Mary Fran's Book Reviews

Mary Fran moved to Falmouth in April 2007 from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (she is a native Washingtonian). She began working at Eight Cousins the following May. Those who know her see work in a bookstore as a "natural" for someone who has always been an avid reader. In fact, she can't remember a time when she didn't have a book going; now at the bookstore she may have two--and even three--going at once.

Early reports indicate that her favorite books were "Green Eyes" and "Noel for Jeanne-Marie." Her father read "The Wind in the Willows" to her so many times he almost had it memorized. In the middle grades she read every horse book in the library (some twice); among her favorites were the books in the Black Stallion series.

Her tastes as an adult run to literary fiction, however mysteries have always been a pleasure (she learned not to call this pleasure "guilty"). Her favorite mystery writer was Elizabeth George, until she killed off Inspector Lynley's wife Helen. So Mary Fran has expanded her interest to include such authors as Jo Nesbo, Jussi Adler-Olsen, and the team of Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis. Among her favorite non-mystery authors are Colum McCann and Sue Monk Kidd. Some of her favorite books are listed below.

When she isn't working at the bookstore or reading, Mary Fran takes care of her house and her dog Jasmine. She hopes some day to have a dog that can work as a therapy dog, especially in programs for children who are struggling with reading. She has four grandchildren who each have a substantial collection of picture books (supplying them with the latest is another pleasure). She also hopes to get back into photography and perhaps have time for travel. Her first long trip will be to Laos to visit her son and his family. Their next post (he's in the State Department) is Mexico, so there is some exotic travel in her future.

Co-owner and book buyer she is putting her love of reading, experience running the store's book club, and keen intelligence to good use. She handles in-store events for grown ups and works with community partners such as Falmouth Museusm on the Green, Falmouth Public Library, and the Woods Hole Public Library on author events and programming. 

Outside of Eight Cousins, Mary Fran is a member of the Falmouth Reads Together committee. If you want a recommendation for excellent stories that are off-beat and well-written, ask Mary Fran. If you're feeling a little blue, just come in and talk with her for a bit. Her smile and generosity are guarenteed to make everyone's day even better.

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Vesper Flights Cover Image
ISBN: 9780802128812
Availability: On Our Shelves. Online inventory updates every 24 hours. Call 508.548.5548 to verify.
Published: Grove Press - August 25th, 2020

In her introduction to Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald refers to a 16th century craze that spread over Europe: collections that were kept in ornate wooden cases. The German term for these cases was Wunderkammer, or cabinets of wonders. Wunderkammer could also be applied to Macdonald’s new book of essays, which is a treasure trove of wonders.

Macdonald, the author of the memoir H Is for Hawk is a naturalist at heart. As a child, her bedroom shelves and windowsills were filled with all forms of nature collected from her own backyard or nearby wooded areas. She has always been an astute observer of the natural world, and from her observations developed a philosophy on life that she shares with her readers in this collection of essays.

Whether the essay describes a pristine natural setting, migrating birds followed from the 86th observation deck of the Empire State Building, or a search for peregrine falcons at the Dublin Poolbeg Power Station, Macdonald connects us to the wonders of the natural world, no matter the setting. She also ties her observations to current political movements, such as the essay on “Swan Upping,” written in the days after the Brexit vote when nationalist fervor was gripping England. Macdonald notes: "swan upping drew me, partly because of the painting [by artist Stanley Spencer] but also because I’m fascinated by the relationship between natural history and national history.”

Macdonald’s love and appreciation for swifts is revealed in the essay “Vesper Flights.” Tracking swifts is extremely difficult due to the speed of their flight and the heights to which they can travel. They are amazing birds, and to Macdonald they are “magical in the manner of things that exist just a little beyond understanding … and the closest things to aliens on Earth. ” As with other creatures, Macdonald studies the habits and flights of swifts, and concludes “Thinking about swifts has made me think more carefully about the ways in which I’ve dealt with difficulty.”

Vesper Flights is timely. Macdonald describes our era as “terrible times for the environment,” while we are living through “the world’s sixth great extinction, one caused by us.” Her essays, however, are more than a call for action—her love and appreciation for the natural world reminds us vividly of what could be lost. Above all, Macdonald hopes that her work “is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognize and love difference … To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you.”

For me, Vesper Flights is not a book to sit down and read cover to cover. The joy comes in reading one or two essays, pausing in the day’s busy-ness, and taking time to reflect and meditate on the ideas revealed. Vesper Flights is a beautiful gift for all of us, a book that I highly recommend.

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The Night Watchman Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062671189
Availability: Currently not in store. Available to order. Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper - March 3rd, 2020

Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Night Watchman, is a tribute to her grandfather Patrick Gourneau, who worked tirelessly to block U.S. House Concurrent Resolution 108 in 1953-1954. This bill, as described in the author’s notes, “called for the eventual termination of all [Native American] tribes, and the immediate termination of five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa,” of which her grandfather was a tribal chairman.

Erdrich’s main character, Thomas Wazhushk, has secured a job as a night watchman for the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, as did her grandfather. By day, Thomas works to thwart the passage of the law he believes will result in the termination of Native American life, a law that would decimate the tribes, force them off what little lands they had been given by the government, and plunge Indians into even greater poverty. It’s interesting to note that the term “Native American” is not used at all throughout the novel; Erdrich’s characters refer to themselves and their relatives as “Indians.”

Thomas is not the only character whose story is told. Relatives and friends whose lives are intertwined with his present their unique struggles as they face life in 1950s America. I found myself totally immersed in this novel and the lives of each character. I have not read a book that so thoroughly reveals the spirit, the thinking, the rituals, and the beauty of Native American life and its seamless connection to the natural world as does The Night Watchman. Although their situation in the United States is one of extreme poverty, Erdrich’s characters do not come across as impoverished, but face adversity with honesty, moral courage, and fortitude. Their strength lies in their reliance on one another.

I absolutely recommend The Night Watchman. Erdrich presents a chapter in American history of which many of us are unaware, and the ramifications of which Native Americans continue to struggle with today. As she notes in her afterword, “…the mid-1950s [were] supposedly the golden age for America, but in reality [were] a time when Jim Crow reigned and American Indians were at the nadir of power.” Wrapped around this history is a compelling novel that is not to be missed. 

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Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501181252
Availability: On Our Shelves. Online inventory updates every 24 hours. Call 508.548.5548 to verify.
Published: Atria Books - October 1st, 2019

Dr. Jeremy Brown’s book Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History  at first glance does not seem to be a book to reach for during our uncertain times as we deal with the fallout from the coronavirus. There is a hopeful tone to this book, and rather than sounding alarm bells, Brown thoroughly details the progress that has been made since the 1918 flu pandemic.

Beginning with a history of the 1918 pandemic, Brown describes methods used during the pandemic to counteract the disease by a population and medical community that did not understand the nature of this new strain of influenza. One such “cure” was particularly interesting: “Some people were so desperate during the 1918 pandemic that they found their own perilous means of treatment, without the aid of a misguided doctor. As the flu roared through the coastal towns of southwestern England, the villagers of Falmouth were taking their sick children not to the hospital but to the local gasworks -- to inhale the fumes. Parents thought that exposing their children to poisonous gases would reduce their symptoms.” It certainly did not!

Dr. Brown also notes that the term “Spanish Flu” is incorrect, a lesson we should heed when the term “Chinese Flu” is bandied about. It is possible that one ground zero for the flu was an Army base in Kansas -- not Spain -- where a number of soldiers had succumbed to the flu; as U.S. soldiers were sent to crowded camps in Europe, these bases became the perfect breeding ground for the virus as did the close quarters in the sick wards. From the army camps, the virus spread to the civilian population -- and thrived.

Influenza details the history of medical experimentation and research that has taken place in the 100 years since the pandemic. During this time, the flu was identified as viral, rather than bacterial. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that an American doctor and his lab team successfully discovered and then decoded the genetic makeup of the 1918 influenza virus. And thanks to a Swedish pathologist who in the 1950s exhumed bodies of victims of the pandemic, samples of the 1918 virus could be studied. The bodies were from above the Arctic circle and had been frozen since burial in 1919.

Dr. Brown would like to see the discussion of the flu virus migrate from university laboratories into the general population. The 1918 pandemic needs to remain in human memory as over time we tend to become complacent. He envisions a day when there is a memorial to the flu pandemic of 1918, as there are memorials to the wars we’ve fought. This memorial would “honor our losses, reflect on how far we have come, and remind us how much more there is yet to do.”

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Afterlife Cover Image
ISBN: 9781643750255
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Published: Algonquin Books - April 7th, 2020

This deceptively small book packs an emotional wallop. The protagonist, Antonia, is working through her grief after the sudden death of her husband. In the midst of her struggles, her bipolar sister goes missing and a young and desperate pregnant migrant woman lands on her doorstep. The "sisterhood," as Antonia and her sisters have been labeled, are demanding Antonia's attention as she works out a way to hide the undocumented woman -- too much for Antonia as she struggles with her own issues. Afterlife has it all -- current immigration issues, family drama, personal struggles, questions about life after life -- all wrapped up in a beautifully written gem of a novel. Afterlife will not disappoint -- I highly recommend this book!


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Three Hours in Paris Cover Image
ISBN: 9781641290418
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Published: Soho Crime - April 7th, 2020

WOW, what a page turner! Kate Rees, a sharpshooter raised on an Oregon ranch, accepts a top-secret mission to assassinate Hitler while the Führer is in Paris. Kate accepts this life-and-death preposterous mission because it is an opportunity for her to avenge the deaths of her husband and infant daughter, killed during a Luftwaffe bombing of the British base where they were living. 

Dropped into Nazi-occupied Paris, Kate follows specific instructions given to her by the director of a covert section of British Intelligence. When the attempt fails, Kate realizes -- too late -- that the mission was extremely well planned, with one exception: there is no escape strategy for her. She also suspects that this mission was a set-up, meant to distract from another mission targeting Nazi officials also in Paris.

Trapped in Paris, she is pursued by Gunter Hoffman, the German police officer given 36 hours by the Führer to find the sniper. Kate is forced to work independently, and must rely on her wits as a cat-and mouse hunt ensues. Who is to be trusted? Who could be a spy, ready to turn her over to the Nazis? Each chapter ends in a cliff-hanger, as the plot unfolds through the streets of Paris, told from three viewpoints: the Germans, the British, and Kate.

Author Cara Black knows the streets of Paris like the back of her hand, which is evident from her vivid descriptions of streets and landmarks as Kate flees. Ms. Black has been meticulous in her research, documenting the three hours Hitler spent in the City of Lights.

For historical fiction readers and those who enjoy on-the-edge-of-your-chair thrillers, I highly recommend Three Hours in Paris -- I couldn’t put it down until I reached the conclusion on the final page!

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Enter the Aardvark Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316536158
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Published: Little, Brown and Company - March 24th, 2020

The first page of Jessica Anthony’s novel poses the question: “What do a closeted Republican, a Victorian taxidermist and a nocturnal African mammal have in common?” And so begins this wildly crazy novel. And yes, all three -- a member of the House, a taxidermist, and a stuffed aardvark -- are linked in a bizarre way. Veering from the current day to Victorian England, Enter the Aardvark skewers outsized egos, ambitions, morals, and romance. Until the end, when the consequences of, and harm caused by, closely guarded secrets and suppressed love are revealed. Quick note: the novel contains graphic sexual descriptions.

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Eight Perfect Murders: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062838209
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Published: William Morrow - March 3rd, 2020

Malcolm Kershaw (Mal) is alone in his bookstore, Old Devils Bookstore on Beacon Hill, which specializes in mystery and crime novels, when an FBI agent visits. She has come to interview Mal about a blog he posted a number of years earlier in which he listed the eight books that detailed what he believed were “perfect murders.” Agent Gwen Mulvey has been studying several unsolved and apparently unrelated murders and has tied the modus operandi to Mal’s list of books. And so Peter Swanson launches his latest crime fiction in which each character, each motive, causes us to question any notions we may have as to who is committing the crimes. As we learn of additional murders that appear to be following the methods in Mal’s list of eight, we wonder: Is Mal the murderer or is the murderer trying to trap Mal? Just when we think we have the solution, Swanson throws yet another curve ball. We are suspicious of each character he introduces.

Eight Perfect Murders is a compelling read, one that will have readers guessing motives and perpetrators until the very end. The solution came as a complete surprise to me!


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The Gone Dead: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062490735
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Published: Ecco - March 24th, 2020

Billie James returns to the Mississippi Delta 30 years after she left, the summer she was four and the summer her father died. She has inherited her father’s shack and a little money; the house sits on farmland owned by a white family, for whom her slave ancestors had worked. Billie’s father, a well-known black poet, had died under what appeared to be suspicious circumstances. The police file lists his death as an accident. However, there are suspicions around the circumstances, and Billie is determined to unearth the true story, despite warnings from her uncle to leave the past behind. As she stirs up old secrets in this southern town, Billie also hears rumors that she went missing the night of her father’s accident; if true, this fact will put her life in danger.

The Gone Dead is part thriller, part mystery, as Billie attempts to untangle the events surrounding her father’s death. Billie’s search for justice reveals issues of race and memory that most locals believe had been buried. In fact, as we know today, these issues are still very much present in our country.

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The Tenth Muse: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062574084
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Published: Ecco - April 14th, 2020

Katherine has been targeted for her intelligence since grade school. In her small Midwestern town in the 1950s, her Asian heritage makes her stand out from the other children. Her parents are different, and avoid any discussion of the family’s past. They are attentive: her father recognizes Katherine’s interest in science, and her Chinese mother narrates fairy tales from her native country, while opening Katherine’s eyes to the beauty and wonder of nature. But something is not quite right.

Katherine’s gift is in mathematics, and through high school, college, and into graduate school she excels in this subject and attempts to forge ahead in a field dominated by men. She accepts a post doctorate at the University of Bonn, where she discovers an entirely new world of intellectual conversation and friendship. As she tackles an extremely difficult mathematical theorum, Katherine is also on the path to discovering who she really is and who her parents were. 

The Tenth Muse is beautifully written and wide-ranging in scope as it tackles issues of identity and women’s roles in society. And who is the tenth muse? She is Zeus’ youngest daughter, who scorns being a muse and wants to follow her own destiny. After all, why be a muse when it’s possible to be a scientist or mathematician, and not merely an inspiration!

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Disappearing Earth Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525436225
Availability: On Our Shelves. Online inventory updates every 24 hours. Call 508.548.5548 to verify.
Published: Vintage - April 7th, 2020

One day in August, on the rugged Russian Kamchatka peninsula—the eastern-most part of Russia—two sisters, Alyona and Sophia, ages eight and 11, willingly step into a stranger’s car and disappear. The subsequent investigation of the kidnapping yields no clues, and the case fades into the collective memory of the police. But the crime stays alive among the residents of the close-knit peninsula community; it has a lasting effect on the characters Julia Phillips presents month by month throughout the year following the crime.

Disappearing Earth, however, moves beyond a thriller/mystery. Phillips presents the geography and culture of a a unique part of Russia. The Kamchatka peninsula is isolated, cut off from the rest of the country by mountains and the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Okhotsk Sea to the west. The peninsula has a rugged, inhospitable topography that is at the same time quite beautiful and dramatic. Outsiders are immediately suspect, ethnic differences separate the dark-skinned native population from the white, richer residents. Phillips’ women are strong characters, the ones who hold on to the hope of the sisters’ survival.

Disappearing Earth is a debut novel that was selected by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 best books of 2019. Julia Phillips has an insiders grasp of the terrain and culture of the region as well as a deep understanding of human nature. Once you are immersed into Disappearing Earth, you will not want to leave, even as you come to the final page. 

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Redhead by the Side of the Road: A novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525658412
Availability: On Our Shelves. Online inventory updates every 24 hours. Call 508.548.5548 to verify.
Published: Knopf - April 7th, 2020

Micah Mortimer is content with his life. He is a cautious man who has a daily schedule from which he never veers, a job as a self-employed tech expert, and a steady “woman friend” (he will not call a woman in her 30s a girlfriend). His routine is abruptly thrown into disarray by the appearance of a young man who believes Micah is his father, and his woman friend’s announcement that she is about to be evicted from her apartment. Micah’s reaction to these two events upends his well-ordered life. Is he able to change, to throw off his blinders, to risk disrupting his sacred routine?

Anne Tyler fans will recognize a character such as Micah, a man outside the norm. Her characters can grate when we first meet them; we want to scream at them to open their eyes, yet we find ourselves loving and cheering for them by the end of the book. 

Redhead by the Side of the Road is vintage Anne Tyler. As to the redhead—it’s a metaphor, not a woman.

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A Burning: A novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525658696
Availability: On Our Shelves. Online inventory updates every 24 hours. Call 508.548.5548 to verify.
Published: Knopf - June 2nd, 2020

What is one life worth? Is it worth giving up a Bollywood movie career, or a position in a right-wing political party that will garner respect and a good income? This is the ultimate question that two of Megha Majumdar’s characters face in her debut novel, A Burning

Majumdar’s novel is told from the viewpoint of three characters: Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir. Jivan is a young Muslim girl from India’s Kolabagan slum who dreams of escaping her impoverished roots. Her great misfortune is that she happens to be at a train station during a terrorist attack. She becomes a suspect after posting a message on Facebook about the tragedy; ultimately, she is imprisoned, awaiting trial. 

PT Sir teaches physical therapy at a private girls’ school where Jivan had been a scholarship student. He had sensed her plight as a poor student among affluent girls and had reached out to assist her. However, he felt as if she had rejected his offers. Lovely, whom Jivan is tutoring in English, takes acting classes that she dreams will lead to a movie career. She lives in a hijra community that sustains itself by begging in the markets and selling blessings (in India, hijra is officially recognized as a third gender, neither completely male nor female).

PT Sir and Lovely, as witnesses in Jivan’s trial, could testify to Jivan’s good character. In so doing, each would relinquish their dreams. In a review in the New York Times, Majumdar says: “I started writing from a place of alarm and anger and wanting to bear witness… [but I also wanted to show] how people hold big dreams close, even during these really hard conditions.”

Majumdar’s three characters are absolutely distinct—she has given each a unique voice. Readers will take each one to heart and share in their hopes for a better life waged against formidable odds. Recognizing the challenges each is up against, Majumdar asks: “How do we live in a society which does not serve us?” It’s a question that hits home, and we realize she is not only referring to India.