Amy’s September Reads and Reviews

 There’s not much I enjoy more than curling up with a book on a crisp autumn evening. I have a feeling some of you agree. When I write these posts, I intentionally include reviews of books I loved and others I didn’t. Why? Because we all like different things. Being a writer and editor makes me a tough critic, but I do my best to include both pros and cons on each book. Maybe you’ll find the perfect read in this month’s group.

 

A Fall of Marigolds
by Susan Meissner

“The person who completes your life is not so much the person who shares all the years of your existence, but rather the person who made your life worth living, no matter how long or short a time you were given to spend with them.” ~ Susan Meissner, A Fall of Marigolds

 

September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

September 2011. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, widow Taryn Michaels has convinced herself that she is living fully, working in a charming specialty fabric store and raising her daughter alone. Then a long-lost photograph appears in a national magazine, and she is forced to relive the terrible day her husband died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers.

I’ve been hearing about this book for years and it lived up to the hype. A Fall of Marigolds was absorbing, richly detailed historical fiction with well-drawn, believable characters. Meissner shared the stories of two women, generations apart, in an intensely human way and reminds readers that love bears all things.  I just loved it! 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.

 

While Paris Slept
by Ruth Druart

One woman must make the hardest decision of her life in this unforgettably moving story of resistance and faith during one of the darkest times in history.

Santa Cruz, 1953. Jean-Luc is a man on the run from his past. The scar on his face is a small price to pay for surviving the horrors of Nazi occupation in France. Now, he has a new life in California, a family. He never expected the past to come knocking on his door.

Paris, 1944. A young Jewish woman’s past is torn apart in a heartbeat. Herded onto a train bound for Auschwitz, in an act of desperation she entrusts her most precious possession to a stranger. All she has left now is hope.

This book checked all my boxes. The engaging plot, the richly drawn characters, and the important message of unconditional love were all topnotch. While aspects of the story were about WWII, much of it was about its aftermath. A true pleasure to read and highly recommended for fans of historical fiction. 5 stars

 

Eternal
by Lisa Scottoline

“War was eternal, but so was peace. Death was eternal, but so was life. Darkness was eternal, but so was light. Hate was eternal, but above all, so was love.” ~ Lisa Scottoline, Eternal

Elisabetta, Marco, and Sandro grow up as the best of friends despite their differences. Elisabetta is a feisty beauty who dreams of becoming a novelist; Marco the brash and athletic son in a family of professional cyclists; and Sandro a Jewish mathematics prodigy, kind-hearted and thoughtful, the son of a lawyer and a doctor. Their friendship blossoms to love, with both Sandro and Marco hoping to win Elisabetta’s heart. But in the autumn of 1937, war comes to Italy, and in time, everything the three hold dear–their families, their homes, and their connection to one another–is tested in ways they never could have imagined.

I may be one of the few avid readers out there who hasn’t read a book by Lisa Scottoline. She has 33 novels to her credit and has been published since 1994. Eternal is her maiden voyage into historical fiction (most of her books are thrillers/mysteries). I’ve read several other novels set in Italy during WWII: Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (5 stars), From Sand and Ash, by Amy Harmon (4 stars), and Courage My Love, by Kristin Beck (4 stars). In Eternal, Scottoline painted a vivid portrait of war-torn Rome and the struggles of her main characters, Elisabetta, Marco, and Sandro.

At 480 pages it was a longer book, but it never dragged. Her prose was at times emotive and charged, while at others it was packed with action. She did such a terrific job describing her characters physical traits that I could see them in my mind’s eye, although too many men seemed to have square jaws. In the beginning of the book, she did a fabulous job explaining what Italian terms meant, but it got to be too expository and annoying. Using the English terminology would have been an improvement and more respectful to the reader. Unfortunately, I saw the conclusion coming a mile away, which was a disappointment.  The chapters were unduly brief, and words were repeated too often (a pet peeve of mine).

Still, if you are a fan of historical fiction, Eternal is worth your time. Oh, and the audiobook’s narrators were hard to beat.  Be sure to check out the companion videos on lisascottoline.com. P.S. the author shares tips on Italian cooking through her characters. Yum! 4 stars.

 

Lightning Strike
by William Kent Krueger

“He knew there was no magic to wipe clean the slate of memory. You just learned how to move on.”  ~ William Kent Krueger, Lightning Strike

The author of the instant New York Times bestseller This Tender Land returns with a powerful prequel to his acclaimed Cork O’Connor series – a book about fathers and sons, long-simmering conflicts in a small Minnesota town, and the events that echo through youth and shape our lives forever.

Aurora is a small town nestled in the ancient forest alongside the shores of Minnesota’s Iron Lake. In the summer of 1963, it is the whole world to 12-year-old Cork O’Connor, but when he stumbles upon the body of a man he revered hanging from a tree in an abandoned logging camp, it is the first in a series of events that will cause him to question everything he took for granted about his hometown, his family, and himself. Cork’s father, Liam O’Connor, is Aurora’s sheriff. In the shadow of his father’s official investigation, Cork begins to look for answers on his own. Together, father and son face the ultimate test of choosing between what their heads tell them is true and what their hearts know is right.

William Kent Krueger is one of Minnesota’s most prolific writers and a mainstay at bookstores and public libraries. He’s written two standalone novels, Ordinary Grace, and This Tender Land (both five-star reads in my view), and seventeen books in the Cork O’Connor mystery series about a former Chicago cop solving crime in his Northern Minnesota hometown. I’ve been waiting with great anticipation to dive into his newest release to see what Cork has been up to and I was not disappointed. Except… Lightning Strike is the prequel, a fun surprise! Krueger did a masterful job of bringing new life to a tired series by starting over when his main protagonist was a boy and painting a vivid picture of the events that shaped him as a man. The book wasn’t perfect, I doubt a twelve-year-old boy would have the skills and courage necessary to conduct murder investigations nor would a father allow him to, but the book still earns a solid four stars from me for pure entertainment value.

 

The Midnight Library
by Matt Haig

“If you aim to be something you are not, you will always fail. Aim to be you. Aim to look and act and think like you. Aim to be the truest version of you. Embrace that you-ness. Endorse it. Love it. Work hard at it. And don’t give a second thought when people mock it or ridicule it. Most gossip is envy in disguise.” ~ Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

 

Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices. Would you have done anything differently if you had the chance to undo your regrets?

In The Midnight Library, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

When I received an advance reader copy of The Midnight Library, I read the synopsis and the first couple of chapters. What the synopsis doesn’t mention in this case is that the protagonist has killed herself. After her mind goes black, she finds herself in the library. Is it purgatory? Is it hell? It certainly isn’t the heaven we followers of Christ expect. I kept reading the book, though, because it was my book club selection.

Here are my thoughts. The novel was certainly creative, a real one-of-a-kind. How many people have wondered how their life would have turned out if they’d only not made a particular decision. Woulda, coulda, shoulda doesn’t get us anywhere but feeling bad. We only have this one chance at life, there are no do overs, there is no safety net waiting with a second, third, fourth, or ninety-ninth chance at living life right.

Readers seem to either fawn over this novel or abhor it. I’m somewhere in this middle. I have clinical depression. Waiting for the moment when the main character finally died by suicide was upsetting. I also have anxiety and the idea of popping into a life I knew nothing about it made my heart palpitate. No, this book wasn’t for me. I did like the ending, though, which helped in the final analysis. 4 stars for creative storytelling, and 3 stars for subject matter clearly against my beliefs. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.

 

Tower of Babel
by Michael Sears

“The best way to proceed with crazy people is to stick to facts, speak cautiously, and make no sudden movements.” ~ Michael Sears, Tower of Babel

Queens, New York—the most diverse place on earth. Native son Ted Malloy knows these streets like the back of his hand. Ted was once a high-powered Manhattan lawyer, but after a spectacular fall from grace, he has found himself back on his home turf, scraping by as a foreclosure profiteer. It’s a grubby business, but a safe one—until Ted’s case sourcer, a mostly-reformed small-time conman named Richie Rubiano, turns up murdered shortly after tipping Ted off to an improbably lucrative lead. Ted becomes embroiled in a murder investigation and the machinations of greedy developers, mobsters, enraged activists, and old litigator foes.

Tower of Babel had a killer plot, a likeable hero, unforgettable characters, and I was sucked in by the author’s wit and playfulness. Some of his sentences were just magic: “…streaks of grime hung like bats beneath the windows.” Can’t you just picture that? The writing was hit or miss, though. There were poorly modified sentences, overuse of certain words, and sometimes his cleverness bordered on corny. For me, the book dragged a bit and then had an abrupt, dissatisfying ending. No doubt other readers will disagree.  3.5 stars.

 

Two Spies in Caracas
by Moisés Naím, Daniel Hahn (Translator)

Venezuela, 1992. Unknown colonel Hugo Chávez stages an ill-fated coup against a corrupt government, igniting the passions of Venezuela’s poor and catapulting the oil-rich country to international attention. For two rival spies who are hurriedly dispatched to Caracas—one from the CIA and the other from Castro’s Cuba—this is a career-defining mission. Two Spies in Caracas is a fictionalized account of the coup, the powers that backed it and those that opposed it.

Naím’s novel was set during an interesting era in Venezuela’s history that I knew little about. I love historical fiction for that reason, and it’s hard for me to turn down a spy thriller, but this book was nothing special, despite the well-pitched synopsis. The author writes primarily nonfiction books and articles and, in this case anyway, was not a natural fiction writer. The dialogue was clumsy and inauthentic, likely more the fault of the translator than the author. For example, would President Carlos Andrés Pérez have said, “You hear what I’m saying” or use the term “gonna” instead of “going to” in 1992 Venezuela? I don’t think so. It sounded more like a Mafia goombah speaking.

It was fascinating, however, to learn about Chavez, his Bolivarian Ideology, and his time in the spotlight. The first half of the book was slow, but the pace picked up as it went along. 3.5 stars.

 

When the Stars Go Dark
by Paula McLain

“Getting your heart broken is the privilege of being human,” Paula McLain, When the Stars Go Dark

From the New York Times bestselling author of historical fiction comes a novel of intertwined destinies and heart-wrenching suspense: A missing persons detective hiding away from the world. A series of disappearances that reach into her past. McLain weaves together actual cases of missing persons, trauma theory, and a hint of the metaphysical into a disturbing and penetrating novel.

The Paris Wife (2011), a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, was a five-star read for me, as good as historical fiction gets. Her novel about Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun, was also fascinating. I expected something similar, or at least in the same general ballpark with When the Stars Go Dark and was startled when it was so different. As I read this book, I had to remind myself it was fiction. Except it wasn’t exactly fiction because it contained true crime elements in it. For example, the protagonist references, among others, the disappearance of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped at knife point during a slumber party in October 1993. Because I was familiar with her case, I found myself diving into a rabbit hole of Google research rather than focusing on the project at hand.

When the Stars Go Dark was an intricately plotted, well-written suspense novel. It was also grim, terrifying, twisty, and upsetting. Although many of the books I read and review deal with dark subjects, I choose not to read about serial killers, especially those who prey upon children. Lesson learned. 3.5 stars.

 

The Wife Upstairs
by Rachel Hawkins

“There’s a trick to spinning lies. You have to embed the truth in there, just a glimmer of it. That’s the part that will catch people, and it’s what makes the rest of your lies sound like truth, too.”             ~ Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

 

Newly arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates—a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded trinkets and jewelry off her clients’ side tables.

But her luck changes when she meets Eddie Rochester. Recently widowed, Eddie is Thornfield Estates’ most mysterious resident. His wife, Bea, drowned in a boating accident with her best friend, their bodies lost to the deep. Not only is he rich, brooding, and handsome, he could also offer her the kind of protection Jane has always yearned for. Yet as Jane and Eddie fall for each other, Jane is increasingly haunted by the legend of Bea, a successful entrepreneurial beauty. How can she, plain Jane, ever measure up? And can she win Eddie’s heart before her past catches up to her?

The Wife Upstairs is atmospheric domestic suspense, a creepy read that made me feel anxious. You know, the kind of book that makes you say out loud, “What are you doing? Just tell the truth… this is going to end badly!” I didn’t love the book, but page after page it was tense, troubling, and twisty and the ending was a shocker. A decent change of pace. 3 stars.

 

The Brushmaker’s Daughter
By Kathy Kacer

I was excited to read this novella (Book 17 in the Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers) about WWII Berlin written from the perspective of an adolescent girl. It recounts the true story of twelve-year-old Lillian and her Papa who are on the run from Nazi soldiers and don’t know where to turn. Then they meet Otto Weidt, the owner of a factory that makes brushes for the Nazi army and employs blind Jewish workers to provide for and protect them.

As I alternated between reading and listening to this short audiobook (I mean super short), I tried to keep in mind that it was written for children in grades 4-6. I didn’t know anything about Otto Weidt who was honored as Righteous Among the Nations in 1971, and found the book inspiring, but it was so short there was little character development, and the writing was inadequate. It was a pass for me: 3 stars.

 

Until next time!

Amy

 

 

 

 

Posted in Book Reviews, Newsletter, Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .