle came out- a three part series about the history of science and philosophy. It was so dense, and full of science jargon with little or no plot lines to follow that although I started Quicksilver, the first book in the series, several times I could never get past page 100. But then other books followed, Anathem, and Reamde which I really enjoyed.

One thing you can say about Stephenson is that he is not afraid of big books. Most of the books he writes are 800 pages or more, and they are filled with big ideas about philosophy, currency, science and history. He likes to tackle the big “what ifs”that are at the heart of all human undertakings and SEVENEVES is no exception.

Set in the near future, SEVENEVES starts off with a catastrophic event, where the moon is struck by some unknown agent and instead of exploding in a ball of fire it separates into seven huge boulders with a bunch of smaller rocks surrounding them. It takes several days before scientist began to realize that the repercussions of this event are truly alarming and detrimental to human survival. What hey realized was that the boulders are going to start crashing into each other, causing more and more pieces to orbit the earth which would eventually lead to many of those pieces losing orbit and falling to the earth in a meteorite bombardment that scientists began calling the Hard Rain. The real kicker, was that scientists estimated that the Hard Rain would last between five thousand and ten thousand years and cause the complete and total devastation of the surface of the earth.

With less than twenty five months to plan, humanity places their hopes on the ISS or International Space Station, to be the repository for life while the earth undergoes the devastation of the Hard Rain. They must expand the capacity for life on the ISS, and  undertake the massive challenge of preserving the genetic material of all life on Earth so that if humanity survives it can re-propagate it with plants and animals as well as people.

Stephenson examines our most fundamental assumptions about life, the earth and our ability to survive. Thought provoking, with a breathtaking vision of possibilities, Stephenson allows us to dream of a dramatic and very different future for the world.

Brenda’s Rating: ****(4 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Keith, Ken and Marian

Book Study Worthy? Yes

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Posted in Existential Sc-Fi Thriller, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Science Fiction, Suspense | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Anna Kerrigan is twelve years old when she first meets Dexter Styles. At the time she was awed by his home by the sea, and felt the undercurrents of something unnamed but menacing between Dexter and her father.

Years later when she meets Dexter again, Anna is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yards, the country is at war, and she and her mother have been struggling to survive after her father disappeared from their lives.  Anna is determined to become a diver who repairs damaged ships underwater, an exclusive and dangerous occupation but one that is now open to women since so many men are now overseas fighting in the war. Her encounter, however, with Dexter raises old memories and opens new understandings about the dangerous life her father led and the reasons for his leaving.

As Anna negotiates her life, the challenges of becoming a diver and being taken seriously in a man’s world, she begins to understand the complex choices that affect our lives, the consequences of choices that are difficult to foresee, and to accept the love and support she needs from unexpected sources.

Egan has written a lovely book about the challenges of being a woman during a time of fluid social change. Although Egan talks about the challenges that Anna faces and her life is by no means easy, there was a fairy tale quality to her life where everything works out in the best possible way with very few negative consequences. It wasn’t until the very end where she needs to really confront a major decision that I felt that the grittier side of Anna’s character emerged and I wished that side of her had been more apparent throughout the book. but aside from that, this book is a fascinating look at women at work during the war and the challenges they faced and the way gangsters, unions and even bankers needed to change the way they did business during this transformative moment in history.

Brenda’s Rating: *** 1/2( 31/2 Stars out of 5)

Recommend this book to: Sharon, Marian and Keith

Book Study Worthy? Yes

Read in ebook format.



Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner, Prize winner, Romance, Suspense | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Go: A Coming of Age Novel by Kazuki Kaneshiro, Translated by Takami Nieda

This novel about a young man of Korean ethnicity growing up in Japan was written in 2000 but its message could not be more prescient or apt to our own current political and social situation. It is a novel about love and identity and the tremendous individual and social cost of labeling others with arbitrary distinctions.

When Sugihara was fourteen, his parents decided to go to Hawaii on vacation. Unfortunately, although they lived in Japan, his parents were registerred as North Korean citizens or “Zainichi Chyosenjin, ” a term that is both descriptive of their legal and derogatory and insulting.  Since they would never be able to travel with a North Korean passport, his father applied for South Korean citizenship which would then allow him to travel. This simple decision had huge ramifications for the family, because this was when Sugihara decided that instead of going to Hawaii, he wanted to use that money go to a Japanese school instead of the Korean school he had been attending.

On his first day, the principal of his new school asked him to change his Korean name to a Japanese name, so he would blend in with the other students and is when he became Sugihara. This did not, however, prevent his classmates from finding out he was Korean and torment him accordingly, although Sugihara gave and good as he got.  After some time at his new school he was invited to a party thrown by one of his friends. There he meets a girl from another school named Sakurai who is beautiful, smart and Japanese.  They have many of the same interests in music, movies and books and they begin spending a lot of time together, sharing what they have read and listening to music. Yet even as he enjoys being with her and even meeting her parents, Sugihara knows that at some point he will need to tell her is background, but he keeps putting it off afraid of her rejection.

Then one night after suffering a personal tragedy, he tells her that he is not Japanese as his name might suggest but rather ethnically Korean, and “Zainichi Chyosenjin.”  In the silence that follows this revelation, Sugihara realizes that he must discover for himself who he is and what he is rather than accepting the discriminatory definitions of others over which he has no control. What he doesn’t know is if Sakurai will be willing to follow him on this journey and confront her own biases and prejudice. Is their connection and the love they share strong enough to confront the history, prejudice and discrimination so ingrained in the society they live in?

Kaneshiro won the Naoki prize for Go, one of the most sought after awards for literature in Japan. His frank and hard hitting discussion about the ingrained prejudice and discrimination of Koreans in Japan is quite shocking for a country where uncomfortable truths are rarely raised. But Kaneshiro, in a relatively short novel (165 pages,) is not simply indicting Japan’s discriminatory legacy but instead urges all of us to see the absurdity in prejudice and discrimination, and understand its effects on all of us.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Ken, Keith, Sharon, Marian and Lauren

Book Study Worthy? Yes!

Read in ebook format.



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Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

This book is the harrowing true story of one woman’s quest for truth, knowledge and self determination. It is one of the most powerful endorsements for the proposition that “The Truth shall set you free” and a chilling and heartbreaking account of a family slowly being destroyed by the effects of  untreated mental illness.

Tara Westover was born into a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho. She remembers most of her early childhood as idyllic, living on the side of a beautiful mountain with her brothers and sisters and her grandparents just down the road. But there were signs even when she was young that things were a little strange and chaotic in her family.

In her family her father controlled everything they did, what they thought and how they lived. When Tara was quite young her father became paranoid about any authority and became a survivalist insisting that they live off the grid. Schools, government, doctors, hospitals, vaccines, telephones, TV and even the Mormon church were all suspect and were potentially sources of corruption and evil. Her father was capricious and erratic, given to foul dark moods and yet loving and tender at other times. Her mother deferred in all things to their father, and although she was kind and loving, her deference to their father meant she was an unreliable advocate for her children; siding with him even when he was in the wrong.

Growing up, Tara helped her mother brew and bottle the various homeopathic remedies her mother made and helped her mother, who was a self taught, unlicensed midwife, at the home births she attended. She also occasionally helped her father in the salvage yard he ran haphazardly on their mountain property.  It wasn’t until she was 17 when at the urging of an older brother, who had defied their father to go to school and college, that she began to attend school and the world of knowledge opened up to her. Imagine not knowing about Martin Luther King Jr., or the landing on the moon, or learning about antibiotics and vaccines. Imagine sitting in a psychology class where the teacher is listing the symptoms exhibited by someone who has a bipolar disorder and wondering how they could so perfectly describe your own father.

For Tara this first taste of knowledge was truly life changing and for the next decade she pursued her education until eventually she was awarded a PhD in History from Cambridge University in 2014.  But her pursuit of knowledge put her at odds with her family and gave her a new perspective. She begins to revisit her childhood memories and looks more closely at the erratic behavior and that surrounded her father, and the threatening and abusive behavior of her older brother with new understanding and a greater appreciation for the toll it took on her own life and the life of her family.

Although Tara focuses our attention on the the power of education and how it opens doors and empowers her, I was struck by the fact that her parents had also “educated” her in their own ideas and beliefs. In reality it was not that she was “uneducated” when she went to school, it was that she had been taught unproven and erroneous ideas by her father. The clash between this pseudo knowledge and the education she gains in school based on facts and science is the true crux of this story and we see this most clearly and poignantly as Tara describes her attempts to correct false beliefs and to reason with her parents and her siblings who still remain on the mountain.  True education does have the power to set us free and it can empower us, but sometimes, like Tara found, there is a cost as well.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Everyone!

Book Study Worthy? YES

Read in ebook format.





Posted in memoir, Non Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment