Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

We all remember the “March of Progress” poster from grade school science class, used to illustrate the  straight-line evolution of Homo sapiens from our ancient ancestors. From Australopithecus  to Homo habilius and then to the assumed apex of human evolution – us. But what if evolution wasn’t a straight line? What if suddenly, somehow, it doubled-back on itself, returning our species to our most ancient origins?

It is in this speculative world that Louise Erdrich’s latest novel Future Home of the Living God is set. Taking place in an unspecified time in the near future, the novel is presented as the journal of 26 year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, written to her unborn child. Cedar, the adopted daughter of liberal Minnesota parents, finding herself pregnant, is compelled to seek out her Ojibwe birth parents, ostensibly to discover any genetic problems that might affect her baby, and in a larger sense, to find her own identity. This familiar journey of personal discovery is set against a tumultuous time in which the future of the earth is gravely in doubt as evolution appears to be running backward. Plants and animals are born “wrong,” throwbacks to their genetic ancestors. Human babies and their mothers are dying at an alarming rate, and those infants that do survive are abnormal, with characteristics more similar to our genetic ancestors. The planet is heating up, with harsh Minnesota winters a fond, distant memory, and political chaos is rampant. Soon, pregnant women are encouraged, then forced, into “unborn protective centers” – prisons, really – and a “womb draft” is instated. As Cedar’s pregnancy progresses, she confesses to her baby that she isn’t sure if he (and she is sure it is a he) will have the ability to read the journal that she is writing, if he survives at all. Cedar soon becomes a fugitive, then a prisoner, then fugitive again, seeking sanctuary with her birth family with the help of her adoptive parents.

If this all sounds strikingly familiar to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, you would be correct. In her author’s notes, Erdrich writes that she began the novel in 2002, then set it aside,  picking it up again after the most recent election. Future Home of the Living God is Erdrich’s first speculative fiction book, but still closely shares the Native American culture she has explored in her past works. The premise of backwards evolution and how it might bring the end of civilization is compelling – it’s what interested me in the book in the first place – and it reads like a thriller (I read it all in one sitting). But at a slim 267 pages, it reads almost too fast, with not nearly enough time spent exploring the circumstances of the world it is set in, the stories of Cedar’s families, or her baby’s father. Since the story is told in the form of a journal, which does lend an intimacy to the narrative, many things go unsaid, or dropped entirely. Even the mystery of Cedar’s birth and adoption – the revelation of which is emotionally catastrophic for her – is quickly dropped to move onto the next crisis. At a few points, I thought that the plot was going in one direction, and then, disappointingly, found it dropped. Perhaps my expectations were overly influenced by my usual science fiction preferences. Some the misdirections reminded me of the short story “Before” by Carolyn Dunn (contained in the excellent collection After edited by Ellen Datlow) an end-of-the-world tale of a plague that leaves only those with Native American ancestors alive. But, that is not the case here.

Which isn’t to say the novel isn’t an exciting and interesting read. There are thoughtful explorations of faith (Cedar is a recent convert to Catholicism), the origin and evolution of our species, how and why we became human, and the consequences of ignoring and abusing our environment and each other, all alongside Cedar’s journey into motherhood and her birth family. The ending might come abruptly, but it is well worth the journey.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

You either love or hate John Green. There’s just no other way around it. I’m firmly in the ‘love John Green’ camp and as a result, I had been anxiously awaiting the release of his newest book, Turtles All the Way Down. He spent a good chunk of time writing this book and when press started to talk about it, I knew I would relate to the character.

Sixteen-year-old Aza has a lot going on in her life. The father of one of her childhood friends has disappeared. That would generate fuss in the community anyway, but add in the fact that the disappeared parent is a fugitive from the law and the craziness begins to snowball. Russell Pickett is a fugitive billionaire and has completely disappeared leaving the community and, more importantly, his two orphaned sons wondering where he is. When a $100,000 reward is offered, Aza and her best friend, Daisy, decide to try to figure out what happened to him. Aza used to be friends with Russell Pickett’s son, Davis, something that Daisy decides is a good omen. Aza is left to try to bridge the gap between herself and Davis.

Aza finds herself doing a lot of trying in life now. Her father died when she was younger, leaving Aza and her mom to try to cope without him. Aza is trying to be so many different things that she feels like she has lost sight of who her real self is. She is trying to be a good friend, a good student, a good daughter, but her mind never lets her be. Aza is contantly caught in a spiral of her own thoughts that gets tighter and tighter the more she tries to ignore it. Until she acknowledges these thoughts, Aza’s mind and body control her. She can’t escape. The distraction that the disappearance of Russell Pickett provides gives Aza a new escape and reintroduces herself to his son, Davis. Aza, Davis, and Daisy form a complicated friend group and Aza spends a great deal of time worrying over herself.

Turtles All the Way Down is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a teenager trying to make it through life. Aza is constantly battling the voices in her head and the spiral that threatens to overwhelm her. She knows that what she is told to do in her mind is usually wrong, but unless she listens, Aza knows she will be unable to function. This book looks deeply into mental health, resilience, the power of all types of friendship, and how love tries to reach us all. Give it a read and let me know what you think.


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The Child by Fiona Barton

In The Child by Fiona Barton, Barton weaves a twisting tale of psychological suspense that will rip through your senses as you try to figure out what is happening. Have you ever wondered what happens when old houses are demolished? What if they discover something hidden in the ground? Hidden in the walls? What of the secrets that are uncovered?

The Child begins with the discovery of a tiny skeleton during the demolition of an old house in London. Journalist Kate Waters stumbles upon this story and decides to dig deeper into what happened to the child. Piecing together what information she can gather, Waters is continuously left with more and more questions with the chief one being: who is the building site baby? Forced to work with a young male intern, Kate is able to convince her boss, Terry, that she needs to investigate.

Angela is a grieving mother who is struggling to comes to terms with a devastating event that tore her family apart almost forty years ago. Her family is trying to help Angela move on with her life, but they are just as torn up as she is.

Emma is a young wife who is going through some major anxiety. She is having trouble just living her life, much to the chagrin of her husband who is trying to help her however he can. Emma’s issues seem to stem from her past. She was raised by her single mother, Jude. The two have a strained relationship that will leave readers wondering what exactly happened between the two to cause such dislike.

Angela, Emma, and Jude all have some interest in the building site baby. Kate’s investigation into what happened to the baby elicits a different reaction from each woman. Kate finds herself going back to the building site and visiting each house to try to track down someone who knows something about the baby. The more she investigates, the more secrets and connections Kate digs up. Kate finds herself becoming a keeper of Angela, Emma, and Jude’s secrets. Her journey to find out what happened to the building site baby evolves into a much larger conspiracy that consumes Kate’s life, but leaves her hesitant about what she can and cannot disclose to the authorities.


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The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

John Grisham is the king of legal thrillers. I always know whenever I pick up one of his books, I am going to be introduced to another part of the legal system that I had no idea existed.  I recently finished listening to The Rooster Bar, Grisham’s latest. Grisham dives into the gritty world of law schools, student loans, and financial scams. Speaking as someone who still has a pretty good chunk of student loan debt, I found the premise of this book to be interesting.

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham is a legal suspense thriller that is packed full of crime. Mark, Todd, and Zola are all third-year law students at Foggy Bottom Law School. All three decided to go to law school to try to change the world, but now that they are in their third year, Mark, Todd, and Zola have realized that they have been scammed. Only one of them has a job lined up and it’s not in the best law firm. His job is contingent on passing the bar exam, something that only 50% of Foggy Bottom Law School students do. The job market is a mess anyway, at least for FBLS graduates. With student loan collectors hounding them, Mark, Todd, and Zola realize that they have hundreds of thousands in debt, no solid job prospects, and a soon-to-be worthless degree from a third-tier, for-profit law school. Things are bleak.

When another one of their friends hits his breaking point, Mark, Todd, and Zola realize that their school is part of chain owned by a hedge-fund operator out of New York who ALSO owns a bank that specializes in student loans. That school is shady! This whole situation reeks of a scam and the friends decide they have to do something about it. Mark, Zola, and Todd name their situation The Great Law School Scam and try to figure out a way to expose it.

Mark and Todd slowly come up with a plan to get rid of their massive debt, expose everything, and maybe make some money to survive. They decide that continuing to go to Foggy Bottom Law School is a complete waste of time. Why not just stop going?! After all, what’s the worst that could happen?? The Rooster Bar is an examination of Mark, Todd, and Zola’s life decisions and what happens when they decide to actually take their lives into their own hands. It’s a good read. You should check it out.


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Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Conspiracy theories run amuck in Dennis Lehane’s Since We Fell. This piece of psychological fiction will pull your mind taunt with the heart-breaking, suspenseful story of a woman struggling to find herself while her life falls to shambles around her.

Since We Fell tells the story of Rachel Childs’ journey to find herself again after she has a mental breakdown on air while working as a journalist. Obviously many stressors piled up to lead to Rachel’s breakdown and watching Lehane plot out Rachel’s demise is fascinating. Readers are privy to Rachel’s close examination of her life and how she ended up where she is today.

Rachel’s childhood was fraught with turmoil. She was raised by Elizabeth Childs, a self-help author with a Ph.D. who spent her days criticizing Rachel and left her life as damaged as she could. Elizabeth relished in the fact that only she knew the true identity of Rachel’s father while Rachel was left wondering continuously who her father could be. The fact that her mother kept her father’s identity such a secret from her left Rachel missing a part of her identity and determined to do whatever necessary to find her biological father.

Rachel’s relationship with men is a testy one, yet she always finds herself looking for the good in them. Enter in Sebastian and Brian. Both men pop up at important moments in Rachel’s life. Sebastian is a producer at the TV station where Rachel works. Brian is a man that Rachel knows casually, a man that Rachel tried to enlist to help find her father. Both Sebastian and Brian propel Rachel forward and drag her back in life. They add both positivity and negativity to her life.

Rachel finally feels like she has everything under control filled with a loving husband and a worthwhile career. After she has her on-air meltdown however, Rachel becomes a shut-in and life becomes significantly more difficult. One rainy day while out of her apartment, Rachel has an encounter that drastically changes her life. She soon finds herself questioning everything. Rachel’s life starts to unravel and she can’t pull herself out of the conspiracy that she finds herself thoroughly enmeshed in. Dealing with her mental breakdown and subsequent psychological issues, Rachel has to work to discover what is actually true despite all of the madness, deception, and violence that continuously rock her life.


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Class Mom by Laurie Gelman

Have you ever been a class mom? These women(or men) serve as the teacher’s right hand person and handle a lot of the grunt work. My mom was a class mom multiple times for both myself and my younger siblings. I remember her organizing parties, meeting with teachers, volunteering in my classrooms, and organizing events for me all throughout school. She was always busy and I thought she pulled everything together effortlessly. When I was looking for a new book to read and saw Class Mom by Laurie Gelman in the catalog, I decided to give it a try because I was feeling nostalgic about all the work that my mom put in to my classrooms when I was younger.

Class Mom by Laurie Gelman is a hilarious romp into the life of Jen Dixon. Jen is married to Ron, who she continuously refers to as her ‘first husband’ much to his annoyance. Jen and Ron have an adorable five-year-old son named Max who is just starting kindergarten. Jen is not new to the school system as she has two older daughters, by two different men, who are now in college. Jen had a lively youth following bands around the country and the world. Her two daughters were born as a result of her carefree younger days. Jen raised her two daughters with some help from her parents and when she met Ron, her life seemed to fall together pretty perfectly.

Now that Max is starting kindergarten, Jen finds herself being prodded into becoming class mom for Max’s class. Nina, the PTA president and Jen’s best friend, keeps telling Jen that the new parents have a lot to learn from Jen’s expertise and experience. Jen thinks that’s all baloney and it’s just because she’s older than the other parents that Nina is asking her to be class mom. Regardless of those factors, Jen soon finds herself as the class mom to Ms. Ward’s new class of kindergarteners!

Jen’s tenure as class mom is full of hilarity, snarkiness, offensive, and uproariously funny emails and interactions. She holds nothing back in her emails to the other class parents and is sure to note specific response times to her requests. Jen is responsible for assigning conference times, finding field-trip volunteers, and doing whatever the teacher Ms. Ward wants her to do.  She soon finds herself as the middle-man between Ms. Ward and the other class parents. The interactions between Jen and everyone at Max’s school are ripe with hilarity from Max’s supersexy kindergarten teacher who has a very odd way of running her classroom, an old flame of Jen’s popping up as one of the parents of another student, a mother whose son is severely allergic to almost everything, and two moms who Jen can never seem to tell apart! Outside of Jen’s interactions at Max’s school, Jen herself is struggling to get in shape to do a mud run to make up for last year’s disastrous attempt, trying to figure out what’s going on with her two older daughters, and working to keep her relationship solid with her husband. This book was very entertaining. Definitely recommended.

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

Being a woman cop in the 1970s meant your day was filled with harassment from multiple sources: the men you worked with, the people you encountered on the streets, and usually the family you left behind to become a cop. No matter what you did, you would feel the heat from everyone around you. You were never good enough. This type of harassment and degradation led to some women not even making it through the police academy and for those that made it, enduring that treatment only fed their fire to become the best cop that they could. Reading fiction and nonfiction about women during this era showed me that those pioneering women were continuing on a quest for equality that started many, many years ago.

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter dives into what policewomen in the 1970s went through on a daily basis by following the Atlanta police force in 1974 as they struggled to deal with the murder of an officer and a suspected murderer on the loose. It’s Kate Murphy’s first day on the job. From the moment she steps foot in the precinct, Kate realizes that the Atlanta Police Department is not the place for her. The other police officers are not welcoming to the women and even within the female ranks, they’re all separated by color. Kate is juggling with the fact that her uniform is way too big, she’s not sure how to handle her gun, and the men she’s supposed to be working with only see her as a collection of attractive body parts. Add in the fact that the Atlanta Police Department is still reeling from the death of a fellow officer and Kate has walked into an extremely volatile situation. Despite all of this, Kate refuses to give up. She sets out to try and prove herself even though she really has no idea what she is doing.

Maggie Lawson is only too familiar with the craziness in the Atlanta Police Department. Both her brother and her uncle are on the force. Add in the fact that Maggie is a cop as well and her family life is more than a tad complicated. Having family so enmeshed in the force means that Maggie has to continuously prove herself and that has left her with multiple axes to grind. When Kate Murphy shows up, Maggie knows she is going to be a handful. Kate and Maggie soon find themselves partnered together, even though it’s against regulations. This action is made to isolate Kate and Maggie from the rest of the police, to essentially keep them out of everyone else’s way. Despite being paired together, the women soon find themselves right in the middle of a major criminal situation.  Kate and Maggie are forced to learn to work together to figure out who they can trust and what the real truth is.


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Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai

 

People who don’t read romance tend to assume the books are fluff. And I love fluffy books where couples meet cute and banter through silly misunderstandings until they fall in love. However, some of my favorite books in the genre are emotional heavyweights, where  main characters deal with some pretty dark emotions and difficult situations in order to get to their happily ever after.

Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai is one of those books.  It follows a couple that were each other’s first loves, until a tragedy tore apart their families. Now over a decade later, they can’t stop wanting each other, but their family and personal issues still keep them apart.

Over a decade later, Nicholas runs the business every one knows was stolen from Livvy’s family. Livvy has just kept on running, moving from one city to another, working as a tattoo artist. The only constant in her life  is the one night a year they both meet up for steamy sex, and no discussion of their current lives or past relationship. Livvy finally ends the encounters when she turns 30, and at the beginning of the book, she has finally returned to town to help her mother recover from surgery. Nicholas knows a relationship with Livvy would be disastrous, but he still wants answers about what happened.

While Livvy and Nicholas are trying to fix their relationship, they also work on trying to have healthier relationships with the people in their lives.  Livvy has dealt with depression her entire life, and she is realizing that leaving her family behind and losing touch with people she cares about has made things worse.  She’s trying to reconnect with family and friends she hasn’t been there for, but as everything family related, it’s complicated. Her mother is not eager to have her adult daughter show up out of the blue, and she’s still adjusting to her aunt and best friend sharing opinions on her life, or forcing her to rethink family dynamics.

While Livy is trying to reconnect with her family, Nicholas is trying to untangle his. His father is power hungry and volatile, and Nicholas tries to play peacemaker with him at work, while protecting his sister’s place in the family. Since he can’t control his father, he maintains tight control over his life, leaving no room for emotion or indulgence, except for his one night a year with Livvy.

Both Nicholas and Livvy are still mourning people they lost when their families fell apart, and part of the story is figuring what really happened in the fallout, and taking a look at how the past is still impacting them.

Between family secrets, steamy romance, and two main characters with a lot of issues, this book has a lot going on, and Rai’s strong writing  pulls it all together. In the end, the emotional payoff is worth all the drama we went through getting there. We don’t get every  answer to the families tragic past, but there are two sequels planned, and they sound good. (Wrong to Need You, about Livvy’s best friend  is coming out the end of November.)

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult tells the story of lost souls trying to find their place in the world. Alice Metcalf grew up knowing that she wanted to study elephants. They always fascinated her. Traveling to Africa to study them, Alice, upon watching the elephants’ behavior, decided to focus her scientific research on how elephants grieve. Alice’s life changed drastically when Thomas Metcalf walked into her life. She soon found herself becoming a mother and wife. Balancing those two new roles with her scientific research and helping Thomas run his elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire quickly became difficult to do. She struggled balancing all of her desires and found herself in a sticky situation she could not easily see a solution to. Alice was a beloved researcher, wife, and mother, but it’s been over a decade since anyone has seen her. Alice disappeared under mysterious circumstances more than ten years ago and left behind her husband, small daughter, and all the elephants that she had become especially attached to.

Alice’s daughter, Jenna, has grown up into a thirteen year old who lives with her grandmother since her father has gone mad with grief and is locked up in a facility. With her father never seeming to recognize her and her grandmother refusing to even discuss her mother, Jenna refuses to believe that her mother just up and abandoned her. Something horrible must have happened to Alice because the opposite, that she chose to abandon Jenna and start a new life, is unthinkable. Jenna decides that she must do more to find her mother.

Jenna finds herself on the doorstep of Serenity Jones, a psychic with a legitimate gift who fell from grace and has not had contact with any actual spirits or ghosts in years. After contacting Serenity, Jenna searches out Virgil Stanhope, the detective who first worked her mother’s disappearance and the unfortunate accidental death of one of her mother’s coworkers. The night her mother disappeared was a mess and nothing seemed to be handled correctly. Jenna figures that Virgil must know more about Alice’s disappearance. If not, Virgil surely botched her mother’s disappearance and he owes Jenna the opportunity to find her mother. He has to help. Both Serenity and Virgil soon find themselves wrapped up in the web of Jenna’s grief, anger, frustration, and hopefulness that her mother will soon be found. Jenna, Serenity, and Virgil all seem to be wandering around lost until they are in each other’s company when things finally start falling into place.

This book is full of twists and turns. The twist at the end totally caught me off guard and 12 hours after finishing it, I still find myself trying to figure out how I never figured out the ending. This book is a beautiful piece of fiction. Picoult once again has written a deeply moving book that examines how the love between mothers and daughters defines one’s entire life.


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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Agatha Christie was my favorite mystery author growing up, thanks to my grandmother who consistently bought me her books and watched her ‘Marple’ and ‘Poirot’ series on television. The classic whodunit mystery holds a special place in my heart. As a result, I have turned into a picky mystery reader. A mystery novel has to grab my interest quickly, sustain it through the end, and be complex enough that I am unable to predict whodunit. Enter in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and I felt like I was back at my grandma’s watching Poirot solve a crime. This book felt like a delicious dive into my childhood.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book, a mystery within a mystery, a murder within a murder. Susan Ryeland is the editor of Alan Conway’s mystery series featuring detective Atticus Pund. This book opens with Ryeland receiving a copy of Conway’s latest book, Magpie Murders, and her decision to read it over the weekend. Such begins the first foray into the book within the book. Conway’s Magpie Murders is the classic whodunit that takes place in the English countryside in a small village in 1955 where a well-known woman has died. Atticus Pund, a German concentration camp survivor who has become famous for his sleuthing skills, decides to head to the small village of Saxby-on-Avon to try to solve this Agatha-Christie like puzzle. A housekeeper named Mary Blakiston fell down a flight of stairs at Pye Hall. Her death had been ruled accidental, but the fiancée of Mary’s estranged son seeks Pund and asks for his help. There are many questions that Pund must answer and after a second crime occurs, Pund decides to visit on his own accord and figure out what exactly is happening in Saxby-on-Avon.

Flash to the present when Susan Ryeland has reached the end of the Magpie Murders manuscript only to discover that the last chapter is missing. Confronting her boss, Charlie Clover, about the missing chapters, both Clover and Ryeland are surprised to learn that the author, Alan Conway, has committed suicide. Conway mailed a letter to Clover before his death explaining why he decided to commit suicide. After reading the letter, Susan decides to look for Conway’s last chapter and sets off interviewing his family and friends to find it and to learn more about Conway’s motives for killing himself. That last chapter will save Magpie Murders and hopefully Susan’s business as the death of Conway will certainly sink the company if that last chapter is never found. As she searches, Susan comes to believe that maybe Conway didn’t kill himself. She soon finds herself becoming sort of a detective as she tries to figure out what exactly happened to Alan Conway.

I really enjoyed this book. Atticus Pund’s story was entertaining enough, but the addition of Susan’s story adds a delightful twist to the whole book. I was thoroughly entertained from beginning to end in both stories. I also enjoyed how the stories intertwined together and how Susan was able to rely on the Magpie Murders manuscript to help her figure out what happened to Conway. There were so many tiny clues and revelations hidden in both Pund’s and Susan’s story that had me on the edge of the seat wondering whodunit.


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