Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Slaves in the Family

By Edward Ball

Edward Ball's ancestor came to America and started plantations near the Atlantic coast, growing rice. They used slaves from Africa to do the plantation work.  At one point, the family owned several plantations in the same area of South Carolina.  They owned thousands of slaves. They also fought to keep their slaves in the Civil War.
Knowing this, Ball set out to connect with the descendants of those slaves that he was able to track down by perusing family documents and historical records. In several cases, he was able to find these people and give them the information he was able to gather about their ancestors and from their family lore piece together more of the story of their ancestors' history, even to the probable location their African origins.
Not surprisingly, he also figured out that his ancestors had mixed race children from informal liaisons with their female slaves. Ball was able to track down some of the descendants of these relationships, people who are distantly related to himself.
He encountered some anger but he also gave people a better understanding of their own personal history and this valuable information was welcomed by the families.

This was a very informative read as it goes quite deeply into the slave-owning experience of the author's own family. And his interviews with the descendants were touching to read. It's a long book and I must admit I got a bit bored with it towards the end. But I do feel it is a worthwhile book to read.

For another review, see

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Statement

Pierre Brossard chose the wrong side in World War II. He was a Nazi collaborator and was responsible for the murder of at least fourteen Jewish people. He has been on the run for decades, helped out by a shady association of Catholic clergy who see no problem with helping out a mass murderer because, "the Church's law of asylum supersedes...the laws of the civil authority."
But now someone is on Pierre's tail. Driving up a isolated road, Pierre is waylaid by an assassin. But Pierre is too canny and shoots the killer first. He then flees to his Catholic refuge.
But this murder brings to the front the question of Pierre's real character. All along, the church claimed to believe that Pierre was truly repentant of his war crimes. But now that he has killed again, doubt arises and the church moves to distance itself from him. The word goes out and Pierre finds that he is no longer as welcome at his old haunts as he used to be.
Meanwhile, the police are actively involved in tracking Pierre down after decades of letting it slide. His face is in the newspapers and he is running for his life. facing down and killing a second man who came gunning for him. But the question he needs to ask himself and fails to do is how these killers know his routine and the locations of his hiding places. Because, although the killers want the world to believe Pierre is being hunted by Jewish avengers, this is not the case at all. Even though that is what Pierre fervently believes, his guilty conscience prevents him from seeing the simple truth.

This was an OK read. I found it a bit dull, to be honest.  I also found the ending unsatisfying.

For another review, see

Paradise News

By David Lodge

Bernard's aunt is dying and she wants to see her brother before she dies. The aunt, Ursula, lives in Hawaii and Bernard and his father, Jack, live in Britain. Jack, who is rather frail, is not eager to undertake such a long trip. In fact, he has never flown on an airplane before and is rather alarmed by the whole idea. However, the thought that the estranged sister has money does much to reconcile Jack's family to the idea.
Bernard is a part time teacher and he has the time to escort his dad on the long trip. Bernard is a bit of a black sheep as is Ursula. Ursula married against the advice of the family. Bernard is an ex-priest who lost his faith and is regarded as a failure by the family.
Bernard bought a package tour for himself and his dad because it was the cheapest travel option and they end up traveling with a small group of their fellow Brits whose activities form a sort of backdrop to Bernard's story.
Arriving in Hawaii, not even there for one full day, Jack, used to British traffic patterns, steps in front of a car and gets hit. He is not gravely injured, but his hip is broken and he will be stuck in the hospital for quite a while. Meanwhile Ursula has taken a turn for the worse and she is also confined to her bed.  The reunion is delayed for the time being.
With his dad and his aunt in the hospital, Bernard is left to his own devices and he gets to know the woman who knocked his dad down with her car, Yolande. Yolande is at a turning point in her life. Her husband has left her for another woman (younger, of course) and Yolande is fighting the divorce, mostly because she is angry. She is attracted to Bernard and escorts him to some of the local tourist attractions. They end up in a relationship and she helps him with some of his personal problems.
Jack and Ursula eventually get to meet at Jack's hospital and they confront some issues and misunderstandings from their childhood and both find comfort in the reconciliation.
Soon Jack is well enough to travel home and they leave the islands behind, with hope for the future.

This was an entertaining story. Bernard is a good guy and the story ends very nicely.  And it is nicely amusing too, not hilarious, but just sweetly, mildly amusing.

For another review, see

In a Sunburned Country

By Bill Bryson

Australia: perhaps the most exotic place in the world. Full of flora and fauna found nowhere else on our planet, some of which is dangerous and/or toxic. Much of it is inhospitable, uninhabited and pretty much unexplored. Parts of the interior have never been closely surveyed and may possibly contain unknown  reserves of mineral wealth.
Australia is nearly the same size as the continental United States but sparsely populated, with most of the people living in cities on the  southern and eastern coasts.  The coasts have the best climate, with lush forests and land suitable to grow crops. The interior is desert of the harshest, most deadly kind.
Bill Bryson has a love affair with Australia, despite its much touted dangers. He set off on a tour of the civilized places, visiting some of Australia's most outstanding and amazing attractions. Throughout his trip he finds the people welcoming and helpful and the natural wonders simply amazing. He rarely has a harsh word to say and is looking forward to returning in the future.

I enjoyed the book a lot. Bryson has a lovely sense of humor and doesn't mind poking fun of himself. I laughed out loud several times as Bryson describes some of the predicaments he gets himself into.
But besides the humor, Bryson's descriptions made me long to visit Australia some day. If I could, I would go there without hesitating, eager to see all the sights that Bryson does such an excellent job describing.

For another review, see

Monday, May 15, 2017


By Jeffrey Eugenides

Callie was born a male. But due to his lack of testicles and minuscule penis, he was misidentified as a female. So his parents, believing he was a girl, raised him as a girl. Which was fine. He was a very pretty little girl and did all the girly things most little girls do. But then when he didn't go through the usual transformations that occur to most young teen girls, his parents decided to take him to a specialist in New York City.  The doctor recommends to the parents that Callie have surgery to remove his undescended testicles and put him on hormone therapy and  let him live out his life as the female he has been raised to be.
But Callie reads his medical file and suddenly his life makes sense: his attraction to girls, his budding mustache, his gangly body, his height.  And he runs away to California.
But before we get to this point in the story, we have to delve into Callie's antecedents. We have to learn about his grandparents, brother and sister, who fled Europe to the safety of America. We have to follow them as they get married (to each other!), have two kids and settle in Detroit. Then there is their son, Milton, who marries a cousin, Tessie and who gives birth to two sons, one of whom is Callie who they think is a girl. It takes almost 200 pages for the story to even get to the moment of Callie's birth. Then we have to read about her childhood before we get to the meat of the story, Callie's struggle to understand the truth about himself.

This book is really a family saga and is more concerned about the story of the whole family than it is about the story of Callie's sexual identity.  I wanted the story of Callie, not the story of the whole family. Two hundred pages into a five hundred page novel and Callie is only briefly touched on, which was rather annoying. For me, the story didn't really get that interesting until it focused more on Callie and less on her family.
Also, this novel is described, by some, as a comedy and as a comic epic, as hilarious, funny, playful. I didn't find it to be any of those things.
For another review, see

The story of Callie reminded me of David Reimer. He was a boy whose penis was accidentally removed as a baby and who, as a result, was castrated and raised as a girl until he rebelled and reclaimed his male identity. I wonder if Eugenides based his novel on David's tragic story.

The Passage

By Justin Cronin

A new virus has been discovered in a South American jungle. The bad news: it kills most. The good news: those who survive are changed into super-beings. The further bad news: they become remorseless, bloodthirsty killers. In other words, they become vampires.
So the government, with dreams of deathless superhuman soldiers decides to take this virus and engineer the vampire-ness out of it and retain the superhuman-ness. To do so, they require human subjects: men on death row whom no one will miss.
But all they get are more vampires. Finally, they think they have refined the virus to what they want. They think the reason they keep getting vampires is that the test subjects are too old, too flawed, too evil. They decide they need an innocent child, a homeless child with no family, who, like the condemned men, will not be missed. That is how they acquire Amy, who they heartlessly inject with their vampire virus. But they are wrong that no one will miss Amy. Two people who have encountered her have an instant bond with the little girl: a nun and  the FBI agent who brought Amy to the secret government facility in Colorado.
So Amy gets injected with the vampire virus and becomes ill and slowly begins her transformation into superhuman. Meanwhile the 12 convicts/vampires are exerting their superhuman powers on the people of the facility resulting in a disaster: The vampires get loose and bring down Armageddon on the world. Most people die but lots of people become vampires too. The surviving people live in hiding and in isolated locations as they fight to survive the vampire onslaught.
And then there is Amy. What can she bring to the struggle of humanity vs vampire? For in her case, the scientists were right. She has the strengths and vitality of the vampires but without their craziness and thirst for blood. She may be humanity's best hope, if she is up to the job.

This was a really long book: 891 pages. Parts of it were really interesting and parts just seemed like they could have been condensed quite a bit. I know I skipped through some of the later part of the story. This is a bloody story. People are slaughtered, torn to shreds. Animals are slaughtered, torn to shreds.  Characters that you start to care about are killed. A pet dog is killed, pointlessly, I thought. Just to be cruel, it seemed to me.
This book is the first in a trilogy. It is an interesting story but just too bloody for me. Once the author killed off that poor dog, I knew I wouldn't be reading the next book in the trilogy. Plus it is just too damn long.

For another review, see

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Long Hot Summoning (The Keeper's Chronicles #3)

By Tanya Huff

Diana Hansen has just graduated from high school and now she is, at last, a Keeper. As a Keeper, Diana, along with her older sister Claire, who is also a Keeper, has to maintain the balance between Light and Darkness. Mainly they have to keep the powers of Darkness from taking over the normal world.
Diana's first summons as a Keeper is to a shopping mall. Some strangeness has been spotted at the Erilking's Emporium, a gift shop. Upon arrival at the mall, the first clue that something is up is the excess number of minivans in the parking lot. Sure enough, Darkness is trying to sneak into the world and is doing so by creating a mall identical to the real mall in the Dark realm. It is to this counterfeit mall that Diana, her angel cat Sam, and Claire must enter and put a stop to the foul plan. In the process, they are helped by King Arthur and his merry band of mall elves who are a group of homeless teens who somehow got sucked into the Dark realm and have been transformed into elves, which is some kind of side effect of being too long on the Dark side of things.
Meanwhile, back home, Claire's boy friend (husband?) and her elderly cat Austin are facing problems of their own. Namely, an ancient Egyptian mummy who is surreptitiously draining the life force from all around her in order to restore herself back to life.

This was a fun and enjoyable read. The book is quite amusing, with lots of silliness, fantasy and adventure. I did feel a bit lost at times, not having read the previous two books in the series, especially at the beginning. It never really explains why the cats can talk or why the cat Sam used to be an angel or why he stopped being an angel. Or even what the whole deal is with the cats. This is one of those series where it really helps to have read the previous stories. But even feeling a bit lost at times, I still liked the book a lot.

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