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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Newest Bell Elkins Mystery Taut, Compelling, and Atmospheric

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Sorrow Road, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Bell Elkins mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Like Belfa "Bell" Elkins, Darlene Strayer grew up in Appalachia, went to law school, and now works in the profession.  Unlike Bell, Darlene is well-known and makes good money as a federal prosecutor in northern Virginia.  Despite her lofty status, the high-powered lawyer has come to ask for Bell's help.  Darlene's 89-year-old father, a patient at a local care home for people with Alzheimer's, has died.  Although the care center's staff insists Harmon perished of natural causes, Darlene is not convinced.  In the weeks before his death, Darlene's father was trying to communicate something urgent to his daughter.  She believes Harmon was killed to prevent him from divulging the secrets locked away in his damaged mind.

Bell is not wholly persuaded by Darlene's pleas.  Then, the lawyer is killed in a freak accident and other patients at the care center die under suspicious circumstances.  Bell can't ignore the case any longer.  Something sinister is definitely going on.  How and why did Harmon Strayer die?  Is the care center trying to cover up its own incompetence?  Or did the old man's secrets go deeper than anyone could have imagined?  As Bell looks into the situation, she discovers a tragic story of three boyhood pals and the dark secret they've been keeping for more than 50 years.  How far will someone go to keep it buried forever? 

I've enjoyed every installment of Julia Keller's Bell Elkins series.  Sorrow Road, the fifth book, is no exception.  Like its predecessors, the novel is atmospheric, bringing the complicated glory of Applachia to vivid life.  The serial characters continue to intrigue me, as do the new ones we meet in Sorrow Road.  Plotwise, the story remains taut and compelling throughout.  The back-and-forth in time gives the tale an extra layer of depth, a device that I always find immensely appealing.  Although Sorrow Road (like Keller's other mysteries) isn't exactly a happy story, it is a hopeful one.  Not surprisingly, I enjoyed Keller's newest addition to the Bell Elkins series.  I'm definitely looking forward to the next installment, Fast Falls the Night, which comes out in August 2017 (not soon enough, in my humble opinion).  

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Bell Elkins series, including A Killing in the Hills; Bitter River; Summer of the Dead; Last Ragged Breath; and Fast Falls the Night)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language, violence, mild sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Sorrow Road from the generous folks at Minotaur Books (a division of St. Martin's Press/Macmillan).  Thank you!

New Book Does What All Picoult Novels Do—Makes Me Think

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ruth Jefferson, a labor and delivery nurse with more than two decades of experience, is on duty when 26-year-old Brittany Bauer gives birth to a baby boy.  Ruth is doing a routine check on the infant when his parents insist on having her removed from the room.  Baffled, she can't imagine what she's done wrong.  The problem?  Her race.  The Bauers belong to an aggressive white supremacist group known as the Movement.  Despite Ruth's proficiency as a nurse, they ousted her because she's black.  Ordered to stay away from tiny Davis Bauer, she hesitates before performing CPR when the newborn goes into cardiac arrest a day later.  When the newborn dies, the Bauers are quick to lay the blame at Ruth's feet.

An outraged Ruth finds herself embroiled in a lawsuit that quickly becomes a media sensation.  Trying to shield her teenage son from the negative attention, she struggles to keep their lives from unraveling completely.  When Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes Ruth's case, things get even more complicated for the troubled nurse.  With her world crumbling around her, Ruth must put her trust in a stranger whose law degree is still warm from the printer.  Can Kennedy get justice for Ruth?  When the lawyer insists that race not be brought up in the courtroom, Ruth can't contain her fury.  How can Kennedy, with her all-present white privilege, ever understand what this case is really about?  The two women have to work together in order to exonerate Ruth, but is that even possible?  As the case progresses, each will be forced to question long-held beliefs and prejudices, which will lead both to some startling revelations about each other and themselves.

I've been a Jodi Picoult fan for some time.  Although I've enjoyed some of her books more than others, there's one thing all of them have in common: they made me think.  Picoult excels at taking a hot-button issue (she's addressed school shootings, gay marriage/adoption, organ donation, child abuse, euthanasia, etc.) and examining it from every angle in an honest, forthright way that forces the reader to look at the issue in new ways.  The author's newest novel, Small Great Things, examines racial prejudice, white privilege, and the seemingly insignificant ways in which people judge each other based on appearance.  Picoult seems a little more heavy-handed with this theme than others she has explored, but the Author's Note she includes at the end of the book is very raw and intriguing.  Maybe more so than the story itself.  Which isn't to say the story isn't engrossing.  It is.  Despite its too-tidy end and some characters I found difficult to connect with. overall Small Great Things is definitely compelling.  It's not my favorite Picoult by a long shot, but the novel did what I expected it to—it made me think.  It also propelled me to look at my own attitudes afresh.  If you're looking for a book club read, this one (like all Picoult books) should prompt some lively discussion.

(Readalike:  Reminds me a little of A Time to Kill by John Grisham)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language, violence, sexual content, racial slurs, and disturbing content

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Small Great Things from the generous folks at Penguin Random House via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!
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