The Flight Attendant-Chris Bohjalian, author; Erin Spencer, Grace Experience, Mark Deakins, narrators.

flightThe main character, as the title suggests, is a flight attendant. She is not at all likable. Cassandra Bowden is largely a drunk and a liar. She sleeps around and makes ridiculous decisions and choices making one wonder how safe it would be to on a plane if she was working the shift. On one of her flights to Dubai, she meets an American and makes plans to see him later on that night, as she often does with the men she meets. They drink, they have sex, and then she says goodbye and flies off again. In this instance, they both drank so much that they passed out. When she awoke, she discovered that she was lying next to a blood covered dead man whose blood had even seeped into her hair. The only thing she remembered, though, besides their heavy drinking, was a mystery woman who called herself Miranda who had brought them a bottle of some very fine liquor, a bottle which wound up smashed on the floor of the room. She had no memory of his murder or the reason for it. She hoped she did not do it!

Cassandra was terrified. She didn’t know the laws in Dubai. What would happen to her if she called security to report the murder? What would happen if they discovered it after she left? Would she ever get back to the United States?  Could she have killed him? Could she be extradited? Would she be charged with murder? All of these questions went through her head. She seemed to panic and decided to run. After attempting to clean up, wiping down the room and getting rid of any incriminating evidence, she leaves the room, seemingly unaware, apparently, of cameras in the hallways, videos that are recording her movements around the hotel and possibly even in the streets outside. As she runs, she throws out some of her personal belongings to hide evidence but also discovers that she cannot find her lipstick or lip balm with the logo from the airline. Will they be discovered? Although she thinks a lot about her predicament, she doesn’t seem to take her situation that seriously; she continues to sleep around and get drunk. When pictures surface that show it could very well have been her in the hotel with the dead man, although she had been lying and denying it when she was questioned, she realizes that she needs a lawyer. The union provided a lawyer for her, but often she defies her and does not follow her advice, endangering herself and others. Is there a killer out there? Is the killer looking for her? Is she a spy? Was the dead man a spy, a terrorist? All of these questions are plausible, but the story seems less so.

As the story moves on, it turns out that the mystery woman who entered the room is Russian. Her real name is not Miranda. She was brought up in luxury, in Russia, by a well connected father, as opposed to Cassandra who was brought up in America by a father who was a drunk, and she was always short of money. The circumstances surrounding both of their upbringings shaped each of them and pointed them in the directions their lives would take. Both women had problems.

The male narrator did a fine job, but one of the females so over-emoted and over exaggerated the accents of some foreign expressions that it was often indecipherable. She seemed to be making herself an integral part of the story, rather than an adjunct to it. It was distracting.

The ending was unexpected, and also, almost unbelievable as the true identities of several characters was revealed. I usually wait with baited breath for this author to come out with a new book, but this one seemed a bit out of character for him and was a bit of a disappointment. I had to suspend disbelief often as the plot unraveled in implausible directions and often felt contrived. Still, if you are a fan of Bohjalian, you will not hate this book; you just might not love it.

 

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The Girl Who Takes an Eye For an Eye, Paul Lagercrantz, author; Simon Vance, narrator

girl who takes an eye.jpgIf you liked the Lisbeth Salander Millenium series, you will love this one. Although there are periods when the reader will definitely have to suspend disbelief, it is still an exciting page turner.

Lisbeth Salander is in trouble again. She is in prison for a crime most people think she should have been rewarded for, not punished, but she refused to help her own case in court and was found guilty. While in prison, her life was threatened so she was transferred to a maximum security prison known for its discipline, supposedly for her own safety. When she arrived there, she discovered that it was not as well controlled as its reputation and being safe there was an implausible option. Because of corrupt prison officials and threats made by a nefarious prisoner, the place had become the victim and plaything of this woman who called herself Benito. Well connected inside and outside the prison, she was running her own little organization within its walls. Lisbeth ignored her threats and took it upon herself to protect another prisoner from her brutality, making herself an enemy of Benito. This other prisoner’s name was Faria. She was the victim of Islamic extremism on the outside, and Benito was tormenting her on the inside. Her family believed she had dishonored them, and as a result, she was paying a high price for their behavior and her own. In Salander’s own inimitable fashion, she blackmailed the warden into helping her to stop Benito’s reign of terror, and in turn, it would also protect Faria. This, she convinced him, would help them both, as she forced him to also allow her access to his computer.

Then uncharacteristically, Salander engaged the help of Mikael Blomkvist. He was eager to come to her aid and when he discovered her guardian, literally on his deathbed, he became deeply involved in the circumstances surrounding his murder. His investigation led to the discovery of a long-term, unethical, clandestine experiment that had been conducted on twins, both identical and fraternal. They were separated and placed in foster homes or adopted out to homes that were opposite in all ways to see the effect the environment would have on the siblings. The cruelty of the scientific study was exposed and those behind it were ferreted out. Salander discovered that she had been part of it and sought to expose the group.

Although at times it was confusing as the time line jumped around and the themes went off on tangents, some which stretched the imagination a bit too far, it was an exciting read that will hold the attention of anyone who enjoys this series.

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News of the World, Paulette Jiles

Captain Jefferson Kidd travels around from small town to small town, like Cyrano de Bergerac, reading from newspapers and sharing the news of the world with those who pay a dime for the privilege of listening to him read it. Newspapers were scarce then and not everyone could read. For some it was a social event, and for some it was a time to raise a ruckus. Once, the captain had his own printing press, but the wars during his lifetime had taken their toll. He had lived seven decades, and he missed both his deceased wife and his former newsman’s life. His two daughters lived in Georgia, where the Civil War had also altered their lifestyles. They did not have the money to rejoin him in his home town in Texas, but he hoped they would some day soon.

During his travels, he arrived in a town and noticed the same man he had seen at his last couple of readings. He wondered why he had been following him. The man, soon revealed his reason. Britt Johnson*, asked the captain to take a child back to her German relatives. He offered him the $50 gold coin he was given for the task, because he said the child was belligerent and white. He did not think, as a black man, that he could guarantee her safety or his own. The child had been kidnapped at the age of six. She witnessed the death of both her parents and her younger sister who were murdered by the Kiowa. Now, after four years, she had forgotten her past and fully identified with the Indian tribe more than with her own true biological background. The captain agreed to take Johanna home to an aunt and uncle because, although he was old and the journey would be hard, he felt it was the right thing to do. How he managed to get Johanna to her relatives and what he learned about them, was the crux of the novel.

As they traveled together, they both learned more about life from each other. Just as the captain tried to help Johanna adjust to the more civilized world, this precocious child showed him how comfortable it was to live in the more savage world of her last four years. She was a survivor and she became a great help to him. She was resourceful, intuitive, precocious and far more mature than her years.

Soon, although the child and the captain were burdened with their memories, they learned how to comfort each other and fulfill each other’s need for affection and someone to trust. The story of their travels and relationship was both interesting and exciting to read as the lawlessness and danger of the territories began to surface on each page. The author’s description of the time and place made the reader feel right in the thick of it. How they survived and moved off into the future was simply a good story. However, the writing style was unusual because no quotations were used to delineate speech from pure narrative which sometimes led to confusion. Also, it was difficult to tell which parts of the story were based on real history and which were based on the author’s imagination.

*Britt Johnson is the stuff of legends. A hero, Johnson was the slave of Moses Johnson who freed him and gave him money enabling him to rescue his own family from the Indians.

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Every Note Played, Lisa Genova, author; Dennis Boutsikaris, Dagmara Dominczyk, narrators

noteThis is a brilliant book about a devastating illness. It is about relationships that sometimes grow destructive and about the effort to move beyond that pain and suffering. It is about the healing or inability to heal, emotionally and physically, of all those involved.

When the book begins, the reader learns that Richard, a celebrated concert pianist, and Karina, a piano teacher, are divorced. They have one child, Grace, who is in her first year of college. Her relationship with her father, however, has been non-existent for more than a year since her devotion lies on the side of her mother when it comes to the reasons that ended their marriage.

When Karina discovers that her ex-husband, Richard, has cancelled his concert tour, at first she believes it is a publicity stunt. Richard is a self-important man, however, she visits him and learns that he is indeed suffering from a very debilitating illness which has robbed him of his ability to play the piano and will slowly deprive him of all his bodily functions, although his mind will remain alert until his inevitable death. Who will tell Grace?

Perhaps because the author is in the medical field, she was able to write a clinical, descriptive narrative that will take the reader into the characters’ lives as they work through this dreadful news. She has managed to draw a picture of the gradual degradation of this illness and at the same time to create a love story which illustrates great courage and endurance, devotion and loyalty. The characters will rise to the occasion as the occasion warrants as all different types of relationships are explored and examined minutely. The book not only describes the involuntary breakdown of the body, it also illuminates the way couples voluntarily cause the breakdown of their own relationships with secrets and lies. The need to be right overtakes the need to do what is right. As the characters relate to each other, sibling to sibling, husband to wife, parent to child, doctor to patient, a wide variety of emotions and reactions are illustrated.

Although both Richard and Karina profess to hate each other, his enormous need and the lack of finances to engage full time care, forces them back together again. Karina volunteers to care for him and becomes his major caregiver. It is often a thankless, time consuming, emotionally draining and physically exhausting job, a job that is not pretty. As Richard’s disease advances, and as he grows more and more paralyzed, Karina is required to maintain his body and his appearance in all its phases of failure. Richard, on the other hand, has little to do, but he has much time to think. He begins to realize what he has given up by living the life of a rogue, cheating and traveling and neglecting his family, always putting his own needs first. Karina realizes that he was not completely in the wrong, and that she bears a great share of the burden of guilt. She was not honest with him and betrayed him in serious ways. However, she did give up her career as a jazz pianist, for his career, moving to Boston from New York City for him. He has played piano for audiences on many of the great stages of the world, and so her resentment and anger grew steadily as years passed and she no longer followed her own dream.

As the author traces the awful decline of Richard’s body, while his mind remains always alert, she makes the reader bear witness to the steady erosion of his independence and arrogance. With the loss of mobility, he rethinks his past decisions and the accomplishments and shortcomings of his brief life, although he is unable to verbalize these thoughts. He reminisces about his life with his mother and his siblings and with the father who rejected him for not being manly enough. Karina, a Polish immigrant, rethinks her deceptions and realizes her guilt. She remembers her mother. She knows that she has been cruel, pretending that she was unable to have more children, but she hoped to have her own career someday, and wanted to stop sacrificing her future for his. Now that he no longer has a future, she realizes that she used her resentment and anger as an excuse. In reality, it was her flight from success, not Richard’s race toward success that caused her to make her decisions.

I am not sure that this book is for everyone. It is painful to read, actually, it is a tear-jerker of the first order. Still, I am glad I read it because the author did an excellent job of illustrating what a family goes through when faced with devastating illness in the real world, medically, financially and emotionally. Options are not always available and the hardship is massive. For me, the book was particularly difficult since like one of the men who wrote and directed “Still Alice”, Richard Glatzer, my very dear friend suffered and died from Bulbar ALS, which begins in the neck and throat. Watching her decline and losing her great friendship was difficult for me, but of course, was far more difficult for her. Although she was brave and refused to allow anyone to even discuss the fact that she was ill, as the disease progressed, there was no way to escape from it. I missed the sound of her voice and her easy camaraderie. I thought about the time when she was well, and we would meet at 6AM to walk and talk before she went to work. Bulbar ALS is cruel, and it robs the victim of voice and communication first; our conversations soon stopped. We did email as long as she was able, but soon, even that was impossible and my only contact was with her children who would describe her decline and her anxiety.

Another emotional moment for me, in the book, was the mention of the musical piece, Fur Elise, a favorite of Richard’s. I always loved that piece and another dear friend, from early childhood, who was robbed of life early, always played it for me. So I cried a lot during the reading, and others will surely also identify with many of the emotions exposed. Also, though, as I did, I think readers will begin to better understand the courage and suffering of the victims and the enormous sacrifice of the caregivers. Keep tissues handy when you read this novel, but it is well worth the stress and distress you will experience.

 

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Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement and 12 Years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul, Anthony Graves

hopeAnthony Graves has lived through the worst travesty and failure of our legal system to provide him with justice. For him, it was a system that was rife with racism, political abuse, a system peopled with corrupt judges motivated by politics rather than justice, a District Attorney intent on convictions regardless of guilt or innocence, deceitful and insincere members of law enforcement, corrupt convicts willing to bargain with the lives of others to curry favor and help themselves within the prison system, witnesses too afraid of the system to testify in his defense, and lawyers motivated by fee rather than the guilt or innocence of the accused.

Convicted of a crime he never committed, possessing an airtight alibi, he was nevertheless sentenced to death and mistreated for almost two decades. Graves finally walked out of prison, 18 ½ years later, a free man, not a bitter man, although he had every right to be angry and bitter. Instead he was a man now dedicated to helping others fight the system that trapped them, often unjustly. Anthony Graves was not a murderer or an ex-convict. Anthony Graves was, and is today, a hero who represents an example for others. He never gave up, never lost his faith, and always remained hopeful in a hopeless situation, believing it had to get better. As he tells his story, it is hard not to want to scream out against the system that incarcerated him, railroaded him, and then even after throwing out his conviction after 14 years, kept him imprisoned, working for his freedom for four more years. It is hard not to want some kind of revenge. I think of the “go fund me” pages that are organized for various causes, some far less worthy than his, and I wonder why there is none set up, at least for his Foundation. His current unselfish efforts to fix the system, free innocent men and women wrongfully incarcerated or excessively sentenced, and to represent those underserved, are noble and worthwhile and deserve widespread recognition and support.

His description of the prison system in Texas is enlightening and heartbreaking at the same time. The bias and dishonesty that existed within the confines of the justice system, the system that totally ignored his credible alibi, made my head spin. It was sometimes difficult to discern between the criminality of those in prison and those in charge of the prison. It could not help but make me wonder why our prison system, originally meant to rehabilitate, seems now to only mete out punishment and lacks compassion.

I have never believed in the death penalty. As a college student, decades ago, I wrote a paper on Caryl Chessman, who at 27 years old was arrested as “the red light bandit”. He, too, spent twelve years on death row. His execution was carried out. I do not believe that a system which can be flawed should mete out such flawed justice. If taking a life is criminal, it is criminal for all.

As I read, however, I did question the logic of becoming a father at so young an age, with multiple women, without any real visible means of support. It seemed like poor judgment, and I hope that he will try and set a better example for those with whom he now interacts. Certainly, though, his judgment had nothing to do with the crime for which he was unjustly convicted. I would have liked to discover more about Robert Carter’s reasoning for accusing Graves of a crime he never committed. I was disappointed in his girlfriend Yolanda’s behavior. Upon reflection, I had hoped that she might have returned as a witness, realizing that she was innocent. Then again, so was he, and he was convicted. The lack of experience within the world of law and order was devastating. The manipulation of innocent people was horrifying. I was struck by the fact that although Graves had already been subjected to the corrupt justice system, when he was forced to admit to a drug crime he had never committed, the possession of cocaine, he still believed in a justice system that so routinely ensnared young black men. He was caught in a whirlpool of disasters, a maelstrom of deception and treachery and a lack of knowledge about how to work within the system that had trapped him.

In the end, Robert Graves was unjustly robbed of so much of his life; he did not watch his children grow older or share in their successes and failures, comfort them in their bouts of sickness, or enjoy the warmth of his family as they celebrated special moments together. How can such a debt ever be repaid to him? “Justice delayed is justice denied”!

Although wrongfully accused of a heinous crime, until the very end, the wheels of justice moved unhurriedly for him; he was forced to remain a prisoner for 18 ½ years. When the book ended, I was left with several unresolved questions. From what I could tell, only the DA suffered any consequence from the lies that were told, from the manipulation and concealment of evidence and the intimidation of witnesses. Why was no justice meted out to those Rangers who were complicit in his conviction, to those witnesses who lied, or to the judge concerned more with protecting her father than the innocent victim of her father’s injustice? It seems to me that justice still has not been served.

I encourage all to read this book in order to understand the problems of our current legal system and to perhaps be inspired to fix it!

**I received this book from Beacon Press through the early reviewers program on libraything.com

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The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish, author; Corrie James, narrator

inkWritten with the majestic prose of yesteryear, with a vocabulary that enchants on every page, the book takes the reader on a journey between centuries introducing the history of Jewish oppression, the Inquisition, the Church, and the Plague as major players. It carries the story into the present day, a time in which many of the themes recur, foremost being for me, anti-Semitism and the inability of Jewish people to be treated fairly or perhaps, even understood, but equal opportunity and anti-Semitism still remain problems.

Ester Velasquez was from Amsterdam. When her parents were killed in a fire she and her brother were ostracized because of a shadow that hung over her mother’s reputation and the curse upon them that must have caused the fire from her brother’s lantern. They were placed under the protection and care of Rabbi Ha-Coen Mendes in London. He was kind enough to take them in, although his wife Rivka, was not as welcoming to them. He, blinded during his brutal Inquisitor interrogation, is under the care and protection of Rabbi Benjamin Ha-Levy. They are all dependent on others for their welfare now. The wealthy Jews and their children are sometimes arrogant, carrying themselves with an air of superiority. They are trying hard to fit into the Christian culture of the times in order to prevent their exile or death. Many convert, or pretend to do so. Others assume the haughty demeanor of their tormentors.

Ester was born during a time when women were trained to be good housekeepers, to care for their husbands and to bear children. Often, marriages were arranged. She, however, dreamed of more. Her father had allowed her to learn to read. She wanted to write, to become a philosopher, presenting her theories to the world, but as a women she would not be accepted or allowed to participate in that profession. It was forbidden to think about or to ask certain questions as well, and Baruch de Spinoza is an example of one ostracized not by the Inquisitors, but by his own people. He was forced into exile as a heretic because he raised questions about G-d. Ester was intrigued by his questions and wanted to correspond with him. Of course that communication was forbidden for all Jews and most especially forbidden to women. Well bred women were only allowed to engage in work dealing with the home. Her brother Isaac was trained as a scribe and she wished she could be; he, however, wanted to be a dockworker, which was an unacceptable occupation for a young Jewish male who studied the Torah. Both Velasquez children were independent in their desires.

When tragedy struck the life of Esther again, she was allowed to become the temporary scribe for the Rabbi until a more suitable male scribe could be found to take her place. She thrilled at the thought of being taken away from the household chores she shared with his wife Rivka and dreaded her return to rough and chapped hands from the washing and mending. When events interceded, requiring her to scribe for him for a longer period, to her delight, it turned into a more permanent need. Her life during that time is a subject of the investigation.
The history of the era, with the terror and violence of the Inquisition and the sickness and death wrought by the Plague is intensely interesting and detailed. The brutality and hatred wrought by the overt anti-Semitism is writ large on the page and the reader will learn of many heinous activities that they might not have known before, that Jews were subjected to, even in places where they were supposedly accepted. The ugly head of anti-Semitism from the Church and the populace seemed always ready to rear its head. Intolerance existed on both sides of the aisle, however, with rules for behavior that disadvantaged not only Jews, but non-Jews and all women as well.

The parallel story, some three and a half centuries later, is that of historian Helen Watt, a gentile whose specialty was Jewish history. It begins at the turn of the twenty first century. Helen’s right to engage in her profession as a non-Jew had often been tested. Professor Watt, in failing health and now about to retire, was asked by a former student Ian Easton, to take a look at a trove of documents found hidden under the stairs of his home, built in the 17th century. As it was undergoing renovation, papers had been found, possibly in what was called a Genizah, (a storage area in a Jewish synagogue for the purpose of storing old documents and books that mentioned God, until they could be buried). Helen was told that the documents, written in Portuguese and Hebrew, seemed old and were possibly written in the Hebrew language, perhaps to a Rabbi. She was enthralled with the idea of one last major discovery and decided to immediately go and investigate them before the university and/or Sotheby’s got their hands on them, possibly removing her access, but surely her great opportunity to discover and present the history and authorship of the documents. Helen suffered from Parkinson’s disease, so a post-grad student from her university, Aaron Levy, was asked to help. He was arrogant and often rude, but he worked with her and matures under her tutelage. Their relationship causes both of them to grow in different ways.

Soon after she and Aaron gained access to the documents, their study was also given to a group of post grads in the school, who were younger, had more influence and were more powerful than she, who was now being relegated to the old and feeble category. She was forced to work more slowly with only Aaron to help her. Still, they made many interesting discoveries which they, perhaps unfairly, withheld for themselves to investigate. The competition in their field was fierce and often a rush to judgment led to incorrect conclusions

The parallel stories enlighten the reader as to the early lives of both Ester and Helen, their lost loves, their challenges, their mistakes and their secrets. Though separated by three and a half centuries, their history, revealed in these pages, shares many similarities. Both women suffer from illnesses, both from unrequited love, both from a desire to learn and both face an environment not fully welcoming to the education and acceptance of women, although in the 21st century, much has changed.

At the time of the discovery, Helen Watts was working on a project she hoped would lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of Jews who had left England during the time of the plague from 1665-1667 and had not reappeared until a few years later. Where had they gone? She was not fully absorbed in the research. Aaron was working on his dissertation which was an investigation concerning the possibility of a connection between Shakespeare and Jews escaping the Inquisition in Elizabethan London, but he was unable to find the impetus to provide the energy or creativity to finish it. Could this discovery of a possible Genizah provide Helen and Aaron the answers to their own personal quests? Would the life of Esther Velasquez shed light on research projects for both of them, and in so doing alter their lives and views.

The history is very well researched and enlightening. There are many questions raised for the reader. Although the story is not true, many of the characters mentioned are real and many that aren’t are based on real people. The history is accurate, although the story is fiction.

 

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Siriously Delicious, Siri Daly

siriously
When I arrived home after a lengthy vacation, I discovered that I had won an (uncorrected proof) advanced reader’s copy of Siri Daly’s Siriously Delicious cookbook. What a pleasant surprise it was as I read through the pages!
Written with the warmth that obviously emanates from the author, the book is delightful. Having lived in Minnesota, I can identify with her remarks about the place. Still a mother, and now a grandmother, I can identify with her warm feelings about cooking with kids and cooking for them.
There is literally something for everyone within the pages. The recipes are tantalizing and they seem so easy to make and so eye-appealing in their presentation, that I wanted to prepare one immediately. Several caught my eye and teased my appetite. I especially like the chocolate chip-peanut butter-banana cookies, the crisped garbanzo beans, the recipes with Brussels sprouts and chick peas, and the Asian beef lettuce wraps. From the salads to the cookies and the cocktails before or after, this book will make a welcome addition to any kitchen.

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