Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

I listened to Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters on audiobook on a recent road trip. It takes place in an alternate modern-day USA where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on his way to his inauguration in 1861. That same year a series of Constitutional amendments were ratified that enshrined slavery forever. A network of modern-day abolitionists called the Underground Airlines works to help escaped slaves find safety in Canada.

The main character is a former runaway slave working for the US Marshal’s office returning runaway slaves. He is in the process of infiltrating a cell of the Underground Airlines to return his latest runaway assignment. But something is a little off with this assignment.

As the mystery unravels, this world of modern, regulated slavery is laid out in all its horror for individuals and society. The story is compelling and realistic, never descending to polemics or speechifying. It all blends well into a sophisticated story of human complexity dealing with systemic racism enshrined in the Constitution. A fantastic “what if” historical thriller.

My rating: 4/5

Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

The silhouette of a running man seen through a keyhole on a blue background.

Cory Doctorow’s latest novel is a mystery/thriller about a forensic accountant. Doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a thriller, does it? I found it engaging and really liked the main character Marty Hench, the accountant. He is an usual character with a perspective that is both practical and technical. But I have to say that I enjoyed him more than the novel itself.

The book starts with a bang, one that involves cryptocurrency. Marty helps an old friend who gets himself into trouble and yields a giant payday. Just when he thinks he is retiring on his newfound wealth, things go sideways, and Marty finds himself on the run. Maybe I was just expecting too much, but this is where the story fell a little flat for me. Much of his “on the run” time, he isn’t doing much more than laying low.

Marty himself is very interesting. A sixty-seven-year-old accountant is an unusual protagonist. Somehow, Doctorow pulls it off. I found myself continuing to turn the pages even during the slow places. Doctorow has much to say about technology and society in this novel at the level of everyday people. It engaged me. But it felt like a setup for the book to follow. In that way, it totally worked. I am looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.

My rating: 4/5

A Story Within a Story Within a Story

The Woman in the Library book cover

The second audiobook we listened to on our Thanksgiving trip was The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill. This one falls into my special category of “books about books” in more than one way. First, the pivotal scene in the book takes place in the Boston Public Library. And the book is also about a writer who is writing a mystery that starts in that location. On top of that, the author writing about that writer is corresponding with someone who is helping her as a first reader as she prepares and shares each chapter. This may sound a bit confusing, but Gentill makes everything clear to the point it almost seems natural.

The bulk of the book is about the book the author is writing. We read each chapter of this book right before we read the letter from the helper to the author with his thoughts. The story is told in the first person by the author and starts with her sitting in the reading room of the Boston Public Library trying to write her book. She notices three others close by who grab her attention as possible characters in her story. Then they all hear a woman scream. This causes the four to start a conversation that leads to a friendship. After they learn later than evening that a woman was murdered in the library, their friendship deepens as they all try to figure out what happened.

It is hard to say much more without spoiling it. The relationships grow and twist and change in ways that feel somewhat natural despite the odd circumstances. And the multiple layers add to the mystery and kept me interested right to the end.

A Reread, or Rather a Re-Listen

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd book cover

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my partner and I traveled from our home in western North Carolina to central and northeast Ohio. We drove, so we naturally listened to audiobooks along the way. The first one we listened to was a repeat for me. I had read it many years ago in my teens–The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.

This was a book that was on the bookshelf in my home when I was in high school. My dad’s books were mostly history, cars, and airplanes, so I was a little unsure what this book was doing on his shelf. I asked him about it. He proceeded to comment on the nature of how the murderer was revealed in the book. From the shocked look on my face, he quickly realized I had yet to read it. He apologized profusely. But a funny thing happened as I started to read the book. I didn’t believe him. Or rather, I thought he must have misremembered. But as I finished the book, I learned that he hadn’t.

So on this recent trip, I decided to reread it, or rather re-listen to it. My partner had never read it before. I wanted to read it again knowing who did it for a different experience, to enjoy the magnificent writer that Christie was. I was not disappointed. I have read many of her other books, but this one may be my favorite. I really enjoy Hercule Poirot as a character and how he uses his “little gray cells”. The setting in the English countryside lends an air of isolation and mystery that deepens even that of the plot.  I thoroughly enjoyed it. Again.

Overrated Bestseller

Gone Girl book cover

Gone Girl was a publishing success when it came out in 2012. A decade later, I finally got around to reading it. I’m not sure what all the fuss was about. The writing is excellent and the plot twists are many. But I simply cannot get around how completely and utterly unlikable the main characters are.

The plot centers around a missing wife and the question of whether or not her husband is responsible. He is less than an ideal spouse. He is a little pathetic but, for the first half of the book, fairly relatable. As the novel continues more and more of his character is revealed until I no longer liked him.

The wife is almost irredeemable from the beginning. She also seems a little relatable at the start, but even then I found her needy and unlikable. In the second half of the book, I found her completely off the deep end, but I expect that is part of the point.

In the end, I didn’t like either character very much. If this book had not been so well-liked, I may not have even finished it. However, I did want to see what all the fuss was about. Despite the excellent writing and plot twists, I can only rate it a three out of five due to the completely unlikable characters.