Tag Archives: book review

Sunday Review: How to Knit a Murder by Sally Goldenbaum

I bought this audiobook because a) it was on sale, b) the setting looked interesting, c) I’m a lifelong knitter, and d) I wanted something light but not TOO light. Most of those expectations were fulfilled.

However, before buying, I looked it up on Amazon and saw that it was listed aa #2 of series, so even though I prefer to read mysteries series in order, I thought dipping in this early wouldn’t be too bad, and if I liked it, I could go back and catch up on the opening installment without too much confusion. 

Except the label on Amazon is deceptive. This isn’t book 2 of 5. it’s book 12 of I don’t know how many—16 maybe? Apparently, the author switched publishers after 11 books, and the publisher decided to restart the numbering. Why would they do that? It’s very confusing to readers, and one of the most basic rules of marketing is not to confuse or annoy your customers.

Anyway, the whole time I was reading it, I was having difficulty remembering the characters who seemed to be the recurring cast. I’d get bits of their personalities here and there—but not enough to stick. It was like transferring to a new high school halfway through junior year and not only being unable to break into the in group but also finding it impossible to glean enough information to understand the relationships swirling around you.

The mystery was fine, although I easily spotted the essential piece of information that was tossed out casually about halfway through the book. But I just couldn’t engage enough with the knitting group to want to spend time with this town or these characters further, certainly not enough to go back and wade through 12 books to reach this point and move forward. 

I feel like I’m being unnecessarily negative and I’m punishing the author for something the publisher did, but I don’t like being led to expect something that isn’t what I’m getting. Perhaps if Kindle or one of the audiobook vendors I use offers a really cheap version of the real book 1 in the series, I’ll give it another try, or maybe I’ll eventually see if my library carries the books. But not until I’ve had a chance to let the irritation settle and see whether I develop any curiosity about the characters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, cozy mystery

Sunday Review: How the Deer Moon Hungers by Susan Wingate

The novel opens with a throat-grabbing scene narrated by the spirit of seven-year-old Tessa, who floats above a team of paramedics who are frantically trying to save her life as they transport her to an emergency room after an accident. Then the story jumps back in time several days.

Tessa and her sixteen-year-old sister Mackenzie, live on an island in the Pacific Northwest with their mother Uma, who is stressed out, overwhelmed, and raging since her husband left the family. Mackenzie—Mac—just wants to be a teenage girl, hanging out with her best friend Gemma, rolling her eyes at the things grownups do, and maybe, if she works up enough nerve, giving in to her friend’s urging to try marijuana. But because Uma is too overwhelmed to handle her current life, Mac also has to spend more time than she’d like looking after Tessa. The two sisters adore each other, but having a seven-year-old tag along can really cramp a teenager’s style.

Then the unthinkable happens. On a day when Mac and Gemma planned to do “big kid” things, they have to take Tessa with them. During a few minutes of inattention on the older girls’ part, the local drunk runs over Tessa and her bike with his massive tank of a car.

Tessa dies, and Uma blames her older daughter. So do the police, who decide—based on some dubious eyewitness testimony—to arrest Mac on drug charges. The only people who can vouch for Mac’s innocence choose self-protection rather than honesty, and Mac finds herself being sent to juvenile detention, where her already shattered life turns into a nightmare of terror and abuse.

Fortunately, Susan Wingate doesn’t leave us there but rather takes us through the worst of it and into the early stages of Mac’s road to redemption and healing. I recommend this to anyone who wants to be reminded of the possibility of hope after deep despair.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction

Sunday Review: Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber

This novel is an enjoyable blend of Southern family saga meets magical realism. Anna Kate is a young woman on the verge of starting medical school, less because she wants to than because she promised her late mother Eden that she would take up the career her father never got to practice. A few months before med school is about to start, Anna Kate’s maternal grandmother Zee dies, leaving Anna Kate an estate with a catch.

Zee practiced folk medicine and ran the Blackbird Cafe in Wicklow, Alabama—a town that Eden left behind when her boyfriend was killed in an accident because his parents unjustly accused her of crashing the car on purpose in an attempted murder-suicide. Because of her mother’s painful feelings about the town, Anna Kate has never been there. Now Zee’s will has left the cafe to Anna Kate with the stipulation that she must run it for two months before she can inherit the property and sell it.

It doesn’t take Anna Kate long after arriving in Wicklow to learn that the Blackbird is no ordinary cafe. The pies sold there are said to have magical powers to bring those who are grieving messages from beyond the grave. Except that when Anna Kate bakes the pies, the messages don’t come. “The pies are broken.”

A whimsical yet poignant tale ensues that encompasses solving family mysteries, establishing bonds with estranged relatives, weighing the value of old promises, and possibly finding love. The novel is comforting and thought provoking at the same time. But be forewarned. It will give you a craving for pie, blackberry iced tea, and buttermilk fried chicken.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, Romance

Sunday Review: The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis specializes in writing historic fiction about well-known buildings in New York City, and I have loved several of her novels. This time she focuses on Grand Central Station. The Masterpiece is a dual-timeline story set in the late 1920s and the mid-1970s.

The 1920s timeline focuses on Clara Darden, a young artist from Arizona who came to New York to study at the Grand Central School of Art. (Did you know there was once an art school on one of the upper floors of Grand Central? I didn’t.) Now working there as an instructor, she has to fight against two kinds of bigotry—sexism and the ingrained belief that illustrators are less-talented and less-important than “serious painters.” She meets and becomes involved with two very different men: a wealthy young poet and a fiery experimental painter from Armenia. Little do any of them know that the high life of the 20s can’t last forever; the economy is heading for a crash that will turn the country upside down and make art a dispensable luxury in a grim new world of standing in soup lines and making do with frayed, years-old clothing.

The 1970s story focuses on Virginia Clay, a women who is recently divorced and struggling to support herself and her daughter. She fails to qualify for the secretarial job she interviews for and ends up working at the Grand Central information booth. By this time, the depot is dirty and neglected—no longer the beautifully decorated showplace it was in the 1920s—and it’s home to drug addicts and other unsavory types, causing passengers to spend as little time there as possible. The building is in danger of being torn down, with only the lower sections incorporated into amuch larger structure.

One day, Virginia happens upon the abandoned art school and discovers a long-forgotten painting that speaks to her deeply. It also reminds her of a painting she saw in a magazine: a piece of art by the painter using the pseudonym Clyde, which is about to go on auction for a fortune.

The art school is the obvious tie between the two storylines, but as Virginia works to both save Grand Central and uncover the truth about the painting she found, more links between the two stories emerge. I found this a very enjoyable read.

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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March

This novel begins with an interesting premise: Captain Jim Agnihotri, an Anglo-Indian officer whose English father is unknown, is in a military hospital recovering from injuries he received in a violent skirmish near Karachi. For a long time after being wounded, he does little but reread the cases of his hero Sherlock Holmes. Then one day, a newspaper article about a shocking event in Bombay—two Indian women from a prominent Parsee family fall to their deaths from the high clock tower—captures his attention. Adi, the husband of one of the women and cousin of the other, is quoted as saying he feels left behind. Which is precisely how Captain Jim feels about surviving the battle in which many of his men were killed.

On impulse, Jim approaches the grieving man and is hired to investigate the case. The ensuing months of digging for answers forces Jim to deal with the complex rules of the upper classes, the troubled waters of India’s political conflicts, and several physical dangers and endurance tests.

The mystery is interesting enough to keep the reader going. It takes a twisting path that goes in several unexpected directions. The characters are engaging; it is especially interesting that many of them are Parsee, an Indian minority I hadn’t encountered in fiction before. The setting is one I usually enjoy—I’ve read a fair number of Indian novels over the years—but I found that this novel didn’t feel quite as rich with sensory description as most of the others. Even so, I took enough pleasure in the book to give it a solid four-star rating.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Indian fiction

Sunday Review: Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman

For the most part, I’m weary of all the historical novels set during the world wars, but once in a while, the premise of one will intrigue me enough to give it a chance. Paris Never Leaves You is such a novel. The story is told with the popular device of dual timelines—New York publishing during the 1950s and World War II in Paris—but it feels less disjointed than many such novels because one main character anchors both periods.

In the WWII storyline, Charlotte, a French war widow with a very young daughter, runs a bookstore with a friend during the German occupation of Paris. When the friend is arrested, Charlotte must survive on her own. She reluctantly forms a relationship with a German officer—a frequent bookshop customer—who can provide much-needed food for her child, but it is relationship riddled with danger for both of them.

During the later storyline, Charlotte is trying to live a low-key life in New York, doing her work as an editor and raising her teenage daughter Vivi. However, Charlotte faces an unexpected challenge when Vivi, who knows that in the last days of the war, she and her mother were imprisoned in a camp for French Jews, develops a sudden interest in exploring her Jewish heritage despite her mother’s agnosticism.

I’m reluctant to say more because the novel contains some surprise revelations—portrayals of survival strategies I haven’t seen in other novels set in this time period. Suffice it to say that it deals with the short-term and long-term costs of making moral compromises to stay alive.

For me, the book is a solid 4-star read. Not all of the relationships ring completely true to me, but they were plausible enough to keep reading and enjoy other aspects of the story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century, World War II

Sunday Review: A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe

This novel seemed like an appropriate choice to follow up Stephanie Marie Thornton’s A Most Clever Girl because both deal with women in the intelligence game in mid-twentieth century United States. The premise intrigued me enough to overlook my qualms about the cover image: “It’s stunning,” I thought, “but that outfit is more 1962 than 1952.” In this case, I absolutely should have judged the book by its cover. The story never felt authentic to me.

Katharina, the daughter of immigrants, grew up speaking four languages and has since become conversational in at least one more—Russian. The novel opens in the early 1950s with Katharina and a friend watching their very young children in Central Park. The friend seems to have taken to motherhood effortlessly; she’s calm, empathetic, and decisive in dealing with her daughter and any crises that arise. In contrast, Katharina is easily overwhelmed by her rambunctious toddler and crying baby.

Once her “present-day situation” is established, we go back in time to her life just after World War II. Because of her skill set, Katharina gets a job as a simultaneous translator at the UN (similar to Audrey Hepburn in the movie Charade, which is one of my all-time favorites, so I was intrigued). However, from the start, I found it hard to relate to Katharina. Even though she mentions in passing that translating the important discussions at the UN helps her feel that she is contributing meaningfully to world peace, that doesn’t truly seem to be what she loves most about her life. Rather, she rhapsodizes about being single and going out with her French friend, eating great food, drinking all night, and flirting with men, often going to bed with them. She comes across as a shallow hedonist.

Unlike many young women of the time period, she is not pursuing marriage. However, when she meets handsome Tom Edgeworth, a devoted and much-loved pediatric surgeon, she falls for him and he for her. They marry, not exactly in haste, but without much effort to discover if they are truly compatible as life partners, not just dinner partners and bedmates. Tom has made it perfectly clear that he expects the woman he marries to provide him with children as quickly as possible and to devote herself to them full-time. It seems to me that if Katharina is half as intelligent as we’re supposed to believe, she would have seen the red flags right away. Her French friend certainly tried to get her to view the prospect realistically. Yet Katharina marries Tom with a disturbing lack of concern.

Faster forward to motherhood, and Katharina is miserable, “trapped in a gilded cage” as the book jacket says. When she develops insomnia and starts drinking heavily and behaving erratically, Tom has little sympathy for his wife. Instead, he grows even more rigid even though he suspects she is having a breakdown.

Suddenly, in the midst of this increasing discord, the FBI recruits her. They plan to arrange things so she’ll encounter her former college lover, Jacob Gornev, in hopes that she will eventually be able to spy on him—because he is highly placed among American communists. (Is it just a coincidence that his name is so similar to Jacob Golos, the real-life communist spy who played such a prominence role in A Most Cleve Girl? I doubt it.)

Katharina’s main contact at the FBI is Turner Wells, a black agent who is spying on a civil rights group because, although he believes in civil rights, he’s afraid of too much communist influence on the movement. (A situation I found to be really distasteful and rather peculiar for a white author to place her one prominent and supposedly sympathetic character of color in.) To add one more bit of spice to this improbable stew of ingredients, Tanabe decided to have Katharina feel an almost instantaneous but forbidden sexual attraction to Turner.

The feminist exploration of motherhood might have worked on its own or with a different partner story, and the tangled loyalties of FBI agents could have been quite interesting. But the two storylines felt forced together in a marriage that was as incompatible as Katharina and Tom’s.

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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton

This historical novel is based on the life of Elizabeth Bentley, an American who was recruited into the American Communist Party by friends. Soon thereafter, Bentley discovers a valuable role she can play for the party, a role that she believes will also help her country. Bentley falls in love with her handler, Jacob Golos, and together they form the largest foreign spy ring in the United States. All through World War II, she tells herself that she is not a traitor to her country because the Soviet Union is a U.S. ally so to help one is to help the other.

Things become much more perilous after the war when the United States and Soviet Union enter the period of hostility known as the Cold War. Events test Elizabeth’s loyalties until eventually she must irrevocably choose sides.

Bentley’s life is fascinating, and she certainly played a pivotal role in the mid-twentieth-century history. However, my enthusiasm for the novel was blunted a bit by its format. It is told as a dialogue between Elizabeth and a young woman who is searching for answers about her biological mother, whom she believes was one of Elizabeth’s associates. I think the story would have been more vivid if it hadn’t been spun in this retrospective way.

Despite that quibble, I recommend A Most Clever Girl to anyone interested in the era of Red scares, McCarthyism, and the Cold War.

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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile

Because I am a novelist, I tend to read mostly fiction. However, my husband and I are also big Brandi Carlile fans, so when I heard that she had written a memoir, I immediately put myself on the wait list to get the audiobook from our library. A friend told me that the audiobook version is the best one for this memoir because the author narrates it herself and sings at the end of chapters. Sometimes more than one song.

Carlile is the oldest of three siblings born to young parents; she grew up in Washington State, moving from house to house and changing schools constantly. Her family was loving but dysfunctional. As Carlile herself writes, she experienced several brutal things in her childhood—but she experienced inexplicable miracles too. She has a strong streak of mysticism that permeates the book.

During her formative years, she dealt with several important identity issues. She idolized Elton John and wanted to become a star singer, but the singing contests available to her awarded only the big-haired, prettily dressed girls embodying the traditional femininity typical of country music of the time. As someone gradually growing aware of being a lesbian, Carlile had little interest in that type of conformity. She developed a deep belief in God, but when she tried to make a public profession of her faith, she was humiliated by a Baptist minister who couldn’t accept LGBTQ christians. The book also chronicles the course of her career and her journey toward finding a happy, fulfilling family life.

It’s an incredible story, one that will be appreciate by any fan of her music and also people who are interested in LGBTQ memoirs.

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Filed under Book Reviews, memoir

Sunday Review: Painting the Light by Sally Cabot Gunning

I was first drawn to this historical novel because it’s about an artist. As it turns out, the subject of painting plays less of a role in the story than I’d hoped, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

Ida Russell has been battered by life’s storms. Before the story opens, every member of her family of origin has died from drowning: her father and two brothers by accident, her mother by suicide. Before these tragedies, Ida was a promising painter and art student in Boston. However, lonely and weighed down by grief, she decides after an all-too-brief courtship to marry Ezra Pease, a sheep farmer from Martha’s Vineyard.

After the marriage, Ida discovers to her chagrin that Ezra is a lazy farmer, an unkind husband who alternates between inattention and disparagement, and a habitual gambler who takes part in nightly poker games in town. The charm he displayed during their courtship has vanished, along with her family property, which he sold as soon as he had the legal right as her husband to do so. The running of the household and many of the duties of the farm fall to Ida, leaving her no time to paint. Two years into their marriage, Ezra and Ida are barely on speaking terms.

Ezra and a friend named Mose open a salvage company, and the work occasionally takes them away from home—absences that Ida relishes—but that business doesn’t prosper any more than the farm does. Shortly after the novel begins, Ezra and Mose leave for a salvage job in Rhode Island. While they are away, a terrible storm hits, and their company boat catches fire and sinks. A ship named the Portland traveling to Rhode Island also sinks with great loss of life. A few days afterward, Ida is stunned to receive a letter from Ezra written just before he and Mose were about to board the ill-fated vessel. Although their bodies never wash ashore, they are presumed dead because only a small portion of those lost in the Portland are ever recovered. Although Ida retains little love for her husband, losing another person to drowning feels like an unnecessarily cruel trick of fate.

As Ida sets to work trying to make sense of her husband’s assets, she encounters Mose’s brother, Henry Barstow, a man she’s met before and liked. They team up to settle the estate and see if anything remains for either of them to inherit. Ida’s financial situation is dire. Ezra’s lies and deceptions—and the destruction of the salvage boat—have left her with nothing to live on but the grudging support of her husband’s aunt. Complicating matters, Ida finds herself more and more attracted to Henry, who is married but also in a foundering relationship.

Ida makes many discoveries through the course of the story—about her husband, about secret schemes, and about the island residents it takes her so long to come to know. Most importantly, she learns to rely on herself and to feel confidence in her own opinions rather than society’s dictates. 

Highly recommended.

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Filed under 19th century life, American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction