Staff book reviews
Spring/Summer 2021 - New books at the library
"The Nature of Fragile Things," by Susan Meissner. This novel has several different threads running through it at the same time. Including foul play, identity theft, and betrayal all set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It is also the story of three women whose fates intertwine due to a man who they all thought they knew, but none of them had an inkling of just exactly who he is. The main protagonist, Sophie, immigrated to New York from Ireland and after a few years becomes a mail-order bride and settles in San Francisco. But things are not right with her husband, and as that chapter of her life comes crashing down (literally and figurately), Sophie rebuilds her life with the help of her two, newfound friends.
"Sparks Like Stars," Nadia Hashimi. This book has excellent character development and is one of those (unfortunately) rare books that you can’t wait to get home to read. It starts in 1978 Kabul, when Sitara’s world splintered when the communists stage a coup and kill her whole family. She is saved by a solder who she is never quite sure if he killed her family himself. Sitara is adopted by an American diplomat and eventually becomes a surgeon. Thirty years after that fateful night in Kabul, Sitara’s life is once again shaken when an elderly patient turns out to be the same soldier who saved her. This ignites her fury to finally find out what happened and she travels back to Afghanistan to get some answers.
"The Opposite of Chance," by Margaret Hermes. After living a rather sheltered life in Milwaukee, Betsy flees to Europe after learning of her husband's infidelity. This is in 1981 and she meets a wide variety of people with their own stories. The book alternates between Betsy’s voice and those that she meets. I found this an interesting and unusual writing structure as the non-Betsy chapters pull readers into the lives of the individuals Betsy meets along her journey.
"West With Giraffes," by Lynda Rutledge. Woodrow “Woody” Nickel, aged 105 feels a great urge to write down what happened during the most wonderous time of his life. Driving the two “hurricane giraffes” from the east coast to the San Diego Zoo. This was in 1938 – the start of WWII and the never-ending dust bowl. We meet a whole host of interesting characters, including the two memorable giraffes themselves.
"The Arsonists’ City," by Hala Alyan. Families are all the same no matter where they come from. In this book, the parents are from Syria and Lebanon. They and their children now are spread around the globe. They meet in Beruit to decide if they should sell the family home. Only the father wants to sell the house and they each have their own secrets that slowly reveal themselves. The character development is excellent and one gets to know all of the main characters – the good, bad and ugly.
April 2021 - New books at the library
- "Under the Tulip Tree," by Michelle Shocklee. This is one of the Mac Sack books with a strong female protagonist. Lorena Leland’s life was seemingly cursed that the day that the stock market crashed in 1929 was also her 16th birthday. After a short stint as a reporter, Lorena signs up working for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). At first hides the fact that her job is to interview past slaves, but then she meets Frankie Washington - a 101-years-old who has plenty to say about slavery. Frankie opens Lorena’s eye to the realities of slavery – and not the sugar-coated version she learned at school. An absorbing read about the FWP and how it could change people’s lives.
- "The Children’s Blizzard," by Melanie Benjamin. Nothing like reading a novel about the horrible blizzard of 1888 while watching the snow come down, down, down. Based on the oral histories of survivors, Benjamin’s story is told through the voices of four main characters, two are sisters who are both school teachers. The vast majority of the book takes place in Nebraska so that was an added bonus. While I wish that the stories of some of the main characters were tied up a bit more tightly, I used my imagination to make up their endings.
- "Fifty Words for Rain," by Asha Lemmie. It’s hard to believe that this sweeping novel is a debut by Lemmie. It starts in post-WWII Japan and tells the story of Nori, an illegitimate child of Japanese royalty and an African-American solder. Nori lives many lives and on other continents never quite fitting in due to her skin color. Throw in a pair of evil grandparents and a previously unknown half-brother and you have an absorbing story with wonderfully drawn-out characters that will keep readers anxiously waiting for moment to be back in Nori’s world.
- "The Last Garden in England," by Julia Kelly. Within the historical fiction genre, there is a common sub-genre – that of multi-period novels that alternate between present-day and the past. But The Last Garden in England takes this sub-genre to a new height as the story is told in three timelines – present day, 1944, and 1907. The heart of this novel is the garden itself – created in 1907 by an up-and-coming garden designer. The 1944 story is about how the garden was left alone while the rest of the property was requisitioned and transformed into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. The garden is restored to its former glory in the present-day story. Subplots involving love, loss, and hope for new beginnings gracefully intertwine, and like gardens themselves, these pages invite lingering and thoughtful reflection.
- "They Never Learn," by Layne Fargo. Every year, Scarlett Clark searches for a man on her campus who has done some despicable things towards a woman or women. She then carefully plots on how to kill them while letting them know why she is killing them. But when the college convenes a task force to look into the growing body count on campus, Scarlett cozies up to this investigation. The other storyline takes place in the past and cleverly the two storylines come together, and I had many an “aha” moment when this happened.
November 2020 - Historical, Suspense, Contemporary
- "Glorious Boy," by Aimee Liu. A slightly different angle on a WWII novel as it takes place on the remote Andaman Islands. A British doctor and a Margaret Mead-wannabe American anthropologist are the parents to a precocious and mute four-year-old, Ty. Only Naila, a local girl can communicate with Ty. What happens to this family after the Japanese arrive on their island is both heart wrenching and engrossing. Liu is a master of character development and Shep, Claire, Ty and Naila will remain in your heart and thoughts long after the last page.
- "Until I Find You," by Rea Frey. Imagine you are a single mother – something quite difficult even in the best of circumstances. Now imagine you are also going blind – in additional to taking care of a three-month boy. One day Bec awakes to her son’s cries and knows immediately that this is not her son. No one really believes her and she must rely on her own conviction and a mother’s instinct to uncover what happened to her baby and bring him home for good.
- "American Dirt," by Jeanine Cummins (also available in Large Print and AudioBook). When American Dirt was released in January, 2020 it stirred up not only accolades (Oprah) but also condemnation - that it is a novel about the Mexican immigrant experience written by a non-immigrant, non-Mexican author—when books by Mexican and Mexican American writers often struggle to see daylight. And some went as far to classify this book as “trauma porn." As a non-immigrant, non-Mexican individual myself, I still found the story to be compelling as the protagonist, Lydia, strives to escape to the U.S. with her young son. They are fleeing a drug cartel after 14 members of their family were gunned down. Lydia’s story may not be indicative of the vast majority of those trying to get into America, but it offers some of us a taste of what can happen on the trek north and perhaps give the reader a vicarious insight into the immigrant experience.
- "Leave the World Behind," Rumaan Alam. What if you were to rent an Airbnb on a remote part of Long Island and the owners suddenly show up without warning asserting that there has been a sudden blackout all along the east coast? Do you believe them? Do you let them in? Add in unconscious and unintentional racism and you have the start of an engrossing novel. You may be forgiven to think that this book is a narrative on race relations, but as weirder and weirder things keep occurring, it turns into a “what the heck is happening?” kind of book.
- "The Most Precious of Cargoes," Jean-Claude Grumberg. This very short (I read it in an hour) lyrical book starts out with “Once upon a time…”. But the time period of this book is not a fairy tale, but rather a horror story. The precious cargo in the title are Jewish twins whose father tosses one twin out of the cattle car in the hopes of saving at least one of them. A woodcutter’s wife finds the bundle and is overjoyed as she is barren. This is the story of the father and daughter and that humanity can be found in the most inhumane of places.
- "Dear Child," by Romy Hausmann. This book has been described as a mix of Room and Gone Girl, but I really only see the Room connection. The woman who escapes her prison that is a windowless shack in the woods claims to be Lena who disappeared without a trace 13 years ago. Her overjoyed father swears that she is not their Lena. Who is she and what will happen to Lena’s two children? Is the abductor really dead? Follow the crumbs that appear out of nowhere as the story slowly unfolds. A real suspense story from Hausmann in her first English-language debut.
October 2020 - Fiction
- The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel. This novel is based on a true story from WWII. Eva is forced to flee Paris, finds refuge in a small mountain town and becomes an expert at forging identity cards for Jewish children. She develops a code where the children’s real names are preserved in The Book of Lost Names. This book resurfaces decades later and no one can figure out the code – except Eva.
- Fresh Water for Flowers, by Valerie Perrin. Perrin’s English debut, Fresh Water for Flowers is a beautifully written and heartwarming story of a somewhat ordinary woman, Violette Toussaint. It is simply a story of Violette’s life and how she ended up being a caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in France. Don’t think that the story line is dull, it is anything but. If you want to lose yourself in a book – this is the one.
- He Started It, by Samantha Downing. You may never take a road trip or at least a road trip with your siblings again after reading this suspenseful and sometimes hilarious novel. He Started It is the story of what happens to the three Morgan siblings as they hit the road together as dictated by their late and wealthy grandfather’s will in order to secure their inheritance. The ending will blow you away.
- Monogamy, by Sue Miller. Sue Miller is known for her portrayals of marriage – in particular, long-term marriages. Graham and Annie have been married for 30 years, and it seems that their marriage is the envy of their friends. After Graham suddenly dies, Annie is left to pick up the pieces of her life after living in the shadow of a man with an enormous presence. This effort to move on is complicated after Annie finds out the Graham has not been faithful to her.
- The Night Swim, by Megan Goldin. The trial of the golden boy accused of raping a high school student becomes the subject of Rachel’s third season of her true crime podcast. At the same time, she starts to investigate the possible murder of a high school girl 25 years ago. These two cases slowly start to converge and the resolutions to both cases is not something that I saw coming.