Review: 13 Rue Thérèse, Elena Mauli Shapiro

I found a copy of Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel 13 Rue Thérèse at a used bookstore in Northampton, MA, where we spent my birthday weekend last year. As such, I suppose this book was a birthday present for myself. I loved the cover, and in flipping through the book, I was intrigued by the premise.

An American historian named Trevor Stratton is given a box of artifacts belonging to a woman named Louise Brunet, who lived at 13 Rue Thérèse in Paris with her husband Henri after World War I. He discovers through piecing together her story that she lost a cousin with whom she was in love and whom she wanted to marry in World War I. She married a man who worked in her father’s shop, and she was desperate for a child. She embarks on a flirtation with a new neighbor, a teacher, who surprises Louise by taking her up on her suggestions. Meanwhile, Trevor can’t explain why he knows things about Louise’s life that don’t appear in the artifacts. How can he know, for example, so intimately how Louise feels and what she does as she goes about her life in Paris in November 1928?

This book is based on an interesting idea. Shapiro apparently has a box of relics belonging to a real-life Louise Brunet who died alone. The landlord of 13 Rue Thérèse allowed the residents to claim her belongings, and Shapiro’s mother selected this box. From the artifacts in the box, Shapiro constructed this story. I’m not sure how I feel about her taking that kind of license with a real person’s life, especially when so much of the story is speculation and doesn’t necessarily cast Louise in a positive light. She is a likable character, but I wonder what her descendants, had she had any, would have thought about her fictional treatment. There is a time-travel element that is not quite gracefully handled as well. One wonders about the necessity of including Trevor Stratton at all. His story seems somewhat superfluous, perhaps because it isn’t woven into Louise’s story as seamlessly as it might be. I love a good time travel story, but I wonder if this book might not have been better as strictly historical fiction. In addition, I would have liked to have seen the plot hang together a bit more tightly.

Despite some flaws, I didn’t give up on it, and it was a very quick read, if not a gripping one. I think in the case of this particular book, I am probably just not the right audience because many reviewers seem to have liked it more than I did. The QR codes in the back of the book are a nice touch; they allow the reader to see higher resolution photos of the artifacts. I found the color images in the book sufficient. The book is a beautiful book, as well, with a gorgeous cover and thick creamy pages and a pleasant font. It isn’t quite like any other book I’ve read before. You might enjoy it if you like quirky French films.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book for several reading challenges. It’s Paris setting makes it my French book for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve had it on my backlist at least since September when I bought it, so I’m also counting it for the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. Finally, it is set mainly in 1928, so I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017 Beat the Backlist

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Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Valley of Fear

Illustration for The Valley of Fear by Frank Wiles for The Strand

The Valley of Fear is the second Sherlock Holmes novel I’ve read for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. Holmes and Watson receive a strange message in cipher and divine that it reads “some devilry is intended against one Douglas,” the wealthy owner of Birlstone Manor in Kent. Sure enough, Inspector Macdonald turns up and tells the dynamic duo that Douglas has been murdered. Holmes is sure his nemesis Professor Moriarty is involved. Holmes and Watson travel to Kent to investigate, and Holmes quickly deduces that, as usual, the local constabulary has overlooked some important details and that there is a great deal more going on in the case than the murder of the gentleman of Kent. And also as usual, he’s right. Douglas’s murder is at the center of the Pinkertons’ infiltration of the Scowrers, a murderous gang affiliated with the Eminent Order of Freemen, a union/fraternal order that is somewhat harmless is some areas of the country, but which has a stranglehold on the Vermissa Valley in California. In the denouement, Holmes is more convinced than ever that Moriarty is at the heart of even this far-flung criminal organization.

I find myself perplexed again by this novel’s placement in the chronology adopted. I know I have mentioned this issue several times, but it feels so clearly late that it doesn’t seem right here; however, I should mention that in this novel’s case, there’s nothing to put my finger on really except writing style, and that’s explained by Conan Doyle’s having written it later. I enjoyed it more than I thought, especially after I caught wind that Conan Doyle was once again going to try to set part of the novel in America. My previous experience is that he doesn’t really understand Americans all that well. This novel, however, didn’t betray the usual issues (inaccurate dialect, being chief among them). It’s also based on the true case of Pinkerton agent James McParland’s infiltration of the Molly Maguires. Perhaps it’s the additional research Conan Doyle did that lends more of air of authenticity to the story. Once again, however, I found the parts of the story set in England to be far more interesting. Conan Doyle is clearly interested in America, but he writes more engagingly about his own home soil.

The only mention of this novel I found in the Sherlock series is in “The Final Problem” episode, in which Moriarty’s brother is described as being a station master, though in this case a broadcast station and not a railway station. I wouldn’t put this book as up there among the essential or the best, but it wasn’t bad. I found a few passages earlier in the book that I enjoyed, and this one the most, as it captures the characters in a way so many adaptations don’t seem to capture:

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I’ll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I severely, “you are a little trying at times.”

Tell me you couldn’t hear Martin Freeman saying that to Benedict Cumberbatch.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is fifteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition) and second novel. Next up is “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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Review: The House Between Tides, Sarah Maine

Sarah Maine’s novel The House Between Tides begins with a mystery. Hetty Deveraux (which feels too much like a name only a novel character would have) travels to a remote manse belonging to her ancestors and discovers a body has been found under the floorboards. Hetty soon finds herself untangling a century-old murder as she tries to determine what to do about Muirlan House—tear it down and try to preserve the island’s unique character, as the inhabitants of Muirlan Island think best, or renovate it into a resort hotel as her partner Giles urges her to do. Meanwhile, Hetty becomes curious about her ancestors. The island had once been the inspiration and refuge of her great-grandmother Emily’s brother Theo Blake, a famed painter. Hetty discovers that Theo’s wife deserted him under mysterious circumstances, and she begins to fear she knows whose bones were found underneath the floorboards of Muirlan House. Meanwhile Beatrice Blake, Theo’s wife, tells her story in flashbacks. The the stories of two women, living a century apart, link inextricably with family secrets and a crumbling ancestral home in the space between them.

I have to admit this book was a slow starter for me, even with the discovery of a body under the floorboards. Maine does a great job of creating the atmosphere of Muirlan Island in the Outer Hebrides, a remote and unforgiving landscape that nonetheless lures both Hetty and Beatrice with its fierce beauty. Once the story gets going, however, it’s pretty good. Some aspects of the plot were a little easier to guess than others, and the unraveling of the mysteries that lay buried for so many years made for a satisfying ending. However, I was a good third of the way through the book and contemplating giving up on it before it started to capture my interest. I enjoyed the rest of the book. The parallels between Hetty and Beatrice were interesting, and the family secrets intrigued me enough to persevere through some of the parts that dragged. I have seen some reviewers claim not to have enjoyed the parts set in 2010 with Hetty, but I actually found them more interesting because the discovery of the body as well as Hetty’s conflicted feelings about her partner and his plans for her ancestral home were intriguing to me. I love historical fiction, and at first, I found Beatrice’s story the less interesting of the two. However, as I kept reading, Beatrice grew on me. The book is compared to Daphne Du Maurier’s atmospheric writing, which is a shame because few writers can create a brooding setting like Du Maurier, and anyone suffers by comparison. I think I need to stop having such high expectations of anyone whose work is compared to Du Maurier’s. Still, it was a good read, and the setting was well drawn, if perhaps the characters were not always—I found the minor characters very difficult to keep straight, and the family trees impossible. I also found parts of the story frustrating as I hoped Maine was going somewhere with a thread that was never quite woven in well enough.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am counting this book toward the following reading challenges:

Beat the BacklistI am counting this book for the Beat the Backlist Challenge. This book has been on my Kindle since last September, but I didn’t start reading it until recently. It was published in 2016, and therefore meets the challenge’s qualification of being released before 2017. I read this on my Kindle, but Goodreads says the paperback version has 400 pages, which is the equivalent of 40 points for Ravenclaw, and posting this review should net 50 more points for a total of 90.

Because about half the book takes place in 1910, I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge. In addition, Sarah Maine is a British writer, so this book counts towards the British Books Challenge.

British Books Challenge

Finally, as the book is set in Scotland, part of the UK, it also counts as part of the European Reading Challenge, though this is the only UK book that will count toward the challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017

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Review: Faithful, Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s novel Faithful was released last month and arrived on my doorstep as part of my November Cozy Reader subscription box. I was reminded today that I had decided about seven years ago not to read Hoffman again, and I might not have picked up this book had it not been sent to me, but the reviews were good, and I decided to give it a shot.

Faithful is the story of Shelby Richmond, who survives an accident that puts her best friend into a coma. The novel explores Shelby’s feelings of guilt as the survivor and her subsequent search for meaning in her life as she recovers. Spanning about ten years in Shelby’s story, Faithful in particular explores Shelby’s relationships with family and friends who try to help her see that she is worthy of love and also discover her purpose in the world—”to save a small part of the world.”

I found Shelby to be a bit of a cipher. She pushed everyone away to such a degree that I found it difficult to like her myself—not that I have to like characters to enjoy a book. I do however, need to be interested in them, and it took me a while to become interested in what happened to Shelby, but by a few chapters in, I was. The present-tense storytelling didn’t work for me as a reader, though I think I understand the point in using it. It did make the story feel more immediate in some ways, but it also made it hard for me to place in time.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I read the first chapter, and I thought it was going to the did-not-finish pile in short order, but I gave it another chance. I liked it way more than 3 stars, but I’m not sure it’s a full 4 stars for me either, even though I basically read almost all of it in a day. There were moments that were a bit wrenching for me as I lost my grandmother last month, and this book confronts the pain of loss in multiple ways, but it didn’t quite get inside me in a deep way. Perhaps it was that I never fully warmed to Shelby. I certainly felt bad for her, and I wanted her to forgive herself, but even her descriptions of what she was like before the accident made it hard for me to feel like I knew her. I felt like even as a reader, she didn’t want to let me in. Still, it looks like lots of readers are loving it, and it’s a pretty good read, though the NY Times review by Helene Wecker captures my feelings about the book well.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Review: A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler

Not too long ago, I joined Litsy, which has been described as a combination of Instagram and Goodreads. It’s not, but I guess that’s as close as it gets. I posted a picture of the books I had purchased and wondered which to start with. A commenter recommended Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. While I’ve had some things going on and haven’t felt much like reading, it’s also true that this book only sort of half grabbed me. I picked it up because the opening pages are excellent, but they also deceived me about what the book would be.

You’ll have to forgive me. I haven’t read any of her other books, so from what I understand, this one is familiar territory for her: set in Roland Park in Baltimore, about family dynamics and the million tiny ways families disappoint one another. The Whitshank family lives in a house built by the patriarch, Junior Whitshank. His son Red and daughter-in-law Abby live in the house after the passing of Junior Whitshank and his wife (Red’s mother) Linnie Mae. Red and Abby raised their own four children in the house. The novel moves back and forth in time, beginning in the 1990’s with a phone call the Whitshanks’ son Denny makes to announce he’s gay and ending as Denny boards a train to New Jersey to see what appears to be an on-again, off-again girlfriend who is battening down the hatches for Hurricane Sandy. In between, we meet the rest of the Whitshank family and see the Whitshank grandchildren born, we go back and see Red and Abby before they started dating, and then we go further back and meet Junior and Linnie Mae both before and after they move into the house on Bouton Road.

When I say I was deceived by reading the beginning, here is an example of what I mean. Denny calls to announce he is gay. And that whole thread is completely dropped after the opening as Denny has relationships with women and even a daughter, Susan. I have to wonder what the point was. The thread is never picked up. And yes, I am using that metaphor on purpose. Maybe that was what Tyler had in mind. Leaving a lot of loose threads around. For instance, we learn Junior and Linnie Mae died in a crazy car accident, but we don’t really learn why. How did they really even feel about each other? After you read the section about Junior and Linnie Mae, you will wonder if there is more to it. The novel ends without a clear resolution, too. It doesn’t feel satisfying at the end. I wanted to like it more because I do feel that Anne Tyler drew very realistic and recognizable characters, and I liked them. I just didn’t get to see enough plot. It was sort of like peeking through the drapes and watching snippets of a family’s development. I guess I wanted to be a bit closer. In the end, I just kept wondering why Tyler wove in certain scenes and didn’t go anywhere with them.

I am not sure how to rate it because there are parts I liked, but as a whole, it didn’t hang together for me. I will not count it as historical fiction, even though much of it is, because the main storyline is too current.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser’s comprehensive biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey inspired a film starring Kirsten Dunst in the role of the queen some years ago. Essentially, Fraser’s portrayal of the queen is sympathetic. Not well educated or especially groomed for a role of greatness, Marie Antoinette found herself packed off to France at the age of fourteen to make a political marriage. It seems the French never really warmed to her, and in the end, she became a scapegoat for the entire French Revolution. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her, and Fraser clearly wants the reader to feel sympathy for the woman whom history misremembers as suggesting, upon hearing of the lack of bread and subsequent starvation of her people, “Let them eat cake.”

I started reading this book over a year ago—on February 8, 2015, to be exact. I have been picking away at it here and there, but I never found it so engaging that I couldn’t put it down until the Revolution started and Marie Antoinette’s tribulations truly began. I think, and I’m probably not alone in this, that the most interesting thing about Marie Antoinette is her death. It sounds terribly cold and callous to put it that baldly, but as a queen she was fairly similar to most aristocrats. A little vain, a bit frivolous, and not terribly smart. She seems to have been devoted to her children. She also seems to have had genuine great affection for Louis XVI. Antonia Fraser argues that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, they were great friends, but Fraser really seems to want this affair to have happened, and I think her treatment of that particular aspect of the biography suffers as a result—too much conjecture, and not enough real evidence, especially given how carefully Fraser describes the queen’s utter lack of privacy from the moment she entered France. The whole story just doesn’t hang together well.

On the other hand, the portrait Fraser paints of the imprisoned Marie Antoinette as pious, stoic, and forgiving is admirable and seems to square well with other historical evidence I’ve read. In her last days, her treatment was much harsher than her husband received prior to his own execution. She was separated utterly from every aspect of her former station in life, from her children and other family to her comforts and even occupations. In the end, she emerges as an admirable figure through the fortitude she displayed as she faced death. There is a horrible sentiment expressed by the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after he shoots and kills the Grandmother: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It’s a horrible thing to say, I suppose, but Marie Antoinette was undeniably a brave woman at the end of her life. Whatever she may have been in life, she didn’t deserve for her life to end the way it did.

Fraser’s biography is, in the end, not without its faults, but it is certainly thorough and the reader senses the affection the author feels for her subject. Perhaps because this book is Marie Antoinette’s story, and not a story, necessarily, of the Revolution that killed her, one will not learn a great deal about many of the other movers and shakers in the events of the time, though Fraser did clear up a few issues I had difficulty understanding—why Marie Antoinette was so reviled, for one thing, and on a more minor point, the difference between the Girondins and Jacobins (I was quite fuzzy on that point, thought I admit I haven’t read widely on the Revolution, and that confusion may easily have been cleared up elsewhere as well). Robespierre, for example, is mentioned only a handful of times. While he never seems sympathetic in anything I’ve read about him, I can’t deny he’s a great deal more interesting to me than Marie Antoinette.

In some ways, I don’t feel like I’ve been quite fair to Marie Antoinette in this book review, but the truth is that I didn’t quite find her fascinating enough to merit the comprehensiveness of this biography, however fascinating her death might have ultimately been. In a way, I sort of felt like one of those gawkers passing an accident on the side of the road. Still, I can’t deny that Fraser does her best, and Marie Antoinette comes to life and ultimately emerges as a sympathetic person in the pages of this book.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am going to count this for the Mount TBR Challenge because I’ve been meaning to finish it for a long time, but I’m not sure about counting it for the Shelf Love Challenge because it hasn’t really been neglected on my shelf if I’ve been picking away at it for a year.

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Review: The Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda

Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night is the second in her All Souls Trilogy. In the first book, which I read and reviewed here, witch and historian Diana Bishop calls forth the mysterious manuscript Ashmole 792 from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, arousing the curiosity of many other “creatures,” including vampire Matthew Clairmont.

This book picks up Diana and Matthew’s unlikely love story as they prepare to timewalk to the past in the hopes of recovering the mysterious alchemical manuscript known in their time as Ashmole 782, which Matthew hopes will reveal genetic secrets of creatures and help Matthew discover why creatures are dying out. Using Diana’s power to travel to the past, Matthew and Diana go back to Elizabethan London, where Diana discovers her husband is a member of the legendary School of Night. And that’s not his only secret. Diana discovers she has some massive hidden powers, and she rubs shoulders with just about everyone of note in early 1590’s London and Prague.

I have to admit I find both Diana and Matthew pretty grating. People (annoyingly) fall in love with both of them right and left, while they have eyes only for each other. And of course, they have flawless appearances as well. Harkness falls into the trap of making her characters too physically perfect, so she gives them other flaws (that aren’t really flaws). I know they are not supposed to be normal people—they are a witch and vampire—but I still found them both pretty unsympathetic. Even when you’re writing about supernatural creatures, you want your characters to seem believable on some level. On the other hand, as this kind of book goes (think Twilight) this series is entertaining enough. It’s hard to believe even a vampire like Matthew would somehow be to connected to pretty much every major figure in Renaissance London and Prague, too. And I mean, it runs the gamut, from Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, aka the Maharal of Prague, a witch who created the legendary Golem, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, and more shadowy types like John Dee and Edward Kelley. One can’t deny that Harkness did her research. One wonders if all of it had to be thrown into the book.

Like I said, though, these books are entertaining enough, and they will definitely appeal to people who are looking for fun books about vampires and witches. Jennifer Ikeda’s reading works well with the story and doesn’t hit any wrong notes.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★☆

I can’t count this one for the R. I. P. Challenge, even though I think it would be perfect if you’re doing the challenge and looking for something different to read. I started reading it before the challenge started, however. Given that most of the book is set in the past, I do feel it can definitely count for the Historical Fiction Challenge. Diana and Matthew travel from American to Renaissance London, and then to France and Prague, so it’s hard to figure out exactly where to map it for my settings map, but I’m settling on London, as I’d say the bulk of the action takes place there.

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Review: This House is Haunted, John Boyne

John Boyne’s novel This House is Haunted is the story of Eliza Caine, a teacher grieving the recent death of her father. She responds to a mysterious ad for a governess in Norfolk, in part for somewhere to go, now that she’s learned her father never owned the house in which they lived and she’s being unceremoniously thrown out, and in part to escape her sadness. As soon as she arrives on the train, she realizes not only that she has been hired under false pretenses, but also that there is a presence in Gaudlin Hall, the home of her young charges Isabella and Eustace, that does not want her there.

Anyone who is familiar with ghost stories/madwomen in the attic tropes will recognize this story. With serious nods to both The Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre, as well as bit of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and explicit homages to Dickens, many readers might well accuse this book of cribbing from more illustrious forebears a bit too much. Perhaps there isn’t a whole lot here that is new. As a ghost story, it’s fairly predictable, and despite some pretty chilling scenes (as I described them to my husband, I realized based on his reactions that they were scary at least in the abstract), I wasn’t really scared. I didn’t really want to be terrified. I don’t read much horror for a pretty good reason. It’s not my favorite thing to imagine the absolute worst people do, and I can’t stand gore at all. But a creepy ghost story, like, for instance, The Little Stranger? I’m all over that. This story wasn’t really like that. I think it might make for a pretty interesting atmospheric movie, but it didn’t really deliver any seriously good chills, at least not for me. But it is a quick read, and the story was engaging enough for me to keep turning the pages. It was a nice way to get my feet wet for the R. I. P. Challenge this year.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Review: Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It is the story of a dying preacher, John Ames, who worries about leaving his young wife and son with no money (and in his son’s case, few memories of his father). The novel is written in the form of a letter from Rev. Ames to his son as a means for his son to understand and get to know his father.

At the outset, such a setup seems like it would be a depressing novel, but the result is actually more uplifting. Ames may be a minister well-versed in the gospel, but he is not holier-than-thou—in fact, he’s quite reflective about the ways in which he falls short, and he’s a rather open-minded philosopher. More than anything else, this book winds up being a sort of philosophical memoir. Ames recalls memories of his father and grandfather, both of whom were also ministers and who often clashed with each other. His grandfather was a abolitionist who was connected with John Brown in Kansas.

Obviously this book is well-regarded, and it has received a lot of praise. Though I did like it, I can’t really say I loved it, but I think part of the problem might be that I listened to it instead of read a print version. I think this book needs a slower digestion that is possible with print. Though the narrator, Tim Jerome, did a wonderful job telling the story, I think I missed some things as I listened to it. I can tell it’s well-written and spare in its elegance, but the story didn’t do as much for me as I wanted it to. I thought the prodigal son Jack Boughton was the most interesting character, and the way Ames wrestled with his conscience over Jack Boughton was the most memorable part of the book for me. In the right hands, I think this book could be a wonderful book. I’m just not sure it was really written for me.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★½

 

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TLC Book Tour: Pleasantville, Attica Locke

Jay Porter, the hero of Attica Locke’s new novel Pleasantville, has had a devastating year. Barely able to cope with the death of his wife, he finds himself a single father to his two children and his law practice is shriveling on the vine. He won a major victory against Cole Oil, but appeals have dragged the case on, and Porter is losing his conviction that he will ever see a dime of the money his clients were awarded. Furthermore, so are his clients, who are being wooed away by a slick attorney trying to make a buck. Meanwhile, Jay’s office is broken into, and a young girl connected with the Houston mayoral campaign goes missing, and Jay is dragged into the crime when he is coerced into taking on one more difficult case—this time, a murder trial.

I have never read the first book about Jay Porter, Black Water Rising. I loved Locke’s novel, The Cutting Season, however. I think reading Black Water Rising would probably have been helpful, as I know I might have understood some elements of Pleasantville a little better. I do wish I’d kept a character list or that one had been provided. I found some of the characters difficult to distinguish from one another (it could just be me, however). Pleasantville is a tight crime thriller. I might compare it to a John Grisham novel had I read one, though having seen the movies, I have an idea this novel is along those lines. In some places, the pace dragged a bit for me, but I always wanted to finish and find out what would happen, and as the court case really started, I finished the book in two big gulps. I think it might make a pretty good movie as well. The political intrigues were fascinating in their way. Politics are dirty business. The ending also went a little crazy for me, and some aspects of it seemed a little far-fetched, but overall, I have to say I enjoyed reading this book. I think anyone who likes a crime thriller, courtroom novel, or a good mystery would enjoy Pleasantville.

Attica LockeAbout Attica Locke

Attica Locke is the author of the widely acclaimed debut novel Black Water Rising, which was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, an Edgar Award, and an NAACP Image Award, and was shortlisted for the UK’s Orange Prize. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

Find out more about Attica at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Rating: ★★★½☆

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