August Books

Last month’s catch was a light one, and you know what? That’s cool! I spent loads of time with my grandkids and worked on two client books. Then I got Covid. Other than cooking, there’s little I enjoy more than reading, but Covid put the kibosh on that. For nearly three weeks, all I did was sleep, and although I’m behind schedule, I still have some great book recommendations for you. Here you go!

The Noticer

by Andy Andrews

“You see, with a degree of intelligence and a hint of wisdom, most people can tell the difference between good and bad. However, it takes a truly wise person to discern that oh-so-thin line between good and best. And that line, my friends, is the line that separates a roll of the dice about your future, from a sure thing… from trying, as the Bible says, to ‘see through a dark glass’ and having a perspective that allows you to see clearly the long-term consequences of your choices.” Andy Andrews, The Noticer.

The good folks of Orange Beach have their share of problems—marriages teetering on the brink of divorce, young adults giving up on life, businesspeople on the verge of bankruptcy, as well as the many other obstacles that life seems to dish out to the masses. Fortunately, when things look the darkest, an elderly man named Jones shows up carrying a battered old suitcase.

I stumbled upon this book when I received an advance reader copy of Just Jones. When I realized it was part of a series, I decided to start from the beginning. Andy Andrews, where have you been all my life? Imagine how much different my perspective might have been had you imparted your wisdom upon me years ago when I really needed it. The Noticer is one of those books I will never forget. Not only did I love the writing and the premise of the book, but the key learnings the author shares are simple, yet mind-blowing! This is a must read for people of all ages.

Jones speaks to that part in everyone that is yearning to understand why things happen and what we can do about it. The Noticer is unique blend of fiction, allegory, and inspiration. Gifted storyteller Andy Andrews helps us see how becoming a “noticer” just might change a person’s life forever. Sometimes all a person needs is a little perspective. 5 well-deserved stars! #thenoticer

The Last Green Valley

by Mark T. Sullivan

“Don’t chew on the bad things that happen to you, dear. Try to see the beauty in every cruelty. It sets you free. Forgive hurt if you want to heal a broken heart. Try to be grateful for every setback or tragedy, because by living through them, you become stronger.” – Mark T. Sullivan, The Last Green Valley

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is one of my favorite novels of all time, so I was thrilled to receive an advance reader copy of Mark Sullivan’s next historical epic, The Last Green Valley.

In late March 1944, as Stalin’s forces push into Ukraine, young Emil and Adeline Martel must make a terrible decision: Do they wait for the Soviet’s intrusion and risk being sent to Siberia? Or do they take their young family and reluctantly follow the murderous Nazi officers who have pledged to protect “pure-blood” Germans? The Martels are one of many families of German heritage whose ancestors have farmed in Ukraine for more than a century and opt to search for freedom in Germany. Caught between two warring forces and overcoming horrific trials to pursue their hope of immigrating to the West, the Martels’ story is a brutal, complex, and ultimately triumphant tale that illuminates the power of the human spirit.

I’ll start my comments with the most obvious statement. No, The Last Green Valley wasn’t as good as Beneath a Scarlet Sky, but it was darn close! What the Martels had to go through to survive is unfathomable. I don’t want to give away anything, but I will say that every time tragedy struck—and it struck a LOT—they got back up and continued trudging toward their dream. This family was made of very tough stuff. This is a multi-layered novel with well-developed characters you’ll cheer for. My only criticism is that the author repeated key events in the story as if the reader had forgotten them, which I found maddening.

In the end, Sullivan’s latest endeavor was harrowing yet heartwarming and would make an excellent movie. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.  #TheLastGreenValley

Life

by Lu Yao, translated by Chloe Estep

“Who was there to blame? After careful thought, he decided there was no one. His tragedy was of his own creation. He had thrown away his principles for the sake of vanity and so had fallen to where he was now. He’d learned the hard way that he couldn’t avoid life’s punishments forever…” – Lu Yao, Life

Lu Yao published only two novels before his untimely death, but their extraordinary influence catapulted the author to the top tier of Chinese contemporary fiction, establishing him as one of the most widely read and respected figures in Chinese literature.

In this first-ever translation of Lu Yao’s Life, we meet Gao Jialin, a stubborn, idealistic, and ambitious young man from a small country village whose life is upended when corrupt local politics cost him his beloved job as a schoolteacher, prompting him to reject rural life and try to make it in the big city.

Author Lu Yao paints a vivid, emotional portrait of 1980s communist China, of unrealized dreams, and lost loves. Some of the book’s brilliance was literally lost in translation. The dialogue was clumsy and inauthentic, but the prose were luminous. As I read it from the comfort of my American easy chair, I thought about how painful it would be to have no freedom to choose what life/career I wanted. Those choices were at the pleasure of the Party. Jialin was intelligent and highly educated but wound up a peasant who collected night soil. What is night soil you ask? It is a disgusting, slurry from the bottom of latrines used to fertilize a commune’s crops. I can’t imagine a more revolting duty. As evidenced by the quote at the top of this review, Life is brimming with life lessons about the juxtaposition of success and happiness.

I loved reading the book, but I didn’t care for the audiobook. The narrator did a fine job with the narrative parts of the book, but the voices he used for the characters were annoying. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.

The Chanel Sisters

by Judithe Little

Abandoned by their family years before, Gabrielle and Antoinette Chanel grow up under the guidance of pious nuns preparing them for simple lives as the wives of tradesmen or shopkeepers. At night, their secret stash of romantic novels and magazine cutouts beneath the floorboards are all they have to keep their dreams of the future alive. The walls of the convent can’t shield them forever, and when they’re finally of age, the Chanel sisters set out together with a fierce determination to prove themselves worthy to a society that has never accepted them.

It was refreshing to read about the humble beginning of famous fashion designer, Gabríel (Coco) Chanel, through the eyes of her obscure sister, Antoinette. Much of the story of Antoinette was imagined, as there are fewer historical details about her life. That’s disappointing, because Ninette, as Coco called her, was largely responsible for the success of the Chanel brand. And I found her character to be the most interesting. I wanted to know more about her and less about Coco, who wiggled herself to the upper echelons of European society, in large part because of her relationships with men with money and influence.

I enjoyed the overall pacing the novel, which had significantly different content than another recently published novel, Mademoiselle Chanel, which I read back in 2015. In both books, Coco is a larger-than-life presence and a highly successful businesswoman in her day. In The Chanel Sisters, Coco was presented almost as a magical being who worked and played hard, and even though she had many affairs, it was as if she did no wrong. In fact, it is well documented that Coco collaborated with the Nazis. A fact that is conspicuous by its absence in The Chanel Sisters. I adored the ending. Very poetic and touching. I won’t spoil here. You’ll need to read it for yourself. 4 stars. #TheChanelSisters

Yours Cheerfully

by A.J. Pearce

When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit desperately needed female workers to the war effort, columnist Emmeline Lake is thrilled to be asked to step up and help. But when she and her best friend Bunty meet a young woman who shows them the challenges women war workers face, Emmy must tackle a life-changing dilemma between doing her duty and standing by her friends.

This was a darling historical novel. I’d never thought about how women war workers left on the home front managed finances, home, and family while their husbands were off fighting against tyranny or had paid the ultimate price. Both the UK and the US set up day nurseries in factories and communities, but not without a fight. This book was light, romantic, educational, and empowering. I enjoyed it very much. 4 stars. #YoursCheerfully

The Last Garden in England

by Julia Kelly

Present day: Emma Lovett, is given the opportunity of a lifetime: to restore the gardens of the famed Highbury House estate. But as Emma dives deeper into the gardens’ past, she uncovers secrets that have long lain hidden.

1907: A talented artist with a growing reputation for her ambitious work, Venetia Smith has carved out a niche for herself as a garden designer to the high society set. When she is hired to design the gardens of Highbury House, her life is changed forever.

1944: When land girl Beth Pedley arrives at a farm on the outskirts of the village of Highbury, all she wants is to find a place she can call home. Cook Stella Adderton is desperate to leave Highbury House to pursue her own dreams. And widow Diana Symonds, the mistress of the grand house, is trying to cling to her pre-war life now when the war department requisitions her home. Then tragedy strikes.

This was a delightful summer read. The Land Girls meets Downtown Abbey with some Hallmark Channel thrown in for good measure. A little sappy in parts, you know, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again, but it was a pleasant change of pace. The Last Garden in England is the kind of book that makes you sigh when you read the last page. Sometimes books set in multiple time periods stumble, but Julia Kelly connected the separate storylines well. The gardening detail was too much for me, but if you are a flower gardener, you are really going to love it. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4. #TheLastgardenInEngland

Digital Fortress

by Dan Brown

When the National Security Agency’s invincible code-breaking machine encounters a mysterious code it cannot break, the agency calls in its head cryptographer, Susan Fletcher, a brilliant, beautiful mathematician. What she uncovers sends shock waves through the corridors of power. The NSA is being held hostage—not by guns or bombs, but by a code so complex that if released would cripple U.S. intelligence.

Caught in an accelerating tempest of secrecy and lies, Fletcher battles to save the agency she believes in. Betrayed on all sides, she finds herself fighting not only for her country but for her life, and in the end, for the life of the man she loves…

I thoroughly enjoyed Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci code and was curious what some of Brown’s earlier work was like. Digital Fortress wasn’t nearly as good, but it definitely had some strong points. Cyber warfare is a global concern, and which I had some difficulty following who were the bad guys and who were the good, I did find the content very intriguing. I missed Robert Langdon. 3.5 stars.

When Ghosts Come Home

by Wiley Cash

When the roar of a low-flying plane awakens him in the middle of the night, Sheriff Winston Barnes knows something strange is happening at the nearby airfield on the coast of North Carolina. But nothing can prepare him for what he finds: a large airplane has crash-landed and is now sitting sideways on the runway, and there are no signs of a pilot or cargo. When the body of a local man is discovered—shot dead and lying on the grass near the crash site—Winston begins a murder investigation that will change the course of his life and the fate of the community that he has sworn to protect.

Everyone is a suspect, including the dead man. As rumors and accusations fly, long-simmering racial tensions explode overnight, and Winston, whose own tragic past has followed him like a ghost, must do his duty while facing the painful repercussions of old decisions. Winston also knows that his days as sheriff may be numbered. He’s up for re-election against a corrupt and well-connected challenger, and his deputies are choosing sides. As if these events weren’t troubling enough, he must finally confront his daughter Colleen, who has come home grieving a shattering loss she cannot fully articulate.

I wasn’t familiar with Wiley Cash, but I enjoyed this book enough to read another. He is a fabulous writer who transported me to a small, North Carolina island community in 1984 plagued by racial tension. Character-driven and haunting, it was as much about a disintegrating family as it was about a murder investigation. Wiley Cash delved into the hearts of richly drawn and achingly sympathetic characters dealing with heavy circumstances. When Ghosts Come Home would have been a sold four stars if it hadn’t ended so abruptly. I still can’t figure out exactly what happened! 3.5 stars. #WhenGhostsComeHome