Amy’s April 2022 Book Reviews

Sheesh, will I ever catch up on my book reviews? I read some amazing books in April, and I’m thrilled to share my reviews. Here goes!

The Progeny
By Tosca Lee

Emily Porter is on a quest that will take her to the secret underground of Europe and the inner circles of three ancient orders—one determined to kill her, one devoted to keeping her alive, and one she must ultimately save.

The Progeny is the present-day saga of a 400-year-old war between the descendants of “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Báthory, the most prolific female serial killer of all time, and a secret society dedicated to erasing every one of her descendants. The Scions, descendants of Bathory’s victims, have sought retribution through the centuries by killing her female progeny. Emily is one such progeny, hiding under a new identity after having her memory wiped. Despite her remote location, two men find her. One of them can’t be trusted.

According to legend, Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian countess, tortured and murdered more than six hundred girls in the sixteenth and seventeen centuries with the help of her servants. They were put on trial, but only the servants were executed. The countess was confined to her castle until her death in 1614. Contemporary scholars question the historical evidence, believing her arrest was nothing more than politically motivated slander. Such is the backdrop for this terrific novel. It is filled with adrenaline, star-crossed romance, and plot reversals that kept my attention throughout. I don’t read horror novels, and this isn’t one. Readers of mainstream and Christian fiction will enjoy it in equal measure. The Progeny is wonderfully suspenseful, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy novels or historical thrillers. My pulse pounded as I tore through the pages, and I can’t wait to read book #2 in the series. Nicely done, Tosca Lee! 4.5 stars.

Published Date: May 2016
Genre: Christian fantasy; Christian suspense
Read-alikes: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Nine by Rachelle Dekker, Angelology by Danielle Trussoni, Eyes Wide Open by Ted Dekker

 

The Last Checkmate
by Gabriella Saab  

“Despite taking place in one of the darkest times and places in our collective history, I want The Last Checkmate to be a story that shows how courage, resilience and love can emerge and triumph over such evil.”—Gabriella Saab

Maria Florkowska is many things: daughter, sister, avid chess player, and a member of the Polish underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Poland. Captured by the Gestapo, she is imprisoned in Auschwitz, but while her family is sent to their deaths, she is spared because to play chess to entertain the camp deputy and his guards.

Befriended by a Catholic priest, Maria attempts to overcome her grief, vows to avenge the murder of her family, and plays for her life. For four grueling years, her strategy is simple: Live. Fight. Survive. As the war nears its end, she challenges her former nemesis to one final game.

I enjoyed this book very much: the primary character had moxie and did what was necessary to survive in Auschwitz and avenge the murders of her family. One must expect atrocities when reading a book set in a death camp, and this had plenty, but the plot was so good, it didn’t bother me as much as I’d feared. I know nothing about chess, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t take any notes or highlight any passages in this book—I was too busy enjoying it. Although the protagonist is fictional, several others are based on real individuals, including Karl Fritzsch, the Nazi officer who served as the deputy commandant of Auschwitz, and Father Maksymilian Kolbe, a priest and political prisoner. Pope John Paul II canonized Kolbe in 1981.

The Last Checkmate would have earned 5 stars, but the debut author made some rookie writing mistakes that bothered my editor brain. Her first novel was picked up by William Morrow, though, so I expect good things in her next novel (which is already in the works). If you like WWII fiction with strong female leads, check this out. 4.5 stars.

Published Date: October 2021
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, Sisters of Night and Fog by Erika Robuck, The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy, Irena’s War by James D. Shipman

* Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy of this novel. The opinions are my own.

 

A Small Hotel
By Suanne Laqueur

It’s the summer of 1941. Europe is at war, but New York’s Thousand Islands are at the height of the tourist season. Kennet Fiskare, son of a hotel proprietor, is having the summer of a lifetime, having fallen deeply in love with a Swedish-Brazilian guest named Astrid Virtanen. But the affair is cut short.

The rigors of military life help dull his heartache, but when Kennet’s battalion reaches France, he is thrown into the crucible of frontline combat. As his unit crosses Europe, from the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, Kennet falls into a different kind of love: the intense camaraderie between soldiers. Sustained by his friendships, Kennet both witnesses and commits the unthinkable atrocities of warfare, altering his view of the world and himself.

Suanne Laqueur is a brilliant writer. Her flow, sentence structure, and phraseology were exquisite. I’m half Swedish, and I found the Swedish folklore especially fun. The characters were complex and vivid. Major’s sense of humor reminded me so much of my beloved grandpa. Her descriptions of people and places stirred my emotions; I could picture them in my mind as though I were there.

Her depictions of the hell of war were stunning. Using Kennet’s journal entries to tell the story was a wonderful choice. His experiences during the war were brutal and horrifying: “Causes are distanced, abstract things. Friends are in your face, in your bunk, in your foxhole. They trust you with their lives, they die in your arms with their blood and guts sprayed across your face and their teeth embedded in your flesh.” I’ve read many historical novels about WWII, but I never thought about the smell of war before. “It was ripe inside the bag—fetid with unwiped butts, unwashed hair, cigarette-smoked teeth, dirty clothes, and grimy skin and nervous sweat.”

In one scene, she describes what GIs witnessed when they liberated Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. “Little by little, the GIs grasped how the camp’s staggering mass of filthy humanity comprised an international crossroads of dissidents and unwanteds. Jews, of course—Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Balkan and Dutch. But there were large groups of Spanish Republicans. French political prisoners, too. Unwanted ‘-ists’ of all kinds: socialists, communists, anarchists. Romani. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Intelligentsia. Boy Scouts. (Boy Scouts?!) The ethnic undesirables: Poles, Slovenes, Slovaks, and Serbs. Soviet prisoners of war.” Very few of these groups are mentioned in other historical novels. I went down a long, winding bunny trail researching the Boy Scouts.

I also appreciated that she highlighted several historical figures in the book: Brazilian writer and statesman Joaquim Nabuco, publishing executive F. A. Davis, and Brazilian journalist Assis Chateaubriand.

I would have given A Small Hotel five stars if not for a few things. First, too much of the plot was about the war. What about the other characters that were introduced at the beginning of the book? His family life at the hotel was delightful and so well written. Second, I didn’t realize Laqueur writes LGBT fiction. Not my jam. Third, the novel needed better editing. I found several typos. 4 stars.

Published Date: September 2021
Genres: Historical fiction, Historical romance, LGBT

 

The Violin Conspiracy
By Brendan Slocumb

“Alone, we are a solitary violin, a lonely flute, a trumpet singing in the dark. Together, we are a symphony.” Brendan Slocumb, The Violin Conspiracy.

Black violin prodigy Ray McMillian loves playing more than anything, and nothing will stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming a professional musician. Not his mother, who thinks he should get a real job, not the fact that he can’t afford a high-caliber violin, not the racism inherent in the classical music world. And when he makes the startling discovery that the violin he inherited from his great-grandfather, a freed slave, is actually a priceless Stradivarius, his star rises. Then, on the eve of the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, his prized instrument is stolen.

The Violin Conspiracy is a highly original debut; in fact, I can’t think of another book I’ve ever read about classical music. Part thriller, part coming-of-age, racial commentary, it is a fascinating look at professional classical music by an author who knows what he’s talking about. Brendan Slocum served as the concertmaster for the University Symphony orchestra and principal violist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has been a public and private school K-12 music educator for over twenty-three years.

Although I enjoyed learning more about classical music, the violin in particular, Slocum got into too much detail about playing the instrument. His writing was solid, and he a did fine job managing a dual timeline, but he could use a bit more polishing, and a little more showing instead of telling. One aspect of Ray’s character was frustrating. At times he sounded like a kid from the “hood,” full of street-laced slang and cuss words, but then he would be unexpectedly articulate. His swearing and childish thoughts/comments were unnecessary and detracted from his intelligent character. I figured out the mystery long before it was revealed, it was a wonderful read by a talented author all the same. Recommended. 4 stars.

Published Date: February 2022
Genre: Literary Fiction, African American Fiction
Read-alikes: Harlem Shuffle by, Colson Whitehead, The Queen’s Gambit, by Walter Tevis, The Bridgetower Sonata by Emmanuel Dongala, Hell of a Book by Jason Mott, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton.

* Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy of this novel. The opinions are my own.

 

The Wedding Veil
By Kristy Woodson Harvey

The Wedding Veil is a sweeping new release that follows four women across generations who are bound by a beautiful wedding veil and a connection to the famous Vanderbilt family.

On June 1, 1989, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser marries George Vanderbilt wearing her family’s treasured wedding veil. After her husband’s untimely death in 1914, Edit struggles to maintain their luxurious 250-room Biltmore Estate and leave it as a legacy for her free-spirited daughter, Cornelia. In the present, Julia Baxter wears a wedding veil bequeathed to her great-grandmother by a stranger on a train in the 1930s, to her own fairytale wedding at the Biltmore Estate. When she learns of her fiancé’s infidelity, she leaves him at the altar. Centuries apart, the two women struggle to find their own paths despite the obstacles they face.

When I was first approved for a review copy of this book, I thought, why in the world did I request this? I don’t even read chick lit! If it had a different title and cover image, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to admit how much I enjoyed it. First, the pros. The historical references to the Vanderbilt family were fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that one of my next reads will be Vanderbilt by Anderson Cooper (his mother was Gloria Vanderbilt) and author Katherine Howe. Kristy Woodson Harvey is a fine storyteller with likeable, complex characters. The cons? I’m not a big fan of novels about high society and the Gilded Age, and some events and settings made me cringe. I found the multiple narratives disorienting—too many women, too many narratives. The historical details trump, though, so I give this book 4 stars.

Published Date: March 2022
Genres: Historical fiction, women’s fiction

Read-alikes: The Greenbrier Resort by Joy Callaway, The Grace Kelly Dress by Brenda Janowitz, The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly, The Gown by Jennifer Robson, A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

* Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy of this novel. The opinions are my own.

 

Run, Rose, Run
By Dolly Parton, James Patterson

Written collaboratively by the bestselling author in the world and one of music most beloved entertainers, Run Rose Run is a contemporary thriller about a singer-songwriter, AnnieLee, on the rise and on the run and determined to do whatever it takes to survive. Nashville is where she’s come to claim her destiny. It’s also where the darkness she’s fled might find her. There, she encounters ruthless, predatory agents and managers, but she is also taken under the wing of one of the successful artists in country music. Dolly Parton wrote and recorded twelve songs to complement the book.

You have to say one thing about James Patterson. He is prolific! According to his website, he has written 318 books (all written in pencil): adult novels, picture books, middle grade and young adult fiction, comic books, graphic novels, and bookshots (longish short stories). He has had 73 #1 bestsellers and sold 325 million copies. Many are collaborations with other writers. He hires a published writer and gives them a detailed 60-80-page outline. Then begins an intense back-and-forth. Now he is teaming up with celebrities. Bill Clinton in 2018 and now Dolly Parton. He’s also a marketing genius, which, I guess, makes sense, understanding that he started out in advertising.

Run, Rose, Run is a sweet, rags-to-riches fairytale full of kitschy “Dollyisms” such as, “Ugly as a box of armpits.” And although the plot was silly and predictable, it was highly entertaining. Like most of Patterson’s work, Run, Rose, Run, isn’t stylistic, it is just a great story. That is his sweet spot. I was enamored with the inside scoop on the music industry and the loveable characters.

Incidentally, James Patterson’s first book was rejected by 31 publishers, which gives me hope my bestseller is yet to come. I supplemented reading the books with audio, well narrated by a cast of characters, although Dolly’s voice sounded off. I wish she had sung the song lyrics rather than AnnieLee’s character speaking them. 4 stars.

Published Date: March 2022
Genre: Thriller
Read-Alikes: Your Killin’ Heart by Peggy O’Neal Peden, XO: A Kathryn Dance Novel by Jeffery Deaver, What are the Chances by Kenny Rogers

* Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy of this novel. The opinions are my own.

 

The Other Woman
By Daniel Silva

In an isolated village in the mountains of Peninsular Spain, a mysterious Frenchwoman begins work on a dangerous memoir. It is the story of a man she once loved in the Beirut of old, and a child taken from her in treason’s name. The woman is the keeper of the Kremlin’s most closely guarded secret.

Long ago, the KGB inserted a mole into the heart of the West—a mole who has reached the highest echelons of Britain’s MI6. Gabriel Allon, the legendary art restorer and assassin who serves as the chief of Israel’s secret intelligence service, is lured into the hunt for the traitor after his most important asset inside Russian intelligence is brutally assassinated while trying to defect. His quest for the truth will lead him backward in time, to the twentieth century’s greatest act of treason, and, finally, to a spellbinding climax along the banks of the Potomac River outside Washington, D.C.

I’ve always been fascinated by the treachery of double agent intelligence agent Harold “Kim” Philby, who defected to Moscow in 1963. Philby was a member of the famous spy ring known as The Cambridge Five that divulged British secrets during World War II and the early stages of the Cold War. Silva does an excellent job weaving historical details with contemporary events. His novels never disappoint. I’ve read eighteen of them now and am eager to continue. The electric plots and vivid characters have me turning pages as though I were in a race to the finish, although I must admit I sometimes have trouble keeping the characters straight. I learn something new about the world’s political intricacies with each book in the series… be sure to read the author’s notes at the end. 4 stars.

Published Date: July 2018
Genre: Spy fiction, thrillers, mystery
Read-alikes: Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams, The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré, Red War by Vince Flynn.

 

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
By Jonas Jonasson

A big celebration is in the works at the old folks’ home for Allan Karlsson’s 100th birthday, but he wants nothing to do with it. Just as partygoers are arriving, he climbs out the window in his slippers and embarks on a hilarious journey full of antics and escapades. Allan has a larger-than-life backstory. By comic twists of fate, he played key roles in some of the most important events of the 20th century: Harry Truman’s presidency, the Communist Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean war, and the Manhattan Project just to name a few. Chapters alternate between Allan’s storied past and his present adventures mixed up with a wacky group of Swedes as they try to avoid both law enforcement and gangsters.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a quirky, utterly absurd novel filled with delightful, larger-than-life characters and outlandish storylines that gave me some big smiles and a few genuine chuckles. Jonas Jonasson’s snarky, tongue-in-cheek writing style has given him millions of loyal fans the world over. He has a fun, backhanded way of presenting world history—I didn’t expect to learn anything when I picked up this book, but I sure did! In real life, Jonasson must be a hoot, the kind of guy you’d like to hang out with while enjoying an adult beverage or two. The plot was so ridiculous, however, that I can only give the book 3.5 stars. A few too many historical references, a few too many plot twists, and too much adolescent humor. Still, it tickled my funny bone and I recommend it when you’ve got the blues.

Published Date: September 2012
Genre: Adult fiction
Read-alikes: Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

 

Saving Mrs. Roosevelt
By Candice Sue Patterson

Shirley Davenport is as much a patriot as her four brothers. She, too, wants to aid her country in the war efforts, but opportunities for women are limited. When her best friend Joan informs her that the Coast Guard has opened a new branch for single women, they both enlist in the SPARs, ready to help protect the home front.

When threats against Eleanor Roosevelt’s life are uncovered, the Coast Guard invents an illicit relationship between Shirley and an instructor named Captain Webber and sends her home under the guise of a dishonorable discharge. With Webber’s help, her aim is to ferret out the enemy. It’s a race against time to save Mrs. Roosevelt and remain alive.

I loved learning about the SPARS, a branch of the US Coast Guard Reserve for single women during WWII (“Semper Paratus—Always Ready”). The plot was complex and suspenseful, and the female characters were interesting, but there were some real issues with the writing. I found it corny, amateurish, and full of clichés. Other reviewers clearly disagree with my rating—I guess I’m not a fan of romance novels. 3 stars.

Published Date: December 2021
Genre: Christian historical romance
Read-alikes: Through Waters Deep by Sarah Sundin, To the Farthest Shores by Elizabeth Camden, The Cryptographer’s Dilemma by Johnnie Alexander

* Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy of this novel. The opinions are my own.

 

The Sculptress
by V.S. Alexander

May 1917 The elegant streets of Boston are thousands of miles away from the carnage of the Western Front. Yet even here, amid the clatter of horse-drawn carriages and automobiles, it is impossible to ignore the war raging across Europe. Emma Lewis Swan’s husband, Tom, has gone to France, eager to do his duty as a surgeon. Emma, a sculptor, has stayed behind, pursuing her art despite being dismissed by male critics. Through her work, she meets a blind artist named Linton Bower. Their friendship leads to scandal, and Emma flees to Paris, where she uses her talents to sculpt face masks for disfigured soldiers.

The Sculptress was an intriguing book based loosely on the life of artist Anna Coleman Ladd, who founded the Studio for Portrait Masks in Paris where she and her team created prosthetic masks for soldiers whose faces were disfigured in combat. To find out more about her life, follow this link to the Smithsonian. https://www.si.edu/spotlight/women-in-wwi/anna-coleman-ladd.

I love discovering historical tidbits like these, and although V. S. Alexander’s premise was fascinating, and his topic well researched, I shook my head over the writing. I found it trite, melodramatic, and repetitive, and the ending was predictable. On top of that, the main character was a despicable person. I hope she wasn’t like that in real life. 3 stars.

Published Date: February 2021
Genre: Historical fiction, women’s fiction
Read-alikes: A Forgotten Place by Charles Todd, A Good Woman by Danielle Steel, Life Class by Pat Barker.

* Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy of this novel. The opinions are my own.

 

Stay tuned for my next installment. Until then, happy reading!

Amy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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