Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Guest blog by Laura V.

I enjoyed the technique of intermingling two storylines in Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver but since I listened to the audio version, sometimes it took me several seconds to mentally shift gears into the other story when a new chapter started. One story takes place during the campaign leading up to the 2016 United States Presidental election where a controversial unnamed male candidate is simply referred to as The Bullhorn. After chasing the proverbial brass ring their whole careers, Willa Knox and her husband Iano Tavoularis have both lost their jobs due to closures. They move to Vineland and try to balance life with her super right-wing father-in-law, millennial daughter who Willa doesn’t understand, and her unemployed, Ivy League son’s new baby. All the while, their inherited home is becoming less stable on its crumbling foundation.

The other story takes place in the same location post-civil war. Thatcher Greenwood has a new position in a recently-founded utopian community, Vineland. He brings his new bride and her family back to their old home from before they lost their patriarch and his fortune. He struggles to keep up with his new family’s penchant for the good life, while they refuse to believe their patriarch built a house that was already in dire need of major renovation. Greenwood finds a friend and kindred spirit in his neighbor, Mary Treat. Treat was a fascinating real historical figure who was a frequently published self-taught botanist and a correspondent of Charles Darwin.

In some ways this book is a mirror for our current state of the union. I know many readers besides myself with be able to identify with the confusion and frustration brought on by having done “all the right things” only to be left with a severance package and a new job search at an age where starting over seems exhausting. My favorite characters were Mary Treat and Tig, Willa’s daughter. Mary was able to slyly outmaneuver the barriers against women in science and actually made a living out of it in the late 1800s! Tig seemed to have her feet more firmly planted in the reality that is the state of the world today, while Willa clung to the world as it used to be or should be.

Kingsolver writes beautifully, as usual. Her characters are interesting and have depth. Although I think she oversimplifies some topics occasionally and she made too much use of coincidence in this novel. If you haven’t read Kingsolver, this would be a decent introduction and if you’re a fan, you’re sure to enjoy it.

The Witch Elm by Tana French

I have always wanted to read a book by Tana French. For ten years, French exclusively wrote the Dublin Murder Squad series. I don’t like reading series out of order, so I filed French down to the bottom of my to-read list until I could find all the books in the series. When I realized that her newest book was a stand-alone, I was excited! I could finally fulfill my desire to read Tana French. (And yes, I know I could have found her series and read them, but it’s much easier to find (and read) a standalone.)

The Witch Elm by Tana French is her latest novel released in the beginning of October 2018. This standalone mystery is separate from French’s Dublin Murder Squad series(I can’t stress that enough!). Based on the reviews that I read, The Witch Elm is a prime example of why you should check out what a book is actually about about before you pick it up. Most reviewers were excited that Tana French had put out a new book and decided to immediately read it. As I progressed through different reviews and websites, I saw that most had assumed this was a continuation of her Dublin Murder Squad series or had assumed that her newest would be a detective-centric story. It’s not! Having not read her others, I’m not sure how this one stacked up to her previous works, but I enjoyed the twists and turns of this novel a great deal.

In The Witch Elm , readers are introduced to happy-go-lucky Toby. Everything always seems to work out for Toby.  From his job to his girlfriend and his apartment, Toby seems to have it all. At the very beginning, Toby steps outside of the storyline of the book to inform readers that things have taken a turn for him. Through this novel, Toby says he will lay out the ways that his life has taken a turn. One night Toby is out having drinks with his friends, telling the story of how he has managed to come out of a touchy work situation in a positive manner. Hoping things will turn around, Toby drunkenly heads back to his apartment where he is surprised in the middle of the night by two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Not able to recover or live on his own, Toby finds himself living back at the Ivy House, his family’s ancestral home, taking care of his sick uncle.

Left damaged and traumatized after his attack, Toby struggles to take care of himself and his sick Uncle Hugo. Luckily for both men, Toby’s girlfriend moves into Ivy House to help care for them. This brutal attack has forever altered Toby and he isn’t sure how to adjust to his new normal. Uncle Hugo’s illness has left the family in doubt as to what will happen to Ivy House after he dies, which may happen sooner than they all think. All together for lunch one day, Hugo begins to broach this topic. Before they get very far, a scream is heard from the garden. The children have found a skull, tucked into the old witch elm at the foot of the garden.

With this discovery, Toby’s life will spiral even more out of control. Detectives, crime scene investigators, and the media descend in droves on Ivy House. Everyone in the family is on edge with Toby confused in the center. The aftereffects of Toby’s attack has addled his brain, making it hard for him to keep events straight. Constantly confusing the past and present and forgetting what is false and true rocket Toby to the top of the detectives’ suspect list. Through the course of their investigation, Toby is forced to look back on the idyllic childhood he lived and his perfect recent past. What he believed to be the truth may not actually be what happened. This novel takes a deep look at how what we believe to be true may not actually be how others remember what happened. While I enjoyed the suspenseful storytelling weaved throughout this novel, Toby was a character I had to work to love. Tana French crafted Toby’s character this way in order to force readers to really look at what we would do when forced to change ourselves into someone new. I encourage you to read this book and let me know what you thought in the comments below!


This book is also available in the following formats:

Vox by Christina Dalcher

This book was all over reading lists before it even came out. When Vox was released, the hype grew even bigger. What I discovered when reading reviews of this book was that people either really loved or didn’t like it. I firmly fall in the ‘love it’ category and I hope you all like it as well.

Vox by Christina Dalcher runs in a similar vein of The Handmaid’s Tale as another example of a specific segment of the population being silenced/put into service by a different group. While reading this book, I noticed that I was growing increasingly agitated at the restrictions placed on women.

Jean McLellan is a cognitive linguist. Happily married with four children, Jean lives a pleasant life. Her husband Patrick is the science advisor to the President and seems to have an inside track to what’s happening. With the rise of the ‘Pure’ religious movement, Jean quickly realizes her basic freedoms are starting to be taken away. When the ‘Pure’ movement succeeds in infiltrating the government, Jean knows she’s in trouble.  She saw the signs, but failed to respond appropriately. Women representation in government is decreasing, the ‘pure’ religion is gaining traction, and female freedoms are being lost at an increasing rate. Jean did nothing. Her friends and family warned her and pleaded with her to do something, but Jean continuously believed that America would never go very far. She was wrong.

One day, all women were fitted with a bracelet snapped around their wrist that worked as a word counter. This permanent bracelet limited them to 100 words per day. 100! ALL DAY! That’s it. Don’t even try to go over 100 because each over will result in severe consequences. The ‘pure’ movement controls all. Religion has a higher say than science. As a result, Jean, as a linguist specialist, is very worried about what would happen to women the longer they are silenced and limited to 100 words.

Having somewhat adjusted to this horrible new normal, Jean is startled when she is approached by the President’s men saying her professional services are required. Meeting with the powers that be, Jean is told that the President’s brother has suffered a severe brain injury that impacts his ability to use language. Jean, plus some of her previous work colleagues, are needed to research a way to help him. Obviously Jean leverages her unique skill set to negotiate a deal in her favor. Jean is now in a position to help the female population, but has to do so sneakily. Complications ensue (obviously). Once Jean is reunited with her previous colleagues, they must race against time to solve the problem presented. Jean’s past plays a large role in her decision to behave the way she does with the overall message in the book being: use your voice before they take it away.


This book is also available in the following formats:

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware knows how to write a novel full of twists. Bonus: if you listen to the audiobook version of really any of her books, you will be treated to some pretty neat accents. The Death of Mrs. Westaway, her latest book, is dark, dramatic, mysterious, and full of family drama.

Hal reads tarot cards on Brighton pier, a job that does not pay the bills very well. This makes it hard for her to afford food, rent, etc. Hal’s mother used to read tarot cards, so after she died a few years earlier, Hal easily slipped into the job she had watched her mother do for years. Struggling to make ends meet, Hal is at her wits end when a mysterious letter arrives detailing that she has been bequeathed a large inheritance. Reading said letter, Hal knows that this can’t possible be true, but the timing of the letter seems like a gift. She decides to accept the inheritance and head to the giant, cold, and gloomy Trepassen house. Leaving for Trepassen, Hal knows that doing so is a mistake. Having taken a loan from a loan shark with massive interest, Hal also knows that she has no other options to even begin paying back what she owes without taking this inheritance. Onward she goes.

Traveling down to the English coast, Hal pours over the letter looking for clues about the family that she is heading to meet. She is at a loss as to how to introduce herself, but knows that the cold-reading skills she has honed as a tarot card reader should help her claim the money and trick the others. Arriving amidst rain, Hal is led into the funeral of the deceased. Observing family and friends, Hal begins to feel that something is off with the whole situation. Something is just not right.

Following the family back to Trepassen house, Hal gets her first look at this massive, cold, and dour house. Just looking at the place, Hal feels like there are many, many secrets hidden within the walls. The family is both tight-lipped and easy to share, a concept that throws Hal off. Left to sleep in a tiny bedroom at the very top of the house by herself, Hal and the others begin to sort through the messiness of the deceased’s will. As they get further and further involved, the wrongness that Hal initially felt grows stronger as the situation begins to spiral more out of her control. Not knowing who to trust nor who is telling the truth, Hal begins her own investigation into what is really happening. This novel reads like a bit of a detective story with Ware knowing how to spin a crafty and spooky atmosphere rich with crime, gothic, and murderous twists.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

When Anne Tyler’s previous book A Spool of Blue Thread was released in 2015, multiple patrons, friends, and other librarians told me I needed to read it. Sadly, I never got around to doing so since I was consumed in so many other great books at the time and it slipped from my mind. When her latest, Clock Dance, started popping up on lists months ago, I knew I needed to read it based on the popularity of her previous novels. For once, I was ahead of the game!

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler is the story of one woman’s life journey from an 11-year-old schoolgirl forced to step into her mother’s shoes in 1967 to a 61-year-old woman hoping for grandchildren in 2017. Tyler presents many characters throughout this novel. She does a wonderful job giving each vibrant backstories and rich present lives. I found myself thoroughly invested in each character’s life as they work to survive day to day.

When Willa Drake looks back on her life, she can count on one hand the moments that define her. In 1967, Willa and her younger sister Elaine come home from school to discover that their mother has disappeared. Again. Willa is forced to become a mother figure to her sister and waits hoping her mother will come home soon. In 1977, Willa is away at college trying to decide if she wants to marry her current boyfriend. During a trip home to see her family with said boyfriend in tow, Willa sees that she needs to form an identity separate from that of her parents. In 1997, Willa lives across the country with her husband and two children. Enjoying a life full of various activities, Willa’s world is thrown upside down when her husband dies. Only 41 years old, Willa struggles to put her life back together while taking care of her boys.

In 2017, Willa is 61 years old yearning for her sons to give her grandchildren. Given how little the two talk to her and from what she knows about their scant love lives, Willa doesn’t think she’ll ever be a grandmother. One day, Willa receives a phone call out of the blue from a stranger saying she needs help. Can Willa fly out to Baltimore and be her savior? Dropping everything, Willa and her second husband jump on a plane and head to Baltimore. Once there, Willa steps in to care for a young woman she’s never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and a dog named Airplane. Willa hardly ever makes impulsive decisions, but when this spur of the moment trip ends up introducing her and her husband to places, people, and experiences she’s unfamiliar with, Willa discovers that change can be a good thing. While her husband is anxious to get back to their familiar, Willa finds comfort in these complete strangers who have accepted her as one of their own.


This book is also available in the following formats:

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

The description of this book caught my eye at once.  How to Walk Away by Katherine Center is all about finding joy and love even when it seems like your life has hit rock bottom. As I was reading this book, I noticed that each main character goes through a major life-changing moment that, if the individual lets it take over their life, has the ability to derail everything and completely destroy all.

Margaret Jacobsen has her life together. She has very clear goals for herself and has met every one of them. She worked really hard in order to make sure she was set up for success in the future. Margaret has a new dream job, a beautiful new condo, and a boyfriend she’s 99% sure is going to propose to her on Valentine’s Day. The culmination of her every wish is within her reach. Margaret couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of her future.

Heading out with her boyfriend, Chip, for a romantic Valentine’s Day, Margaret realizes that the date he has planned for them is not what she would have thought. At. All. Game to try because Chip is so excited, Margaret goes along and sure enough, Chip proposes! In the midst of their celebrating, on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, everything Margaret has worked so hard for her entire life is ripped violently away from her. Now Margaret is in the hospital and realizes that there is a possibility her life will never be the same. She is broken physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Chip is no help. He hardly ever comes to visit her, expects to be forgiven, and goes rapidly downhill by wallowing in his own self-pity. Her sister, Kitty, mysteriously left town three years ago and has been completely silent the whole time. Now Kitty is suddenly back in town and old family resentments are bubbling back to the surface. Her mother tries to micromanage Margaret’s situation, while her father struggles to keep the peace between everyone.

This family drama happens simultaneously as Margaret is dealing with her intense medical problems. Her physical therapist, Ian, is also one of her problems. The nurses all say that he is too tough for her and she needs someone nicer. When Margaret and Ian meet for the first time, she instantly understands their reluctance to have Ian work with her. Ian is incredibly brusque, never smiles, and is all business. He is the exact opposite of all the other physical therapists and even her own family. Ian refuses to pity her and treats her as a capable person who has the power to change her own circumstances. After spending time working with Ian, Margaret comes to realize that sometimes the thing she needs is not what she wants and the thing she wants may not be what she needs.  This statement rings true for multiple other characters. Love, happiness, joy, contentment, and hope all have the capacity to pop up in our lives when we least expect it.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter is one of my go-to authors. I have yet to run across a book of hers that I haven’t liked. Slaughter writes suspenseful mystery thrillers that leave you wondering about past lives, secrets kept, and relationships both broken and sustained throughout the years. I like my fiction a little bit dark and twisty. If I don’t figure out the whodunnit and why until almost the end, even better. For me, Slaughter writes successful fiction because I’m consistently surprised with the twist her fiction takes.

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter is her newest book. I. Was. Blown. Away. This novel takes a close look at the relationships with parents and their children. While we may think we know our ancestry, this novel proves that these thoughts may be completely and totally wrong. There are so many different pieces to each person. (Play on the title, get it??) We also have different identities. One woman can be a mother, daughter, granddaughter, wife, etc, with each separate part of herself hiding something from the other.

In Pieces of Her, Andrea discovers that she never really knew her mother, Laura at all. Even though she has a very close relationship with her mother, even living in her garage apartment, one day throws everything apart. Andrea knows that her mother has spent her entire life cloistered in their tiny beach town of BelleIsle. Her mother has no secrets, but is seen as a steadfast and trustworthy member of the community. With Laura’s life changed by a cancer diagnosis, Andrea moves back home and becomes enmeshed in her life. This cancer scare is a deviation from the norm, but Andrea knows her mother’s reactions are only a result of her cancer treatment.

Heading to the mall one afternoon with her mother, Andrea soon sees a completely different side of Laura. The violent scene that erupts in front of Andrea shows her that her mother was a totally different person before her, more so than her simply not having a child. The intense media scrutiny and the police’s desire to find answers brings unwanted attention to Laura and she quickly shuts down. Laura changes in front of Andrea’s eyes, telling Andrea to run away from the whole situation with only slight clues of where to go. Laura refuses to speak to anyone, instead lying low and trying to protect her daughter by pushing her away. Andrea leaves town, following the tiny bit of clues her mother has left for her. Digging into her mother’s secrets, Andrea quickly discovers that if she can’t figure out the real truth of her mother’s past, there might not be a future for either of them.

Reviewer’s note: Karin Slaughter is not shy when it comes to using graphic scenes, violence, and blood in her books. This book is no exception. If you’re squeamish, I would steer clear. In my opinion, this novel only benefits from her descriptions.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Before and Again by Barbara Delinsky

I’m not going to lie: the cover of this book is what caught my eye and convinced me to read it. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers. With so many books in print, the options can be overwhelming though! When it comes to picking out my personal reads, if a cover catches my eye, I’ll read it. It’s yet to let me down so far especially with my latest read by Barbara Delinsky.

Before and Again by Barbara Delinsky is a captivating read that kept my attention from beginning to end. There are multiple important current issues discussed throughout this book that can have implications in everyday life. Social media, internet hacking, identity theft, the press, trauma, and secrets are all major themes that the characters in this novel find themselves battling with. This book cautions against becoming too complacent and making sure that we travel outside our comfort zones.

Mackenzie Cooper thought she had it all: a loving husband, a job she loved, a wonderful family, generous friends, and a daughter she adored. In one moment, it was all taken away. Driving her daughter to a play date, Mackenzie took her eyes off the road for just a moment to check the GPS. That glance away changes her life forever. Having lost everything, including her privacy after the intense media coverage surrounding the accident, Mackenzie runs away. She now lives in Vermont under the name Maggie Reid. Living in a small house with her cats and dog, Maggie has a new job and new friends. She just wants her new life to stay separate from her old life. That means that she can’t risk revealing too much. Her work as a makeup artist at a luxurious local spa allows Maggie to spend her day helping clients hiding the things on their skin that they wish would disappear. She’s a master at her job.

All Maggie wants with her new life is to stay under the radar and keep her probation officer happy. With less than a year left, she is so close to being completely free. Things are going slightly too well for Maggie though when she realizes that she isn’t the only one in this quiet Vermont town with secrets. A local teenage boy, the only son of one of Maggie’s friends, is thrust into the national spotlight when he is accused of hacking a powerful man’s Twitter account, numerous other Twitter accounts, and the local school’s system as well. Maggie has no idea what to do: should she protect herself and pull away or step up to help since she has experience dealing with this type of situation? Either decision will have far-reaching implications for Maggie. As the truth behind this teenager’s actions begin to come to light, Maggie increasingly finds her own newly constructed life unraveling at her feet. She knows that her friend probably just needs to be comforted amongst this sea of chaos, but Maggie truly has to decide how far she is willing to go to help.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Tear Me Apart by J.T. Ellison

I recently stumbled upon author J.T. Ellison while looking for a new book to read on OverDrive. I had heard of Ellison in the past, but had never read anything she had written before. The description of her most recent standalone novel Tear Me Apart captured my interest because the description of the book seemed pretty straight-forward, but once I started reading, I realized that this book was going to be anything but straight-forward.

Tear Me Apart by J.T. Ellison tackles the question of how far a parent is willing to go to save the life of a child. Mindy Wright is a competitive skier at the top of her field. Despite being only a teenager, Mindy has a great chance of making the Olympic team. Competing on a course she is very familiar with, Mindy is sure she will win her current race. The weather is getting progressively worse, yet race leaders haven’t decided to halt Mindy’s run. Mindy’s life is derailed after she suffers a catastrophic downhill crash. Her leg is broken and she is rushed to surgery.

In surgery, doctors discover a complication: Mindy is suffering from a severe form of leukemia. On top of recovering from surgery, Mindy must undergo treatment for leukemia. With her condition worsening, the doctors realize that a stem cell transplant is her only hope. Mindy’s parents and her aunt are tested to see if they’re a match. When the results come back, they are all stunned to see that Mindy is not biologically related to any of them.

Mindy’s aunt works for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in the lab and does some looking into the DNA in the case. How could Mindy not be related to any of them? In the race to save Mindy, multiple lies and secrets are uncovered stemming back to before Mindy was even born. As her aunt tries to figure out a way to save her, readers are left to wonder if Mindy was switched at birth or if a more disquieting plot unraveled at the time of her birth. What is her mother keeping secret? Why is she holding back and seeming to change her story so often? One look at her face and others around her start to doubt the validity of her claims.

As the search for Mindy’s truth progresses, the secrets revealed and the tension created begin to tear the family apart and put everyone on edge. Certain members of the family are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their secrets. With Mindy’s fame as a skier, the press becomes involved when a statement is released pleading for help to find a match and to hopefully keep the rumors at bay.

How far would you go to save a child? To keep your secrets hidden? This novel digs deep into the hidden links, layers, betrayals, and secrets that have served to bind two separate families together over many, many years. Would you fight to keep the darkness and secrets buried even when the truth could potentially save someone? What about if those secrets could break apart your entire world? How long would it take you to thoroughly believe the web of lies you created for yourself and your family? Would you forget your real identity and the lives of the ones around you? Ellison weaves a gloriously tangled suspenseful thriller of a novel that will have you wondering if the people you see on a daily basis are really telling you the truth.


This book is also available in the following format:

Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris

B.A. Paris has yet to disappoint me with her novels. Since her first was published in 2016, I’ve been a devoted reader. I know when I pick up her books that I will be transported to a dark, twisty world where I’ll be gripped by thrilling escapades of all characters presented. Her latest, Bring Me Back, drops readers right in the middle of a mystery and doesn’t solve it until the very end.

Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris tells the tale of a complicated and mysterious love. Finn and Layla are madly in love and on vacation. On their way back, Finn stops at a rest stop to go to the bathroom. Layla stays in the car, wanting to wait to use the restroom until they stop at a well lit service station instead. When Finn returns to the car, Layla is nowhere in sight. Not thinking much of it, Finn pulls the car closer to the restrooms waiting for Layla to come out. She never does. She’s disappeared without a trace. The above is the story that Finn told the police, but it’s not the whole story.

Flash forward twelve years. Layla is still missing. Finn has moved on. He’s now in a relationship with Layla’s sister, Ellen. In fact, they’re now engaged! This relationship has garnered them negative attention in the media, but thankfully most of it seems to have died down. Bonded over their shared grief over Layla’s disappearance, both Ellen and Finn have settled into a routine in a place where they are no longer seen as relatives of the missing woman. Everything is working out.

No it’s not. That’s not the whole truth either. Not long before Finn and Ellen are to be married, the policeman who worked Layla’s disappearance phones Finn with some startling news: their old neighbor swears he saw Layla standing outside their old house, but she ran away before he could check for sure. Chalking that sighting up to the witness’s old age and diminished eyesight, Finn moves on with his life. Other strange things keep happening though that seemed designed to test Finn and Ellen’s relationship and maybe tear them apart. Emails from strangers who know intimate details of Finn and Layla’s life together. Lost items from Ellen and Layla’s past suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Messages sent through the mail, strange gifts showing up around town, and clues to Layla’s disappearance keep popping up. Finn finds himself wondering if Layla is back. Is she behind these strange happenings? What does she know? What does she want? How far is she willing to go to get back what she believes is hers? I found myself constantly guessing about the strange person behind the gifts and their motive for harassing a seemingly normal couple. Readers will be questioning everything and everyone they thought they knew throughout this novel.


This book is also available in the following formats: