June is upon us, so it is time to post my reviews of the books I read in May, a smattering from the historical fiction, thriller, memoir, mystery, biography, and literary fiction genres. I use Goodreads to track and rate my reading. 5 stars is reserved for rare blew-my-socks-off reads, 4 stars means I enjoyed it and would absolutely recommend. 3 stars is good, but not great. I very rarely rate lower because I do not finish books I’m not enjoying.
The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life
by Ann Voskamp
This book is for those in need of a renewed revelation of the grace of God. It is about freedom, not beyond your fear and pain, but actually within it. New York Times bestselling author of One Thousand Gifts Ann Voskamp sits at the edge of her life and all her own unspoken brokenness and asks: What if you really want to live abundantly before it’s too late? What do you do if you really want to know abundant wholeness? This is the one begging question that’s behind every single aspect of our lives—and one that The Broken Way rises up to explore in the most unexpected ways.
This was the most life-changing book I have ever read. I took me a year to finish it, because I savored what I learned. I highlighted countless paragraphs. I wept. I allowed God to love me through my brokenness. The most important thing I learned from Voskamp’s words is this: we strive to be that person to whom others can share their pain and brokenness, but do we think about how much we bless others by sharing our pain and letting them listen and love us? Wow. 5 stars.
The Rose Code
by Kate Quinn
The year is 1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. They develop a powerful bond as they live and work together. In 1947 the three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter—the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. The three resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together.
Kate Quinn certainly has come into her own. Her last three books have been massive bestsellers and just keep getting better. Although I gave The Huntress and The Alice Network each four stars, The Rose Code was my favorite. It’s thrilling historical fiction jam-packed with intrigue, treachery, romance, and the beauty of female friendship. You can’t go wrong with spies and code breakers, especially when they are intelligent women. It surprised me to learn Quinn is a native Californian; the nuances of her writing, her knowledge of WWII-era slang and fashion made her sound like a Brit. My thanks to NetGalley for the ebook and audio ARCs. Excellent narration by Saskia Maarleveld. 5 stars.
Funeral for a Friend
by Brian Freeman
Detective Jonathan Stride’s best friend makes a shocking deathbed confession: he protected Stride by covering up a murder. Hours later, the police dig up Steve’s yard and find a body with a bullet hole in its skull and Stride is a prime suspect.
I love a good mystery, and Funeral for a Friend did not disappoint. Besides having a great plotline, the book is set in Duluth, Minnesota, only a few hours from my home base, and the audio version’s narrator, Joe Barrett, read the dialogue in an authentic Minnesota accent. Incidentally, Freeman has lived in The Land of 10,000 Lakes for over 35 years. No wonder I like him. I didn’t think I was going to like this book. I read the first book in the Jonathan Stride series, but the second one was so disturbing I had to set it aside. When I received an advance reader copy of Funeral for a Friend, I gave it a shot. This book is far more mystery and far less butchery. Stride is a strong character for a series. He’s flawed, determined, passionate, and an excellent investigator. Freeman is a writing machine. I gave his Thief River Falls (2020) 5 stars, and he has authored four books since then. Putnam and the Robert Ludlum estate have named him the official author to continue Ludlum’s famous Jason Bourne franchise. Brian’s first Bourne novel, The Bourne Evolution, was named one of the Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2020 by Kirkus. I’ll be picking up that one. 4.5 stars.
The Book of Lost Names
By Kristin Harmel
A semi-retired librarian in Florida is shelving books one morning when her eyes lock on a photograph in a magazine lying open nearby. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in sixty-five years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names. As a graduate student in 1942, Eva flees Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she forges identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. Eva decides she must preserve the actual names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. This wonderful book is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of bravery and love in the face of evil.
I’ve often read about people persecuted during WW2 (Jews, spies, members of the Underground) needing false identity papers, but I never thought about how those documents were created. In this novel, I learned about experts from the French Resistance who specialized in creating forged documents. It was so interesting! I don’t want to be a spoiler, so that’s as far as I’ll go with my comments. Just know that Kristin Harmel hit this one out of the park! Even better than The Room on Rue Amelie. 4.5 stars.*
The Kitchen Front
by Jennifer Ryan
Two years into WW2, Britain is feeling her losses. The Nazis have won battles, the Blitz has destroyed cities, and U-boats have cut off the supply of food. To help homemakers with food rationing, a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front is putting on a cooking contest—and the grand prize is a job as the program’s first-ever female co-host. For four very different women, winning the contest presents a crucial chance to change their lives.
This character-driven novel was a beautiful depiction of how empowering friendship can be. It was a refreshing change of pace from WWII novels about the resistance, concentration camps, and persecution. I learned a great deal about life on Britain’s home front during the war, especially how creative people had to be to make delicious, nutritious for meals with restrictive food rationing. I did not know that rationing lasted until nine years after the war concluded, can you imagine? The author even included recipes from actual people and historical archives… I don’t plan on making any of them, but it was fascinating to see them. The Kitchen Front was a real BBC program, which made reading about it even more gratifying. Using multiple narratives was the perfect way to approach the story, and although the narrator in the audio version didn’t use different voices for each of the four women, she still did a magnificent job. There were a few minor writing issues that were easy to miss if one is listening, but glaring if reading, but they weren’t too troublesome. My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance reader copy for an honest review. 4.5 stars.
The Pale-Faced Lie
by David Crow
David Crow grew up on the Navajo Indian Reservation with a mentally ill mother and a father he idolized. But as time passed, David discovered the other side of Thurston Crow, the ex-con with his own code of ethics that justified abuse, cruelty, violence, lies, and even murder. Through fierce determination, and with the help of a few angels along the way, he was each able to overcome his childhood traumas, get into college, and forge a successful future. When he finally found the courage to refuse his father’s criminal demands, he unwittingly triggered a plot of revenge that would force him into a showdown with Thurston Crow. A memoir, it is an intimate tale of triumph and courage.
David Crow’s childhood was horrific, and it surprised me he made it to adulthood. He was bullied by classmates and both his parents and was thrust into some truly dangerous situations. The author immediately sucked me into his story, which was well written and heart wrenching. But it was also an inspirational story about the power of forgiveness and the ability of the human spirit to rise above adversity. It disappointed me that he never confronted his father about his abhorrent behavior, but since I didn’t walk in his shoes, I do not know how I would have reacted. If you enjoy reading memoirs, you won’t be disappointed in The Pale-Faced Lie. 4.5 stars.
by Laura Griffin
When former forensic photographer Miranda Rhoads moves to a seaside town, she decides to make her living as a wildlife photographer and put crime scenes behind her. But her plans are quickly upended when one morning, she comes across a couple sleeping in a canoe, entwined in an embrace. Looking closer, she realizes the man and woman aren’t asleep—they’ve been murdered. As she and a local homicide detective begin to unravel the motivation of a merciless serial killer, they must race against the clock to make an arrest before the killer can find them first.
Wow, Laura Griffin has written a plethora of books, and before receiving this advance reader copy of her latest audiobook, I’d never even heard of her. For a voracious reader like me, that’s surprising. Flight was a perfect summer read about a CSI, a detective, and a serial killer (a love triangle that only happens in mystery novels), set on a resort island in Texas. There was an interesting ornithological element (my biology-teacher husband will be very proud I used that word) and the violence wasn’t gory or gratuitous. The romance was trite and predictable, but isn’t that what beach reads are all about? One negative. Although I loved the story, the narration seemed robotic. Laura Griffin, I’m a fan. 4 stars.
Birds of a Feather
By Jacqueline Winspear
Detective Maisie Dobbs has been hired to find a wealthy grocery magnate’s daughter who has fled from home. What seems a simple case at first becomes complicated when Maisie learns of the recent violent deaths of three of the heiress’s old friends. Is there a connection between her mysterious disappearance and the murders? Who would kill such charming young women? As Maisie investigates, she discovers that the answers to all her questions lie in the unforgettable agony of The Great War.
One day while working at the library I stumbled across the Maisie Dobbs series and was instantly drawn to it for several reasons. First, there are 16 books about Maisie Dobbs, and I am always eager to find excellent series. Second, she is a strong female character in a male-dominated field, and my granddaughter’s name is Maisy… how fun is that? Birds of a Feather was a wonderful book. It had enjoyable twists and turns, a memorable cast of characters, and a surprise ending, a classic whodunit combination. 4 stars.
The Girl from the Train
by Irma Joubert
As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They intend to destroy a German troop transport, but six-year-old Gretl Schmidt’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first. Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from a concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, he takes her in. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family. But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered.
The Girl on the Train was a highly readable work of historical fiction. Intensely human, it was about fear, friendship, the power of love, compassion through action and the strength to overcome horrific obstacles. I knew nothing about the German Children’s Fund; imagine being an orphaned child just 2-13 years old, boarding a ship, and being sent halfway around the world to live with strangers in a completely different culture? The author’s research was detailed, and I appreciate how she wove faith into her novel. 4 stars.
Just remember, when you suffer and feel the heat of the flames, that’s when God is there.
He watches carefully until He can see His own image in you. He’ll never leave you in the flames too long.
The Lowering Days
by Gregory Brown
When a bankrupt paper mill, once the Penobscot Valley’s largest employer, is burned to the ground on the eve of potentially reopening, the community grapples with the devastation. For the residents of the Penobscot Valley, the fire reveals a stark truth. For many, the mill provides working-class jobs they need to survive, but for the Penobscot Nation, the mill spews toxic chemicals and wastewater products that poison the river’s fish and plants. As the divide within the community widens, the building anger and resentment explodes in tragedy, ruining the lives of the protagonist and those around him.
NetGalley provided me with advanced reader copies of both the eBook and the audiobook for honest reviews, so here goes. I started and stopped reading/listening to this book several times. Initially, I wasn’t crazy about the writing. Many of the paragraphs were unnecessarily long, and my mind wandered. The writing seemed scattered, as if the author lost his focus. Shorter paragraphs might have helped in that regard. I had trouble following the narrative as the author jumped from thought to thought. Once I got further in, however, I appreciated the atmospheric, lyrical prose, evidence by my number of highlights. Brown’s placement of adjectives painted gorgeous word pictures and I could see the scenery in my mind’s eye. On the audio side, the narrator had effective voice modulation and maintained my interest. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.
The Dressmaker’s Gift
by Fiona Valpy
Paris, 1940. With the city occupied by the Nazis, three young seamstresses go about their normal lives as best they can. War-scarred Mireille is fighting with the Resistance; A German officer has seduced Claire; and Vivienne’s involvement is something she can’t reveal to either of them. Two generations later, Claire’s English granddaughter Harriet arrives in Paris, desperate to find a connection with her past. When she unravels her family history, it is darker and more painful than she ever imagined.
I alternated between reading and listening to this book and found both to be good. The plotline about Paris during the Nazi occupation was especially engaging. The challenges Claire, Mireille, and Vivienne experienced leading secret lives in the Resistance and the horrors of internment in a concentration camp had me anxious of anguished. These characters were complex and well developed, but I was never invested in Harriet’s storyline and kept wanting the author to go back to the 1940s. One thing that is interesting about this dual timeline, however, was the juxtaposition of modern-day terrorist attacks in Paris and the Nazi occupation of the city. 3.5 stars.*
House of Spies
by Daniel Silva
Four months after the deadliest attack on the American homeland since 9/11, terrorists leave a trail of carnage through London’s glittering West End. Israeli assassin, Gabriel Allon, is out for revenge—determined to hunt down the world’s most dangerous terrorist, a shadowy ISIS mastermind known only as Saladin.
I’ve read the Gabriel Allon series in order, and since this is #17, you can surmise I enjoy it. Unfortunately, House of Spies was one of my least favorites. While the story was thrilling, and there was plenty of tradecraft, intrigue, and dispatching of bad guys, there were too many long strings of narrative—especially about previous books in the series—and it got so boring in parts that I skipped pages. Still, like all of Silva’s titles, I learned something fascinating. Take this quote for example: “The marriage between hashish and terrorism,” he said, “is as old as time itself. As you know, the word assassin is derived from the Arabic hashashin, the Shia killers who acted under the influence of hashish.” An entertaining read, but not a great one. 3.5 stars.
Find Me in Havana
by Serena Burdick
Find me in Havana is a new historical novel based on the life of one of Hollywood’s most celebrated Hispanic actresses and her daughter’s search for closure. Cuba, 1936: When Estelita Rodriguez sings in a hazy Havana nightclub for the very first time, she is nine years old. From then on, that spotlight of adoration—from Havana to New York’s Copacabana and then Hollywood—becomes the one true accomplishment no one can take from her. Not the 1933 Cuban Revolution that drove her family into poverty. Not the revolving door of husbands or the fickle world of film. Thirty years later, her adult daughter, Nina, is blindsided by her mother’s mysterious death. Seeking answers, she navigates the troubling, opulent memories of their life together and discovers how much Estelita sacrificed to live the American dream on her own terms.
There were some good—and not-so-good—things about Find me in Havana. The characters and storyline were interesting, and I appreciated that it was historical fiction set in Cuba, Miami, and Hollywood instead of WWII Europe. I hadn’t heard of Estelita Rodriguez, and I enjoyed researching her life as I read the book. But that’s where the pros stopped for me. I should have reviewed this book immediately after I finished it, because I had trouble remembering the details to write my review. I can, however, tell you how it made me feel. Miserable. I don’t shy away from sad books, but this one was downright depressing from beginning to end. I wish I’d read the book rather than listening to it, because the narration was tedious, and the timeline was confusing. The pacing was so plodding, I had to push through to finish it. So, while the book included some fascinating history, it just didn’t work for me. 3.0 stars.*
Send for Me
by Lauren Fox
Annelise is a dreamer: imagining her future while working at her parents’ popular bakery in Feldenheim, Germany, and expecting all the delicious possibilities yet to come. There are rumors that anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise, but Annelise and her parents don’t believe it will affect them. But as Annelise falls in love, marries, and gives birth to her daughter, the dangers grow closer: a brick thrown through her window; a childhood friend who cuts ties with her; customers refusing to patronize the bakery. When Annelise and her husband are given the chance to leave for America, they must go without her parents, whose future and safety are uncertain. Two generations later in Wisconsin, Annelise’s granddaughter stumbles upon a trove of her grandmother’s letters from Germany, and she sees the history of her family’s sacrifices in a new light.
This historical novel about the all-consuming love between mothers and daughters was beautifully written, but I found Annelise’s lack of concern for her parents bewildering. Many of the letters from her parents were like howls of grief, and the heavy sense of desperation made it a foreboding read. The biggest problem with the book, and responsible for the lower rating, was its length. At just over 200 pages, it was too short for me to be invested in the characters, and the abrupt ending left me feeling deflated. It was good, but not great. I alternated between reading the ebook and listening to the audiobook, and the shifting points of view made the story hard to follow in audio format. The lack of chapter headings and cues like page breaks made me feel lost. 3 stars.*
The Boy Between Worlds
by Annejet van der Zijl
This is the emotionally stirring story of unlikely lovers who brave the bigotry of their era, only to be victims of the even larger forces of history at work in World War II. The plight of Anna (a lively and charismatic White woman) and her much younger second husband Waldemar (a biracial immigrant from the Dutch colony of Suriname), and the fate of their only child, Waldy, after his parents are murdered in the Nazi concentration camp for the crime of harboring Jews in their boarding house, is heartbreaking, especially since it is a biography.
It was very short, just over 200 pages, which is not long enough to fully develop the book. Anna and Waldemar were genuine heroes in the fight against Nazi oppression in The Netherlands, a setting rarely written about during that era. They both experienced prejudice, she as a divorced woman who fell in love with a much younger man, and he as a biracial man from another country. This book reminded me that Black Europeans were persecuted and interned in the Nazi concentration camp system in additional to other minority groups. It could have been fascinating, but the author didn’t tell it with enough detail and passion. The book would have been better written as historical fiction. 3 stars.
By Laila Ibrahim
1894. Jordan Wallace and Sadie Wagoner appear to have little in common. Jordan, a middle-aged black teacher, lives in segregated Chicago, while Sadie, the white wife of an ambitious German business executive, lives in more tolerant Oakland, California. But years before, their family trees intertwined on a plantation in Virginia where Jordan’s and Sadie’s mothers developed a bond stronger than blood, although one was enslaved and the other was the privileged daughter of the plantation’s owner. With Jordan’s mother on her deathbed, Sadie leaves her disapproving husband to make the arduous train journey with her mother to Chicago. But the reunion between two families is soon fraught with personal and political challenges.
I loved the first two books in this series (Yellow Crocus and Mustard Seed), so I was excited to read Golden Poppies. The relationship between two Civil War era families, one white and one black has been an interesting premise for the series, but the third book fell flat for me. It was a very slow read because nothing happened. IMO it was just a lot of useless dialogue. On a positive note, I enjoyed the author’s historical perspective on life after the Civil War, especially for freed slaves. Another very interesting bit of history was the Pullman Strike, a widespread railroad strike and boycott that severely disrupted rail traffic in the Midwest in June–July 1894. The book would have been better if it had a more singular focus. Was it about race or women’s suffrage? Dual storylines can be effective, but there wasn’t a strong enough connection between the two in this case. Overall, the writing wasn’t as strong as Yellow Crocus. The author used peculiar phraseology, almost as if she is not a native English speaker. For example: “A wave of sorrow traveled down Sadie’s back.” What? A shiver can physically run down the spine, but sorrow? 3 stars.
*You know the blueprint by now. WWII historical fiction. Alternating timelines that weave between characters in war-torn Europe and their grandchild(ren) in the present. Said grandchild stumbles upon a family secret. It’s getting tiresome.