Only Time Will Tell

In 1920, Harry Clifton skips class to go to the Barrington Shipyard, where his father used to work, and where he believes he will too once he’s finally allowed to drop out of school for good. But Harry also has a beautiful voice, and this becomes his golden ticket to one of the most elite schools in all of England.

Unbeknownst to Harry, his many mentors and fans—including a hermited war hero, a choir mistress, and his mother Maisie—must make incredible sacrifices in the hopes that Harry will honor his opportunities and thrive.

Despite the heartwarming nature of Harry’s rise in social status, Only Time Will Tell is not the simple story of Harry’s newfound life of wealth and grandeur. Archer employs many narrative tripwires that have left me shocked, frustrated, and utterly amazed at the complexity of the novel. Harry must face several revelations and decisions including who his father really was and what do when England enters World War II.

This is the first book in Jeffrey Archer’s multigenerational family saga, The Clifton Chronicles.


Check out The Sins of the Father, Best Kept Secret, Be Careful What You Wish For, and Mightier Than the Sword for more of Harry’s tale!


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Review: Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You made the Best of 2014 lists of some of my favorite, most trustworthy sites: BookRiot, NPR, Shelf Awareness. These lists were helpful because I spent most of 2014 out of the country and out of access to new releases. But that also meant that any book I chose from said lists had a lot of hype to live up to.

So it was a bit of trepidation that I began listening to to Everything I Never Told You. From the beginning, it not only met, but surpassed my expectations. The first words, “Lydia is dead,” set the tone for the rest of the book. Not that everything will be laid out so blatantly—indeed circumstances are slow to unravel—but that her death will weigh heavily on the characters, as though in their grief they are the ones buried beneath six feet of earth. Lydia was the favorite of the family, with the long black hair of her Chinese American father and the blue eyes of her white mother. Her father wants her to be a well-adjusted and sociable teenager while her mother pressures her to study science and become a doctor. Her parents desperately want for her the things that were just out of their own reach.

The year Lydia dies is 1977, and mixed-race families in Ohio were still scarce enough to cause a stir. A newspaper article about her death notes that children of such marriages often have it hard, straddling two worlds. Strangers pull their eyelids sideways with their fingers at the children, tell them that they are other, not American, outsiders. Lydia and her brother Nath cling to each other, as only they understand the lonely situation that they find themselves in. Ng has said in interviews that all but one instance of racial prejudice her characters face are based on her or her family’s own experiences. These realistic touches create a believable atmosphere and obstacles the characters must face.

Throughout the book, nobody knows if Lydia’s death was an accident, suicide, or murder. Some of the marketing around Everything I Never Told You describes it as a mystery. Because of the unknown circumstances of Lydia’s death, it has some elements of a good mystery, but that is not where the emphasis of this story lies.Those who are in it for an intriguing who-done-it with twists and turns and fast plots will be disappointed. This is a book about families dealing with loss. Not only the loss of Lydia, but the loss of their own hopes and dreams. Slowly Ng peels back the layers, the hidden motivations behind the characters’ actions or inactions.Everything-I-Never-Told-You-1

I usually have a distaste for books about families who don’t talk to each other. If the whole book’s conflict could be resolved in a few open and honest conversations, and the characters just fail to do that, it falls apart for me. I kept expecting that feeling in Everything I Never Told You, but as the narrative progressed, as I got to know each of the characters, I felt sympathy and solidarity rather than annoyance. It’s as if the things they feel are so big that they cannot physically get their mouths around the them, as if they are so abstract that the words have not been invented yet. Or maybe it’s because this family doesn’t resent each other. Quiet anger doesn’t bubble over and drive a wedge between them. They still very much love each other.

The last hour of the book, I had what NPR refers to as a “driveway moment.” I came home from a walk to the grocery store, during which I’d been listening to the book, but didn’t want to turn my phone off. I sat in my home office, where I was supposed to be working, and finished listening. I’m the sort of of audiobook listener who likes to multi-task while listening—driving, cooking, gardening, walking, working out—but here I sat, totally absorbed in the book, not wanting to do so much as tap my foot. The mystery of Lydia’s death is heartbreaking. The loss of a life so young is never easy. And still, I didn’t want the story to end.

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Life After Life

Ursula Todd was born in a blizzard in the year 1910 just outside of London, England. Gone before she can take her first breath, Ursula dies in a complicated childbirth. On the same snowy winter night, she is born a wailing, healthy baby girl, her little fingers grasping for her mother’s embrace. The story unfolds and Ursula dies repeatedly, in numerous ways, with each passing leading to an alternative life.

Kate Atkinson’s dark and poignant novel, Life After Life, captures life’s uncertainties and the power that one moment can have over an entire life’s story. Every one of Ursula’s deaths brings her closer to the tumultuous time of the 1940s where she is faced with myriad choices, myriad paths. Atkinson’s novel captures the fragility of life, the sorrow and power of death, and most importantly the strength everyone possesses over their story.


What would you do-over if you could? Let us know in the comments.


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And Then There Were None

The best part of a good mystery is becoming captivated and immersed in the story as readers work alongside detectives solving classic who-done-it cases. Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Were None, is the crown jewel of its genre, and a book I devoured in just one sitting.

The story begins with an invitation for eight strangers to attend a weekend island getaway. Upon arrival, the guests enter the dining room to find ten figurines centered on the table along with a copy of an ominous nursery rhyme. A recorded message plays, accusing each of the guests of hiding a guilty secret and by the end of the night one of the guests is found dead.

This mystery is unique because there is no detective, everyone is a target, and no one is safe. And so the story takes readers on a thrilling, twisted whirlwind of revenge and murder without motive or reason in sight. That is, of course, until there are none.

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Have a favorite Agatha Christie mystery? Let us know in the comments.

The Long Way Home

Because the Gamache series does not have to be read in sequence, The Long Way Home is a delight for not only those who are well acquainted with Gamache’s thrilling story, but also those who are picking up Louise Penny’s novels for the first time.

The Long Way Home follows Former Chief Inspector of Homicide Armand Gamache as he emerges out of retirement to search for the missing Peter Morrow, a once-famous artist. Gamache is swept out of his peaceful home in Three Pines and drawn into the city of Quebec, where he becomes entangled in an ever-thickening web of secrets. One can only hope that discovering the truth will bring Gamache and Peter one step closer to their return, though it becomes terrifyingly clear that the signs may point towards their demise . . .

As a Booklist starred review put it, “[The Long Way Home is] another gem from the endlessly astonishing Penny . . .”

Louise Penny is also a great resource for aspiring writers, providing ample advice, inspiration, and know-how to the literary community via her website, louisepenny.com.


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Review: Shotgun Lovesongs

Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs has the lyricism, the cadence, the emotional swelling, the catharsis of any song in the great American songbook. Its lines run through your head long after the story ends. Its words hit like a high soprano note; its characters resonate like a low, vibrating bass.

Like many classic songs, it can also be, at times, overly sweet. The sentiment sometimes comes on too thick; resolutions sometimes have too neat a bow. But that’s OK. The poetry of the story sees it through these patches.

This is the story of five friends, now in their thirties, who grew up together in the 1,000-person town of Little Wing, WI. Henry and Beth were high school sweethearts, who married and had two kids. Henry has taken over his parents’ old dairy farm, and money is often tight. Ronny was the first to get out, joining the rodeo circuit, but a drunk-driving accident put an end to his career and slowed his thinking. Kip has just come back from Chicago, where he made his money in commodities and has grand plans of restoring the town’s old mill. And then there’s Lee. Lee has made it big, becoming a rock star, whose albums over the last decade have sold millions, and flung him around the world on tour, always to return to Little Wing.

Each chapter alternates first-person narrators between the five main characters, giving them a chance to share their histories, their feelings, their sides of the story. So, too, the audiobook employs five different voice actors: Scott Shepherd, Maggie Hoffman, Ari Fliakos, Garry Williams, and Scott Sowers. Each one reflects the nuances and emotion of his or her character.

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The five friends shore each other up as much as they tear each other down. They are both there for each other and not. Each character is treated as human. That is to say, each character is fallible. Beth and Henry love each other with the ease of high-school sweethearts. Kip leaks Lee’s intended appearance at his wedding to the paparazzi, violating his trust, as Lee views his home as sacrosanct, a safe place away from the noise of fame. Lee paid all of Ronny’s hospital bills, and pays for his upkeep. Beth and Lee share a secret they’ve long kept from Henry. The whole town has always believed in Lee’s talent, long before he made it. Ever since his accident, everyone keeps careful tabs on Ronny, but not always. Not always.

As rife with emotion, the acceptance and letting go that comes with adulthood, there are moments that spark with the light of youth. Beth and Kip’s wife, Felicia, get drunk, sipping wine out of old jelly jars, amid the clutter of Beth and Henry’s house. This is not the only moment of drinking throughout the book. In a small town with nothing to do, the VFW is the community’s epicenter. No one goes out for coffee. They go out for beers and shots. In the book’s climax, a sophomoric prank plays a pivotal role. This demonstrates Butler’s understanding of human nature and old, deep-rooted friendships. We are never so childish as we are with our friends from high school or college, as if being with them brings us back to a youth we aren’t quite ready to let go of.

Much of the story is influenced by Butler’s own life. He grew up, not in such a small town, but the larger city of Eau Claire, WI, where he went to high school with Justin Vernon, the founder and frontman of rock band Bon Iver. Butler’s in-laws own a large, working farm.

Lee tells young musicians:

Sing like you’ve got no audience, sing like you don’t know what a critic is, sing about your hometown, sing about your prom, sing about deer, sing about the seasons, sing about your mother, sing about chainsaws, sing about the thaw, sing about the rivers, sing about forests, sing about the prairies. But whatever you do, start singing early in the morning, if only just to keep warm. And if you happen to live in a warm, beautiful place . . .

Move to Wisconsin. Buy a woodstove, and spend a week splitting wood. It worked for me”

It worked for Butler too.

Listen to a clip of the beginning of the book, in which Henry talks about Lee for the first time.


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Review: Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay’s favorite color is pink. She blasts hip hop in her car. She watches a great deal of Lifetime movies. She likes men and sex. A lot. She is also a feminist.

If one were to hold her up to the golden standard of feminism, she might not measure up. But she’s not trying to measure herself against any sort of label. She’s just trying to be herself.

Throughout this book of essays, read by Bahni Turpin, who punctuates each joke at just the right point, Gay slides easily from pop culture to politics to personal reflections. Sometimes she does all three in a single essay. She uses cultural phenomena as a springboard to talk about larger contemporary issues. In one essay she delves into the movie Bridesmaids. While admitting that she likes the movie, she hardly found it the revolution it was purported to be, because while combatting the stereotype that “women aren’t funny” it promotes many heteronormative and sizist stereotypes.

In “What We Hunger For” she uses the acclaimed Hunger Games books, which she devoured, to talk about the need for strong female role models. And she uses to this need to talk about her own experience with sexual assault as a teenager. In the most personal, most intense passage of the book, Gay opens a vein and bleeds for us, recalling the emotional details, her devotion to her attacker before the assault, and the hurls of “slut” she heard at school after. It is in such personal moments that Gay connects best with her audience, when her points are driven home better than any academic arguments ever could (though her PhD in rhetoric is apparent in each essay, if not sentence). Seeing her—bared, scarred, and messy—is to understand and accept her as human.

Gay doesn’t lay out any sort of thesis or offer any solutions in many of her essays, including in “What We Hunger For”. Rather she discusses things that mean a great deal to her and leave us to do with them what we will.

Gay gushes over Sweet Valley High, and rails against Daniel Tosh, the a comedian known for rape jokes. It is this sort of juxtaposition that leads Gay to describe herself as a bad feminist. That she can find solace in elements of pop culture while simultaneously criticizing others, or even the same elements, is disconcerting to her, and may also be for readers and critics.

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But by the end of Bad Feminist, I didn’t think that Gay is, in fact, a bad feminist. I think she’s a very good feminist. To say otherwise is to either give into a stereotype of feminism that any thinking person would reject, or else to carve in stone the perfection of feminism that no earthly being could possibly aspire to.

Many of the essays in Bad Feminist concern race as well as gender. Once again she uses pop culture to talk about cultural trends, as she critiques Tyler Perry movies, and wishes for more movies like Love and Basketball, though it is no great cinematic feat. In fact, a great cinematic feat doesn’t always do it for her, especially when so many such films featuring black stories in the past several years revolve around slavery (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained) or servitude (The Help). She wishes to see more dynamic movies concerning black people, rather than in roles of subjugation.

Beyond Hollywood, she considers the treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Trayvon Martin in the press, the former whose light skin and tussled hair landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone, and the latter who is routinely called a thug. She also talks about the erroneous statistics that fly around, such as black men are more likely to end up in jail than go to college (there are about 600,000 more black men in college than in jail), and just how disheartening it is that such myths are so pervasive.

Some have criticized Bad Feminist for devoting so many essays to race. This is ironic, because it is exactly this sort of white-washed feminism that Gay, a black woman whose parents were born in Haiti, finds so distasteful. So much of feminism is devoted to helping white, middle-class, well-educated women, but there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all feminism. I believe that anyone of any racial or religious background can enjoy Bad Feminist, just as I believe that not only women will take interest in this book. Anyone, men and women, gay and straight, religious and not, black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and white, can find true pleasure in Gay’s wit, her critical analysis, her personal stories, and the podcast-like nature of listening to essays in an audiobook format.

Gay never asks us to agree with everything she writes. She is, after all, only trying to be herself.

Listen to a clip about Roxane Gay’s dissecting the movie Bridesmaids.


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Review: The Girl With All the Gifts


I came to The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey’s zombie novel, excited but wary. Carey is half of the team behind the Unwritten series of graphic novels, one of the best series to come out in recent years. He also wrote the Sandman spin-off Lucifer and several issues of Hellblazer. Hence my excitement.

But a graphic novel, even one as prose-filled as The Unwritten can sometimes be, is an entirely different medium from a traditional novel. It’s like asking a painter to sculpt or a drummer to pick up a guitar. The similarities are there, but the artist can’t rely on his usual effects.

Coupled with my uncertainties about the medium, was its topic: yet another zombie book. After World War Z  and The Walking Dead, I wasn’t sure we really need another zombie survival story. Hence my wariness.

And yet, from the get-go The Girl With All the Gifts does not disappoint. Carey takes the now wearisome zombie trope, and true to its mythos, raises it up anew. He moves sideways, ducking and weaving through the dusty labyrinth of clichés and already-been-dones. These are not your average zombies.

The story centers on Melanie, a ten-year-old girl, living in zombie-plagued England. She attends a special school, where she is both pupil and test subject. Military men escort her between her class and cell, and the only source of light in her life is her teacher, Miss Justineau, who takes pity on the students, reads them Greek mythology, and once, in a brave and intimate act, even reached out and stroked Melanie’s hair. Melanie and her classmates are the key to the survival of the human race.

Carey relies on the now almost-expected explanation of infection for the zombies’ cause. But he digs deeper into this conceit, riffing off of the actual fungus Ophiocordyceps, a tropical fungus that infects ants and turns them into automatons, leading them to latch onto plants and stay there until their deaths. In The Girl With All the Gifts, the fungus has transformed, affecting humans and causing them to crave flesh. Carey’s descriptions are fantastic—gruesome and plausible:

Caldwell steps into the room and circles the infected man slowly and warily. The marks of violence he bears are, she sees now, very old. The blood from the wounds has mostly dried and flaked away. Each is rimmed with an embroidery of fine grey threads, the visible sign that Ophiocordyceps has made its home within him. There’s grey fuzz on his lips, too, and in the corners of his eyes.”

Carey allows our protagonist, Melanie, to be young and naive but grants her a genius-level intellect that enables her to move apace with the plot. Her imagination is bold yet child-like as she dreams of the stories she reads in school. But it his her inherent kindness in the face of the unrelenting chaos and violence around her that make her a rich character. She is at times wildly sentimental and others pragmatic, but never dispassionately so. Indeed, her pragmatism stems from her love of Miss Justineau and the other children.

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While the book remains cerebral until the end, it balances the action this genre craves, moving at a steady clip and always intriguing. I found myself wanting to keep listening as much for the characters themselves, to hear their thoughts and inner struggles as much as I wanted to follow their perils through zombie hordes and determined villains. The setting migrates from the rigid halls of Melanie’s compound out into the abandoned English countryside, where the typical hordes of both zombies and dangerous survivors roam. Carey, however, keeps the story anything but predictable.

In the end, Carey wraps up the story, and the zombie epidemic with a darkly satisfying bow. Joss Whedon called The Girl With All the Gifts “Heartfelt, remorseless, and painfully human . . . as fresh as it is terrifying. A jewel,” which is no exaggeration. The last minutes are eye-widening in their twists but I cannot image a better conclusion, as wrought as it may be.

The narrator, Finty Williams, brings the perfect amount of poise to the book. Her (to my American ears) proper Queen’s English, sets the tone for the story, particularly in the classroom setting in the beginning. Williams is the daughter of Judi Dench and Michael Williams, and her classical training is imminently apparent.

Overall, I found The Girl With All the Gifts to be a delightful change of pace in an increasingly dull genre. From it’s focus on female characters, to its creepy descriptions, to its characters chilling decisions, its depth and conviction never wavers. If authors continue to produce zombie novels, and I’m sure they will, they’ll have another one to live up after this one.

Listen to a clip about Melanie reflecting on a violent encounter and learning to accept her situation:


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