Author Archives: Alisa O'Donnell

About Alisa O'Donnell

I am an alumna of Western Washington University, born and raised on the Puget Sound.

The Footprints of God: A mix of technology and moral wrestling

Every now and then I get a Greg Iles book that doesn’t fit his standard genre. The Footprints of God is one of those books.

Dr. David Tennant has been overseeing Project Trinity as a ethics and morals specialist, by special request of the president. Things were progressing well on the supercomputer until Tennant and his friend and fellow colleague raised some questions and put the project on hold. When the colleague dies at work, Tennant quickly realizes that stalling the project has put his life in danger. On the run, Tennant can’t trust anyone except his psychiatrist, who ends up roped into the danger by crossing the professional line and checking up on Tennant at his home. Project Trinity is more than anyone on the outside can imagine, but in trying to solve the problem of humanity, the scientists may have created something worse.

Though still a classic Iles thriller, The Footprints of God is a different kind of story. It reads closer to Dan Brown, with maybe a sprinkling of Ted Dekker’s allegorical style. Tennant suffers from vivid dreams that his psychiatrist diagnosis as hallucinations, and these dreams end up leading Tennant to the answers he needs to save the world. The story seems also to wrestle a little bit with religion, specifically Christianity. Though the Tennant is not a religious character, his dreams take a religious turn and he ends up getting a look in the mind of “God,” who Iles writes as a sort of accidental creator.

The book was engaging, fast-paced and twisty, dropping just enough hints to keep me guessing without revealing too soon what was going on. I had a few issues beyond the questionable religious wrestling, primarily the obvious relationship development between Tennant and his psychiatrist. But for Dan Brown fans, this book will be a good read.

The Shoemaker’s Wife: A meandering love story

After binging library books for a little while, I’ve come full circle and I’m trying to read through my collection of “eh, why not?” books that I’ve hoarded throughout the years. Some of these are books by authors I like or books I’ve heard a lot about, while many others are books that I thought seemed interesting enough to try. Which brings us here, to this review of The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani.

Opening in the Italian Apls, Ciro and Enza are two young adolescents living in neighboring villages working through their individual trials. Fate seems to bring them together only to tear them apart when Ciro is sent off to America. Shortly after, Enza and her family suffer more trials and she, too, makes the journey to America. They bump into each other a handful of times, each time reminding the one how pleasant the find the other. But Enza is tired of waiting and hoping that Ciro will choose her, and Ciro, caught up in World War I, doesn’t realize how close he is to losing her forever.

First off, the synopsis of this book gave me a completely different impression than the book itself turned out to be. I tried to phrase mine a little better, because while it’s a slow love story, Ciro and Enza only see each other three times before she gives him an ultimatum to choose her or leave her alone. And their fourth meeting is his attempt to do just that. So while the individual characters are fairly well developed, their romance isn’t. I don’t know what Enza sees in Ciro that draws her to him, especially not when she bumps into him cavorting around with other women.

Trigiani’s writing is pleasant to read, putting the reader in the scene. However, I found this book to be really slow. The lovers didn’t meet until 70+ pages into the story. Most of the story was of them individually, not their romance. Additionally, I’m pretty sure the ages were off a time or two within the author’s time jumps. Finally, the last chapter of the book was a collection of snapshots from the lives of side characters, bits of story that didn’t really matter and that I didn’t really care about. I understand that she probably didn’t want to end on a sad note, but the final 30 pages didn’t really do justice to the rest of the story.

Although I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, I know the author is quite popular and many people do enjoy her. As I’m paying a little more attention to the things that attract me in a book, I’m finding that “fast-paced” is a big part of it. Slower, more meandering stories have to work a lot harder to keep my attention. And when it’s attempting to be more of a true-to-life story, as I felt this one was, I’m much more critical of the pieces that don’t fit that. But if you enjoy slow, winding stories that cover a lifetime, this could be a book for you.

Blood Memory: A traumatic psychological thriller

Given that it’s pretty much the subject of the entire book, Blood Memory needs its content and trigger warnings right up front. This book deals a lot with childhood sexual abuse and the lingering effects. While it’s an exploratory story of one character regaining her repressed memories and reclaiming her life, it’s also a very intense read and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone with that kind of trauma in their past.

Cat Ferry’s life has been a collection of manic highs and depressive lows. She’s functional only when she’s drinking or working, and while she knows the clues to her issues lie in her past, she can’t recall anything from before she discovered her father dead in the garden.

When Cat starts having panic attacks at crime scenes where she consults with the New Orleans Police Department, she decides to take a trip back to Natchez, Mississippi, to visit home. Once there, an accident reveals that there’s more to her father’s death than she knew, and it seems like everyone has been lying to Cat her entire life. Only by understanding her past can Cat piece together the clues and solve the serial murders in New Orleans.

Though Greg Iles writes an engaging and fast-paced story, it was challenging to read, given the premise of abuse. I have a lot of mixed feelings about Blood Memory. From a psychological and thriller standpoint, it was an excellent book. Iles leads his readers on, letting them question everything from the truth to Cat’s sanity. The only thing that seemed lacking was more hints toward the perpetrator of the murders.

But I can’t say that a really good story is grounds enough for me to be OK with reading that premise (though I suppose that’s part of the point, no one should be “OK” with it). Iles wasn’t gratuitous with his descriptions of abuse, and I did feel a bit better when I read his acknowledgments and thanked unnamed survivors for sharing their stories with him. I believe he approached this work with as much delicacy as he could and it could be a work that sparks important conversations.

In short, it’s a book I will be extremely careful in recommending, if I recommend it at all. With such heavy content, despite the rest of the story, it’s probably a book I will let most people discover on their own.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven: Just what is the meaning of life?

When I first grabbed this book, I had no idea that I’d soon be living in Missouri, the same state it’s set in. Maybe I’m weird in this way, but I like reading books set in places where I live.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is a lighthearted book by Fannie Flagg that focuses on Elner Shimfissle, an old woman living in Elm Springs, Missouri. When Elner goes out one morning to pick some figs and falls from the tree, the whole town gets caught up in the drama. Everyone is weeping and worrying, but Elner is having the time of her life–or death, as the case may be. Only Elner can answer the questions everyone seems to be asking: what’s the meaning of life and where do you go when you die?

This book was a quick read that looks at the affects one person can have on all the people around them, even when it doesn’t look impressive on the surface. Elner was a kind old woman, and when she was gone everyone started remembering her goodness. But Elner also believes everything happens for a reason, and her accident brings about a whole lot of good that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Though certainly not theologically sound from a Christian perspective, Flagg leads her characters and readers to the conclusion that life is what you make it. Do the things you enjoy, be kind to those around you, and it’ll all work out in the end. Her characters grow and mature throughout the story, realizing that a change in mindset can bring about a change in life.

All in all, it was a fun read that kept me engaged and entertained. As always, Fannie Flagg provides a slice-of-life kind of book that’s just enjoyable to read.

Man’s Search for Meaning: It all boils down to choice

Man’s Search for Meaning has been a popular required reading book for decades. I’d put it into the hands of countless customers, but hadn’t really paid much attention to it otherwise, despite finding psychology quite interesting. So when I finally sat down to read Viktor Frankl’s book, I was surprised to find out that it is a mixture of his concentration camp experiences and his therapy methodology.

Frankl was a practicing psychiatrist when he was sent to his first concentration camp in 1942. In spite of the traumas he experienced, Frankl committed himself to survival and analyzing the experiences of himself and those around him. What he discovered is that avoiding suffering is not life’s purpose, but that one can choose how to respond to suffering and choose to find meaning in it. The only one in his family to survive the concentration camps, Frankl watched many of his fellow prisoners give up and die, losing their sense of purpose and meaning.

Frankl developed his understanding of logotherapy within the camps, recognizing that survival only has meaning if the experience itself has meaning. If meaning is something that can be taken away from an individual, that person runs the risk of giving up entirely. When meaning is a choice, circumstances become opportunities.

Having read it, I understand why this book is frequently used in psychology classes. In some ways, I felt like a lot of the logotherapy explanation went over my head. It’s definitely a book to read and sit with (I didn’t, and I should have), slowly taking in and even revisiting some parts. While the overarching theme can be grasped and understood, like many things, I think a reader can get more out of it when they go slowly through it. Of course, if you’re a reader like me, you’ll find that particularly challenging because the book doesn’t have any chapters. That’s all but a dare to read it in one sitting.

Man’s Search for Meaning is a timeless book because the question is one each person must face. For readers looking for the quick answer, this book will be a disappointment. Frankl’s view that meaning isn’t any one thing but an individual choice and commitment brings up a lot of opportunity for reflection and ultimately personal passion.

The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft: Impressionism as written stories

I naively dove right in to the Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft with no real idea what was in store for me. I’d recently read Mexican Gothic and Wuthering Heights I was interested in exploring this sort of creepy side of gothic stories. I wasn’t prepared for the month it would take me to read all 1,342 pages (I read three or four other books in between, because I just couldn’t do it all in one go).

Lovecraft is known for Cthulu and The Necronomicon, but I hadn’t realized that his style is what I would call impressionistic. By that I mean Lovecraft’s characters share a lot of impressions and feelings about the horrors they witness and experience, but most of the monsters and even the worst of the experiences are left to the imagination, with very few details and descriptions. This is an interesting juxtaposition with Lovecraft’s extensive descriptions of architecture and carvings, so we know that he uses this as a storytelling technique to allow the reader to imagine horror however they will.

Some of his short stories get a little repetitive, some of them drag on, and some of them are really interesting and strange. I was let down quite a lot by The Call of Cthulu, which I thought would be longer and more interesting. But other stories I’d never heard of more than made up for it. Additionally, Lovecraft would continually refer to and return to characters and places in his stories, building a loose continuity within them that made me wish this particular compilation was put together differently.

This particular edition seemed to have little to no rhyme or reason behind the organization of the stories. It wasn’t in order of writing nor publication, nor were the stories with like characters and locations always grouped together.

But as I said, I needed to take a few breaks while working my way through Lovecraft. While some stories gripped and engaged me, I frequently found myself reading without actually taking in anything of the story. Most of the stories had minimal dialogue and the set up to the moments of horror often dragged. Lovecraft is certainly an interesting writer and worth exploring for anyone who enjoys horror, gothic, and simply strange stories. But I wouldn’t advise committing to the complete works all in one go.

Wuthering Heights: Where everyone is miserable, always

I’ve decided to finally dive into some more gothic novels because I love the genre and I love weird stories. Since discovering that there’s so much more to the genre than just mysterious moors and manors, I’m curious to broaden my horizons. Of course, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte doesn’t branch out from what I’ve read so far. But after this I will.

A bachelor rents Thrushcross Grange for a year, seeking solitude after an embarrassing sort of fling. His landlord is the mysterious Heathcliff who lives at Wuthering Heights with his miserable daughter-in-law and the son of the former, and now deceased, master. While laid up with a cold, the bachelor convinces his housekeeper, Mrs. Ellen Dean, to relate the history of Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights. She weaves a tale of misery and abuse for everyone involved, starting with Heathcliff’s childhood there with Hindley and Catherine Earnshaw. Though Heathcliff and Catherine loved each other, Catherine ended up choosing to marry Edgar Linton and Heathcliff chose to pursue vicious revenge against everyone who slighted or wronged him, expecting to finally arrive at a place of satisfaction and peace.

I’m not sure I’d even read a synopsis of this book before diving in, I just knew it was a classic and is classified as a gothic novel. I wasn’t prepared for everyone to be awful. It’s actually a quite miserable story, with very little by way of happiness and goodness.

Told by way of a story from the housekeeper, readers don’t quite get inside the characters’ heads and we must realize that everything is colored by the housekeeper’s perception. However, as one who at one point or another loved each primary character, we’re led to believe that she is about as honest a narrator as one could hope for.

Unlike some older novels, this one doesn’t seem to get bogged down as much in wind-swept moor scenes, which helps keep the story moving quite quickly. I kept reading on, expecting some dramatic redemption arc to emerge, but it really didn’t. While I enjoyed the book, it’s definitely not a feel-good book and not the kind of thing to read if you’re already feeling down.

The Midnight Library: A reminder that there’s light at the end of the tunnel

So I know it’s pretty early, but I’m thinking I’ve found my favorite book of this year. Last year I thought V.E. Schwab reached into my heart and mind and wrote my feelings for everyone to see in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Well, now I’m feeling like Matt Haig has done the same thing with The Midnight Library. And it’s a little overwhelming.

Nora Seed is a 30-something gal living in Bedford, full of regrets about all the things she could have been if she’d just pursued another life. A champion swimmer, lead singer in a band, passionate about nature and glaciers, Nora has ended up working in a music store, teaching piano to a neighborhood kid, and struggling to keep her depression under control. As everything seems to be falling apart, Nora decides to end her life. But somewhere between life and death is the Midnight Library, where Nora finds the chance to try on all the lives she could have had if she’d made just one different choice. And if she finds the life she was meant to live, the library and her past life will fade into memory. But what Nora discovers ends up being so much more than simply the life she was meant to live.

Haig tackles a subject that I think is still somewhat off-limits in our culture. Generations past are very familiar with mid-life crises, but it seems like those crises of purpose and existentialism are coming earlier and earlier, hitting my generation around the quarter-life point. Nora encounters a book of regrets in the library, a place to start when thinking about what different life she wants to live. As she experiments and discovers different isn’t the same as better.

Though the topic of the book is a little heavy, dealing with depression, suicide, and self-harm, Haig manages to make it somehow upbeat, a story of hope and potential. Woven into the fabric of the fiction is real-life lessons of letting go of what could have been and pursuing what is now. Haig also highlights the ways one small action or word can be of immense importance to someone else. Life isn’t all about doing grand things, sometimes life is grand because of the collection of little things.

The Iliad: Lots of stabbing, not much else

Reading through classic literature is really hit or miss. Many books that get the title of “classic” are interesting, revolutionary for their time, or simply capture the attention of the masses. But some stories lose their power over time and others definitely lose things in translation. For Homer’s The Iliad, I think it loses a lot when the words are inked onto a page.

The Iliad is the story of the siege of Troy. For nearly a decade the Argive army has wreaked havoc around Troy in retaliation for a Trojan prince spiriting away the beautiful Helen. Apparently they aren’t very good at waging war, if it’s taken 10 years to get around to confronting the walls of Troy, or maybe they got distracted by all the shiny treasure. Either way, as they are ready to attack, the king of the Argives insults his best warrior, Achilles, who refuses the enter into the fighting. As the gods of Olympus pour all their efforts into supporting Troy, only Achilles can turn the tide of the battle.

While I’m familiar with the story surrounding the stealing of Helen, the siege of Troy, Achilles and his grudges, I’d never actually read The Iliad. And something that I read recently prompted me to dig it out of the book boxes (and truthfully, I can’t remember what book made me think it was a good idea). And while reading it brought out some details that are missed or glossed over in movie renditions, it also cast me back to last year, slogging my way through Le Morte d’Arthur. If we cut out all the monotonous passages of who stabbed whom, we’d easily lose two-thirds of the book. And it would be better for it.

I suspect that, in its entirety, The Iliad is at its best when done as a dramatic reading, as Homer would have told it. And for those who would have probably still been able to trace lineage to the warriors involved, all the listing of stabbing would be much more interesting.

The other consideration is the translation. Reading it in a language not the original means there will literally be things lost in translation. Not to mention all the changes between the telling and the writing.

All in all, it’s not a book I’ll be revisiting time and again. While the story has its place in history and academia, once was enough for me. Plus, I thought it would encompass the Trojan horse and Achilles’s death. So, imagine my surprise when it ended with Hector’s funeral games. Apparently The Odyssey is the epic that had all the good action.

The Vanishing Half: A tale of one family split in two

Sometimes friends and book clubs lead you to books you’d never have picked up otherwise. I’m pretty sure Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is one of those books for me, not because it’s not my style or not what I enjoy, but simply because it wasn’t really on my radar before.

The Vanishing Half is the story of twin sisters and their daughters, spanning several decades as they build lives for themselves and wrestle with the consequences. Desiree and Stella come from a small town in Louisiana in the 1960s and even though everyone is black, the whole town is committed to being as light-skinned as possible. The twins run away to New Orleans when they are 16 and eventually are separated when Stella disappears.

Desiree returns to their small town when she takes her dark-skinned daughter and runs from her abusive husband. Throughout the years, she’s never forgotten Stella but all hope seems lost until Desiree’s daughter, Jude, moves to California to go to school. Jude is catering at a fancy white party when she catches a glimpse of a woman who looks exactly like her mother, only white. Knowing the mystery that has always been Stella, Jude can’t let it pass without uncovering the truth of who the woman is.

Bennett packs a lot into this book. Racial tension and violence, wrestling with self-image and the sacrifices made to build a life, the transgender experience of the late 1970s. And despite each character being put through the wringer, they are all confident and stand behind who they are and what they’ve chosen. Though victimized, they are not the victims of the story, which I really appreciated.

Bennett provides glimpses into the minds and experiences of people that I will never be, but she does so in a way that helps me start to understand what it could be like without judgment. Though Stella’s passing isn’t condoned, it’s also not thoroughly condemned by the author and characters, either. Stella remakes herself into someone completely different and the trouble arises primarily because of all the lies she’s told and maintained in an effort to erase her past completely. Desiree was always the adventurous twin, but she’s the one who ended up fleeing her husband and returning to the small town she always hated. But she’s not shamed for returning without conquering the world (though the darkness of her daughter’s skin is a completely different story with the townsfolk).

I liked how Bennett stretched the story across two generations, showing how the choices of one affects the lives of the next. While not always successful, I think they storytelling technique worked really well for this story and for Bennett’s characters. Each character had their own story and all the threads were woven together to show a picture of the family.

Be advised, though, this story isn’t a neat and tidy, happily-ever-after ending. I suspect that many readers would find the ending quite challenging, but I find the openness very realistic. Often when people have made so many choices, they aren’t going to give up the life to try to reclaim what they’ve already given up. It’s up to each person to choose to move forward with the life they’ve been given, regardless of how even family chooses to go.