Summer beach days and porch evenings aren’t complete without a book in my hand. Which ones have you read? Do our ratings jive? Which ones do you want to pick up after reading my reviews? Drop a comment below. Would love to hear from you.
On to the reviews! My fingers turned the pages and my ears tuned in to a great variety of genres this summer, including three beta reads for author friends. Beta readers provide feedback to help authors polish a manuscript. Using a defined set of questions, you read for plot and character development, conflict identification and resolution, plausibility of settings and scenes and overall engagement and pacing of the story. I’m honored my friends asked me to read and am confident I gave them solid feedback. I’ll look forward to seeing each of them published.
I’ve linked each book to Amazon for additional reviews. I can share books listened to on Audible for free via an emailed link. Send me a note if you’re interested.
CODE: *** / **** means 3.5 stars – I can’t figure out how to make a half asterisk. 🙂
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Literary Fiction / Type: ARC (Advanced Reader Copy)
Take a stroll down suburban neighborhood sidewalks in Anytown USA. What do you see? Who do you meet? Could there be, hiding behind the manicured lawn and neatly trimmed bushes, a person just like you? Just like me? There are. And, they’re also characters found on the pages of Juliette Fay’s newest novel, Catch Us When We Fall. The keyword, “when” in the title sets the premise for the story. For it’s not a matter of “IF” we fall, but when, and we do. We fall in love with the complex and flawed characters of Cass and Scott, along with Laurel, Kate, and Drew. We fall into the intensity of the influence of alcoholism which walks throughout Anytown USA with nary a care whether you drive a Lexus, cut the lawn, or take refuge in a guest bedroom. We cling to the hope that the humanity buried deep inside us will battle the inner evils of destruction and unite us rather than splinter like fragments of a shattered dream. Fay delivers emotionally packed extra innings of swings and misses as Cass and Scott circle the bases to find redemption and love waiting at home plate. For more information on Juliette Fay, the author, check out my coffee catch up with her: Shine a Spotlight.
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Historical Fiction – Gilded Age/New York / Type: Softcover-Purchased
Sometimes how you obtain a book is as good a story as the novel itself, or better. After putting a call out for recommended indie book stores across the country, I randomly chose Content Bookstore in Northfield MN to place an order for the next book I wanted to purchase, The Social Graces. Stories about the lives of the rich and famous promise the most base form of entertainment, kind of like reading People magazine at the hair salon. The Social Graces presents the intertwined and combative lives of the Astors and Vanderbilts during New York’s Gilded Age. The superficial battles of one up-manship (woman-ship) serve to ground us to the more important matters of present day. Rosen recreates the world of jewels and mansions, gowns and horse carriages, in rich detail. The characters come alive as their relationships grow and meld into a seamless story which flows as gently as the train on a ball gown behind a grand dame. For a more in-depth read about Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and a stronger presence in the Gilded Age of the 400’s Newport “cottages”, I recommend A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler.
Read For: Research / Genre: Biography / Type: Hardcover-Library Loan
I picked up Splendid Solutions to begin my research phase of Book #2. One idea for Eliza’s sequel will address a theme presented in the first book, the need for a physician to develop a sense of science and sympathy in her practice. To illustrate the “science” theme and with an anticipated setting of 1925 – 1955, the most compelling medical topic of that time was the hunt for a polio vaccine. You can’t research that topic without reading a biography of Jonas Salk. Splendid Solutions follows some of the earlier research work by others in the field, but centers on Salk’s beginnings at the University of Michigan and follows him and his family and lab assistants to Pittsburgh where they work tirelessly to eradicate the epidemic of polio which plagued children throughout the world. I have nine pages of notes ready when I am to flesh out how one of my characters can join in the fight to save millions of children from a future of leg braces, or worse. Side Note: Just discovered the brilliance of the speech-to-text function in Word. After flagging passages in the book, I can read them aloud to my computer. The words magically appear on the screen. No more typing all those pages!
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Historical Fiction, 1934 Atlantic City / Type: Audbile
Secrets held. Secrets supposed. Truths revealed. When Florence Adler swims away from her family, the relationships she leaves behind smash, splinter and resolve with multiple POVs from characters looking to protect and scar each other. Set in Atlantic City, Beanland pulls you in and takes you away like the currents which shape the Jersey shore. Tones of anti-Semitism and hints of growing difficulties in Nazi Germany add to the swells and texture of the story.
Read For: Book Club / Genre: Historical Fiction Dual Timeline: 1838 England / 1938 Rhode Island / Type: Hardcover – Library Loan
Every year when I host a summer book club, I try to pick a title related to our gathering spot on Cape Cod. I’ve had my fair share of misses with past choices (The Gilly Salt Sisters, Cranberry Hush), but this year I had a hit with The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter. A beachside discussion, looking out to Sandy Neck Lighthouse, resulted in a solid 4-star rating by all with admiration for the stories of both Grace Darling (based on a real person) and Matilda Emmerson. Personally, I found Grace’s story of bravery and family commitment a bit stronger, but the dual narrative worked to link the two women together despite the century that separates them. The force of the 1938 hurricane which devastated the New England coast also added tension to the story.
Read For: Book Club / Genre: Historical Fiction – WWII Germany / Type: Hardcover – Library Loan
Not much I could do when my online HF book club chose yet another WWII novel set in Germany – the genre I had sworn off, feeling there are so many other time periods and settings to learn about I didn’t need to read another one. I was, however, pleasantly pleased and a bit surprised I hadn’t read The Book Thief before now (published in 2007) and to note it is considered YA. Upon closer reflection, after I was asked to led the group discussion, I found the beauty in Zusak’s story and the deep symbolism of many of the objects and events within the pages of the book. As expected with a WWII there is trauma, death, and despair, but there was also hope and love built on a foundation of friendship.
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Women’s Fiction / Type: Audible
When you finish a book and know immediately the character(s) will stay with you for a long time, you know there’s a new five-star read on your list. Sister Evelyn in Mercy House is one of those characters. Entering the convent and taking the vows based on her father’s pledge to “sacrifice” her if his son returned from WWII alive, Evie finds her voice and calling by opening the doors of Mercy House to abused and battered women of Brooklyn. Evie’s ability to comfort and guide others despite traumas in her own past builds an admirable character. Dillon’s bravado to call out the Catholic Church and sins at the hands of the all powerful clergy members reinforces Evie’s confidence in her work and mission. While the story meandered a bit with some of the residents’ backstories, they mirror Evie’s younger years of doubt and fears which hid her voice. As they find their confidence to confront their abusers and move on, so does Evie who is also supported by her sisters of Mercy House. This novel is raw and ragged compared to the softer depictions of nuns most readers are familiar with from the popular Call the Midwife series. Would make a great book club choice, especially for those of us 50+ to identify with a character in her mid/late 60s; a refreshing change to have a main character older than 35!
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Historical Fiction / Type: ARC (Advance Reader Copy)
Last year for my August book club I searched and searched for books to commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Although I came up with two, Madame Presidentess and The Woman’s Hour, I wish The Woman’s March had released in 2020. Written as historical fiction, I hoped for deeper, emotional ties to the three real-life characters and featured suffragists, Alice Paul, Maud Malone, and Ida B. Welles. Instead, the book followed more of a biographical sketch of each. Learning about each one’s contribution to the women’s movement in the early 1900s, leading up to the 1913 D.C. March, was informative, but if it was written as fiction, there are certain reader expectations which fell a bit flat.
Unrated: the Expert Witness by Jeff Drake
Read For: Beta Read / Genre: Courtroom Drama Fiction
Jeff beta read for me last summer, so I was thrilled to return the favor and read The Expert Witness for him. More to come on this courtroom drama and the engaging characters you’ll meet, including one of my suggestions when I pointed out, “Why can’t character X be a woman?” He loved the idea and now a tough Southie woman will make a supporting role appearance. I’m looking forward to hearing of Jeff’s progress and his path to publication.
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Historical Fiction, Depression US / Type: e-Book
This Tender Land, Four Winds, West with Giraffes – is a new trend emerging for historical fiction? Are we drawn to the Dust Bowl and Depression-era to reflect on our current economic issues and put a perspective on the situation? Based on a true story, and with another reference to the 1938 Hurricane, West with Giraffes imagines the cross-country trek to deliver giraffes from Africa, via the port of New York, to the San Diego Zoo. Central to the story is Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Nickel who fled personal tragedies in Dust Bowl OK for NY only to face further tragedy and sets off on his adventure, journeying to the call of the land of milk and honey in CA. Hitching a ride with the giraffes, Woody is an unassuming 17-year-old who seeks comfort and friendship from all he may meet, including Wild Girl and Wild Boy. Compared to Four Winds, Giraffes is a gentler story, easier to digest and move through with a sense of hope which fulfills its promise of a better future.
Unrated – BETA READ – TBA
Read For: Beta Read / Genre: Women’s Literary Fiction
At the request of the author, I am not revealing the title nor plot of this beta read. I am happy, however, she found my feedback helpful: “Your response is highly valuable to me, especially since you read and review so widely”. I look forward to sharing more about this compelling women’s fiction next year when it’s closer to publication.
***Bound by Blue by Edie Littlefield Blane
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Memoir / Type: Paperback – Purchased
My husband is always a good sport when we travel knowing I will want to hit the local indie bookstore wherever we go, even when it’s a 10 square mile island, sitting off the shore of Rhode Island. During a quick getaway to Block Island, I visited Island Bound bookstore and picked up the memoir of local resident, Edie Littlefield Blane. Bound by Blue compiles Edie’s memories of living on the island her entire life. Born in the 1930s, she grew up on a farm with no electricity, no running water, not even a refrigerator until the 1950s. The simple life defined Edie’s life. The writing rambled a bit with jumps forward and back, but understanding from the beginning that she wrote the book as part of a class at the public library, I’m more than happy to give her a pass. Self-published in conjunction with the library and bookstore. Could not find it for sale on Amazon or anywhere else – guess you’ll have to plan a trip to Block Island if you’re interested. I’ve already sent my copy on to friends whose parents have a house over there (and recommended a must-do stop at The Oar for mudslides and lobster clubs).
Read For: Book Clubs (2) / Genre: Historical Fiction Depression TX & CA / Type: Hardcover-Purchased
The relevancy of a novel’s content amidst current events often drives its success. Yes, Kristin Hannah’s Four Winds could be a success based on her name alone. But, was it also spurred by a release during a pandemic when readers viewed cars snaking through miles-long food lines and unemployment numbers growing by the day? Did living through the uncertainty and panic around COVID point to the resiliency needed by the Oakies and migrant workers which we needed to summon forth for ourselves? I was fortunate both my book clubs chose Four Winds for our September read. Two clubs, one book makes for a happy Janis to lower my TBR pile just a tad. The overall consensus across both groups pushed the conclusion FW is an important read to learn more about the Dust Bowl and the migrant workers’ plight from a woman’s perspective, yet the level of constant despair became overwhelming. At least we all got one laugh when I asked my in-person club, “Is there any happy scene in this book?” and my sharp-witted friend answered, “Yes. When Elsa has satsifying sex with …” (no spoilers!) I also agreed with several comments that the book was too long with an ending that felt rushed. The length of the book could have stood some editing to address a few implausible storylines around character development. I felt the same way about Hannah’s last novel with a formulaic plot, The Great Alone. Best-selling authors receive incredible marketing hype and accolades which feed the fire for continued success. But, is it always warranted? My favorite by Hannah is still the first one of hers I read: The Winter Garden. And, my favorite for this time period is John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath.
Read For: My Choice / Genre: Historical Fiction- WWII England / Type: Hardcover – Purchased
Another WWII European based novel? No, thank you. Another cover with a woman’s head chopped off? Please, no. A story of strength and compassion derived through the power of bonding among women’s friendships? Yes. Learning about everyday life on the home front for British families? Yes, please. In The Kitchen Front, four women in the English countryside vie for the position to join a BBC radio program which broadcasts recipes and tips of how to turn war-time rations into satisfying meals. Kitchen Front was the perfect palate cleanser after the heavy and ultra-depressing Four Winds. Plus, some of the recipes sound pretty good – as long as I don’t have to forage the woods for mushrooms!
Read For: My Choice / Genre: Historical Fiction – WWI France / Type: Hardcover-Trivia Contest Prize
As my novel covers women in medicine from 1897 – 1920, part of my research for the WWI years included discovery of the American Women’s Hospital in France and staffing by many graduates of the Woman’s Medical College of PA. When I heard about Band of Sisters, a group of Smith College graduates who went to France volunteering for citizens’ relief efforts, I had high hopes those women would cross paths with the women physicians of AWH. Alas, they didn’t. While the Smith group performed important duties and contributed greatly, personally I would have been more interested in the AWH as documented in an excellent exhibit produced by the American Medical Women’s Association. I had the pleasure of connecting with the Executive Director of AMWA, Eliza Chin, M.D. and the exhibit’s producer, Mollie Marr (Ph.D. candidate), during my research and am honored they both became beta readers for Eliza’s story to validate the medical information and a woman doctor’s perspective.
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Historical Fiction – 1930s-1940s Alabama / Type: Audible
When you can’t recall the character names for a book you read / listened to a month ago, I guess that means the book did not make a lasting impression on you. Another Depression-based book which follows the intersection of three unlikely groups of characters meshed with a few implausible plotlines combined with an inconsistent timeline kept this one a bit lower than the other Depression set novels I read this quarter. The characters in West with Giraffes were far more engaging.
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Women’s Fiction / Type: Paperback-Purchased
That moment when you’re sitting on the beach chatting with a neighbor about the books in your hands and she says, “You know Mary Lou’s late sister wrote a book based on our Lane.” The Ice Margin opens each chapter with a “tag” – in this case, a factoid about the geological shaping of Cape Cod by retreating glaciers. Set during the summer of 1991 when Hurricane Bob hit us hard, Ice Margin introduces us to a cast of complex women. Main character, Anna, arrives at “Kettle Lane” to spend the summer at her husband’s aunt’s cottage who has bequeathed it to a trust for Anna’s disabled, 17-year-old, daughter, Dorrie. In many ways, the novel can be considered a coming-of-age genre for Anna, a 40-something stay-at-home wife/mother/caregiver, as well her other 12-year-old daughter, Lesley, and her neighbor, Daphne, a 60-something single mother/reclusive author. Each one experiences losses to test their resolve and leans on one another to face those losses. The opening 2/3 paces slow as we get to know the women and the men in their lives, for better or worse, and then bam, a horrific event turns lives upside down and inside out. The scraping away of layers of defenses and emotions reveals where our strengths lie.
Dalton re-created the lane and beachside town environment perfectly, right down to the attitude of lane residents: “A moment later the same car passes her again in the opposite direction. An older couple, probably just sightseeing or scouting For Sale signs what Daphne calls peepers. They drive down Kettle Lane all the time, annoying the people who live there.” Yup – substitute Locust for Kettle and you’ve got it!.
Unrated – Hardland by Ashley Sweeney
Read For: Beta Read / Genre: Historical Fiction
Get ready to meet Ruby Fortune next September. You’ll love the grit and hardscrabble life she leads in the unforgiving hard lands of 1905 Arizona. Before then, you may want to check out Ashley’s other award-winning historical fictions, Answer Creek and Eliza Waite.
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Memoir / Type: Audible
ANTICIPATION…Anticipation is makin’ me late, Is keepin’ me waitin’…
I’m still waiting for Carly Simon’s memoir to pull me in and build interest in her life story. Or rather, part of her life story? Why does she end the book when she finally divorces James Taylor in 1983? Has her life only been defined by her relationships with (famous) men? Her name dropping (Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson) leads to such a conclusion. Every chapter made me think Carly was the vain one, not Warren Beatty as she alludes to as the song inspiration. I found it difficult to empathize with a poor little rich girl (daughter of the co-founder of Simon & Schuster) who grows up in the enclaves of Manhattan, Westchester and Martha’s Vineyard. As the memoir of a famous singer/songwriter, I also wished the Audible version included some of her song tracks instead of the most minor chords and snippets. Understanding the lyrics would have benefited from the full tracks. For a much more engaging and informative read about these female superstars of the 1970s, I recommend the biography Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller about Carole King, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell.
Read For: Personal Choice / Genre: Mystery / Type: Audible
Confession time – I don’t recall ever reading an Agatha Christie novel. Seen plenty of movie adaptions but have not picked up one of her many mysteries to enjoy the full experience of her mastery of a good whodunit. Inspired by a reading this past spring of The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict, I figured might as well start at the beginning with her first book. Plenty of suspects roam the Styles English manor with valid motives for the central murder case. Christie definitely had the gift of leading you down one path, only to turn you around and consider another. I think I need to pick up some more mysteries and cycle them in between my HF selections. Is there an Agatha Christie you recommend? Or another favorite mystery writer?
need more recommendations?
If you’ve already read many of these, or none sound interesting to you, I’ve got plenty more recommendations. Hope you’ll find something to cozy up with this fall & winter.
I invite you to follow my blog for further updates on my journey toward writing my first historical fiction. More information about my debut novel is available on my About page. You can sign up to follow from this page with the pop-up, or send me a note through the CONTACT page and I’ll email you an invitation.
I also post book recommendations and tips and ideas for book clubs. I’m on social media, too. On my Facebook page, I post deals I find on Kindle specials ($1.99, $2.99, etc.) for books I recommend. A great way to add to your e-library with minimal costs and share with your book club.
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.