A three week getaway to Florida jumpstarted my 2021 reading adventures. With a twenty-hour drive each way, plus some vacation days sitting on a beach and a few more winter nights cozied up in my reading nook spurred a prolific quarter of reading. From my favorite historical fiction genre to non-fiction to thrillers, autobiography to reading for a judging panel, I’m happy to share my reviews of these eighteen books.
Each book is linked to Amazon for other reviews and convenient purchasing.
**** The Other Woman by Sandie Jones At first I was hesitant to read this one with the primary characters featuring a young woman, her fiance/husband, and his mother. My son is getting married this year and the last thing I want to become is a Monster-in-Law! Toward the middle, I was becoming annoyed with the main character, Emily. Either cut bait and move on, or take control of the situation, girl! There was enough intrigue, however, in this thriller to keep you guessing as to the mother’s true intent with a great ending twist which redeemed the book. I listened to this one on Audible and can share the link if you’re interested – drop me a comment through the Contact page.
**** The Book of Lost Names by Kristen Harmel When January turned the page into 2021 and our pandemic and lock-downs continued, I signed up for another Facebook book club focused solely on historical fiction. I wasn’t too excited to see the first selection was WWII based. I’ve read enough in the past five years that those set in Europe have blurred together. However, I wanted to join the first meeting with this new group to see if 24+ people could navigate a Zoom discussion. I’m glad I did. The Book of Lost Names is set in France with a Jewish protagonist who goes into hiding and joins the Resistance in covert means. Her skills save her as well as the memories of many. The inclusion of a minor dual timeline I found to be unnecessary and kept this one from moving up to five stars.
***** This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger How many ways can you form a family? With nods harkening back to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, (a coincidence the main character’s adopted name to hide his true identity is “Buck”? Even if it’s for Buck Rogers?), This Tender Land, succeeds at story-telling in its finest form. Four orphans travel the Minnesota River running from loss, searching for their rightful forever home. Krueger’s beautiful prose keeps you lingering in scenes, relishing his words which stir emotions and tug at heart-strings. Mark Twain would be proud and honored of this re-telling of Huck Finn. “Ask me, God’s right here. In the dirt, the rain, the sky, the trees, the apples, the stars in the cottonwoods. In you and me, too. It’s all connected and it’s all God. Sure this is hard work, but it’s good work because it’s a part of what connects us to this land, Buck. This beautiful, tender land.”
***** Caste by Isabel Wilkerson In light of heightened political unrest, which stemmed from June 2020 protests and the fuller emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Caste is an important read, especially for those of us who cannot identify with the struggle the way Isabel Wilkerson can. Her authentic voice and willingness to share and interject her own experiences combined with examinations of India’s caste system and Nazi Germany present solid discussions for the why we are where we are and where we need to move forward to in understanding and correcting race relations. The writing becomes dense in some spots and the same point is hammered home multiple times, but understanding Caste is a non-fiction work of tremendous research and thought warrants the slogging through the middle to raise our consciousness of an important societal topic. I also highly recommend Wilkerson’s other excellent sociological look at the development of America’s caste system, The Warmth of Other Suns.
***** A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner One of the best examples I’ve ever read of a dual timeline narrative for historical fiction. Meissner creates a beautiful story of two women separated by 100 years, yet pulled together by shared experiences of tragic lost love and a single silk scarf. Set in 1911 and 2011, New York’s history comes alive with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and 9-11. Each event symbolizes and reveals how we can learn from tragedies and develop positive outcomes (labor protections, homeland security, personal acceptance). The template for Marigolds has inspired me with an idea for a future novel as well – stay tuned. I listened to this one on Audible and can share the link if you’re interested – drop me a comment through the Contact page.
***** The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers by Terri-Lyne DeFino Sometimes you need a super creative, light read in your life. First, I love the idea of a retirement home for kindred souls, in this case, past literary giants. Second, I love the setting of Bar Harbor, Maine-my husband and I enjoyed a fabulous long weekend there a few years ago-highly recommend! Third, a story within a story exemplifies an author’s talent for creative thought. Not a simple dual timeline approach, but an entire other story which makes sense and enriches the novel. Fourth, there’s enough character twists to consider pushing this one into a whole other genre. Might I suggest a slight comparable with one of my all-time favorites, Shutter Island, without the violent scare the sh*t out of you. My only complaint? The title doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue for easy verbal recommendations. LOL.
**** A Time for Mercy by John Grisham Driving twenty hours each way from NH to FL with your husband can be L-O-N-G, especially when you choose to minimize your stops due to a pandemic. Enter books on Audible to save the day and the need for idle small talk or hours of silence. Each year before embarking on this drive we search for a book with mutual appeal. We’ve found past winners with Dan Brown’s Inferno and Mark Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky. This year we turned to John Grisham’s newest legal thriller and the return of Jack Brigance in A Time for Mercy. The premise for Brigance’s public defender case offered another good “what would you do” and “how would you vote” discussion. Set in small town Mississippi with strong commentary on social issues, the primary case held our attention. Yet, the interjection of a tangential case disrupted the story flow despite its attempt to highlight the intricacies of the tit-for-tat political maneuverings between lawyers and judges. Further, the inclusion of a lawyer from a children’s defense league left me scratching my head. Her purpose was necessary, but why in the world was she Scottish? How did that background move the story forward? It didn’t. And, hearing a forced, terrible Scottish brogue through the Audible made me cringe. Finally, there were a couple of plotlines where I would have preferred a different resolution. I listened to this one on Audible and can share the link if you’re interested – drop me a comment through the Contact page.
***** The Huntress by Kate Quinn When I first learned my new FB book club had chosen yet ANOTHER WWII novel, I was so tempted to skip reading and joining the discussion of The Huntress. But, avoidance is just not a part of who I am. At the minimum, I wasn’t going to invest a dime in securing it. The Fates must have been at work when I checked the library system thinking I’d get it in a few weeks from the inter-state loan system and if it didn’t come in time, I had a good excuse to sit out the meeting. Lo and behold, however, it was on shelf right at my local library a couple of miles away. I picked it up that day and barely put it down until I finished all 500+ pages. Three women, two men, three stories woven together with one mission: Hunt The Huntress. From the history of the Soviet Union’s Night Witches, an all-female air force of bombers, to the vile horrors of Nazi sympathizers to the valiant, tireless work of Nazi hunters, Kate Quinn creates not just another WWII novel, but a page-turner of well-developed characters and a plot to stand on the shoulders of all the other WWII novels I’ve read (well, except maybe Beneath a Scarlet Sky). Now, I want to hunt down information from a friend that her father’s papers as a young lawyer at Nuremberg have been donated to his town library. Local libraries – saving the day once more. P.S. I ended up loving this book so much that when I found it in paperback at my other library’s used book sale, I had to buy it for $1. Win-win. Onto my lending library shelf at our rental cabin and supported my library (along with the other $7 I spent on a few other favorites).
**** The Water Keeper by Charles Martin I picked this one up during our single public emergence during our stay on Amelia Island (masks on). A visit to a local indie book store is always a must, along with picking up a bookmark for my collection. The Water Keeper was on display as Charles Martin is considered a local author to the area. I never read anything by him before and mystery is not my normal genre, but I decided living three weeks outside my comfy home meant an excursion into reading something beyond my comfort zone, too. Overall, the plot held my interest, although the topic of sex trafficking is horrifying and disgusting made real by the recent Netflix expose on Jeffrey Epstein. Having traveled extensively along the East Coast of FL and the Intercoastal, the setting also came alive with Martin’s descriptions. The characters, however, fell a bit flat for me. I didn’t engage with any of them and at times the action exceeded the believability scale even though I tried to approach the story as if I was watching an action movie. “They’ll never survive this one.” Like many mystery / thrillers, the main character Murphy Shepherd is part of series. For me, no need to seek out another installment.
***** Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly The third and final installment in Kelly’s series which started with the best-seller, powerful Lilac Girls. Sunflower Sisters continues the story of the Woolsey-Ferriday family and the charitable works of its strong women. Whereas Lilac Girls started with WWII and Caroline Ferriday’s work to help survivors of Ravensbruck, and Lost Roses examined the plight of the Russian aristocracy fleeing from the terrors of an emerging Soviet nation with assistance from Eliza Woolsey Ferriday, Sunflower Sisters steps back one more generation to the Civil War and the abolitionist and nursing work of Georgeanna Woolsey, her mother and sisters. Similar to Lilac Girls, Sunflower Sisters also includes the POV of a despicable character, Anne-May Wilson Watson, a woman who you hope is captured and tortured in the same manner that she inflicts upon her slave, Jemma. The three women intersect for a compelling read set against the backdrops of a Maryland tobacco plantation, the New York’s elite inner sanctum of the mid-1800s, and the battlefields of Gettysburg. While I also enjoyed the other two novels, I found a special affinity to Sunflower Sisters reading about the seven Woolsey sisters and their commitments to charitable work as accomplished and determined women. Hmm…sounds like a certain Pearson-Edwards family and their story which is in the works… Overall, five stars based on vivid descriptions, well-developed characters and satisfying resolutions and unification at the end. I’m sad knowing this is the end of the series, but look forward to hearing what Kelly may be working on next. I received an ARC from NetGalley for my honest review.
What’s Left Untold by Sherri Leimkuhler – Read as part of a judging panel for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s Star Awards 2021. My review is under embargo until the winners are announced later this spring. Check back for an update.
***** The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner Two reads of Susan Meissner in a two-month period. Not a bad thing! I received a signed copy from a pre-order placed with Susan’s local indie store, Warwick’s. She kindly included a few extra goodies with the shipment, such as photos of what she imagined the main characters looked like and their house in San Francisco in 1906 – the year of the Great Earthquake. Meissner succeeds once again in planting her story within a major historical event and branching out from there to create plotlines influenced by that event. I fell in love with Sophie, the main character, a mail order bride who arrives in San Francisco to marry a man and become an immediate mother to his young daughter. Similar to Fall of Marigolds and Meissner’s other brilliant historical fiction, As Bright as Heaven, duplicity and hidden identities play a major role as the story unfolds. I don’t know if by living in CA, Susan has experienced any earthquake tremors, but her terrifying descriptions had me running for the nearest doorway (I think that’s what you’re supposed to do). Quick pauses of an interrogation scene throughout the story adds intrigue as you turn every page to learn the backstory. I wonder what significant historical event Susan will delve into next? Can’t wait to find out.
***** The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid As I began Evelyn Hugo at first I was perturbed Jenkins Reid had chosen to use a magazine interview format as she had with Daisy Jones and the Six. Oh no, here we go, capitalizing on a formula for more success, I thought. Instead, I overlooked the formula once I flew into the glamour world of Hollywood in the 1950s-1980s and discovered film star Evelyn Hugo’s answer to reporter Monique Grant’s question, “Which one did you love the most?” One by one we meet each of Evelyn’s husbands along with the highs and lows of her career. The good – Oscars – and the bad – overtones of Harvey Weinstein – fill the pages with triumphs, friendships made and lost and relationships which can only endure when true love is at the core. For another look at the gritty side of early Hollywood, I recommend City of Flicking Light by Juliette Fay. I listened to this one on Audible and can share the link if you’re interested – drop me a comment through the Contact page.
**** The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett In an effort to consciously choose more books about race by people of color, two of my book clubs selected The Vanishing Half. The premise of the novel by best-selling author, Bennett, captured my interest. Twin girls grow up in a closed, tight community in Louisiana where everyone is African-American, yet light enough in their complexion to exist in an in-between world. Eventually one of the twins leaves and passes as White to enter a world of privilege and status in CA married to an unsuspecting White man, keeping identity and family a secret. The other sister leaves, too, marries a Black man, has a daughter, and returns home to escape an abusive relationship. Overall, the concept and issues of racism and identity on multiple levels held my interest, but several other implausible characters and story arcs failed to answer questions which arose on multiple fronts.
Mad Moon by Alissa Miles – Read as part of a judging panel for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s Star Awards 2021. My review is under embargo until the winners are announced later this spring. Check back for an update.
**** (4.5) The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline Indecisive. While I can’t quite put my finger on it, Baker Kline’s newest HF fell just short of a full 5-star rating for me. Perhaps it was the anger I felt reading about the outcome of an aboriginal girl of Australia, although knowing the character was based on the life of a real person means Kline accomplished writing a compelling story. Or, it was a minor inconsistency in a historical timeline related to Lady Jane Franklin and her husband’s Artic explorations (see below) that threw me off. It was educational, however, to learn more about the penal colonies of Australia. Kline’s descriptions of women’s imprisonment in England, on board the transport ships and at their eventual arrival in Van Diemen’s Land excels to place the reader amidst the filth, reeking odors, dank walls and churning roil of a ship at sea.
**** (4.5) The Answer Is by Alex Trebek Should I really be knocking half a star off the rating of The Answer Is simply because Alex Trebek is not a writer by trade? He freely admits upfront in his autobiography that he is not. That statement reflects Alex’s eighty years we were privileged to know him. Honesty, integrity, authenticity. A dedicated family man presents the game show host who clearly put every contestant at ease with his personable approach and intellect. From humble beginnings in Ontario, the son of a restaurant chef, Trebek never took anything he was given for granted. He worked for his success. So many answers can be found from that single, life-affirming directive.
**** (4.5) The Artic Fury by Greer MacAllister Another delightful Zoom chat, this time with author, Greer Macallister who shared the backgrounder on a completely fictionalized story of an all women’s expedition setting out to search the Artic for the lost Franklin party in 1859. Writing three simultaneous stories – the expedition, the backstory of the main character, Virginia Reeve and a courtroom trial – works in a seamless flow from further past, to past to present. The storylines and resolutions came together for a compelling story, even if it was 100% fiction.
DNF – Did Not Finish: To The Lighthouse
Very rare that I abandon a book, but 30% into listening to Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse I had to hit the STOP button for good despite the pleasant narration by Nicole Kidman. Too many characters, meandering plot and thoughts. I felt like I was back in a college philosophy class (which BTW was also the only DNF course I took- should have been a tip-off). Perhaps this is an instance where the book must be read instead of listened to for complete enjoyment. Will try a hard copy once I can source a library copy.
Thanks for reading all the way through to the end. Now, it’s your turn. Have you read any of these titles? Agree / Disagree with my ratings and observations? I’d love to hear from you. Drop a comment below.
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